When I started reviewing SF for the Sunday Telegraph magazine in 2011, I naturally hoped for fame and immortality, if not the occasional hundred quid in used notes clipped to page 94 of a review copy. That was Brian Aldiss's helpful Booker Prize tip when he was a judge back in 1981. Current Booker hopefuls should allow for inflation.
For me, major payola so far has been confined to the outsize goodie box containing Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker. Amid a mass of straw, this book came tied up in a double length of white string with a couple of attached bracelet-charms shaped like little bronze scissors. A rummage through the straw revealed nine more charms with a clock-face design, some black iron nuts and bolts because it's steampunk, and a welcome miniature of gin with a custom label suggesting it came from some entirely different promotion. Who can fathom the minds of publicity people?
This arcane assembly of found objects, all intensely symbolic of something or other, looked as though it ought to be an installation at Tate Modern; and maybe it is. Nevertheless the ploy worked. As a helpless mind slave manipulated by the PR masters of surrealism and subterfuge, I just mentioned the book. The same happened twenty years ago when David Wingrove's Chinese SF epic Chung Kuo was launched at a convention with a deluge of promotional fortune cookies containing such uncannily accurate predictions as: "You will report this in your newsletter, Langford, or else."
Somehow my first year reviewing for the Telegraph seems very short, maybe because so are the reviews. With only a shade over 50 words allowed per book, it makes the cruel space limits of SFX review pages seem vast and cavernous. Then, after all that reading and note-taking to produce a few jewelled sentences, there's the risk that your critique will be vetoed ...
When this first happened to me, I was trying to plug Lavie Tidhar's splendid alternate history Osama (which later won the World Fantasy Award). No, no, came the stern reply from Telegraph HQ, you reviewed that last year. What? Had I fallen prey to the dread occupational disease of amnesia? Actually it was covered by the chap who wrote the column just before I took over, but I still had to do a different book. Then came Yrsa Sigurdardottir's I Remember You, surely the finest police-procedural supernatural thriller set in Iceland that I'd read in whole weeks ... No: although it contains real ghosts the paper's crime reviewer had bagged that one. Find something else quickly, Langford.
Nearest to hand was a new collection of SF poetry, Where Rockets Burn Through edited by Russell Jones. Little did I know that the fickle finger of fate, loosely attached to the long arm of coincidence, was steering me to a mindboggling discovery. On my first random riffle through this volume I found a oddly laid-out prose poem titled "Torn Page from a Chapter on Ray Guns", by Jon Stone. It invoked such high-flown poetic concepts as Isaac Asimov, Stephen Baxter, Arthur C Clarke, death rays and Robert A Heinlein. Though fragmentary, the text contained phrase after phrase of exquisitely haunting familiarity ...
Indeed, it was all me. I'd become a found object, like an interesting stone or naughtily shaped length of driftwood made into an art installation. The whole poem was "appropriated", as artists like to say, from my column "Ray Guns Forever" in SFX 172, August 2008. This is my ticket to poetic immortality. Or it would have been if the chap whose name is on it had credited his source.
David Langford was soothed by a graceful apology from Jon Stone, who normally gives credit for his depredations but just this once forgot.