Cloud Chamber 162
December 2010

Cartoon by Alan F. Beck

The Year In Review

On second thoughts I'd much rather not review the general horribleness of 2010, which included Hazel's father (who moved to Reading in December 2009) being rushed to hospital something like eleven times before at last agreeing to be properly looked after in a care home close to our house. A holiday break would have been useful, but the regular crises made this impossible. Late in the year we also had burglars. Then my foot swelled up and I couldn't walk for a week, and a routine pre-Christmas cold left me coughing horribly throughout the attempted festivities. Stop laughing, you rotters, stop laughing.

Let's hope that 2011 will be better all round.


The Thog Files. Thog tries to stick to professionally published works in Ansible, but Paul Barnett declares Amateur Hour with a couple of online reviews: "Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee has become a time-honored classic. Like Arthur Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is one of the 'great books' not only of science fiction but of historical fiction in general." (Amazon) • "A lovely, haunting film reminiscent of the Czech film, Three Nuts for Cinderella, Rusalochka is a relatively faithful adaptation of Andersen's tale, 'The Little Mermaid.'" ("Musidora from Chicago", IMDB) • Likewise David V Barrett can't resist this self-published contribution to the ever-popular Eyeballs in the Sky: "Tearing off a sodden vest, David missed her eyes as they shot across his torso." (Steven Cutts, Viking Village, 2009) • Back in the world of real or almost real publishing, Dave Clark found this thorough Thogging of The Overton Window by US conservative pundit Glenn Beck. • Martin Morse Wooster lowers the tone: "In the September 6 New Yorker, John McPhee talked to golf historian David Hamilton, who explained why most clubs at St. Andrews remained single-gender associations: 'The ladies' clubs are not clamoring for male members.'"

Commonplace Book. Some hidden hand (I think it was Wendy Grossman's) sent a New Yorker newsbreak titled "Letters We Never Finished Reading". On the letterhead of the Governmental Refuse Collection and Disposal Association, Inc., this begins: "Dear Fellow Solid Waster ..." • Hazel's Language Lessons: "The French and the English have so much to contribute to one another, but so often it all goes wrong. In the past it did so tragically. Nowadays it usually takes the form of comedy. They take our words and make mince-meat of them. We take their culinary art and, I'm afraid, all too often make mince-meat of that. But the traffic in words and food goes both ways, as can be seen from the case of sucre brûlé. Instead of importing this as burnt sugar, which is what the words mean, we mistranslated brûlé as barley. The French must have thought we made quite a good job of this barley sugar, because they imported back again with the literal translation of sucre d'orge. So it is that on both sides of the Channel a substance that contains no barley is called barley sugar." (Richard Boston, The Guardian, March 1976)

The Letter Column

Sandra Bond on Denys Parsons's odd newspaper quotes (see CC161):

I submit, though, that POLICE FOUND SAFE UNDER BED is trumped by a newspaper placard I once saw in Hornsey, POLICE MURDER SUSPECT IN COURT.

In similar vein, a page of examples in John Julius Norwich's 2010 A Christmas Cracker includes the 1985 Guardian classic AMNESTY CHAMPIONS TORTURED GIRL.

Nonie Rider was stirred to reminiscence by the Ansible story about a campaign to reshelve Tony Blair's book:

Dunno if you ever saw Berke Breathed's Bloom County cartoons, which contained a particularly stupid and spastic cat named Bill who was clearly a vituperative comment on Garfield.

My former husband was once delighted to find Berke Breathed down at the bookstore moving all the Garfield books to the Occult section.

Random Reading

Some notes on things read in the latter half of 2010.

