Cloud Chamber 160
December 2009

Robot Hair Styling cartoon


Mouldy Old Literary Controversy! Paul Di Filippo delightedly quarried this from Kipling's autobiographical Something of Myself: "And, if it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Books begat Zoos of them. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had 'jazzed' the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and 'get away with,' which is a legitimate ambition." Whereupon Mike Ashley was quick to trace the likely source of provocation, an article in which Edgar Rice Burroughs confessed: "I had gone thoroughly through some of the all-fiction magazines and made up my mind that if people were paid for writing rot such as I read, I could write stories just as rotten..." (Sunday World Magazine, October 1929) There were giants in the earth in those days.

Cartoon by the great Brad Foster, to whom thanks as always.

The Thog Files. Still more items that for one reason or another weren't used in Ansible. • The indefatigable Martin Morse Wooster sends a merrily mixed – nay, power-blended – metaphor: "My current behavior could only be explained by one thing: that those past ten years of mixing Sage Livingston's Miss Personality recipe in the Molotov-cocktail shaker of Rodo Brujaron's open-hearth bombast, must have resulted in softening whatever I'd once regarded as brains into pulp-stuffed banana fritters." (Katherine Neville, The Fire, 2008) Also an "on the shoulders of giants" image from a new bestseller: "A lonely Confederate soldier in bronze stands atop a granite statue, gazing north, looking towards the enemy." (John Grisham, Ford Country, 2009 – spotted by Washington Post reviewer Carolyn See, 6 November) • Hot-eyed Brian Ameringen reports his lingering explorations: "Tonguth grunted, licking his lips as his hot eyes explored the naked slave lingeringly." (Lin Carter, The Star Magicians, 1966) • Nonie Rider had to read this five times to parse it correctly, and so did I: "The mules brought special supplies, sweets, for the Elwynim, the same as the Amefin, hallowed Midwinter Day." (C.J. Cherryh, Fortress of Owls, 1999) • Department of Druggy Knowingness. "... many a crate of oranges has been landed in the Pool [of London] that had, squeezed in their golden interiors, little metal cylinders containing smuggled saccharine, heroin, cocaine, hydrochlorate and divers other noxious medicaments." (Edgar Wallace, The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder, 1925) That saccharine sounds bad.

At greater length, Amanda Kear supplies a Bad Sex scene evocative of maritime disaster – you expect our hero to collide with an iceberg at any moment, or founder on the Kentish Knock, or at least grope feebly for the mal-de-mer pills. "He kicked off the covers as she climbed on top of him, a conch shell seeking the solid shelter of a rock. He felt the succulent pressure build as she slipped him inside and rode him on the waves away from the shore. He opened his eyes. He was now disappearing deep, deep inside her. She rode him hard, urgently, and scraped his sides with her nails like a coral reef push-pulling the tide. He didn't mind the burning sensation. He didn't mind being caught in the angry crosscurrent and forcibly dragged to the sandy bottom, where he drowned in the black whirlpool of her thighs." (Alexander Besher, Rim, 1994)

There are some things that even Thog would prefer not to touch with the traditional ten-foot pole, and one of these is the newspaper story sent by Chaz Bufe which contains the memorable line "Truscott was arrested in the early hours of November 9 when he was found by police sitting in manure ..." (Daily Telegraph, 27 November 2009)

More! Guy H. Lillian III passed on this link to a story about "The Worst Pulp Novelist Ever", whose subject Leo Guild is apparently the man behind the pseudonym Arthur N. Scarm (or Scram) – previously discussed in Ansible 248/249 and Cloud Chamber 158. • Remembering my photos of strange Welsh signage – lost to the general public owing to Facebook's maddening practice of causing photo-album links to expire; I must recreate the gallery on some less daft platform – Nonie Rider writes: "I dunno, Taffy, the pasty-eaters seem to have y'all beat on the dining etiquette:" [photo link].

Commonplace Book. "Dinner without cheese is like a woman with only one eye." (Mrs Beeton of cookbook fame, quoted in Times Past: Everyday Antiques in the Home, 1987-8 partwork). This discovery of Hazel's reminds me irresistibly of the old saying, "A kiss without a moustache is like a fish on a bicycle."

The Letter Column

Paul Barnett sent a heart-wringing Blurb Masterclass item which he describes as "Clearly a must-buy!"

