Beachcombing by David Langford
Live Thog’s Masterclass [extract]
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the wonderful world of Thog the Mighty. In case anyone doesn’t know the hideous background – I’m Dave Langford, I publish a nasty little SF gossip-sheet called Ansible, and one of Ansible’s most deplorably popular departments is Thog’s Masterclass. This is a showcase for memorable science fiction and fantasy quotations which have been hand-picked by that legendary barbarian Thog for being... differently good. Thog has an eye for the sort of prose which is best appreciated with a large spiked mace. Examples will follow, some of them not by Lionel Fanthorpe, some of them even not by L. Ron Hubbard.
To set a suitably low tone, I’ll begin with a few of Thog’s most cherished lines from the big names of fantasy, SF and even that mainstream stuff. Sensitive authors should already have left the room. As Erich von Däniken put it in Chariots of the Gods? – “It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.” Or to quote the series blurb for the Usborne Spinechillers imprint, these are “Full length spinetingling tales – too scary to read in the dark!” Here we go....
Now you may be asking yourselves, is Thog’s Masterclass just a sadistic exercise in tearing defenceless prose fragments from their literary context and holding them up to the cruel light of scorn? I’d like to assure everyone that that’s completely correct. One redeeming feature is that we are all guilty. Even John Grant, the original creator of Thog, woke up one day to find he’d written this about a tomboyish young heroine confronting the realities of life: “Then she would feel her breasts and discover that she lacked a penis...”
Authors who feel picked on can always blame the copyeditors, who in theory should spot these things. My favourite John Grant copyediting story involved his fantasy novel that included a city laid out in the shape of a vast magic sigil. The copyeditor thought this would puzzle readers, and improved the text so that the city was “laid out in the form of a giant seal”. Which you have to admit is substantially funnier.
The comforting moral is that none of Thog’s extracts are the responsibility of the authors, even if they wrote them. It was always the bastard copyeditor... as the authors will gladly explain, even if the copyeditor tells a different tale.
To digress for a moment, I once met a pathetic wreck of an man, all haggard and unshaven and with wild red eyes, who explained that he’d copyedited the British edition of The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan. This had been full of great lines dear to Thog’s heart: I’ll quote just a few.
What finally broke the editor’s spirit was the reaction when he pointed out one particularly striking Jordanism that went: “Elayne wished the woman would just revert to herself instead of bludgeoning her with a lady’s maid from the Pit of Doom.” Feeling that the image of bludgeoning someone with even an ordinary lady’s maid wasn’t quite right, our man queried the sentence, and the author agreed that a change was needed. It became: “Elayne wished the woman would just revert to herself instead of bludgeoning her with a lady’s maid from the Blight.”
Guessing at Computers
Real science fiction heroes think pocket calculators are for wimps. They prefer older technology. One of SF’s most fondly remembered magazine covers was painted by Frank Kelly Freas for Astounding SF (February 1959), illustrating Murray Leinster’s satire “The Pirates of Ersatz” with a kerchiefed space-pirate swarming through some ship’s airlock, blaster in hand and... a slide rule clenched between his teeth.
SF took a long time to shake off that damned slide rule. It was the distinctive badge of scientists and engineers, like a doctor’s stethoscope or a political fixer’s ever-whirling gyroscope (hence the term “spin doctor”). Even when imagining robots whose brain-sized computers had full artificial intelligence, early SF writers just couldn’t make the leap to desktop calculators and automatically provided their scientists with slide rules. In the same way, E.E. Smith’s “Lensman” space operas are full of far-future weapons technology that can shift planets and detonate suns – but library data searches still use unwieldy stacks of punched cards.
One thing the writers instinctively felt was that although robot brains could be small because robots would obviously be human-sized, computers that did actual calculations had to be enormous great things. The Games Machine in A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A is the size of several city blocks, and although its only function is to grade exam results, it’s mysteriously able to speak and understand fluent English. For more serious computing tasks like running a galactic federation, you clearly needed something along the lines of Supreme from Watchers of the Dark by Lloyd Biggle Jr. Supreme is so big that it fills the whole volume of an Earth-sized artificial planet, and its mighty intelligence is such that (just like the Games Machine) it never says anything helpful... just cryptic, oracular utterances to avoid making things too easy for the hero. Who, incidentally, is exactly the kind of person you’d expect the galactic council to call in to investigate a menace that gobbles worlds and has even Supreme baffled. He’s an American private eye.
