Cloud Chamber 84
May 1998

Life continues to be weird. In the weeks after getting back from Minneapolis and Chicago (of which much more, at much length, somewhere), I encountered the joys of:

• A huge pile of Ansible Information software orders and support requests – it's amazing how, no matter how moribund the business seems, I can stimulate it to activity by going away.

• More bad scenes with Newport council, regarding charges for permanent residential care for my father (moved to a nursing home). The social worker who likes the spelling 'finantial' didn't seem to have done a lot of this sort of assessment work, and managed to bounce my mother between the estimated extremes of 'oh, it'll only be about £25 a week' to 'we'll be taking the whole of Mr Langford's state pension, employment pension and annuities' ... the latter leaving Not A Lot. The compromise position is still pretty eye-watering.

• Yet another Terry Pratchett novel in draft, this one being Granny Weatherwax vs The Vampires and therefore subtly titled (to Hazel's disgust) Carpe Jugulum. Instant editorial attention needed, jet-lag or no.

• Another bloody would-be burglar, who broke a side window and struggled for some time with the (jammed, ha ha) sash before noticing that his description was being noted by a girl next door who'd looked over the wall on hearing the noise.

• Having SFX pay some invoices, while still leaving others outstanding from 1997. Meanwhile, Jo Fletcher bridled a bit when I remarked at the Pratchett party about the chances that Gollancz/Cassell would manage to pay the 31/12/97 Discworld quizbook royalties within the tight four-month deadline they had contractually imposed on themselves. (They failed. But at least proved to have done a little actual marketing of the book in the second half of 1997, contrasting with the majestic home sales of 35 copies in the first half.)

Random Reading

In March I calmed some of my pre-flight jitters by rereading Anthony Price's thrillers (having forgotten that the early The Alamut Ambush turns on the shooting-down of a scheduled flight aboard which a summit meeting of the Ungodly is being held). These are high-class stories. full of devious cunning ... eventually getting a shade too rarefied, as in the late Here Be Monsters and For the Good of the State. In the first of these the whole action proves essentially futile, a feint to distract attention from doings offstage; in the second, the crude violence of the finale feels out of keeping with the elaborate subtleties of the build-up. But Price's characters are usually good; and he has an interesting way of showing his main series 'hero' in varied lights through other eyes. This is the brilliant maverick counter-intelligence man, historian Dr David Audley, who's the viewpoint character of the first book The Labyrinth Makers (and also the excellent War Game, with its roots in the English civil war and re-enactment societies) but is generally seen from outside as an altogether more formidable, dangerous and unreliable chap. Coincidentally, Ian just mentioned Price's The Old Vengeful ... there are also good historical mysteries, better integrated with the modern action, in Other Paths to Glory (WWI) and War Game. Another coincidence is that I just found the late, perhaps final book in Murder One: A New Kind of War, which like The '44 Vintage reverts to stuttering young Audley's early exploits on the fringes of WWII. It promised a nice change from the over-elaborate mirror mazes of the late Cold War, but after various bits of meaty action more or less vanished up its own bum in proleptic ideological philosophizing about precisely this 'new kind of war' which the far-sighted can see coming.

The Count of Monte Cristo was my choice of in-flight reading for the long haul to that guest spot in Minneapolis. Air travel always seems the perfect opportunity to tackle vast, worthy volumes, like Don Quixote and Lanark on previous US flights. Besides, Maureen's recent article on Monte Cristo had me feeling a bit guilty at having so very often – following the sf critical tradition – cited it as an influence on Alfred Bester without ever having read the thing. ('Secondary sources' is the established Clute code for 'I haven't actually read it, of course.)

Anyway, the Dumas is a rattling good yarn whose underlying story is strong enough to assimilate and even make a virtue of all the digressions, narrative curlicues and downright bagginess of the hack serial format. Meanwhile, Tiger! Tiger! aka The Stars My Destination has long been one of the defining books in my own sf world-view. I started reading it in the mid-60s thanks to a friend of the family who loaned me the original Galaxy serialization – which I duly devoured long after parental permitted hours, lying the wrong way on my bed in order to catch a slit of illumination where the landing light peeped round the edge of the door... and running into a brick wall of frustration at the discovery that treacherous 'Uncle Norman' didn't have Galaxy #48 with the final episode. For years, until Penguin reissued Tiger! Tiger! in UK paperback, I was left with the cliff-hanger of Foyle's desperate escape from that hotwired Commando brigade under cover of the saturation nuclear attack on Mars, and H.L. Gold's awful teaser lines about Part Four: 'PyrE proves to be power beyond Man's most fantastic dreams ... but Gully Foyle's Burning Man is a fantastic dream within Man's power!'

