Cloud Chamber 158
June 2008

Midsummer Ramblings

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This April I had a fit of academic nostalgia and returned to Oxford to enjoy a college treat for old students, the Brasenose Gaudy. See novels by Dorothy Sayers and J.I.M. Stewart. No dismaying anonymous messages were tucked into my gown, probably because the dress code stipulated "No gowns". In these penny-pinching times, college communications to old students tend to have a strong subtext of "For God's sake give us your money", though Brasenose proves to be fairly restrained about this – or maybe I just contrived to turn a deaf ear. Tanaqui Weaver had warned me of the staggering tedium of the Fundraising Speech in its Jesus College version, so numbing that she survived only by playing a pocket arcade-game with (for some quixotic reason) the sound turned off. We merely underwent an optional slide presentation – suitably lubricated with wine – at which the Principal banged on about recent restoration work, conveying only subliminally that This Costs Money; no actual collection box was passed around.

Brasenose invites its old sinners back every seven years. I'd skipped the thing since 1980, because the black-tie part of the dress code is a pain, but in 2008 I had a fit of nostalgia and (much more important) found an outfit roughly my size in a Reading charity shop. Hooray for the British Heart Foundation! The master plan was completed by the discovery of a kind of Third World sweatshop over a tattoo parlour on the Oxford Road, which for a trifling sum could modify the waistline to accommodate the Langford beer-gut de nos jours. Martin Hoare and I travelled to Oxford on a basis of mutual support and mutual pub-crawling, and shortly before the Gaudy began I deduced Martin must be lots richer than me. He remembered in mid-afternoon that he needed the requisite black bow tie (my mother had insisted on posting me one of Dad's old ones), and was directed to an incredibly posh shop in Turl Street where – as foreshadowed by framed quotations from Ruskin on the wall, about the mad folly of expecting to get anything good on the cheap – this essential accessory cost him £21.99. Which was pretty close to what I paid for the suit.

It was a good dinner, with copious free drinks, and photographs were taken. [But I put them on Facebook, which very annoyingly causes public photo links to expire. So I've inserted one used to head my Interzone news column, with the caption "Langford in obituary-writing costume."

Mysteries of Publishing. As recorded in my books-received log for June 2008, I was intrigued by the Amazon listings for William Heaney's Memoirs of a Master Forger (Gollancz hardback, apparently supernatural; proof copy received; scheduled October 2008). At, – as checked again on 25 June – the book is listed as a paperback by Heaney, and the name Graham Joyce mysteriously appears as the #1 popular author in this category. Whatever that might be: memoirs of master forgers? At, though, the identical ISBN is listed as the imported Ascent of Demons – a title which on the evidence of the blurb and opening seems to fit Memoirs quite well – and the author is Graham Joyce. Could this hint something about the true identity of William Heaney? Oh, I think it could.

Jonathan Routh (1927-2008). I was vaguely sorry to hear the UK Candid Camera prankster had died, though I must admit I hadn't really thought he was still around. Over the years I've accumulated several of his books: the comic 1962 autobiography An Exhibition of Myself, updated from the somewhat more precocious The Little Men in My Life (1953); that pioneering work The Good Loo Guide: Where to Go in London (1965), mainly because it's "conveniently illustrated" by the late great John Glashan; and The Secret Life of Queen Victoria (1979). The last is a spoof diary illustrated by paintings in which an iconic Queen Victoria – perfectly round head, no facial features, defined by her black dress (when clothed) and that bonnet, wimple or whatever it was she famously wore – disports herself against colourful and unlikely backgrounds, mainly in Jamaica. Activities include flying, ballooning, trampolining, cycling on a penny-farthing, being shot from a cannon, swinging on ropes over waterfalls, fleeing wild beasts in a dodgem-car, and "Negotiating an Object During the Return Voyage", i.e. water-skiing past the Statue of Liberty. Although Routh's death was well covered in the UK press, I didn't see an obituary that mentioned the particularly eccentric volume he put together with his wife Shelagh, Leonardo's Kitchen Note Books (1987). This reinterprets a wide range of da Vinci sketches and scribbles as food-related. Massive fortifications are in fact ceremonial salt cellars, complex engines are explained as a Device for Eliminating Frogs from Drinking Water, and so on. It also emerges that Leonardo's genius invented such condensed foods as the cow pastille, forerunner of the modern Oxo cube. There is ample further weirdness: strange recipes (Boiled Coot, Mock Dormice, Snail Soup, Shoulder of Serpent), tips about etiquette (On the Correct Positioning of Diseased Guests at Table), and a salad whose ingredients include "A carrot / An onion from Venice / A radish from Cremona / Some green beans from Tesco ..." This has all the hallmarks of a cult classic, but never made it. Jonathan Routh was, at least sometimes, a creatively silly man.

