Cloud Chamber 161
June 2010

Giraffe in the Grass

The Omnibombulator

"The queech obulates." This phrase popped into my head as I tried to think of further esoteric trade goods for the Ansible masthead. What's more – I remembered – the urfer curls up, the rumption gets hot and the pratching valve, er, does something. All these unlikely nouns are components of a strange device capable of producing both chocolate and, as it then was, the BBC Third Programme. Its operations were the subject of a Sunday Times Brain Teaser, which I came across in 1965 in a just-published compendium of offbeat newspaper items. Google ("Did you mean: quech ovulates") revealed that someone had put the Omnibombulator puzzle on line, which discouraged me from using its terminology in Ansible ... but I was happy to confirm that despite an intervening 45 years of dissolution, I could still solve it. The chap at invited readers to send in their solutions, and wondered when the puzzle had first appeared. Langford to the rescue, assisted by the requirement for solutions to be submitted by Friday 26 January:

The original date of publication? 1946 at the earliest, since that's when the Third Programme was launched; 1965 at the very latest, since the puzzle is reprinted in Denys Parsons's Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar, a book of odd newspaper clippings published by Pan in 1965.

Within that range, if the day-of-week calculator page at can be trusted, 26 January was a Friday in 1951 and 1962 only. I suppose a dedicated researcher would now proceed to the National Newspaper Library and check the Sunday Times round about those dates, but it's too hot....

No reply, but again I had successfully wasted time!

As for Denys Parsons, I hadn't thought about him in years, but he made quite a career of collecting amusing (or not) newspaper misprints into slim volumes suitable for bedside or bog. Ambiguous phrases were also pounced upon: the headline POLICE FOUND SAFE UNDER BED is a personal favourite. His initial run of books, all published by Macdonald, comprised It Must Be True (1952), with drawings by Ronald Searle and the first of several admissions of blatant theft from Punch and The New Yorker; Can It Be True? (1953, illus Anton); All Too True (1954, illus Peter Kneebone); True to Type (1955, illus Haro), whose acknowledgements confess to re-use of a dozen favourites from the first three books; Many a True Word (1958, illus Anton), introducing the dark thought that silliness might not always result from random fortuity – "Occasionally one suspects, as in 'he dislocated a hip hip hurrah', that the compositor must have been under notice."; and Never More True (1960, illus Emmwood). Inspired by the traditional columns of the Linotype keyboard, Parsons imagined a cacotypographical guiding spirit called Gobfrey Shrdlu, who with his wife Lousie – née Cmfwyp, betraying her Welsh heritage – presided over the world of misprimps.

The sequence broke with Say It Isn't So (1962 USA, illus Emwood and Anton), apparently combining or selected from past Macdonald books. It started afresh from Pan with a revived formula of unillustrated paperbacks presenting howlers and misprilts on left-hand pages, and merely bizarre items (like the Omnibombulator puzzle) on the right: Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar (1965), Funny Ho Ho and Funny Fantastic (1967), Funny Amusing and Funny Amazing (1969), Funny Convulsing and Funny Confusing (1971) and – a title to chill the blood – Funny Ribtickleous and Funny Ridiculous (1979). There are more, like the presumed selection volume The Best of Shrdlu and a couple of 1986 Futura paperbacks titled Too Funny for Words and Much Too Funny for Words, but I seem to have lost the will to live. Or even to comment on the cumulatively numbing effect of these selections, for fear of attracting some rebuke like the letter (to the editor of the Rugeley Mercury) quoted in Funny Convulsing: "This criticism is not open, as Britishers would be, and consequently is difficult to nail down, but, like a snake in the grass, is whispering behind a hand that covers a sneering face."

Ronald Searle, from It Must Be True

"Yes," she said, "those things over there are my husbands." (Newspaper serial)
Drawing by Ronald Searle from It Must Be True


The Thog Files. Still more items that for one reason or another weren't used in Ansible. • Martin Morse Wooster spies an overheated political metaphor: "What cranked up the thermostat on Clinton's umbrage were signs he saw that the Obama campaign was stirring the pot with liberal media outlets." (John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change, 2010) Also a simile: "McAuliffe's words landed like a roundhouse right on the Clintons' collective jaw." (Ibid) • Chris French offers another simile, this time carefully qualified: "Without forming into mutually-supportive bodies of ships, the British fleet, raggedly arranged in its two columns, were even now being thrown into action like confetti at a wall, the difference being that this confetti was explosive and the wall far from strong." (Adam Nicolson, Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero; US title Seize The Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar, 2005) • Tim McDaniel provided the Inadvertent Namedropping Dept: "The dragon who slew the Ogre of Gormely Keep? That's who I am, boy – george, I mean." (Gordon Dickson, "St. Dragon and the George", 1957 F&SF)

