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.

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