So there I was, trapped on another convention panel at some ghastly pre-dawn hour like 10am, being mercilessly interrogated by Maureen Kincaid Speller – British sf's answer to Sue Lawley. Which five books would I choose to be stranded with on a desert island?
Frankly, this is not a topic which I waste my days worrying about. Obvious choices would be 1001 Things To Make With Sand and The Reader's Digest Book of Yacht-Building Using Palm Fronds and Whelks. But something in Maureen's steely gaze told me I was expected to choose fiction, not DIY manuals. And something else at the back of my mind told me that I had an enormous hangover. Think, Langford, think.
My hasty strategy was to go for cheap laughs. Well-known hazards of desert islands include countless small vermin and creepy-crawlies ... so I demanded a one-volume edition of L. Ron Hubbard's truly ghastly ten-decker Mission Earth series, exactly the thing to drop on cockroaches. What's more, it's a little known fact of trigonometry that standing on a copy of this monstrous tome allows you to spot rescuing vessels much further out to sea.
Next ... I've always been fond of Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Book of Sand", which is about the weird paradoxes of a book with infinitely many pages. No matter how many you tear out, there'll always be an infinity of pages left in the book. As I explained to my disgusted hostess, this simultaneously solves a castaway's twin problems of kindling and toilet paper.
After that, it was time to consider defending myself against savage beasts and the regular cannibal attacks which were such a bother for Robinson Crusoe. The obvious choice here was Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, partly because I've never read it and partly so I could have the special edition carried by the Executioner in From Russia With Love – the one that fires dum-dum bullets when you press a secret place on the spine.
In memory of my old pal George Hay, who recently died, I then asked for a book he edited in 1978 ... a "reconstruction" of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous forbidden grimoire, the unspeakable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. Since George had credited me as the man who used Ministry of Defence computers to extract the occult text from alchemical ciphers created by Dr Dee in 1583, it seemed about time that I read it. Besides, if I got bored on this lonely island I could always use the Necronomicon to summon up Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, thus causing the end of the world – always good for a laugh.
Since one of my hobbies is collecting really, really bad lines from sf and fantasy, the final selection was a book which had caused unseemly uproar in Internet sf circles: Flight by Vanna Bonta, a novel of "quantum fiction" (don't ask) which transcends all the old-fashioned, non-quantum ideas of ordinary sf. People keep sending me extracts ...
"Dr. Kaufkiff was perching over his glasses again, this time in an unspoken question." Kaufkiff is a psychiatrist and a strangely perceptive one, since though the hero keeps all his clothes on: "He could feel Dr. Kaufkiff's scrutiny all over him." There's also a big bad guy called Juristac who's frightfully hearty: "He was having a grand time behind Section A controls of Z Zone when, without warning, his face turned umbrageous and he barked, 'But there is no chance of error!' [...] A laugh heaved forward from Juristac's massive body and broke up the catarrh deposits in his throat. 'But of course!' Juristac intermixed in his laugh-cough. 'That's the point!' He sputtered to a conclusion and wiped his mouth. 'It might attract curiosity. [...] When he spoke next, his voice was suddenly harnessed. He spoke as though he were serving the sound-symbols on a platter." If there's ever a stage production of this book, don't sit in the front stalls during Juristac's spittle-laden speeches.
Yes, Flight sounds like laugh-a-minute stuff. But, as my lovely but annoyed hostess conveyed, wasn't I going to choose any actual, readable sf books? Fortunately I had a contingency plan there, because unfortunates marooned on desert islands are notoriously allowed one luxury item. And if Terry Pratchett can get away with asking Sue Lawley for the Chrysler Building, I'm insisting on the Bodleian Library.
David Langford has a nasty feeling that he won't be invited back on Desert Island Books for some time.