Cloud Chamber 41
May 1993

Once again, witterings from Dave Langford, 94 London Road, Reading, Berks, RG1 5AU. May 1993.

• General fooling around with computers continues here ... the combination of a micro-windfall, a special amazing discount offer and the knowledge that the SF Encyclopaedia is coming out in CD-ROM format (in June or July) persuaded me to fit a CD drive into the all-purpose IBM computer I type these things on. Technocracy rules. Some very funny freebies came with the hardware, such as an organized CD copy of the King James Bible with search routines allowing instant verification of the fact (remembered from Peter Roberts's esoteric fanzines of the 1970s) that cucumbers and ossifrages are each mentioned twice. Also, I must say, with a hell of a lot of typos....

But the really laugh-a-minute stuff is the CD Hutchinson Encyclopaedia, whose cross-references all appear to have been generated by computer. Thus Stalin once joined the Social Democratic Party ... and selecting this highlighted phrase in his entry rushes you straight to the entry for an SDP which I rather suspect is not the same one. Hang on, it gets better. The first word of Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is meticulously cross-referenced to an instructive article on County Down. When reading of Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight it's so handy to be reminded at the touch of a key of its connection with Brighton Rock. And Heinlein scores a double with twin cross-references from Stranger in a Strange Land to Strange (a golfer) and Land (of Polaroid fame). I swear I'm not making any of this up.

• As indicated in Ansible 70 I had an exhausting time at Helicon over Easter, doing the newsletter. In order to get one free meal, I grabbed at the chance to make a post-banquet speech ... and since few if any of you lot were at Helicon, I pitilessly reprint it here, with added references. Never before published, etc.

Foodies of the Gods

A brief after-dinner speech for the 1993 British Eastercon, Helicon (Jersey, Channel Islands).

Ladies and gentlemen,

I'm here now to provide a soporific moment between the Helicon banquet and the extreme gastric excitement of the coming awards ceremony. As you recline bloated in your chairs, your eyelids are permitted to droop.... I asked the committee if they could provide me with a witty opening anecdote, but all they'd offer was what they claimed to be an important announcement: FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT PERMITTED IN THE GENTLEMEN'S TOILETS.

Looking around at these appalling scenes of gluttony, I've been trying to think of resemblances to famous banquets in fantasy and science fiction. It's been more fun than in Dune, where noble desert people are liable to pop in and spit all over your floor as a sign of respect; or in Titus Groan, with a one-legged fanatic marching up and down the table stamping in the porridge – please don't anybody get ideas; and of course if this were a C.S.Lewis banquet the speeches would end with us all being torn apart by wild beasts as a punishment for approving of science and reading nasty agnostics like H.G.Wells.

And then there's the nostalgic memory of countless stories where that whole meal would have been a single compressed food pill, containing enough energy to give you the runs for a week. I've always meant to look into the physics of those high-energy pills ... they must be so crammed with calories that if your spaceship's fuel ran low, you'd just chuck a day's rations into the propulsion chamber and zoom off again at 10g acceleration. Some scientists believe those power pills must be chemically identical to baked beans. Anyway, this seems a much better emergency drive than in Poul Anderson's famous beer-powered spaceship, whose operation has always bothered the keen scientific intellects of sf fans. This is because it violates the First Law: 'A fan must not waste a pint of beer, nor through inaction allow beer to go to waste, unless of course there is a handy Scientologist to pour it over.'

Food is a wonderful subject, and there's not nearly enough about it in science fiction ... although I remember that at one of the UK Milford writers' workshops, Josephine Saxton was bitterly accused of writing food pornography. We cosmic-minded sf people seem very conservative about our eats, which is why we were all so shocked by that terrible revelation in a certain movie with its famous line, 'Soylent Green is breakfast at the Norbreck Castle Hotel!'

