Cloud Chamber 99
October 1999

Phew. The usual start-of-month work of assembling Ansible and the Interzone column was specially difficult this time. Since I'd covered my Australian absence with the frivolous Ansible 146, there were two months of news to cram into #147; but arrangements to delay the previous Interzone piece and allow Aussiecon coverage left me with only a rather barren three weeks' worth of material for the latest column. Happily I realized I was writing for Interzone 150, the last of the millennium, and invented a wholly fictitious celebratory party.... Which set me thinking numerological thoughts, such as whether Ansible 150, now not far away, might be a good time to stop. As you might imagine, it's the obituaries that get me down. However, as long as dear old Interzone continues and David Pringle wants to run my page, I need to spread newsgathering tendrils across the sf world – and Ansible is a reliable generator of news- and rumour-filled correspondence.

One tiny aspect of the Hugos that I failed to gloat over (or express bogglement at) last month was a surprise or two lurking in the detailed statistics released after Aussiecon. I certainly hadn't expected my Lovecraftian tale for SF Age to miss the final ballot for Best Short Story by a mere four votes – still less that my Starlight 2 contribution should have been just one slim vote short of the same category. Vast amazement! It was nice, if slightly guilt-making, to see Maureen in second place – ahead of all those mere Americans – in the final count for Fan Writer. I would have rather liked to lose to Maureen.

Was it Tanya who grumbled about all the not very relevant synthifoxhunting in Elizabeth Moon's Hunting Party? I read the whole trilogy for the usual reasons of corrupt personal gain, speed-reading through the horsy bits, and was goaded by the final book Winning Colours to do something unprecedented in my critical career: e-mailing the author to ask what the hell actually happened. Spoilers follow. Winning Colours features a seemingly hopeless space battle in which various ingenuities may deal with the evil mafiosi's lesser craft, but there's this sodding great flagship which outclasses everything else in view. One minor 'enemy' ship has switched sides after a mutiny of the virtuous, but it is openly agreed by all concerned that this little vessel is of no more than slight nuisance value. Its commander is last seen with absolutely no idea of what to do. At this stage, the captain who is the series heroine (a) wishes the small craft would at least make a nuisance of itself and divert the villains' flagship from its current pastime of pounding her own ship to pieces; (b) is like everyone else totally dumbfounded when said 'nuisance value only' craft blows the big, bad, massively-shielded flagship apart: (c) shows herself baffled and resolved to find out how this remarkable thing was done. And then, and then, after 70-odd more pages ... the book and the trilogy end with no one, including the reader, any the wiser.

Replying to my little whinge on this topic, Elizabeth Moon expressed surprise that anyone should be bothered about that kind of detail. Eventually she agreed that maybe she'd whipped up too much narrative suspense for the explanation – along the lines of 'commander performed absurdly risky doubletalk manoeuvre and was dead lucky' – to be safely omitted from this book. [Later: apparently there's an explanation in the spinoff novel Once A Hero.] It was, in a way, a relief that all this was a miscalculation and not one of those Gene Wolfe enigmas which are perfectly plain if only you read Attic Greek, are conversant with the lives of several dozen lesser saints, and know all the Oz books by heart.

