Curiosa Dept

One odd corner of the SF world is "Curiosities", the back page of the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Here, various old fogeys including me go on about forgotten books that tickle their aged fancy. Here are some unlikely works I've written about there:

C.H. Hinton's nonfiction The Fourth Dimension (1904) is arguably even deadlier to sanity than the Necronomicon. People have been driven round the twist by its exercises in visualising 4D space through sets of coloured cubes. With mnemonic chants like "satan, sanet, satet"....

Musrum (1968) by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw, a deeply weird cult fantasy, features many wise sayings like "A torpedoed cathedral sinks rapidly into the earth." Its central McGuffin, tastier by far than the One Ring, is the Giant Mushroom. Complications include the Second Crimean War.

Lord Dunsany's The Last Revolution (1951) is his one straight SF novel, with self-reproducing robots that revolt and threaten English rural life. Luckily they weren't built for the outdoors: just as bacteria nobbled Wells's Martians, the machine horde succumbs to rust.

The Cruise of the Talking Fish (1957) by W.E. Bowman spoofs The Kon-Tiki Expedition but turns into SF when the raft crew's pet cats eat radioactive flying fish. This flips them into super-speed, living and breeding in fast-forward until ... does anyone remember a Star Trek episode about tribbles?

A famous epigram: 'You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! the / British journalist. / But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there's / no occasion to.' Hardly anyone knows it's from The Uncelestial City (1930) by Humbert Wolfe, a book-length afterlife fantasy in verse. I read it for Curiosities so others wouldn't have to. Be grateful.

Leo Lionni's Parallel Botany (1977) is a non-fact pop-science book about an imaginary plant kingdom that's unfairly neglected because many examples are invisible. Even if visible, their colours may be an unobtrusive "gamut of blacks", though some cast luminous shadows. And so weirdly on. Botany by Jorge Luis Borges.

The "real" facts in David Hughes's alt-history But for Bunter (1985) were suppressed by the government because "they embarrass the entire century. They make history itself look ridiculous." It emerges that Billy Bunter and his chums at Greyfriars School were all real people (the school rotter grew up as Sir Oswald Mosley); Bunter himself is bumblingly responsible for many twentieth-century disasters including the Great War's death toll and the wreck of the Titanic.

Heavens (1922) by Louis Untermeyer is a parody collection spoofing various authors' versions of heaven. Victims include James Branch Cabell, G.K. Chesterton ... and H.G. Wells, beginning with a twenty-first-century utopia where "corners and all dust-collecting angles had long since vanished from architecture", and shifting via Time Machine to slightly embarrassing come-uppance in AD 5,320,506.

In John Buchan's only SF novel The Gap in the Curtain (1932), various terribly English chaps get one quick glimpse of a newspaper a year in the future. Can they profit from this inside knowledge? There doesn't seem much hope for the two who see their own obituaries, but Time turns out to be a tricky business.

The Devil in Velvet (1951) by John Dickson Carr is an old favourite, with a modern history professor obsessed by a 1675 poisoning case. A deal with the devil takes him back in time for detective work, copious sex and rousing adventure in Charles II's London. Many a swash is buckled.

My first Curiosity was about an Ernest Bramah story, and F&SF doesn't let you revisit the same author – so I sadly can't tackle Bramah's The Secret of the League (1907), where instead of jetpacks people have strap-on mechanical wings, leading to questions of English propriety: "Hastings permitted mixed flying." And Tunbridge Wells was Disgusted.

David Langford wonders how aged he'll have to be before his own early works qualify as Curiosities.