Transcendental Simulacrum
by Theodore R. Regis

This Amazing Poetry Book was put by the authour's master piece after many years of work. This Book is the solely labor of his. Inside you should find all topics, encompasses all subjects we are facing today in America and as a society as a whole. Many believe Mr.Theodore Regis is a gifted writer,and an extraordinary Poet. They see him as a second Shakespeare who resurrected to breathe poetic words at a greater skills. This book is a work of an artist, it may be bitter, soft, fun, sweet, enjoyable, sad, hopeful, but it is a work of a Poet. Transcendental Simulacrum is written to portray to the world pains,sorrows,and agonies facing all earth's citizens in the early twenty-first century.Its mission is to heal and cure the world malady.

("Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay! ...")

Diana Wynne Jones wrote on 2 September 2009 in the wake of her latest horrid hospital experiences:

My Rightful Gravy

Thanks for the latest Ansible. I shall take it to read on my latest hospital check up today – I have had every possible piece of me scanned (often radioactively) so we can't think what they want this time. Looking back on recent experiences, I am not sure which was worse, but the ongoing awfulness was always about my lactose allergy: self at death's door trying to convince brisk nurses (who are always of course so HEALTHY) that the pill they were forcing on me was full of milk products and therefore poison. Halfway through my second stay in the place – this time in an isolation room because everyone was convinced I had a Superbug they gave me on my first stay – someone somewhere noticed that I might need food that was lactose free. In a sporadic way, I was given "special meals". Actually only one. This arrived with a grudging lady and proved to be pale warm meat, one slice, pale warm potato, two, and a pile of pale warm carrot. The following dialogue then took place.

Me (dismayed): Don't I get any gravy?
She: What do you want gravy for?
Me: To make this a bit moister, so that I can eat it.
She (staring at plateful as if the idea of eating it was totally new to her): He didn't make any gravy today.
Me: Then ask him to. It's in a tin. You only have to mix one dry spoonful with hot water.
She (transferring suspicious stare to me): Are you allowed gravy then?
Me: Oh yes. They brought me the tin and I checked the contents.
She: He didn't make any gravy today.
Me: Please ask him to.
She: He used the gravy in the roast beef. That was quite enough.
Me: No it wasn't, because I didn't get any.
She: It was round the beef and it was quite enough....

This dialogue continued, in circles, for another 20 minutes, until another lady sneaked in to where the kettle was and made me some gravy. Food by this time cold. Gravy set over it in a sort of instant gel.

Dave Linton commented on this SFX column and its accompanying photos:

Much as I hate to be picky (well, I don't really or I wouldn't be writing this), I should point out that the "Moose On Road warning triangle (probably nicked from Canada)" is more likely a Norwegian or Swedish warning sign for elk.

[The Norwegians have separate signs for Animals (elk), Animals (reindeer), Animals (deer etc.), Animals (sheep), Animals (cattle) and Animals (polar bear) – the latter only in Svalbard you will be pleased to know. See]

Actually, I'm not picky at all, I just thought it was a nice piece of trivia to pass on and thought I'd do it before someone else did.

Yvonne Rousseau sent some thoughts about Twilight in March 2009:

As for Stephen King's opinion of Meyer's ability to write (as reported in Ansible 260 and elsewhere: Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a darn ... She's not very good') – I arrived at the bookshop wondering which book to attempt: Twilight (2005) or The Host (2008). The first few lines of The Host persuaded me to try Twilight instead. I could certainly understand the appeal to teenage girls – but was interested to discover that my impatience towards the end of the book (`Whinge, whinge, whinge!') was similar to that of my daughter Vida's half-sister, Eva, who apparently complained after reading it at the age of eleven that Bella Swan whinged too much.

The prose is notably unreverberant, and gives me the impression that some literate person has edited it very carefully – except on page 281 of the 2008 Little, Brown edition, where Bella Swan gives her impression of the Cullen vampire-coven's home: `The house was timeless, graceful, and probably a hundred years old. It was painted a soft, faded white, three stories tall, rectangular and well proportioned. The windows and doors were either part of the original structure or a perfect restoration.' That's not what `timeless' means to me.

The most awesome aspect of Twilight is that the vampire love-object, Edward Cullen, is over a hundred years old but nevertheless spends his days at an American high school (and in the school cafeteria every lunchtime, with three other similarly circumstanced vampires) because he looks young enough to be at school. I should have thought that birth certificates would be more important to government authorities than appearance – but, in any case, how's that fate for a modern version of Hell?