Reading Matters

HugeSouthAmericanRiver. Assorted novels for review, including: Anne McCaffrey, Nimisha's Ship ... alas, the dear old girl seems to have entirely abandoned any pretence of danger, drama or conflict, in favour of wall-to-wall romantic niceness. The heroine may fall through a wormhole and find herself in a remote corner of the galaxy, but the nearest planet's menaces consist only of leathery-winged avians who are too easily shot down by her space-yacht's superb AI, midget aliens who are too easily befriended, and a tiny party of human castaways whose nicest male member becomes all too rapidly the father of Nimisha's second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth babies. Her first provides the remaining slight trace of tension: will this girl be reunited with Mummy in time for her all-important Impression – er, I mean coming-of-age ceremony? So help me, even this last feeble thread of suspense is vitiated by the rapid discovery that darling daughter (conveniently located aboard a rescue ship coming by the slow route) can be popped into suspended animation and kept one day short of her 14th birthday for as long as necessary. Ahh. • R.A.Salvatore, The Demon Awakens ... the prologue duly begins 'The demon dactyl came awake.' (you may think a dactyl is a finger or a tum-ti-ti foot in poetry, but here it's the whole demon) and ends, after three pages of perfervid exultation over the trouble this is going to cause, 'The dactyl came awake.' In between we encounter Thog's Comma Masterclass: 'Shining, too, were the demon's eyes, pools of liquid black at most times, but shifting to fiery red orbs, living flames, when the demon was agitated, a glow of absolute hatred.' In due course, on page 226, the bad news of the demon's wakefulness leaks out to the general public, or at least to one renegade monk: 'The dactyl was awake! / The world did not understand the coming darkness. / The dactyl was awake! / The Order had failed; their weakness had facilitated this tragedy! / The dactyl was awake! / Avelyn [the monk] ran off – one direction seemed as good as any other. He had to tell the world of the evil. He had to prepare the men and women of Honce-the-Bear [a country] and all of Corona [a world]. He had to warn them of the demon, warn them of the Order! He had to somehow show them their own unpreparedness, their own weakness. / The dactyl was awake!' Need I add that a huge magical amethyst of unknown powers, which this monk has intuitively lugged around for most of the plot, proves in the climactic confrontation to be a Blow Up Demon's Entire Volcano Stronghold charm? Or that with sequels in the pipeline, the final pages pose these ominous questions: 'What of the dactyl? Had the creature been consumed, or had it merely flown away before the blast?' Why am I reading this? For the money, of course. • William Gibson, All Tomorrow's Parties ... much more fun to read, and pretty well exactly what you might expect of a double sequel, to both Virtual Light and Idoru. • China Miéville, Perdido Street Station, a big, sprawling and quite horribly inventive urban-Gothic fantasy, full of seedy technology and thaumaturgy. which will surely attract a lot of attention when it's published in March. It could even be a fantasy Book of the Year.

Other reviews. • Brian Stableford, Architects of Emortality, for Foundation. Brian has been entertainingly grumpy about David G.Hartwell at Tor vetoing his preferred title The Flowers of Evil (this novel being all about seductively murderous biotechnologies in a fin-de-siècle future, with a kind of serial killer pursued by people who just happen to be called Holmes, Watson and Oscar Wilde), with the compromise title eventually including 'Architects' because – gosh wow, inspiration! – there's a building in the cover picture.

From (mostly) second-hand bookshops. • Howard Jacobson, Roots Schmoots, humorous novelist's alternately comic and scathing examination – in Britain, the USA, Israel and Lithuania – of what his Jewish origins actually mean to him. Compulsively readable. Surprise, surprise: the fundamentalists give him the creeps, and even his vast cynicism blows a fuse when the Torah (which does after all include the Ten Commandments) is openly interpreted by the Israeli far right as an unlimited licence to slaughter Arabs. Obscure fannish datum: I met HJ when long ago he was best man at Peter Nicholls's wedding. • Simon Brett, Situation Tragedy, another exploit of seedy actor-detective Charles Paris. As usual the incidental showbiz satire is the best part, as a dire TV sitcom goes into production with 63 time-tested gag-lines per episode, eked out with copious canned laughter. Bizarrely motivated murders intrude. Of course. • Stephen Fry, The Liar, his first novel: unreliable and often very funny story of a fluent and pathological liar sinking through school and college into espionage – which last over-the-top section makes me suspect our author is a fan of The Man Who Was Thursday. The earlier comedy is somewhat darkened, if you've read the autobiographical Moab Is My Washpot, by the seeming fact that its worst excesses and humilations come straight from Fry's own life. • J.B.Priestley, Let The People Sing, vaguely formulaic – for this author – stuff about a gang of misfit entertainers rallying a small town against that most terrible of all evils, the local market hall's loss of its music licence (engineered by, simultaneously, a brutish US-owned plastics factory and the local snobocracy). • Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking ... despite a certain engaging anarchy, this struck me as one of those kids' classics (all right, classic in Norway) without much to say to us boring old post-adolescents. • Arthur Marshall, Sunny Side Up, a pleasant collection of funny columns, eccentric reviews and unlikely facts. Did you know that Rupert Brooke was able to pick up a tennis ball with his prehensile toes, and had a party trick of striking a match held by one foot on a matchbox held in the other? • Nancy Mitford, The Water Beetle, essays. I liked her 1954 diary of a trip to Russia, where she learned that the forbidden imports that most worried Soviet Customs were wormwood roots, reindeer horns and spotted deers' antlers. At Lenin's house: 'On the walls there are photographs of Lenin's funeral. Six out of the eight pall-bearers have since been liquidated; they have also been erased from the photographs, so that it looks as if Stalin and one other man are carrying the coffin between them – making a very odd effect.' Especially if they were both at the same end. Likewise, at a Moscow art gallery: 'The more popular of these pictures are very droll. There is one of Ivan the Terrible killing his son. But Ivan is being rehabilitated, so the picture is now called Ivan the Good rendering first aid to his son.' • Stephen Leacock, The Penguin Stephen Leacock, fat collection of work by the Canadian academic and humorist best known for his classic Nonsense Novels (1911); the more leisurely and autobiographical stuff here was new to me. 'The malicious word "smattering" was invented to warn off amateurs and outsiders from the field of knowledge. As a matter of fact there is nothing like a good smattering of as many things as you can smatter.' Oh yes. • Charles Osborne, W.H.Auden: The Life of a Poet, a good solid biography that displays plenty of the great man's quirkiness without letting it dominate the book entirely. I must confess I handled my tutor at Oxford with rather less self-confidence than the young Auden dealing with Nevill Coghill: 'One day, Coghill arrived late for a tutorial to find Auden already there, sitting at his tutor's desk and reading his letters with an air of great concentration. Looking up, Auden said, "Ah, you're here. Good. What have you done with the second page of this letter?"'

