Cloud Chamber 42
June 1993

This issue chronicles the heroic efforts of Dave Langford (94 London Road, Reading, Berks, RG1 5AU) to turn his back resolutely on the number up there and avoid mentioning Hitch – oh bugger. June 1993.

Mailing #5 comments. (In no particular order.)

Ian. Did Cherryh's Cuckoo's Egg really portray aliens with a 'very different culture'? I quite liked the book, but the aliens seemed indistinguishable from stock Zen warriors in fur suits. They even have a Guild HQ whose interior decor bears a close resemblance to the famous Sand Garden at Kyoto.

Zy. Yes, there is a smug feeling in comparing crosstown journeys in TV series with the geography you actually know. My favourite is The Prisoner: Portmeirion is so tiny, more on the scale of a very large garden than a small village, that Patrick McGoohan's Mini-Moke drives are hilarious – desperately traversing every single bit of road or path in order to get a minute's footage, visibly going both up and down one distinctive long ramp, and finally 'arriving' within spitting distance of where he started. (A Pundit Writes: 'This recurrence was of course deeply intentional, an added layering of thematic metaphor which....' Me: 'Oh, all right.')

Paul. Still baffled as to why Bob Shaw made pi equal to exactly 3 in The Ragged Astronauts? I thought I discussed it with you at the time: the setup with the twin worlds Land and Overland orbiting so closely that they share a common atmosphere seems dynamically impossible, even without the added constraint of its being a 'stationary' orbit. No matter how you fudge the system, you tend to have trouble with Roche's Limit (such large objects pull each other apart with tidal effects if orbiting closer than some 2 1/2 planetary radii), and/or need a common atmosphere so very deep as to imply crushing, Jovian pressures at ground level.... So, with a cheek that one can only admire, Bob used the pi = 3 point to establish that this is another universe whose rules (different gravitational constant, possibly even a non-inverse-square gravitic equation) permit his set-up. Asked about the detailed physics, he was wont to reply: 'It's whatever makes my story work.' I did reel and boggle a bit when at the climax of book 3 one whole planet flips across to our universe and pi assumes its familiar value. It conjured up this irresistible vision of people narrowing their eyes, smiting their brows and saying, 'You know, that circle looks a different shape now....'

John. I haven't read Gordon Dickson's The Dragon on the Border, but I did read both The Dragon and the George (1976) and the intermediate The Dragon Knight (1990). The first was reasonably OK – although 'hilarious' would be pitching it a bit strong ... let's say 'moderately amusing'. It caused me no pain when re-read in 1992. The second seemed much inferior, over-padded and lacking the balance between tense and tongue-in-cheek bits which powered the action-adventure of TD&TG. As you note, the combats all drag conscientiously on as though Dickson had videotaped some Society for Creative Anachronism mock-fights and was transcribing at length from freeze-frames to the word processor. And early in the story the hero is issued with an all-purpose plot coupon in the form of a internalized spell-book which is accessed and programmed just like a computer (anachronism can work for one-off jokes but is dangerous when sustained at length like this). So instead of the limited resources of strength and courage which made Book 1's climax effective, the hero too often has the option of looking up another spell to escape the current difficulty....

I dare say I'd be happily overlooking points like this, as with with the stylistic awfulnesses of Doc Smith (see below), if only the thing were carried off with enough panache. But TDK seems an oddly joyless book, whose gloom and boding outweigh the victories. Even its closing promise of sequels to come, which could so easily have ended the story with a wry smile, sits on the page as a rather glum picture of the hero lying to his wife about not going on any further quests. An author out of love with his world?

When TDK appeared I speculated that Gordon Dickson would shortly be slaying a few copy-editors – since the name of an important talking wolf, 'Aragh' in the earlier book, had become 'Aargh' throughout. But a Dickson letter in SF Chronicle revealed this to be all deliberate: he'd consulted 'Michigan's leading academic researcher and writer on the wolf' for correct snarl-phonetics, and made the change deliberately to indicate a wolf's own pronunciation. Unfortunately this pedantic research leads to an inescapably silly name ... but I suppose we were all lucky the wolf expert didn't insist that it should be spelt and pronounced 'Arf' or 'Woof'.

By the way, 'Stapleford' is a typo that haunts Brian Stableford's life. It's really an anti-typo: his grandfather (or thereabouts) was called Stapleford and the 'correct' spelling comes from a transcription error way back then. Either universal morphic fields are struggling to re-impose 'Stapleford', or sf fans' spelling tends to be affected by the powerful semantic attractor of Olaf Stapledon....