Random Reading

Not a huge amount this time around, despite the long gap between issues. I've committed various acts of reviewing for SFX (as always) and The New York Review of SF, plus a couple more "Curiosities" columns in F&SF: it was especially pleasing to sneak by that route into the sixtieth anniversary issue, even if the book concerned was ghastly beyond belief; see also Steve Holland's related researches. Unfortunately, though, I haven't been making sufficient notes about most of my casual and comfort reading.

A set of graphic novels that I've rather enjoyed: Mike Carey's Lucifer sequence, continuing the saga of this fallen angel as he was reimagined in Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Neil himself had long thought that Lucifer deserved his own spinoff series, and says as much in his Foreword to book one, but DC Comics took quite a while to muster the courage. It's not easy to put a character of colossal power and only partly scrutable motives at stage centre, even when he's an enjoyably sarcastic bastard who particularly likes pulling the legs of (no, not "off") angels, but Carey handles it well and achieves some nifty dramatic moments. As the series progresses there is a tendency, perhaps also inherited from Sandman, to focus on more human stories while the Lightbringer lurks offstage for a while. These episodes are generally more memorable than the regular recourse to another apocalyptic threat to the whole of creation. ("Oh no, not the End Of All Things again!") Collections read so far, at erratic intervals rather than in one vast binge: Devil in the Gateway (2001), Children and Monsters (2001), A Dalliance with the Damned (2002), The Divine Comedy (2003), Inferno (2004), Mansions of the Silence (2004), Exodus (2005), The Wolf Beneath the Tree (2005) and Crux (2006).

Glen Baxter, Loomings Over the Suet (2004). The surreal disjunctions and non-sequiturs of Baxter's drawings and captions came as a revelation when I found his early books The Impending Gleam (1981) and Atlas (1979; 1982 in UK). Hazel and I laughed uncontrollably. Many collections later, it seems far easier to control oneself; the zany formula does now look more like a formula, and no more than half a dozen items here induced more than a gentle smile. One purely verbal example: "To this day his recipe for Eggs Benedict is still featured in Burmese Cooking Made Easy." The device (not original to Baxter) of stitching together barely related drawings and squibs with linking captions into a pretend thriller or "graphic novel" wears thin when stretched over 188 pages. But maybe it's just that I've grown old and boring. As Heraclitus more or less said, no man can step in the same baxter twice.

Andrew Drummond, Elephantina (2008). A splendidly quirky period novel whose hero might be expected to be Dr Patrick Blair, who truly did dissect the unfortunate elephant that foundered and died in 1706 Dundee. But it's narrated by a humbler character, Gilbert Orum, the local engraver who illustrates Blair's treatise (Royal Society, 1710) and has misgivings about being required to observe and take part in the prolonged, gruesome dissection of a very large and latterly very putrefied carcase. His journal is presented, edited and footnoted by the quarrelsome 1830 commentator "Senex", who views Orum's foibles and financial difficulties with deep disdain but somehow manages to swallow his dislike of Blair's whimsically subversive comparisons of Elephantina to the body politic, and her various decaying organs to assorted Scots worthies expecting corrupt personal gain from the imminent Act of Union with England. Towards the end, with an editorial arrogance reminiscent of Kinbote in Nabokov's Pale Fire, "Senex" angrily asserts total control over the text and banishes Orum to the footnotes. There are fantastic elements: Orum may be an unreliable narrator, and may be hallucinating when he hears the Elephant enumerate the detailed tally of her bones, but even "Senex" is unable to explain how this mere artisan (whose Latin isn't equal to Blair's gag about naming one bone the Ossiculum Orumiculum Inutilum) has somehow set down the exact technical osteology which Blair was not to publish until four years later. Tasty, with a decided charnel-house whiff; darkly funny and very odd. The publishers, Polygon of Edinburgh, have presented the book as a nice facsimile of the supposed 1830 edition, with 2008 copyright details tucked away at the rear. Drummond's previous novels, we learn, were An Abridged History of the Construction of the Railway Line between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver (2004) and A Handbook of Volapük (2006). Hazel rather thinks she'd like to read the latter.

From the introduction's paean to Blair, Great Son of Dundee: "Had he not corresponded with the esteemed botanist M. Tournefort of Paris, whose death was declared by Dr. Patrick Blair to be 'a general loss to the vegetable kingdom'?"

