Cloud Chamber 81
January 1998

Happy New Year. Sorry, sorry, a thousand sorries: I didn't put any seasonal greetings in the December Ansible (since the Xmas issue was yet to come), I was too hassled all that month to send out more than a handful of dutiful cards or indeed go to the Xmas Jubilee with the Xmas Ansible which in the end I hadn't time to produce, and I even forgot to make Happy Merry noises in December's Cloud Chamber. Bah, humbug. Do consider yourselves wished well; I trust that a Spiffy Solstice was had; many thanks to all who sent guilt-inducing cards.

Some considerable gloom was spread over the festive period, since my father went down with a violent fever in the previous week and was taken to hospital for antibiotic-drip treatment. This disrupted his normal copious intake of medication (which he seems to take only when personally shouted at by my mother) and left him in a whirly state – as I found when I visited on the 23rd. Things improved when he was shifted from emergency care to a more tranquil hospital, but it was somewhat blighting that Dad should be denied home comforts over Christmas and, as it turned out, New Year's....

Meanwhile, I had a jolly time dealing with the new tax officer who had just taken over his case – see CC80 – and decided to get things moving again (that is, to 'progress the case' ... oh, ugh) by stepping up the pressure on my parents. Grump.

Hazel's and my one notable achievement over Xmas was solving, for the first time, one of those hideous double-gridded and obscurity-infested Spectator Christmas crosswords, using only six dictionaries (including French and German as well as the complete OED). Smug, we still feel. Yes, smug.

Grue. I suppose up-to-the-minute computer game fans all treated themselves to Tomb Raider II for Christmas. With traditional Langford parsimony I rummaged through this magazine CD-ROM instead, and found myself relishing a gory challenge which the magazine itself – PC Format – correctly described as outdated, clunky, and deeply tasteless. This is Blood, a Doom/Quake imitation in which you shoot up hordes of axe-wielding zombies (igniting these with rounds from a 'flare pistol' is curiously satisfying. Hazel: 'You ... male person, you.' Me: 'Wait till I show you the napalm projector!') and mad monks toting sawn-off shotguns, tommy-guns and sticks of dynamite. Blood spurts copiously, random limbs and organs litter the ground, the health-restoring medical packs of Doom are replaced by former foes' pulsating hearts, etc. A certain black humour emerges as you progress through a moderately disgusting graveyard and crematorium (trying the door of a promising-looking adjacent tomb merely brings a hollow voice from inside, saying 'Stop it.') via railway sidings into the echoing halls of Miskatonic Station (characteristically, the canteen kitchen contains a swarm of rats), leading to mayhem on the speeding Phantom Express (characteristically, the only way to end this episode is to override the engine's safety controls for a spectacular boiler explosion), and thence into the kind of sinisterly booby-trapped carnival where Batman so often hunts the Joker, amid unsafe rides like the Happy-Go-Pukey.... Hardly any redeeming features, but quite fun in a seedy sort of way.

George Hay regularly sent me strange letters, and I came across this one from March 1996:

'The current Friends of Foundation bulletin mentioned a talk by yourself and A.N.Other [Brian Stableford] about "The Decay of Science Fiction". As this is a subject about which I now have to do something, I would be interested to know your views. Is there a printed or sound tape version? If so, I would be very happy to have a copy.

'My eyesight must be failing. I thought I saw mention in that bulletin that the Foundation was planning to raise £100,000 for purchase of the Wyndham letters, mss. You must have seen mention of the rocket that was put up – and, more to the point, safely retrieved – lately by some totally unknown space buff, aided only by sugar (for the propulsion explosives) from Tate & Lyle. £100,000 would pay for a whole star-fleet!'

