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.

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