Commonplace Book. Peter Ustinov on critics: "They search for ages for the wrong word, which, to give them credit, they eventually find." (BBC Radio, February 1952) • Gore Vidal on Oscar Wilde: "When he rises to the sublime in poetry or prose there is so much purple all over the place that one longs for the clean astringencies of Swinburne." (A View from the Diners Club: Essays 1987-1991, 1991)

The Letter Column

John Bark reports an odd discovery ("I do too much random reading in Waterstone's") ...

Michael Foley in The Age of Absurdity (Simon & Schuster, 2010) illustrates the follies of celebrity culture with a story about Bob Shaw at a Government reception during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although he describes Bob as "one of the most unhappy-looking people I had ever seen", Foley decided to approach him because he was the only face he recognized in the crowd. Unfortunately, Bob seemed grumpy and unappreciative of the news that Foley had read one of his books. He then became distracted by an approaching photographer, who sized them up and turned away. Foley says he laughed this off, but Bob rushed after him, saying: "Excuse me, I'm Bob Shaw the world famous science fiction writer." The photographer, to Foley's bemusement, was apologetic and agreed to take his photo. Bob then looked at Foley "with an expression of disgust" and steered the man away. Then "with a final and triumphant contemptuous glance" he turned to pose for his photograph.

I wonder if Bob ever told his version of this story?

I wonder too. Knowing Bob, it seems all too possible that some Shavian irony or self-aimed jokiness failed to register on Foley....

Barbara Barrett provides the obligatory mention of that film.

With the Avatar DVD there's a registration code and a web address promising all the special features you'd expect on the absent features disk (h*ll, there ain't even a commentary with the movie) – but even after registration, and careful unticking of boxes that otherwise would have ended up selling your soul to FOX – it turns out you cannot even find out what the special features are unless you download and instal an interactive web-desktop that takes over your whole computer and demands 24/7 web connection! Jayzus – I'd like to see the special features at least once, but I don't want Avatar to take over my life! Doesn't Cameron/FOX realize that not every buyer of the DVD is an obsessed fanboy?

The only good thing I can say about the DVD version is that it is NOT in migraine inducing, brain leaking out through your nostrils, 3-D and it has subtitles and audio description – otherwise it is a waste of money.

I finally realized what was so familiar with Dances With Smurfs; The R Dean landscapes? No. The McCaffreyesque dragon-riding? No. The anime style exo-suits? No; It's the proportions of the Na'vi themselves – derived directly from Ancient Egypt's New Kingdom art canon. Does this movie have anything original?

My spelling checker insists Na'vi is misspelt Naïve: fair comment.

Yvonne Rousseau, who in the past has tirelessly trawled the works of Laurie R. King for examples of Thoggery for Ansible, continues indefatigably ...

Meanwhile – I'm currently reading another Laurie R. King novel: The Art of Detection, first published in 2006. This is not a novel about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Instead, it's the present-day murder of a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, whose ground floor has gas lighting and an imitation of bullet holes spelling out VR and many another device to make other devotees of Holmes feel as if 221b Baker Street has survived in San Francisco. The plot centres on a story about Sherlock Holmes (told in the first person, and set in San Francisco) which the murder victim felt confident was not a pastiche but the real thing: an unpublished story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It's so sad – Philip Gilbert has been rushing around trying to authenticate it, and another authenticator, who's also read it, is British. Yet they apparently fail to notice such American modernities as Sherlock Holmes reporting himself as saying "But I shall be fine" and "Very well, see you tonight" – not to mention "outside of the Blue Tiger" and "off of" and "teary" (meaning "tearful") and many another locution to stop their pulses racing.

You may wonder why I persist in reading Laurie R. King. Well – she tells a rattling good yarn (though not so good in the Kate Martinelli San Francisco Police stories that have nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes).

