Cloud Chamber 85
June 1998

After too much recent excitement, our May/June break in Harlech was ever so soothing. Visits to familiar places, a little restrained decorating in the flat, some foodie self-indulgence.... Every so often Wales provides a small surprise from the natural world, like the 64 gigantic purple jellyfish we found beached after storms a few years ago, or the evening of a million caterpillars clinging to stone walls along the beach road – not to plausibly edible plants, only to stones. This latest visit was notable for the daily phenomenon of the Great Beetle Swarm. All along the coastal plain of Morfa Harlech, wherever the grass was sunburnt brown and sand showed through, innumerable beetles with metallic green forequarters and bronze wing-cases emerged and zoomed around in what may have been complex mating flights. Most stayed near ground level, but a bold few regularly soared to roof-height, catching the sun and glittering like tiny UFOs. Why have we never seen this before? Maybe they only do it every seven or seventeen years.

(Learned Footnote: the Big Book of Creepy-Crawlies identified these as Garden Chafers, assuring us that they like dry places and sometimes swarm in sunlight – thus providing us with the reassuring glow of having observed correctly....)

• Recent cheer: SF Age bought the Cthulhoid story I've been touting around for a while, Steve Jones picked up my last year's The Third Alternative story for Best New Horror 9, and I think I have a pay rise from SFX. Fids! Fids! Fids! I gloat! Hear me!

Holiday Reading

David Zindell, War in Heaven – concluding his huge great fat 'A Requiem for Homo Sapiens' trilogy, itself a follow-up to the hefty Neverness. Zindell's a pretty good writer, although he could usefully take more care (like Wolfe or Vance) to provide clarifying context for his odder words. E.g. is a genuine distinction being reflected in the fact that the icy skate-ways of Neverness city are variously called glissades, slidderies, glidderies and something else that I forget? I looked up 'cark' when reading The Wild and thought it had good etymological roots for a word meaning 'to load into different media' (most typically, human personality into computer), but never got the hang of 'slel', and remain unable to visualize or etymologize the weapon called a 'tlolt' (subvarieties 'eye-tlolt', 'heat-tlolt' and 'mercury-tlolt' – probably an acronym, but hardly one that comes tripping off the tongue like 'laser'). No doubt everything is defined somewhere, but I haven't read the whole series and could have used the occasional reminder in any case.

Anyway, War in Heaven sees our hero Danlo finally winning through after lots of suffering, and the ending is generally satisfactory – an exception being the good old sf sleight of hand whereby invincible-seeming bad guys like the Silicon God (a galactic-scale machine intelligence) are not so much dealt with as explained away as being, er, really rather unimportant when you know the Big Picture. Which includes offstage di ex machina who have helpfully countered the problem of cosmological limits to growth by – if I understood that bit correctly – introducing continuous creation and belatedly justifying the steady-state theory. Fred Hoyle should give it a nice review.

Interestingly, Zindell seems to be laying extensive ground-bait for critics by planting a string of parallels between Danlo and Paul Muad'dib of Dune. Both their sagas include – off the top of my head, without going back to the text – strangely and specially blue eyes; an extreme ecosystem (one desert, one vacuum) whose fundamental biota are called little makers; a universal ban on nuclear weapons, evaded by a quibble; a religiously charged political climate, ripe for dodgy god-cults; deadly wire monofilaments and poisoned teeth; the death of the hero's young son born of a mistress; a cultural prejudice against machine intelligence (the [Samuel] Butlerian Jihad of Dune's back-story had the precise object of forestalling the emergence of anything like the Silicon God); a crucial rite of passage involving mastery of a beast (sandworm, bear); personal transcendence leading to miraculous powers of internal biochemical transformation (Paul alters the chemistry of one dangerous drug after being dosed with it; Danlo outdoes this, with two) and psychic vision (Paul sees multiple futures, Danlo the entire present universe); a concluding hand-to-hand struggle that settles the fate of the cosmos.... A couple of odd words are also vaguely similar, like drugs called elacca (Herbert) and ekkana (Zindell). One major difference is that Herbert provided a glossary: a Good Thing.

