Cloud Chamber 97
August 1999

Criccieth contains the windiest, most exposed castle in North Wales, and is the setting of one of the few childhood memories that Hazel and I have in common: sitting with one's entire family in a stuffy car on the rain-lashed Victorian promenade, queasily consuming fun picnic foodstuffs, all lukewarm and exuding a powerful reek of Tupperware. Our latest visit was distinctly jollier, the disused chapel having re-opened as a books and collectables market, while an antiques fair was in operation down the road. Here Hazel was transfixed by the paralysing sight of real Roman coins, while I had an Edward Gorey experience on finding that the quintessential Gorey creepy-crawly (cf. The Insect God) actually exists and was on sale, mounted in a foot-long glass case. It was captioned 'Malaysian Tree Nymph'; the stallholder's price tag preferred 'Boxed Bug' (she had also carefully labelled numerous items of jewellery as 'Broach').

The pale-green beastie was about seven inches long and two across at its fattest point, with stubby wings and wing-cases, plus craggy legs extending it by further inches, and I realized we needed this for the spare bedroom. Hanging the case on the wall there would subtly deter visitors from outstaying their welcome. If it had insufficient effect, then one morning we could escalate matters (like all those Wodehouse squires leaving Bradshaw's timetable by the bedside or breakfast plate with the 9:30am heavily underlined: 'Excellent train. Highly recommended.') by substituting an identical case with the glass artistically broken and nothing inside.

Alas, Hazel nervously wouldn't let me buy the Malaysian Tree Nymph. She spent twelve quid on a 2nd-century sesterce of the Emperor Hadrian instead. There's no justice.

While away from the keyboard I also did some, well, keyboarding. It seems perverse to take a break from review-writing and write reviews, but there's a serious difference between those 200-word hit-and-run jobs for HugeSouthAmericanRiver and the more leisurely 1,000-worders that allow a few qualifications, mumblings about fine points, and even jokes. I found it about equally easy or difficult to spread myself about Stephen Baxter's Time (already 200-worded), new Canadian author Peter Watts's Starfish (read solely for the longer review) and Gene Wolfe's On Blue's Waters (read with no intention of a review, but I found myself taking notes), and will now do a Kincaid – as we call it here – by bunging in the Starfish piece. Thus I temporarily satisfy the Moloch-like needs of The New York Review of SF, Nova Express and Foundation, and continue to hope that the latter organ will see its way to rewarding reviewers by extending their subscriptions rather than mailing a superfluous second copy of the issue one has already paid for.

Spoiler, Spoiler. Skip this bit if you'd rather not know the Big Surprise of Sean Williams's enjoyable semi-noir sf thriller Metal Fatigue. When confined to that traditional 200 words I found it difficult to get to grips with my mild disappointment at the relevant plot turn. One important thread is pitched as a mystery story: how does the super-thief known as the Mole walk untroubled and (when he wishes) invisibly through every form of physical and electromagnetic barrier to commit his wickedness, without ever triggering alarms until he deliberately and mockingly does so on his way out again? The 'obvious' sf answer, in the light of facts recorded by perplexed police, would be that the Mole is a holographic projection given physical presence by force fields – which, however, are surely ruled out as being way beyond the technological level of the setting (post-holocaust USA just pulling itself together again). Presumably, as in many a mundane impossible-crime story, the Mole's secret is some ingenious trick that we and the cops just happen not to have thought of. Then, on pages 244-5 (of 392), Williams calmly indicates that one of the book's political factions happens to have mastered force fields and antigravity! OK, there are a few further twists beyond this soggy revelation, but I did feel let down.... • James Barclay's fantasy Dawnthief led to one of those moments where I didn't know whether to fling the book at the wall or, as a connoisseur of proliferating plot coupons, to be glad of another prize specimen that should be delicately transferred to the killing bottle. Dawnthief is the ultimate doomsday spell, the only thing that can deal with the very bad guys who've just escaped from their immemorial confinement, and to deploy the spell – stop me if you've heard this one before – you need to get hold of the dragon-guarded amulet that reveals the key to the dead wizard's hidden workshop that houses the dimensional portal leading to the demonic defender of the piece of parchment inscribed with the spell itself, whose activation proves to require no fewer than three 'catalyst' talismans (not talismen, though the author believes the plural of shaman to be shamen) which are concealed in widely separated and deeply unhealthy corners of the map, after which you merely have to fight through the entire Evil Army in order to detonate Dawnthief within the equivalent of Barad-dûr itself, etc. To be fair, Barclay puts a lot of energy into this and kills off his characters with a liberal hand; the attempt on Catalyst Talisman #1 turns into such a bloodbath that it seemed seriously likely that the quest would stop right there, with no one left to carry on. Now that would have been original. In the event, there's this spare wizard who proves to have a nifty touch with Cure Irrevocably Fatal Injury spells. Tra la.

