|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #120, August
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Once again, the mystic force of synchronicity has grabbed me by the short and curlies. Last issue I credited Brian Aldiss for coining the splendid phrase "shaggy god stories". But was this really his? Various websites claimed it was Michael Moorcock's, and the massed forces of academic publishing demanded that I back up my rash words ...
As I said in the far-off mists of SFX 119, shaggy god stories are those dreadful old SF chestnuts whose big surprise is that this is a Bible story rehashed as science fiction. Alien scientist creates two new experimental life-forms and we learn in the very last line that their names are ... Adam and Eve. Or maybe Ay-Damm and Eev. Big groans all round. Naturally I couldn't resist quoting this useful term in a couple of my 35 essays for a coming American encyclopedia of SF and fantasy themes. But, horror of horrors, I had to produce a bibliographical reference. (Ten, in fact, for every essay.)
This is the curse of writing respectable nonfiction. You can't just write that you're pretty sure of this one, honest, or point out that the Encyclopedia of SF says it was Brian Aldiss and is more reliable than dodgy SF websites. No, you must dig up the original published source ... the date .. even the page number. And just why did so many web references say Mike Moorcock?
(An academic aside. One of my many horror stories about writing for science magazines comes from when I reviewed a book of futurology articles for a publication which we'll call Novel Technocrat. The review, written to a very tight word limit, was full of phrases like: "Biologist Fred Bloggs says ..." But the subeditor had a thing about academic credentials, and expanded each reference into something more like: "Frederick Melamine Bloggs III, Ph.D, Pepsi-Cola Professor of Differential Agrostology at the University of Insomnia, Arksansas, says ..." They cut the review severely to make room for all this essential stuff, and the world will never know my actual conclusions about that damned book. But I digress.)
The obvious thing was to ask Brian Aldiss. Alas, he's written so much SF criticism since the 1960s – my best guess at the date – that he couldn't quite place that one, although he was sure it was him. Perhaps it was in one of the critical afterwords to the Year's Best SF collections he edited with Harry Harrison? I went carefully through all nine. No luck.
Mike Moorcock was equally sure that the websites were wrong, but couldn't quite place that one. "I'm certain shaggy god story came from Brian.... Brian's a natural punster/Freudian slipper as you know." Perhaps, he thought, it was lurking somewhere in the legendary Aldiss-Harrison critical magazine, SF Horizons? I read diligently through the entire run, fortunately only two issues. No luck, except for a reminder that Brian Aldiss sometimes used the pen-name C.C. Shackleton.
(Aldiss, 2004: "C.C. Shackleton is in hiding. He was considered too amusing for a serious matter like sci-fi. Compare the situation in Sweden. Advertising the movie, Lost in translation, posters carried the tag line, 'So funny it was banned in Norway'.")
Anyway, to cut a lengthy research programme short, I picked the brains of a million SF experts, and after a lot of discouraging comments to the effect that all those websites couldn't be wrong, we struck lucky. Interzone editor David Pringle – by now, alas, the magazine's ex-editor – eventually admitted that he rather thought "shaggy god story" had been invented by Moorcock under the pseudonym Dr Peristyle. Which is not, you will notice, a cunning anagram of C.C. Shackleton.
But this was the key. I happened to know that Dr Peristyle was an Aldiss pseudonym briefly used for a 1960s "SFXperts" question-and-answer feature in the Moorcock-edited magazine New Worlds – and after much dusty searching I found the very column in the October 1965 issue. "The shaggy god story," grumbled Dr Peristyle, "is the bane of magazine editors, who get approximately one story a week set in a garden of Eden spelt Ee-Duhn."
Brian Aldiss was amazed: "My shaggy god, I had all but forgotten 'Dr Peristyle'! A bit short-lived, wasn't it? Originally, it was to have been 'Dr Peristalsis' (that sense of something going down the tubes ...) One of the follies of youth, I guess."
Of course this explained why so many people out there in the Net of a Million Lies gave credit to Michael Moorcock. An anonymous column in an SF magazine edited by a prankster like Mr Moorcock – obviously it had to be him! He was stirred to remember: "Spot on. For some reason, in spite of Brian's evident style permeating the columns, people did think it was me."
And so we come to the end of one of the most baffling and sinister cases of my SF research career. That, dear readers, was how I nailed down one single bibliographic cite in the proper academic format (it was on page 125, by the way) for my current encyclopedia assignment. Only 349 more to go!
David Langford sometimes wonders whether he'd volunteer for these mind-ravaging projects if he didn't need the money. [Later, October 2004: I actually finished all those encyclopedia entries but then got landed with half a dozen more (so far) for the same book....]
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