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…)

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