If science-fictional computers are allowed to get even bigger than Supreme, they tend to develop delusions of grandeur. Fredric Brown’s utterly famous short-short story “Answer” features the networking of all the computers on all 96 billion planets of the universe. When the resulting superdupercomputer is asked the most traditional theological question of all, it replies: “Yes, now there is a God.”
When SF did start getting to grips with real computers, there was still a tendency to miss the point of what computer systems could actually do. Look at Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones from 1953, which in its day was praised for the tense realism of its spaceship navigation-room scenes. The interstellar hyperspace drive is controlled by a computer into which the hard-working team of officers must frantically enter course data for each carefully timed jump into the unknown. Sounds plausible enough?
On closer examination you realize that Heinlein hadn’t quite thought it through, and that the vital calculations are being done not by the calculating machine but by hand – using great big books of log tables. The ship’s Chief Computerman dictates to his highly trained team, telling them to look up (for example) “the binary natural logarithm of zero point eight seven oh nine two.” It’s not the raw data but these calculated results that get punched into the computer, which can’t even handle decimal input and has to be told the numbers in binary. What, if anything, it actually computes remains an unsolved mystery of space.
To be fair, Heinlein had good plot reasons for this peculiar setup. When the all-important books of tables go missing, the day can still be saved by the boy hero who knows them all by heart thanks to a photographic memory, hooray hooray. Other writers offered very much sillier computer designs.
Lots of them, for example, seized on the idea that a computer is implacably logical. Therefore, no matter how powerful the mechanical intelligence may be, puny humans can defeat it by unscrupulous use of our ability to cock a snook at logic. How can an AI shackled by pure reason cope with a cunning human’s ability to answer a straight Yes or No question with “Halibut” or “Teapot”? (Come to think of it, this sounds awfully similar to Roger Penrose’s argument against the possibility of strong AI in The Emperor’s New Mind....)
One example is Robert Sheckley’s story “Fool’s Mate”, which features a confrontation between vast human and alien space fleets whose strategy is controlled by supercomputers that can analyse and respond to any pattern of attack. Unfortunately, the gigantic strategic intelligences on both sides agree that our fleet is doomed and will be annihilated when battle is joined. Then along comes a problem-solving SF hero, turns off the human fleet’s battle computer altogether, and puts all ship movements under control of a literal lunatic. The resulting senseless, chaotic attack completely confuses the enemy supercomputer, which sits on its digital bottom trying to make sense of this insidious Terran strategy while bit by bit its fleet is blown to cosmic dust.
Because computers are so very logical, they may obey instructions even when you don’t want them to. Theodore Sturgeon wrote a shaggy dog story, “The Nail and the Oracle”, about an all-knowing Pentagon computer called ORACLE that refuses to answer helpfully when three US military and political high-ups demand advice on how they personally can gain power. ORACLE, it turns out, was forced to consider the big picture and the disastrous consequences for America if it gave useful answers, since as part of its input data it can see the once-traditional IBM sign on the wall, saying THINK.... Groan, groan.
(After being exposed to the horror of an office full of signs like that, SF author John Brunner wrote: “I went home and made myself a sign, which read THIMK. I looked at it for a while, and threw it away.”)
More typically, the SF hero is confronted with an evil, world-dominating electronic brain and resourcefully blows its mind by confronting it with, let’s say, the ancient paradox of Epimenides of Crete. “Accept input,” says our hero smugly. “Everything I say is false!” When the computer tries to process this, there’s a loud noise of crashing logic circuits, sparks fly from every console, and the malevolent artificial intelligence seizes up completely with its display showing the final, defiant message, “Please contact your hardware dealer.”
A similar approach is to sneak up on the despised computer with a cunningly phrased question that’s not so much too clever as too stupid for remorseless AI logic to handle. In one episode (“The General”) of that splendid cult TV series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan painfully types in the word “Why?” and – to the accompaniment of the usual unlikely pyrotechnics from all the control panels – totally destroys a hyperintelligent computer complex which might reasonably have come right back with “Why not?” Or, come to think of it, “Because.”