Brad Foster kindly sent some spot art for Ansible, with two versions of each cartoon – black and white for the print edition and full colour for the website. This worked well in Ansible 248 and Ansible 250, but Brad's third illustration was just too detailed to reproduce in the hideously shrunken Ansible art slot (1.24 inches square). So here instead are both versions. Next, if only I'm prepared to send every reader the special glasses, Brad wants to try 3-D....

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Thog's Near Misses. Brian Ameringen's favourite selection from Arthur N. Scarm's "very rare" The Werewolf vs Vampire Woman (1972) was: "Waldo had no intention of harming Ruth. In one yank he pulled of[f] her silk blouse and lace bra and left her defenseless against any young child who might come along who wanted his lunch." I decided not to include this in Ansible 248 because it looked too much like the author being intentionally funny, which is not in accordance with the Spirit of Thog. But Brian protested, and I must admit that Scarm is such an inept writer that he very likely wouldn't recognize humour if it came up to him and sucked his nipple. • Peter Coleborn sent an Eyeballs in the Sky selection which didn't strike me as sufficiently egregious (we must allow some level of optic metaphor): "... my eyes touching and exploring every ordinary incidental thing and recognising absolutely none of them." (Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts, 2007) • Adam Roberts was vastly amused by a confectionery double-entendre which presumably wouldn't play in America (cf. fags, rubbers and getting knocked up in the morning): "Midnight found me in the Mars Bar." (Larry Niven, "Death by Ecstasy", 1969). Another discovery by Adam would be one of Thog's Greatest Hits if the author weren't so evidently and deliberately bending a cliché: "The ant is the absolute and undisputed monarch of all jungles everywhere." (Will F. Jenkins [Murray Leinster],"'Doomsday Deferred", 1949). Additionally: "That's clever, Jose! It is remarkable to train an ant ..."

The Letter Column

Paul Barnett is sunk in pop-science gloom:

All from Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) by Mary Roach, published by W.W. Norton:

"In pre-Einstein days, [the] ether was an accepted concept in physics. It was thought to be the necessary medium for the transmission of electromagnetic waves (light, sound, radio, etcetera)." [page 110]

[Talking of "innovative" gadgetry in Spiritualist research:] "The staid and stately Ometer family, heretofore limited to Thermo, Baro, Speedo, and Sphygno, was asked to take in the Sthenometer, the Biometer, the Suggestometer, the Magnetometer, and the Galvanometer. I tried to track down even one of these machines, but ..." [page 198]

"That's why NASA sent a telescope way out into space – to get it closer to the oldest, most distant parts of the universe." [page 283]

What's actually more alarming than that Roach should commit these howlers is that none of her editor, copyeditor and proofreader at Norton picked them up. My respect for Norton as a fine publishing house has significantly diminished.

Peter Coleborn shares a moment of psychogeography:

Building society assistant to customer (in Stoke-on-Trent, which may be significant, anyway): I’m going to the Lake District this weekend, to Lake Windermere. My hotel room overlooks the Fells – whatever they are.