Brian N. Ball, The Regiments of Night (1972; US retitling of Night of the Robots). There's nothing like a good story of a buried robot menace that's still potent after a thousand years of being regarded chiefly as archaeology. Unfortunately, though I still like Ball's first book Sundog (1965), this isn't a terribly good story. There's reasonable panache, reminiscent of Keith Laumer, in the chain of accidents that leads to the reactivation of abandoned Earth's ancient imperial defence base. But portents about a vast robot army that will inexorably march (as it says in the base plaque's inscription: "The Regiments of Night shall come at the end") somehow fail to make the flesh creep, since Earth is in ruins and there's no obvious stronghold or population centre to be inexorably marched on. The handful of intruders in the base (tourists, archaeologists, fleeing hero and his villainous pursuer), poke around, learn a few things, fail to stop the countdown to full base activation and inexorable marching orders.... At length it emerges that the dread Black Army was sabotaged long ago in the millennial mists of backstory, so when the time comes the whole apocalyptic menace marches inexorably into the sea and oblivion, and does it offstage. Even killing off the hero and reviving him via imperial-base superscience does not detract from the general sense of letdown.

Nelson Bond, The Thirty-First of February (1949). As far as I knew I'd never read anything by Bond, but was tempted by the antiquarian thrill of a Gnome Press first edition offered for only a fiver, and by the vaguely familiar title ... which was to have been an episode in James Branch Cabell's "Witch-Woman" fantasy sequence, only three of whose ten planned stories were written. Bond knew this and persuaded Cabell to grant him a "Conveyance of Title in Fee Simple" (reproduced on the back jacket and within), giving permission in doggerel to use the title. How could a Cabell enthusiast resist? The thirteen tales here are mainly slick fantasies, but include some moderately awful sf like the classic shaggy-god story "The Cunning of the Beast" (1942 Bluebook as "Another World Begins") and the alien-nasty yarn "The Monster from Nowhere" (1939 Fantastic Adventures). Kingsley Amis had quoted and put the boot into the latter's "repulsive style" in New Maps of Hell, so I'd read a bit of this one before. The interesting thing about the monster is that it's a four-dimensional one, manifesting to puny humans as a number of separate, shifting 3D cross-sections as its various appendages intersect our space. Should this be added to the SF Encyclopedia theme entry DIMENSIONS? Well, yes and no: the title was already cited there, but with a different date and credited to Donald Wandrei. Next question: is Wandrei's "The Monster from Nowhere" (1935 Argosy Weekly) also about a 4D horror? No, according to the collective erudition of the Fictionmags mailing list, where Bud Webster went on to reveal the source of this mix-up: the Bond story was collected in Groff Conklin's Best of Science Fiction (1946), whose first edition wrongly credited it to Wandrei. Another Encyclopedia error corrected! This is how I spend my days.

Anthony Boucher, Far and Away (1955). An eleven-story collection found on the freebies table at Novacon, although as a Boucher fan I'd gladly have parted with a few quid. Includes some of his better-known stories like "Balaam" and "They Bite", plus various minor ingenuities. In the generally entertaining fantasy "Sriberdegibit", a lawyer who makes a particularly stupid wish (after being warned that it will be granted) finds himself afflicted with the curse invented by W.S. Gilbert for Ruddigore: the requirement to commit a crime every day, on pain of being strangled at midnight by the titular demon. I assumed that, having invoked Ruddigore and made his protagonist a lawyer, Boucher must be leading up to an escape clause that would be cleverly different from the operetta's notorious Gilbertian paradox. In fact his solution is identical, which seems somehow naughty....

Ernest Bramah, A Little Flutter (1930). Mildly fantastic comedy whose sole genre element is the existence of that unlikely man-sized bird, the Patagonian Groo-Groo. All that actually remains of this prodigy by the time the story gets under way is the skin, and our hero – who for purposes of inheritance has to feign an interest in ornithology, and for reasons of mindboggling auctorial manipulation has an unwanted guest (in fact an escaped criminal) on his hands – finds it convenient to have the Groo-Groo skin inhabited. But for how long can this impersonation fool the bird experts, including a learned Scot of such caricatured awfulness that modern readers are likely to have a nervous sense that the Race Relations Act is looking over their shoulder? A very, very minor Bramah fiction, whose deep obscurity I now understand.

