I had one of those birthdays in 2003, the ones with terrifyingly round numbers, and marked the occasion by arranging for lots of my writing to be reprinted. It was a long, sordid story of wheedling, bribes, blackmail, and slaving over a hot scanner, but I managed to get three novels and a Langford-edited collection back into print, plus hefty books of my SF criticism, my parodies, and – finally – the "straight" SF stories.
Going through your old fiction is a strange experience. Did I really write that? Oh dear, there's the one I wrote under the influence of a near-fatal Roger Zelazny overdose. And the one that I shoved into a novel even though it didn't fit. A slew of kiddy ghost stories in Mary Danby's anthologies for the young in brain. Naughty pieces crafted for Knave magazine in the glory days when, in between photos of unclad ladies, editor Ian Pemble was wont to publish stuff by me, John Grant, Kim Newman and some guy called Neil Gaiman. I wonder what became of him?
When I reread the piece I'd produced for Ian Watson's collection of stories based on famous artwork, I was deflated to discover that I no longer understood it. (Perhaps I never had.) The cruel editor had rejected my other, much funnier submission, inspired by the art of Andy Warhol and consisting of a whole page of carefully typed repetitions of the words CAMPBELL'S SOUP.
At least I had the chance to fix some old irritations when scraping together this book of 36 reprints. The very first SF story I sold included a gang of rival scientists called Lyman, Balmer, Paschen, Brackett and Pfund, the feeble joke being that they wanted to name new lines in the solar spectrum after themselves (these being caused by the fact that the Sun was about to go nova) but couldn't because all their names had already been given to lines in the hydrogen spectrum. Really.
When the story appeared in New Writings in SF, the gag was spoiled because Balmer had mysteriously changed to Morgan. This was also a total surprise to the anthology editor. Eventually we decided that someone at the publishers, Sidgwick & Jackson, had censored what was suspected to be veiled mockery of the editor himself: Kenneth Bulmer.
Then there was the tale I flogged to Practical Computing, which then ran occasional fiction. Unfortunately my finely hewn prose fell into the hands of the technical editor, who rewrote the dialogue to remove contractions like "I'm" – forbidden in nonfiction articles. So I'd have someone saying ruefully, "Can't fool you," and it would come out as "Unable to fool you ..."
One attempt at funny fantasy had a running gag about were-creatures, like the monk who was secretly a were-layman: "First touch of full moon and thick hair sprouts all over his tonsure." An editorial phone call explained that the story was just a trifle too long but would be fine if I cut exactly eighty words – for example, just to name one possibility, the joke about were-dwarves. Being too dense to take this hint, I trimmed the story without losing that exceedingly silly jest, and the exasperated editor crossed it out anyway. Now, though, back in it goes!
On the Richter scale of Langford cock-ups, this rated far below the time I wrote a grim narrative set in an English countryside ravaged by nuclear war, and then reread the guidelines sent by editor Janet Morris: "stories set in post-holocaust America". Oops. I had to exert hypnotic powers to persuade her to change the wording to "America and Great Britain".
Next: What to do about a story referring to Fermat's Last Theorem as one of the great unattainables of maths, when it was proved in 1994? No use substituting Goldbach's Conjecture or the Riemann Hypothesis, which don't have quite the same legendary status. It seemed safest to leave the text unchanged and add an explanatory afterword.
Other items were probably best not explained at all, like the 2003 symposium The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases – where my contribution, for reasons which surely must once have made sense, is called "Logrolling Ephesus".
A few of these old Langford tales made it into print unscathed, but with titles that were not mine. "Answering Machine", all about an ELIZA-style talking psychotherapy program that tends to drive its patients to suicide, somehow morphed into "Friendly Reflections". I had to fight to preserve my title "What Happened at Cambridge IV" (an obscure link to another Langford story) in an anthology where Terry Pratchett got away unchallenged with the sanity-curdling title "# ifdefDEBUG + 'world/enough' + 'time'" ...
Then, of course, there was the desperate search to come up with a few favourable review quotes. The great John Clute's remarks on my far-end-of-time story ended with "a point about terminal boredom is made with lackadaisical grace." Er, is that good or bad?
And now I suppose I'll have to write some new stories.
David Langford has begun to wonder whether he can get away with a book of reprinted SFX columns. Why is everybody running away screaming?