Cloud Chamber 88
September 1998

The Hugo news (I was especially delighted for the Encyclopedia of Fantasy) was followed by good cheer about the Scribner's reference book and British Library collection of Jack Vance appreciations: my own essays have been approved, which certainly takes away the jitters. So I treated myself to a new toy and spent a happy afternoon playing at Iran/Contra cover-ups ... well, I've always fancied having my own shredder, and those little ones that balance on top of your wastepaper basket can now be had for less than £20. Although we're short of seriously incriminating documents, I'd been reluctant to throw out the dead files from Ansible Information Ltd in its glory days: all those dusty letters and order forms quoting credit card numbers.... As this stuff whirred to oblivion, Hazel bragged about her big Civil Service shredders which can swallow pennies without the slightest digestive twinge (staples are about the limit for mine). Which reminded me of one of the odder products I saw on sale in Minneapolis: officially shredded dollar bills, a prestige packing material that effortlessly outclasses all that mere styrofoam pasta. One imagines buyers patiently reassembling them like jigsaw puzzles.

Next, another brief break away from Reading: Hazel theoretically gets copious holidays, but is usually too overworked to take even a week all at once. Hence another Harlech sojourn (a word which Stephen Donaldson, to John Clute's eternal delight, believes to be a verb meaning 'travel' – day after day the fellowship sojourns from place to place, etc). Another round of postcards like the usual one to SFX: 'WE HAVE TAKEN YOUR COLUMNIST LANGFORD HOSTAGE. SEND UMA THURMAN GIFT-WRAPPED IN GOLD LAMÉ OR WE WILL GIVE LANGFORD BACK.'

While wandering the beach we invented a new game called bard-flinging. As any fule kno, the name comes from our natural habit of calling any washed-up mass of flotsam and jetsam a bard, based on Edward Young's dramatic poetic outbreak: '... What wrecks abound! / Dead bards stench every coast.' – duly indexed in The Stuffed Owl under 'Bards, dead, common objects of the sea-shore.' Hazel wanted a bit of strong nylon cord for some domestic purpose, and brightly coloured remnants of fishing-lines and ships' ropes are a major eyesore on Harlech beach ... so an expedition to look for some usable bits turned into a major and exhaustive bard-hunting crusade, hauling stringy nylon fragments from bardic masses of seaweed containing the occasional decayed gannet. You never know whether a tug at a half-inch stub will disclose a vast coiled entanglement or, well, a one-inch stub. Bard-flinging, soon to take its rightful place in the annals of sportsmanship between caber-tossing and dwarf-throwing, is the art of detaching great slimy fly-bedizened lumps of maritime glop from the current bit of rope by whirling it sling-fashion around one's head. Points are scored for distance covered by the hurled detritus, for spectacular impacts on innocent bystanders, and for not (a common beginner's problem) having the whole lot go down the back of one's neck. As soon as I've devised further unnecessarily complex rules and caught the attention of a future Olympic committee, bard-flinging will be the sport that makes Britain great again. It should be good for an OBE.

On the train home I finally got around to reading Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop and was delighted by its indication of the eternal popularity of serial killers. The highlight of Jarley's Waxworks immediately became my all-time favourite ...

'That, ladies and gentlemen,' said Mrs Jarley, 'is Jasper Packlemerton, of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping, in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. [...] Observe that his fingers are curled, as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders.'

Cabinet of Curiosities

Just a selection of oddments and quibbles from recent and not-so-recent reading, rereading and obsessiveness....

Invisibility. Hunting for stuff in old issues of Vector, I found Brian Stableford's 'Invisible People' article in V196. Er, I thought it a bit naughty of Brian to chastise Wells with the old 'an invisible man would be blind' taunt, without mentioning that Wells did try his best to fix this by making the 'tough' material of the retina stay visible. Then Brian praises C.H.Hinton's Stella at Wells's expense for having its near-invisible girl's 'eyes [...] retain sufficient opacity to remain sensitive to light'! And fancy talking about 'invisibility as a social and psychological metaphor' without citing G.K.Chesterton's pioneering of the concept in his Father Brown short 'The Invisible Man'.

One point where I felt Brian was simply wrong concerned 'achieving invisibility by the cultivation of super-speed – as employed in Jack London's The Shadow and the Flash'. I remembered reading that short story an incredible time ago (it was one of those Proustian moments: the dusty smell of old books in my grandparents' little terraced house up the valley in Croesyceiliog), and just checked my memory by downloading a copy from the Gutenberg Project. Yes: there are two brands of invisibility in the story, one dodgily based on achieving utter blackness that fools the eye (the snag being the chap's shadow) and the other on ultimate transparency (the snag being little refractive flashes when the invisible man moves). Super-speed is not an issue. Somewhere in the awesome depths of the Stableford erudition, a certain well-known comics character must have become cross-linked to the London title....

