Cloud Chamber 53
August 1994

'So the foul Dark Prince bears Stoatbender, Sword of Bestiality, does he? We stand little chance, since in his belt he also carries the Sword of Splatter – great Gutbuster itself.'

'Not so: the Ambiguous Queen may indeed ride in arms with him against us, wielding Prongsweller, the Sword of Potency; but our armoury holds not only Groinsucker, Sword of Embarrassing Penile Limpness, but the mighty god-blades Papersnipper, Rockwrapper, and Scissorsmasher ... not that they're much use except against each other. And, too, we have Salamislicer, the Sword of Delicatessens, whose precise magical power I forget.'

'What then of Doomfucker, Sword of Screwing Around With Destiny?'

'God knows. I mean, Gods. For in an instant all our plans may yet be set at naught, while Foul Lord Saberhagen still stalks abroad bearing Plotwrencher, the Sword of Hacks, at whose touch all logic and plausibility are shivered....'

Er, sorry, everyone. Conversations like this have tended to run around inside my head ever since (for Pringle-related professional reasons) I sweated through Fred Saberhagen's interminable Swords sequence, originally devised as a computer game scenario and featuring twelve lovingly described Swords of Power but no characters at all. To speak of. One chap, for example, is subtly characterized by his ability to dispel demons by telling them firmly to go away; we are informed that any words will do, even presumably 'Piss off, demon!', but he prefers a little incantation that rhymes. This comes about because he is a bastard son of the enigmatic Emperor, all of whose children can work this useful trick – though why this should be so, I never quite worked out. A week after finishing the 11 volumes my brain still hurts – probably a glancing blow from Skulltwister (also known as Skullwarper), not this time a merry parody but one of Saberhagen's own evocative names for the magic blades. Dear me ... and I'd rather liked his Empire of the East trio.

Kev puzzles over the definition of 'facetiae' as a term for humorous or obscene works. The awesome John Carter ABC for Book Collectors puts it like this: 'A subject-heading in booksellers' catalogues whose connotation varies widely. In addition to jest-books and oddities, it may include works which another would list under CURIOSA or even Erotica. But it is used for the milder of this kind of fare, and it retains a nuance of lightness or gaiety: Balzac's Droll Stories certainly, Boccaccio permissibly, The History of the Rod inappropriately, and certainly not Krafft-Ebing.'

Recent Reading. More or less all Fred Saberhagen's fantasies ... see above. Likewise all Tom Holt's: it's a bit worrying that his books, notably the latest two, Grailblazers and Faust Among Equals, are becoming increasingly farcical and inconsequential. Not that the one-liners are fewer or lower in quality (if anything, they're improving), but the characters tend to be so uniformly bizarre or buffoonish that one doesn't care greatly about their antic chases against the highly coloured but paper-thin backdrop of a world not worth saving. Earlier Holts had at least one 'ordinary' character to provide a kind of reality anchor.... Research also included rereading much Kipling, C.S.Lewis, William Mayne's highlight fantasies Earthfasts, A Game of Dark and It, Hope Mirrlees, and Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Mórrígan. A few notes: of Earthfasts the SF Encyclopaedia (i.e. Peter Nicholls) says 'a fine tale of an 18th-century drummer boy emerging from a present-day mound and being befriended by a sceptical youth who feels impelled to interpret this and other fantastic intrusions in scientific terms.' I've read this kind of summary in more than one place and disagree: the drummer boy is befriended by two modern lads who know a bit about science and would like to take comfort in scepticism , but can't – each has the other as a witness to the impossible, and there is hard evidence too (like the inextinguishable candle from underground, that burns cold). As usual in Mayne, it's all a bit more subtle and complex than that glib précis.... On to O'Shea: Mórrígan is still a super romp, but I'd forgotten that the climax uses that most irritating and subtly cruel convention of children's fantasy: after these two kids have more or less saved the world, the kindly god Angus Óg takes away their memory of the adventure ... so when later on they encounter the fox who was their best companion, they're baffled by his mysterious tameness. Oh, and the great god the Dagda keeps rewarding them (for what they can no longer remember) with rainbows, often visible only to them: that's going to be a great help in life, that is. CHILD: 'Look, another lovely rainbow!' EVERYONE ELSE IN SCHOOL CLASS: significant finger-taps at the temple.... All right, it's a small niggle about a fun book.