Avram Davidson, ¡Limekiller! (2003). A last collection of the great man's work, assembling – with various appreciations and other apparatus – his six stories about the adventures of Jack Limekiller in the coastal waters and jungles of the genially corrupt little country British Hidalgo, a barely disguised British Honduras (now Belize). Lush, bulging with Davidsonian humour and erudition, and highly atmospheric, the stories (like most of this author's best work) need to be read with close attention: idle-seeming digressions prove to be structurally vital, and proper understanding of some supernatural or cryptozoological horror may involve a delicate point of etymology. Only Avram Davidson could twist a couplet from Cowper into the unforgettable title "There Beneath the Silky-Tree and Whelmed in Deeper Gulphs than Me". I loved this collection but found it necessary to read other things between stories, for fear of overdosing on richness. One mild surprise was that in the slightest of the pieces here, "Limekiller at Large", our man's encyclopedic memory failed him twice in successive pages ... first garbling the Jowett verse of that venerable undergraduate jape "The Masque of Balliol" ("I am Master of this College / What I don't know isn't knowledge") so badly as to get both scansion and college wrong ("I'm the Provost of Trinity College / And what I do not know is not knowledge"); and then mucking up three out of four lines of E.C. Bentley's famous clerihew "George the Third / Ought never to have occurred. / One can only wonder / At so grotesque a blunder." Maybe it was the sub at Asimov's – where this one first appeared – who Americanly improved the first line to "George Third", as Jack Limekiller the expat Canadian presumably wouldn't have. A small niggle about a remarkable, haunting book.

Stephen R. Donaldson, Against All Things Ending (2010): The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, third of four volumes. • Abnegation. Abysm. Aliment. Anadems. Anodyne. Argence. Argent. Atavistic. Attar. Bartizans. Bedizened. Benignant. Benison. Brume. Burgeoning. Caducity. Caldera. Caliginous. Carious. Cataphract. Cerements. Cerulean. Charlock. Chiaroscuro. Chlamys. Chrism. Chthonic. Circadian. Clinquant. Cloacal. Cognisant. Condign. Condyles. Coruscation. Crenellations. Crepuscular. Cymar. Cynosure. Deflagration. Deliriancy. Demesne. Despoilage. Destrier. Devoir. Dromonds. Ebon. Ecru. Effluvium. Eidolons. Eldritch (frequently used). Embrasure. Evanescent (as in "evanescent mansuetude"). Excoriation. Exigency. Exigent. Febrile. Fecund. Formication. Frangible. Friable. Fug. Fuligin. Fulvous. Galvanic (as in "galvanic nimbus"). Gangrel. Gavotte. Gelid. Glaive. Glode. Gravid. Guerdon. Gyre. Heinous (as in "heinous brume"). Heuristic. Ichor. Illucid. Illucidity. Illusive. Immanence. Immedicable. Immiscible. Impalpable. Incarnadine. Incondign. Incused. Ineffable. Ineluctable. Innominate. Intransigence. Irenic. Irrefragable. Irrefusable. Jerrid. Knaggy. Knags. Knurls. Lambent. Largesse. Lealty. Lenitive. Limned (in argence, in argent). Louring. Lucence. Lucent. Lugubrious. Malefic. Malpaís. Mansuetude. Marge (meaning margin, not margarine). Marmoreal. Marrow-meld. Mellifluous. Metatarsus. Mien. Mislove (noun). Moil. Moraines. Muricated. Nacre. Nascent. Nimbus. Nitid. Niveous. Numinous. Occluded. Oneiric. Oriflamme. Otiose. Paresthesis. Pearlescence. Pediment. Pennons. Percipience. Phalanges. Plash. Preternatural (as in "preternatural gloaming"). Puissance. Rachitic. Raiment. Ramified. Rapine. Ribbands (sic). Roborant. Rugose. Sacral. Salubrious. Salvific. Sapid. Scaur. Scrannel. Scrog. Scurf. Sempiternal. Sendaline. Siccant. Soilures. Spilth. Spume. Stigmata (as in "arcane stigmata"). Stricture. Supernal. Surquedry. Susurrus. Suzerain. Suzerainty. Swales. Talus. Tarsal. Theurgy (#1 favourite word). Threnody. Tocsins. Travails. Trepidation. Tumid. Umber. Utile. Verdigris. Verdure. Vernal. Viands. Viridian. Virtu. Vitriol. Wight. Writhe (noun). Writhen (adjective). • There are also similes. • Compare with the previous instalment.

