Earthdoom!, David Langford & John Grant

BeWrite, 1987 (2003 reprint), 283 pages, C$24.26 tpb, ISBN 1-904492-11-8

I don’t usually recommend books because they’re awful, but I’ll make an exception for David Langford and John Grant’s Earthdoom! for one good reason: It’s intentionally, skilfully, almost masterfully awful. It’s a parody of the type of bottom-basement catastrophe Science Fiction novels that are published with monotonous regularity whenever there’s a paying audience for that kind of stuff.

Earthdoom! has its roots in the boom of disasters SF novels that populated much of the British mid-list during the seventies and eighties. Not that the formula has entirely disappeared… Even unseasoned readers with a general education in the field will be able to distinguish the familiar dramatic arc as it emerges: The portents of doom, the various incidents leading up to the catastrophe, the wide-screen scenes of death and destruction, and then the efforts of the plucky survivors to survive and prevent something even worse from happening.

Here, it’s not one catastrophe than threatens the Earth but half a dozen of them ranging from the serious to the ridiculous. It’s one thing to suppose comet strikes and an accidental nuclear detonation in the London underground; it’s quite another to feature Hitler’s clones, the Antichrist, invading aliens and the Loch Ness Monster. Not that the heroes are any less ridiculous, in-between oversexed astronauts, clumsy psychics and lovelorn mathematicians. No cliché does unturned, no character has less than a master’s degree of exotic expertise and and no female character is (repeatedly) described as being less than beautiful.

But people who know David Langford and John Grant may already be familiar with the whole approach. Earthdoom! is in many ways a companion volume to Guts!, their subsequent effort to parody horror novels in most of their repugnant permutations. So it is that we get a large cast of deliciously stereotyped characters, countless vignettes of destruction, dozens of unfolding subplots, intricate wordplay and a sense of fun that can’t be overstated.

Trying to summarize the jokes is useless: They span techniques from conceptual set-pieces to knock-knock jokes. Like many full-length comic novels, Earthdoom! is best read in small doses in order not to rush through every page’s minefield of jokes. Like other spoofs, it’s heavy on snark and is probably best appreciated with a good knowledge of the subgenre being mocked. Finally, don’t form lasting attachments to any of the characters, as few of them can expect to survive, much less be ennobled as protagonists/victims in a disaster novel.

It has survived the decades since its original publication better than you’d expect: If a number of references don’t make much sense any more (and that’s even accounting for the possibility of a slight re-write to accommodate the 2003 edition of the book), the musty charm of the whole is starting to look like a reflection of another generation. North-American readers are likely to have a tougher time puzzling the localized British references than dealing with the dated feel of the story.

The first edition being long out-of-print, Earthdoom! is now available almost exclusively online from a publisher whose books feel a lot like print-on-demand products. The result looks a bit cheap (and the interior design could certainly be more readable), but the content is worth a look, especially for those who are already fans of David Langford’s brand of dry humor. Earthdoom! is a must-read for those growing numbers of Langford completists: Not only are you unlikely to read a better spoof of catastrophe SF novels, chances are that you’ll be unwilling to do so.

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