Kammerwelt? 'Where the hell is Kammerwelt?' I asked myself when idly looking at the back-jacket copy of Jack Vance's Night Lamp (UK Voyager edition). This is an sf novel in which Vance cheekily and effectively appropriates real-world names for some of his exotic planetary locales: Ushant, Thanet, Camberwell. Now I have this vision of a HarperCollins editor deciding that this mundane terminology would attract the uncouth derision of some tin-eared sprog reviewer at SFX (yes, this did later happen) and making several bright suggestions like, 'And your planet Camberwell would sound much more futuristic as Kammerwelt!' Whereupon, I imagine, Jack Vance said whatever is American for 'Sod off,' and the original text was retained ... only for that one alternative name to remain fossilized in the blurb, like a single perfect coprolite.

Oddments. Hazel has been reading Anglo-Saxon history, and informed me over Christmas that the Abbot of Abingdon in 1051 was called Spearhavoc. To which my reaction was that he had to be an escaped Mervyn Peake character, while Hazel wistfully opined that as an abbot he probably hadn't grown up quite the way his parents or godparents must have intended.... • D.M.Sherwood unearthed yet another fan of US critic Greg Feeley – Harlan Ellison, who characterizes him as 'Gregory Feeler, who writes and speaks as if he thought he fell straight down from Olympus, and whose fecal matter don't stink.' Which leads us artfully to ...

Gene Wolfe is an avid reader of SFX, or at least of SFX columns sent to him by Gordon Van Gelder because they happen to mention Gene Wolfe. This was my piece (SFX 31, Nov 97) which went on about unpopular critics and listed some of the love-pats delivered by Wolfe and others to Greg Feeley. I also quoted Dr Johnson: 'An author presents himself uncalled before the tribunal of criticism, and solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace.' To which Gene responded quite forcefully: 'Why doesn't this apply to critics? Do they not solicit fame at the hazard of disgrace? Aren't they writers too? Many – Feeley is an outstanding example – publish the most brutal and dishonest criticisms for years, then shriek and blubber about unfairness when anyone ventures to criticize their criticism. "Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense." – Samuel Johnson.' This is a bit of a non-controversy, really, since I entirely agree that by going public with their frank opinions, critics do indeed lay their heads on the block exactly like authors, and can be criticized right back without being able to claim 'benefit of clergy'. (Unfortunately, the sentence in which I made this specific point was unerringly cut by the SFX subeditors.) I wrote back to Gene to say as much, and added a third quotation from Dr Johnson on whose accuracy we could surely agree: 'Swallows certainly sleep all winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water and lie in the bed of the river.'

The funny thing is that Greg Feeley himself seems completely stumped by the hostile reactions he has provoked. As he put it in e-mail, 'Gene Wolfe ... I think I have said once or twice that he is, taken all in all, the best SF writer in the genre's history.' I must try to seek out those offending reviews....

[The above paragraphs need to be read as though with a sound effects track of Langford putting his foot in it mightily. I hadn't realized the full extent and intensity of Wolfe's loathing for Feeley. Only after receiving a further letter, which was perhaps the unfunniest I've ever had from an author I respect, did I glean that even mentioning Feeley in the same magazine column as Wolfe had apparently caused huge and enduring offence. Argh.]

Random Thoughts. There's this movie poster whose layout insists to me (because my eye doesn't seem to accept colour change as a word separator) that the title is A Lifeless Ordinary. Vaguely remembering that an ordinary is someone ecclesiastical, I imagined Brother Cadfael making his usual detailed forensic investigation using a clay pot and two pieces of twig ... but hang on, an ordinary is a particular kind of bicycle, and the scene shifts to Number Two brutally interrogating Number Six, who is prime suspect in the matter of the savage dismantling of the Village's symbolic penny-farthing ... ah, but C.S.Forester's naval stories mention that 'laid up in ordinary' means roughly 'in dry dock', conjuring up the vision of Hornblower borrowing counter-espionage expert Stephen Maturin to investigate the Corsican Tyrant's cunning sabotage of the Admiralty's favourite dry dock, and ... oh dear, it gets less sensible, I'd better stop.

