Cloud Chamber 74
June 1997

Famous horror person Steve Jones has got his eye on me. 'Do you have a problem with 1997 World Fantasy Convention?' asks his menacing e-mail, which goes on pompously about the incredible importance of this London event, and finds something sinister in the way I 'repeatedly' fail to include it in the Ansible convention list. Usual boilerplate explanation: as should be evident, Ansible lacks space for a full con listing each issue, and so events go in when first announced, when significantly updated (the WFC was listed in May when membership rates rose, but not – to Steve's outrage – in June), and when fairly imminent. So I have no problem with WFC? Then why, as that steely-eyed Jones e-mail asks, haven't I joined? Er, it's the sordid issue of money. This is an Eastercon-sized event held in the Docklands hotel used for the 1995 Eastercon. But membership costs £100 as compared to £30 for the 1997 Eastercon at four months out, and single room rates have been deftly renegotiated from £37 (1995) to £65. Another perspective: the WFC dollar membership fee is $165, while that for the 1997 World SF Convention – an event ten times the size in a gigantic conference complex – is $135. All this is covered by the stern WFC rejoinder 'This is an event for professionals.' Meaning top-selling authors, people with decent day jobs, and publishers on expense accounts. Sod off, low-earning freelances. • Hence vague thoughts, emerging from conversations on the above theme, about a London pub gathering on 29 October (the day before WFC) at which non-attending lowlifes might still mingle with such Interesting US Visitors as come early and can be lured along. Paul Barnett (a current World Fantasy Award judge who can't afford to attend the WFC presentation) and Chris Priest (1996 WFA winner ... ditto) are both keen, and the Jubilee landlord has tentatively pencilled it in. But maybe it's a bad idea, likely to arouse the Pompous Wrath of Steve Jones?

Grovel Alert. Ansible 119 wrongly gives Colin Greenland instead of Diana Wynne Jones as guest at the BSFA's June meeting. All electronic and reprint texts were fixed (honest) and lurid dayglo correction slips included with mailed copies.

After the Vampire Banana, What? A correspondent sends this useful extract, which may of course be old hat to the Fanged Fruit Fanciers among us. 'WATERMELON: Like pumpkins, these fruit can become vampires; they are not considered very dangerous, particularly because they have no teeth. Watermelon vampires are found among the Muslim Gypsies of Yugoslavia. Virtually any kind of melon is susceptible, transforming if kept for more than ten days or for too long a period after Christmas. They make growling sounds, are stained with traces of blood, and roll around to pester the living.' (Vampire, the Encyclopaedia by Matthew Bunson, Thames & Hudson, 1993.)