Tristram Shandy is an all-time favourite here too. I campaigned to have it mentioned in the SF Encyclopaedia as the first New Wave sf novel, but weightier critics pondered the issue and told me to sod off. Oh well – it was Dr Johnson who said, 'Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.'

Sherry. Following from your note on P.J.O'Rourke and right-wing commentary on world affairs ... you probably treasure, just like me, the following:

The cheer with which Western commentators greeted Mikhail Gorbachev's tease that the Berlin Wall might come down 'when the conditions that generated the need for it disappear' is another sign of how credulous we have become in receiving blandishments from Moscow.

That was Martin Peretz writing in the New Republic in July 1989. The essence of all great humour is timing.

Speaking of politics and for no reason whatever, here's my favourite bit of tongue-in-cheek verse from A.P.Herbert of Misleading Cases fame, circa 1925....

By reason, not ruction,
We soar to the skies;
The means of production
We nationalize;
While rapture surprising
We bring within range
By nationalizing
The means of exchange.

Benedict (and others) on cover design changes in mid-series.... First, it's not just sf/fantasy that suffers: I was buying Anthony Powell's Music of Time sequence as it came out in Fontana paperback in the 70s, and after 11 matching books they started again with a new design for 11 reprints plus the last book ... rats! Second, have you looked at a set of Gollancz's Collected Stories of Philip K.Dick? You'd think these five would have to match, all being in standard grotty Gollancz Transitional jackets (after the clean all-yellow look but before the current full-colour-art covers). But no, the lettering keeps changing. Its colours go red, green, orange, light blue-green, and orange again: if they'd all been different it might just have looked deliberate. The spine titles of the second and third books are one irritating inch higher than on the other three. The author's name is broken over two lines as Philip/K.Dick on every spine but the second, where it's Philip K./Dick. A slightly narrower typeface is used for the author's name (only) on the third volume (only). And the grubby airbrushed line which is part of this jacket design crosses the spine a third of an inch lower on the last three books....

Vikki. Read my lips! Maureen herself claimed in the administrative bit of mailing #4 that copies of Ansible are provided in addition to (and not instead of) other Langford contributions ... you may Doubt, but I have a simple trust in what she says.

I too would like to hear more about this thesis that all critics are irritating beyond measure. Is 'critic' supposed to mean anyone who attempts to work out why one book seems better than another, or has such a remarkable impact, or doesn't quite seem to work despite having all the right ingredients (and so on)? No, surely not: anyone who reads at all is constantly committing thoughtcrimes like these. Everybody is a critic. Then does it become wicked when one tries to express these thoughts about books on paper? Surely not, otherwise why would you be in an APA devoted to precisely that? I know certain authors (like Heinlein, Anthony, Card) have fudged up this straw-man figure of the Demon Critic, a vile being driven by malice and stupidity, who only ever says witlessly negative things about books. If such creatures exist they are no doubt jolly despicable, but what has this to do with us sf readers' honest expression of opinions (good or bad) on books? The certain authors may not always like it, but it's called free speech.

Paul. That Doc Smith opening line goes, 'Two thousand million years or so ago two galaxies were colliding....' (Triplanetary.) It's about the best single line in the whole Lensman series, apart from one hilarious sentence which I have passed to Chris Priest for sinisterly topical use this month. More in our next.

The Lensman set tends to be either dismissed as total tripe from end to end, or defended in toto with a certain embarrassing desperation, involving much arm-waving and invocation of the words 'sense of wonder!' You rarely find anyone making sensible distinctions between the books in the sequence. According to me, Triplanetary is a bit of a mess, a fix-up of much tedious 'historical background' plus a spare pulp sf adventure that seems to have been dragged into the series by main force. First Lensman, though better, is burdened with too many barely distinguishable characters and the hideous weight of being the last-written book of the main sequence, knocked together after all the really fun bits. But then come the Kim Kinnison books, Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman and Second Stage Lensmen, and in their slapdash way these do have a great deal going for them. Ghastly writing, but lots of pace, lots of fun, and a pervading sense that Smith is enjoying and totally believing in his roller-coaster nonsense ... making for the sort of thing Orwell (quoting Chesterton) might have classified as good bad books. The whole thing works by constantly outdoing itself, pulling higher and higher cards from the sleeve: every ultimate weapon topped by a more ultimate one, every final enemy concealing a nastier one behind, etc. Such a pyramid-selling approach has to run into trouble eventually, and this happens by the time of Children of the Lens. Here I rather resented the way good old Kinnison was upstaged by his gaggle of far too smugly superpowered kids – while Smith found himself unable to outdo the spectacular SFX climax of the earlier Grey Lensman, which used two colliding planets as a nutcracker to wipe out the invincibly defended baddies. (The remaining book Masters of the Vortex isn't really part of the series but a separate story 'set in the same universe'.) I was glad, if slightly surprised, to see John Clute's sensible exposition of the books' peculiar charm in the new Encyclopaedia.

