Books

Short works

Books : reviews

David Langford.
Critical Assembly: the first 50 White Dwarf review columns.
Ansible Information. 1987

David Langford.
The Dragonhiker's Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune's Edge: Odyssey Two.
Drunken Dragon Press. 1988

rating : 1.5 : unmissable

Hilarious and devastating SF parodies

Contents

Xanthopsia. 1988
Tales of the Black Scriveners. 1988
Look At It This Way. 1985
The Distressing Damsel. 1984
Duel of Words. 1983
The Thing in the Bedroom. 1984
The Gutting. 1988
The Mad Gods' Omelette. 1984
Jellyfish. 1985
Lost Event Horizon. 1984
The Spawn of Non-Q. 1988
Outbreak. 1985

David Langford.
The Silence of the Langford.
NESFA Press. 1996

rating : 1.5 : unmissable
review : 5 April 1997

Dave Langford has been writing wittily but scathingly about the worst excesses of SF and fandom for some time now. This volume collects some of his best reviews, reminisces, and talks at various SF cons, including:

The many essays include unflattering reviews of Famous SF Writers, of minor SF writers, and of mainstream writers who are writing what they fondly believe to be original SF. Langford illustrates plot holes of mind-boggling magnitude, and the odd deus ex machina of massive implausibility, in his inimitable erudite style that leaves me thinking 'I wish I could say things like that' (instead of that rather more obscure style and bizarre vocabulary of certain other SF critics, that leaves me instead thinking, 'huh?'). Scattered throughout the essays are choice quotations plucked from the very depths of the genre we know and love, such as the oft-quoted line from Stephen Donaldson's White Gold Wielder:

They were featureless and telic, like lambent gangrene.
They looked horribly like children.

Readers of Donaldson need a dictionary as their constant companion. On the other hand, a thesaurus seems to be the constant companion of the prolific Lionel Fanthorpe, here writing as Pel Torro, one of his many pseudonyms, in Galaxy 666:

"This crazy galaxy is the price that the universe pays for order. 666, eh? By the seven green moons, it was well numbered! There's something strangely capricious about this place. Just as our universe is a motivated universe, this one is motiveless. The real universe, the universe to which we belong, has purpose; this one is whimsical, fanciful and fantastic. This is a temperamental galaxy, an hysterical galaxy, a mad galaxy. This is an insane, freakish, wanton, erratic, inconsistent galaxy; it's a completely unreasonable galaxy. It's undisciplined, refractory, uncertain and unpredictable. It's a volatile galaxy, a mercurial galaxy. [...] It's a frivolous galaxy; it's inconsistent and inconstant; it's variable; it's unstable; it's irresponsible and unreliable."

Difficult to read in a single sitting, due to excessive laughter. Highly recommended.

David Langford.
The Leaky Establishment.
Frederick Muller. 1984

David Langford.
Pieces of Langford.
1998

A collection of his SFX columns (3, 5, 7, 10, 11, 13--32), here unabridged

David Langford.
The Space Eater.
Baen. 1982

David Langford.
Up Through an Empty House of Stars: reviews and essays 1980-2002.
Wildside Press. 2003

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 22 July 2004

Langford is renowned for his learned and often devastatingly witty commentaries on science fiction, and gathered here is a collection of his book reviews, essays, and forewords written over the last couple of decades. As the author himself notes in his own forward, there is a rather noticable progression of tone:

The hundred articles and reviews are arranged chronologically by year from 1980 to 2002. A rapid overview raises the question of whether I've mellowed with middle age, or have discovered that understatement may be more effective than demanding that offending authors be immediately overrun with fire and the sword, or now sneakily avoid reviewing books that promise to raise my blood pressure unduly. The true answer is left as an exercise for the student.

So early on we get the caustic reviews of Niven's Ringworld Engineers, Heinlein's The Number of the Beast ---, and the like, whereas later on it's rather more lovingly detailed accounts of the individual books in a couple of Gene Wolfe's sagas. There is a short return to high blood pressure near the end, with a scathing review of Kevin J. Anderson's Hidden Empire.

The individual book reviews are interspersed with longer reviews of authors themselves, including a thoughtful look at the way Jack Vance's revenge theme has matured, and a sympathetic look at Eric Frank Russell's Fortean obsessions. It's not entirely SF: there are also some other authors covered, including G. K. Chesterton and Ernest Bramah (an author I know only through a mention on one of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels). The several prefaces for book collections are themselves cast as reviews of bodies of work, so these fit well into the overall theme of the collection.

It's quite clear that Langford rates Gene Wolfe very highly. My own opinion of Wolfe was formed by reading his short story collection The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories several decades ago, and I've never read any more of his work. I have occasionally wondered whether, maybe, that collection was atypical, or my tastes have changed. So reading Langford's reviews was doubly beneficial: not only did I enjoy the experience, but they also gave me cause to believe that my original opinion is still correct. That's precisely what a good review should do: tell you whether or not you should bother reading the book, no matter whether the reviewer liked it or not. This book is a collection of such reviews. (Has my review convinced you to read it?)