Richard Harland, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle (1993) – recommended in Ned Brooks's fanzine It Goes On The Shelf 31, which points out that this "famous/notorious cult book" of which I'd never heard is, though long out of print, available as a free PDF download at the author's website. Morbing Vyle is a lost or wisely forgotten English village where Unspeakable Atrocities were perpetrated towards the end of the nineteenth century. Our hapless Australian narrator penetrates an arcane barrier to find the village itself gone. Instead there's the building site for a grandiose though barely begun new church, and a handful of variously lunatic cultists in the still-standing vicarage, awaiting the Great Return. Special effects include a blood-hungry Machine, a hen with fearsome teeth (dentures, actually), an appalling banquet which both includes and moves the bowels, fearsome tableaux enacted by a massive nymphomaniac, and the mysterious Bag that pulsates beneath the altar. The whole farrago walks a wobbly line between horror and surreal farce, like The Bed-Sitting Room, or some hypothetical cartoon sequence by Gahan Wilson, or even Robert Rankin in his unfunnier moments. Its action-packed climax is simultaneously thrilling and daft. People who like books like this will like this book.

William Mayne, A Swarm in May (1955). One of his early children's novels set in a cathedral choir school. The choir hierarchy includes the position of Beekeeper, reserved for the youngest singer and for a long time a purely nominal honour. However, while exploring a neglected cathedral tower, our reluctant appointee finds not only a great many dead bees but also an amulet or talisman with some peculiar bee-related power. The implication is that this is rooted in chemistry or alchemy rather than any outright magic, but (as usual) the uncanny perfection of Mayne's prose and dialogue shape what could have been a slight story into a magical one.

Chris Priestley, Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth (2009). I dipped into this review copy mainly thanks to the enticement of David Roberts's cover and interior illustrations, crafted in homage to the great Edward Gorey. Though marketed for younger readers, the nine stories (within an overall frame of tales being told on an interrupted train journey that increasingly reeks of wrongness) are in the spirit of Ramsey Campbell's precept as YA anthologist: "'There are too many nice kiddie-ghost stories. I want to scare the shit out of the little buggers." Amid suitably smoky period ambience – the Boer War is on and our young protagonist's great hero is H.G. Wells – the stories lead their characters to sticky ends which echo Wells, M.R. James, W.W. Jacobs, Henry James and other classic creators of grue. Although there are a few doomed innocents on the grisly roster, most of these victims are insufferable kids like the protagonist, who doesn't see it in quite those terms but gradually absorbs the idea that he too is in trouble. This collection delivers several enjoyable little shudders in an old-fashioned and thus obscurely comforting way. Previous volumes were Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.

Bryan Talbot, Grandville (2009). Another ingenious graphic novel from the master, combining noir alternate history – a steampunk nineteenth century where France is Top Nation – with "anthropomorphic" fantasy. That is, all the major characters have animal heads, although there's a despised underclass of merely human "doughface" servants. When a French death squad (boar, fox, lizard) bumps off a British agent (otter) who knows too much, the very tough Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard (badger) is soon on the trail with his dandyish sidekick Detective Ratzi (go on, guess) and unearths a suitably diabolical plot (froggy).... Bryan's artwork is sumptuous: "Inspired by the work of the nineteenth-century French illustrator Gerard, who worked under the nom de plume J.J. Grandville, and the seminal science fiction illustrator Robida ..." Perhaps the period-technology shoot-outs are too numerous and/or too prolonged, but the climax satisfies.