Read in Reading

Robert Robinson, The Conspiracy (1968): another dread example of an 'outsider' wandering into sf territory with that airy confidence of the classic English Tourist who knows he is superior to all these damned natives. The conspiracy, unveiled in repellently mannered and overblown prose, has the world's politicians plotting to solve the population problem by ladling contraceptives into water supplies everywhere. This scheme is leaked to three inept young whistleblowers who decide to worm one of their number on to a TV panel show, chosen as the only possible route whereby the terrible truth can be revealed. In a jolly droll twist, their emotional upsets cause this counter-conspiracy to fail. End of unfunny comedy. It was James Blish who invented the term 'idiot plot' for stories which require everybody involved (especially the head of UK Intelligence, who knows all about the whistleblowers but confines himself to personally delivering a few vague threats) to be an idiot. I expected better from the author of the actually quite funny detective caper Landscape with Dead Dons (1956). • Barbara Vine, The House of Stairs (1988) ... third in an omnibus of classy psychological thrillers – see past CCs. The Vine formula is that a murder happened a long time ago and is unravelled in retrospect; there is heavy foreshadowing, building up suspense with unspoken questions of who was killed, and when and why; the actual crime happens very late in the book's flashback timeline, and can feel a bit anticlimactic after such an effective buildup (I remembered the best-selling crime writer in Michael Innes's Stop Press who has taken to putting off the murders more and more, because they don't have the old thrill); and an overall tangle of complicity leaves no one wholly innocent. Thus the unfortunate narrator of The House of Stairs discovers that she herself, through an innocent misunderstanding and some literary chit-chat, inspired the fatal scheme. Despite some odd clumsinesses (the end of House is a bit too thuddingly 'Lady or the Tiger' for my taste), these are clever and sinister books: will look out for more. • Later: a local s/h shop had Vine's King Solomon's Carpet (1991), which drops the flashback 'formula' to develop suspense from a roster of variously off-sane characters – one of them genuinely frightening – inside and outside the increasingly ominous labyrinth of the London Underground, which itself becomes a major character. Some scenes are menacing enough to put one off tube trips for quite a while; but this narrative journey's sense of impending disaster is again slightly let down by its destination, where the plot machinery creaks a trifle too loudly. Gripping stuff, though. (Special thanks to Chris Priest for recommending Vine, whom he nervously investigated after a review that compared his 'mesmeric power' with hers. The nervousness arose because he – like me – had encountered only her Ruth Rendell detective novels and thought them moderately lousy.) • Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics (1994): yes, yes, I know everyone else read all those 'Fantasy of Manners' books a couple of years ago. I was a tiny bit put off because Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint had been so hugely praised to me that the actual novel was almost disappointing. But I thought A College of Magics had great charm – a little bit in the Diana Wynne Jones vein – and I liked it a lot. So there. To digress as usual, Stevermer's version of the much-loved Tom O'Bedlam's Song sent me searching for a variant text which (as in College) substitutes 'rounded' in the marvellously over-the-top alliteration of 'the wounded welkin weeping'. No luck, but it was fun to rediscover Robert Graves's essay on Tom (in his collection The Crowning Privilege). This wanders through several versions and ends up arguing that the inferior original was polished up by Shakespeare as a song to cover a scene-change when Edgar is being a 'poor Tom' in King Lear. Gosh! • Paul Dehn, For Love and Money (1956): essays, squibs and verse. For various reasons this collection has been on my wants list for decades, and ace book-hunter Brian Ameringen finally tracked it down ... only to snatch it from my eager hands as he realized in embarrassed horror that his original purchase price (probably about 50p) was still pencilled inside! Me: 'I don't mind knowing the mark-up, I just want the book....' Brian, frantically accosting Clarke Award revellers: 'A rubber, a rubber, has anyone got a rubber?!' (Fortunately he didn't put this question to Norman Spinrad or Pat Cadigan.) As for the book, it contains some material funny enough to reduce me to quivering jelly and cause Hazel to enquire quite seriously after my health. • Lucius Shepard, The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter (1988) ... another one which for no apparent reason spent years unread on the shelf. Beautifully written, morally somewhat ambiguous fable. At one point, two obscure bits of almost forgotten information came together with a tiny spark: a mention in some Charles Platt fanzine that Shepard was in the habit of rather cruelly satirizing living people in his stories, and a US editor's unattributable e-mail implying that critic Greg Feeley (who seemed inoffensive to me when working on the FE) is much disliked for good reasons. Here now are the inbred, idiot inhabitants of Shepard's fictional dragon: 'They spoke a mongrel dialect that she could barely understand, and they would hang on ropes outside her apartment, arguing, offering criticism of one another's dress and behaviour, picking at the most insignificant of flaws and judging them according to an intricate code whose niceties Catherine was unable to master.' These creatures of revolting appearance, 'demented manner', and 'childish pettiness and jealousies' are collectively known as the Feelys. We now move to Gene Wolfe's Exodus from the Long Sun (1996), in which Patera – i.e. Father – Remora utters the not particularly apropos-in-context remark 'One never lacks for, um, critics? Patera Feelers. Faultfinders.' ... this solitary mention justifying the inclusion in the cast list of 'Patera Feeler. A proverbial carper.' (All males in the Long Sun's city of Viron are named for animals [Auk, Potto], animal products [Silk, Blood] or animal parts ... h'mm, carp have little feelers, don't they?) For the record, I add that Greg Feeley has given me uniformly friendly reviews. Size of statistical sample: 2. • Harry Turtledove, Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance (1996) and Striking the Balance (1996) ... caught up on these at last. I rather liked the premise of alien invasion during an alternate WW2, and the resulting ironies and allegiance-shuffling. But the sheer length of the bloody books is discouraging, and the tetralogy (or so it was advertised) doesn't so much end as stop dead. Yes, there's a truce to conclude the slow-motion nuclear exchanges which have provided lashings of tension. But this gives no real sense of closure (despite Turtledove's valiant efforts with the last-minute rescue of a threatened ghetto) ... not when Hitler is still at large and still barking mad, while the alien colony fleet continues its slow approach to our solar system. Mere anticlimax, or does an equally fat Book 5 loom? • Colin Dexter, Last Seen Wearing (1977), in which the mystifyingly popular Inspector Morse imitates the methods of Isaac Asimov's cop Lije Baley by accusing every single suspect in turn until (on his second time around) he hits on the right one.

