Random Reading 8
David Langford


Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (2002): I enjoyed this 'progressively lipogrammatic' allegory of constraints imposed by Language Police as letter after letter is censored from the alphabet. The epistolary construction is clever enough, and the moral impeccably liberal. One niggle, though: the emergent McGuffin or quest object is a pangrammatic sentence which by sheer serendipity is 'accidentally' written down and only much later recognized for what it is. But it's a well-known pangram [*] which, for those familiar with word games, sticks out like a fluorescent thumb on its first appearance. Hence an increasing tendency to drum one's fingers and mutter, 'When are they going to spot it?' James Blish once argued that authors who pattern stories on chess games should invent their own, like Lewis Carroll, rather than imitate the moves of classic matches, like Poul Anderson ('The Immortal Game') and John Brunner (The Squares of the City). Should Dunn have constructed a new pangram? Too difficult, perhaps. All good fun, though not up to the lyrical standard of James Thurber's classic The Wonderful O (1955).

Clifton Fadiman, ed., Fantasia Mathematica (1958), the legendary anthology of mathematical tales, extracts and oddments which -- with its companion volume The Mathematical Magpie (1962) -- inspired many further sf stories on related themes. Greg Bear once described his 'Tangents' as a homage to the Fadiman collections; Rudy Rucker loved them and recreated their flavour for a later decade by compiling Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder (1987). Fantasia Mathematica is full of rare and tasty material, including Kurd Lasswitz's thought experiment 'The Universal Library', the inspiration for that unforgettable Jorge Luis Borges nightmare 'The Library of Babel'. (See also Borges's essay 'The Total Library'.) Though aware for decades that this volume existed, I never came across a copy until one day a black grimoire taught me how to conjure the demon abebooks.com and pay its terrible price....

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume II (2003). Fresh from dealing with Moriarty and Fu-Manchu in Volume I, the League now faces a Martian invasion. The action begins on a panfictional and very red Mars, with Lieut. Gullivar Jones (complete with flying carpet) joining John Carter and his multi-armed Barsoomians, with backup from C.S. Lewis's sorns, to attack the fortress of the unpleasant 'molluscs' -- H.G. Wells's Martians, who now appear to be launching spacecraft. Cut to huge crater in a field outside London.... The heat rays, tripod war machines, and scenes of destruction are most strikingly re-imagined. As humanity is betrayed by the most unreliable member of the cast, and Captain Nemo's Nautilus defends besieged London, it becomes necessary to seek dark biological expertise from Dr Moreau -- whose current hybrid experiments include the creation of Rupert Bear and chums, plus familiar figures from Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows. (Uncontrollable giggling from the present reviewer throughout these scenes.) As before, the whole graphic novel is crammed with such little treats and allusions. Moore's best work of re-invention is the monstrous Mr Hyde, who develops into a genuinely complex figure without ever ceasing to be a monster. When he crosses London by cab at the height of the war panic, Hyde's thoughtful, even tranquil, expression makes an obvious contrast with wild scenes of looting and Hogarthian drunkenness on the streets; but next comes his most appalling and protracted (though partially justified) murder to date. Finally, with dozens of Martian tripods massed on the south bank of the Thames for their last push to victory, Hyde gets to play Horatius at the Bridge -- dressed up to the nines and singing, for whatever mad reason, 'You should see me dance the polka ...' Volume II is full of unforgettable scenes and images, far more so than Volume I. Let us not speak of the film.

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (2004), marking the 21st anniversary of the Discworld comic fantasy phenomenon. Again Pratchett examines just what makes his great and malodorous city of Ankh-Morpork tick, and the means by which devious dictator Lord Vetinari keeps it ticking. Past novels have transformed the deadbeats of the City Watch into a functional police force that now struggles to cope with the side-effects of technological upheaval -- like the printing press of The Truth (2000), which rapidly spawned newspapers, investigative journalism, and an equivalent of the Weekly World News. The space program in The Last Hero (2001) was a one-off; of far greater consequence to this world is the 'clacks' semaphore system that's revolutionized global, or discoid, communications with c-mail. Noting the vicious business practices of the major clacks cartel, Vetinari slyly introduces competition by reviving the moribund Ankh-Morpork Post Office under new management -- a convicted con-man 'named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents.' Ensuing complications involve much postal lore and legend, golems, dread initiations, obsessive collectors (of pins rather than stamps; there's an excruciating scene in a pin hobby shop), arson, a nonhuman assassin, and the equivalent of net hackers. The climax sees a John Henry challenge of man versus machine, with von Lipwig and the high-speed c-mail system racing to deliver a long-distance message. Our swindler hero rises to the occasion, rejecting one way of fighting dirty -- a clacks virus that could make the semaphore net literally crash and burn -- in favour of his own special skill with words. Very clever and very funny.

Frederik Pohl, The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004), a belated fifth novel in the Heechee series. Intelligent and engagingly told, as always, but very much a book of bits. I sensed this even before checking the copyright page to discover that three chunks, with different protagonists, appeared separately as standalone stories. The overall action starts during the time of book two, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, and fast-forwards through the rest of the sequence and beyond, thanks to familiar time-dilation effects. There are pleasant characters, such as the 'stovemind' AI who finds haute cuisine the best challenge to his vast processing power, and handles mere trifles like military strategy as a sideline (at one stage delegating it to 293 AI sous-chefs). A villain is recycled from earlier in the sequence, and -- like other not terribly convincing bad guys in The Annals of the Heechee -- is rather too easily disposed of. The universe-killing 'Assassins', sinister but no longer regarded as a menace, make one brief, bodeful appearance and then vanish a little unsatisfactorily from the story. A book of bits.

Peter Weston, With Stars In My Eyes: My Adventures in British Fandom (2004): another NESFA Press publication, marking Peter Weston's 2004 Worldcon appearance as fan guest of honour. It's an engaging fannish autobiography of the Briton who founded the long-running Birmingham (UK) SF Group, chaired the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, and now manufactures the Hugo trophies. Portions appeared in fanzines which have become hard to find; the cumulative effect, despite occasional sloppy punctuation, is greater than the sum of its parts. Our man's informal but hypnotic way with anecdotes transfers effectively from its normal convention-bar habitat to actual paper, with cartoons, graphics, photos, and an index. Secret histories abound, from the 1963 beginning of sexual intercourse -- that is, Westonian fan contact -- through youthful indiscretions of future sf notables, to the climactic 1979 Brighton Worldcon. I'd have relished this even without the remarkable (considering how late in the timeline I turned up) number of Langford namechecks. Essential reading for connoisseurs of fandom's chequered history.


[*] 'Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.'