Customer: Have you read Swallows and Amazons?

Assistant: No, I didn’t do geography at school.

Richard E. Geis on Ansible 247:

The attempt to steal P.K. Dick from us is based on the eternal assumption that sf is drek and any good writer of sf must be or have been not really writing it but actually cunningly using the genre as a vehicle for his Literature.

I'm serenely waiting for the time when Psychotic, The Alien Critic and Science Fiction Review are recognized as literary vehicles used by me to ... umm ... to .. to ... to give literateurs something to use in their careers. I was a very obliging, far-sighted fellow in those days.

And I'm already hearing that some of my sex novels have social messages of one one kind or another. Of course, now it can be revealed, I was just using the sex novel genre as a vehicle (five wheels and a trailing cart) to carry & display my deep thoughts. As ever,

Simon R. Green continues to be an indefatigable name-dropper.

I'm currently working on putting together a new series, my first horror series, provisionally titled The Ghost Finders. And I thought you'd like to now that one of these books will be taking place in a haunted public school, called Langford Hall. Which I will probably blow up at some point ..."

Kim Huett sent a blurb:

The Dada Vinci Code

It is December 1914 and the whole of Europe indulges lazily in the festive season, in perfect ignorance of the abyss which dark and necrophilious forces had nearly teased the great powers into fumbling over. Father Dan Brown and his faithful companion Chester Gilberton are in one of the less discussed suburbs of Hamburg on holiday, recovering (they hope) from the recent battle to save the world from itself. All seems well until a messenger arrives with the cold grey of dawn to inform them that murder has once more been done at The Louvre ...

Thus begins a gripping tale of international intrigue as Father Dan and Chester are called upon to battle a new and vastly subtle villain, the crazed Welsh nationalist known only as Fanglord. Once more Father Dan uses the supreme logic of abstract art and found poetry but this time he must throw his fine-spun web across the whole of Europe in an attempt to discover where Fanglord has secreted that most hideous weapon of mass destruction, the Ansible. All the while our heroes are menaced by a mysterious society named THOG, the members of which are chosen by a dire process known only to Fanglord himself.

If you have ever wanted to spend even a little time in a world that reads like the bastard child of Mary Shelley and Otto von Bismarck then this is the book for you.

Adam Roberts has an anecdote:

I was just at the Paris Book Fair: Gradisil has just come out in French, which entailed me sitting at a table next to Raymond Feist in the Paris Expo centre doing a signing. There was a long line of eager fans clutching copies of novels, in some cases whole series and in one case a whole backlist, desperate to engage the author in conversation and get precious signatures. The line was either for Feist, or for me, I forget precisely which. Actually, as the tumbleweed rolled past my portion of the table, one or two people did come along to see what my book was, and a very Gallic-looking late-middle-aged man even bought a copy. As I signed he showed off his fanzine (actually a column in a fairly glossy looking French SF magazine). It was called Ansible. 'There's an Ansible in the UK,' I said in my clumsy French.? 'David Langford ... perhaps you know it?' 'No no no,' he assured me. 'Ursula Le Guin.' 'Yes, I know where the word comes from, but I just wondered if you had ever come across the UK magazine edited by David ...' 'No! No! No!' he said. 'Ursula Le Guin!' 'I 'm talking about a British SF fanzine run by David Langford, not the the person who came up with the word'.? 'Came up with the word, yes, yes. It was Ursula Le Guin.' I didn't press the point. Maybe you've heard of his Ansible. I don't remember his name, alas. (17 March)

Lit Crit Department:
Tanaqui Weaver on Iain M. Banks

Now some of the "ineptidity" of language within the novel matter is ascribable to the main protagonists of the 8th Level of the Arithmetic Shellworld Sursamen. Anaplian admits to this peculiar native diction on p 292, before lapsus linguae and a fit of the giggles:

"I see your point. We guilt you. I apologise."
"You 'guilt' us? This is some new SC-speak?"
"No, old Sarl-speak. My people sometimes use odds wordly. Words oddly"

