The material in ttba is copyright © 1992 the contributors (David Anderson, Josie Leah Collins, Simon Pick, Gareth Rees, Helen Steele, D West, Michael Williams). The material in this file may be freely copied for private enjoyment or research but may not be republished (e.g., in printed or CDROM versions), distributed in modified form, incorporated into other works, or quoted out of context without the express written permission of the copyright holder(s).
If you have read all this explanation ad nauseam before, then skip to the end of this editorial, because there's only the stuff about the University Library next.
There are abundant back issues of ttba available. The University Library has a sizable collection. Volumes 1-8 (1974-1981) are located in the Rare Books Room (classmark cam.a.21.9); volumes 8-18 (1981-1991) are found at the periodicals desk. The only issues missing from this collection are volume 4 numbers 4 and 5, volume 5 number 5, and volume 11 number 3. Copies of these `lost issues' would be gratefully received by the editors! The ttba editors also have a collection of back issues, and some copies are in the CUSFS library.
All members of the society are welcome to contribute to the magazine - short stories and reviews are the usual form of submissions, but we also like feedback on the magazine, so why not write to us or email us and tell us what you think so we could use it in the letters page. For the first time in its history ttba is taking in advertising, which will translate to a greater page count in future issues, or more issues per year, but that depends on your contributions. Submissions are of varying standard, so please go ahead and write something.
Reviews seem generally competent; fiction seems generally not good. Cover for 93 a great improvement on 92 (which included just about every possible mistake) but could have done with lessragged penmanship - a design like that has to be smooth. Layout is neat enough, but in terms of readerappeal about as exciting as a 19th century newspaper. Not much point using A4 if you aren't going to do anything with it. (But no point at all in using bad art). Indeed, the double columns are another strike against the fiction - I suppose I'm too habituated to books to fancy fiction in this form, even in Interzone. Wordprocessing is no help, either. Spacing between words is too tight everywhere and there are far too many oneword lines.
This time around it was Andrew Adams of Leeds University who took up the challenge and voted himself Secretary of the Association which he had christened with such a chunky name. After months of arguing by electronic mail, the first AGM took place this August at Scone, the 1992 Unicon (Universities' sf convention) in Glasgow, at which I was unlucky enough to be one of the five delegates who managed to turn up.
The NSSFA is an organisation whose members are sf societies at universities and colleges. As far as I know, the current members are Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford, Warwick, Cambridge, Glasgow and Strathclyde. They pay a subscription fee of 5 pounds to the Secretary (the Association's only officer, elected each year at that year's Unicon).
So what is the NSSFA for? The secretary produces a newsletter giving details of events held by the member societies, and the Secretary will doubtless claim, were you to ask him, that he will be serving a valuable purpose by providing information to societies on how to run their societies, how to get sponsorship, how to put on films and so on. But the real reason? Well, don't let on that I told you, but the real reason is this: the NUS will fund the officers of a student society to attend the annual conference of the national organisation that their society belongs to. So for officers of an sf society the natural organisation is the NSSFA and the conference is the Unicon.
"Hang on," asks the reader at this point, "I pay my 3 pounds 50 pence to the CUSFS committee and they go and spend it on the subscription to this NSSFA so that they can get a free trip to the Unicon? Ain't that just typical?" But don't get apoplectic too soon. There's a minimum number of universities that have to be involved in an association before the NUS will start funding trips to conferences. And I remain sceptical as to whether the NUS will ever consider funding science fiction societies: I will believe it only when I see it (but if you think it impossible, you should note that the Leeds SF Society gets so much money from their Union that one year they found themselves with 200 pounds spare at the end of the year with only a week to spend it and thus avoid having next year's budget trimmed).
Why is CUSFS in the NSSFA? Out of a sense of duty, mostly, and a feeling that if something is going on in student fandom, then Cambridge ought to be involved. There's always the chance that the NSSFA will turn out to be something useful and valuable.
If I get any more information from them, I will pass it on to you. In the meantime, you can quiz me or write to the new Secretary of the Association, Alan `Sparks' Rennie, 31 Mary Wood Square, Shawlands, Glasgow G41.
Oh, and I nearly forgot. The 1992 VicePresidents of CUSFS, elected by means of the Great Death Game, are:
J Danforth Quayle
Something that Paul Treadaway doesn't know about
The society has around one hundred members; one quarter of which are postgraduates or working. However, CUSFS is not dominated by nonundergrads, and the advantage of the postgrads to our society is that we can meet out of Full Term.
The Constitution of CUSFS is the rules that we are run by, and it has
been (almost) the same since 1973 when it was written. Copies of the
document can be obtained from any committee member, or accessed from
the phoenix system by those with an id. from the file
CUSFS.PUBLIC.TEXT:CONST. But be warned, it contains some
of the most cringeworthy `jokes' that you'll have heard in a long
The Fortnightly Discussion Meetings alternate with Jómsborg and are held on Sundays at 830pm. Authors are the usual subject of discussion, although other forms of media such as sf on TV or in comics are debated. The topics are decided at committee meetings a term in advance and are announced in the missives. Suggestions for discussions are welcome and may be made to the Chairbeing or any other committee member.
Social Meetings in Full Term are held at the delightful venue of New Hall College Bar, where sf is sometimes discussed but usually large quantities of cider and Newcastle Brown Ale are quaffed, increasingly boisterous pool games are played, and library books you desperately wanted to own (but didn't realise it) are raffled off. Outside Full Term the society lurks off to a genuine pub to drink palatable beer, usually the Ancient Druids on Napier Street, near the Grafton Centre.
The CUSFS Library is the pride of the society, with over 2500 books, but is unfortunately rather underused. It is located in the Reference Room at the Union Society (you do not have to be a member of the Union to get access to it), and is usually open every day (except Sunday), 2-4pm.
Regular opening time updates are published fortnightly in the Missive. The maximum number of books that can be borrowed at any one time is six, and these may be borrowed for a period of six weeks. Members who still have library books should give them back to the librarian as soon as possible, or face his wrath.
The catalogue of the library is in two forms - the library contains
the catalogue cards, and the computerised catalogue is to be found in
the CUSFS phoenix filespace (
CUSFS.CAT), which is
available to all members. The librarian also usually brings copies of
the library list to the Thursday meetings. To keep the library open,
the librarian is always on the lookout for sublibrarians.
Sublibrarians are given free membership by the Society in return for
giving up one afternoon a week to help run the library. Donations will
make you very popular; if altruism isn't your particular forte, note
that donations of over ten books - subject to the librarian's approval
- will mean that the donor is granted a year's free membership.
If you don't like computers and don't plan to use them then skip the
next seven paragraphs, which talk about CUSFS's Very Own Filespace on
the University mainframe, Phoenix. It is managed by the Membership
Secretary - David Jones. Most of the filespace is administration and
other exciting junk readable only by the committee members. It also
contains the CUSFS emailbox, which can be reached by sending
electronic mail to
email@example.com, or just plain
cusfs from Phoenix. In fact most of the committee have
mailboxes on the Phoenix system.
