Cloud Chamber 43
July 1993

Another indiscretion of Dave Langford, 94 London Road, Reading, Berks, RG1 5AU. Photo credit for that thing down there: John D.Rickett, the Prowling Flasher of the BSFA Meeting (thanks!). 1 July 1993.

Having recovered from Mexicon, I feel vaguely guilty about not talking to more of the illustrious Acnestis crew. Somehow, even after (pauses; counts on fingers; blenches) twenty years of going to conventions, I still get nervous about thrusting myself into chattering groups ... partly because my hearing trouble makes it hard to follow the bounce of the conversational ball when more than a very few people are playing. My apologies to anyone who didn't even get a 'Hello'.

Deafness may well lie behind my continuing enthusiasm for critical writing, despite the evils done in its name and its denunciation by intellectual leaders like Piers Anthony. In some other possibility world, you see, a non-deaf version of Langford is hugely stage-struck and an inveterate playgoer. But I've never been able to hear the dialogue in the bloody plays. Luckily some very fine writers have gone to them for me – Bernard Shaw (Our Theatres in the Nineties), Max Beerbohm (Around Theatres etc) and Kenneth Tynan (Curtains etc), to name a few favourites....

Maureen. 'I wish I were anything rather than an actor – except a critic; let me be unhappy rather than vile!' (W.C.Macready, 1793-1873)

John. Snc y rgu s pwrfly fr abbrvs I wl mk n xcptn f y, n adrs ftr mcs t y n ths trs wy – ok?

On second thoughts.... Is there such a gulf between Real Criticism and Bloody Book Reviews? I think it's more of a continuum. At one end, those ghastly fanzine plot summaries with 'Liked/hated it' appended but no indication of any thought process; at the other, that abstract empyrean where the academics seem rather reluctant to touch on sordid realities like your actual books. In between, a fair bit of good sf criticism is published in the form of book reviews – reviews that imply and apply general principles rather than reacting to the text in stark isolation.

Liz. 'Utopia cannot now be an undiscovered island, it can only exist in the future, and utopian writers from Morris onward have recognized [etc, etc].' Tiny nitpicks here: (a) that first comma looks sloppy – shouldn't it be a colon or full stop? (b) the mention of William Morris (why omit the William? It's no longer safe to assume he's a household name) does rather invite the quibble that he and others also set utopias in the past. Morris even has a quasi-mediaeval dystopia in The Story of the Glittering Plain.... The essay seems entirely sensible but a bit short (yes, deadline horrors noted) – e.g. the fleeting allusion to The Female Man must be inscrutable to anyone who doesn't know that book, and surely deserves expansion. Is it an academic rule that only critical texts and not the novels discussed appear in the References?

Catie. I tried to sneak into your Mexicon Colour Supplement photos, but noticed your tendency to dive out of windows, under tables, etc., whenever I advanced with an ingratiating smile. See below.

David. On names ... I hadn't realized I was a quintessential Dave – that's the name I put on informal stuff, but professional work appears as by David Langford. (D.R.Langford is kept for cheques; he confuses too many people who want to know just what he's a doctor of.) It was a relief to become 'Dave' at Oxford after years of inevitable 'Dai' in Welsh schools. That last was interspersed with a nickname I truly hated, being what my grandfather had been called by pupils when he taught maths decades before. I don't think the teacher who recalled this from his own schooldays and foisted it on me ever realized the intensity of my hatred. I loathed him even more than the dullard French master who spoke the language with a powerful Welsh accent that baffled even visiting French folk, and was strong on casual brutality as a cure for any stubborn kids who wore hearing aids out of sheer affectation and lyingly pretended not to understand....

KVB. Were there ever gothic-castle covers on the Penguin editions of Peake's Titus trilogy? I thought they appeared only after Penguin inexplicably let the rights go elsewhere. Their 'Modern Classics' jackets effectively used details from Peake's own drawings.

Ian. I do indeed remember Struwwelpeter (surely not Struelpeter?). A chap called Rudolph Friedmann wrote a (serious) exegesis of the book so alarming that it was reprinted in Dwight Macdonald's fine anthology Parodies (1960) as an example of the Freudian Method Getting Out Of Hand. Struwwelpeter himself emerges as 'a castrated child, grown fat as a result of glandular disturbance caused by the castration. His hair is a luminous halo of uncombed black and yellow out of which a frightened feminine face tries to gaze with schizoid severity and direction to compensate for the lost and holy genital eye which alone can see the vagina of life and the coffin of death.' Gosh. Best aside: '... one is reminded of Christ's constant aggression against his own mother deriving from the fact that his unconscious did not believe her to be a virgin.' ('I had that Christ on the couch once....')