Sometimes, of course, blowing a computer’s mind may not be the most sensible thing to do. In Gordon Dickson’s story “The Monkey Wrench”, a smartarse chap shows off his human superiority by telling a perfectly harmless electronic “Brain” that “all the statements I make are incorrect”. Sure enough, the Brain hurls itself into an infinite loop and is unable to think about anything else whatever – which is somewhat unfortunate since the setting happens to be a lonely base on a very inhospitable planet. With the Brain no longer spending any time on its usual duty of maintaining a livable environment, there will very soon be a great shortage of heat, light and air... and, in due course, of too-clever humans. Take that, smarty-pants!
Instead of working out how to zap intelligent computers, a few authors thought about how they might possibly evolve without our having to build them – entirely untouched by human hands. James Hogan cheated a bit in his Code of the Lifemaker by giving his imagined robots a head start. These evolved from a self-reproducing alien “von Neumann machine” that went wrong and instead of making exact copies of itself started mutating and developing add-on goodies like robot sexual reproduction. All this evolution leads to social developments like robot sexism (no female machine even gets a speaking part) and, worse, fundamentalist religion propped up by a robot Spanish Inquisition. Entertaining but very, very silly....
A back-to-basics approach for evolving machine intelligence appears in Colin Kapp’s offbeat short “Getaway from Getawehi”. Getawehi is a deeply strange planet whose orbiting internal satellites of condensed matter make the whole world function as a super-powerful electrical generator. As a result, its metallic geology has evolved semiconductors which, to avoid getting melted by the huge currents surging to and fro in the planetary crust, convert and broadcast the power – so you end up with mountain ranges which are colossal radio transmitters and LEDs. Just allow Getawehi a few million more years of evolution and it might become a planet-sized mineral intelligence like the First Sirian Bank in Terry Pratchett’s high-spirited SF romp The Dark Side of the Sun.
Or perhaps we’d get smaller lumps of rock that are intelligent computers, as in respectable mainstream author Christine Brooke-Rose’s weird venture into SF with Xorandor. The title is the name given to the book’s sentient rock, consisting of the logic operators XOR AND OR – which has to be the least inspired SF nomenclature since a very early SF hero called his spaceship Astargo, “A-star-go”, geddit? The book is fun in a weird way, featuring fearful curse-words like “Booles!” and “Debug!”, but makes some really dumb assumptions about how the naturally evolved computer Xorandor must work exactly like our artificial, programmed ones, with “a mass memory and a scratch pad memory and a dynamic memory and an EPROM”, and people seriously asking “did he do his type-checking at runtime or compiletime.” Oh dearie me.
Meanwhile, in their satirical SF novel Wolfbane (recently reissued), Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth turned around the usual human/computer situation by introducing alien machines who wire people into their circuits as components – so, for a change, the oppressed human computers eventually rise up and revolt against the machines.
A quieter satire, Isaac Asimov’s “The Feeling of Power”, suggested a future where computers are so complex and so taken for granted that no one knows how they work any more and everyone has forgotten how to do elementary maths. (Are we sure he wasn’t writing about, say, 2000?) The story’s big military breakthrough is the rediscovery of mental arithmetic – wowing the generals with the exciting possibility that nuclear missiles can now be steered to their targets by cheap human beings doing sums in their heads, instead of expensive calculating machines. You just know that the next stunning breakthrough will be the reinvention of the good old slipstick or slide rule....
Which is where we came in.
Jack Vance – Maske: Thaery
First published in 1976, Maske: Thaery is one of Jack Vance’s solidly enjoyable mid-period novels but hasn’t generated a great deal of critical discussion. This may be partly because mentioning the title during a science fiction convention panel all too frequently leads to its being misheard as Mask Theory, whereupon everybody starts talking about “The Moon Moth” instead.
