Cloud Chamber 60
July 1995

Something completely different, if the photocopier holds out: one of my rash Fantasy Encyclopaedia promises was to write the Edward Gorey entry, and his bibliography was a major struggle. I couldn't resist producing a one-off titivated print-out to amaze John Clute ... and now, Acnestis. Anyone able to supply missing publication dates (see last page), especially for The Tuning Fork, will incur mighty gratitude.

[Bibliography omitted here since out of date and in an awkward format.]

Mysteries of research at Reading's reference library: 'Er, you've got Twentieth Century SF Writers, and the Crime and Romance volumes, and your computer catalogue says you have Children's, but it's not on the shelf.' Librarian insists on looking up the book herself, three times typing out the entire name (she uses this system for a living; I had sussed at my first try that stopping at the C of Children's would narrow things down enough) and making minor typos leading to Not Found reports and repeated Langfordian assurances that I'd done this, it was there in the files, the code was so-and-so. Eventually she found it, and its identical code, and strode triumphantly to a bay with an entirely different number. As any fule kno, vast reference volumes on SF, Crime and Romance writers go under Literature, but Children's goes under Librarianship. Collapse of deaf party.

I was busy checking the bibliography of ace children's author William Mayne. Having read one of his early novels (The Member for the Marsh, 1956) at school, I was mildly boggled to find that he's still writing madly away, with books already scheduled for 1996 appearance. The 1992 Low Tide (Red Fox paperback) is as vivid and powerful as anything he's written: the deceptively light opening sets the scene in 1890s New Zealand, and soon three kids are exploring a long-sunken wreck exposed by an unnaturally low tide, with the promise of merry minor adventure and discovery – until a sound of frantic bells and maroons on land causes the reader though not the kids to realize just why the tide has gone so far out. What follows is apocalyptic.... And Cuddy (1994) is a complex timeslipping fantasy requiring such close attention that you can see why Mayne has a controversial reputation for writing over his audience's heads; but then, Diana Wynne Jones has argued most persuasively that children do pay the needed close attention, and it's only jaded adults who lazily skim and miss the clue to the maze.

More books I've enjoyed: Steve Baxter's The Time Ships (which has its clumsinesses, but whose naive Wellsian protagonist seems to be at last the right intermediary between mere readers and the obligatory Baxter Cosmic Bogglement), Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan (not so much a fantasy as an alternative-historical novel of mediaeval Spain with the shadow of bygone Moorish glories everywhere) and, in particular, Chris Priest's The Prestige.

The garish pages of SFX may seem an unlikely place for a Priest interview, but in the wake of Banks and Noon it seemed worth trying: so Chris and I had a pleasant time fudging up a conversation. It had to be heavily cut for the magazine, alas.... One snippet that fell by the wayside was Chris's confirmation that a significantly quoted anecdote about a Chinese magician was genuine, and originally suggested the idea of the book. This chap feigned hobbling decrepitude for his whole life, as part of the misdirection that made his best trick work. Yes indeed. The bulk of The Prestige consists of the memoirs of two Victorian-era stage magicians, deadly rivals, each of whom performs a similar major illusion but in very different ways: and their two secrets are the defining and distorting centrepieces of their lives. Neither, I will say, is trite in quite the way that revealed stage illusions usually sound trite. There's a nifty Wellsian sf gimmick lurking in there too, plus a variety of pleasing literary sleights – parallels, reversals, shades and echoes, and of course a suitable dose of the famous Priestly narrative unreliability. I liked it enormously.

Mailing 30Ian was taken with the Baxter line about a 'five-mile wide spaceship from fifteen thousand years in the future'; this recalls Bob Shaw's million-ton spaceship storming in at 30,000 times lightspeed (in The Palace of Eternity) – itself, I seem to remember, a conscious homage to the grandiose daftness of van Vogt. • Andy ... SFX, bah. It's nice getting paid, eventually, but I do wish the editors had some notion of sf outside the media glitz zone. The production editor has again improved my prose in #2, so my mention of the Hugo nominations includes: '... The Book on the Edge of Forever, an anthology that's been a quarter-century in limbo'. • Steve J ... I too finished Dhalgren without tears, but the urge to re-read it (as I have Babel-17 and Nova, several times) has so far failed to grip me. • KVB ... I must have the same edition as you of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. A magical book! • Tanya ... I know, I know: what is it about bloody vampire novels just now? I seem to have had to review dozens this year. At least S.P.Somtow's lurid Vanitas gave me a page to send in to the Literary Review Bad Sex In Novels competition. (I'll spare you actual quotation, but hardened readers might wish to study the wannabe-vampire episode on pp224-5 of the Gollancz hardback. Or maybe not.) • Yvonne – agreed, Aldiss has many witty moments and – what's harder to quote – witty ideas, turns, developments. I merely remain resistant to (most of) The Eighty-Minute Hour. But now I must come clean about Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond (hello, Jilly): I don't know that I ever found him greatly magnetic, yet I admired the sequence for its narrative drive; yet, again, I thought the first two volumes vaguely irritating for their shared device of mightily Blackening The Character of the hero, only for this to emerge twice as Merely A Ploy; yet, on an additional hand which I have miraculously sprouted, I realize that I haven't revisited the books since reviewing the whole lot in the 70s, and had better fall strangely quiet.... • Bruce ... just as you clobber flimsy Ansible with gigantically impressive slabs of SF Commentary or The Metaphysical Review, so even your apazine puts me to shame! Regarding Arthur Mee, I suddenly had a flash of the other Children's Encyclopaedia I possessed long ago, whose synoptic version of Greek mythology included the tragickall history of the lovers On and Ion. Parted by circumstances I now forget, they received the traditional mercy of the gods and were reunited and transformed into a plant whose portmanteau-named root brought tears, called ... at this point, though, retrospective disbelief set in. Were the editors taking the piss? Or was it one of those dummy entries introduced as traps for plagiarists of encyclopaedias (a device I first discovered in a short Fred Saberhagen story)? Echo answered, 'Count the spoons!' • Barry ... opinions inevitably differ about favourite stories, but your synopsis of 'The Ruum' makes it seem that the punchline eluded you. (The fact that the alien machine releases the hero is not arbitrary. His pointless struggle to escape was, serendipitously, not pointless.) • Jilly ... at last I understand! It's your dislike for the word 'horror' that makes them keep trying to call the stuff 'dark fantasy'.... •