Quickies.Michael Bishop, A Reverie for Mister Ray ed. Michael H. Hutchins for PS Publishing. A fine fat collection of more than 70 nonfiction pieces couched in richly appropriate language: the title essay, for example, both conveys the feel of its subject Ray Bradbury at his best and gently chides him for later, emptier stories. I was pleased to find Mike's funny review of my parody collection He Do the Time Police in Different Voices included here; and also to be reminded that he does the different voices pretty damn well himself, as witness "Critics' Night at the Sci-Fi Bistro" with its lethally accurate pokes at Algis Budrys in portentous-waffle mode and Spider Robinson in lowbrow "lemme 'splain" mode. Neither, it seems, was amused. • Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vor Game (1990), an episode of the light-hearted Miles Vorkosigan adventures that I missed on its first UK appearance. Jolly good fun. • e.e. cummings, Selected Poems 1923-1958(1960), bedtime reading for many weeks. I somehow expected to dislike this poet's fondness for typographical tricks, but he successfully imposes his own rules and delivers effective emotional jolts. There are some fine and moving things in here. • Edward Eager, Knight's Castle (1956), another of his lovingly unsolemn homages to the children's books of E. Nesbit. This features repeated time travel of a sort, into the days of chivalry as personified by the likes of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood – that is, L-space history after the fashion of John Myers Myers, L Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt, or Jasper Fforde. Anachronisms abound, and the low point of heroic degradation is that "Wilfred of Ivanhoe's sword grows rusty and they say he just lies in bed all day and reads science fiction!" • Roger Lancelyn Green, ed., The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1985), collecting eleven additions by other hands to the great detective's already crowded career. Familiar names among the contributors are Julian Symons and Father Ronald Knox ... the latter's story being livelier than his meticulously dull mystery novels. Anecdote: when Knox was working on his own new translation of the Bible, a friend suggested that this should be promoted as "By the author of The Body in the Silo". • Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals (2009). Ostensibly a Discworld romp in which the wizards of Unseen University are forced to enter a team in Ankh-Morpork's lethal street football games, this characteristically covers a great deal more ground – including life below stairs at the University, high fashion for dwarfs, the psychology or magic of crowds, and the serious question of whether there's hope for a race that (at least according to Tolkien) has been irretrievably degraded. Lots of funny jokes too. Terry's typing hand may have lost its cunning, but his creativity and dictating voice remain in good shape. • Jim Theis, the legendary "The Eye of Argon" as scans of the original fanzine publication; see here for relevant links including a PDF facsimile.

Still Reading. Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance (2009) ed. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Trying to homage Vance's style and vocabulary must be a terrifying challenge – those who do it rather well here include Kaje Baker, Terry Dowling, Robert Silverberg and Paula Volsky (I'm not yet halfway through). As a merely personal prejudice I feel that some Vance Dying-Earth entities are best not revisited, such as the unforgettable elemental horror Chun the Unavoidable, about whom no more ought to be said. Now Phyllis Eisenstein's story interestingly transplants one of those hard-working, determinedly competent youngsters from Vance's later sf into the Dying Earth milieu, as a magician's apprentice whose early experiments provoke Chun the Unavoidable to ... visit the lad's master and complain. I couldn't help giggling: shades of Terry Pratchett's Beowulf cameo in Guards! Guards!, "where this guy, he killed this monster in this lake [...] and you know what? Its mum come and complained. Its actual mum come right down to the hall next day and complained." But this is no more than a momentary lapse of tone in an enjoyable if slightly over-rational tale. It took the Vance-sensitivity of Mike Resnick to give us a full-blown Chun the Unavoidable Origin Story, foreshadowing its subject matter with the title "Inescapable". Oh dear.

Not Actually Read. Gollancz has joined the Famous Classic and Zombies bandwagon with what, presumably to avoid accusations of slavish imitation, is titled not A Christmas Carol and Zombies but I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas, by the ever-prolific Adam Roberts. The blurb says it all:

Marley was dead, to begin with ... [But the actual first page continues "Dead for about three minutes, that is: then he got up again." Nasty things immediately happen to the attendant clergyman, clerk and undertaker.] The legendary Ebeneezer [sic] Scrooge sits in his house, his riches forgotten. Downstairs, his front door shudders and shakes under the blows from the zombies that crowd around it hungering for his flesh and his miserly braaaaiiiiiinns!

Just how did the happiest day of the year slip into a welter of blood, innards, and shambling, ravenous undead on the snowy streets of old London town?

Will the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future be able to stop the world from drowning under a top-hatted and crinolined zombie horde?

Does mankind's survival lie in the hands of one of literature's scrawniest and meanest heroes? And is H.G. Wells in the wrong book altogether?


I allowed myself one pre-Christmas peep inside, just to savour the rich carrion texture. On page 55, Queen Victoria herself is informed of the undead peril: "We are not Zom-used. Where is John Brown?" Alas, it all too rapidly emerges that this faithful servitor is "No longer John Brown the Ghillie – now John Brown the Ghoulie." It was at roughly this point, I like to think, that Kim Stanley Robinson reeled back with a cry of "Why do the fools not give this genius the Booker Prize?"

1 December 2009