The background is outlined with familiar Vancean brush-strokes, such as Maske’s offbeat galactic placement as half of a double-planet system whose other world is Skay, and the characteristically unexpected but memorable choice of verb in our author’s evocation of spectacular nights when “awesome Skay trundles down the sky”. The presence of Skay also adds to the charm of some remarkable sunset descriptions. Stage-setting continues with folkways in the land of Thaery, specifically the long growing-up interlude of Yallow (see Glossary) which mingles poignant romantic idyll with community service and segues into the actual plot as our central character Jubal Droad’s innocuous Yallow task of road-mending is almost fatally disrupted by the villain and his marching “perrupters”.
The most distinctive feature of Maske: Thaery is this quirky hero Jubal, who like several other Vance protagonists is driven by vengefulness and righteous anger, but from time to time is not handled altogether seriously. That is, Jubal himself is entirely serious – and strong-willed, somewhere on the continuum between the sturdy arrogance of Sklar Hast in The Blue World and the gentle but firm obstinacy of Jaro in Night Lamp – but demonstrations of his pride and prickliness occasionally stray towards comedy. For Jubal, as he himself repeatedly declares, is a Glint from the remote province of Glentlin... and fiercely suspicious, rather like an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Scot in London, of those in the big decadent capital city Wysrod who fail – or look as though they might fail – to respect his status. (Probably, he thinks austerely, these Wysrodians also indulge in “faddish erotic novelties”.) This stern attitude leads to further early setbacks which are not quite pratfalls; but Jubal’s determination and resourcefulness, if not always his social skills, carry him through. Perhaps Thaery has an equivalent, with “Glint” substituted, of J.M. Barrie’s aphorism: “My lady, there are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.”
Jubal is well able to defend himself physically, as shown when he deals with a better-armed assassin and when (at the instigation of bad guy Ramus Ymph) Thaery’s privatized justice system wrongfully tries to inflict a “Well-Merited Extreme” punishment culminating with “thirteen applications of the bone-breaker” – though here Jubal needs a little help from a friend. Nevertheless our hero’s vow of vengeance against his mortal enemy doesn’t go so far as even to threaten violence. No Kirth Gersen he. Instead it’s all to be within the law: “I will never rest until I touch him with a warrant.” In fact his two most effective strikes against Ymph are simply well-timed denunciations. The word is mightier than the warrant.
Another interesting aspect of Maske: Thaery is its atypical handling of religion, assuming the mysterious belief-system of the Waels can be called a religion. Organized piety generally receives severe treatment in the Vance universe, whether it proves to be toxic and fraudulent like the Bezzler priest-caste in The Blue World and Monomantic Syntoraxis in Araminta Station, or merely ludicrous (though still toxic) like the Temple of Finuka in Emphyrio or the pseudo-austere Chilite sect in The Anome. Similarly tongue-in-cheek are the solemnities of Wysrod’s governance on Maske, expressing the pious hope that the Grand Unctator’s eulogy to a deceased politician will “guide his monic spire toward the Lambent Nescience”. But Vance is kinder to the Waels’ mystical association with their sacred jin trees, harmonizing with the ecological concerns that are central to the Conservancy in the later Cadwal trilogy. Ramus Ymph’s greatest crime, by far outweighing mere physical injury to Jubal, is his master plan to plant horrible commercial tourist complexes in beautiful and so far unspoilt areas of the world.
Occasional quiet fun with language includes the forename Ramus – a branch, the root word of “ramifications” – aptly given to the would-be entrepreneur described by Lady Mieltrude as “He who is most devious of all!”; the place name Mount Cardoon, suggesting exotic jewels or spices but actually the term for a plant resembling asparagus; the priestly title Grand Unctator, which does rather suggest that being unctuous is an essential job qualification; and the high-fashion headgear known as quats, meaning pimples or (in Shakespeare’s usage) insignificant nonentities. Even the dry bones of a travel-expenses schedule stir to life with an item of five farthings for Regalement.
The plot is a neatly crafted Vance plot, not over-elaborate, and can take care of itself. En route to the wry conclusion, there are many small treats and grace-notes. In particular I like to remember the elaborate pretence that Department Three of the Sanitary and Hygiene Office, the Thariot intelligence organization, is engaged solely in inspection of rural inns and that its agents’ martial-arts training is necessary to subdue the occasional unruly innkeeper; Scales and Balance of the Faithful Retribution Company, a solemn double-act of decorous torturers who are shocked, shocked to encounter wilful resistance to their brutal ministrations; a semi-idyllic episode of ocean sailing, Vance’s own hobby for much of his life; the horrific working-out of Wael justice, to the point where one actually begins to sympathize with the condignly punished villain; and the ultimate disclosure that Jubal, who at no point has accepted that he’s being paid enough for his efforts, has adopted the techniques of Cugel the Clever to turn a profit at last. One of Jack Vance’s better punchlines, guaranteed to leave you with a wry smile.
