Cloud Chamber 80
December 1997

Strange doings in Reading, one Saturday late in November.... Jennifer Swift (of Interzone and F&SF fame) and her chap Tim were cycling down from Oxford on their tandem for a pub lunch at, theoretically, noon. We duly waited in the window seat of the riverside Fisherman's Cottage. At just nine minutes past twelve, the tandem arrived and Hazel waved madly while I went to the door to greet the visitors, vaguely thinking that Jennifer – not seen since the overheated horror of the WFC hotel – looked somewhat different when she'd tied her hair back for cycling. At close range, it turned out to be ... another couple altogether. Red faces all round! The 'real' tandem followed about ten minutes later, and we ended up having a jolly lunch for six – the mystery newcomers (though a complete surprise to Jennifer and Tim too) turned out to know about sf, fantasy, Hugos and things, but of course Tandem Fandom was also a hot topic. Meanwhile the rarely-seen local heron posed in various attention-getting positions just across the river, against the backdrop of a vivid rainbow, and was much admired. It all felt very improbable, and not at all the kind of episode I'd dare use in fiction....

Christmas is Coming, and after visiting the family I know just what you all need. My little brother helpfully brought a new toy from America for our cousin's five-year-old kid: 'The Insultinator'. This ingenious plastic device conceals much misapplied computer ingenuity, whereby at the mere push of a button it will deliver pre-programmed or random insults in a hideous and remarkably loud American Tannoy voice. 'YOU'RE A TOTALLY – GROSS – NERDY – GEEK!' 'YOU'RE A COMPLETELY – DUMB – GEEKY – NERD!' After the first few hundred permutations it does begin to get a little on the nerves. Realizing what fun life was going to be in the months to come, the kid's proud father said simply, 'You ... bastard.' Imagine how a dozen Insultinators could raise the tone of BSFA committee meetings.