Also: Eric Brown's Engineman (er, 'Scanners Live in Vain' meets The Palace of Eternity, The Space Eater [only kidding] and 'The Time-Lapsed Man'), John Whitbourn's Popes and Phantoms (which I rather liked despite its chilly distance), Andrew Harman's The Tome Tunnel (gibber, gibber ... I didn't think Pratchett imitators could actually get worse than Dan McGirt), Bob Shaw's Warren Peace: Dimensions (this retitling of the hardback Warren Peace presumably harbingers an open-ended series. Not as good as Who Goes Here?, alas, but not actively bad either), and C.J.Cherryh's Foreigner (good solid sf stuff, with yet another race of her enigmatic aliens who always seem a little bit like samurai ... this lot have no word for trust but fourteen for betrayal, so you know you're in for plenty of intrigue).

Tanya. Is Terry's Soul Music really so very, very much better than Men at Arms? Of the latter you say 'tedious rehash of all his other City Guards books', surely a mite unfair as there's only one previous Guards book (Guards! Guards!), to which Men at Arms is a sequel. Since more than one person has dismissed Soul Music as, roughly, 'a tedious rehash of Moving Pictures with rock music in place of the movies', I suspect your judgement may mean you just prefer gags about music and pop-culture to ones about police procedurals.... Thank you for not liking Barrayar. I don't entirely trust anybody who raves over Barrayar, and am mystified by Bujold's popularity.

Jane Yolen's last communication promised that in her very next fax she would tell me all about the woman who tried to censor her wardrobe. But she never did. Wardrobe?

Ian. Ahem. Far be it from me to mock the great John Clute (I was delighted that he finally picked up the Pilgrim award) or that very fine book of sf criticism Strokes ... but after he 'worked out the identity of Severian's mother in The Book of the New Sun from the clues in the text', he got a postcard from Wolfe saying 'Sorry, wrong!' (Or words to that effect.) That there is a puzzle seems heavily flagged by omissions in Severian's narrative, and by certain loose ends left untied when – probably after a second reading – everything else fits so cunningly together. But as Tanya very rightly says, Wolfe is not providing a rigorous logic problem where you have all the data and just need to match them up. Intuition is required. John's intuitive leap (that the ambiguously sexed Autarch is Severian's mother, now neutered by the Hierodules) was nice and audacious. Alas.... I did myself spot a hole in the Strokes argument, where John pinpoints an aside of the Autarch's as being significant since 'for the only time in the tetralogy a phrase is marked off by ellipses'. Actually the Autarch just talks that way; there are a couple more examples in the Claw chapter 'Hydromancy'.

Reportedly a Strokes 2 is in the offing. Whoopee.

By the way, I was impressed by Peter's close-focus attention to those 'environmental' Wolfe stories. All his better works, even the deceptively short and slight ones, seem to need what that man Clute calls a 'hard reading' before they yield up all their juice.

Lillian Hellman. Two or three copies of Cloud Chamber tend to escape the gravitational pull of Acnestis and hurtle off through interliterary space.... Following my mention of Hellmann, John Foyster in Australia claimed to be annoyed by my abject failure to cite her chief claim to fame. 'Surely Hellman is most famous for being at the receiving end of Mary McCarthy's all-time heavyweight champion demolition: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."' Yvonne Rousseau continued the tale by explaining that this denunciation (based on old feuds in the US Left: McCarthy regarded Hellmann as too pro-Stalin) didn't merely appear in some crabbed review but was made with great vigour on a late-night nationwide TV talk show – and that Hellman retaliated by suing McCarthy for $2 million, with hordes of people lining up as witnesses on either side until, just as the suit was coming to trial, Hellman died.

DVB/Tom Shippey. I remember arguing with TS just once, at a Novacon after his The Road to Middle Earth had appeared. Jolly good book, I told him. He nodded imperceptibly, not needing to be informed of this. But there was a mistake, I added: the dragon Chrysophylax from Farmer Giles of Ham was spelt Chrysophlax throughout. He began to mutter dangerously about etymology and how his spelling was on the whole more valid. You just got it wrong, I began to gloat, and found myself on the floor with Shippey doing his best to twist off one of my ears. Later he went on a rampage through the bar while tactful fans told the hotel staff, 'Don't worry, he's a Professor of Mediaeval Literature.' So much for the peaceful groves of academia.