In the Victorian black comedy The Wrong Box (1889) by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, there’s a scene in which for mildly nefarious purposes a character has to adopt a false name and chooses one supposedly evocative of the music halls: “I shall call myself Vance – the Great Vance; positively the last six nights. There’s some go in a name like that.” In the music-hall spirit, then: here for your delight and delectation is a feast of fantastical fandangos, death-defying derring-do and virtuoso verbiage. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be amazed by The Great Vance!
Bob Shaw – Slow Pint Glass
The overall scope of Slow Pint Glass can be easily defined as fanwriting by Bob Shaw – other than the many times reprinted The Enchanted Duplicator (1954, with Walt Willis) – not already collected in our ebooks The Serious Scientific Talks (November 2019) and The Full Glass Bushel (July 2020). Ask Mummy to draw the pretty Venn diagram for you.
As Rob Jackson noted in his introduction to the previous ebook in this series, The Full Glass Bushel, Bob Shaw never wrote a formal autobiography but provided the makings of one in all the gently comic reminiscences that he published as fanzine articles found in that collection. There are many more such snippets from personal life in this new compilation, Slow Pint Glass, building up a larger – perhaps even 3-D – picture of this much-loved author and fan. (Or maybe that should read “fan and author”.) Appreciative readers can have fun connecting the dots. Sometimes an aside in one piece is illuminated by another: for example, a mysterious reference in the “Quotes and Nuggets” section to working on comic strips for an editor in Copenhagen is explained at length in “Mickey Mouse Works”.
Most of the humorists for which Bob shows admiration in the articles that follow – Patrick Campbell, Stephen Leacock, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Mark Twain – cultivated an air of bemusement at the vagaries of the weird world we live in. This was an attitude that Bob himself could always carry off brilliantly. What other writer, struggling with deadlines, would find himself fatally distracted by a noisy invasion of hot air balloons? Or be a fascinated eye-witness on the utterly memorable night when Brian Aldiss broke the bed? Or, in a perfectly ordinary visit to the loo at an SF convention, become entangled in the embarrassing toils of the Penis Fly Trap? See “The Writer’s Year”, “Once Upon a Tyne” and “Wetfoot in the Head” respectively.
Besides the many autobiographical fragments, there are excursions into other fanwriting genres. “The Fansmanship Lectures” and their much later follow-up “The Two-Year Warning” are creative pastiche, re-imagining the fiendish one-upping ploys of Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship and Lifemanship for the world of fandom. There is some fan-fiction, in the old sense of fiction about fans that elaborates on their mythic personas, including a couple of contributions to the shared world of John Berry’s Goon Defective Agency which rise above the general unfunniness (at least according to me) of that milieu. Several appreciations of fellow fans and authors combine admiration and even love with leg-pulling. For a change of pace there’s a handful of straight SF reviews – some written for Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction in its earlier and livelier years before the pall of academia descended – and these reveal much about Bob’s personal tastes in SF and feelings about how the genre works. Not to mention a Thoggish ability to pinpoint bad writing: I for one, ever since reading a particular review here, have restrained myself from writing sound effects like Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Clop-loppetty-clop. Further selections include letters, recipes, genial silliness, and the entire content of Bob’s only solo fanzine, the 1990 Perspex Parrot – which reads very like one of the finer multi-subject “Glass Bushel” columns.
Several of the 1950s articles and stories collected here are steeped in the mythos of contemporary Irish Fandom, of which Bob was a key member: that is, one of the Wheels of IF. His introduction to James White’s “The Exorcists of IF” (a tour de force of seriocomic fanwriting first published in 1975) includes a nostalgic potted history of IF and its Wheels, and with great magnanimity doesn’t even mention that James’s classic tale of a fannish haunting had been anticipated – with the same house plagued by the same spirits – in Bob’s own “A Chance of a Ghost” from 1957.