Read in Reading

Alan Moore, Voice of the Fire (1996), intense little stories set in and around darkest Northampton, from 4000BC to 1995. Efforts at a plausible period vocabulary and syntax make the prehistoric opening section far more opaque and forbidding than what follows; I wonder how many readers gave up in those first 50 pages? Overall it's a sort of much darker Puck of Pook's Hill with, similarly, a few fantastic elements – like the post-Gunpowder Plot conversation between traitors' heads on spikes over the city gate. Some of the pieces are very effective, some slight; many need close attention to follow the crucial bits of what actually happens. An inevitable if slightly facile comment is that the density and intensity of Moore's prose are hangovers from years of having to cram all he wanted to say into comics captions and balloons. • Michael Andre-Driussi, Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle (1994) ... for Gene Wolfe fans this is Nitpicker Heaven, even though it's already spawned an errata sheet plus two chapbooks of additions and afterthoughts. (Even the title 'is somewhat suspect. I don't know Latin but have reason to believe that the correct form would be Urthis'. Hazel: 'And so I should jolly well think!') Stupefying amounts of research into Wolfe's obscure words and names in The Book of the New Sun and its pendants ... I hadn't quite realized, for example, that all the ordinary people of the Commonwealth, including Severian and Vodalus, have the names of saints. (Actually I soon thought of an exception.) I'd be overawed if it weren't for occasional reassuring gaps in the erudition; when smartarse Langford asked why the torture-machine called 'the apparatus' wasn't tagged as a homage to Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony', Michael A-D explained that he was opposed to this identification, because although he hadn't read the Kafka story, the machine's (misleading) description in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places didn't seem consistent with that in Shadow. After having great wodges of Kafka quoted at him, he changed his mind, ho ho. • Edmund Wilson, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) ... grabbed for a train journey on the basis that – as I occasionally tell myself – it's embarrassing to have had a book on the shelves, unread, for about ten years. Wilson's lit. crit. is excellent stuff. His fiction tends to be admirable rather than likeable; these six linked stories (five and a novel, really) are narrated by a barely disguised Wilson and have a dogged honesty about his failings and exploits, especially the sexual ones that got the book banned in New York. The character portraits in the novel-length segment seem pretty good. Of genre interest: one gentle timeslip fantasy and one critical rant about the moral decline of the US book business, slightly tarted up with hints of diabolism. Most irritating passage: one character delivering an eleven-page political jeremiad in, for some reason, untranslated French. • John Deedy (ed.), Auden as Didymus: The Poet as Columnist Anonymous (1993) ... billed in the Bibliophile catalogue as a collection of hitherto unknown Auden essays, which made it seem worth a look. Actually it's something of a swiz along the traditional lines of publishing Tolkien's laundry lists: the book runs to 72 pages, including a Foreword, an Introduction, another introduction, a chapter of vapid speculation on why Auden should have used the pen-name Didymus (culminating with a resounding 'No one knows, and likely no one ever will'), a chapter about the magazine where these 1940s columns appeared, and of course the essential Footnotes, Bibliography and Index. Actual W.H.Auden content amounts to five very short columns, a statistic mentioned nowhere in the jacket copy and voluminous surrounding bumf. The nadir of dishonesty is a flat claim that 'nothing of these pieces turns up again elsewhere in his writings'. Column number one felt oddly familiar, and it took less than a minute to identify it as being mostly recycled in the 'Mirror of Narcissus' segment of The Dyer's Hand ... which merely happens to be Auden's best known prose collection. Poot. • Jack Vance, Ports of Call (1998 advance proof) ... gentle spacefaring picaresque whose narrative wanders from planet to planet and stops at an irritatingly inconclusive point: I suppose sequels are planned. It's readable and has some nicely characteristic episodes. Perhaps the knowledge that Vance will be 82 in 1998 helps amplify the sense that the overall dramatic energy is somewhat reduced, that eccentric characters are not so much larger than life as they used to be, and that melancholy keeps breaking in. • James Thurber, The Great Quillow (1944) and Many Moons (1943), engaging little fairytales whose existence I discovered in the glory days of the Fantasy Encyclopedia and which seemed unobtainable in Britain. A peep at the on-line bookshop at disclosed that in America these are children's classics and perpetually in print. Credit cards leapt spontaneously from my wallet.... • Kevin O'Donnell Jr, Cliffs (1986), fourth and last in a mildly entertaining series of crap sf novels – thanks, Paul, for that useful critical term. Lots of odd aliens, teleportation, interstellar crime syndicates and such stuff. • Simon Brett, Mrs Pargeter's Plot (1996) ... recommended as great fun by the lender, Catherine McAulay, and best categorized as mildly entertaining crap crime. Maybe Brett is tired of writing his 'Charles Paris' detective novels, which were funny, ironic and knowledgeable about the horrors of the acting life. This 'Mrs Pargeter' series tries hard to be droll about English underworld doings, but lacks the background realism that made the better series work: I found myself getting impatient with jolly hilarious characters like Keyhole Crabbe, master locksmith, who is banged up in Bedford Prison but wanders in and out whenever he likes – on one occasion disposing of some awkward contraband by cracking the local NatWest and dumping the stuff in a 'secure' vault. • J.R.R.Tolkien, Roverandom (1998), lost-dog fairytale improvised in 1925 and bounced by Allen & Unwin in 1937 (they wanted more hobbits). Very minor, but readable ... and, for a change, Tolkien did in fact intend it for publication.

Mailing 59

Maureen, Claire ... on plans to move the Champion meetings. I was alarmed by hints that the Paviour's Arms is vastly remote from tube stations and requires daring trips on London buses, which terrify me. However, it doesn't look that bad in the A-Z: the western third of Horseferry Road seems no further from St James's Park station than the Jubilee is from Westminster, while the eastern end is a comparable distance from, again, Westminster. OK, where exactly on Horseferry Road is the pub? Not that I'm much of a Champion regular, alas.

Steve ... 'I could think of half a dozen uses for Slow Glass as a convenient, but not essential, macguffin for a crime story.' So indeed did Bob Shaw himself, who scored all the best detective points in the frame story and other inset pieces (besides the original and very fine 'Light of Other Days') in Other Days, Other Eyes. • Have put a copy of 'Jim Jim Morrison Morrison' in the post; little brother Jon tells me that a new collection of the Great Pop Things strips is in the works. • That common sense of 'mildly apoplectic disbelief' over the Turner prize tends to bring on my Blimpish suggestion that the sort of art where there's not much actual Art in sight – just a half-baked Idea – was originated by the French humorist Alphonse Allais (1854-1905). In the 1890s Allais became arguably the first man in history to paint abstract pictures, exhibiting all-black, all-white and all-red canvases respectively titled Negroes Fighting in a Cave by Night, Anaemic Young Girls Going to their First Communion through a Blizzard and Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes by the Red Sea. Many inheritors of this great tradition appear not to have noticed that Allais was, er, joking. (But Barry Humphries took the point: his youthful exhibition of Modern Art included a pair of wellies filled with custard, tastefully labelled Pus in Boots.)

