What happened? Where did December go? Everyone seems to have had some variant of the dread cold-and-'flu cycle; in my case it felt as though large parts of my brain had been switched off.
'You are Ms Vikki Lee France? Time Police here. Our lads couldn't help noticing that in Acnestis 12 you seem to have written a lengthy response to the issue of this here thing called Ansible distributed in, well I never, strike me pink ... Acnestis 12. This, sunshine, is what we call an chronanomaly. Temporal insider dealing, that's what it is. No, I don't want to hear your excuses. Where'd we be if everyone did it? Up to our necks in paradoxes, sunshine. Consider yourself cautioned. Mind how you go.'
Several Ansible readers echoed Vikki's critique of Fantasycons and their huge emphasis on horror, all horror, nothing but horror. When the World Fantasy Convention came so expensively to London, I myself grumbled that WFC apparently stood for World Horror Professionals' Trade Fair For People With Expense Accounts. Oh, Diana Wynne Jones was on the guest list as a token fantasy author (when will an Eastercon do as much?), but many shared my impression that she was shamefully marginalized while any old horror writer could expect fanfares and egoboo.
(Diana is apparently still not well; I fear a further relapse if she ever reads the sainted Chris Gilmore's survey of her work in a recent Interzone. She does not match up to his high standards, alas. Perhaps the most memorable of his comments was that – excuse me, my intellect is going spung all over again as I contemplate this deep artistic insight – her high fantasy The Spellcoats is strongly reminiscent of Podkayne of Mars.)
Good old Steve Jones is unrepentant, sniffs at Patrick Nielsen Hayden's A78 retort to his comments, maintains that recent American WFCs have naughtily failed to give equal time to horror, and gloats that his line in Ansible 77 is as nothing to the blazing vitriol coming in SF Chronicle's WFC report – written by, well what a coincidence, Jo Fletcher and Steve Jones.
Books. When I contemplate a list I keep being overcome by false modesty, embarrassment or plain laziness. Having been ill, I read almost no new books – with the notable exceptions of Gene Wolfe's Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun, the first reread and the second read twice with a Vector review in mind. As it might be phrased in the esoteric terms of post-structuralism: bloody good stuff. A lengthy review has been despatched to Catie. The story is set on a vast, multi-generational, cylindrical space colony thingy, 300 years into its trip, with the old technology crumbling and all that: the number of fresh tweaks to this theme (and unexpected variants of familiar ones) is quite boggling. Two cheeky touches in Lake: (a) the glossary at the beginning, explaining the naming convention for the story's humans and others – so limpidly straightforward that I kicked myself hard for failing to spot it; (b) the one overt link so far to The Book of the New Sun is the casually dropped name of the autarch whose regime sent out this 'starcrosser'. We met him in The Sword of the Lictor and The Urth of the New Sun. If you haven't read the Book, the allusion is harmless; if you have, a gigantic shadow of vanity and hubris falls over the whole expedition. At least one more volume (Caldé of the New Sun) follows.
Catching up on old stuff (and how glad I am to read that others like Paul have realized the supreme wonderfulness of Tristram Shandy), I conscientiously read R.L.Stevenson's Kidnapped for the first time – slighter than expected, but a good yarn in good prose. When helping out with the SF Encyclopaedia I plugged Stevenson's New Arabian Nights and The Dynamiter as essential points to be plotted on the curve that runs from Dickens through Chesterton to steampunk. And several lines of Stevenson's and Lloyd Osbourne's off-black comedy The Wrong Box still make me chuckle ... including the fatuous exchange between a lawyer and a very inept impersonator of an American: 'Ga?' '... Ga for Georgia, in the same way as Co for Company.' 'I was aware it was sometimes so written, but not that it was so pronounced.'
