Cloud Chamber 72
March 1997

The Cerebral Acne in the Monastery Garden

Dramatic upheavals at Cloud Chamber HQ – can you spot the difference? (I've switched the thing to a different word processor; the fonts are nominally the same but subtly changed.)

Smug. One of the enduring truths of my literary life has always been inability to get accepted by Asimov's. Once in a while I send in a story which I think is Worthy, and kindly Gardner Dozois explains that it is Not Quite Worthy Enough. Then I sell it somewhere else and find myself all ungrateful when GD duly lists it amid the 1,000 'Honourable Mentions' at the end of his Year's Best SF anthology. This year, though ... some of you may remember my Father-Brown-in-space story 'The Spear of the Sun' (Interzone 112). First the great David Hartwell decided to reprint it in his Year's Best anthology. Then Asimov's sent e-mail asking if they too could reprint the thing. After all these years, I'm in – by the back door, and without actually submitting. This is probably all very Zen.

Epistolary. Yvonne Rousseau, 4 Dec: 'As for the Elizabeth Willey remainders: I managed to purchase a copy of her 1995 novel A Sorcerer and a Gentleman at L.A.con III, but I found it, alas, unenjoyable – because of the seemingly indiscriminate mixing of British Isles mediaeval and modern-American expressions in the dialogue. For example (on page 66): "'Ocher's on our ass,' Otto told them." The men that Otto is addressing are assembled in a stableyard, during a journey. Nevertheless, Otto is not meaning to report that Ocher stole one of their mounts – only that Ocher is tracking them closely.' • Me, 8 Jan: 'I suppose it's arguable that Willey is paying conscious homage to Roger Zelazny: most reviews of the Prospero sequence seem to mention Amber, where similar eccentric juxtapositions of High and P.I. speech abound. I vividly recall the moment where Corwin, severely wounded, staggers in and remarks: "If blood be the price of admiralty, I've just bought me a naval commission."' • Yvonne, 30 Jan: 'I think [Zelazny] was more sensitive to regional differences in English when he juxtaposed his styles. It's my awareness that in England or Australia one would write "on our arse", not "on our ass", that wrecks things.' Discuss?

Books Read ... all sorts of stuff for Pringle essays, the St James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers having required me to swot up on Kingsley Amis, Roald Dahl (I got a bit irritated at the fewness of the stories he recycled through all those Tales of the Unexpected collections), Robertson Davies, Umberto Eco, John Gordon, John Fowles, M.R.James, Gerald Kersh, Saki, Dennis Wheatley (oh dear) and Colin Wilson. I had forgotten how bad Wheatley could be. One choice fragment from The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948) explains at great and didactic length that all forms of socialism, however seemingly mild and benign, are merely the beginning of the terrible, inexorable rot called Communism, which is the current Manifestation of Satan on Earth (only a few years back it had been the Nazis) and is run by an evilly unscrupulous International Brotherhood of Satanists, many of them Jews.... As for Colin Wilson, I hadn't previously read his early serial-killer novel Ritual in the Dark ... which has a lot of heartfelt wish-fulfilment (scruffy young existentialist more or less effortlessly gets women into bed) and some disgraceful posturing (even though he eventually changes his mind, I could not be doing with the hero's speculations that violently murdering a number of women might be, you know, a liberating and creative act for the Outsider-figure who is driven – probably by society – to do so). • The partwork mentioned in Ansible 116 required heavy research of Asimov's robot series for (as always in this damned project) a too-tight deadline. For review in New Scientist and SFX: Gwyneth Jones's Phoenix Café, which I liked a lot; Ian McDonald's Sacrifice of Fools, a sort of sf detective novel using his aliens/'frooks' background, which is spiffy in all sorts of sf ways but a bit of a flop as detection; N.Lee Wood's Faraday's Orphans, tough post-disaster stuff ... OK, but We Have Been Here Before; Jack Vance's Night Lamp, reprising a Vector review; Tad Williams's vast Otherland ... good, but can I cope with what must be over 2,000 pages to come?; Robin Hobb's (Megan Lindholm's) Assassin's Quest ... interesting enough, only I was shagged out from having to fast-forward through the preceding Royal Assassin to remind myself of the background. And, har har, in my freelance editorial way I was just about the first to read – in electronic form – Mr Pratchett's latest Discworld epic Jingo! (featuring All-Out-War between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, with Captain Carrot slipping effortlessly into the rôle of Lawrence of Arabia). Ian was drafted as Jingo! language expert and supplied useful variants on the Arabic for 'Up your bum!', but TP has buggered off to be famous in Australia and has yet to express the deserved fulsome thanks....