Banks, however, makes a common slip which has even been made by Will Self (in an article, not in one of the novels): he loses the distinction between "prone" and "supine". Given objective Banksian P.O.V., rather than Sarl-speak, this should not occur, although I was suspicious that all the male characters in one family spend time lying in a manner described as "prone". Long before I had grown as weary of Sarl diction as I had of the Baroque Cycle's time-travelling verbiage, this happens:

We never see the eldest son, Elime, lying or upright. I thought the differentiation of lying-on-front from lying-on-back was much more known than e.g. the Latinate distinction between dawn-light and dusk-light (the usage of "dilucular" is not recorded in a single OED citation, and dawn-light is gathered in as a secondary usage of "crepuscular" i.e. dusk-light in a lack of twilight distinction – but why we dropped the Roman term for morning-light and used their term for evening-light on both twilit states is beyond me) or the difference between "hypnagogic" and "hypnopompic" states, which Michael Marshall Smith had not known. Despite the MMS fascination with interstitial consciousness, he had only known the tag for falling-asleep, not the one for coming-awake. I should put radio buttons on my blog, thus:

Do you know the difference between (click buttons )



Bonus Examples of Sarl-speak:

But the spiniform Morthanveld also lapse into coinages derived from expectation rather than correct iteration of declension and case: a formal letter on p 389 uses "sedulity": I suppose that if 'credulous' can give us 'credulity' [not words used in the book, ever], then this unusual but OED-glossed alternate for "sedulous(ness)" is OK even in formal communications.

And now we come to my real objection to the linguistics in matter. The Star Trek Universal Translator is in play. Although there are scent-packet and laser-flicker comms, it is impossible to guess the identity of a speaker from distinctive usage of lexemes or grammar. When an unknown entity attempts to communicate with Oramen via a piece of tech he has appropriated, it is only its tentative approach that gives it away, since it speaks exactly like the Conducer species to which it is allegedly fundamentally opposed. There is an excuse for this lack of distinction when the Big Plot Entity speaks, since it has been Enabled and acquired a fake ID as well as Conducer-speech, but there is absolutely no reason for a parasite-mat to speak like a crab, given their antipathy to each other. They don't use the same tech interface, but sound like species at war in Star Trek: if not using the same make of translator, they are using the same presumed Chomskian Deep Structure, which shouldn't happen.

There is some indication that the book has lost bits of itself: I challenge you to find the species "Tueriellian: (Maieutic) investigative Seedsail " anywhere but where it is glossed on p 573. I think the Seedsails have not been mentioned in any previous Culture novel (though they are clearly Larry Niven's StarSeeds AKA StarSails) and it is unclear whether the Tueriellian are a species investigating the Seedsail species or whether they are a nosy subspecies of Seedsails. The glossary of "species" doesn't stick to the Linnaean definition, with inheritors, client-species and sub-species being given the same category-weight as more distinct and non-mergeable types.

There are currently no Google-hits for Banksian Seedsails, though plenty for Niven's StarSeeds

Banks' description of "the Bare" looks pretty much like scrith (exposed basic substrate) on Niven's Ringworld floor after Wu's expedition ship smacks into it, although Banks has invented animacules to transport and 'rain' soil ("silse") rather than have spillpipes moving sludge from ocean bottom to mountain tops as inexorable processions of erosion grind away.

The general glossary lists Pierced as a Tower subtype, but does not list Open (a subtype extant in the novel's text). The glossary doesn't add enough extra data to make it illuminating or provide a sneaky extra story, though I have encountered people who stopped at the apparent end of the book – including critics whose reviews stop when one P.O.V. does. I can't be clearer on that point without a massive plot-spoiler. Some major critics even managed to miss the notion behind the book's title (embedded in a little disquisition where an equerry starts to enjoy solipsistic-philosophical vantage).