Money. As is usual for this time of year, I don't seem to have any. 1997 wasn't a good year in which to get new projects off the ground. Paul Barnett's and my little plan to make use of our Fantasy Encyclopedia expertise with an Encylopedia of Humour met with universal rejection and such dismissive comments as 'Humour is not a genre.' The collected Thog's Masterclass, even with the promise of a rave introduction by Ursula Le Guin and ditto afterword by John Clute, was met by such familiar publisher strategies as 'Great idea but I couldn't get it past the other editors / marketing people / accountants / cleaning lady', or simply lapsing into many, many months of dispiriting silence. And after carefully monitoring the bookshop invisibility of my Discworld quizbook (also the Gollancz paperback titles by Terry Pratchett himself, notably Eric), I think I see why Terry changed publishers. Would you believe that in the first six months of 1997, Gollancz's relentless marketing of the quizbook led to UK sales of 47 copies, less 12 returns?

Oh well, there's still the regular income from SFX (except when they mislay the invoices) and Interzone, and Fortean Times seem to have settled down to a steady schedule of publishing one Langford column per year. It was quite cheering to read the ingenious teaser on the cover of the February 98 issue – 'ARE YOU THE ANTICHRIST? FIND OUT INSIDE' – and discover that this in fact referred to a column I'd more or less forgotten having written.

Commonplace Book. 'Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.' (Dwight D. Eisenhower) • 'Personally I know very little about sex because I've always been married.' (Chuch Harris, 1997)

Read in Reading

Margaret Weis & Don Perrin, Hung Out (1998), for SFX review, a seriously lousy space opera in the dismal tradition of these authors' The Knights of the Black Earth – which provided a rich vein of Thoggisms at the time – and Robot Blues. The narrative wit is perhaps best exemplified by that merry title, reflecting the fact that there's this evil criminal conspiracy called the Hung whose leaders are currently immured on the Prison Planet, so one plot strand therefore concerns efforts to get the Hung Out. Oh dearie me.

Whatsername, The Sparrow ... well, it's like this: I went to Blackwell's in Reading feeling that I'd better at least buy a copy of this thing, and although I remembered from Novacon what the cover looked like I'd forgotten the bloody woman's name. Quest abandoned after extensive hunting through likely-sounding parts of the alphabet (M felt rather promising at the time)....

Martin Gardner, The Last Recreations (1997) ... the stately pace of publishing has at last got around to this 15th and final collection of the legendary 'Mathematical Games' columns from Scientific American, which MG wrote from 1956 to 1986. For me, these and other Gardner pop-maths books have been not so much entertainments as Formative Influences, and I'm grateful. The actual collection is about average, with a light touch throughout, some significant maths, some frivolity, and the inevitable couple of sections which do nothing for me but might be the mathematical Book of Gold for someone else.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow ... well, it's like this: after confirming the author's name from many mentions in Acnestis 60, I went to Waterstone's in Reading and couldn't find it under Fiction A-Z, nor Science Fiction, nor Bestsellers, and gave up after wading through the shop's unuseful system of further classification into Recently Reviewed, Popular Titles, Cult Titles, Women Authors, American Authors, Table Of Books Our Staff Quite Liked, Table Of Books Discounted Because They Are Either Very Popular Or We Are Struggling Desperately To Shift Them, Table Of Recent Hardbacks Which Includes Some Large Paperbacks Too....

