Tag Archives: David Langford

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.

The End of Harry Potter?, David Langford

Gollancz, 2006, 196 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-575-07875-8

Some writing assignments are impossible. Imagine that in the lull between the publication of Harry Potter (Book 6) and Harry Potter (Book 7), someone writes a book billed as an attempt to predict how the Potter series will end. It’s a lucrative proposition ripe in potential embarrassment: Five minutes past the publication of the final volume, who’s going to even glance twice at a book attempting to guess what has finally been given form?

There’s one catch, though: this “someone” ends up being David Langford, the award-winning fan-writer, Ansible editor and all-around fabulous author. I have praised the merits of his books before, from the nuclear comedy The Leaky Establishment to the essay collection The SEX Column… and Other Misprints. Ask anyone who’s ever voted for Langford at the Hugo Awards (he’s got more than twenty of them) and they will tell you this this isn’t just any other Potter cash-in: this is “David Langford takes on Harry Potter”.

So what happens when you let loose former nuclear physicist, constant wit and forever critic Langford on one of the most celebrated series of our time? You get a good time.

To be fair, The End of Harry Potter? doesn’t spend all that much time trying to second-guess J.K. Rowling’s series finale. After a perfunctory introduction in which Langford explains the limits of his thought experiment, the book settles into a comfortable examination of the Potter phenomenon from a variety of angles. Only a polymath like Langford could take us through the literary antecedents of the series, track down the mythological signification of character names, dismantle Rowling’s favourite plot devices, point out bloopers and blind spots, try to fit the Potterverse in reality, or pick apart the ethical problems inherent in the series’ overuse of memory charms.

The best chapter remains “Casting Spells”, in which Langford speculates on the nature of magic in the Potterverse. On the menu: how new spells are created, whether they refer to a “central spell registry” and the way Occlumency is absolutely vital to upper-order magic: “…a mind-reading wizard who is an expert in Legilimency can see your idea for a spell taking shape before you begin to think the incantation.” [P.67]

That’s why you ask a science-fiction writer to look at a fantasy series.

It may not be an all-inclusive look at the Harry Potter universe, but it’s a fast, fun read. Langford is unable to resist the lure of familiar alternate endings to the series (“VOLDEMORT: No… I am your father” [P.173]), and jokes abound throughout the book. Don’t expect to spend a lot of time reading this book: It’s up to the usual Langford standards in delivering an addictive reading experience. He navigates a careful path between dismissing elements of the series end embracing its quirks, delivering a book which should appeal to the bright kids and adults who appreciate the series without necessarily pandering to them.

A test of the book, of course, comes after reading Volume 7 of the series and matching what happens to Harry and his friends versus what Langford was brave enough to set in type. Since Langford doesn’t actually stretch his neck too far (and neither does Rowling, to think of it), he does fairly well: A number of his more confident predictions are to be found in the authorized ending, and what he gets wrong are usually smaller details. But even those don’t matter much: As it stands, the biggest problem with The End of Harry Potter is not what it gets wrong, but that it’s missing what Langford would have found to comment in the seventh volume of the series. It feels curiously incomplete. Is anyone pondering a revised and updated edition?

The SEX Column… and Other Misprints, David Langford

Cosmos, 1995, 243 pages, US$17.95 tpb, ISBN 1-930997-78-7

Hail to the Langford.

Not many regular columnists can be fooled into thinking that their work has any value beyond historical ephemera. Magazine pieces are written to be expended by the time the next issue comes out. Topics come and go, magazines appear and disappear and the only lasting impact of most columns is the check that allows the author to go out and eat something. Still, the effort in producing those expendable words is staggering: Next time you’re at a magazine stand, take a look at those million words and weep at their monthly disposal.

But Langford is one of those columnists with enough skill and marketing appeal to be able to arrange for a collection of his columns. In this case, The SEX Column brings together no less than ten year’s worth of monthly columns for SFX magazine, or pretty much all that Langford wrote for SFX between 1995 and 2005. If you’re of the poorer disposition, rejoice in the knowledge that most, if not all, of this material is already available on Langford’s web site. But that’s not the point of this collection, which is about having a handy solar-powered package of wood pulp and ink.