Random Reading

Blake Charlton, Spellwright (2010). A debut fantasy which, as noted in jacket quotes by the great and good, presents an ingenious and intriguing new system of magic. Spells are literally forged from words in various magical languages, shaped into constructs of power. Our hero Nicodemus is very good at this but is also a "cacographer" who – again literally – misspells any construct he touches. Spellwright's unique s(p)elling point is the resonance of this disability with the author's: his back-flap biography begins "Severe dyslexia kept Blake Charlton from reading fluently until he was twelve." His premises lead to interesting developments like playing silly games with Jejune, a kind of magical Initial Teaching Alphabet language for kids; or the revelation that a sentence of Magnus, the language that most affects the physical world, can be plucked from the page and wielded as an edged weapon. Using a magical search-engine construct to Google the magical library is logical enough, yet at the same time deflatingly mundane. Hints that Nicodemus may find his true strength in the use of an arcane and nonstandard spell-language are somewhat plonkingly fulfilled by the revelation of two such languages. Generic fantasy elements also crowd in: Nicodemus's agonizing personal problems with his craft were so much more interesting than the prophecy (widely assumed to be a dud) associated with his birth, the demonic assassin on his trail (who is baleful and angry and thus called Fellwroth), the impending demon wars, the realization that this isn't the standalone novel implied by its packaging and publicity but the opening of a series or trilogy.... On a personal note, it was unfair of me to lapse into giggles on page 238. Long ago when John Grant and I were writing our horror spoof Guts, one of the running (oozing, purulent, etc) gags was a mercilessly repeated one-line paragraph of cheap atmospherics that reappears on that page of Spellwright:

Somewhere an owl hooted.

(By the way, I had written "cacotypographical" in the Denys Parsons section above before receiving or reading this book. You don't have to believe this.)

Eric Linklater, The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949), a children's fantasy of undersea adventure featuring magical breathing-under-water oil, a fellowship of immortal ex-sailors led by Davy Jones, and a pleasing reification of the lines of latitude and longitude as actual ropes which are knotted at their intersections and must remain so for the safety of the world. Naturally the dastardly pirates of the title have plans (somewhat poorly motivated, but never mind) to "improve" on the existing knots, at risk of rendering everything utterly higgledy-piggledy. Whimsical fun – Cully the Talking and indeed Singing Octopus is a notable character – but it could have used a trifle more piratical menace. The two main buccaneer leaders huff and puff and plot at length, but (unlike, say, the sinister Abner Brown of John Masefield's not dissimilarly toned The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights) don't seem to have it in them to do anything truly dastardly. Linklater's previous juvenile venture The Wind on the Moon (1944) won him a Carnegie Medal; this non-sequel didn't.

Richard C. Meredith, We All Died at Breakaway Station (1969). This was the launch title for Rog Peyton's and Rod Milner's short-lived "Venture SF", a Hamlyn imprint that promised good old-fashioned space opera. As the promotional flyer put it: "DO YOU REMEMBER when humans were heroes, androids didn't have social hang-ups and the only good alien was a dead one?" Like most Venture titles, We All Died at Breakaway Station is a reprint from Robert Hale Ltd (motto: "it doesn't have to be good, we have a guaranteed UK library sale"). Not that this is an actively bad novel. Meredith works hard to put across the story of a heroically doomed rearguard action in space, but can't quite deliver his prologue's promise of an epic to rival Thermopylae, Horatius at the Bridge, and the Alamo. The alien Jillies are adequately nasty, and certainly the only good one is a dead one, but they're coming in overwhelming force. Holding the pass, as it were, are two starships crewed by ruined, cyborgized human casualties of too many past defeats. Can they delay a Jillie victory long enough for the vital FTL message to be relayed by Breakaway Station? This could have worked well had Meredith engineered a steady, inexorable build-up of narrative momentum towards his foretold end. Unfortunately it suffers from twitchy jitters in the form of many flashbacks and cross-cuts, generating a perpetual sense of confusion about time and place – ah, now we're back in the present, or are we? Quite an interesting failure.

Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum (2010). The third Laundry thriller, with Bob Howard and other grungy civil servants again struggling with the twin perils of espionage and computation-engendered Lovecraftian horrors. Previous volumes homaged Len Deighton and explicitly spoofed Ian Fleming; this one nods to Anthony Price, whose favourite spy trope was routine historical research leading to something unexpected and deadly, erupting from the cobwebs of the past like a funnelweb spider. Here, such alarming repercussions include zombie assassins, evil cultists, dread necropolis rituals, and jolting revelations about Bob's seemingly timeless boss at the Laundry. We also learn more of the very bad scenario CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, an occult equivalent of World War Three which seems more and more likely to happen before the planned nine-book series is over. Lots of grisly fun, and I was of course charmed by the inclusion (as part of an electro-sorcerous booby-trap) of the "Langford Death Parrot".