Other stuff read solely for curiosity/pleasure, excluding comfort reading of old favourites ... Ruth Rendell/'Barbara Vine', A Dark-Adapted Eye: people have been telling me for ages how spiffy the Vine books are, and much better than those published as by Rendell: this was pretty good, but somehow I'd expected one more twist of the corkscrew narrative ... maybe I missed a Subtlety? • John Barnes, One for the Morning Glory:a John Clute recommendation. This eccentric fairy-tale is advertised as resembling The Princess Bride, to which I think there are some knowing allusions; Barnes also makes the odd gesture towards Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds. Fun stuff, full of weird recursiveness and grim bits that emerge from the silliness to take you unawares. I liked the gentle distortions of language: the firearm in one's belt is likely to be a pismire, and one cocks the chutney and adjusts the lovelock before letting fly; heavier ordnance includes the omnibus and the festoon, the latter being traditionally presented to a teenage prince before his first hunt for gazebo.... • Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell and John Mortimer's Rumpole and the Angel of Death have this much in common: they present the mixture as before, and each struck me as rather more whole-hearted and satisfying than the previous book (in Harrison's case, several books) in its established series. • A clutch of graphic novels. Neil Gaiman's The Wake ended the Sandman series on good sombre form. Grant Morrison's The Invisibles is inventively and determinedly weird, so much so as to verge on incoherence – a crammed kitchen sink of paranoid conspiracies, like Illuminatus! with not enough of the unifying wit. In Dave Sim's High Society and Church & State, continuing the immense fantasy saga of Cerebus the Aardvark, I regrettably found myself preferring the funny bits (mostly fantasy and comics parodies) to what one suspects the author regards as the good stuff. C&S in particular keeps hitting grim notes amid the manic drollery, something which generally gets my approval – cf. Barnes above and Pratchett passim – but doesn't here seem to be quite under control: this one ends by expounding an interminable, portentous, and frightfully politically correct version of that theology where the Female Goddess is a Good Thing and the Male Principle is Bad All Through, etc etc. On the other hand, the quality of writing and art in Cerebus has improved immensely since the initial erratically-drawn Conan-travesty material.