It makes a very nice package. Yes, a few columns are instantly dated, as if kept in argon as a time capsule of What Happened Back Then: This is particularly noticeable with obituaries, reviews or convention reports. But Langford is a canny fellow with enough experience with print deadlines to know that a slick magazine doesn’t allow too much immediacy, and so most of The SEX column works as a collection of short standalone essays on various subjects related to the science-fiction field.

Promisingly enough, it starts off by wondering when The Last Dangerous Visions will finally be published. The rest of the SF-related material is just as good. “Sign Here” is a short tour of signatures sessions as seen by the authors. “On the Circuit” is one of many pieces mentioning convention horror stories. “Blurbismo” is about those mercenary one-liners.

Of the strictly ephemeral material, the best may be the review of John Clute’s Look at the Evidence (Langford being one of the few reviewers not meta-gobsmacked at the thought of reviewing John Clute) and Keith Robert’s epitaph, this last piece being noteworthy largely because it’s one of those blisteringly honest texts that don’t stoop down to simple eulogies: “…he could be utterly impossible to work with.”

The book is rarely better than when Langford walks down his amazing library to offer thematic essays on various subjects as brought up in Science-Fiction. Santa Claus in SF, Food in SF and even (yup) bad sex in SF. Prepared to be amazed at the obscure works, amusing concepts and strange juxtapositions. “This Title Was Different” is about books known under more than one title, “We Told You So” ticks off successful SF predictions, “The Case of the Red Planet” obviously deals with Mars novels while “Curse of the Typo” offers an amazing collection of embarrassing typographical errors. Don’t miss the “Choose your own column!” interactive piece.

Of course, anyone who knows the name David Langford knows that humour is an important part of his enduring popularity, and so The SEX Column often turns into an excuse for short comedy routines. “Lepermage of Elfspasm” takes on silly fantasy novel titles while “Noises Off” deals with onomatopoeia. “Future Christmas” reads like an outtake from “Our Dumb Century II”.

What more, it’s pure joy to see Langford unleash his scientific education and his literary erudition, sometimes on bad SF, sometimes on more deserving targets. “Would U kindly F O?” takes on UFOlogy: the title explains all.

Langford sometimes ends up the subject of his own columns, whether it’s reporting back on various conventions (including strange and wonderful events at the first two Discworld cons), commenting upon electronic publishing through his own experience and sometimes even discussing his long, long, long string of Hugo Awards. There is, of course, a strangely compelling British feel to the book, written as it was by a Brit for Brit readers. Americans have taken a long time to warm up to Terry Pratchett’s work, and so reading about the raucous reception of his work overseas takes on an air of almost alternate reality.

Cosmos books have been doing an awfully good job at publishing Langford’s back-catalogue, and The SEX Column is another winner. Yes, you can get most of the content on-line on Langford’s site. But wouldn’t you be better off with another half-inch of your bookshelves taken up by another of Langford’s excellent collections?

(Hey, look, “So You want to be a Reviewer” offers tips for wannabe reviewers. Oh my…)

Guts, David Langford & John Grant

Cosmos Wildside, 2001, 173 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 1-58715-336-X

Horror novels got you down? Can’t stomach yet another exotic supernatural threat to humankind? Won’t stand the dour pretentiousness of King wannabes? Trust David Langford and John Grant to churn out the most awfully hilarious parody of the entire splatter-shock sub-genre and make you like it!

There is no cover plot description for Guts and you won’t need one as long as you know cheap horror novels: If, say, you see a horror novel named The Rats, does it take a rocket surgeon to figure out what’s the big concept of the book? In fact, when half the novel on these particular shelves are named The [Something], do you need a plot description other than the classic “[Something], which you thought was harmless and maybe even useful, turns out to have an evil mind of its own and start killing just about everyone in the world”?

I don’t think so. Hence the previous spoileriffic “spoiler-free” paragraph.

But onward; suffice to say that Langford and Grant have delivered the ultimate horror novel parody. It combines elements of bad SF, awful writing and wickedly sharp satire for what may very well be an unforgettable reading experience. Silly characters (including clueless scientists, cheap bimbos, broad stereotypes and a journalist who just won’t die) are nice, but it’s the consciously over-the-top nature of the writing that makes Guts such a success. I haven’t yet been disappointed by a Langford book yet and Guts is no exception: If you’re a fan of horror and British comedy (and especially British horror that cries out for comedy), this is the book for you.