Hence two levels of interest for me in Monte Cristo, which simultaneously offered a good read in itself and little sparks of excited recognition at the points of intersection with Bester's plot. The brutal injustice ... the vow of revenge ... the imprisonment in darkness ... the mentor who patiently educates the common sea/spaceman ... the resonance of Blue Jaunte and the graveyard of the Chateau d'If ... the great treasure that opens the royal road to revenge ... the hero's re-emergence as an upstart nobleman who spends money like water and frankly admits to buying the title of Ceres/Monte Cristo ... likewise, as a man of almost insane control, a deadly fighting machine, able to see in the dark ... another resonance between the paralysed but formidable M. Noirtel and the sense-deprived Skoptsi captain of Vorga ... the faltering of hubris and emergence of compassion at a certain point in the trail of atrocities.... And yet they're such very different novels.

Bought in America

Dave Barry, various books of funny pieces. • Peter S. Beagle, The Innkeeper's Song. Very classy ... but a subtle sense of WRONGNESS sent me back to John Clute's Fantasy Encyclopedia article on Beagle, which says one character is 'a woman who seems a man, not by means of disguise but through a constant process of METAMORPHOSIS'. According to me, it's a man who seems a woman, and who in the chapter where this is revealed states very clearly that his/her female appearance is a magical disguise and specifically not any form of transformation or metamorphosis. Oops. • Emma Bull, The War for the Oaks – how could I resist a fantasy set in Minneapolis? Good stuff, too. • Umberto Eco, Misreadings ... more or less humorous essays whose humour mostly doesn't translate, I thought, though there are exceptions like the nicely loathsome 'Granita', a Nabokov parody whose obsessed narrator Umberto Umberto has this thing for very old ladies.... • George Alec Effinger, Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson, very funny and silly. • John Glashan, Speak Up, You Tiny Fool! – early drawings. • John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, superior pop-maths ruminations, including the best presentation I've seen of how (in what is of course an extremely unusual multi-candidate election) five different but valid voting systems can produce five different winners. • Daniel Pinkwater, 5 Novels – being Alan Mendlesohn the Boy from Mars, Slaves of Spiegel, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, The Last Guru and Young Adult Novel. At last I've read some Pinkwater! In fact I scoffed the whole omnibus at St Louis Airport and on the flight home. Especially liked the spoof of Politically Correct Downbeat YA Fiction which opens Young Adult Novel. • Michael Swanwick, Stations of the Tide – missed on its first appearance. Very good, but not quite as mindboggling as I'd somehow expected from a chap who went on to write The Iron Dragon's Daughter. • Paula Volsky, The Curse of the Witch-Queen ... I faked up something about this for the EoF from 'secondary sources' and suppose I ought to read it some day. • Barbara Vine, No Night is Too Long ... reminding me that my in-flight books included her The Brimstone Wedding: nicely told as ever, with resonances between two suspense stories (present and past) – but one of these just gently fizzles out and the other, by the time you get to the shock horror revelations, has been sufficiently telegraphed that its effectiveness was limited to that of a few nasty details. • E.B. White, Poems and Sketches and Stuart Little. • R.W. Wood, How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers, nonsense drawings/verse with 'associational' value in that Wood was a noted physicist who carried out the definitive debunking of the 'N-rays' delusion – see Martin Gardner, passim.

Commonplace Book

'By the way, did you know that to become a citizen of this country [the USA], there are different rules for ex-communists and ex-Nazis? It's true. You can't get citizenship if you've ever been a Communist. You can't get citizenship if you were a Nazi from 1939 to 1945. It's probably a good policy. I'd trust a guy who became a Nazi in 1946. You know he's not a fair-weather friend.' (Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, 1996) • 'There are sinister, dark powers at work, dark powers that are older than time itself, and unless we can get there with the minimum of delay I have the nasty feeling that things are going to turn out very badly indeed for our client. I feel that she is surrounded by an awful power older than times, a very sinister dark power, sinister because of its darkness, and sinister because of its age; unless we can get to her pretty rapidly and break that power, and dispel the clouds of darkness that surround her, then not only her mortal future, but her very immortal future itself may be in the gravest jeopardy. I don't like the sound of this dark stranger that she described to us. He sounds formidable, and incredibly evil. The very thought of him conjures up dark images in my mind.' (Karl Zeigfreid, Gods of Darkness, Badger 1962) Sinister images too, I bet. • 'Q. What is the difference between "criteria" and "criterion"? A. These often-confused words belong to a family that grammarians call "metronomes", meaning "words that have the same beginning but lay eggs underwater"....' (Dave Barry Talks Back)