Simon Hoggart The Hamster that Loved Puccini: The Seven Modern Sins of Christmas Round Robin Letters (2005). I'm fond of Simon Hoggart's witty, catty parliamentary sketches, and have several collections of them on the shelves: On the House, Back on the House, etc. This, however, is the dark – which is to say the unfunny – side of Hoggart. Perhaps The Cat that Could Open the Fridge (2004), his first blast of the trumpet against those family newsletters people slip into Christmas cards, used up all the good material. Or perhaps that wasn't funny either, despite making some later round-robin composers nervous enough to insert caveats like "Although Simon Hoggart wouldn't approve" before mentioning that in August little Daphne become the first three-year-old to conquer Everest. Yes, these numbing missives are often dotted with archness, boastfulness and outright silliness, but repeatedly pointing the finger of mock outrage at minor irritations can't be good for the soul. An academic mentions having "visited the University of North Carolina in March for a Ph.D. student's defence ..." Quick as a flash, Hoggart the razor-sharp commentator jumps in with "What he or she needed defending from is not explained." Is he so pig-ignorant as never to have heard of a thesis being defended? Of course not: the pretence is driven by a desperate need to inject some semblance of humour into swathes of drear material. This book was a random acquisition from Oxfam in Reading, and to Oxfam it will soon return.

Graham Joyce, The Silent Land (2010). A highly effective though structurally simple story which, as the blurb hints at the outset, would seem to fall into the territory of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy's theme entry POSTHUMOUS FANTASY – though in fact with an additional twist. Rather than one man at Owl Creek Bridge, we have a young couple blissfully skiing in the French Pyrenees until overtaken by an avalanche. Escape (apparent escape?) returns them to the familiar tourist hotel and village, now mysteriously depopulated and with certain wrongnesses of time and space. Meat and vegetables awaiting the vanished cooks in the hotel kitchen remain abnormally fresh; all routes out of the vicinity somehow wriggle (like the garden paths in Alice) and return the hapless pair to their starting-point. Their changing reactions to existence in this possible hallucination or private Heaven are all too convincingly human. The idyll (or nightmare) isn't entirely static, though: there are increasingly surreal indications that something is struggling to intrude. Exceedingly well written, with a satisfying conclusion.

Philip MacDonald, The Rynox Mystery (1933 retitling of Rynox, 1930). A pleasantly old-fashioned and almost wholly unconvincing thriller about a vast (for that era) insurance fraud, as signalled by the opening "Epilogue" in which – long after the main action– the insurance company is surprised to receive an anonymous cash donation of £297,499 3s. 10½d. Rynox itself is a temporarily ailing company saved from bankruptcy by the insurance payout when one of the partners is shot dead by, it would seem, an old enemy. What Rynox actually makes or does remains unclear throughout. The whole farrago is ingenious and light-hearted but not hugely mysterious – especially not to a reader who's already met a slight variation of the central gimmick in MacDonald's later novel The Wraith. Indeed the story wouldn't have stretched to even this short book length without a subplot involving blackmail by a small-time villain who knows the secret and must be cleverly circumvented.

A.A. Milne, Toad of Toad Hall (1929). Acquired partly for completism and partly out of sheer curiosity as to how Milne, a competent playwright and popular as such in his day, had adapted The Wind in the Willows for the stage. As expected, the more mystical bits ("Wayfarers All", "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn") had to go. But I found myself just a tiny bit shocked that, for the sake of a rousing finale, Milne allows the supposedly reformed Toad to sing his "Last Little Song" not as a private fling in his room but as the closing party's central attraction – and not only with every evidence of non-reformation but so seductively as to lure all the rest of the cast into an impromptu song-and-dance of unadulterated Toad-worship. In the end, even the hitherto reliable curmudgeon Badger succumbs. Even Badger! The pillars of reason topple.

Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes To Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want To Get Published (2008). Although a collected edition of the useful and instructive quotations gathered in Thog's Masterclass has several times been mooted, with eager fan support, the publishers have tended to back away muttering things like "But you've got our authors in there!" or "Suppose XXXX sued?" (Indeed, the largest sf publisher to consider the project eventually decided after many months that the most diplomatic course was to feign amnesia about a Collected Thog ever having been proposed – no doubt a wise move.) Mittelmark and Newman finesse the problem by simply making up their own Thoggish examples, a salutary Chamber of Horrors of disastrous prose tableaux, some of them quite extended and most of them adequately funny. An excruciating collection of comical lapses devised with serious intent.

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns (2008). Can it be ten whole years since I reviewed Al Reynolds's debut novel Revelation Space (2000) for what CC coyly used to call HugeSouthAmericanRiver? All his big space operas have been impressive, but this standalone example struck me as particularly likeable. Some six million years before the action begins, the central character Gentian (whose backstory appears at some length in flashbacks) copied herself to a thousand "shatterling" clones, male and female, which have been travelling the galaxy at relativistic speeds ever since. They all have botanical names and steadily divergent personalities; they hold grand reunions, every couple of hundred thousand years, at which memories are pooled. The family trade is in stardams, assembled from rings of some unobtainium-like material left scattered around space in convenient profusion by ye traditional ancient galactic forerunners, and used to enclose and contain troublesome stars that threaten to flare or go nova. A stardam could be called a House of Suns, but the title also belongs to a hidden faction which is fanatically determined to ensure a certain secret is kept. The sharing of memories at Gentian Line's imminent thirty-second reunion poses a security threat, and therefore Gentian Line is to be physically wiped out. Further complications include variously motivated representatives of another galaxy-spanning civilization, the Machine People; an alien stardam customer with every reason to complain (did he but know it) since an unprecedented systems failure has destroyed his species; and a final, eccentric race across the galaxy in search of a cosmic McGuffin whose existence is related to the long "Absence" of the entire Andromeda galaxy (not gone but no longer visible either). Among the incidental treats are a form of high-tech torture with all the Gothic grotesquerie of Reynolds's nastier short stories, and a future homage to the Winchester Mystery House. A very tasty space opera.

W. Heath Robinson, Bill the Minder (1912; 1920s reprint made affordable because a book-breaker has removed the coveted tipped-in colour plates). Robinson's second novel for children (the first was the 1902 The Adventures of Uncle Lubin), with his own black-and-white illustrations. Here there are only hints of the daft inventions featuring complex gears, pulleys and knotted string that made him famous. The tone is one of sustained whimsy, beginning with the habits of a professional mushroom-gatherer whose "hearing became so acute that he could even hear them growing, and learnt to distinguish the sound of each as it broke through the earth. Indeed, he had no need for any alarm to wake him from his heavy slumbers and call him to his work in the fields. However cautiously a mushroom made its appearance, at its first rumble, old Crispin would jump from his hard bed hastily dress himself, and, often without tasting a morsel of breakfast, be out of the house and on to the field in time to see the newcomer pop its head through the earth." This old man's lifestyle complications lead to a nephew, Bill, being recruited as minder or babysitter to the large brood of children. A chance encounter with the dispossessed King of Troy sets the plot moving: Bill and his charges, with the King in tow, mount an expedition to restore the senile delinquent to his throne. En route, each chapter introduces another eccentric character whom Robinson fancied drawing – such as the Ancient Mariner who saw considerable action "in latitude 195 and longitude 350 (that is, about 60 degrees east of the Equator)", or the Real Soldier whose all-important regimental password is "Brittle Pantechnicons". These tell their tales and join the ever-growing party, with the action culminating in a new Siege of Troy involving Trojan food-parcels. Unstructured but inventive, with a nice relish for mock-grandiose language and deadpan silliness, this book carries the Gordon Van Gelder Seal of Not Being Quite Suitable For The "Curiosities" Page In F&SF (well, I tried). At one stage, a very determined search for some lost keys leads to such expedients as illustrated below....

