It's commonly believed that Terry Pratchett invented footnotes. This honour actually belongs to the 19th-century poet Edward Edwin Foot, after whom the footnote may well have been named. So claim the editors of that unreliable volume The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, fascinated by Foot's determination to clarify every point in his awful poems. Any passing mention of, say, a bishop would be carefully footnoted: "The (imaginary) bishop of the diocese."
Another awful work with footnotes is Hugo Gernsback's early SF novel Ralph 124C 41+ – first serialized in his radio magazine Modern Electrics (1911-12), and reissued with notes bragging about its astonishing scientific predictions. For example, the technological miracle of late-night sports is footnoted: "At the time this was written, no illuminated night time sports fields existed." Incredible! There's a similar gloating note about Gernsback's "prediction" of a newspaper called the New York News. In the book this publication is made of transparent celluloid "as large as a postage stamp", to be read by projecting it on the wall ... but the footnote doesn't dwell on that part.
My favourite helpful annotation in fantasy appears in Lord Dunsany's story "The Bird of the Difficult Eye", where "beasts prowling in the blackness gluttered" at the doomed protagonist. Gluttered? A footnote is provided: "See any dictionary, but in vain."
In more recent fantasy, many writers imagine that since Terry Pratchett likes them, footnotes are inherently funny and should therefore be used relentlessly. I'd better not name too many names, but it seems particularly pointless that Michael Gerber's Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody – billed, of course, as a spoof of J.K. Rowling – should be dotted with droll footnotes when the original isn't. "A bogart is a shape-shifter that takes on the form of your worst fear – personified as your least favourite actor." How we all roared.
My nomination for SF Footnote Master goes to Jack Vance, who doesn't aim for belly-laughs but uses ironic notes to elaborate on the weirdly eccentric backgrounds of his galactic societies. A random example from Marune: Alastor 933 describes the etiquette of a ceremonial inhalation in a realm where eating in public is considered obscene: "From properly disposed orifices a succession of aromatic odours and perfumes is released. To praise the fumes too highly, or to inhale too deeply, is considered low behaviour and leaves the guilty person open to suspicions of gourmandizing." So watch it.
Similarly, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (see review in SFX 124) crams whimsical back-story information and brand-new fairy tales into footnotes that sometimes ramble on irrepressibly for pages and pages. Even readers who usually skip these things have to take a footnote seriously when it does that.
Nor is it safe to skip them in Mark Z. Danielewski's bizarrely surreal House of Leaves, exploring a house that's enormously, terrifyingly larger inside than out. Much of the story happens in the copious footnotes. There's also an insane index carefully listing every appearance of such words as "house", "into" and "so" – but this at least isn't compulsory.
Gene Wolfe lays traps for people who skip. One Wolfe collection has an extra story concealed in the introduction: "The people who do not read introductions missed it." An endnote to his The Urth of the New Sun, without actually mentioning the cause of a miraculous eclipse in the story itself, prods you into realizing what it must be.
Unless you read the scholarly-looking notes at the end of Alasdair Gray's SF romance A History Maker, you won't learn what the story was actually about. Another Gray hardback (Unlikely Stories, Mostly) contains the best last-minute correction slip in all literature, printed in red to catch your attention: "ERRATUM. This slip has been inserted by mistake."
Not quite SF but more than adequately bizarre, Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire begins with a long poem and has all its action in the endnotes, where a megalomaniac editor (not like an SFX editor at all) struggles to reinterpret the verse as being all about his own delusion that he's an exiled member of Ruritanian royalty. The index reflects this derangement, with the editor getting two and half times the space given to the (fictional) poet.
J.G. Ballard goes one better in his story "The Index", implying a whole alternative history of the twentieth century in its index to a nonexistent autobiography of the world's most influential man, Henry Rhodes Hamilton. "Einstein, Albert ... deathbed confession to HRH." "Freud, Sigmund ... admits despair to HRH." "Nobel Prize, HRH nominated for, 220, 267, 375, 459, 611."
But for freelance writers who like Mr Pratchett are haunted by W.H. Smith's giant shredder (which can gobble entire print runs of still-glossy books in mere minutes), the most depressingly memorable index of all is in Hilaire Belloc's spoof how-to-write book, Caliban's Guide to Letters. Every entry leads to the same dismal page:
Action, Combination of, with Plot, Powerful Effect of in Modern Novels, see Pulping, p. 187.
Affection, Immoderate, for our Own Work, Cure of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Art, Literary, Ultimate End of, see Pulping, p. 187.
And so on, and on.
David Langford has no room for the revelatory endnote which would make sense of this column.