Cloud Chamber 36
December 1986

This most occasional of Dave Langford's fanzines is. It is published; and is available for. You received it because. All readers are wished a merry and/or a happy.

1986 was definitely one of those years. Fans have been swift to notice aloud the terrible stigmata of my venture into the wondrous world of software: inarguable signs of decay like putting ads for "Ansible Information" in the computer magazines, babbling drunkenly in 8086 assembler code, and being able to understand Marcus Rowland. I've even been ticked off for corrupting my business partner, erstwhile author Chris Priest, who keeps meaning to write a novel but spends his days taking down Access numbers over the phone and listening to the ineptly expressed problems of (WARNING: an esoteric technical term from the jargon of software dealers is about to follow) wallies.

"Your disk doesn't work, I can't get it in the computer, I want a refund...."

Chris: "Have you tried putting it in the other way round?"

(Pause. Click. Pause.)

"Oh. Seems OK now. Another fing, I can't be bothered reading the manual, so can you just tell me...?"

Every night as he vainly tries to sleep, Chris relives in lurid technicolour his memories of 5,271,009 conversations like this.

I remember my hollow feeling of Hoovers in the stomach circa 1980, when I cut loose from security and the primrose (albeit slightly plutonium-contaminated) path which led gently upward through the Civil Service with promotions as gratifyingly frequent milestones, until you reached the Celestial City of an index-linked pension. Paddling one's own canoe is all very proud and independent, until you reach the rapids.

Happily for me if not for the great book-avoiding public out there, I got through the nastiest bits (a year-long delay in payment because Arrow let Timescape publish my SF novel without the outmoded formality of a contract; the shock when my agent refused to handle a new project and other ways of flogging it had to be found). And now I nostalgically think writing had a certain primrose-path security about it. The tiny seed of an idea, slowly putting out conceptual leaves until it blossoms into a contract... the ancient rhythm of the seasons, moving swiftly through the immemorial stages of delivery, publication with a vilely unattractive cover, failure to distribute copies, and early remaindering in breach of agreement... there was a kind of majestic inevitability about it all. The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground, Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, and after many a summer dies the paperback edition.

(And let me share with you the soothing words of the lady at Sphere who broke it to me that my last novel had gone down the tubes with the rest. "We found that copies were not moving quickly enough out of the warehouse." There you have the British publishing industry in a nutshell – grouped hopefully around the warehouse, waiting for books to evolve legs and crawl forth in the direction of W.H.Smith. Actually putting copies in shops is hopelessly passé, my dear.)

By contrast, this software-for-authors business is definitely a swerve into the fast lane. Word processors vanish in the savage hurly-burly of natural selection, just as you've adapted the indexing program to work with them. Exquisitely conceived and utterly bug-free utility programs crash to a shuddering halt when the wretched computer manufacturers introduce a new operating system with exciting bugs of its own... and so on into the most impenetrable thickets of shop-talk. Buzz buzz. (Imagine Martin Hoare explaining RS-232 interface disk compiler mode I/O synchronicity overlay protocol debug incompatibility to you, and insert here. The jargon creeps in. Gwyneth Jones had a lot of computer/Indian names in Escape Plans, like Ram and Dat and Himem: I'm planning a skiffy blockbuster full of aliens from 8086 assembler, called Jcxz and Repne Cmpsb and worse.)

Fandom, however, always creeps in. Chris and I may be living lives of Kafkaesque alienation (and here I can't help recalling Dai Price's moment of existential insight when he read Metamorphosis and realized, he said, that Kafkaesque meant "boring")... but it occurs to me that we've just been conducting a genuine, old-time fan feud amid the microchips.

Of course we didn't start it. We are too nice. A rival small software house, called for some reason OMRc, grew fond of merry gibes. These surfaced in magazine ads and magazine articles written by OMRc's leading light, known to the world as David St John Wally, who was also fond of ringing up Chris to explain how inferior were Ansible Information's products. "We're selling 100 disks of our utilities every week," he would brag. "Now this program is really ace, squire, free public domain software and really really good...." He named it. It was one of ours.