Jack Vance. Tiresomely, it turned out in recent researches that there are at least two versions of a favourite passage from The Dying Earth. This came as a surprise to his bibliographer, so maybe it's worth recording. In my oldest copy of the book, the augur in 'Guyal of Sfere' claims:

For the twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.

But in the reprint of this section in Fantasms and Magics, some hidden hand – presumably Vance's own – has changed it:

For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and decisive language; for ten I use a professional cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity ...

It's good to lose that first 'the' (implying that the price had already been stated, which it hadn't) and the repetition of 'language', but the first version's 'actionable' is so much more juicily Vancean than 'decisive'.

Next, a bit of buried fun in The Anome, whose young hero is undergoing penance from one of this religion-hating author's sillest cults, the woman-shunning and purity-obsessed Chilites. His salutary task is to learn a stupendously boring catechism, in the depths of which I eventually noticed ...

Q. What is the purpose of the Holy Receptacle?
A. In the dueness of time, a Perfection will be yielded: the fruit of Galexis
[the Chilites' goddess principle] and the males.

Which on reflection suggests that the pure ones' oft-mentioned drug-induced 'spasms' involve mass ejaculation into this Holy Receptacle. Or, as you might call it, the jackpot. Dearie me.

Greg Bear. Another tiny bit of teasing, in Eternity. Reading this for the second time and having in the interim caught up on Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, I finally twigged that if you try to visualize the described physiology of a captured alien 'Jart', the result is suspiciously akin to the early reconstruction of that little Burgess Shale beastie which struck everyone as so weird that it was named Hallucigenia.

(Later, after inferring a second row of 'tentacles' on top, the experts turned Hallucigenia upside down and eliminated the main oddity of a creature whose 'legs' were inflexible spines.)

This Bees Speech. While snarling at the newspaper crap about the new OED having finally 'permitted' split infinitives (isn't that a dreadful journalistic admission? 'My whole profession is centred on words and language, yet I have no notion that Fowler's Modern English Usage and scores of literary pundits repeatedly gave the nod to appropriate infinitive-splitting long before I was born'), I had the usual worry about my own grammatical prejudices. This time it's strong vs. weak verb forms. I dislike the strong past-tense 'dove' (consistently used by Douglas Adams) because that intrusive bird distracts from 'dived' ... yet irrationally I puke at 'shined' for 'shone' (consistently used by Greg Bear) and 'treaded' for 'trod' as in 'trod water' (that one's from David Brin). Even these Americans, of course, draw the line at 'finded' in place of 'found'. Next year, maybe.

Har Har in Harlech

Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K.Chesterton ... some new material here and there, but it's a standard Chesterton biography of the devout subvariety: pretty weak on literary analysis and insight, more or less OK at conveying the man's weird and wonderful personality, and rather too enthusiastic – for my own taste – about his later work as a Catholic apologist.

Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers ... a biography of Paul Erdös [the umlaut should actually be a double-acute], who until his death in 1996 was very much the mathematicians' mathematician, with 1,475 papers to his credit. There was an established joke of classifying the profession by Erdös numbers, assigned on the basis that if you're one of the astonishingly many people who published a mathematical paper in collaboration with Erdös, your EN is 1; merely collaborating with an Erdös collaborator gives an EN of 2; higher numbers correspond to lower status until we end up with nerds like you and me whose Erdös numbers are infinite. (SF criticism needs Clute numbers! Let's all work out our Clute numbers!) The book is strong in its portrayal of a true obsessive who used an extensive private terminology in which SF stood not for science fiction but Supreme Fascist, his phrase for God; and whose typical letters to friends would begin, 'Dear X, I hope you are well. Let G(m) be a graph of m vertices each of degree >=3 ...' The weakness of the book is that too much of Erdös's mathematical work was, or was regarded as, inaccessibly difficult: Hoffman mostly substitutes generic pop-maths padding about established favourites like Fermat's Last Theorem. One slight surprise for me was that the (Hungarian) name Erdös has an unlikely pronunciation, as commemorated in an insider limerick that also alludes to his numerous publications in offbeat countries and languages:

A conjecture both deep and profound
Is whether the circle is round.
In a paper of Erdös
Written in Kurdish
A counterexample is found.