David Hughes, Himself & Other Animals (1997), a memoir of Gerald Durrell, mostly about one closely observed week in 1975. There's an odd distorting-mirror effect in at last seeing Durrell – who chronicled his own life so extensively and self-deprecatingly – described from the outside, as much larger, more eccentric, domineering, vast in appetites (I liked the catchphrase 'I think a glass of something red pressed to the left kidney ...') and likeable in quite a different way from his selective self-portraits.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior's Apprentice (1986, UK 1988) ... a bit of a jolt to notice that LMB has already attained the coveted category of Books Unread On Langford Shelves For An Embarrassing Ten Years. Well, it was fun if not in the slightest believable, as crippled superman Miles bluffs his way (like an Eric Frank Russell hero, with fewer wisecracks and more Angst) from nothing much to become Admiral of the dread and hitherto imaginary Dendarii Mercenary Fleet in just a few hundred pages. Well, it got me through a grim train journey from South Wales as Christmas at its worst had begun to set in.... The first Bujold which I read – after copious fan recommendations – was Barrayar, whose 1992 Hugo win still dismays me; the story seemed so bitty and implausible, evidently written to fill an early gap in the saga, with all the awkward plot constraints which that implies.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1997) ... well, it's like this: I'd been looking in places where the book's posh presentation would fit in nicely, but eventually found it in The Friar Street Bookshop, our garish sci-fi (term used advisedly) outlet, whose front window is perennially crammed with movie spinoff tat and Alien Greys. As for the book, what to say? I agree pretty much with Paul K's review in Vector, while being slightly less enthusiastic – perhaps as a result of Rog Peyton and Dick Jude overselling the book with all this 'Best sf of the decade!' hype. Many of you have noted that one has to grit one's teeth and make allowances for the faint silliness of how the first ever interstellar craft is so easily fudged up, and with such an unlikely crew. (Thog began to take an interest when they loaded heaps of extra food supplies on the basis that the time compression of special relativity might not actually work. As I imagined someone then saying: 'And, Father, has anyone really proved Newton's Laws? There could be some great fuel savings there!' Leading to the daft plot device of that orbital lander with its ridiculously tiny fuel margin.) Yes, the aliens are good, although I remember very similar two-race setups from stories by Poul Anderson and Lloyd Biggle Jr. The main error which the expedition makes is cruelly convincing and unforeseeable. Russell is very deft in building up her final impact by 'letting us off' the foreshadowed mutilation and the awaited deaths of pleasant characters, by dealing with these briefly, or offstage, or in reported speech ... only to whack us hard with the extended and nasty aftermath. That's canny storytelling. As for the religion, I found myself thinking of Pascal's imaginary wager, whereby it's worth believing in God since the potential rewards are infinite – setting aside the presumable worthlessness of a 'belief' based solely on calculated gambling odds. Russell presents us with the also familiar converse, in which believers suffer very much more than unbelievers in the same position (and it's notable that in its interaction with the aliens, the mission does nothing dogma-led, nothing which wouldn't also have been done by a liberal humanist), because the believer has to cope with the additional burden of accepting all the terrible, shitty things that are happening as manifestations of divine will. See THEODICY....

Reread (the ones which, according to Claire, don't count): a dozen or so of Martin Gardner's pop-maths collections; The Diary of a Provincial Lady, thanks to Cherith's reminder; Silverlock; Pride and Prejudice – 'Yuk!' said Hazel; Ivy Compton-Burnett's A Family and a Fortune, Manservant and Maidservant and Two Worlds and Their Ways (in which, as recorded in Ansible, Thog found another Real Lit contribution to his 'Eyeballs in the Sky' category) ...

Mailing 60

Liam ... Go on, be a devil, try looking up 'orts' in the dictionary. • I like the idea of The Sparrow carrying a sticker with your 'become a Catholic before reading' warning. My own atheism, though non-militant, must have lessened the impact.