CC Guest Spot. My old mate Paul showed me what follows and (in view of past Acnestis discussions of the publishing process) I thought it deserved an airing. Thanks to Paul for permission. An excerpt is appearing in Ansible, but the report as a whole should be treated as semi-confidential – no reprints outside the APA, please. I have made a few microscopic cuts.

Proofreader's Plea • Paul Barnett

Dear [Orbit Editor]

I've now finished proofreading Before the Sun Falls [by William James]....

I've been having something of a wrestle with my conscience over the past couple of days, because prudence tells me that it is unwise for a proofreader to rock the boat too much [1] whereas my ethic tells me that it is my duty to speak out. The ethic has won the contest, so sit back and prepare for tedium.

This text is exceptionally rough, to the extent that I cannot remember having read a book as badly written – to the extent, indeed, that I cannot help but feel that if it's published in this form it may damage the reputation of the Orbit list. God knows what harm could be caused if a single serious reviewer chanced to pick on this. There are certainly structural problems – such as the irrelevant 'exciting bits' artificially dumped into the text in order, I assume, to pad it out [2] – but these wouldn't be so offensive were the writing not so poor: a decent narrative drive would carry the reader past them. There are also grave problems of scientific plausibility: the twin moons large enough to be seen as discs, in blithe disregard of gravitation; the astoundingly simplistic geology of the continent of Marakan, which would be a dustbowl if indeed it had the impossible form described; the unfunctionable lasers at the end; the telescopes used for focusing the heliographs; the (possible) cometary trail left in the atmosphere (and travelling north-south, just to add to it all); the fact that the inhabitants of the planet of a red sun see the ambient light as red rather than as the 'default colour'; the notion that the redness of that sun comes about through redshifting ...

I assume that it's far too late to do anything about the structural problems – indeed, that it's far too late to do anything about any of this book's problems unless you take what I'm saying as seriously as you should. Well, as I think you should, anyway, because otherwise I wouldn't be troubling to sit up this late at night to rattle off a long, boring letter to you!

However, it might be possible to rescue the book at the level of the bad writing – or at least to remove the worst of it. This would involve a really heavy line-edit being carried out, either on the proofs (more difficult, but possibly cheaper in the long run) or on the TS [3]. I've pencilled in on the proofs a small portion (<10%) of what the line-editor should do – i.e., I've noted the obvious howlers, in the usual way – but there are countless other things which it would be well beyond the 'umble proofreader's brief to note. Many and probably most of these could be eliminated or at least minimized by the kind of line-edit I envisage.

For example, we have what I've come to call cliché-rivers. The author doesn't quite know what to do with his characters when they're mouthing dialogue, and has a limited gamut of incidental actions for them to perform. In any twenty-page stretch of the text you're almost certain to encounter not just a few but all of the following at least once, some of them (as asterisked) several times over:

*he showed his teeth • *he gave him a hard, flat, cold, level or expressionless stare (about every two pages someone gives someone else a stare of some kind – I particularly liked the single despairing instance of giving 'an oblique stare') • he produced a [pick from the limited variety above] stare • *he looked down his nose • *he wrinkled his nose • *he smiled grimly • he smiled sourly • *he grinned • the corners of his mouth twitched • *he pursed his lips (this one is so frequent it was driving me nuts) • *the head came round • *his head went back • his head came up • his st'lyan screamed • his st'lyan danced (first third of book only) • he sidestepped his st'lyan (latter two-thirds of book only) • he opened his mouth, then closed it again • he clenched his teeth • he seemed/appeared to do something (while in fact doing it – as in 'he appeared to hesitate') • *he made a face • something flashed in his eyes but then was gone • he reined around • his eyes went wide • he nodded (after having spoken an assent) • he shook his head (after having spoken a dissent or negation) • he rolled the cup between the palms of his hands • it was as if a message of some kind passed between them • he stirred the grass with his toe •

Others are more localized. For example, early on a shipboard Kubulai spits expressively over the side; just a few pages later someone else comes up and, presumably inspired by his lord's example, also spits expressively over the side. This is in the midst of all the other, expressionless spits over the side that are going on, you understand.

On a different tack, there are the phony atmospherics. These also tend to be repeated. Several times people gaze from the door/window and see a line of carts labouring past, the trooper in charge of which salutes them as he passes on horseback. I lost count of sentries' challenges and countersigns ringing out on the night air outside the place where protagonists are conversing. One aches to impose Prohibition as the wine-cups and k'miss goblets belt around countless conference rooms like the balls in a pinball machine. People look out at the activities of the twin moons – and in one instance a person in a lighted room looks out through a glass window and sees the stars. Every bloody st'lyan, no matter how ephemeral its presence in the book, is described in terms of (a) its horn (sometimes gilded in gold, sometimes gilded in silver) and the way its horn flashes in the sunlight, and (b) its coat (the coat-types conform to those of terrestrial horses) – before, that is, it screams, rears, dances, sidesteps or is reined in so hard it lands on its rump. I could produce further examples in this category ...