– Tanaqui Weaver, 28 February 2008 (email slightly edited by DRL)

Random Reading

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, the "Time Odyssey" trilogy comprising Time's Eye (2004), Sunstorm (2005) and Firstborn (2008). This is billed as an orthogonal offshoot, neither sequel nor prequel, of the utterly famous Space Odyssey scenario. In characteristic Baxter-series fashion – and I don't detect any stylistic input from Clarke, though it's true to his themes – the books develop in different directions. They're linked by a continuing heroine and the premise that the "Firstborn" intelligences who kicked off 2001 with their helpful spot of Uplift have, in this alternate world, decided that humanity should not be encouraged but eliminated. In Time's Eye they fudge up a world of shuffled temporal geography after the fashion of Fred Hoyle's October the First Is Too Late, producing a situation in which – with a very little high-tech input from the crews of a 2037 UN helicopter and Russian Soyuz lander caught up in the "Discontinuity" – Alexander the Great and a small British force from 1885 Afghanistan, including Kipling as embedded reporter, are pitted against the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan. The latter's nastiness is effectively and memorably shown, and the big showdown ingeniously stage-managed. Eventually it emerges that this scrambled Earth (named Mir) is a construct in a parallel universe or some such, and the 2037 "present day" Earth is unaffected. The Firstborn, whose hovering Eyes are everywhere on Mir, appear to gain nothing from this immense exercise but the joy of voyeurism. What may be a friendlier faction of enigmatic ancients returns our protagonist Bisesa to her familiar 2037 London for Sunstorm.

Now, thanks to a Firstborn plan initiated two millennia past, the Sun is behaving badly and in just a few years will erase all life from Earth. There is much technological relish in the design and construction of an immense space shield at the Lagrange point L1. Thematic echo and inverted echo of 2001: the chatty AI built into the shield does not reveal all she knows about the extent of the coming disaster, for fear of reducing humanity to such despair that we give up trying. But she has a heroically self-sacrificing plan.... Speaking of the "she" pronoun, the redressing of traditional gender imbalance in Sunstorm is very determined, with a female UK Astronomer Royal, a female Mayor of London, a female European Prime Minister, a female (and Aboriginal) Australian prime minister, and a female (and Hispanic) US President. I don't think there's a female Pope, but Vatican City gets destroyed by a random act of senseless terrorism well before the day of sunstorm, which probably brought a thin smile to Sir Arthur's lips. Earth duly survives, though with significant losses, and only a carping critic would wonder why the Firstborn didn't simply clobber our planet with a modest dinosaur-killer in, say, 1900 rather than laboriously setting up this solar flare and mass ejection by dropping something the size of Jupiter into the Sun circa 4BC.

Twirling their moustachios in frustration at the failure of this equivalent of trapping the victim in a cellar that's slowly, very slowly, filling with water from a dripping tap, the bad guys finally decide to make a clean sweep in Firstborn. Here comes the unimaginably devastating Q-bomb! Unhurriedly and suspensefully this makes its inexorable passage from Jupiter towards a doomsday impact with Earth: bullets won't stop it, nor fusion warheads, nor engineered asteroid collisions. But – again shades of 2001 – excavations on Mars have revealed another Firstborn artefact, a trapped Eye. Eyes, like those famous monoliths, are not only sentinels but communicators and gateways: Bisesa goes looking for help, and finds it in an odd place. (A further feminist note: the chair of the World Space Council, the captain of Earth's sole antimatter-driven space warship, and the last surviving Old Martian are also female.) It's pretty well told, despite requiring substantially more than trace quantities of the miracle element handwavium to make everything come out right. After all the problem-solving there's a slingshot ending with a bracing touch of Baxterian gloom about what happens in the long run.