A.E. van Vogt, Quest for the Future (1970). Having forgotten the title, I'd come to wonder whether I'd hallucinated reading this many years ago, but the horror is all too true. At the time I wasn't familiar with the term "fixup" and how this practice could easily lead to what John Clute would later define as Van Vogt Yaw, being what happens when short stories are tossed into a novel and get seasick. What bothered me, even in my teens, was that partway through the action there's a sudden and highly unconvincing lurch into the plot of our author's "Far Centaurus", one of his better stories and already familiar from the collection Destination: Universe!. In fact, Quest for the Future is a three-layered and not very palatable sandwich in which "Film Library" (1946), a somewhat inconsequential squib about movies that have timeslipped from the future, is wrapped around "The Search" (1943) with its time-travelling immortals adjusting history; this in turn encloses "Far Centaurus" (1944), a story of suspended-animation spaceflight and the resulting future shock. All three are unconvincingly stitched together by slapping the name of an unpleasant minor character from "Film Library" on to the protagonists of "The Search" and "Far Centaurus" (the latter also shifts from first- to third-person narration), and accounting for the resulting hybrid's wild personality swings by "explaining" that he suffers from deep-seated paranoia which will render him forever incapable of mastering the universe or marrying a good woman. Until, that is, he merges with a lot of his nicer alternate selves from an infinity of parallel timelines. As one does. Quest for the Future deserves study as an object lesson in how not to recycle short fiction.

In Brief.Robert Aickman, Night Voices: Strange Stories (1985), a posthumous round-up of six stories written over thirty years, not so much terrifying as obliquely and pervasively disturbing. "The Stains" is particularly effective for its slow waltz of sex, corruption and death, elements which also recur in Aickman's highly idiosyncratic re-imagining of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber. • Anthony Armstrong, Yesterdailies (1931), varyingly funny exercises in the cobwebbed comic tradition – still followed by Private Eye – of writing up long-ago fact and fiction as modern journalese. The Baghdad Daily Gazette for 795 AD, for example, offers "CALIPH VISITS BAGHDAD NIGHT-CLUBS / ROYALTY INCOGNITO HITS HOT SPOTS / SECRET CLUB-CRAWL ..." Some parts are funnier than that, I promise; several chuckles ensue, overlaid by a gloomy sense of how weirdly dignified and restrained this spoof "sensational" coverage now seems by comparison with twenty-first-century tabloids. • Peter Carey, 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account (2001). A highly charged, idiosyncratic travel book in which Carey revisits his homeland after too many years abroad in New York. Though often hugely funny, especially in dialogue (where I sometimes lost track because the author had apparently given up quotation marks for Lent), this isn't a merry Bill Bryson quipfest but pushes close to various edges in its sidelights on personal phobias, dangerous sports, fighting wildfires, the sleazy origins of Sydney, and the dark side of Australian history in general – especially the fate of the Aboriginals. Compulsive reading. • Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale (1930), one of those volumes (and it's embarrassing how many there are) that I seemed to have had on the shelves forever without actually reading. When I took the plunge it proved very readable, featuring some enjoyably catty play with literary personalities and rivalries, to a somewhat roman à clef effect (Hardy, Walpole) which Maugham nervously denies in his introduction. This is a 1970 Folio Society edition whose murky illustrations (fairly typically for Folio, alas) seem out of keeping with the genial text, and which even manages to omit the original publication date. Tut. • Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style (1947). A deliberately trivial incident retold in 99 different styles, here brilliantly translated from the French by Barbara Wright. I'd seen a few samples in Dwight MacDonald's excellent anthology Parodies (1961), where the selections aren't translated, and Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot (1997), where they are. Queneau and Wright keep surprising us with increasingly daft variations on the theme, like the "Gustatory" version which literally gives the flavour of the non-events: "Next we sampled the chewing gum of dispute, the chestnuts of irritation, the grapes of wrath and a bunch of bitterness." Probably indescribable. • Henry Reed, A Map of Verona (1946) and the posthumous Collected Poems (2007). Reed is known for two much-anthologized poems, the brilliantly ironic "Lessons of the War: Naming of Parts" and one of the few successful parodies of T.S. Eliot, "Chard Whitlow". I wanted to read the remaining "Lessons of the War", of which "Judging Distances" (also very good) and "Unarmed Combat" appear in both these books. Collected Poems includes three more: "Movement of Bodies", "Returning of Issue" (these two grouped with the above since all five appeared as a 1970 chapbook) and the previously uncollected – and again very funny – "Psychological Warfare". Afterwards I discovered that you can read them all on line, but am happier to have the books and the further forgotten but frequently rather good verses within.

Yesterdailies frontispiece

Yesterdailies frontispiece