Maureen. Reliable popular writers on and around science include Martin Gardner (maths, pseudoscience), the Brum Group's very own Ian Stewart (maths), Stephen Jay Gould (evolution), Paul Davies (physics, cosmology), Peter Medawar (biology, ideas behind science), Lewis Thomas (biology, medicine), Steven Weinberg (cosmology), Douglas Hofstadter (maths, computers, AI), James Gleick (Chaos – although I found Ian Stewart's chaos book Does God Play Dice? more stimulating)....

I haven't read enough John Gribbin to pontificate, having been put off by his grubby The Jupiter Effect (the one about an effectively nonexistent planetary alignment which was to cause massive earthquakes in 1982). In my vile pragmatic way I also distrust science books with a mystical agenda, like Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics with its repeated insistence that particle physics was anticipated by ancient Buddhist sages etc. This tends to rely on (a) the prevalence of simple patterns and symmetries in nature and human imagination, and (b) selective use of ancient sources. If the sage Ni Kol-Tse said the universe is like a ball and modern cosmologists think it has spherical symmetry, this proves it, and never mind the sage's next scroll in which he decided the universe is like a banana. See also Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

For an all-round reference, Asimov's New Guide to Science is worth a look. The old boy's relentless workaholism and flat, clinical style were well suited to reference books. Another is Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, which I don't think I'd have bought – £18.95 hardback – but whose detailed timeline from BC to 1988 is handy for looking up the broad picture of what was discovered or invented in what year, against a backdrop of major world events.

My own War in 2080 ... (Everyone: 'Boo! Hiss!') Oh, all right, have another micro-essay instead. This was my introduction to a panel at Wincon, which (being held in King Alfred's College, Winchester) used Alfred imagery in all its publicity and publications. Hence:

Introducing Chesterton

Welcome to the G.K.Chesterton Happy Hour. The committee has asked me to open with a few boring, plodding remarks about Chesterton, so the coruscations of our wonderful panellists will seem even more amazing by contrast.

Now a very few people may be scratching their heads and wondering what the author of the Father Brown detective stories has to do with a science fiction convention. What, indeed?

The first answer is that the hundred-odd books he wrote included three SF and two fantasy novels. I feel rather smug at having said this at length in a Vector 100 article years and years ago. Around 1986, there was a sudden revival of interest in Chesterton – unfortunately for my ego, this wasn't because of the article but because he'd suddenly been dead for fifty years and the anniversary was marked by a massed choir of publishers' accountants chanting: 'Out of copyright! Out of copyright!'

Anyway.... The fantasies are the very famous The Man Who Was Thursday from 1908, about which we'll soon be hearing more, and The Ball and the Cross from 1910. The SF novels are about social and political rather than technological changes – New Wave, in fact. The best-known is The Napoleon of Notting Hill, his first novel, published in 1904 and prophetically set in 1984. Later came The Flying Inn in 1914, which is about the Islamic Peril and is therefore full of good drinking songs; and finally the one nobody except our erudite panellists will have read or will ever want to read, The Return of Don Quixote from 1927.

I can't resist mentioning Chesterton's contribution to ecological SF in a very silly story from one of his worst collections, Tales of the Long Bow (1925). Thanks to all the hideous industrial effluents floating down our most famous river, the hero wins a bet by literally setting the Thames on fire.

A second reason to remember Chesterton is that an awful lot of SF and fantasy authors have found him inspirational. Certain later sections of C.S.Lewis's That Hideous Strength read suspiciously like straight rip-offs from The Ball and the Cross. In recent times, John Brunner, Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, R.A.Lafferty, Terry Pratchett and Gene Wolfe have all paid homage to Chesterton ... Neil even misappropriated him as a character in his Sandman comic, which I suspect must have baffled a lot of American readers.