Mailing 80, September 1999

After a burst of post-Australian hyperactivity (which in the end totted up to 15 reviews, five magazine columns, an interview with Terry Pratchett, a survey of horror/Gothic fiction for the Penguin Classics website, an Arthur C.Clarke profile for some Guardian sf feature, a contribution to an sf Birthday Presentation Book which is still top secret, a handful of software orders, a VAT return, and Ansible), I'm feeling curiously slumped and inert in Acnestis Deadline Week. Just a few slim comments on this predictably slim mailing....

Penny: strange that Alan Garner's Holly from the Bongs should be billed as having its world premiere at this year's Edinburgh Festival. It was published as a 'nativity opera' (which I must admit sounds deadly beyond belief) in 1966, with a score by William Mayne, and reissued in different form in 1974. Perhaps it's just never been done in a theatre, only in church halls and places? • Paul K: I was grateful to be able to read your talk 'What it is we do when we read science fiction' in Acnestis – and likewise Bruce's nifty Fan GoH retrospective about Australian fandom, on the Aussiecon 3 Post-Con Web Page – because I'm perpetually embarrassed at being so rarely able to follow sustained presentations like this even from the front row of the audience. At last I can say: good stuff! And now I have a new, slightly more powerful hearing aid, and will try again at Novacon. • The latest Lindsey Davis, One Virgin Too Many, is indeed set in Rome again, with exhaustive historical detail about the habits and accommodation of Vestal Virgins mingling with episodes of outright farce. But I wouldn't call the plot particularly strong. • Chris H: the Banach-Tarski Decomposition, whereby you can in theory take apart a solid sphere and reassemble it as two identical to the original, appears as a minor plot point in Rudy Rucker's infinity-ridden novel White Light. • It is whispered that ever since The Truman Show beat out a certain B5 episode which began with more first-place votes, the great JMS has been suggesting that the transferable-vote counting used in the Hugos is very wrong and wicked. • KVB: a footnote to your enjoyable article on non-free verse is that (as you'll know, but others may not) Auberon Waugh's The Literary Review has a regular competition for poetry that scans and rhymes. Although Waugh's mock-Blimpish scorn for other verse forms can be tiresome, the submissions are often rather good. Hazel reads every one. • Maureen: am delighted that you did manage to visit Strandloper country in Australia! • Steve: when I saw Dick Jude last week he rubbished the Josh Kirby book, saying in so many words that this load of tat would sink without trace if not for my commentary. Oh dear. A balanced compliment....

Teddy Harvia's inscrutable comment on the Hugos.