The great man was desolated at being unable to fulfil this prophecy, owing to a lack of mathematical journals in Kurdish. He was brilliant, dotty, socially impossible (I envy his ability, on any formal occasion, to go apparently to sleep and get on with his work of doing maths), and evidently much loved by everyone in mathematics' inner circles.

David Brin, Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore, Heaven's Reach ... nearly1,900 pages of colourful, large-scale space opera in the 'Uplift' sequence, made a little difficult to follow by (a) the sharing of the narrative among hordes of human and alien viewpoints, and (b) my growing sense that there was just too much scantily explained back-story for this to be the expected stand-alone trilogy. Sure enough, one plot strand turned out to be a continuation of Startide Rising (which I'd never read but hastily caught up on), with the human- and dolphin-crewed starship Streaker carrying a mysterious McGuffin which half the galaxy is chasing. Brin milks implausible premises for lots of large-scale action, throws in Whopping Concepts and what Bob Shaw called 'wee thinky bits', reshapes the entire universe by trilogy's end, and leaves the precise significance of that bloody McGuffin still unresolved. Incidentally, in Startide Rising he inserts some dire bits of fun for the fans by making one serious military ruse rely on supplies of the joke element unobtainium, and stipulating that a sapient dolphin is colloquially known as a fin, with the plural thus being fen. Enough, since I feel a Brin-related column for Odyssey beginning to come over me....

Also Read, but without my having a huge lot to say ... E.F.Benson, Lucia in London ... 1920s comedy of snobbery and rampant social climbing; either it's funnier than its predecessor Queen Lucia or I was feeling more receptive to such stuff. Roald Dahl, Boy and Going Solo, unusual autobiographies, the first told as a children's story. Also Danny, the Champion of the World, a delightful paean to pheasant-poaching and the wonderfulness of having a father who preys in this way on the unsympathetic rich. A certain strange familiarity about parts of this eventually became clear when I realized Dahl had lifted the central poaching gimmick and about half the plot from his short adult story 'The Champion of the World'. Wolcott Gibbs, Season in the Sun ... 1947 collection of oddments by one of the unsung (as compared to, say, Thurber and White) contributors to The New Yorker in its great days; another triumph for the Brian Ameringen Book-Finding Service! Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera ... one of those books one feels one knows all about, just by cultural osmosis. But there's even more melodrama than expected, plus bizarre surprises like the Phantom's virtual-reality torture chamber. (Well, sort of.) Bernard Levin, Enough Said, avowedly his last collection of journalism – maybe just as well, since he's getting fearfully and repetitively doom-laden about the human condition and the state of the nation. Patrick O'Brian, The Hundred Days ... well, I would, wouldn't I? Kim Stanley Robinson, Icehenge ... after the first section's well-handled but rather routine themes of mutiny in space and escaping from oppression to the stars, I like the way part 2 grapples with the difficulty of establishing part 1 as true history in a political climate which prefers a different past, and then part 3 proceeds to undermine the 'true history' which until then we've taken at face value. Clever stuff. Robert Robinson, Prescriptions of a Pox Doctor's Clerk, essays (most intendedly funny, many actually so) plus oddments like an interview with Borges. Dornford Yates, Berry and Co. (short stories) ... sheer froth, often with not quite enough plot per story, but more fun than the 'How I Built My Dream House In France, Brick By Relentless Brick' longueurs of my previous sampling, The House That Berry Built. Undemanding holiday reading, evoking poignant memories of ghastly long-ago family excursions which I survived by soaking up vast seaside pools of vaguely similar stuff by Leslie Charteris, Edgar Wallace, etc etc.

Reread (Holiday Indulgence). Greg Bear, Songs of Earth and Power – special thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden for making sure I saw the revised edition of what, despite the claims of a UK copyright page, has still appeared here only in the original form. Arthur C.Clarke, The City and the Stars. John Crowley, Little, Big – 16 years since I read the first British edition, and it still overwhelms me. (I keep being tempted to draw up an immense chart of the Carrollian parallels, which would be far more voluminous than the Zindell/Herbert links I was idly listing in CC85.) Carter Dickson, The Judas Window. J.E.Gordon, The New Science of Strong Materials ... no longer 'new' but a popular-science classic. George Orwell, Collected Essays ... with grumbling thoughts about the publishers who have just issued a Complete Orwell at £750 when what I want is Orwell: The Previously Uncollected Bits In One Handy Volume. Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound and Jumpers. James Thurber, Thurber Country.