Mark ... Would you be reassured to hear that you're not alone in finding Master and Commander a difficult point of entry to the O'Brian saga? Chris Priest felt the same (I don't know if he read to the end), partly because of period style and partly because he found the 'heave some loblolly on the futtock ratlines!' terminology a bit daunting. I was well enough grounded in C.S.Forester to cope happily with all that. Plot momentum builds as the series continues, but if you're not enjoying yourself after Post Captain and HMS Surprise then maybe it's not for you. • I did actually spot L.E.Modesitt Jr at WFC, but managed to bite back the sound effects (thrapppp ... wheeeeeee ... spunggggg!) that rose to my treacherous lips.

Cherith ... I own the remaining items in that E.M.Delafield sequence, The Provincial Lady Goes Further (book 2) and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (book 4). As you say, the freshness of that first spiffy book does rather wear off, perhaps because EMD was determinedly chucking her hapless heroine into novel situations where the old chemistry – of humour arising from ghastly but ordinary provincial family life – no longer worked.

Paul & Maureen ... commiserations on the continuing grim saga of Paul's father and his illness. The situation with my own parents in South Wales is less horrific but still not encouraging. Being a retired accountant, my father remains convinced that if only he can just have a quiet afternoon to himself he can deal with the outstanding personal accounts and tax returns that have been accumulating since the 1989-90 tax year. This is clearly not so: there's one dismaying piece of analysis paper that I keep seeing, covered in smudged, illegible figures and blobs and contours of Tipp-Ex like a relief map – the work of years, and incomprehensible. I've been making raids on Newport with a laptop computer, recording everything I can (receipts, incomplete paying-in records, expenses entered on those cheque stubs which are actually filled in, bank statements, tax credit vouchers, etc) in vast spreadsheets, and supplementing the record by hypnotizing Barclays Bank into providing duplicate statements and copies of cancelled cheques. The result – after some very welcome advice from Elizabeth on fine points of capital allowances – was seven years' worth of draft profit and loss accounts which should appease the taxman and demonstrate that Dad has probably paid more tax on punitive estimated assessments than was ever actually due. But will he sign the corresponding tax returns? All I'm getting are long, deeply opaque phone calls hinting that now I've done my articled-clerk bit, the Real Accountancy can at last begin.... Meanwhile, every communication from the tax office causes my mother to demonstrate her impressive range of hysterics while my father tries to hide the dread letter in hope of a quiet life. Thus vast Greek-tragedy outbursts were recently occasioned by what, when I went down to Newport to investigate, proved to be a circular inviting known accountants to attend a seminar on self-assessment issues. And so it goes.

KVB ... I confess to never having ventured into Teilhard de Chardin's work, partly because he was so thoroughly lambasted by the late Sir Peter Medawar – one of those rare scientists who were also distinguished writers about science. See Medawar's Pluto's Republic (1982), reprinting a review that lays into The Phenomenon of Man on stylistic as well as intellectual grounds: 'Teilhard is forever shouting at us: things or affairs are, in alphabetical order, astounding, colossal, endless, enormous, fantastic, giddy, hyper-, immense, implacable, indefinite, inexhaustible, inextricable, infinite, infinitesimal, innumerable, irresistible, measureless, mega-, monstrous, mysterious, prodigious, relentless, super-, ultra-, unbelievable, unbridled or unparalleled. When something is described as merely huge we feel let down.' But Medawar relents a little when introducing his collection of essays: 'A good deal of Teilhard is nonsense, but on reflection I can see it as a dotty, euphoristic kind of nonsense [...] There is no real harm in it.' However, 'I do not budge from my description of Teilhard's work as so much "obscure pious rant", but with hindsight I do think that I was coarsely insensitive in not reading [it] – or rather in not interpreting its great popularity – as a symptom of hunger, a hunger for answers to questions of the kind that science does not profess to be able to answer.' I like critics who can reconsider; what had most offended Medawar, he decided with hindsight, was Teilhard's insistence that his mimsy rhapsodies were 'a work of science' executed with 'remorseless logic.'

Bruce ... I do indeed read your reviews, and your enthusiasm for 'Barbara Vine' helped persuade me to try her; but so did recommendations from others – Chris Priest's being the one that eventually pushed me over the edge – and I quailed at trying to compile a full list. When I finally give in and read The Sparrow, the list of recommenders will have become too bloody long to print! (Do others find themselves becoming irrationally stubborn, like me, when a book is so heavily plugged?)