Did you ever hear of the great Drabble craze that swept over (bits of) British sf fandom in the late 1980s? Literary historians have traced the name back to the 1971 Monty Python's Big Red Book: 'Drabble. A word game for 2 to 4 players. The four players sit from left to right and the first person to write a novel wins.'
For this to be playable in real time, it had to be rather a short novel. Brian Aldiss got all excited about what he called 'mini-sagas', stories of exactly 50 words ... which rash enthusiasm led him into judging a national newspaper competition and burning out his cortex reading 33,000 entries (including one from a member of the Royal Family who confirmed our worst republican hopes by proving unable to count correctly to 50). A minority of fans thought 50 words a trifle flabby and verbose: Nick Lowe pioneered the micro-saga of precisely eight words, and Colin Greenland wrote the definitive specimen, 'Aliens disguised as typewriters? I never heard such –'
Others – notably the Birmingham University SF Society, who are to blame for what follows – reckoned that 100 words was the most comfortable figure. This, gentle reader, is the Drabble. (Once again the word count must be precise, though up to 15 extra are allowed for a title. 'Hyphenated-words-are-argued-about.') One dark day in 1987 I wandered into the Novacon convention hall to find it crammed with people scribbling and counting obsessively on their fingers. Drabblemania had begun.
With a light laugh I sat down, wrote 100 rapid words and made a discreet exit to the bar, little knowing that there were fearsome plans afoot. Imagine the embarrassment of finding one's first-draft scrawl immortalized in the slim hardback volume The Drabble Project ed. Rob Meades and David B.Wake (Beccon Publications, 1988). All profits to the Royal National Institute for the Blind's 'talking book' charity, so I could hardly even protest....
Here it is. No prizes for guessing what I'd just been reviewing.
When In Doubt, Plagiarize
The door dilated....
'No,' muttered Samuel Delany as he hacked at the fifteenth draft of his new novel Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand. 'Heinlein did that.'
The door deliquesced....
Swiftly the author jotted down a few paragraphs explaining that he really meant it, the door really did collapse into a puddle and foam into solidity afterwards, requiring nimble footwork to avoid giving a whole new meaning to the phrase 'getting your foot in the door'.
The door prolapsed.
In burst an enraged critic, shrieking, 'What a fucking awful line!'
But Delany wouldn't change it.
The door detumesced....
When the same indefatigable or maybe just insane editors announced a second volume – to emerge as Drabble II: Double Century on my birthday in 1990 – I felt I should try a bit harder. In fact I tried too hard, and one of the editors couldn't fathom it at all. Let this be a warning to over-clever fans.
A Surprisingly Common Omission
A transworld shift is undramatic. All I saw was an ordinary road, an ordinary town. Was this a parachronic probability world, or just our own?
Warning against hasty conclusions, my boss had said: 'Watch out. A variant continuum could distort your thinking and blind you to incongruity....' Rubbish, I thought.
I had four hours. Slipping into a handy library, I found a Britannica. Any major disparity in this world must show up in print.
With growing frustration I got as far as book III, Claustrophobia to Dysprosium. Automatic shiftback caught my hand still fumbling for book IV, Fabulation to Lipogram....
Although the first one had appeared as by Dave Langford, this second effort was of necessity by his professional pseudonym David Langford.
Certain British fanzines kept on calling for Drabbles, the length being ever so convenient for odd comments not weighty enough to sustain a 'proper' story or article, and so:
The Robots of Environment
by Is**c As*m*v
'Daneel! My robot sidekick! Thank God you're here – rescue me from this treacherous swamp at once.'
'I must inform you, Partner Elijah, that I have just acquainted myself with the datanet information on global warming. The energy expenditure you request would be a contributing factor, harmful to humanity at large.'
'But I'm sinking! Remember the First Law of Robotics....'
'My programming now incorporates Robots and Empire (1985), whose Zeroth Law gives priority to the welfare of the entire species.'
'Well, my existence is vital to humanity's, because –'
'To minimize greenhouse heating I am now shutting down my systems. Click.'
Along came the Birmingham SF Group's 20th anniversary party, whose silly programme items included 'Call My Bluff' ... a dictionary game involving true and fake definitions of obscure words. In the fan version, of course, they're obscure SF words. My team duly covered itself with glory (at a British Milford conference years back, Chris Priest had complained that 'Langford's only good at this because his style's just like a bloody dictionary anyway.'). Afterwards in the bar, someone idly wondered whether all that event's daft words could be used in a single story. Mere pints of beer later....
A Drabble Inspired by Exceedingly Vague Memories of Twentycon's Call My Bluff Game
Sipping a steaming mug of qujadin, she stared out across the lush pelki with its gambolling flocks of varelse. Before another quantch had elapsed, she would have to make her move and tackle the menace of the rown. Adjusting the strap of her periboob and pulling on her webbies, she pondered the terrible situation of this entire fratrin. Could diplomacy save humanity's deodand even now, or must everything be abandoned to the glotch? Already the dread sipstrassi were massing for their attack....
'Oh derg,' she swore, 'I can't understand a word of this. It must be an early Cherryh novel.'
Yes, there is a fearful temptation to say wicked, parodic things. Could one, I mused, squeeze a complete trilogy into 100 words? Surely yes. In fact, why stop at a trilogy? Why not –
*DEKALOGY: A Group Of Ten Volumes
One: The Bestseller Plan
'And I shall call you ... Eve!'
Two: Black Genesis – Fortress of East Grinstead
'Pass the E-meter, Carruthers!'
Three: The Enema Within
This thing was bigger than both of them!
Four: An Alien Affidavit
'Nuke 'em till they glow!'
Five: Fortune of Hype
Six: Debt Quest
Lasers won't stop them!
Seven: Reviewers of Vengeance
'Eat radioactive death, critics!'
Could this be the end? Never!
Nine: Venality Victorious
'You don't mean –?'
'But in that case –'
Ten: The Doomed Publisher
There are books with which Man was not meant to meddle!
On second, third and so on to tenth thoughts, perhaps there are also literary forms with which Langford had better not meddle any more.