All members may access the file
contains the Constitution, the drinks list (ask Jon Knight about the
effects of the foregoing before trying this at home), results of the
1990-91 Hall of Fame, old missives and other items.
The CUSFS Zinque Section is contained on Phoenix, and has general
information on the society, the latest missives, and discussions and
reviews which all members can contribute to. To use Zinque, load the
C RPTB1.PUBLIC:ZINQUE), then access the
CUSFS part of Zinque - type
ZSECTION CUSFS. The most
useful commands are:
ZRECENT - shows which articles have recently been replied
ZINDEX to see all the articles in the section;
ZREAD <article name> - to read a particular
ZHELP - which provides you with far more helpful
If you have any problems with the Zinque section, then please contact
David Jones, whose Phoenix userid is
The Legendary CUSFS Christmas Party is held yearly, with members and sf fans from other universities getting drunk and bonking each other over the head with plastic bottles. Last academic year a party was held in November because the committee successfully forgot to hold one in May. The party was such a success that there will be a gratuitous Michaelmas party - the `Not Xmas' party - held on Saturday November 14th from 830pm. This will be held in the concrete cellar of Wolfson Party Bunker, Trinity College, which is even more `atmospheric' than New Hall bar. [This must be some new meaning of the word `atmospheric' of which I was not previously aware - MJW] Please bring a bottle or several. More details closer to the time.
The genuinearticle Christmas 1992 party will be during Lent term, probably early May 1993. It'll cunningly resemble all the other CUSFS parties; more details later in the missives.
J&ocaute;msborg The New is the Cambridge Fantastic Literature Society, CUSFS's sister society. Although it was founded by a breakaway group of CUSFS members in the early 70's, it has an entirely different atmosphere. Jómsborg holds fortnightly discussions, lunches, candlelit readings, dawn ceremonies and a Writers' Workshop for the aspiring author (experience not necessary). For further information contact the Reeve, Robert Wilson, or the Geldjarl, Neil Spenley, both of whom can be found through Social Meetings.
Cambridge Tolkien Society is the Minas Tirith Smial of the national Tolkien society and is dedicated to the appreciation of the late Professor Tolkien's work. They hold weekly inn moots, video showings, games afternoons, discussions and speakers along with three splendid opportunities each year for hungry hobbits to drink vast quantities of alcohol and eat plenty of food.
"You don't know me - " he began -
"We know enough about you," a one shouted back, "you're the one whose looking round showed it all up. Never fear, man, we'll follow you, we'll follow you!" And Prudart shouted down the chorus of approval "- I'm just a Theology student from the University passing through, but even I recognise there's a time for leaving down the books and taking up action. Action is what we need! What has been happening to your homes, your wives, your families? Is it safe for young women to walk abroad? Where is the evil?" He thrust his arm outwards. "There is the evil, and there and there and there. It's outside the village in the night like a poison cloud." The evil he had gestured to outside the circle of lit faces paused to listen to his words. The men hushed. "What is evil, I ask you here. I don't ask you to go into anything you don't know to be right. What is good? Your lives are good, your simple bread and wine, your women, your companionship and work, the slow natural course of the seasons. Outside this circle is the night; no one should be out in it. It is to your left and your right, it is black. Evil is murder and theft and injustice. Evil takes and does not give. Now you know what is evil. You know where is its source."
"The castle, the castle!" they called with one voice, and themselves called back to agree, and Prudart leapt into their midst. They were off, shedding the night with their leaping glow, roaring with solidarity, their blood up so far that the forest skimmed by and the toilsome way up the hill was no obstacle and at last the crowd of them were at the evil gates of the count's castle - the bolted ironwork irredeemable black even in the torchlight and calling in mute malice for the bats and clouds which fled above. "We must have this down," said educated Prudart. The villagers swayed forward, irresistible. They heaved and heaved against the wrought metal, those at the front pressed to deformation against the mortifying grid, flesh of their bellies and their faces almost pushing into the courtyard beyond when the tide of their determination grew too great and with a twist and clang the gates were burst, and swung asunder, and the villagers poured through to their revenge.
Prudart sloped off from the main body, who demonstrated their ire in the yard before the castle's doors. To his left he passed through a little courtyard and entered a queer old walkway where the walls scratched at his clothes on either side of his body and the torch he was constrained to hold up crisped wallivy dangling from its unquarried top. Prudart was fearless. He went on til he came to the path's end: dry stone to his front, a door to the left, the wall's break to his right where access was still blocked by futile iron spines stuck in the ground and higher than his body which revealed onto a dirty little garden too crowded with trees but which he knew no way to get to. He turned to the door. It was not locked - as if it had expected him. It did not welcome, it did not forbid; it was a thick wooden door with a lock for an elephant and great iron reinforcements, pitchblack in the guttering torchlight. He pushed it open. The dark beyond led down. Now his heart began to beat but he did not let it stop him. He followed the stone steps down the passage as snug as blood in an artery, only the next two steps each time and the tight walls at the edges of his eyes showing in the light. The ceiling scraped the top of his head; it would spoil his hair. He went down. The walls drew together, until he was stoopshouldered with it; there was no destination, no past, no air but that in his nostrils but he walked down and down, step and step, until he reached the woodfloored bottom and the cobwebs started. The black was still absolute. Nothing, he resolved, would prevent him from going on. He stood and stared for a moment, and another. He was hungry. He made an effort and went on, torch stuck in front like a talisman. The walls which flattened his arms were now smooth, carved out, lubricated by unseen cobweb. Cobweb thickened and draped. He felt it more and more, an impediment in space, a horror on his face. It swirled up from the close walls and ceiling like gas, it congregated, curdled, solidified, it was now a single mass, and Prudart came to seem not pressing through a passage way but falling into a vat from which boiled cobweb. It exploded with eternal crepitation in the smothering torch. What conceivable spiders could live down here, what flies could penetrate? Prudart came to the door. It was wood planks, with no keyhole. He pressed up hard against its cobwebbed surface, its height the same as his, its width matching his compressed shoulders. He tapped it twice on the left at waist level and once at eye level, arm maneuvering awkwardly in the confined space, and grinding with effort it began to slide aside - and stopped, half into the wall, half blocking his way. There was just enough room to squeeze round... he stuck the torch through, as if putting his hand blindfold into a giant clam. Nothing happened. He followed through with a half of him, brought up short by the rack of humans immediately beyond the door.
About one foot from the near wall was a wooden lattice which reached up as far as Prudart could see - not very far - and as much again from side to side. From the feel of the air and echo it might have extended to infinity in all directions. It was a winerack for humans. In each square was the naked head and shoulders of a human being, all higgledypiggledy as to the way up they rested, but each with his or her closecropped head pointed forward to Prudart. They looked round for the light, and wailed when it hit their tiny, screwedup eyes. They were obscenely fat; landscapes of flesh filled each square of the rack to the corners, wobbling softly as they now craned their heads to avoid the unaccustomed light, undulating with their keening wail. This was evil. The nearest to Prudart he'd recognised from his early days in the village; as he looked closer he saw that, sealed in the flesh with a bubble of scar tissue, from out of his neck projected a thin copper straw.