The third point of contact is of course King Alfred. Some of the most appalling poets in the English language have tried to write epics about Alfred, who was a popular choice because not too much is known about him, so the poetic imagination can run wild ... and also because Shakespeare never tackled him, which at least rules out the most embarrassing likely comparison. It was Chesterton who finally did the job reasonably well, right down to the cake-burning scene, in The Ballad of the White Horse (1911).

I'm not going to recite any of this, but there are a lot of very typically Chestertonian things about it. Most of the book-length poem is luridly colourful. Parts are brilliant. Parts are a bit overdone, thanks to the dreaded influence of the author's first poetic love, Swinburne. It's a fair-minded epic, too: the bias is heavily Catholic but King Alfred's arch-foes the Danes get many of the best lyrics. And it really displays our man's totally slapdash genius, in little things like the way in which – when the armies are drawn up for battle at Ethandune – Alfred's left wing faces the left wing of the Danes. When this difficult arrangement was pointed out to him, Chesterton laughed no end but never actually altered it. Even his finest book The Man Who Was Thursday is full of oddities, like the open-air breakfast which is immediately followed by a snowstorm, and a Channel ferry crossing completely filled with an unbroken stream of witty conversation which is good for at most ten minutes.

In fact one of my favourite Chesterton sayings is, 'If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.' Yes indeed. This applies even to convention panels. And now I'll hand you over to the assembled experts, who have promised to SCINTILLATE.

They did, actually – Brian Stableford in particular. But I felt a prat delivering this, since committee member John 'Loves Sound Of Own Voice' Richards first insisted on introducing me and pre-empted most of my points....

In response to suggestions made in the May package, this sheet allows bespoke tailoring of Acnestis mailings to each recipient. Please tick all sections that apply and return with £10.00 ($17.00) handling fee to the Administrator, whose indecision shall be final.

I would like contributions of the following nature to be omitted from my mailings:

• My own items.

• Anything by the following members (please fill in names in BLOCK CAPITALS. Confidentiality will be maintained. Additional sheets may be attached): ____________________

• Computer jargon, especially when it evidently implies hardware very much more expensive than mine (which cost a miserable £__________).

• Structuralist patter and any mention whatever of intertextuality.

• Horrible little acronyms like RAEBNC, RADNEBNC, FIAWOL, JDR, DRL etc.

• Contributor's names in unreadably tiny typefaces.

Ansible, because I always get to see it before you lot anyway, yah boo sucks.

• High incidence of long words / sentences / paragraphs / failed attempts at humour / semicolons / intertextuality / total page count over ______ (please complete/delete as necessary).

• Negative comments on my last utterly brilliant contribution.

• Despicable failure to comment at all on my last ditto.

• Making me feel guilty by citing large numbers of major sf / fantasy / other books I have not read. (I attach a complete list of such titles on the separate Form APCF-1/Supp.)

• Desktop-published items using (please delete as necessary) weird, hard-to-read fonts / more than 8 different fonts on any given page / mystifying bits of Greek, Cyrillic, Sanskrit or Elvish / little smiley faces / left justification / right justification / no justification, not even of David Pringle's editorial policy.

• That Greek phrase koinos kosmos which I've never quite worked out what it means.

• Reprinted convention speeches / bits from Interzone / reviews from BSFA magazines / magazine columns from anywhere / novels by Lionel Fanthorpe.

• The bit on the front page that now gives the mailing number and date (because I am a tough, self-reliant person who can work that out for myself and know there is no such thing as a free lunch and suspect this so-called convenience may well be a stalking horse for Socialism – I read a lot of late-period Heinlein, by the way).

• Positive/negative (please delete as necessary) comments about Brian Aldiss's 'Horse Meat' / Piers Anthony / the Clarke award decision / L.Ron Hubbard / lesbian separatism / multi-volume fantasy series / John Major / sf criticism / sf critics / David Wingrove.

• Large numbers of mentions of 'my novel'.

• Any contributor who openly admits, in public and without apparent shame, to not having read The Book of the New Sun.

• Material containing typos.

• Material not containing typos (because I enjoy pointing them out).

• Contains a 'best of' list which blatantly fails to mention Little, Big.

• Anything on that ghastly red paper Langford used in mailing #5.

• Contains white space in excess of ______ square cm/in/ft/m/km.

• Items other than my own (I prefer to read just the really good bit).

• Spurious forms in poor taste, devised solely to alarm and embarrass Maureen.

Signed: ______________________________________Form APCF-1/drl