Acnestis Mailing 53

Maureen (and others) ... The election is an awkward subject here, because Hazel ... actually ... rather likes John Major. 'Nuff said. Isn't it weird that the Tory leadership contest is getting so much coverage, when it can have no real impact on UK politics until some while into the new millennium? • Dop ... Another sucker who had to work on the SFX Discworld Special! I wonder if you got as much flak for getting the Sourcerer's sex wrong in Sourcery as I did for my amnesia about the adapter of the Interesting Times play. As for your re-installing Doom, I confess to a weakness for its clone Heretic: the backgrounds are nicer to look at, and the isomorphism of the weapons still seems funny (with Doom's pistol, shotgun, chaingun, rocket launcher and plasma gun so obviously becoming the Heretic Elvenwand, Crossbow, Dragon Claw, Phoenix Rod and Hellstaff). • Ian ... 'One of these days, I'll work out why I continue to read Green's novels.' Do tell us when you find out! Gossip behind the scenes hints at a long line of burnt-out freelance copyeditors who refuse ever again to tackle a Simon R.Green epic. Gollancz production editor Katrina Whone was reduced to doing it herself, and several people nodded knowingly when she moved on to Corgi. (A sad loss: one of the rare people at Gollancz who were prepared to shout at the bloody awful accounts department when editorially approved freelance invoices ran two, three, six months overdue.) • Kev ... although John Clute and I made some suggestions, the original SF Classics partwork line-up was chosen by the in-house editor Jo Bourne (who is genuine enthusiast; a pleasant side-effect of the whole shambles was her discovery of fandom). Her initial selection was very high-class, almost too highbrow, and certainly had several female authors in prominent positions. Endless modifications followed, to try and get the list past the partwork business's market-oriented bossmen – who make book publishers look like altruists living in ivory towers. One appalling specimen did not consider never having read John Wyndham any obstacle to telling expert adviser Chris Priest extremely loudly and rudely that he must heavily rewrite an essay to bring it into line with the twerp's views – acquired God knows where – on Wyndham. (This guy was later sacked, I'm glad to report.) Film tie-ins became 'necessary': I wrote most of a 2001 issue then intended as the lead title, but that entire 'approach' was later scrapped and work started afresh. The planned second-year list did include just two women.... The Time Machine, The Time Ships, Ringworld, The Thing (Who Goes There?), The Dispossessed, Slan, Fahrenheit 451, Nova, The Anubis Gates, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Handmaid's Tale, Monkey Planet, Inverted World, The Difference Engine, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, Neverness, The Midwich Cuckoos, Blood Music, The Man Who Fell to Earth, A Princess of Mars, Stand on Zanzibar, The Sirens of Titan, Downward to the Earth, City, Make Room! Make Room! and The Island of Dr Moreau.Some rights problems can be imagined here. There was also a reserve list: Red Mars, Doomsday Book, Other Days Other Eyes and The High Crusade. • Tanya ... no, no, don't leave us! Was it something I said? Have you a debilitating urge to write slash? • Cherith ... anyone who likes that old Digital Dreams story is a splendid person according to me. Am most cheered. • Bruce ... gulp. Aha, another fan of the excellent The Prestige. • [...] •Everyone Else: many thanks.


Thrusting Interview Technique ... modestly offered for the guidance of future Vector interviewers. Naim Attallah: 'The impression I have after reading your autobiography is of a character so immensely complex as to be almost impossible to contain in an interview. Would you perhaps agree with that and sympathize with the difficulties?' Arnold Wesker: 'The simple answer is yes.' (Literary Review, June 1997) • Also Read For Review: Greg Bear, Slant (good solid sequel to Queen of Angels); Tom Holt, Open Sesame (reasonably funny). • Next: Tim Powers, Earthquake Weather. • Commonplace Book. 'The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behaviour control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry, and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.' (Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail, 1979)

Letter Column

Ursula Le Guin: 'I am having a lovely time with The Silence of the Langford. I've been working on a little book for people who write but who have not realized that, basically, writing involves being able to read, & I wish I could steal some of your more elegant autopsies of dead prose as awful examples, the way farmers tack up coyote skins on the wall....' (I didn't have the gall to run that paragraph in Ansible but still want to gloat to someone. This means you lot.) • Postcard from Mark: 'Claire has been complaining for several months now about the unflattering photo of her that appeared in Matrix 123. Having seen the photo of you in Matrix 125 I am able to assure her that it could have been much much worse. With sympathy....' (Poot!)