W. Heath Robinson illustration

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin (2005). Another polished and readable Wilson sf extravaganza. Mysterious forces surround Earth with a bubble of time-distortion which on first analysis seems hardly more than a delayed death sentence, fast-forwarding us all at the rate of hundreds of millions of years per subjective day towards the final dissolution of the Sun. But this also gives humanity its first chance to operate effectively in deep time – terraforming Mars in a subjective eyeblink, planting a colony there which more or less instantly sends back an emissary reporting immense vistas of Martian history and bringing a cornucopia of futuristic nanodrugs.... Engaging characters cope plausibly with escalating conceptual weirdness, with no stereotypes in sight; even the traditional religious cult spawned by the looming End Times is merely annoying (both intellectually and emotionally) rather than malevolent; this was a worthy Hugo winner. But Bill Burns, cable network aficionado, insists that Wilson committed a major howler by stipulating that the loss of our geosynchronous satellites (orbiting out beyond the "Spin" bubble) would immediately cripple the Internet, whose traffic goes mostly via cable.

In Brief.Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (2010): Mr Culture very definitely on form, with maybe a tiny bit too much exposition here and there, but we love him for it and I'd hate to have to decide where to trim. An impressive, multi-stranded treatment of virtual hells and the virtual-then-real war to put an end to them. Also from Banks with his middle M comes the Novacon GoH booklet The Spheres and The Secret Courtyard, being out-takes from early drafts of Transition and Matter respectively. • Edward P. Bradbury [Michael Moorcock], Barbarians of Mars (1965): a rattling Burroughsian yarn read for research, chiefly of a Thoggish nature. • L. Sprague de Camp, The Purple Pterodactyls (1979): fifteen stories in the Unknown vein, starring a US banker who suffers various minor magical adventures: "occasionally frightening, always amusing and sometimes unforgettable," promises the author. Let's just say "occasionally amusing but not very". I liked the one with a sex-cult trying to call up Priapus but, through sheer ineptitude at Latin incantation, getting a highly unamused Diana instead. • Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel (2007) and The Night Sessions (2008), worthy near-future thrillers read for enjoyment (and in a spirit of guilty catching-up) rather than with careful taking of notes. The first is grimly plausible, with rendition and torture in the UK exposed by a special kind of Wikileaks, and a surprise upbeat ending; the second is interestingly eccentric, somewhat less plausible, and has a not-so-surprising downbeat ending. MacLeod is always interesting and witty. • Wilson Tucker, Red Herring (1951): sprightly but routine thriller starring series PI Charles Horne. Though deployed with many a knowing nudge and wink, the genre clichés remain awfully familiar. • James White, Federation World (1988): fixup based on stories in Analog. Alien contact missions while recruiting settlers for the Federation World (a Dyson sphere with vast pointy cones at the poles) read more or less exactly like alien contact missions by the medics of Sector General, except that the aliens aren't ill. Cultural differences and misunderstandings may intrude, but sweet reason invariably prevails. • Urban Fantasy, assorted. I dipped into several of these series (see Books Received for an indication of the general flood), and most enjoyed Jim Butcher's "Harry Dresden" sequence about a resourceful and likeable urban wizard with a wider-than-usual range of allies and opponents – constantly inventive in the right kind of way. The "Sookie Stackhouse" books by Charlaine Harris are also entertaining enough, but I sort of lost the will to continue after half-a-dozen or so. Series where I persevered even less included "Kitty" by Carrie Vaughan (a couple of volumes), and Gail Carriger's "Parasol Protectorate" opening with Soulless (one only). Related books which I didn't even start included any and all work centred on zombies. Shambling horde of undead authors besieging Langford household: "Shaaaaaaame!"

31 December 2010