Now Prudart was frightened. He called out, "I'm leaving the door open, you're all free," then he squeezed out before the vampires came back, to turn and run down the passageway, tight walls keeping him upright, waving the torch before him to sear up the cobwebs the faster. He padded on and on through darkness. At last he came to the stone staircase, which was an obstacle; he scrambled up it. The torch was more real than a lifeline, the only tangible proof of the outside world. He could not turn his head to look behind him. He could not have seen anything if he had. He could not hear a thing over his own breath and the soft thud of his shoes on the ancient stone. How did he know there was not a crowd of vampires behind him - thinner than he was, stronger than he was, hungrier than he was, ready to take him kicking back to that flat, high cellar and cultivate him in the darkness. How did he know the fat people in the rack had escaped - or worse, supposing they had? Supposing whole chains of fat, naked, flabby men and women were following him, watching his back, halfway night creatures afraid of the light and pitifully weak but nevertheless with unfathomable desires after their long confinement. What would they say to him? Prudart stumbled on. The cobwebs were clearing; he was breathing air again, and not cobweb. It became no less black, but was the blackness now less aggressive in its lack of light? He could almost feel the lessening of the pressure of rock above his head, its weight decreasing as he reached the surface. There was the door! Sweat sprung out all over his body as it occurred to him that it might be locked, but no, he pushed it open and went out into the night. The night air was like a cold douche in his nose. There was endless space above him - the sky went right up to the stars; he could not reach it. And it was a nasty place, but through the iron railings before him there was a garden, space, an infinite relief. He turned and hurried down the passageway. He was out in the small courtyard - eerily capacious, as it seemed. He stopped and looked back: "I hope they got out." The thought of their doing so made him shiver; faster than he would like, he highstepped into the main yard.
In the main yard all was tumult. The peasants had stormed the castle and seized the count; now they had dragged him out from his own castle and were bundling him about the courtyard. He was the most handsome man that Prudart had ever seen. He was incredibly strong - in each limb he had the strength of ten men, impossibly powerful internal gyroscopes sought to lever his arms into sufficient freedom that he could smash his way free of the men. But two strong peasants hung onto each arm, another had him by the waist, another depended from the the back of his neck. They rocked too and fro, the vampire roaring, trying to struggle free - but peasants and simple men pushed in on all sides to have their crack at the dead man who had terrorised them for so long. Prudart looked closer. His hair was jet black, black against the night's black, black so deep you could plunge in and drown in a black so black, black as his face was white. His eyes were blacker than his hair. His features were perfect, his costume black. It was disshevelled by the peasants. Prudart breathed out, he brushed thick scales of cobweb from his clothing, but too much clung on the coarse material. His clothes would have to be burnt.
The vampire stopped struggling. He was crouching low under the weight of so many stout labourers of the land. He looked out - straight at Prudart, straight into Prudart's eyes. "Do you know what is evil?" he said, speaking low but with perfect clarity so that Prudart could hear him across the courtyard. A man at the back of the crowd laughed once; all were now silent. "I will tell you what is evil. There's a land somewhere with a deep dark forest, and in the deep dark forest there's a deep dark house, and on the deep dark house there's a deep dark wing, and in the deep dark wing there's a deep dark room, and in the deep -" they waited to hear no more; with a yell, without a word from Prudart, they hoisted the vampire over their shoulders and carried him off, shouting out of time. "Wait, what's the end of the story?" called Prudart, but he was left alone in the yard of the empty vampire castle.
They took the vampire and held him all night until the sun came up. When the first rays shot over the horizon, the vampire - whom they had held presented to the east - gave one great groan, and spasmed once, his back bent back in a bow so far it was almost further than his chest could stretch, all his muscles taut as the catgut on a violin. His bonesjoints wracked into arthritic spavins. His skin raddled over as the sun ascended in pink cloud; it crisped and dessicated, it was like a desert. The priest came from the church, bearing holy water from the font in a blessed oak bowl. He cast it in the vampire's face, and the vampire writhed and screamed. The desert was ploughed with irrigation channels. They wrestled him to the ground and brought a stake of maplewood, they knocked it in his heart with a hammer. They cut off his head with a silver sickle and filled his mouth full of freshpicked garlic flowers. They laid him out on the funeral pyre, hands and feet nailed with silver nails to a wooden cross which rested on the top, stake sticking from his side, garlicstuffed head jammed between his legs. They set light to it, and kept it burning until there was nothing but ashes left. They gathered the ashes and carried them over a running stream. Then they scattered them in the forest and had the priest bless the clearing where they had done so.
The grass in the clearing died. The trees shied away from it, yet somehow the light never penetrated. No one went there; no one ever referred to the count again, or said aloud why that part of the woods was taboo. The only person who learned to frequent the clearing was a young girl whom no one else would play with because she was born with a harelip and who never told her parents where she went to play alone. They assumed she was with the other children, a normal girl (their only child). The other children never thought about her. She came to the clearing more and more often; at first she played in its gloom, but later she just came to sit in the centre, in the middle of the scorched patch where nothing grew, and there she would stare and stare, intent on something. Often she would sit there and never move for hours. One night she came home from playing in the clearing and took a knife to her mother and father. Because their hovel was a little way out of the village, they were not missed for some days, until their daughter came into the village and - lisping with her harelip - explained they had both died of 'flu. Actually, she had cut their bodies up and buried them in the garden.
The young girl grew up alone in the hovel where she had killed her parents because there was no one else to care for her. She had never been wellknown in the village to start with, and as she became increasingly strange on her own she became positively isolated. She lived off the vermin that infested the hovel and what she could catch in the woods. Hunters would catch occasional glimpses of her and cross themselves; eventually, the ragged woman in the hovel a little way out of the village got a reputation for being a witch. One night she ran through the village shrieking that the devil lived in onions and they shouldn't be eaten; it woke everyone up. When some of the cattle died from drinking bad water - a dead horse in the lake had turned part of it stagnant - a posse of men went to her hovel one night and seized her. She offered them her body but they burned her as a witch. Her ashes were left where they lay. The hovel, dilapidated for years, at last became wholly derelict. Again, no one mentioned it. When their parents didn't know about it, the village children frightened themselves by daring each other to go into the witchhut. One girl did. She found the other girl's doll. It had been placed on a high altar made from broken crockery on the dresser at the foot of the other girl's bed, where it looked down on you as you lay there. The girl had lain in the witch's bed and that was how she saw this. It was a wooden doll the father had made, carved from a single short rod with a painted face and a wig of horse hair glued to its head. The other girl had placed offerings of birch twigs and bright pebbles around its altar to please it. The girl left the witch hut to show all her friends, who were waiting, that she wasn't scared and they went off. Later, she came back and took the doll. She told no one about it but often played with it on her own, pretending it was her husband and doing nice things for it. She was a very popular girl; her father was the richest man in the village, and often undertook work for the new count. Now he took to drink and sometimes became violent in his manners. The neighbours did not know, but sometimes he thrashed the children without provocation. One night he got very drunk and in a rage smashed his wife's head in with a chair leg. When he recovered the next morning and discovered what he had done, he was full of remorse. He could not face anyone from the village and ran off; word filtered back at last that, fleeing, he had reached the next county where he had been killed in a hunting accident, the dogs attacking him instead of the fox. The girl's siblings were all minors and she inherited the property; it needed a man to manage it and so, as she was now old enough, she married. The tragedy of her parents had unsettled her mind and after she married she took to sitting in a corner of the parlour and clutching her doll. When she had her first child, she insisted on suckling it herself. It had been born with teeth and bit her instead of suckling, so that blood mixed with the milk. After that, it was given to a wetnurse.