You meet more interesting recipes in Jack Vance's books: a typical Vance hero remains totally cool when informed that item 3 in column B of the menu is 'parboiled night-fish, fresh from the bogs' (The Face, 1979). Sometimes the Vance menu gets a trifle too interesting; I remember his inn where all the food, right down to the bread rolls and the HP sauce, has the same acrid flavour. When asked about this, the waiter points to a large black insect scuttling across the floor and helpfully explains that since these creatures have a terrible stench and get into everything anyway, they are deliberately included in all the recipes to help you get used to the taste (The Dirdir, 1969). Try one when you get home.

Only Lloyd Biggle Jr seems to have investigated the awesome sf possibilities of typing in the wrong order codes at an alien fast-food outlet. After doing this, one of his characters ends up with 'a segment of dinosaur bone, stuffed with what was obviously large insects and covered with a rubbery-looking sauce. Her vegetable dish was grass in an advanced state of decomposition.' (Watchers of the Dark, 1966.) After experience of British fast-food places, you may be wondering what is supposed to be so alien about this.

Some sf writers have tried to imagine new kinds of food. In one of William Tenn's futures, for example, a popular dish is this purple spaghetti-like stuff which actively squirms up from the plate towards your mouth and wriggles about cosily once it's inside. As an gourmet explains: '... In addition to flavour, texture and aroma, you'd experience motility. Think of it: food not just lying there limp and lifeless in your mouth, but food expressing eloquently its desire to be eaten.' ('Winthrop Was Stubborn', 1957.)

Robert Sheckley had a vaguely similar thought in 'Untouched by Human Hands', the one whose unfortunate heroes are starving to death in an alien warehouse, surrounded by tins covered in slogans like VIGROOM! FILL ALL YOUR STOMACHS AND FILL THEM RIGHT! and VORMITASH – GOOD AS IT SOUNDS! In desperation they decide to try VALKORIN'S UNIVERSAL TASTE TREAT, FOR ALL DIGESTIVE CAPACITIES, but in the end can't bring themselves to take a bite because, as one of them definitively states, 'I don't eat anything that giggles.'

I distinctly heard a giggle from our own good taste expert Iain M.Banks as he explained the future etiquette of cutlery, whereby you put on a special set of steel teeth for stripping the meat off a nice snack of tasty raw finger-on-the-bone. The Banks Guide to Social Deportment explains that it's very bad manners for the owner of the finger to scream while this is happening. Gives a whole new meaning to those Indian menus that offer Meat and Ladies' Fingers.

But speaking of haute cuisine mutilation, there's a Maurice Richardson story ('Way Out in the Continuum', whose date eludes me) which points out a little-known advantage of one notorious sf situation – being a decapitated head connected by lots of tubes to a life-support system. The great thing is that you never get full up. I quote: 'On shellfish day, last [Gourmet] Club Meet, I scoffed a hundred-weight of assorted Dublin Bay prawns, scampi, langoustes, écrivisses, durian-fed Venusian landcrabs, and those delicious giant Martian lobsters.' This sort of snack goes on for a month or so, washed down with several whole crates of wine, until everyone's jaw muscles finally need a rest. The only snag about this utopia of endless throughput is the decapitees' constant suspicion that they may sometimes be getting food they've already eaten.

Which brings me at once to Samuel R.Delany's idyllic notion of taste as an artform, in Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand. Here, instead of just looking at ancient, historic carvings, you go right up to them and experience their taste with a long, succulent lick. And sure enough, as the author points out, you can just detect this faint, haunting flavour of cinnamon and sandalwood through the thick layers of slime and dribbling mucus left by all the alien-reptile tourists who were in the queue ahead of you. This is called sharing the experience.

After which, the only possible dessert is the 'monster slobby yellow cheese' described by Brian Aldiss in The Eighty-Minute Hour (1974), which he tells us 'tasted as if it had been whipped together from hippopotamus smegma'. Few other sf authors would have taken the trouble to carry out the necessary research at Jersey Zoo.