Mailing 78, July 1999

Me. So last issue I also headed the mailing comments with 'July 1999'. Er, it was a pun, I tell you. Or maybe a palindrome.

Admin ... As communicated privately to Maureen – I forgot to put it in CC96 – I'm happy for Acne mailings to be archived for posterity in Memory Hole. • The famous Langford dollar conversion service is available to American Acnoids who, hem hem, may be having trouble with sterling payment.

Cherith ... incomprehension of or indifference to copyright and intellectual-property laws is fearfully common. There was a twit in comp.sys.amstrad.8bit who proposed to compile and sell a CD-ROM of Amstrad PCW magazine stuff, without bothering about permissions because it was surely all in the public domain now (PCWs presumably went off the market in 1929). In particular he could not understand why, since my long run of 8000 Plus/PCW Plus columns can be read for nothing on the Langford web site, he should pay permission fees or royalties to republish them for his own profit. Grump.

Chris H ... do I have to go to even one skiffy blockbuster movie this year? Had been hoping to get away with fewer. • The Sainted JMS seems to swallow anything the Sainted Harlan tells him: he went public on Usenet with a carbon-copy Ellison denunciation of Chris Priest's The Book on the Edge of Forever, which like many a mullah's tirade against The Satanic Verses contained no indication that he'd actually read it.

Lizbeth ... the Sayers girl-into-settee story is 'The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers', first piece in Lord Peter Views the Body. Yes, the unfortunate lady was electroplated. Gave me the creeps when I read it at an early age.

Andy ... spot-on about Lionel Fanthorpe not taking his hackwork seriously and laughing as much as we do at Badgeriana as well as most Forteana – although I think a few of his quasi-occult hobby horses (like the dreary Oak Island Money Pit saga) are pursued to the verge of barkingness.

Paul K ... I appreciated the private asides in that satisfyingly detailed piece on George Turner's Down There in Darkness. Hadn't been aware that The New York Review of SF dislikes negative reviews – I'm sure I remember some. Though I felt uneasy when I covered Fred Pohl's amusing but very minor O Pioneer! for them last year, and Tor editor David G. Hartwell passed back (through my usual NYRSF contact, Kevin Maroney) the suggestion that my views on this Tor book would read ever so much better if we dropped one mildly disparaging adverb. Thin end of the wedge, Mr Hartwell! • I also am repeatedly taken unawares by the multiple surprises in The Glamour.

Maureen ... huge thanks for the Philip Pullman essay. I too noted the 'amber/anbaric' echo in that crosstalk about electricity in The Subtle Knife. According to me, there's more of a tease going on here than you indicate. We don't know whether Lyra's identification of amber as 'electrum' – yes, a gold/silver alloy – is her error or another subtle difference between her world and ours. (I hope it's not a mistake of Pullman's!) Here the Greek for amber is elektron and led to the naming of static electricity, which can be generated by rubbing amber with silk. In Lyra's world, I'm guessing, the different course taken by natural philosophy has involved massive particles being identified first: the proton and neutron, collectively known in our physics (along with their rarer relatives) as baryons, Greek 'heavy things', as opposed to the leptons or 'light things' like electrons. So, speculatively, electrons were negatively defined in Lyra's world as 'not-heavy things', abaryons or anbaryons, leading logically enough to 'anbaric' for 'electric'. • I'm thinking of skipping the Glasgow Eastercon too, having discovered the necessity of coughing up a room deposit in order to find whether I can sleep in the only acceptable hotel. • You note the 'essentially "wooden" and static nature of the fleeing female figure' on Josh Kirby's first cover. Yes. He doesn't much like this one himself, it being what he calls watered down – the sf content kept low by editorial request in hope of attracting action-adventure fans. But the real key is that he trained as a portrait artist doing very static poses (he was commissioned improbably early in his career to do an official portrait of the Mayor of Liverpool) and spent the late 50s breaking loose into a more commercial style.

Steve ... after the palpitating excitement of being in Deathstalker Density (see A145), I really wasn't ready for that Langfordian guest appearance in the Frank Belknap Long epic. Clearly he was taking revenge in advance for my novel title The Space Eater, which I did believe to be original, only for scores of fans to point derisively to the FBL short 'The Space Eaters'.