“Warning: Offensive Content!” says the brown-bagged cover, and it’s not kidding. Sensible minds and weak stomachs may be best-served by avoiding this book forever. Langford and Grant pull no punches in serving funny horror on a dripping plate of blood and gore. Perhaps the best scene of the book comes along in Chapter Five, which includes the single best parody ever written of those interminable that-guy-should-be-dead knock-down drag-out brains-hanging-out fights between protagonist and unspeakable horror. It’s as bloody disgusting as it’s compulsively hilarious, and that’s exactly the kind of effect Guts is looking for. It’s so over the top that it’s impossible to mistake for anything but self-conscious satire. If you think that DEAD ALIVE and the EVIL DEAD series were a bit on the wussy side, Guts is what you’re looking for.

Unfortunately, like most humour novels, it’s not lacking in weak moments. The novel is front-charged with good stuff; the latter sequences leading to the explosive ending (involving a sentient cheese, though that’s already saying too much) are a bit of a let-down. Not all plot-lines are equally compelling; I was a bit underwhelmed by the neo-Nazi segments myself. (Don’t worry; this is a perfectly understandable statement in the context of the book.)

Published by small-scale house Cosmos Wildside, you can bet that Guts won’t be available at your local chain bookstore anytime soon. If the idea of a splattery horror parody appeals to you, if you’re already familiar with Langford’s typically dry British wit, if you love self-conscious take-offs of bad fiction, you can probably figure out if Guts is likely to appeal to you. It’s a wonderful take-off on a sub-genre that has long deserved some humorous disgrace, and a savvy comment on the tools of lazy horror writers. That it’s unbelievably funny is just a bonus.

Somewhere, an owl hoots (for you).

The Leaky Establishment, David Langford

Cosmos, 1984 (2001 revision), 216 pages, US$17.95 tpb, ISBN 1-59224-125-5

Over the years (and he’s been at it since the late seventies, almost as long as your reviewer has been alive), David Langford has built an enviable reputation as one of Science Fiction’s foremost fan writers. Through sagacious reviews and columns for a variety of outlets, through his editorship of the Ansible newsfanzine, though his involvement in electronic fan networks (Usenet, the web, etc), Langford reigns as a fandom superstar. (It helps that he’s supernaturally well-read in many genres, holds a nuclear physics degree and often write in a style guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.)

But to merely call him a fan, even a superstar fan, is doing him a disservice. His for-profit bibliography is equally impressive, even though most of his books have now achieved the kind of mythical status only allowed to out-of-print works. Best-known amongst them was The Leaky Establishment, a tell-all bureaucratic comedy set in the bowels of Britain’s nuclear research facilities.

The good news is that the recent rise in small-publishing houses (hurrah for technology and Internet bookstores) has allowed Langford to bring back into print a number of older works. Cosmos / Wildside Press alone has republished four of them in 2003, including The Leaky Establishment.

The best way to describe the book would be as a twisted hybrid between a bureaucratic thriller, a dry British comedy and a tell-all confession about the United Kingdom’s nuclear research establishment. It sets in motion as protagonist Roy Tappen drunkenly smuggles part of the British nuclear deterrent outside the research facility where he’s working. Horrified by the mistake, he tries to smuggle it back in… only to find out that the facility has, over the weekend, upgraded its gate sensors. In an environment where misplacing a calculator can bring the wrath of the bureaucracy down on hapless workers, this places Tappen in an untenable position, especially when his neighbour (a fellow nuclear research scientist) starts commenting on elevated levels of radiation coming from Tappen’s house…

And so the stage is set for a comedy in which Tappen takes on an entire research facility in order to keep his job, his wife and his sanity. Not that his mental well-being isn’t already threatened by the inanity of his workplace. You can more or less imagine the rest, especially when you throw in VIP tours, trips to the local pub, distressing working conditions and complex plans to smuggle nuclear material inside a research facility.

But to focus on the story would be to short-change the typically delicious nature of Langford’s prose, equal part brainy comedy (the scientific bits are convincing) and bone-dry British humour. It wouldn’t work in an American setting or with an American author: The Leaky Establishment is a British work through and through. Fans of Ansible’s bite-size wit in are in for a treat with this novel: it shows not only more of Langford’s trademark humour, but impressive plotting skills and a true ability to sustain a book-length work. The comic timing works perfectly and the dialogues ring true.