It grew up as a cruel boy with a knowing way about it whom no one liked. It had squint eyes. There were no other children from the union. When the boy was fourteen he was in particular disgrace because he was discovered to have hung a baby pig to watch it kick. The boy's father paid for the pig and the matter was hushed up. When he was seventeen he raped young Anna Hotte behind the mill on Christmas Eve and stole her ring; he ran away and emigrated to New York in America. Because he was so wicked, he became a vampire, preying off old women, children and dogs he caught in the streets early in the night. He was killed when he fell under a trolley bus. The influenza epidemic was then in full swing and there were already more corpses than the city authorities could dispose of; his death passed without notice. With his body waiting for burial an itinerant and penniless actor whom the authorities had taken on to help dig graves found and stole Anna Hotte's ring. He went on to become a very rich man, building a fortune from the stock market and weathering the years of depression. To do this he had to ruin many other men, spoiling their lives. He became cruel and, despite his marriage into high New York society, remained lonely. In the end, he died of cancer, but well before this he had raped his own daughter. Their incestuous offspring was passed off as the niece of a deceased Australian brother and raised as a ward; there was something wrong with her head and she was wild, lacking any moral sense. She was killed speeding her car down the streets of the city when drunk, in the process sideswiping and slaughtering the wife of a young playwright pregnant with their first child. When the news of the accident was brought to him he shot himself and was discovered two days later slumped over his desk, the blood seeping into its surface. Relatives sold off the desk with the rest of the furniture, but the following bankruptcy of the purchasing firm and legal quarrels over the disposal of the assets meant that, along with the rest of their stock, the desk was imprisoned in a warehouse until it came up for auction last month, when I bought it. Vampires don't exist.
The writer was Alan Moore, the artist David Lloyd and the comic V for Vendetta, and where they different from all the rest was in the most fundamental things.
All other comics of the time had heroes and indeed V for Vendetta had a hero of sorts, and a heroine. Like other comic heroes, Vendetta's had an alias: for Bruce Wayne read Batman; for Clark Kent read Superman; for V read... and here was the first difference - Moore's V had no other identity, it simply was; and I say `it' advisedly for we never find out who V is, except that V is us, everyman - it could have been male or female; gay or straight; black, white or some colour in between - we can only judge by V's actions; we cannot label V straight away. It is clear that Moore was writing to challenge - to challenge our assumptions on the nature of evil, on the nature of identity.
V for Vendetta is set in a postholocaust Britain. Britain itself was not hit, yet the repercussions are felt - the nuclear winter; the topple of government; the replacement with a `Big Brother' fascist state which kills all who oppose it and all who are seen as `wrong' - the homosexuals, the coloured, the communists, the Jews - and is supported by those who are too apathetic to oppose, people swept along by history. V for Vendetta is about power, revenge and freedom and it is full of messages for those who care to look. Yet the messages are quite unclear. The `hero' is the most ambivalent since the `Dark Knight' Batman of the very early years of comics - we are uplifted by his actions, his fight for justice, for freedom and chaos; yet we are also sickened and unsure for his actions are not those of the comfortably sane - V skirts the borders, the grey areas of reason.
V for Vendetta was originally published in Warrior comic, and was due for a run of ten issues. Yet not all ten appeared, as warrior floundered then fell in an increasingly cutprice market. It was some years before DC realised the potential, and after an enforced colourisation (done, thankfully and rather effectively, by Lloyd) it was rereleased, complete, in graphic novel form. To the Americans who bought it, it was something new and quite amazing, and they loved it. It was this surprise hit that established Moore, enabled him to write Watchmen - an even bigger hit about `superheroes' - and then take over the run of the popular Swamp Thing, to change it infinitely for the better. But moreover it signalled a change in comics, especially in DC - from artistoriented superhero pulp comics to more intelligent, writeroriented comics, where depth and characterisation were more important than simple storytelling. V for Vendetta was only the first of many, and was quite definitely not without flaws - being in part rather naive - yet it was a start, and thus one of the most important comics of the age.
My brother wrote that. He ought to have written `Enter here you who abandon all hope.'
I went in, and hope came with me.
From the gates, a gentle slope led downwards into infinity. The light from across the void flung my shadow down it, across the powdery dust of the ground, the dull brown of a welcome mat. A few halfshaped shiny black rocks grew from the ground. I started down the slope. The dust on the ground gradually turned grey, and when my feet kicked it up into long plumes behind and around me it smelt foully of sulphur ash. The radiance from above faded away, leaving only a shadowy gloom that had the eyes straining to peer into it, and the light that had come with me. A faint sound rose from below: voices wailing, muttering and cursing. The air dried out and cooled until it sucked water from the throat and scalded the skin. Or it would have if the light with me hadn't stopped me from needing water. I was striding quickly down the slope and I passed many others, who had been human. I tried to speak to them but they resolutely ignored me, or shyed away. I did not expect anything more; even so, I kept on trying.
Eventually the slope levelled out into a bleak plain that stretched away in all directions for ever. Among the ash, the smell of which pervaded the air, there were now sharp fragments of stone that slipped out from under foot when stepped on. The formless black boulders still sprouted at odd intervals. I set out across the barren landscape. The air was like dry ice. There were many others on the plain seated on the ubiquitous rocks or the ground with their heads cast down, or wandering aimlessly across the plain. I passed one group bickering among themselves, eyeing each other with paranoid glances. When they saw me they stopped and watched me pass suspiciously. I passed more and more souls, most wandering, some hurrying with feigned purpose. Some, if they could, ignored me. Others flinched out of and away from my path, and a few flung jeers at my back. One spat. It fell short. My way led me through a huddle of buildings, gathered reluctantly together. They were sullen brooding houses, in a mixture of styles, all sunk into themselves away from their neighbours and their surroundings. They had no windows to let in the shadowy light and a dull darkness seeped from their partly shut doors. One builder had been more energetic than his neighbours, and had painted his house with reds, blues and yellows, and festooned it with streamers. It did make a change from grey, but the effect was merely garish.