Starfish by Peter Watts

Random Reading

John Mortimer, Collaborators (1973), a kind of 1950s kitchen-sink drama – yes, a playscript – written with 1970s advantages like hindsight and the ability to say 'fuck'. Black farce about what seems to be a mutually destructive marriage that's dying the death of a thousand quips, but still has enough inner binding energy to gobble up predatory outsiders and spit out the pips. • J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter books – which I found hugely entertaining despite the niggling sense that if these are such awesome bestsellers (the new one toppled even the dread Hannibal from its #1 spot), why haven't Diana Wynne Jones's broadly similar but even better fantasies like Charmed Life made her rich? No personal cavils about the books aside from their occasional slightly forced breathlessness, as though nudgingly insisting to readers that this is jolly good fun rather than relying on the fact that, indeed, it is. I liked the highly characteristic reaction of The Spectator, which found itself unable to recognize the existence of mere children's books without adding a doomy political spin. After handing out general praise and making the reasonable point that the bits about horrible relatives and exotic sweeties seem to have been lifted from Roald Dahl, Speccy columnist Philip Hensher performs a feat of selective analysis worthy of The Pooh Perplex, emerging with the warning that Old Labour and Tory parents should be wary of exposing their kids to these books, for they inculcate Blairite values. As distinct, I suppose, from the traditional Conservative stance of Hannibal Lecter. • Michael Bond, Paddington on Top – inoffensive, forgettable, already mostly forgotten. • Ivars Petersen, The Mathematical Tourist; snapshots of modern mathematics (1988), slightly outdated but pleasant enough pop-maths essays. This publishing subgenre tends to be repetitive, but I'm happy to pass over another bloody description of the bloody Mandelbrot set if only there are a few fresh angles and insights, as here. • Lindsey Davis, A Dying Light in Corduba and Two for the Lions, splendid entertainment. I take back those earlier grumps in Acnestis about Shadows in Bronze, the first Falco novel I read, which unknown to me did rather assume the reader's familiarity with the preceding The Silver Pigs. • H.R.F. Keating, Neil Simon's Murder By Death, bought in the hope that illustrious crime writer Keating could succeed in this novelization of a crap detective-movie farce. No, not really. Presumably he was stuck with the scripted dialogue of the thinly disguised detectives Poirot, Marple, Spade, Chan and Nick & Nora (here Dick & Dora, ho ho) who are jointly confronted with a crime devised especially to defeat them. This isn't a patch on Marion Mainwaring's much earlier Murder in Pastiche, or Nine Detectives All At Sea, which tries with considerable success to parody not only the detectives but the prose styles of Innes, Christie, Marsh, Spillane, Stout, Queen, Sayers and others. • Arthur Sellings, The Uncensored Man, midlist British sf from 1964. Scientist hero in deeps of Cold War paranoia is afflicted with messages from Elsewhere, discovers under LSD on psychiatrist's couch that Elsewhere is real ('... shortly after the injection you disappeared. Bodily.'), is harried as security risk, acquires super powers and mission to clean up Earth. Readable. • Philippa Pearce, Minnow on the Say (1955), her first novel, somewhat eclipsed by the fame of Tom's Midnight Garden. A pleasant and deviously clued treasure-hunt centred on a river, a canoe, two questing boys and more than one level of previous generations' secrets. • William Golding, Rites of Passage, opening his 19th-century nautical trilogy – I've had the second volume for years, but had been waiting for a cheap copy of book one to turn up. Strong stuff, starting as mere jovial pastiche and cramming a great deal of human comedy and tragedy into the 'uneventful' voyage to Australia of a smelly old warship turned passenger-carrier. • Lord Dunsany, The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders, episodic clubland fantasy which slightly rings the changes on the earlier My Talks with Dean Spanley (cleric recalls, when slightly tiddly, his past incarnation as a spaniel) by transmigrating the Colonel through a whole succession of animal embodiments. The trick, which Dunsany pulls off quite frequently, is to offer unexpected and engagingly plausible insights about the various beasties' lives.

Random Rereading. John Crowley, The Deep, the one Crowley novel that left me unmoved on first reading, despite the fact that I'm awestruck by almost everything else he's written (the exception among the novels being Beasts, which I merely admire without much liking). Same result 22 years later. Maybe it's just me. • John Barnes, One for the Morning Glory – enjoyed even more on revisiting, and I'll doubtless read it again some day. This is a fantasy of more or less indescribable charm; the frequent critical comparisons to The Princess Bride are accurate enough, apart from their inaccuracy. • William Golding, The Brass Butterfly, wickedly funny play about an ancient Roman inventor who produces the pressure cooker, steam engine, explosives, movable type and other marvels disastrously ahead of their time, and is ultimately sent away by the canny Emperor on a slow boat to China. Golding 'novelettized' this script as his story 'Envoy Extraordinary'. • Frank Herbert, The Dragon in the Sea, incidental research while reviewing Starfish. • And now ... Australia! Wish me luck.