While mentally enfeebled I got through a vast amount of untaxing rereading of stuff which had accumulated in the Harlech flat. Stop Press by Michael Innes (inexcusably retitled The Spider Strikes in the US), perhaps the best and wittiest of all his Appleby detections, with enough high spirits and donnish exuberance to skate over the fact that despite midnight alarums, repeated plunges of houses into darkness, shots and explosions, the expected murder never happens at all – while the solution encompasses not only an explanation for seeming telepathy but also, outrageously, the anatomy of the camel. A whole stack of the Hornblower books: nothing like reading of our hero being seasick on a freezing deck amid violent storms to enhance Xmas cosiness. Bob Shaw's Who Goes Here?, which on first encounter I tended to dismiss as less funny than his famed con talks ... but Bob knew very well that joke-a-line intensity is exhausting at novel length, and his gentler approach here makes this one oddly durable. (The sequel? Oh dear.) Those Were The Days by A.A.Milne, a fat omnibus of his early Punch essays ... so lightweight you have to chain the book down, but adequate holiday reading when suffering from longitudinally challenged attention span. Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist by Jill Tweedie: an old favourite of humour and insight, returned to in sadness after the news of her early death. Little, Big by John Crowley. The best fantasy of the 1980s. It is now an established tradition that I reread it as an Xmas treat, so there. Max Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland, the best volume of parodies ever – lessened, alas, by the total oblivion into which so many of its subjects have fallen, but the goes at Kipling, Wells, Belloc, Chesterton, Hardy, Conrad, Shaw, Bennett and Henry James are timeless. The Witches of Karres by James Schmitz, a deeply silly space opera (once shortlisted for a Hugo) with far too many exclamation marks and arbitary act-of-god transitions, but lashings of charm and colour. I feel a certain proprietary interest in this edition, having suggested it to Malcolm Edwards when he was casting around for something, anything, to reprint in VGSF. (My first nine suggestions were admittedly The Space Eater ... all were rejected.) Schmitz is one of the people who always turn up in polls about 'unjustly neglected' sf authors; Lloyd Biggle is another. Chthon by Piers Anthony. First time in ten, fifteen years. Not as good as it used to be: I'd remembered the ingenious morbid psychology and inventive nastiness but forgotten the look-how-clever-I-am twists and structuring, while Anthony's patronizing I-am-of-course-talking-to-utter-morons explanations are already here in embryo form, prefiguring more and worse in all too many later books. Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance. Nice middle-of-the-road one, with the usual colour and elaborate deadpan dialogue. There is a faint air of a beginning series, but sequels did not follow: instead Vance reworked the environmentalists-and-exploiters theme and came up with the superior Araminta Station (whose hero likewise becomes a member of police/security forces, in contrast to the lone rebel or independent operator of most Vance novels). Also Marune: Alastor 933, a slim volume which is in some ways the quintessential Vance. The plot is almost simple-minded (amnesiac hero returns to find who stole his memories, is feebly opposed, wins); the background is wonderful, with endless details of wild landscapes, weird sociology and the constantly changing tints of the sky as Marune weaves around four suns of different colours. The footnotes are always fun, too. (Though perhaps the best footnote in fantasy comes when Lord Dunsany glosses his word 'gluttered' in a note: 'See any dictionary, but in vain.') That reminds me: lots of Lord Dunsany was reperused, with the Fantasy Encyclopaedia in mind. Fine prose. The late Colin Watson's Flaxborough books, one of the funniest ever detective series: nifty small-town sleaziness, seediness and guile (which in one book, Hopjoy was Here, proves more than a match for visiting British intelligence – including a wickedly observed spoof-Bond figure). Broomsticks over Flaxborough opens with a lovingly deadpan description of a suburban Sabbat run by all the same townsfolk who do charity fêtes, and in much the same style.... Kingsley Amis, Jake's Thing: a funny but ultimately despairing novel. I still laugh at some of the appalling therapies brought to bear on the ageing anti-hero's impotence problem (his attempts to write a sexual fantasy on psychiatrist's instructions are hysterical) ... by the end, though, it's quite clear that his real problem is accidie, that he's too lazy to pursue any relations, even conversations, even with his own wife, and that like someone in a C.S.Lewis moral allegory he's co-operating in his own (secular) damnation.
Electronic Stuff. I've been thinking about all this e-mail and cyberspace stuff (hi, Andy!) and am resolved not to fill Ansible with those horrid addresses containing @ signs. I don't see why Ansible readers should be maddened, as I so frequently was, by a sole 'contact address' which they can't use. Nor do I have room to list the 'real' and electronic addresses for conventions etc which want me to print both (not to mention complaining because I don't feature every con in every single issue; am thinking of having standard forms printed, saying in huge type, ANSIBLE IS NOT A PUBLIC SERVICE, IT'S MY BLOODY FANZINE AND I MAKE THE RULES!). I will however let slip one e-mail address here: firstname.lastname@example.org ... which is Charles Platt's 'Victims of Ellison' hotline (see A78). At present, he says, the only thing electronically available from the address is Chris Priest's newly revised The Last Deadloss Visions. I have this on disk if anyone's keen – well worth reading if you haven't seen it. I received that sf novel a New Zealander (Ivan Millett) published on disk: so far the effort of opening the transparent wrapper has defeated me, but Hazel liked the blurb. 2039. Paradise, or the ultimate Welfare State? Perhaps the machines who ran it were happy too. 'That's right!' cried Hazel, toiler on the computers of our collapsing welfare state. 'The machines ought to be happy – it's a lovely idea....' End of guest review.
Magical Mailing Moments. Jane: I hope you won't in fact be driven away by advanced litcrit bits. Must confess that my own eyes tend to glaze over all too easily. I remember a sexist remark, decades old, to the effect that most women's brains turn off if a man pronounces the phrase 'differential gear'. Everyone's brain does ditto at 'Maastricht', and I have to fight for consciousness when hit by a salvo of 'structuralist', 'post-structuralist', 'deconstructionist', 'postmodern' and all their ghastly ilk. I'm not proud of this.... If there were the slightest chance of landing in the universes of favoured books, I'd nervously revise my reading patterns. As I hinted above, part of the thrill of Hornblower is, precisely, not being staunchly on that deck with him as his ship is pounded to pieces by overwhelming Frog opposition in A Ship of the Line. Likewise, I enjoy much earlier Heinlein, but entering the action in one of the later books and so much as opening my mouth would probably get me shot as a commie, to general acclaim from all the Good Folk who parrot Heinlein's own views and cheerily agree that killing anyone not belonging to their charmed circle is perfectly reasonable behaviour. Maureen/Paul: Ansible Information is still very, very sorry about all the disasters that afflicted your new computer. It is deeply wonderful of you, after all that, to print this for me. Oh, didn't you know you were printing this for me ...? (Ta.)