I rather enjoyed these books. Time's Eye has lashings of plausible historical research. Sunstorm is the strongest, balancing a extinction threat based on solid science with a last-ditch countermeasure in which it's possible to believe. Conversely, the Q-bomb of Firstborn is technology indistinguishable from magic: when, as it were, the correct prayer is addressed to the correct god, the menace magically slinks away. It also seems a too-obvious plot convenience that Eyes – the devices, remember, of the Enemy – should repeatedly transmit Bisesa to places where she needs to be, not because she's mastered their operation or even begun to comprehend it, but because someone out there apparently likes her. Some omnipotent Author....

Tom Holt, The Portable Door (2003), opening a loosely connected series about the mysterious firm J.W. Wells & Co., 70 St Mary Axe, London W1, where the typically gormless Holt hero Paul Carpenter applies for a job and – to general surprise all round – is recruited. Most readers will glean a rough idea of the company's activities from that name and address. Carpenter is incredibly slow to catch on despite being presented with a book of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics (which he doesn't read) and getting forcibly steered to a performance of The Sorcerer (which he nevertheless contrives to miss). He finally connects with, or has his nose rubbed in, the relevant song in the last chapter. As usual there are plenty of good lines en route, but the setup and development seemed too generally shambolic to hook me. The Portable Door has been several times reprinted, though, and there's a bunch of sequels, so no doubt I'm just a grumpy minority.

The current Orbit UK packaging of Holt's comic fantasies uses plain cream-coloured covers with faux-inept or maybe just inept "child's scribble" drawings. At last I noticed that these are variously bylined, mostly with unfamiliar names: staff members or their kids? Another J.W. Wells book, Earth, Air, Fire and Custard (2005), has cover non-art by my own editor at Orbit, Darren Nash. The Portable Door design, consisting of a crude outline of a door, an identical pasted copy of the same, and a wavering arrow between them, is credited to mighty publishing director Tim Holman. All together now: "My five-year-old could draw better than ..."

James Lovegrove, Provender Gleed (2005). A alternate history romp whose light-heartedness verges agreeably on outright silliness. History took another course in the 16th century when Borgia/Medici-type rule by Families set the governing pattern for increasingly many countries, even eventually America. The Gleeds, whose fortune is based on spice, run Britain like an adored royal family with lots more power and privilege, including wish-fulfilments like their own private transport network of trams running along sealed routes inaccessible to the horrid proles and equipped with splendid cocktail bars. For foreign jaunts, there are of course airships. The book opens with a huge Gleed Family party from which the personable but not entirely ept scion Provender (whose hated middle name is Oregano) gets kidnapped. Is this a plot to precipitate inter-Family war? The majordomo of the vast Gleed household takes the problem not to the police but to a pair of private Anagrammatic Detectives ("Honestly? Or on the Sly? / We can tell you which!") who set to work analysing everyone's names with surprising results. Meanwhile Provender – held in a urban sinkhole called Needle Grove, a place which is contained in his name – learns more about his captors, and they about him. There is time for a couple of murders and a very quirky performance of Hamlet before the suspects are gathered in the fourth largest drawing room and guilt fastened on the Least Likely Person.... Enjoyably dotty. It is surely relevant that Lovegrove, under the byline "Jael", sets crossword puzzles for the Independent and other UK newspapers.