They may be actual transcripts, for all we know: Readers interested in knowing more about the truth behind the fiction should try to get The Silence of the Langford (an excellent book by itself) and read “The Leaky Establishment: The Final Drips”, for a behind-the-scene examination of his primary sources in writing this novel. (Here’s a hint: He worked there)

Revised in 2001, The Leaky Establishment has lost none of its considerable amusement value since 1984. Good jokes, great pacing, compelling prose and unusually good science should do much to attract a vast audience for the book. Science-fiction fans already know how good David Langford is; now it’s time for everyone else to find out.

The Silence of the Langford, David Langford

NESFA, 1996, 278 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 0-915368-62-5

My first stab at electronic commerce took place in late 1993, as I was a wee young lad let loose on the Internet for the first time: The web didn’t exist back then, but there was a bunch of stuff to read on Usenet, and one of those was a ad for a CD-ROM containing a bunch of science-fiction material. I sent all the required information and never got anything back; maybe the email disappeared in the ether. Nevertheless, I finally got the CD-ROM months later by lucking out at a local computer store. One of the things on the disc was a copy of David Langford’s Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man, a collection of hilarious shorts critical pieces on science-fiction.

Ten years later, the web is everywhere and e-commerce is a matter of billion$, but I still had to wait until I saw a real paper copy of Langford’s much-expanded 1997 collection The Silence of the Langford at Torcon3 (along with a real-life original of the author) to buy a paper version of Langford’s writing. NESFA’s little gem brings together pieces of Langford’s long bibliography dating from (roughly) 1982 to 1996. Mostly humorous critical pieces, The Silence of the Langford packs enough hilarious barbs to keep any true SF fan in stitches for hours at a time.

Where to begin? There’s always the classic “Dragonhiker’s Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune’s Edge: Odyssey Two”, a sharp literary disembowelment of 1982’s SF blockbusters from Asimov to (eek) Hubbard. Rarely has SF criticism been as incisive, or as fall-down funny. This holds true for the vast majority of The Silence of the Langford; there is a lot of material here, and very few of it is less than hilarious.

But don’t go thinking that The Silence of the Langford is merely a book of nasty jokes strung together: There is a considerable intellect at work here and past the laughs, there’s a real critical intention. Langford’s dissection of mainstream writers attempting to write SF in “Inside Outside” is a wealth of information on how SF truly works, delivered with impeccable style and wit. It’s easy to laugh at Langford’s “Trillion-Year Sneer”, but his points about SF’s tendency to do really stupid things are well-taken.

It takes a die-hard SF fan to get all the jokes, naturally. And British SF fans are naturally at an advantage, given the number of references to European SF fandom peppered through. Langford is a good member-in-standing of the SF community (his fifteen-odd Hugos—and climbing!— are testament to that) and he repays his debt in full through hilarious portraits of the community. “You Do It With Mirrors” portrays the insanity of a convention newsletter so well that it’ll discourage hundreds (well, maybe dozen) of SF fans to ever undertake the enterprise.

Even though Science-Fiction remains Langford’s true love, his erudition doesn’t stop at SF. There’s noteworthy content here about more conventional mystery fiction, including the “Slightly Foxed” columns, each and every one of them a delight despite being (often) outside SF. It helps that in addition of being a top-notch SF commentator, Langford is also a physicist by training, and so a few essays apply hard scientific methods in order to make his point. His destruction of Whitley Strieber’s Majestic (in which one of Langford’s most fictional work had been integrated without even a nod at Langford’s self-avowed hoax) is nearly as good as his merciless trashing of L. Ron. Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth.

But wait! There’s more! The Silence of the Langford also includes pieces about Langford himself, from one of the best “how we moved” memoir I’ve read to plenty of priceless pieces on the life of a freelance writer. If that’s not enough, well, be advised that there are even a few computer columns thrown in for extra fun.

David Langford, one of the smartest beings on the planet? Maybe. Certainly one of the funniest, and when you combine the two, you get an extraordinary writer. SF fans with a love for the field could do worse than order a copy of The Silence of the Langford. You probably won’t get it autographed (e-commerce be damned, there are advantages in buying a copy in presence of The Man himself), but the book itself will be enough of a trip that you won’t care. After reading it, trust me; Langford’s collection of Hugos will seem well-deserved.