Monday, 28 June 2010

David Langford, Different Kinds of Darkness (2004)


Seeing as Dave Langford has won about a million Hugo Awards1, it may be stretching it a bit to say he's underappreciated. However, most of those Hugos have been for his (excellent) fan writing and his (excellent) newsletter Ansible: only one (for the title story of this collection) is for fiction, and, it seems to me, if this ratio was reversed that would be entirely justified, since Langford is, I think, One Of The The Three Best SF Short Story Writers Ever, Along With J. G. Ballard and John Sladek.

Despite the colossally cumbersome formulation above, that still might be thought a bold statement, but, to nick a title from John Clute, "look at the evidence": in this case, the book above, which collects much of Langford's serious sf from 1975 to 2003.

That word "serious" is possibly relevant. Langford is (rightly) highly regarded for his comic writing, and the wit of his remarkably long-running (and free) newsletter Ansible; and although there is (at least) one laugh out loud moment2 in the volume currently under advisement (in my case, his contribution to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discretited Diseases, "Logrolling Ephesus", the contributor's biography to which begins, "Dr. David Langford had the good fortune to commit his researches at a period when relevant legislation had yet to be urgently passed"), he is also, I'd aver, a more or less peerless exponent of the straight sf story.

I can feel the words "examples abound" creeping up on me, but they do, you know...

The most famous examples here are the tales that make up the influential BLIT sequence ("BLIT", "What Happened and Cambridge IV", "comp.basilisk FAQ", and the Hugo winning "Different Kinds of Darkness"), which, via maths, terrorism, genuinely haunting and disturbing images, and pertinent points about information and childhood, detail the implications of a scary sf idea in a combined length of (think on this, fatnasty fans!) 28 pages...

Equally, "Waiting for the Iron Age", in just 4 pages (think on this fatnasty fans! -- you've done this -- Ed) sorts out the Wandering Jew legend in double quick time, whilst, as Langford says in his afterword, giving, "our man a longer run for his money than anyone else..."

Another thing with reviewing Langford, of course, touched on above, is his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sf world: if one were to, as one might, try to comment on the "The Motivation", by 'cleverly' mentioning the Christopher Priest-like nature of the title, and then try and draw a parallel with Priest's (very different) story "The Watched", one would find, on reaching the end of Langford's (excellent) story, that he's already there in his (as is typical in this collection) informative and splendid afterword. Heigh ho...

And what great titles, though! ("In A Land of Sand and Ruin and Gold"; "Blossoms That Coil and Decay"; "The Lions in the Desert" etc.)

Seriously, everyone should have this....

1 An exageration. Just!

2 I mean here the genuine laugh-out-loud moments that render you actually unable to speak even when reading alone, rather than as a shorthand for "quite funny". For more of these, see He Do The Time Police In Different Voices.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Tully Zetford, Hook: Star City (1974)


I have an unquenchable fondness for the sort of unpretentious (and short!) adventure sf and fantasy that used to be published, to coin that ghastly phrase, "back in the day." This means I also have an unquenchable fondness for the works of the late Kenneth Bulmer, who wrote more or less a million such yarns, most famously of course the Burroughs-influenced Kregen/Dray Prescott sword-and-planet series.1

For the Hook series2, of which Star City is volume three, Bulmer is hidden behind the "Tully Zetford" pseudonym. The hero of these books, the splendidly sweary ("By Dirty Bertie Bashti!" [100]) Ryder Hook3, is not a fellow to be messed with:

If a man tried to kill Ryder Hook, that man went in peril of his own life. [7]

Although he's not without his nicer qualities:
Like any civilised man, Hook drank tea whenever he could. [12]
It would be terribly ill-advised of us to let this fondness for tea fool us into thinking Hook is basically a gentleman, though; in many other ways he is a cad of the most unscrupulous kidney:
Apart from her legs, which Hook - being the ungraceful galactic adventurer he was would call short and fat if called upon to describe them - the lady Terifa was seemingly a most nicely fitted-together representative of the female section of Homo sapiens. [34]
Most importantly, though, the proximity of a Boosted Man confers on Ryder Hook special powers, which, for example, mean that when a homicidal maniac smashes him over the head with a giant steel bar, this happens:

The steel bar bounced. For any normal man that steel bar powered by all the dark ferocity of a homicidal maniac would have shattered his skull into bloody fragments. Blood and brains would have spurted past the splintered bones. But, then, Ryder Hook was not a normal man. [16]

Bet he still had a headache, mind.

My favourite bit in this book, though, is when Hook realises what spending time on Star City, which, as the blurb puts it, is a "mighty complex housing many thousands of humanoids devoted entirely to the pursuit of pleasure", has done to his ungraceful, hard-man space-adventurer demeanor:
Hook knew he'd been growing spineless and weak and a great ninny in star city. [100]
Great ninny! Ah, they don't write them like this any more, alas....

