Free Reads

You know science fiction has become an elderly genre when you find early examples turning up in public domain archives at websites like Project Gutenberg. Not just Verne, Wells and all those bewhiskered Victorians, but 20th-century magazine SF published after the term "science fiction" was invented. The Free SF Online site has links to five whole novels by E E "Doc" Smith, including his classic – in the specialist sense of "old books which are stunning in their awfulness" – The Skylark of Space.

Naturally there's plenty of newer stuff out there. The trick is to find the needles of worthwhile SF in the vast mega-haystack of web publishing. Sci Fiction, edited by the great Ellen Datlow, ran top-quality fiction and earned Ellen a double Hugo win in 2005 for best website and best editor. As her reward, the parent site put the magazine into stasis, explaining that this was their cunning plan to "expand with exciting new ventures." But Sci Fiction is still on line. [Well, it was when this column appeared. Since then the rotters at decided to withdraw it, so now you have to use the Wayback Machine.]

One useful British site is Infinity Plus, showcasing on-line reprints of stories that passed the acid test of being bought and published in paper form. US publisher Baen Books has the Baen Free Library, which – against all the received wisdom of print publishing – successfully boosts hard-copy sales by giving away copious free samples of stories and entire books.

(Readers who are salivating uncontrollably at the prospect of all these freebies, and wondering why cruel Langford isn't giving web addresses, should click on this word ... oh, all right ... see end of page.)

Another change brought by the web is that sites like and have opened the secret world of SF fanzines to anyone who's vaguely interested. When I was a lad and you could only get to SF conventions in bare feet through snowdrifts – uphill both ways – the fanzine scene wasn't easy to discover. Print runs were often under a hundred copies, produced on a tatty old duplicator, and in-person grovelling was essential to acquire those mistyped words of wisdom.

Nowadays, all you need is Google. The five fanzines which between them have won every Best Fanzine Hugo for the last ten years are all archived on line. My own quirky newsletter Ansible has had quite enough mentions in this column; Emerald City, though no longer published, bulges with worthy SF reviews; File 770 is a fat though infrequent US newszine that runs to long convention reports; Mimosa, now also in stasis, looks nostalgically at the history of SF fandom with articles by the history makers; and Plokta ("Press Lots Of Keys To Abort"), subtitled The Fanzine of Superfluous Technology, specialises in lavish design and utter silliness.

Though we didn't know it then, another long-running fanzine published its final issue last November. Lee Hoffman launched this one in 1951, and it never missed a deadline. That feat wasn't too difficult: the title was Science-Fiction Five-Yearly. Here you could read lunatic SF serials by Calvin Aaargh, who was really Robert Silverberg, and Nalrah Nosille, really ... I'm sure the crossword experts can work it out. Sadly, Lee died this year – but her fanzine, including two articles by me, remains on the web.

One endearing thing about fandom is that people are prepared to contribute absurd amounts of effort in a good cause, or just a sufficiently daft one. The Ansible archive would be missing its first 41 issues from my pre-word-processor days, if a lot of fans hadn't worn down their fingers rekeying the old stuff.

More recently, I managed to coax volunteers to do the same for Peter Roberts's Checkpoint, which was Britain's SF newsletter through the 1970s and which eventually passed its subscription list to Ansible. Putting the whole of Checkpoint on line inspired other diehard fans to digitise the UK newsletter before that: the late Ron Bennett's Skyrack, whose 96 issues appeared from 1959 to 1971. Whatever next? Historians of British SF fandom – like Rob Hansen, whose four-volume Then covers this bizarre story from the 1930s to the end of the 1970s – can now find great wads of research information by Googling these archives.

It is, according to the old fannish catchphrase, a proud and lonely thing to be a fan. Not so lonely, not any more.

David Langford would get a Hurt Look from our editor if he filled this whole page with clunky URLs. See for details.

Website note: Now that the traditional months of delay have passed, I can put the column on line and, of course, have incorporated active links throughout. The URL used to redirect to a bare list of these links, but now just loads this page.