1 Down: Respect

Newspapers traditionally sneer at science fiction, but the gigantic intellects who set their crosswords include friendly genre fans. Last year I thrilled Chris Priest with the news that the latest Independent puzzle by veteran setter Phi used him as a hidden theme, with answers including not only Christopher and Priest but his novel titles Affirmation, Extremes, Glamour, Islander(s), Prestige and Separation. 16 Down was Scintilla, a surveillance gadget in that nifty Priest novella "The Watched".

Displaying the majestic dignity of SF writers, Chris ran all the way to the newsagent to buy that paper. And followed up with an enthusiastic blog post titled "Thirstier Choppers (anag. 11, 6)" which cryptically dropped the name of his one-time reviewer nemesis "Rat Animism (anag. 6, 4)". Go on, you can work it out.

A sadder occasion, the far too early death of Iain Banks, was marked by a crossword memorial from a setter bylined Alchemi. A number of one-word answers, either singly or in pairs, gave assorted Banks titles: Business, Canal Dreams, Complicity, Crow Road, Walking (on) Glass, Wasp Factory and Whit. Not quite as lasting a memorial for our Iain as the Minor Planet Center's announcement that in June 2013, asteroid 5099 was officially named Iainbanks by the International Astronomical Union "and will be referred to as such for as long as Earth Culture may endure."

(See the Asteroids entry in the online SF Encyclopedia for several more wandering planetoids that now carry SF authors' and artists' names.)

More crossword fun came with a recent Independent offering from Phi, titled "Persuasion" as a red herring for Jane Austen fans. This required solvers to deduce a longish non-English quotation that went round the edge of the puzzle grid, and its "translation" as given two letters at a time by extra hints buried in clues. As it turned out, both lines were fresh in my mind because only that week I'd been reformatting my two Discworld quizbooks for Gollancz to release in ebook form.

The quotation, in traditional Discworld dog-latin from Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, goes Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum. The official, bowdlerized paraphrase in the same novel is "When you have their full attention in your grip, their hearts and minds will follow." Just in case "full attention" doesn't seem an entirely accurate translation, Phi helpfully threw in a few special "thematic" clues with no definitions provided, whose answers were Globe, Orb, Pill and Spheroid. A veritable load of balls. Ouch.

Spoiler and subject change alert! A non-crossword puzzle I've also been investigating is whether the plot of UK author Eric Frank Russell's 1955 Hugo-winning comic story "Allamagoosa" was, er, borrowed. Synopsis: a starship in a bureaucratic space navy faces rigorous official inspection. Panic when no one can find inventory item V1098, the "offog", or even remember what kind of gadget this might be. Gambling that the inspector also knows nothing about offogs, the captain boldly has his radio officer build a substitute with plausible dials and blinking lights. They survive their inspection ... only to discover the inventory list had a typo. V1098 is actually the ship's friendly mongrel Peaslake, its official dog (off. dog). Dire galactic consequences follow.

Meanwhile, a couple of decades previously, fantasy author and Punch magazine contributor Anthony Armstrong wrote many comic sketches of UK army life. One story in Captain Bayonet and Others (1937) features an official inspection and another untraceable barracks inventory item, the Spad-Gas. You've guessed it: the armourer fakes a replacement, "a queer bit of metal with odd corners and a couple of tubes". After the battalion has passed inspection, the typo is revealed: Spade, G.S. (General Service).

A fair cop? Maybe not. Russell's biographer insists the original was a 1950s naval legend about a mystery "shovewood", with yet another weird gadget hastily manufactured to replace the inventory's typoed version of an official-issue "shovel, wood". These are deep waters, Watson.

David Langford has begun to suspect this is ancient military folklore dating back to the armies of Napoleon, King Arthur, Julius Caesar....