"That's one of ours," cried Chris. "Copyright 1986 Ansible Information do not impinge copyright or the Astral Leauge will take measures!"

Suddenly the phone conversation took on that disorienting lurch which betrays the Ministry of Truth at work as they rewrite a particularly good bit of history. Reality wavered and changed, and Chris heard with interest that the OMRc disk (called ScannerS) had in "fact" sold not 100 copies per week but seven in all. A certain scepticism prevailed, but after extracting a promise that our program would be expunged from the disk, we decided to let sleeping thoats lie....

Being caught out had a bad effect on St John Wally. His software sprouted twitting messages about a certain rival outfit; his next "ScannerS" ad carried an invented quotation ("Bootleggers!" – Aunt Sybil Information). At the same time, Chris was being appalled by the sample copy of "ScannerS" sent to placate him. "This man gives the word naff a bad name," he raged over the phone. "When you load it, it starts by printing 'You're really going to love this...', and it's nearly all public domain stuff that should be free, not £49.95, and the document files are full of bad jokes, and one of them's spelt with 'F' instead of 'S' fo af to look ftupidly archaic, and – argh! It's terrible!"

So he wrote a spoof review for our customer newsletter (Ansible format, circulation 600-odd). This review of "SpannerS" was deadly beyond belief, evilly accurate, and incomprehensible to non-computer folk... so you'll be spared the whole of it here. To give the flavour:

...The first thing you see is a message: "Wotcher, cock!", and underneath this is another line, "Got the time, guv?" You have to enter the correct time at the keyboard. If you happen to miss, even by a second or so, the computer flashes the message WRONG!, and lets out a deafening error signal (the Apricot's "beep" has been reprogrammed to sound like a large gong). We were therefore relieved to get to the heart of StunnerS. This takes the form of a 320K document file, cunningly programmed to halt at the end of each page. A six-line message occupies the bottom of each screen: displayed in tasteful inverse video, it repeats the name, address and telephone number of the COR group, plus the message "Betcha can't wait to see what's next!"

When this was released on a hapless UK computer scene, we found ourselves in the familiar skiffy position of time travellers wowing them in the Dark Ages by a command of as yet unknown cliche's and Knock Knock jokes. Fannish parody was to them a thing unknown. St John Wally himself sued for peace and it was graciously granted to him, provided he refrains from annexing the Sudetenland.

Peace was not agreed soon enough to forestall the second prong of the Ansible Information assault. While Chris was writing his review, the technical staff (me) had been inspired by the program SQUIRE, invented solely to be mentioned therein. This enables you to write like David St John Wally, by adding the word "squire" at the end of each sentence, know what I mean, squire? (Variant programs called JOHN, MATE and SUNSHINE were also discussed.) I duly wrote it, with an explanatory document in characteristic DStJW style, and released it anonymously into the public domain.

The program is amazingly useful. Once it's run, it can't be got rid of without switching off your computer. And whenever you're word-processing and type a full stop, it slips in some extra characters, so that every sentence ends – well, you guessed, squire. (Knowledgeable sods will be aware that this isn't anything like as difficult as it might seem to neophytes.) Somewhere out there in the world of Apricot computers, SQUIRE is being copied from disk to disk. How long before it gets back to David St John Wally? Some notions are too beautiful to bear being contemplated by the feebleness of human minds....

A sudden chill shock! It is the day of 1986's last One Tun! I haven't sent any Xmas cards! Instead of publishing a Twll-Ddu, an Ansible, even a Cloud Chamber to break CC's long silence since April 1985... instead of all this I've been having fun with computerized fan feuds. And making money too, rather than starving as an author should. God, this is shameful. I must try to do what's expected of me in 1987. Seasonal thingies to everyone....