Paul K ... Ouch; further sympathy; Hazel has been incredibly tolerant of my own episodes of staring greyly into space. • I was a bit bemused by the longish section in Greg Benford's Foundation's Fear spinoff novel where Hari Seldon and his bodyguard-cum-girlfriend travel for no apparent reason to this planet where despite fears of assassination they go riding the minds of chimp-like aliens. Then I found out about 'Immersion', and also learned that another hefty FF plot strand which is jarringly inconsistent with Asimov's cosmos – all the stuff about AI recreations of Voltaire and Joan of Arc – was likewise recycled from some anthology pieces Benford had written years ago. One felt that his heart wasn't entirely in it. • I've been dipping into Martha's The Arbitary Placement of Walls, spacing out the stories to try and make it last. Good stuff. Big publishers' official 'shorts don't sell' dogma becomes mysteriously flexible when they're pushing an author's novels: there was Greg Egan's Axiomatic, and I gather that Steve Baxter's collection of Xeelee Universe stories (naughtily including large chunks which also appear in the novels) is soon to be complemented by a sort of Second Best of Baxter volume.

Tanya ... I did ask Diana Wynne Jones at Novacon whether one of the appalling sf fans in Deep Secret – the Continental chap with the eerily fluent English and sociopathic sense of humour – was based on life. She allowed as how he was about half taken from ... dramatic pause ... one of her husband's acquaintances at Bristol U. Oh, that's not fair! • I think O'Brian was joking and knew perfectly well that he was quoting Housman anachronistically. My own collected Housman places the suspect quatrain under Additional Poems, not Translations.

Steve ... The Sparrow again: you cunningly cite Michael Bishop. I'd wondered whether Russell's aliens' double-pupilled eyes were intended as an allusion to another set of Bishop extraterrestrials, the religious ones from Catacomb Years and A Little Knowledge who also rather bizarrely turn up in the unrelated Bishop/Watson Under Heaven's Bridge.

Claire ... Mirror Dance was, I think, the next Bujold I read after being not much impressed by Barrayar. It made me realize there was a bit more to Bujold than space-operatic fluff. • I'd looked forward to the Hoares' account of eating scrumptious Ukrainian dried fish; but when they came around on Christmas Day, Jean told me firmly that she had been unable to contemplate that gently humming, newspaper-wrapped Presence in her kitchen any longer, and had quietly thrown it out.

Tony ... Gibber, sympathy, gibber. I'm supposed to be flying to Minneapolis for Easter and urge everyone to go easy on the airport horror stories for a little while!

Dop ... My little seasonal treat from Future Publishing was the discovery that they've started mislaying my invoices again.

Mark ... Odyssey asked me to suggest a few books for a best-of-the-year roundup, and with not much time to think about it I opted for four different categories. Fantasy: Tim Powers, Earthquake Weather. SF: Greg Bear, Slant. Nonfiction: Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot. Borderline stuff that I reckon sf/fantasy people will like: Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost. So my decisions were made, the die was cast, and weeks later Liz Holliday sort of casually e-mailed to say that they'd dropped the whole Best of 97 section for the interestingly complementary reasons that too few people had contributed and there wasn't enough space anyway. Sigh.

KVB ... To my great relief, George Hay's close friend Mollie Gillan was pleased by the Ansible tributes and thought their humorous touches were entirely appropriate. Phew. I hope she also likes the longer piece on him I've written for Odyssey 2.

Me ... New Year assaults on the north face of the Great Paper Mountain in our spare room have disclosed some strange relics of the fannish past, such as a thick wad of 1979 Hugo nominee certificates devised by Peter Weston to console that year's runners-up. So, overleaf you have a priceless souvenir, and if you're really lucky it may even be adorned by Peter's chairmanly signature and the Seacon '79 company seal!

While going on about joke non-art by people like Alphonse Allais, I clean forgot to mention my own venture into the field. In 1996, shortly before a party at 94 London Road, we had an old gas-mantle outlet removed from our bathroom wall; this left a hole several inches across. Hazel suggested that I stick a bit of paper over it. 'Langford is made of sterner stuff,' I cried, and prepared an exquisitely laser-printed label to go just beneath the gaping cavity: 'Big Brother Is Watching You / An installation artform by Damien Hirst / £7,500 o.n.o.' And then, after a suitable blank space: 'Curator's Note: The ox eyeball has been temporarily removed for cleaning.'