There are constant problems of scale. I've hinted at how small the continent of Marakan seems, and the same applies elsewhere to the Khanate's mainland – while at one stage, conversely, one end of a meadow is sufficiently large to contain a battle involving 10,000+ men. In one instance we're told that some troops are 'at the place where the little river winds across the plain' – which isn't a place description at all. Once again, these are merely examples.

Then there are the microplotting inconsistencies – for example, characters who hate each other's guts one moment yet being perfectly amiable the next. Or there's the time when Kubulai is asking his father about his arranged marriage: 'Who is she?' he asks urgently, yet his next line of dialogue, his question being unanswered, is 'I don't want to talk about it [the arranged marriage]'. Kubulai is twice seriously wounded, yet shortly afterwards is suffering not a twinge – as if the author had entirely forgotten the incident. And then there's the irritating inconsistency of having the ambassador's name spelt Borocheff whereas the ending of every other Russianate name is given the 'ev' transliteration. And surely 'Alexei' should be 'Alexai', to follow the pattern whereby 'Sergei' becomes 'Suragai'. Or ...

Metaphor and simile? My favourites were the moral dilemma which was 'like a thorn sticking into his conscience' and the evocative description of a river winding in the moonlight 'like a garden path'.

One of the author's most cumbersome quirks is the insertion of unnecessary – and sometimes downright misleading – 'which was'es: the cart which was outside on the street which was lit by the sunlight (as opposed to the streets that weren't sunlit?), or whatever. The same applies to other waffly verbiage, most notably the 'to be's.

Ragbag notes: (a) The conversations that don't get anywhere. (b) The way we're told that the Yek have hyperacute hearing and vision, yet never get any impression otherwise that they have these faculties, because in many ways they're remarkably unobservant – and their sense of smell seems to be at best rudimentary, certainly well below what you or I enjoy. (c) The way that so many times the obvious has to be laboured before our heroes catch on. (d) The number of times we're told that the Yek have difficulty interpreting alien facial expressions, interspersed with blithely automatic interpretations by the Yek of the aliens' facial expressions ...

The cumulative effect of all of these flaws is truly overpowering – and, if I find them so, God knows what a really acute critic would make of the text. As I've said, I really do think that you should at least look at the option of ameliorating the devastating problems this book has – that is, of giving it a really heavy line-edit, as suggested above. Although this is not a job for which I particularly wish to volunteer (as always, time is tricky), I can see the sense in my doing so – in that I've already done a good part of the job in my head, if not on paper.

But that – like every other issue I've raised in this letter – is obviously a matter for your decision, not mine! [...] Sorry about this diatribe, but it really would stick into my conscience like a thorn if I didn't alert you to all the reasons why I think this book could deal a major blow to Orbit's reputation – and, of course, to the author's. As noted, it would take just the one serious reviewer ...

• • •


1. Especially a proofreader who is himself a fantasy/sf writer. In nonfiction, of course, whistleblowing is a recognized part of the proofreader's duties.

2. Examples: (a) the K'chin dragons; (b) Kubulai's taming of the unbroken st'lyan (where the text afterwards actually concedes that 'Now that the thing was done, he could not imagine a reason'!); (c) the weightlifting contest between Kadan and Kubulai; (d) the hackneyed roof-race with its non-acrostic acrostics; (e) the various episodes of the feud between Kadan and Kubulai, which has no plausible origin and is never resolved; (f) the catpeople of Marakan, especially the one who's been eavesdropping on an important conversation ...

3. Do note that the line-edit, if properly done, would, merely through removing cumber, decrease the extent of the book by maybe 20 pages, possibly even more. Also, of course, any such notion of editing would depend on the humility or otherwise of the author. Paul Barnett

• • •

The Punchline. Me again. Impressed by all the above, Orbit plan to publish the book essentially unchanged. Besides minginess, the reason advanced is that it's been decided to give the book a publicity push requiring the co-operation of the author, who is said to be 'touchy'; Orbit would rather keep on his sweet side. So it seems that authors who are being groomed for future stardom must never, ever be told about swarming flaws in their work. H'mm.

Paul was last seen toiling over the proofs of the latest fantasy blockbuster from Robert Jordan (a far better writer, but very voluminous), while to irritate him his wife and daughter have taken to singing:

The Robert Jordan is deep and wide,
But there's a reason'ble cheque on the other side,

Excuses. Yes, there should be more of me in this, but I'm feeling glum over things like getting the chop from the last magazine, PCW Plus, from which I had a decent, regular income. ('We're saving money by having everything written in-house.') The passing of D.Pringle's Million is also sad: where else could I write at vast length about mouldy old whodunnits, lousy verse and literary hobby-horses? Well, in Acnestis....