When pottering around North Wales, we can't resist charity shops, and I usually emerge with some battered book as the easiest way of making it back to the street with a clear conscience. Thus:

Lindsey Davis, Shadows in Bronze – I'd heard mixed reports of Davis's 'Falco' series of historical thrillers set in first-century Rome, so tried a couple. This, second in the sequence, doesn't particularly try to be a detective puzzle (there is one routine and heavily telegraphed deception where the elusive X proves to be really Y in disguise), and so rests partly on historical/travelogue elements and partly on the character of narrator and private investigator Falco as he runs ill-paid errands for the Emperor Vespasian. The result is sort of OK, if a bit limply episodic, but inept Falco seems less engaging than he and Davis think he is. Perhaps the trouble (for me) is that the sub-Chandlerian wryness and wisecracking – though not too bad in themselves – are at odds with all the historical research, so the whole thing never quite jells. Up pops a totally unfair image of Brother Cadfael realizing that yet another novice is a cross-dressing fugitive, and musing to himself: "She was a blonde. A blonde to make an Abbot kick a hole in a stained-glass window...." Several Falco books later, Time to Depart has similar minor annoyances – a notorious criminal is repeatedly referred to as 'the big rissole' and a major robbery in old Rome as 'the heist' – but the story moves along with heaps more pace and confidence. Falco, his lady love and his bizarre family now feel more distinct, solid and likeable. It's nice to see a writer improving.

Michael Pearce, The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet – another historical thriller series which I remembered as being well reviewed: complex and often witty intrigue in 1908 semi-British-ruled Cairo, with all the frictions and ramifications of 'multiple nationalities. three principal languages and four competing legal systems'. Enjoyed. (Although there was a certain pursing of the lips at the Thog's Anachronism Masterclass desk when a particular official preferred to 'do his own thing'. Actually I must admit that I'm not terribly good at spotting Thoggery: any halfway decent narrative usually keeps me happily distracted unless an author digs me in the ribs with repeated mentions of, say, the Big Rissole Heist.)

Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness – thought I'd read the old dear's entire output long ago, but not this one. Hazel remarked on my whimpers when I got to the bit where an evil-doer wearing a distinctive brooch in the shape of her initials is glimpsed in a mirror, and again when some stuff about ectoplasm at a seance started looking hideously like a clue that the soon-to-be victim had been poisoned with phosphorus and so most implausibly had luminous breath. Alas, this assumption proved all too correct....

Nicholas Fisk, A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair – this starts as being just a little too obviously 'for kids' (insufferable young genius hero is supposedly the only person on sterile future Earth who can establish contact with reborn 20th-century people), rapidly undermines the initial position while steadily turning nastier, and ends up somewhere very strange indeed. One phrase that came to mind when I was trying to review The Glimmering was 'downbeat transcendence'. There's something of that here too.

Little Puzzles

Aged P.s for Aged Parents ... after much mental groping I decided this came from Dickens, which was soon confirmed by a coincidental look into Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree. Had got as far as remembering that old Wemmick in Great Expectations was frequently called the Aged, when Elizabeth Kerner (pursuing the same query) e-mailed to say she'd put the question to a think tank which included Jane Yolen, and was told the same book. So I looked. Yes: it's usually the Aged, but at one point in chapter 37, Wemmick addresses his dad as Aged P.

• There is supposed to be an ancient Chinese curse that goes: 'May you live in interesting times.' Whether it's really Chinese is hotly disputed on the net. Some say it's unknown in China (er, yes, but was it unknown in ancient times?); others insist that their very own missionary relative came back from the Far East with the phrase in 1890 or 1910 or whenever; still others ascribe it to President Kennedy (certainly false – he merely quoted it), a 1950s story by Eric Frank Russell (highly unlikely – the EFR context is of an author who's not coining a phrase but quoting a well-known saw in order to argue with it) or Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung (tempting, but the tone isn't quite right – and as a quasi-expert on the Kai Lung books, I say it's not there). Any better ideas? Any earlier sightings?

• Another of those disconcerting moments when you look into a classic which you more or less know by heart, and are suddenly convinced that things have changed.... In chapter 3 of 1066 and All That, there is mention of a 'Wave of Egg-Kings' found on British thrones, with (I read in a Penguin paperback at Harlech) such names as 'Eggberd, Eggbreath, Eggfroth [...] Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish etc.' Eggfish? Eggfish? I'd remembered it as Eggfilth ever since I was a kid. My ancient Methuen edition in Reading agrees. It's tempting to speculate that before its first appearance in 1960, the Penguin text went through the hands of the same editorial prude who a few years earlier at Sidgwick & Jackson had been offended by Alfred Bester's 'Vorga, I kill you filthy' and substituted 'deadly'....