I passed through many more such towns. After a countless number of them, they began to become scarcer and the bleak plain between each became less populated. However, one of these souls, seeing me, hurried up to me. I changed direction to meet him.
"Why am I here?" he asked indignantly. "There's been a miscarriage of justice. Someone's made a mistake. I shouldn't be here."
"You needn't be," I told him, but he interrupted me pompously.
"I went to church every week, without fail. I put money in the collection every week, without fail. So why aren't I in heaven, then? Tell me that. Why?"
"What about the rest of your life?" I asked him.
"Well, there wasn't anything wrong with that. I didn't break the law or have any affairs. I should be up there, not down here. If I'm not good enough, God must be jolly lonely, that's what I say."
"Noone is good enough," I tried to tell him, but he was wandering off.
"I was a churchwarden..."
I sighed and continued on my way. Eventually, the plain was entirely deserted, and only the faint chorus of mutters and wails remained. A building rose from the horizon, and it slowly grew closer. It was a vast marble ziggurat, but it now cracks ran over it, and parts had crumbled or fallen away. On the top, a sickly flame burned resentfully. From the centre of the face that I was approaching a massive ramp, a mile wide, stretched down until it reached the plain. It was paved with broken mosaics, made of glassy gems, which slid like gravel under my feet as I climbed the ramp. At the top a pair of massive rotting cedar doors confronted me, partly inlaid with chipped motherofpearl. One was ajar, the other halfopen. I went through them.
Inside there was a vast amphitheatre. Staircases made of marble slabs led down from every side towards the centre. In the centre was a pool of flaming sulphurous oil, from which there rose a black basalt throne. On it was sprawled my brother. He was currently bloated and greasy on the upper part of his body, with swollen breasts and erect genitalia. His legs were covered with matted hair and ended in large hooves, while his head was bald except for two goat horns, and two tusks stuck out of his mouth. A clawed fist supported his multiple chins. He had studiously posed himself to express a sneering contempt, but when I came in, a range of emotions flicked across his face. It rapidly settled back into the expression he had so carefully practised.
"You're a bit late," he said in the tone of a monarch who has found a tedious entertainment to be disorganised as well. The statement was meaningless in eternity. I began to say something, walking down the steps towards him, but he interrupted quickly. "I know what you're going to say by now. Shall we consider the formalities over, and then you can go whining back to your master." He made faint shooing gestures with his other hand.
I continued down the steps. "That line has itself become a ritual, brother. Why won't you come up with something new?" He looked briefly annoyed but settled back into bored disdain. I continued. "Too much trouble thinking up ways of avoiding thinking?"
"Thinking?" he sneered. "You wouldn't know what thinking was if it drilled a hole in your head. Or have you had an original thought and brought it here where we have such things."
"Ah," I said. "The token suggestion that I've changed sides. Next, I believe you tell me that the Lord is incompetent."
He shifted in the chair. "He is incompetent. If he truly is as powerful as he says why doesn't he haul me out of here, instead of sending you to try and win me over? If he could beat me, he wouldn't need to persuade me."
"You won't admit it, brother, but you do actually understand about forbearance." He snorted his denial of this. "You were the brightest of us all. He wants you back."
He smirked. "He wants me back under his thumb. He felt threatened by me. That's why he did me down and cast me out." He paused, considering, then changed shape into a black haired aquiline man in a dark suit. "Look at you. The invincible soldier doing duty as an errand boy. Instead of you he favours those bags of material, who have less sense than a worm and less gratitude than a rock." He spat the words with real venom, then hurried on. "And how is your loyal service rewarded? Yet another fruitless errand as a messenger boy."
"Has it ever occurred to you that I also want to succeed?" I asked. "Will you come back, please?"
"No, I won't." He crossed his arms and legs. "And if he wants me, he should come himself, instead of sending a minor lackey."
"Would you like Him to come?" I asked.
"No!" he yelled, paling and gripping the arms of the throne so hard that the stone cracked. He hurriedly recomposed himself with a nonchalant air. "This is getting us nowhere," he said, showing an apathetic interest in his cufflinks.
"Or is it getting us a little further than you want?" He flicked his head as if shooing away a fly. "Why do you stay down here? The atmosphere is hardly pleasant."
"It is very pleasant," my brother snapped. "I can enjoy myself on my own very well."
I raised my eyebrows and studiously looked about the building.
"See," my brother said, "I built it all on my own."
"Why is it in such a decrepit state?" I asked.
"Why shouldn't it be if I like it like this?"
"And do you?"
He carefully adjusted his cufflinks again, then looked up as if surprised to find me still there. His gaze met mine. We stared at each other for several beats of eternity. Finally, his gaze broke away.
"Come," I said holding out a hand.
"Never. I'm not going to let him think he's going to get everything his own way. I'm going to stay down here and disobey him. Noone ought to be allowed to make all their plans unopposed, like some great tyrant."
"Considering all the things that humans do," I said, "He hardly gets everything that He wants."
His face screwed into a succession of disgusted grimaces. "Well, I make sure that mortals do them," he growled. "My role is to guarantee that he is constantly opposed."
"The humans make sure He's constantly opposed without your help. The world and the flesh are quite sufficient tempters. Besides, the results aren't very pleasant for the humans, are they?"
"That's precisely it," he shouted. "The mortals deserve it. They never do a thing he wants. And instead of wiping out the whole lot of them what does he do? He goes and lets himself die in agony. They deserve it even more for that. And he just forgives them. Well, I'm not going to let that happen." I opened my mouth as he paused but he continued. "I know what you're going to say. I'm not affecting matters much. But that's not the point. I'm a symbol of the rebellion that he allows. It was his idea to give mortals free will and I'm going to remind him of the consequences of that decision. Every time he sees my empty place in the firmament he's going to regret it. And I'm not giving in until he takes away my free will. Understand? He'll have to admit it was a mistake. All the problems of Creation are due to that. The Creation will be good again."
He stopped, glaring at me. I was silent for a while, then I began to reply.
He cut me off. "Get out. Get away from here." He drew himself erect without waiting for me to act, and stamped his foot, disappearing in a cloud of foul smelling fumes.
I stood alone in the empty ampitheatre. I could have tried to find him, but I didn't know what to make of his speech. It might easily have been all lies, anyway. I left, flying back over the plain. When I reached the gates, I stopped and looked back.
"Come," I called out over the plain. "Come with me. There is a welcome waiting for you."
I waited but noone came up the slope. I sighed and crossed the void. And I went through the broken gates and up the narrow stairs into the light.
Rover had begun the debate. Never one to indulge in exchanging platitudes, he said: "The antibloodsport movement is after you again."