1 I was once surprised and delighted to come across a positive notice of this sequence ("this jewel of a series") in, of all things, a set of wargames rules. The Wargames Research Group's 1991 set Hordes of the Things, by legendary Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker, and Richard Bodley Scott, also, marvellously, includes relevant Army Lists ["IMPERIAL VALLIA: Hero General (Dray Prescott - typically in red loin cloth and loaded down with assorted swords and longbow, mounted on a nickvove or zorca.) @ 4 A.P"] I love it that I live in a world where that sentence exists.

2 For more Hookery, not to mention Lynan Synkery, see Dave Langford's sfx magazine column on Bulmer and Robert Sheckley here.

3 For more of Hook swearing, see Dave Langford, again. (Scroll down to "God's Hooks")

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Ship of a Billion Years (2006)


Well, this what we know....

That I really should stop saying I'm going to do stuff "next" or "soon", as I always forget: galactic cycles ago, in February, I said some things about Coming to Dust, the first part of Lawrence Miles's The True History of Faction Paradox audio series, as released by the stout fellows at Magic Bullet, and said that "soon" I would say things about this. Oh well.

Ship of a Billion Years picks up the story, straight from where Coming to Dust left off. Cousin Justine of the Faction Paradox has passed through the space-time tunnel to the titular Ship, while Cousin Eliza and the Society of Sigismondo try to find out more from their captives Jala and Merytra. Meanwhile, Sutekh is planning a coup....

There are many great things about this.

First, the dialogue, an aspect which is perhaps even more important than usual in a non-visual medium. Examples, as the cliche goes, abound, but to pick a few: when asked if Jala, their captive great ape is dangerous, Eliza replies, "Not now I've broken its legs." (This is actually a prelude to a genuinely rather harrowing torture scene [which in typical Miles fashion, begins nevertheless with John Pemberton feebly saying to the captive Merytra, "Believe me, we can be quite firm when we want to be!"] The switching from dark humour to genuine emotion in brief brush-strokes is splendidly done throughout.)

Julian Glover as the Osiran Lord Upuat gets the best lines, however. Justine has become his chamber slave, and at one point Upuat points out various other Osirans to her: "That's Bast. She's worshipped as a goddess of not following orders on some worlds. You'd probably like her. I think I had sex with her once. Left scratches on my pelt for days..." Later, after Sutekh, arch-villain that he is, has told him he must "submit or be destroyed", Upuat replies, "Hmm. I'm not keen on either, to be honest. Couldn't I just sit back and not interfere?"

One of the things that it's hard not to do with the Faction Paradox audios, which generally pre-date the current return of Doctor Who, is to list ideas that first appeared here and are done rather better than they were in the more famous TV behemoth that followed. To pick a trivial example, the formal tongue of the Osiran Court is like a more spooky version of Judoon-speak, and, much more importantly, there is the idea of a Time War. In the RTD-era Doctor Who, it seemed to me, there was no real sense that the Time War actually happened in four dimesions: often the images made it just seem like a space battle between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Here, after Justine has travelled through the tunnel to the Ship, her companions back on Earth try and find out what's happening to her now by reading ancient texts and legends -- one of the non "history-proofed" members of the Society reads a line from an ancient Greek text, then reads it again and doesn't notice that he reads something completely different on the second occasion. (Yes, I know that there is more sense of Time being a factor in the current series of Who, in the arc about Amy's crack [if you'll pardon the expression] but even so...)

Which leads to the other great thing about this -- the characterisation. In an interview he did years before these plays appeared, Miles said that (admittedly in the context of TV drama rather than audio plays) that the idea of "character-driven" TV was overrated, and that "great television runs on iconography, not on giving characters stock emotional problems and letting them drone on about them for hours on end." Certainly the Egyptian Gods of the Osiran Court are icons, here, but the other characters generate genuine emotion in the listener in a series of completely non-droney, excellently written touches, the prime example of which is the story of Corwyn and Astarte (a great performance from Patricia Merrick) Marne's eight-month old daughter. Rescued from the poisoned Faction Paradox race bank discovered in Coming to Dust, her adoptive parents find that she slips out of their memories, that her room sometimes briefly appears unfurnished and empty when they enter, and that, when they remember things they have done, their daughter is not present....

This is genuinely emotional and affecting, and so much more effective for being sketched in brief moments rather than dolloped about like (as it seemed to this ageing cynical fellow on his first viewing anyway) the rather over-done and shallow cry-now-dammitry of, say, that Van Gogh episode of the new Doctor Who....

Anyway, marvellous stuff, and we haven't even considered the hints and reversals in the latter stages. Not soon or next, but when I remember, then: Part 3: Body Politic...