Back Home

Iain M.Banks, Inversions ... oh dearie me, it's our Iain being devious again, and this time I think he's overdone it. Ostensibly this consists of two separate narrations from close to the centres of power in moderately far-apart countries of a grotty, backward planet where the state of the art in weaponry is the musket and crossbow. But there's hidden stuff here, and it's really rather naughty that what's being hidden never comes into proper focus unless you have inside knowledge from elsewhere in the Banks oeuvre. (Whopping verbal cues are provided for readers with this inside information.) • Frederik Pohl, O Pioneer! Very much your standard midlist sf novel, long thought extinct, in which a shifty character emigrates to a colony world (infested with other alien settlers) and grows into a bigger role in life: see BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR. Plus points to Pohl – in contrast to some of his contemporaries – for remaining aggressively sane, unpreachily liberal and humanist, and able to talk about sex without embarrassment. Minus points for slightly dull revelations bolstered by a bit of blatant idiot-plotting. Mildly enjoyed. • Larry Niven, Destiny's Road. This went down smoothly enough, and the relatively sedate colony-world setting (with a few lurking booby-traps) seemed a great improvement on those increasingly vacuous returns to Ringworld and the Smoke Ring. Not a standout book, though.

Mailing 62

Apologies for lack of mailing comments recently. Life, as I have conveyed rather too many times, has been fraught.

Benedict. Yes, I think Harlan Ellison probably makes more from his media connections (scriptwriting, script residuals, consultancies, TV appearances, movie reviewing, etc) than from short fiction. • I suppose I just like writing pastiches and homages ... although the upcoming story in Starlight 2 is neither. It's also true that I keep getting asked to contribute to projects that invite this kind of thing (Alternate Skiffy, whose story was reprinted in Asimov's) or compel it (Shadows over Innsmouth, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Shakespearean Detectives 2, etc). There's an opening for a Lewis Carroll-ish story lurking on the disk somewhere, but I've never seen how to finish that one.

Claire. I said my firm 'Never again!' to Eastercon working after spending most of Sou'Wester in 1994 locked in a newsletter room. There followed titanic struggles to avoid doing the Scottish Convention newsletter, and then Reconvene's.... (Martin Tudor sent me a set of Intuition's, and I'm trying hard not to be lured into any of those fatal sentences that start, 'Now the way I would have done that is ...')

Andrew B. I very much enjoyed that attempt to 'upset Papa Kincaid', but will turn into a pumpkin if I dare to comment.

KVB. I sometimes wonder whether, like the publishers of the Spider novels in Michael Innes's Stop Press, various parties involved with Discworld have taken out expensive insurance policies against a collapse in sales caused by the author trying to bend his template too far. Terry's growing fondness for stories with a grim edge has been varyingly successful: Small Gods was excellent but Jingo stumbles a little on the difficulty of making all-out war – no matter how swiftly contained – funny. (TP regards the current, very frothy novel The Last Continent as a sop to the Rincewind fans, and has hinted that this inept wizard will now be retired for a while.) The even newer draft book is pretty grim again, confronting indomitable Granny Weatherwax with invincible-seeming vampires who know all about her abilities and can outdo them across the board.

Steve. The small 'dislocation' in Starship Troopers isn't quite that the hero is black (you may be thinking of Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil). He's Filipino, the clue being that the family chat in Tagalog at home. I feel no urge to see the movie....

Tony. Congrats on surviving America. The world will hear more of my own trip, some day. The beer was good in Minneapolis and Chicago; the former also offered a weird bottled cider made partly with cranberries, which I liked a lot.

Tanya. My thanks again for all your sterling efforts as Official Ansible Floozie, especially at Intuition. • Yes, I can think of some funny stuff by Ursula Le Guin. There's a short called 'Intracom' which makes amusing play with Star Trek clichés, with a touch of allegory as the ship (with an all-female crew) finds itself pregnant by an alien. And when Greg Benford wrote a slightly pompous diary of several days in his Very Important Life for Foundation 21, Ursula came back with an all too plausible parody which seemed to annoy him somewhat:

Have made no notes, of course, but ideas occur as I talk and the speech goes well, many persons coming to kiss my hands and feet afterwards. A quiet afternoon finishing the current novel and reading War and Peace. Pretty good. I understand gravity now. [...] While driving home arrive at a rather promising new approach to a unified field theory. Might be useful next summer, at the meeting in Telluride. What is the difference between Tolstoy and science fiction? Curious. Complete the unified field theory before dinner. Compare myself with all other writers. Poor devils. My problem is the same as Shakespeare's: Lack of a critical audience which can mirror our concerns....