Boxer shrugged. "They've been after the Bloodsport Association ever since we were all left out of the shelters when the Big Light came," he commented. The cliché did not grate when he used it, it signifying rather a long time (eight thousand years, to be precise).
For once Rover did not cringe or yawn to show the rows of extremely sharp teeth that would put Boxer to shame. History had been subtly rewritten over the years to portray the time after the Big Light as a sort of renaissance for the species, a time when they finally freed themselves from the shackles of subservience. However, it did not take a very experienced archaeologist to discover or interpret the skeletons of all those horrific mutations that took place as the harsh nuclear winter came and went, then the devastated remains from the famines and pack wars which ravaged the newly sensible and liberated species and destroyed the most severely neotenised breeds with their childlike ways. Rover did not like to consider that part of history, when so many of the kindred died out. It was all their fault, those who left them out of the shelter because there was not enough air or food for their (formerly) trusty companions. But they found somewhere to hide; somehow they survived and came out the other side of the nightmare. Not that Rover's tribe had ever needed to worry, being one of the former fighting groups.
"Their campaign to halt bloodsport has gained momentum," Rover warned.
Boxer shrugged again. He felt that that titbit of disturbing news was not the ultimate aim of the visit. "AntiBloodsport has always attracted cranks, those who don't believe hunting is instinctive because their antecedents' genuine traits were suppressed before the Big Light."
"In the last poll, almost half of the population has turned anti."
"Hell!" Boxer exclaimed. "But that's ridiculous. There aren't that many..."
"The Antis included the wild packs too, so it isn't the suppressed vote. Now you can see why I came here; the figures haven't even been released yet," interrupted Rover.
"But it's a genetic feature to hunt, to deny that is to deny our very nature. What else can we do?"
Rover was careful to keep his personal feelings (strictly AntiBloodsport) out of the discussion. The stalemate had been safely reached. Now his job got harder. "The campaign says that along with the... er.... alterations that occurred after the Big Light, we are no better than what we originally served if we continue this practise. Thus we must change."
Boxer got up, stretched almost imperceptibly, and padded to the window. He looked down at the ring of protesters. Why hadn't he noticed from his fourthfloor hideout that there were four times as many of them as there had been earlier that month? Also down there were some of the once ruling species that had now been reduced to serving his. They were smaller than they had been originally, and suitably neotenised not to give their new masters any trouble. It was still impossible to get them to fetch sticks, though. They did not seem intelligent enough for that task. "But how? And what does one do with the energy left over because one isn't allowed to hunt?" Get out of that one, he thought. Well, it made a change from the `keeping the local vermin at bay' argument.
"We can change, find other activities. What's wrong with that? Wasn't it the purpose of Big Light to liberate us from our prior selves? Tell me, are you proud of what instinct sometimes forces you to do? The sooner we change our natures, whether by engineering or by other means, the better for us all."
Boxer remembered when Rover entered his office. Both of them had gone through the ritual of baring teeth at each other, then Boxer exposed his vulnerable throat at his superior. It was a ritual that occurred, never planned. He then stifled a smile at the hours he had spent last month howling outside his secretary's house. Finally he gave Rover an unfathomable look.
"For God's sake, dog, we've got to do something. Chasing cats to exhaustion and death is pure barbarism, especially as they didn't mutate after the Big Light."
Boxer involuntarily licked his lips and sighed. The kind of support for the Antis that Rover had described couldn't be belittled and ignored. Face it, dog, this plush office will soon be history. Along with the Bloodsport Association. Rover is here to close this place down. No more will rich groups of hunters thunder after their prey, as organised by us. But admitting it was a different matter. Admitting it would be seen as reneging on his own beliefs.
"It's not as though going against our original nature hasn't happened before," explained Rover. Boxer now just wanted him to serve the closure notice and go, stop softening it up for him. For he knew that was what the President's flunkey had come here to do. "I mean, you only have to look at our domestication. It's high time the catmaiming stopped. After all, we can't be seen to be acting like humans, can we?"
Visualise fandom as a religion, spanning the world - it has all the trappings of religion: a separate language, sacred texts, festivals, prophets, martyrs, separate branches of the `church' each with their particular idea of what is important in sf, but all joined by the belief that sf is important. Fen consider themselves as `chosen' - only they have been shown the light, only they know the truth - and thus their collective relationship with nonfen - `the Mundanes' - can often be strained. Indeed the name `mundane' itself seems to indicate the fen attitude to outsiders.
This vocabulary is as specific to sf fandom as any other language particular to any religion. A glossary of popular terms (including ones used in the text) are given below.
BNF abbr. Big Name Fan n. fan known by rest of fandom; senior fan; conrunner
Con abbr. Convention n. a meeting of fen
Eastercon n. major British annual con, held over Easter weekend
Fan pl. Fen n. member of sf fandom
Filk n. horrible folksy song with sf lyrics v. to sing such a horrible song
Freak v. to freak a mundane - to do some action, or say something to disconcert a nonfan
Gaffiate v. to retire from fandom; to cease to be a fan
Gaffer n. gaffer tape - wide sticky tape
GOH abbr. Guest of Honour n. principal guest at a con
Gopher n. fan on staff of a con who does all the legwork; v. to work at a con
Gopher Bribe n. beer
Gopher Hole n. room for gophers to lurk and shirk work
Green Room n. central organisation point for programme at a con; v. to work in a green room
Masquerade n. ritual where subsect of fen dress up in lycra and are judged
Media n. term (often abusive) to refer to fan who prefers sf of a non literary form
Mundane n. a person ignorant of, not wishing to join fandom; an unbeliever
Neo abbr. Neophyte n. a person newly joined fandom; person mostly ignorant of fandom but wishing to learn.
SMOF abbr. Secret Master of Fandom n. senior fan; v. to persuade to run a con or take a senior job at a con
'Ton n. monthly meeting of London fen
Unicon n. con held in a university
USSG abbr. Union of Socialite Socialising Gophers n. fen intent on drinking large amounts at room parties and flooding green rooms
Wallyphone n. walkie talkie carried by senior members of staff at a con
Worldcon n. large annual meeting for all fen
These sacred texts are invariably written by those we can acknowledge as the prophets of sf: the aforementioned Wells and Verne, Shelley, E E `Doc' Smith, Asimov, Heinlein are all the traditional prophets for the whole `church' of sf; while sects of the church will have additional prophets - the cyberpunks believe in Gibson as their prophet and Neuromancer as sacred text; the sect of Trekkie adore the prophet Gene and consider each episode sacred - and there are many more including the breakaway sect who worship our `fallen angel' Elron.
Viewing L Ron Hubbard as the fallen angel of sf, parallel to Lucifer in the Christian myth, gives the sf religion it's antihero - the one we all love to hate. Like the prophets, he was an author but he strayed, thinking himself more important than the fiction he wrote, so - like Lucifer - he fell and formed his own religion with its own band of followers which is ignored by the vast numbers of true fen.