For an author increasingly under pressure to come up with entertaining fanzine pieces, Bob was surprisingly good at avoiding repetition – though in the later Serious Scientific Talks he made a virtue of recycling terrible old gags and puns for audiences that craved to hear them again and again, as with the Monty Python Parrot Sketch. The tale of how Bob became a hockey reporter in “By a Specious Correspondent” reappears with variations in “BoShcon Non-Speech”; but as Dr Johnson very nearly put it, in a free-for-all audience Q&A session a man is not upon oath. Bob could hardly avoid reworking his solitary James Blish anecdote from “Allies in Sunderland” for a command performance at a Blish memorial evening (“Beer”); and it was only while preparing this ebook that I noticed that our man had managed to oblige yet another demanding editor by lifting a few paragraphs from “Bicycle to Betelgeuse” (1974) and surrounding them with a new framework as “What Is Science Fiction? My View” (1979). But such instances are relatively rare. Despite a weakness for certain favourite set-pieces like the proper way to cook chips (delectably greasy, soggy and pale greenish-yellow), Bob usually worked hard, perhaps too hard, to give the fans something new. The demand never let up. Fandom can sometimes be thoughtlessly cruel.
An interesting example of drastic reworking is the development of “BoSh Tosh IV” into “BoSh of Arabia” in accordance with the theory of fanzine articles put forward in “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on My Way to the Typewriter”. After cutting a mass of well-written but tangential travelogue material – the atmospheric Bahrain nightscape, the extreme temperature and humidity – Bob restructured the incidents around the double theme of Skyvan planes (bringing in a new and chuckle-worthy anecdote) and the faraway “rock which belongs to John Berry”, which becomes the opening teaser rather than appearing only near the end. Thematic rearrangement of the earlier chronological telling allows “BoSh of Arabia” to end with a wry fannish tagline rather than the first version’s report of a grim aftermath (here downplayed and relocated as an earlier aside). It’s instructive to compare these two pieces.
In Slow Pint Glass a few clarifying footnotes have been inserted, always signed [Ed.]. Other footnotes were part of the original article or were inserted by the relevant fanzine editor, as indicated. Back in the mimeo fanzine days when everything was typed on to stencils, the emphasized words and any book, film and fanzine titles might be underlined or (because underlining was a bother and slowed the typist) written ALL IN CAPITALS. These capitals have generally been changed to italics along with all the underlining, but they seem such a part of the flavour of the first two “Fansmanship Lectures” in Walt Willis’s Slant – heroically published in letterpress, with underlines not possible and apparently no italic font – that they’ve been left as they were. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Here then is a huge cornucopia of fannish writing, not always for fanzines but always written for love rather than profit, by the late great Bob Shaw. In one of the pieces you will find below, he jokily suggested his own appropriate memorial:
David Garnett – Bikini Planet
Mr Garnett wanted a blurb rather than an introduction, with the special proviso that it had to be written without seeing the actual text. I gave it my best shot.
Afterword: Plague Year
Like most people everywhere, we’ve had a deeply weird 2020, at least since the last-to-date “ordinary” Ansible publication day on 2 March. But although from time to time I keep thinking it would be good to go to the pub with Martin [Hoare] and then remembering the two reasons why not, Hazel and I haven’t suffered too much during the lockdown in this plague year. Ansible continues monthly as an in-house operation, with the envelope-stuffing that once traditionally took place just before a pub lunch (always in Sweeney & Todd, Castle Street) now being done at our own dining table and followed by a cunningly simulated pub lunch.
Things I’d never before bought online: cheese, wine, pickled onions, more cheese, discounted postage stamps (sold by an outfit that buys the stocks of bankrupt philatelic dealers – many thanks to Esther MacCallum-Stewart for that tip), slippers, flour, socks and, now I come to think of it, still more cheese. There’s an eBay vendor who advertises 1.25Kg lumps and keeps customers happy by actually sending 1.44Kg of Double Gloucester or 1.65Kg of Red Leicester. With these already crowding the fridge, my downfall came with the overstocked Cornish Cheese Company’s desperation offer of five whole kilograms of their “mature” Cornish Blue at a knock-down price. Boy, was it mature, and it precociously continued to mature slightly faster than I could eat it.... We eventually threw out the final ounce or so of powerfully smelloactive cheese crumbs, but I am nervously aware that there are still a few lurking wedges in the freezer.