At this stage in my foodie reminiscences I think it's time for a little Robert Lionel Fanthorpe, who summed up all our feelings after the long trip to a convention when he very nearly wrote in his famous novel Restaurant 666 ... 'Food. He needed food. Food was his need, for he was hungry, empty and famished, desirous of sustenance, and avid for nutrition. Yes, he felt esurient and voracious, ravenous, insatiable of appetite, eager for aliments, edibles, foodstuffs, comestibles, victuals, viands, provender and nosh.'

All right, I'm lying. But here is a genuine Fanthorpe food simile which beautifully sums up the feeling of excitement that must be already throbbing through your veins at the thought of the coming award presentations:

'[His] strangely treated blood rose like the aroma of ancient Chinese culinary eggs.' (Nemesis, 1964.)

And I'm sure we all feel the same. Thank you.

• • •

Footnotes: since Brian 'Horse Meat' Aldiss was at Helicon, I was rather hoping for an irate cry of 'You bastard, Langford,' at the appropriate moment. But it seems he skipped the banquet. Later, some 5,271,009 fans asked why I hadn't mentioned the Restaurant at the End of the Universe scene in Hitch-Hiker. 'Because it's too bleeding obvious,' I explained, which seemed to wound them.

Mailing comments ... I can't do it, I just can't bring myself to type 'mailcoms', or not without heavily ironic quotation marks. The same goes for all that hideous APA shorthand of 're yr ct to' or 'RAE,BNC'. One is irresistibly reminded of those speed-writing ads which used to begin: 'gt a gd jb tdy by lrnng t wrt ttly incmprnsbly. Tmrw th wrld!' Let us talk English.

There are worse things, of course, like the conventions which now appear to govern typed chat on certain US electronic networks. Here it seems established that all would-be humorous remarks must be prefaced by a stern warning that a joke is lumbering on its way. Upon arrival the joke must then be labelled as funny with a little sideways smiley face. When the moment of hilarity is past, it is deeply important to indicate as much with the acronym HHOK (for 'Ha Ha Only Kidding') – which is more or less the sound I make when reading that kind of thing. The whole seems a sort of typed equivalent of laughing loudly at your own jokes while digging the listener forcefully in the ribs. Ho ho!

Ian. The co-operative society in James P.Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear struck me as rather too obviously patterned on Eric Frank Russell's 'And Then There Were None' (recycled as the final section of his fix-up The Great Explosion). The Russell version is much funnier. Admittedly the Hogan is a bit more convincing in that (a) instead of first reacting with pompous frustration to this anarchist utopia that rejects their values, and then being reduced to impotence by mass desertions, Hogan's military visitors do in fact turn nasty as I fear real ones would; (b) the dewy-eyed utopians, meanwhile, have some highly practical defences to back up their creed.

Vikki Lee (and coincidentally Steve) on repetitions: Norman Spinrad had a dreadful habit of hammering away at some favourite phrase throughout a book. Nobody ever had a trade or profession in The Men in the Jungle: it was always a 'line of evil', as in 'What's your line of evil?' Bug Jack Barron had me screaming at the endless repetitions of 'nitty-gritty'.

(And does anyone remember Nick Lowe's all-action party game of Clench Racing, played with a complete set of Thomas Covenant books? 'The winner is the first person to find the word "clench". It's a fast, exciting game – sixty seconds is unusually drawn-out – and can be varied, if players get too good, with other favourite Donaldson words like wince, flinch, gag, rasp, exigency, mendacity, articulate, macerate, mien, limn, vertigo, cynosure....')

Andy. I much enjoyed the Cerebus essay. I've only read the first of those fat collections, and didn't realize the whole thing was growing into an epic, nay, a dekalogy. The relentless allusions to fantasy books and comics (Sims has a nice go at Swamp Thing at one stage) seem just right in a humorously toned series, which makes me wonder why genre cross-connections irritate me so much in 'serious' graphic novels. Take the Gaiman/McKean Black Orchid, with lovely art and good dialogue, a perfect stand-alone work to show that guy who thinks comics are all rubbish ... and he opens it at random and laughs, 'It's got sodding Batman in it! And what's this Thing in the swamp? And who the hell is Poison Ivy?' (Some DC villainess, I infer; her presence seems notably pointless.)