Largest of all cons must be the Worldcon - held annually it attracts thousands of fans from around the world. Last held in Europe in 1990, it is usually held in the large cities of the USA - the venue decided on at a vote three years in advance (a `bid session'). At Orlando, Florida this year they decide the location of Worldcon 1995 for which Britain is bidding - if we win it will mean a lot of work for most of British fandom, but it would be worth it to bring a Worldcon back to Britain.
One convention we can rely on is the British Eastercon. Held annually over the Easter weekend (there is no connection to Christianity - it is merely the only weekend in the year with a Bank Holiday on both the Friday and the Monday) it attracts about 1000 fans of all sects. Bid for two years in advance, next year's Eastercon is called Helicon, will be held in Jersey and should be jolly good (or a large lynch mob shall have fun with Tim Illingworth).
The other convention of note must be the Unicon - held yearly during the Summer vacation it must take place in a University hall of residence (the definition of which includes Cambridge colleges). Like the eastercon it is supposed to be a con for all branches of fandom - lit, media, even filkers - and tends to be run by younger members of fandom. Inevitably, though some groups of fans leave fandom after running a Unicon, others see it as valuable practice in the art of conrunning (as well as a lot of fun).
But apart from conventions, in what way do the fen pay tribute to sf? One way is the weekly/monthly social meeting - most popular of these being the monthly 'Ton held in London. Alcohol is an integral part of many fans' worship, especially real ales and cider and the 'Ton provides a perfect chance to converse with other fans while drinking large quantities (a little like CUSFS only larger, noisier, minus the pool table and plus the fanzines).
I said that our forms of worship of sf encompass all media and one of the most popular forms apart from the con or social must be the fanzine. These vary wildly in style, content and quality from the super newszine Ansible by award winning superfan Dave Langford to the utterly dire drivelzines which act as a form of vanity press for sad people.
Chief among the British BNF is Tim Illingworth, conrunner supremo and Cambridge graduate. He usually attends the 'Ton and any cons going (I mean any cons) and his current projects are to head the Helicon (Eastercon 1993) and Glasgow (Worldcon) 1995 conventions. In addition he gives other conrunners `advice' and collects ribbons.
Another important fan is not a conrunner at all, but one of the favourite speakers in fandom - Dave Langford. Apart from talks Dave also edits Ansible and collects Hugos.
I could tell you about many other fans reaching out for BNF status including our own Rhodri James, Dee West, Alison Scott, Hugh Mascetti, Caroline Mullen, Anne Page and Pam Wells but noone would believe in Alison Scott or Hugh until they met them, and the others are too nice for me to comment on.
In his new novel, Vinge adopts a different tactic to avoid having to confront the indescribable. The galaxy, he tells us, is divided into four Zones of Thought. The dense heart of the galaxy is called The Unthinking Depths, where the dull weight of a hundred billion stars makes thought, powerful computers and intelligence a physical impossibility. Most of the galaxy, including Earth, lie in the Slow Zone, where intelligence is possible, but only to an extent, and physical limitations rule out artificial intelligence and fasterthanlight travel. The very fringes of the galaxy are in the Beyond, which enfolds the lower Zones of Thought in a thin halo of stars. Here marvels are possible: FTL travel, antigravity, FTL communication, artificial intelligence. Outside of the Beyond, in the empty spaces between the galaxies, is the Transcend, where godlike Powers (intelligences that are the size of, and have evolved from, entire civilisations) rule.
This conceit is a stroke of genius, for not only does it solve the technology problems, but it suggests, nay demands a pattern of migration that provides the driving force, not only for the tale Vinge chooses to tell in this novel, but for ten thousand other stories that are only hinted at here, but which could have had (and could yet have) novels of their own.
For down in the Slow Zone, where lightspeed and sluggishness of thought protect young civilisations like us from the awful glare of True Intelligence, longterm empires are not viable across interstellar distances and life is peaceful but limited. But drawn by the lure of technology, these young and energetic civilisations bubble up from the Slow Zone into the Beyond, clambering over the backs of older civilisations that emerged in their turn thousands or millions of years ago. In the Beyond, life is exciting but dangerous; here, there are vast empires, interstellar wars and solarsystemsized engineering projects. And there is always the temptation to climb just a little higher in the Beyond and gain that little more processing power, that little technological edge... Until they reach the Transcend, in which a civilisation is either consumed by a Power or evolves quickly into one. Not much that is intelligible by lower intelligences returns from the Transcend.
Vinge manages to convey a sense of the vastness of the galaxy like no other book I have read; the galaxy portrayed in A Fire Upon the Deep is not a place that could be ruled by one empire, or from one capital planet; even though the events of the plot have truly colossal ramifications, affecting thousands of civilisations and millions of planets, it is made clear how tiny these events are in the scheme of things.
So what story does Vinge choose to tell? Somewhere between Faust and Lord of the Rings. An ambitious human civilisation investigates an ancient, abandoned data archive at the top of the Beyond and awaken an old, malevolent Power that enslaves the humans and blights huge sections of the Beyond. But wakened along with the Blight is an equally ancient defence program, which manages to escape the clutches of its enemy aboard a refugee ship carrying hundreds of children, and which hides on a primitive world at the very bottom of the Beyond.
The novel divides its attention between the motley crew who go after the defence program while being chased by a fleet of minions of the Blight and the experiences of the two children who survive the attack on the refugee ship by the aggressive precontact aliens whose planet they have landed on.
These aliens are another of Vinge's marvels (there are three), departing entirely from the humanoid norm of the rest of the aliens in the book. They are doglike, moronic on their own, but possessed of human intelligence, or slightly more, in packs of four or five, joined by a constant exchange of ultrasound that seems to approximate to telepathy. Through the individual packs are portrayed, like the rest of Vinge's characters, in strong colours without much subtlety (the murderous `Lord Steel' is entirely overthetop, but does a great job as the villain of the piece), I found the psychology of these `Tines' utterly convincing: the way that the personality of a pack arises from that of its members; the way in which packs keep their identity for hundreds of years even while their members die and are replaced; the nascent science of `brood kenning' that the Tines use to select the right puppies to add to themselves; the madness that results when packs come together to fight or demonstrate (they become unstable and stupid in packs of more than six or so); their hope that with the aid of science it will be possible for larger packs to retain their intelligence and thus become hyperintelligent `superpacks'.
A Fire Upon the Deep has no pretensions to literary greatness, but it is a thrilling read and is the first book I have read in a long long time that really gave me a sense if wonder; there must be enough good ideas have to keep the rest of sf going for a long time.
And Vinge's third marvel? The planets of the Beyond are connected by an information network that is so like a galactic Usenet that Vinge must be a subscriber to the Earthly version. He has it all down pat: the meaningless message headers, the volume of traffic, the arrogance of contributors ("Idiots who don't follow all the threads in developing news should not waste my precious ears with their garbage") and the sheer weight of noise obscuring a little signal ("It is not called the Net of a Million Lies for nothing"). What a nightmare! I hope Vinge is wrong with this prediction, but fear that he is correct.
