|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #79, June 2001|
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It all came back as I checked the proofs of my "new" book, a huge collection of SF/fantasy review columns I'd bashed out for games magazines with names like Albino of Restricted Growth in the 1980s and 1990s:
The Grimoak and the Speardemon, Darkplague of Dreadrune, Circles of the Daggermasters, The Treestone of Firefate, Fellshadow, Baleshield of Direpain, The Skullmoon of Chaos-Spear, The Platypus of Doom ...
That last one is a genuine title, a very strange book by Arthur Byron Cover. The others are merely typical of what kept arriving, every week and every month, until I began to feel rebellious.
Brassprince and the Snakesword, Greensong Fimbulwinter, Ghoulmirror of the Wandspell, Fogdeath, The Chaosweird Uprising, The Knightscroll of Farpain, The Doomhollow of Tarotfever ...
There's something hideously predictable about so many genre fantasy titles – and sometimes even the contents of the books. Except when innovative writers inject a bit of life, the words and archetypes can start wearing thin. Dragons and unicorns and elves and dwarfs and the Wild Hunt, swords and rings and amulets and runes ... whatever burning force used to lie in these images, its batteries are being drained by over-use. To make them glow again, authors need to put in some seriously creative recharging work. Instead we get:
The Quicklaw and the Heartrose, Madsword, Strangewand Enchanter, The Balebride of the Runewell, Doomlions, Starkmoon of Blackworm, Dwarfmagic, The Grim Dawn of Doomfear, Woesword of Bonewither ...
By now, many readers will have rumbled me. In a fit of disaffection back in those review-column days – after 5,271,009 new fantasy titles had arrived and I had a cold – I whipped up a random text generator program. Fed with a few hundred words culled from the fantasy backlog, it spewed out endless pages of titles which frequently couldn't be told from the real thing. Some were interesting near-misses:
A Wizard of Earthgrave, The Colour of Mage, Sword of the Rings, The Staffrune, The Wounded Bane, The One Leper ...
Eventually the programmer got bored, and threw in some less orthodox words which led to suspect titles like Gleetleper of Vomitspawn. How we all roared. You probably had to be there.
After which I moodily extended the program to do horoscopes ("ARIES: expect an embarrassing encounter with a tall, jaded, drunken book reviewer.") and computer-manual prose ("The on-line RS-232 debugger mode occasionally implements an equal-opportunity iso-ASCII paper-white pop-up motherboard philosophy.") Software settings and vocabulary to generate Sun editorials must be even easier.
The Dragon Lord, Soulstorm, The Princess of Flames, Trollnight, Darkspell, Drowntide, The Dreamstone, Swordspoint ...
No, you guessed, those are all real books once received for review. I have a dark suspicion that if I coaxed it into generating plot outlines as well as titles, that software could gain commissions to write large numbers of trilogies. Better still, it should make it easier to review them!
It seemed so logical. Careful analysis of all past Langford book reviews should provide a vast databank of key cliches. Armed with this deep and intricate knowledge about how I write, the program should have no difficulty in generating an endless stream of insightful reviews which would make it unnecessary for me ever to open a review copy again.
Let's give the software a trial run right here. Stand back! History is about to be made!
"The Weirdbane of Hyperspace by Arthur C. Asimov (Gollorbit 12pp £999.38) is without doubt indeed probably a book which arguably will be better than L. Ron Donaldson. Furthermore, it ineffably exemplifies a deep metastructure which implies a intentional load of dingo's kidneys. Recommended to masochistic Pentium completists or fans of pop-up motherboard interface debugging protocol ..."
"Lepermage of Elfspasm by Anne McGuin (Pengsphere 943pp £0.12p) perpetrates an intentional failure in narrative protagonist character frogspawn interfacing to the battery-powered VT52 assembler network cardboard box. VIRGO: a tall, alcoholic critic will ineptly approach you one day this evening and say Spawnflower of Rotpelvis (Heinlein C. Collins £120pp) is the best Pratchett-compatible since Direthrone of the Punkmage, except perhaps ERROR TYPE B37F FATAL BRAIN SPASM comparable to Tolkien at his best. EDITOR: today you will enjoy an overwhelming Scorpio-compatible syntactic on-line impulse to say, That's Enough Of This Rubbish ..."
All right, all right, but just you wait until I get that program's data files straightened out. There are possibilities here.
David Langford really did write the software but doesn't expect you to believe him.
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