Rethinks. Maybe I should be sticking in little health warnings to the effect that Langfordian snap judgements here are not necessarily engraved in stone. Having blown off steam about one aspect of Lindsey Davis's 'Falco' books (the use in a Roman context of specifically 1930s-US tough guy diction), I'd still rather like to read more. Hazel the classicist had good fun on holiday with the same two books, with special glee in being able to spot the historical source texts or images behind certain set-pieces; from the awesome standpoint of her erudition, the main stricture was, 'It's a bit soppy in places...'

Mailing 67 (August 1998)

Lizbeth. Dr Johnson defined a curtain lecture as 'A reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed' – the curtain is a bed-curtain. The Punch humorist Douglas Jerrold published a whole book of ghastly over-the-top wifely rants as Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures (collected 1845) – a crystallization of the Eternal Nagging Wife cliché in its Victorian incarnation.

Andy B. My own most irritating lingering memory of Clarke judging isn't of anything in the secret deliberations themselves, but of a certain administrator instructing the judges beforehand that Greg Egan's Permutation City was no good and that they shouldn't bother reading it. I still resent that, since I felt it deserved the honour of at least being shortlisted.

Michael. That's an interesting view of Dry Water, which just came to my attention as the book that made it on to the World Fantasy Award shortlist when another title was deemed ineligible. Like you, I enjoyed Earthquake Weather a lot, which gives your Dry Water comparisons great Langford credibility!

KVB. Loren Eiseley's The Unexpected Universe was the first of his books that I came across, and impelled me to hunt out the rest. Full of nifty passages, and even semi-comic scenes like that bit in The Immense Journey where Eiseley's explorer friend tries to explain why he's so bothered to have found ambulant fish lurking in the branches of mangrove trees. Leading to the comment:

... The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back to the water. There are things still coming ashore.

As for the celebrated rose-red city half as old as time, John Julius Norwich's commonplace books record another lightning impression that was published by Charles Johnston under the title 'Air Travel in Arabia':

Then Petra flashed by in a wink.
It looked like Eaton Square – but pink.

Cherith (and others who expressed sympathy): many thanks, and yes, I really am OK now. Just a tiny scar on the wrist. • Hey, I tracked the Aged P. to that same lair in the June mailing!

Claire. Reading in the wrong order: I remember, a long time ago, looking at random into G.K.Chesterton's The Flying Inn and getting hooked, so that when I got breathlessly to the end I had to go back and discover the beginning....

Dop. On The King in Yellow: there's a hard-to-find James Blish story called 'More Light' which uses the evil MS (of which Blish supplies further extracts) as chief prop in a plot that plays around with the idea of a not-too-long text that's still literally impossible to finish reading at a single sitting.... • But I leapt from my chair with a cry of 'Argh!' on reading your footnote about a Bibliography of Imaginary Books, since one of my pet unsold projects is The Book of Imaginary Books. Back in 1980 my old fanzine Twll-Ddu had a little competition, effortlessly won by Roz Kaveney, to identify the internal section titles: The Inexorability of the Specious, Negations, Profiles in String, Concerning Spring, This Bees Speech, Tentative Restoration of the Lost Books of Elephantis and The Higher Common Sense. Can the great minds of Acne spot them all? Further contributions to my own list of imaginary books are welcomed ... you may assume that I've read the Encyclopedia of Fantasy BOOKS entry! • My favourite line from the Chambers stories is the one which all too accurately describes post-creation blues: 'The author shot himself after bringing forth this monstrosity, didn't he?'

Steve. The Langford Random Textifier also has a deplorable post-structuralist lexicon, which in the presence of the academics I am always swift to blame on its creator Chris Priest:

A predestinatory cognitive society might radically be repressive. Habermas's example precedes totality. The ortho-metapsychological criterion is neo-emblematically quasi-relativistic. The humanistic society of Foucault desires universality. A modern madness ortho-societally externalizes any precessional formation. This subconsciousness might post-societally disintegrate any motivatory or independent immanence. The metonym of Sartre negates being.

... And so on, forever.

Paul K. You make me want to sneak off to a quiet place and read Harry Warner's A Wealth of Fable again. Terry Jeeves's lack of enthusiasm for 'The Star' – even with 42 years of hindsight since its Hugo win – naturally makes me wonder which widely praised 1990s sf/fantasy stories will have sunk without trace a few decades further along, and which seeming no-hopers will be revered. Will the biggest sf promotion of 2032 revolve around the 50th anniversary of Battlefield Earth? Er, I wish I hadn't thought of that ... it sounds too plausible!

Photo sent by Bruce Pelz.