Ireland is undoubtedly the setting for Hearts, Hands and Voices, albeit disguised by thousands of years of change, by SouthEast Asian culture and African names, by an utterly transformed flora and fauna. But to argue that McDonald is writing only about Ireland would be to argue that this intensely personal story were some kind of political metaphor, to suggest that Hearts, Hands and Voices were a trite piece of antitroubles moralising. It would be to deny the wider resonances of McDonald's setting; which suggests at times the partition of India and Pakistan, the Vietnam war, the division of Yugoslavia and a hundred other countries where people have been unable to resolve their religious and cultural differences. McDonald is writing fable, not allegory.
The landscape of Ireland (if Ireland it is) has been utterly transformed by the Green Wave, a technology that gives people the power, if they have the skill, to directly manipulate the DNA in living creatures, to "sing the doublehelix song, sing it right into the hearts of living things and change them." Now `organical' technology has superseded the mechanical: houses, trucks ('trux'), ships, all are living, growing organisms. And underneath the land is a huge network of informationcarrying roots: if the heroine were to die, then "out of the naked earth roots and shoots would come questing... White tendrils would follow the inside curve of her skull, white threads slip between the folds of her cooling brain, white fibres coiled around each synapse and neuron, reach down into her every memory" and preserve her in a vegetable Dreaming, vaster than empires, and more slow.
The heroine in Mathembe Fileli, a young woman who has the skill to grow living things from raw plasm but who will not speak. Why she remains so adamantly silent is never revealed, but the question `what use is silence?' becomes a powerful symbol in the text, whose answering will provide, we hope, an end to the troubles, both for Mathembe and for her torn country. Mathembe quickly loses everything: her village is burned and her father is taken away by soldiers of the Empire, she loses her mother in the chaos of the uprising and her brother becomes a coldhearted and ruthless guerilla leader. Her search for her family and for some kind of peace forms the central trunk of the branching plot.
I loved this book. It is not a happy story, and the ending is hopeful rather than triumphant, but this is because McDonald want to tell the truth, to describe the world as it really is. He has never been one to be constricted by the linear structure of the modern novel: his attention wander, distracted by the other stories that collide with Mathembe's, he wants to show us the wonders of the world he has created; if he could, I am sure that he would tell the story of every character in the book. There is no time for that, of course, but there is a tremendous wealth of material in these 300 evocative pages.
Voyage to the Red Planet is two books in one. On the one hand, we have a technologically literate nutsandbolts description of a Mars mission that would put the most fervent Analog writer to shame. Bisson has all the jargon, the distances, speeds and physics down pat, and his descriptions of spaceflight, space vehicles and space technology are detailed and entirely believable.
On the other hand, we have a deadpan comedy in which Earth's governments have been bankrupt for years, and the only people with enough money to fund a Mars mission are the moviemakers who intend to make the greatest film of all time and to film it on location on Mars. This background allows Bisson to make a couple of very funny jokes (Mission Control is a guy called Sweeney who plots flight paths during his lunchbreak by stealing computer time from the company where he works), and to take a few potshots at the pompous insularity and selfcongratulation of Hollywood.
The plot: Markson (few of the characters have first names) is a movie mogul who is one of the few people who know that the Mars ship Mary Poppins was actually finished just before everyone ran out of money and has been hidden in orbit behind a screen of nuclear waste. He rounds up the usual suspects: two exastronauts, one Russian, one American, brought out of retirement for one last mission; two genetically engineered Movie Stars who have either had personality amputations or else Bisson has no idea what to do with them (one of them goes into hibernation and doesn't wake up, which saves him the necessity of having to write her dialogue); a doctor, a midget cameraman, a naif stowaway and a ship's cat. Bisson avoids having to describe the movie that they are all involved in by positing a filming technology whereby a small amount of `booking image' of the Movie Stars is done on location and then animation computers take the images and add the plot, dialogue and so on at the editing stage. So what we get is everyone standing around on Mars. Oh, and there's an entirely irrelevant First Contact scene, and an obligatory Heroism scene.
And that's it. Bisson has some good ideas here, but has completely failed to work them into a successful whole. The hard sf side is well done, if you like that kind of thing, but I would have preferred it if the characterisation hadn't had all the strength and verve of tissue paper. The humorous passages had me laughing from time to time, but there simply isn't the sustained comic invention needed to support the flimsy storyline.
Still, it's a fun read. Save it for a long train journey.
Jones and Newman have taken a different line; they have asked a large number of horror writers, fantasy writers, science fiction writers, editors, critics and reviews (presumably the latter five categories because there do not exist one hundred horror writers capable of writing a coherent passage of criticism--although I note that the editors have managed to assemble nearly fifty genuine living horror genre writers) to choose a favourite horror novel or collection and to write about it, and have dredged up some others from the archives (Edgar Allen Poe on Nathaniel Hawthorne, H P Lovecraft on Robert W Chambers, Hilaire Belloc on Algernon Blackwood and more).
I don't read much in the way of horror, so I can't criticise the choices, which seem to be a fair selection, with more than twenty from before 1900 (though three of these are strictly plays, not books). For me, the interest is in seeing how these hundred wouldbe critics cope with their difficult task and to compare the styles. The task is difficult because the appreciation of a good book, and especially of one of your favourite books, is a much tougher challenge than the demolition of a bad book. The critic must steer a narrow course between a dull plot summary and a gushing fountain of purple praise.
Not all the contributors come away with honours. Some of them have all the wit and insight of a blurb writer; John Blackburn makes a hash of Macbeth, Lionel Fanthorpe wanders aimlessly around C S Lewis' The Dark Tower (which he thinks a "worthwhile philosophical statement"), Malcolm Edwards spoils his recommendation of The Wasp Factory by revealing the shock ending, while Guy N Smith, wary of spoiling the reader's enjoyment, reveals nothing at all about Charles Grant's The Pet. But there are a lot of good performances, not only from polished performers like Gene Wolfe, John Clute and Brian Stableford, but from many others: Clive Barker on Doctor Faustus, Diana Wynne Jones on The White Devil, Craig Spector on Deathbird Stories, and even (credit where it is due) from Craig Shaw Gardner on The Crystal World. Some nitpicking about the presentation, which is pretty dire. The editors (I think - it isn't quite clear) have written a halfpage summary of each book and invariably this repeats information that the actual contributor includes in his or her piece on the book. Couldn't the contributors have been asked to integrate this material into their essays? The contributors' names appear only at the end of their pieces, so you have to keep flipping ahead to find out who wrote the prose you're reading. And the editors have written bio- and bibliographical paragraphs on each of the contributors to the volume, but these are grouped together at the back, rather than next to the appropriate contributions where they would have been of some use.
All things considered, Aliens comic is an impressive collection, producing new and interesting material from what could easily have become a thoroughly jaded rehash of the Alien trilogy. Xenophiles will just love it.