Mailing 48/9KVB ... I very much enjoyed Fowles's Mantissa, but your linked mention of Chris Priest reminds me that Chris once reported being told by a book dealer that 'the bottom had dropped out of the Fowles first edition market since Mantissa'. Maybe it was a let-down to those who reckon solemnity is a necessary component of literary worth.... • [...] • Paul ... continuing sympathies to you and Maureen regarding your father's health. My own father is a bit of a trial for different reasons: he has worked all his life as an accountant, and therefore does his own tax returns; he has for some years been losing his grip (e.g., as even he will admit, the ability to add a column of figures at a glance) and therefore keeps delaying said tax returns; he knows too well my mother's tendency to hit the emotional Armageddon button at the slightest upset, and therefore has been hiding the demands, the vast estimated assessments, the escalating threats of penalties for late returns, the summonses to hearings before the Inland Revenue Commissioners, etc.; he will not under any circumstances allow any lesser (i.e. other) accountant to lay a finger on his papers.... Little brother Jon finally worked out what was happening, and I bought myself a second-hand laptop computer in order to make sense of ten years of bank statements during repeated visits to South Wales. Work continues (thank god for spreadsheet software); and at least I've persuaded both the solicitor to the Commissioners and the local Collector to defer the bloody hearings indefinitely. • Chris ... I couldn't resist tinkering with a web site either, and have put that 'numerology' software on a hasty 'Ansible Info' page at (it's a Windows application) ... I think the Joyce 'trinitarian' line has been misquoted in Acne and should be 'Dodgfather, Dodgson, and Coo' (not 'Dodgson, Dodgson ...'). • Tony ... the 'patchy' New Scientist sf coverage is presumably a function of what Maggie McDonald, the very wonderful 'Review' editor, thinks she can get away with: she likes sf, but has to Justify why each such batch of reviews should take away space from science and pop-science books. Trying to play along by making, say, Jack Vance sound vaguely science-related is a task that reminds me of the old White Dwarf review column days, when the word 'game' would be subjected to hellish extremes of redefinition (> WITTGENSTEIN) to justify the coverage in a games mag of, er, whatever I felt like reviewing that month. • Maureen ... regarding nut books, it must seem strange to outsiders (i.e. people who say Sci Fi) that while the real-world book market is full of lavishly promoted dippiness, there are remarkably few nut fanzines. Fanzines in the sf sense, that is. But I have received a couple. Busswarble, from Michael Hailstone in Australia, keeps harking back to a vast and amorphous international conspiracy theory, with the editor laughing knowingly at anyone who suggests any admixture of cock-up theory. The ozone hole scare, for example, was entirely an invention of (a) the drug industry, to promote sales of sunblock; (b) the worldwide purveyors of fear and death, to keep people cowering indoors rather than organizing revolution; (c) the international conspiracy of scientific quacks, manipulating public opinion to preserve their grants and tenure; (d) something else which I forget, or possibly all of the above. It's a rare fanzine whose letter column portrays Joseph Nicholas as a spluttering conservative defending his status quo world view against too-radical ideas.... Rather more worrying is Das Fangold from Alexis Gilliland in Virginia, an old fannish acquaintance who is arguing passionately for interplanetary travel using the reactionless drive which he has designed. This has a 'feel' suspiciously like that of attempted perpetual motion machines: the principle involves a rapid-fire ball-bearing gun mounted on the rim of a wheel which is intended to direct ('redeploy') the recoil into angular momentum, and a ship-mounted 'catcher' at which the gun fires. The latter converts linear ball-bearing momentum into ship momentum and saves the ball-bearings for repeated use; the forward impetus supposedly comes from impacts on the 'catcher', while the balancing recoil from firing each projectile is, er, argued away as (at least partly) vanishing into spin. This doesn't pretend actually to be a first- or second-order perpetual motion machine: the gun would be electromagnetic and powered by solar panels, which is fine. The actual fallacy is a persistent refusal to accept that the laws of conservation of linear and angular momentum operate independently – as, reading between the lines, Stanley Schmidt and Charles Sheffield have tried in vain to explain to our hero pioneer. I keep hoping that this whole scheme is a vast put-on, and that one day Alexis will cry 'April fool!', but....

Commonplace Book. 'Women have to learn to bear anecdotes from the men they love. It is the curse of Eve.' (P.G.Wodehouse, 'The Salvation of George Mackintosh') • Lord Abinger sums up in Fraser v. Berkeley, 1836: 'I really think that this assault was carried to a very inconsiderate length, and that if an author is to go and give a beating to a publisher who has offended him, two or three blows with a horsewhip ought to be quite enough to satisfy his irritated feelings.'

Mailing 50Andrew ... The New Oxford Book of Light Verse features a 'Limeraiku' by Ted Pauker, as follows: 'There's a vile old man / Of Japan who roars at whores: / Where's your bloody fan?' The skiffy connection is that 'Pauker' is a pseudonymous Robert Conquest. • Chris ... I did indeed use gyromancy in my Tour of All the Mancies for that hasty story. Also my exciting and personally appealing scheme for divination by means of sitting around doing nothing at all: dormancy. • Mark ... 'In one of Antonia Forest's Marlow family books, Nicola always avoids reading the last Hornblower novel because he dies.' I wonder if this arises because Forest got the wrong impression of how some Hornblower novel ended, and (like you with Pooh) couldn't bear to go back and read it again, or didn't check on its successor? The last completed HH novel is Lord Hornblower, at the end of which he's awaiting execution at the hands of the vile French ... only to be saved by the news of Wellington's victory at Waterloo. In the preceding book The Commodore, the last lines show him collapsing in delirium from typhoid at the end of the long Russian campaign; but, in between books, he recovers. Maybe the bit at the end of A Ship of the Line where HH strikes his colours was as bad in Forest's/Nicola's memory as actual death. As far as I know, the chronology ends with 'The Last Encounter' (in Hornblower and the Crisis), which sees Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hornblower in happily married retirement. [...]