Ian R. MacLeod, The Light Ages (2003). Impressive and memorable fantasy without a trace of wish-fulfilment. The flavour is somewhat Dickensian – including an Artful Dodger homage-figure – and so is the effect of sure, cumulative power. Aether-mining has made the Industrial Revolution even bleaker than in our own history, since this magical essence can trigger occupational diseases worse than black lung or phossy-jaw. Transformed victims, "changelings", are persecuted as trolls and locked away in Bedlam-equivalents. Also there's a more subtle wrongness and rottenness resulting from aether's plastic versatility: who needs craftsmanship when aether covers up the cracks, or self-supporting architecture when an aetheric spell can prop up your church just as effectively? Hidebound, oppressive Guilds are likewise buoyed up by aether. It's a black age despite the diamond brightness of its waste product, "engine ice", the crystalline slag of spent aether that blows and glitters in the wake of industry. Our protagonist grows up to the massive, incessant pounding of extraction engines in the northern mining town Bracebridge, where his mother gradually and painfully becomes a changeling after an offstage industrial accident which proves to be the heart of darkness about which this novel revolves. Eventually he escapes to London, which is not as he expected but where the plebs think grim Bracebridge is a magical realm of enchantment and faerie – how could a fount of aether be anything else? To him, though, the real magic lies in the aristocratic Guild house-parties he contrives to crash, where for once the power is used for fun and there are even unicorns (horses, artificial horns and a lick of aether). Revolution brews, with our man and his Artful-Dodger friend slaving away at the printing press, but the expected day of change goes nastily if predictably wrong. The current Age of British history only ends when – with some small help from the hero – its dirty inner secret is exposed. There is lacerating irony in the nature of the new Age which all too literally arises from the ashes of the old. I suppose you have to call it dark fantasy. Highly memorable.

Also read: Edward Eager, The Time Garden (1958), among the best of his Nesbit-homage juveniles, with a magical herb garden facilitating various droll episodes of thyme travel. • Louis Sachar, Holes (1998), set in a deeply awful Texas-desert detention centre for delinquent lads who are required to dig holes, holes, holes without end, all five feet deep and five across. Obviously the management has some ulterior motive. What delights is the ingenuity with which, aided by shameless use of coincidence, the story and flashback fragments come together in a satisfying payoff where every loose end is neatly tucked in. • Alastair Reynolds, Pushing Ice (2005), hard sf – not part of his Inhibitors sequence – in which a shipload of industrial comet-miners whose trade is "pushing ice" are diverted to investigate an evident alien construct which has long been disguised as Saturn's moon Janus but is now speeding out of the solar system. There are interesting encounters with a succession of Big Dumb Objects and some nicely odd aliens (Fountainheads, Musk Dogs, Whisperers). But I wasn't quite persuaded to believe in the too-long and too-implacable enmity between former best friends who disagreed about the tactics of engagement or otherwise with Janus; and although the ending is locally satisfying the whole story ultimately feels a mite inconsequential, as though Reynolds just stopped when he'd run out of mindboggling enlargements of scale. • Eric Frank Russell, The Best of Eric Frank Russell (1978): although I have all the EFR collections published in his native Britain, this leaves surprising gaps, some of them filled here. I suppose I should have read this thirty years ago when "Late Night Final" (1948) might have had an equivalent impact to "... And Then There Were None" (1951), which it very closely resembles; likewise, though slightly less closely, with "Metamorphosite" (1946) and Sentinels from Space (1953). Minor stories include a couple of secret-masters-of-the-Universe jokes already well known to me, "Homo Saps" (1941) and "Into Your Tent I'll Creep" (1957); happily omitted is "The Timeless Ones" (1952), in which the camels of the first and the dogs of the second become the insidious Chinese who – deceptively taking in laundry all the while – are outbreeding every other race in the Galaxy. This came embarrassingly to mind the other day, as I drafted an Encyclopedia of SF theme entry on the YELLOW PERIL. • John Sladek, The Steam-Driven Boy (Japan, 2008): it's good to see a favourite author getting a handsome translated edition, and even better to find that the selection doesn't simply consist of the original The Steam-Driven Boy (1973) but draws on every Sladek collection, including lots from the one I edited after his death. Of course I can't read a word of it, but the warm glow persists. • Charles Stross, Halting State (2007), rapid-paced, entertaining and savvy near-future thriller with mayhem in and out of cyberspace – though I wasn't entirely convinced by the logic of the ubergeek who saves his secret plot-saving codes in An Incredibly Dangerous Yet Publicly Accessible Place In An On-Line Game rather than, say, A Memory Stick Buried In The Garden And Another In The Cistern. • Lots more, no doubt, but I've run out of steam for now. [25/6/2008]