Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Ansible, Langford and sci fi

Us pensioners have to watch the pennies, you know. I don't actually root through the neigbours' dustbins -- not in daylight, anyway -- but I will gladly accept free books from anyone. Thus it was that I found myself searching a plastic bag of books which my son was about to take to the charity shop; and I came across a novel by David Langford entitled The Leaky Establishment.

This is not a work that I was familiar with, though I do know of Dave Langford (of whom more later). The Leaky Establishment is described by its author as a nuclear farce. First published in 1984, it concerns a series of highly unlikely, but nonetheless amusing, events at Robinson Heath, which is a thinly disguised version of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. A place where, oddly enough, Langford once worked.

The Leaky Establishment is quite a lot of fun. It entertained me well enough on the train home from London. The genre, I suppose, is comedy science fiction, which is not altogether a common species, at least as far as I'm aware. And if you are up to smiling at the removal of radioactive materials from top-secret establishments, plus the accidental firing of nuclear missiles at Stockholm (catastrophe averted by the substitution of some sort of football for the real warhead) then this could be the one for you. Warning: you do need a sensayuma, and not everyone has the same model, or indeed possesses one at all.

The history of this book is interesting in itself. It was first published in hardback by Muller in 1984, and then paperbacked by Sphere in 1985. It was revived by Big Engine in 2001, complete with an introduction by Terry Pratchett, and finally issued yet again by Cosmos in 2003. Big Engine was a small UK-based sci-fi publisher, and, sad to say, it went the way of many another big engine -- it sort of blew up. Cosmos is an American firm, an imprint of Wildside Press . All of which is interesting to me, at least, because it indicates that a book can still find a publisher and new readers even after twenty years; even if it isn't, in itself, the greatest thing since the transistor.

David (Dave to his friends) Langford was already known to me as the originator of a monthly newsletter about science fiction known as Ansible. This newsletter usually contains some worthwhile stuff, even if you're not a big fan of the genre. For instance, there is often an item called 'As others see us', which demonstrates that many publishers and critics will go to great lengths to deny that they have anything whatever to do with so sordid and vulgar a genre as sci fi, though they will happily publish and write about it under some other heading.

Oops. I see that an item in the latest issue of Ansible quotes someone else as suggesting (as I almost did above) that sci-fi writers seldom have a sense of humour. This implies that, in Langford's eyes, sci-fi writers and readers regularly fall to the floor clutching their stomachs and howling (with laughter). I bow to Langford's greater knowledge of these matters.

Even a partial exploration of Dave Langford's Ansible web site shows that he has written masses of stuff, including at least three other novels. He has also written considerable numbers of articles, reviews, and essays. In other words, he was a blogger long before blogs were invented. He has won, apparently, 23 Hugo awards, mainly for his work in publicising and popularising science fiction. All in all, Ansible is a site which will repay exploring.


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