Cherith. Do your American editors insist on a capital letter after each colon: Like this? I find this maddening, as through the author were hiccuping loudly and starting again in the middle of every such sentence. A random sampling of ex-pat Americans whom I asked (Avedon Carol, Leigh Kennedy) don't like the practice either, but it seems to be a near-universal US house style these days. It's been imposed throughout the Viking edition of our very own Jack Cohen's and Ian Stewart's nonfiction The Collapse of Chaos (fascinating stuff, by the way): must ask them what they think of it.

Sherry's ongoing account of tensions and irresponsibilities in this ghastly-sounding 'Interfaces and Interactivity' class seems as alarming – in its quiet way – as the blatant exploitation of the teacher/student relationship in Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. Lines about students presenting 'a piece of performance art or almost any other kind of project, as long as it was loosely related to the never-explained course topic' send a cold shiver across the forebrain. As did the description in an earlier mailing of one of those bits of performance art in all its radiant naffery. And the acute-sounding deciphering of 'po-mo' woffle and talk about Love as meaning 'your thinking, Comrade, is in error'. I hope all this material will one day become a shit-kicking Coldsmith article for a real, paying market. Or indeed a book. • Sherry, how do we decipher your habit of printing your address, e-address and phone number overlaid with a solid horizontal line that makes all the numbers extremely hard to read? Does this signify your covert allegiance to an obscurantist dialectic, or merely a dissident refusal to consult the fascist and authoritarian word processor manual?

Benedict and the usefulness of critical writing ... well, I'm surprised and interested to learn that Orson Scott Card admits he's found criticism to be useful feedback, since he didn't half bang on about it when speaking in Holland some while ago. Here the page ripples and blurs, indicating a flashback to Ansible 66 dated January 1993:

Orson Scott Card, during his Hillcon speech, offered a sweeping critical approach to sf which I have heard authors formulate before, but never so nakedly. The fundamental idea is that there are no bad books. Therefore there should be no bad reviews. 'Those critics who are condemning other people's work are really saying "I don't understand why people like this. I don't understand why the writer wrote this. I don't get it."' Any and every bad review merely indicates a dumb critic who didn't get it. Sod off if you thought you were a disappointed reader who was short-changed by some lazy, lacklustre sf novel (not that Card himself writes such). You're just dumb.

But perhaps it's only negative reviews which are denounced. What I don't like is the killer review that spatters the page with vitriolic generalities but leaves me confused as to exactly what, in detail, is supposed to be wrong with the book. This is the sort of thing that landed me in trouble with Philip G.Williamson (see Ansible 85 herewith). In my impressionistic way I called his book – well, not by any bad names, but 'standard fantasy fare' and 'insubstantial'. The first I stand by; the second is a slightly misleading product of haste and compression (70 words maximum per review, remember), as it was insubstantiality of effect that I had in mind. There was a kind of dogged craftsmanship, a heavy-handed forging of myth which felt worthy enough but never really ... soared ... as we all hope a good fantasy will.

Well, my 70 words provoked a bitter, aggrieved letter running to four single-spaced pages. I am chastened. Though not very much. (Has anyone else read Heart of Shadows?)

Clarke Award. Thought you'd be interested/horrified to see what's been submitted so far (* = nominated but not received). GOLLANCZ Paul McAuley, Pasquale's Angel; Ian McDonald, Necroville; *Gregory Benford, Furious Gulf; Gwyneth Jones, North Wind; *Phillip Mann, A Land Fit For Heroes II; *Ian Watson, Fallen Moon. HARPERCOLLINS Pat Cadigan, Fools; Simon Ings, City of the Iron Fish; Michael Marshall Smith, Only Forward. HEADLINE Storm Constantine, Calenture; *Dean Koontz, Dark Rivers of the Heart; Mike McQuay, State of Siege; Melanie Tem, Revenant. HODDER & STOUGHTON A.A.Attanasio, Solis; Harry Turtledove, Worldwar: In the Balance. NEL Ben Bova, Death Dream. SERIF Steve Aylett, The Crime Studio. • I feel a cheery lack of prejudice, having read almost none of them. My only 'predictions' so far are that Aylett, Koontz and Tem will be dropped as not sf, and that Mann (going by his trilogy's underwhelming book I) will be eliminated early. Now, which should I read first...?