But by and large she seems to be one of those people who are often hilariously funny offstage – in letters, for example – and much less so in the public forum of worthy fictional creation.

Mailing 63

Steve. Steve Baxter is indeed easier to tackle in short doses, but he needs a bit of galactic elbow-room for some of the effects he does well. Several of the shorts seem rather rushed, with barely time for us to understand the infodump on the current stupefying cosmological notion before it's knocked over by the even more stupefying twist. But when less determined to astonish, he is good at a kind of Clarkean wistfulness. • I can't remember a thing about Seuss's The Cat in the Hat (which I encountered when fairly small), but found and read Bartholomew and the Oobleck while staying at Geri Sullivan's. For years I'd been wondering about the nature of oobleck, a bathtub of which was supposedly made at some US convention and became famed in story and song. Ah, fandom.

Ian. 'Colin Wilson's statistics are clearly flawed ...' From experience of his potboiling paranormal 'nonfiction', I feel that if Colin said he'd drunk a cup of tea I'd want the accuracy of the statement vouched for by a panel of independent sceptics....

Bruce. Without doing the False Modesty Shuffle, I must point out that my dad's tax accounts required no great intelligence – just a lot of tedious and mathematically trivial fiddling with paperwork and adding up columns of figures. (Thank heaven for spreadsheet software.) My later run-in with the insurance company that mislaid five years' worth of his annuity was more interesting, allowing me to write menacing letters which eventually extracted – in addition to the basic sum owed – some £1,300 in compensation, which they call 'gratuitious interest' and I like to think of as hush money.

Benedict. I can see why some people can't resist becoming Psion bores ... I invested in a Series 5 for the US trip, found it very handy, and came home with about 8,000 words of assorted writing, including part of this CC (all on two AA batteries for some 18 hours of actual use – corresponding to nine recharges or power-pack changes for the miniature PC which Dermot Dobson kept telling me was so much better). If I were a real touch-typist, things would have gone less well: the keyboard, as Maureen points out, is too small for ten-fingered expertise.

Andrew B. I've signed heaps of copies of Earthdoom! but I don't think I've ever underlined all the dirty words. Well, I would say that, wouldn't I? • Hazel and I are both fond of Caspar David Friedrich, having been forcibly pointed in his direction by Mike Scott Rohan.

Catie. The enormous drop-caps in your contribution seem to be trying to spell out some existential message. AM I AM MS IM A.... Maybe not quite as sinister as MANAC, MANAC ES CEM, JK – but I puzzled over it for a while, wondering.

Lizbeth. I wonder why 'Aged Ps' seemed vaguely familiar to me if it's from one of the Swallows and Amazons series, none of which I've ever read? Perhaps it was quoted elsewhere, or Ransome himself was quoting.

KVB. The Hunting of the Snark is one of the few poems of any real length that I think I know all the way through ... a belief that was mercilessly tested when I visited my brother in Chicago, and he pulled out a vast digital recording rig and demanded a recitation for the later benefit of the Infant Phenomenon (then 10 months old). I think I escaped complete humiliation.... Isn't The Raven and the Writing Desk an odd book? • Parts of The Croquet Player made me feel that Wells was doing a Lovecraft story, and indeed handling the 'cosmic horror' aspect rather better than HPL usually managed.

Cherith. I found an (unread?) copy of Michael Gilbert's Close Quarters on my own shelves – will (re?)read it and see if I like it as much as you. Later: I assume I must have read it before, but have no recollection of doing so! A few nice touches – blackmail, anonymous letters and sundry mayhem among the clerics, one of whom is concealing the terrible secret of being a women's-magazine agony aunt – but like so many whodunnits of the period, it peters out in reams of exposition and the breaking of a rather dull alibi. So, alas, I still prefer his Smallbone Deceased ... which I think scores higher for grotesquerie and wit. • Anthony Buckeridge did write another series prior to Jennings, but these too were school stories, with a lead character called Rex Milligan. For all I know they had the village setting you remember, though.

... And now, pressed for time again, I'm going to cheat by cutting this short before the bottom of the page. Sorry! Likewise for my non-appearance at far too many pub meetings and parties. This too shall pass.