I agree with your annoyance at people who think the long s is f and thorn is y. This takes me in two directions. First, an irrelevant extract from the Helicon newsletter, which I padded with 'anniversaries' and things in order to expunge the dread White Space:

TRICENTENNIAL CYBERPUNK. In 1693 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz of calculus fame invented the first mechanical calculator that could multiply and divide, thus heralding an exciting new era of arguments over the restaurant bill. ('Fie on you and your Engine, fir, I had only a fmall falad and a Pepfi.')

(The script f is the best I can do in this font.) Second: I recently read another Gaiman graphic thingy, The Books of Magic, whose fulsome Roger Zelazny introduction goes on about how people may not notice the subtly atmospheric shifts of the actual lettering in certain scenes. In an evocation of mythical Greece, for example, we get subtlety like this: IN TH* L*NDS *F *LIV* *ND L*UR*L, WH*R* TH* G*DS W*LK (etc, etc). [Greek letters – sigma for E, lambda for A, etc – here replaced by asterisks owing to font limitation.] Maybe it slips by an awful lot of the audience, but how can a savvy chap like Zelazny read this nonsense as other than, roughly, 'In ths ldnds thf thlivs dnd ldursl, whsrs ths gthds wdlk'? (Later on the letterer uses a capital psi for Y, giving us the extra-mysterious word 'mpsstsrps'.)

John. You warn us not even to think of mentioning fungi, as 'Piers Anthony is bound to write a novel based on the things.' Alas, even your non-mention has had a hideous, retrospective effect by causing him to write Omnivore (1968). This one isn't too bad, actually, although the sequels did not impress me. Orn is so forgettable that I've forgotten everything except the unsubtle point that its title character is a sort of bird. OX was the one where PA went bananas in an doomed attempt to assimilate John Horton Conway's mathematical 'Life' game (torn raw and bleeding from Martin Gardner's descriptions in his Scientific American column). Anthony mucks around with mathematical conceits in several books, but rarely convinces one of its relevance to the plot (an exception being the heavy-handed but at least plausible use of Conway's 'sprouts' game in Macroscope). For example, his fantasy With a Tangled Skein ends with the heroine being presented with a just barely disguised version of the old problem of detecting which of twelve coins is counterfeit (too light or heavy), using only three weighings. With zero relevance to the supposed theme of a moral struggle against Satan himself, she cracks the problem and wins. That's it. Boo, hiss.

(Well, I suppose that like me she'd read T.H.O'Beirne's 1965 Puzzles and Paradoxes, which has the best treatments I know of such chestnuts as the coins, the ill-assorted cargoes that must be ferried across rivers, the 'Instant Insanity' cube puzzle, etc.)

Steve. Ah, the language of science. What's so depressing is that it's deliberately awful, thanks to a straitjacket of scientific 'house style'. I remember, when at the MoD, being allowed to write reasonably literate and colloquial minutes for the Plutonium Experiments Working Party (I'd managed to forget that dread name for nearly ten years). But when it came to a real experimental report, the house style slammed down: everything had to be written in the passive, devoid of vision or narrative flow, transposing the excitement of science (and there was some, even there) into a grey void where experiments happen of themselves for no apparent reason and for no visible purpose, devolving at last to a Conclusion which omits any hint as to whether the result was expected, unexpected or totally mind-fuckingly astonishing....

Carol Ann. In one American APA, members go in fear of this Ancient Pedant who scans each mailing with a microscope and writes comments dripping with mordant sarcasm, such as 'By "teh" on page 2 of your contribution I presume you mean "the"?' It is to avoid getting a reputation like this that I do not even mention anyone's belief that the plural of 'Interzone' is 'Interzone's'.... No, I am sworn to silence.

Maureen. Why not put the mailing number (or date) in large print next to the APA title on page 1?

Everyone Else: Thanks! •