Cloud Chamber 56
February 1995

Where does the time go? Apologies for the recent absence of Cloud Chamber ... 1995 has so far passed in a nightmare whirl of Arthur C.Clarke Award reading (even on the final journey to the shortlist meeting I was busy finishing the great Stephen Baxter's Ring, so I could be sure of discussing it intelligently – only for no one else to mention it at all), miscellaneous software nasties and emergency-rush Guardian reviews. The yielding, porous nature of my brain may be deduced from the resulting Guardian header Moving Mars, by Greg Benford. Argh! Legend sf master John Jarrold sent cruelly sarky faxes and took further punitive revenge by rushing me page proofs of the first humorous fantasy novel by the hot young talent who will soon topple Terry Pratchett, depose Tom Holt and maybe even aspire to the dizzy depths of Andrew Harman ... a chap called John Brosnan. The book is titled Damned and Fancy. It must be really subtle humour: I can't even work out the gag in the title. If any.

Harking back to the rude letter I received from the never-sufficiently-to-be-praised Philip G.Williamson for implying that one of his fantasies was 'routine', I must now grovel anew. Paul Barnett has just taken up the joyous task of copy-editing PGW's latest, and reproves me in large print: 'You bastard! How dare you mislead innocent, well meaning fantasy punters into shelling out their hard-earned cash in the belief that Philip G.Williamson might deserve the adjective "routine"???!!!???!@@@!' Sorreeeee.... In a footnote, Paul adds 'Philip G.'s contribution to Thog's Masterclass: "I realized this with a poignant tightening of the muscles of my heart."'


Another Boring Letter

[The normally respectable Society of Authors journal The Author ran an article which caused a certain stir amongst us miserable, cavilling sceptics: the proprietor of a commercial graphology outfit plugging graphology to biographers! A response seemed needed. Famous Mr Pratchett gets dragged in (with careful echoing of the article's shock-undocumented-anecdote opening about a woman identifying a murderer by his handwriting) since he currently chairs the Society....]

Dear Sir,

I was interested to see that The Author has published an article amounting to an advertisement for the services of graphologists in research work for any biography. My own firm has closely similar anecdotes to relate – 'I would be frightened to be in the same room as this man. I believe he is capable of any literary enormity,' our graphologist gasped as she scanned the anonymous handwriting which, totally unknown to her, was in fact the signature of Terry Pratchett.

But our organization's approach is holistic. Of even more vital importance in biography is the preparation of a correct astrological chart, while all existing works about Byron have been cast into doubt by new studies of intersecting ley lines at his birthplace. An entirely fresh reading of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde emerges when we realize that in early life Robert Louis Stevenson was repeatedly abducted by aliens. Likewise, everyone knows the astonishing insights into Jane Austen's sex life offered by phrenology ... another discipline which like graphology is 'tangible', with full and published understanding of which cranial bumps cause the phrenologist to come to his or her conclusions.

And who, in this new age of biography, can overlook the powerful research tool of trance channelling? One of our clients is shortly to publish a ground-breaking life of Hitler which features an actual interview about those final and post-final moments in the fatal bunker. ('Hello. We are all very happy here. I have a message for a lady with varicose veins who has lost or gained a husband, relative or cat, or is thinking of doing so.')

The time for learning about biographical subjects by poking around in mere dusty texts is past. Onward to the millennium!

Sincerely yours

Also Read ... one enchanting essay collection, the late Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory (Owlswick 307pp $24.95). This is full of quirky erudition almost on the scale of Borges's – a potent reminder that the stuff about alchemy, astrology, folklore, Masonry, Gothic verbs etc etc in AD's fantasy novels was all minutely researched. In addition, the essays are very funny. AD spends a lot of time tracing the real-world roots of mythic creatures (phoenix, dragon, mandrake, werewolf, unicorn, mermaid), legendary places (where did Sindbad sail? Where was Hyperborea? – I love his answer to this one. Where exactly did Prester John rule?) and other things that took his fancy. The study of the phoenix strays into the story of Burke and Hare, and back again; and I hadn't previously heard Yeats's claim that once when he met Aleister Crowley (subject of another essay), 'behind the sinner trailed six small green elephants; to those in the psychic know, a sure sign of moral obliquity.' One of those books which cause huge annoyance to spouses because the reader can't stop chuckling and quoting bits aloud.

Mailing 25Sherry. Congratulations! • Tanya. On the New Scientist/Susan Blackmore theory of a link between magnetic fields, their effect on the temporal lobe, and 'abduction' experiences ... it is clearly time to update an item of 70s/80s urban folklore, the one about the courier who was strictly instructed to use taxis but took the Tube for a bit of quiet expense fiddle – only for the magnetic fields to wipe the precious computer tapes he was carrying, yah boo sucks! Perhaps many of the people you see in tube trains staring blankly into space are in the grip of fluctuating fields and (subjectively) having their orifices explored by midgets with huge eyes and faces made of putty. Whitley Strieber Is Alive And Well On The Bakerloo Line.... Regarding the Priest/Sharman Seize the Moment, I seem to remember Chris complaining bitterly that 'his' astronaut insisted on keeping the narrative bland and uncontroversial, even to the extent of having second thoughts about – and removing – one or two mildly exciting bits. • Pat. Steve Baxter gets even more cosmic in Ring, which, possibly because someone has told him of the sales potential of series links, features obtrusive allusions to Raft (barely relevant to the plot), Flux (conspiciously irrelevant), Timelike Infinity, 'The Xeelee Flower', etc. I found my disbelief blurring slightly when at the far end of the book's 5,000,000 year timespan we encounter an ongoing cosmic battle with the baddies chucking entire galaxies and the defenders slicing apart these oncoming missiles with deadly 1,000-lightyear lengths of cosmic string, into one of which (a feat akin to hitting the single tree in a desert many astronomical units across) our heroes accidentally manage to 'crash' their spaceship ... at which point my sense of wonder went spungggg!Yvonne (welcome!) and Cherith both responded to Ian on the Baconians, a subject which always sends me straying in several directions at once. First, to the P.G.Wodehouse story 'The Reverent Wooing of Archibald', which manages to transmute the glossolalic tedium of most 'Great Cipher' analyses of Shakespeare's plays into real hilarity, all in one page of concentratedly awful babbling from (inevitably in Wodehouse) an Aunt. Next: Year In, Year Out, a late fix-up of essays and fragments by A.A.Milne, looks at Bacon/Shakespeare from the viewpoint of a practising author and playwright, posing such awkward questions as 'What happened at rehearsals?', and picturing the clod-hopping supposed author Shakespeare being asked by actors for an extra 30-line soliloquy, plus an explanation of what the still-vexed Bermoothes actually are, etc etc etc, and having to run furtively across London Bridge into the Courts of Justice, where Bacon is delivering a judgment but hastily adjourns the court to dash off the needed soliloquy and preserve the all-important imposture.... Third: The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined by William and Elizabeth Friedman (1957) is a witty and erudite book by two professional cryptographers (WF being best known as the man who cracked the Japanese 'Purple Code' cipher-machine system during World War II), which lovingly assesses the various discoveries of coded messages (nay, entire coded books) in Shakespeare's works. It is equally informative about cryptography, probability and self-delusion. One delightful recurring theme: long messages tortuously extracted from the plays are often said to be 'proved' by the fact that they include instructions for decoding themselves. Where better to hide the key than inside the safe? • Paul's title is transparent – in the theology of L.Ron Hubbard, Mudsills and Greasy Mechanicals are our next two evolutionary stages after the Boo-Hoo or Grim Weeper (a kind of clam). I'm not making this up. Well, not the Boo-Hoo.