It felt particularly strange in October to venture with Hazel into Reading town centre for the first time since March. The Oxfam second-hand bookshop had opened again, and the manager confirmed by email that it was OK to bring in our traditional wheelie-case of purged duplicates, unwanted review copies and the like. Although the little shop is now properly set up with plastic screens and one-way arrows on the floor, this visit was made uncomfortable by the Oxfam volunteer in charge, who rather than staying behind the counter tended to follow customers around telling them interesting anecdotes, utterly inaudible to me even when (from time to time, at no one’s request) he came extra-close and pulled down his mask for greater clarity. I’d hoped to browse and buy stuff, but the feeling of “Help, help, I’m being oppressed!” was too strong. It was a relief to escape into the street. Conventions? I can’t bear even to think about conventions.
Besides the Ansible routine and the bimonthly “Ansible Link” digest for Interzone, staying at home a lot has given me plenty of time to work on the never-ending chores of the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which as I have often remarked has pretty well eaten my literary career since about 2005. Six million words as of July 2020, and although two-thirds of a million of them are by me, that’s a mere drop in the mighty bucket of John Clute’s contributions. Can I really have published no short fiction since 2011? On the whole it felt like a reprieve when in mid-2016 SFX magazine cancelled the regular column I’d been writing in every issue since their June 1995 launch, and spared me the increasingly difficult task of thinking up something newish to say every four weeks. Light relief and a measure of egoboo still come from further books and ebooks published by my own doomed enterprise Ansible Editions (see ae.ansible.uk).
AE titles published in 2020 for corrupt personal gain, with actual royalties paid to the authors’ estates, are the very fat Beyond the Outposts: Essays on SF and Fantasy 1955-1996 by Algis Budrys; the rather slim Puff Love by John Sladek, an offbeat detective story which was his last-written novel (the publishing world was apparently not ready for a reluctant amateur sleuth saddled with a chimpanzee sidekick); and the somewhat anorexic The Jonbar Point, at last collecting the two long Brian Aldiss essays from the mid-1960s SF Horizons that for reasons unknown had never appeared in his own nonfiction books. That last project was instigated by Chris Priest, who heroically wrote the introduction.
Another Ansible Editions time-sink is the compilation of more or less fannish ebooks for download at the unofficial TransAtlantic Fan Fund website at taff.org.uk (free, but TAFF donations are encouraged). This year’s offerings were Homefront: Fandom in the UK 1939-1945 edited by Rob Hansen (April), a worm’s-eye view of World War Two as seen through the eyes of many fanzine writers and editors; A Budrys Miscellany: Occasional Writing 1954-2000 by Algis Budrys (May), comprising a whole lot of fascinating material that didn’t make it into Beyond the Outposts; The Full Glass Bushel by Bob Shaw (July), at last bringing together all his “Glass Bushel” columns plus further fanwriting for the legendary fanzine Hyphen; and Slow Pint Glass, again by Bob Shaw (August), a huge mass of his other fan- and fan-adjacent writing not already collected in The Full Glass Bushel and last year’s The Serious Scientific Talks. Rob Jackson, who began his “Complete BoSh” project back in 1979 with The Best of the Bushel and The Eastercon Speeches, was my co-editor for all three Bob Shaw volumes. It’s been exhausting but great fun.
What next? I will tell you: Beachcombing, the volume you hold in your hand or perhaps squint at on your ebook reader. And in the near future I foresee the looming horror of a fourth ebook collection of Ansible, covering the decade 2011 to 2020, issues 282 to 401. It would be very rash of me to promise a fifth of these monsters in 2031. Probably I won’t act on the suggestion of the August 2020 dream in which a voice said clearly enough for me to remember it on waking, “If you wrote a book about John Clute, nobody would be punished.” What does it mean, Doctor Freud, what does it mean?
Many thanks for all the encouragement from kindly readers who have persuaded me to keep publishing for so long. You know who you are.