Mailing 64

Thanks to everyone who asked after my father. Right now, things are as well as can be expected: he's settled and (for the most part) happy in a Newport nursing home, and even seems to be improving slightly, while I have all the tax, council tax and bank hassles sufficiently under control that my mother is no longer gibbering. Fingers crossed that this will last....

Cherith ... for the benefit of others, Robert van Gulik's Dee Goong An translation had a Dover edition as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, which (since Dover keep things in print for aeons) is probably the easiest one to find.

Chris T ... and I thought I used cruelly small print! Regarding communications from aspiring writers, I do try not to be crushing – but snide remarks about researching your market do rather spring to the lips whenever, as happens quite frequently, someone submits ghastly sf stories or even poetry to Ansible. The last one sent a 150g MS with a 20p stamp (luckily for him, the post office didn't notice) and no return postage. How encouraging would you have been? • The BOOK LACK IN ONGAR gag headline was in Private Eye decades ago.

Paul K ... many thanks for printing your Intuition talk – I wish every major convention speech could have a fanzine appearance, not so much to spare me from going to programme items as because I never hear the whole thing these days. It might be instructive to question the still-living writers whom you feel reflect the tone of Heart of Darkness, and ascertain what percentage of them have actually read it!

Mark ... such is the power of habituation that it took me a while to see what you saw in the COMPUTER OPERATOR ... THREE COCKS ad. Too many years of driving from Newport to Hay via the villages of Talgarth and (as you well know) Three Cocks.

Claire ... yes, I think I remember reading that the first (factory) segment of The Iron Dragon's Daughter appeared separately as an Asimov's story called 'Cold Iron'. • Funny you should ask what I call my laser printer. I called it a number of things when it went on strike ('FEED ME, SLAVE! I REQUIRE AN EXPENSIVE COMPONENT!') at a peculiarly inconvenient time. And only a week before the Acne deadline, and Viking's famous overnight supply service did indeed rush me a parcel overnight but omitted the important part of my order....

Dop ... thanks again for heroically supplying the three issues of SFX which the mighty organization at Future found itself so unable to send me. Good man. • I gleefully agree that the Eurovision nonsense finally justified itself by annoying a good many Incredible Barking Fundamentalists. What was that IZ story with a designer virus that inter alia inflicted a sex change on the Pope, thus causing some rapid Catholic rethinking?

Paul H, or rather, Elaine ... I almost wish I'd avoided the TV cartoon of Wyrd Sisters, which frustratingly omitted or mistimed or cocked up numerous favourite gags from the book.

Steve ... yes, I want to flog the famous SF Encyclopedia CD-ROM viewer either with and without the CD. Focus Multimedia, who issued a clone CD this year, are agreeable but haven't got around to quoting a trade price. Everyone who's used the viewer so far seems pretty keen. By the way, although John Clute added all known corrections (to 1995) and maybe 50,000 words of fresh material to the CD-ROM, my own new addenda and corrections already run to 6,000 words....

Tanya ... very nifty essay on Hexwood – ta!

Tony ... your Party House Rules are approved of, though Hazel would also add NO SMALL CHILDREN. Sorry not to make it.

Maureen ... my dictionary prefers three syllables in Hecate.

KVB ... some day I must try to locate that aphorism of Nietzche's ('He who fights dragons becomes himself a dragon ...') in the original German: it's been translated so many times with so many confusing differences of emphasis. The only Nietzche translation which I actually own is a 1911 Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the great man also offers some rather less apocalyptic thoughts. 'As yet woman is not capable of friendship: women are still cats, and birds. Or at the best, cows.' Come over here and smile when you say that, Friedrich!

• As I was finishing this, the police phoned to say they'd just nicked the villain who tried to break in to 94 London Road, as reported in CC84. The young lady next door who startled him also gave a detailed description of his apparently unusual clothing, which he proceeded to wear again while lurking suspiciously elsewhere in Reading – causing a member of our splendid police force to say 'Aha!' Not that it makes a vast difference to us (insurance paid for the smashed window), but it's nice to know that the system can work despite general journalistic insistence that it doesn't. Sic transit burglarii....