David Langford Interview
Hugo award winner David Langford is a highly revered British science-fiction critic and author. His reviews, essays and articles have been published in several collections, most recently the excellent Starcombing. He writes a monthly column in SFX magazine and also contributes to The New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His comprehensive website is http://ansible.co.uk.
What was your first published piece of SF literary criticism?
If you just mean reviews, my debut seems to have been a feature called "SF Landmarks" in the newsletter of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston (where I chased neutrons for a few years before going freelance). This appeared in February 1976, and droned on about recent SF that I thought had some staying power, by Delany, Dick, Le Guin, Niven & Pournelle, and Priest...all still remembered[, which is a relief].
The literary criticism, meaning no more than an attempt to go a bit deeper than a simple review, probably began with "Digging Up the Future" (Vector, 1980) – a longish look at the SF of a man not usually thought of as an SF writer, G.K. Chesterton of Father Brown fame. Much later I wrote a [Chesterton] pastiche in which Father Brown solves a [locked-room] murder on a spaceship
Did you always want to write about sci-fi and fantasy?
Not until I'd read a huge amount and slowly realized I had all sorts of opinions on the genre. By then I'd discovered SF fanzines, a world where being opinionated in print about books wasn't just acceptable but expected of you.
What were the earliest works of the genre you remember reading?
Two specifically SF titles where I vividly recall the look and feel of the actual books: John Wyndham's classic The Day Of The Triffids in an early Penguin paperback, striped orange-white-orange with no artwork; and David Severn's YA dystopia The Future Took Us, discovered as a hardback in my South Wales primary school library. I had a sudden flashback to that one when I heard about the author's death in February 2010.
Can you tell me about your published collections of criticism?
That's dangerously like inviting the Ancient Mariner to say just a few words... Anyway, the first was put together for NESFA Press under the inscrutable title The Silence of the Langford (1996), a mix of literary essays, SF convention speeches, fanzine squibs, assorted magazine columns and even a few short stories. It is, I hope, fun. The Complete Critical Assembly (2001) collects all my 101 SF/fantasy review columns for White Dwarf and other British games magazines – I still get nostalgic feedback from people who read these pieces at some impressionable age and may have been warped forever. Up Through an Empty House of Stars (2003) is a kind of career retrospective, containing a hundred favourite essays and reviews (but not duplicating anything in Silence) from 1980 to 2002. The SEX Column and other misprints (2005) packages my first ten years of columns and features from SFX magazine, where I've been a regular since it launched in 1995. Starcombing (2009) follows on from both House Of Stars and SEX Column, with more SFX columns and a mass of new material. Your eyes are glazing over, aren't they?
Have you ever written negative reviews of certain works which, in hindsight, you think actually deserve far more praise?
Um. There have been times when irritation and disappointment have made me overly grumpy about books that seemed to have wasted hours of my life. The review still has to be written and there's this temptation to spice it with funny put-downs and one-liners, to beef up a merely depressing experience into a comic nightmare. Strict accuracy sacrificed on the altar of readability! But of course that's very different from slagging something that ought to have been praised. When reviewing at high pressure – as in the White Dwarf days when I was trying to cover all the SF and fantasy published in Britain – it's much more common to give a good word to a dull book out of sheer weariness. George Orwell identified the syndrome, and Cyril Connolly put it like this: "An unpleasant sight in the jungle is the reviewer who goes native. Instead of fighting the vegetation, he succumbs to it, and, running perpetually from flower to flower, he welcomes each with cries of 'genius!' ..."
Who are your all time favourite sci-fi/fantasy writers?
The real test has to be whether I return to their works again and again. It's practically compulsory to name Philip K. Dick as a favourite, but although I admire his fiction I'm not constantly rereading it. Thirteen authors who pass the test are Alfred Bester, Jorge Luis Borges, James Branch Cabell, G.K. Chesterton, John Crowley, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Moore, Mervyn Peake, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Priest, J.R.R. Tolkien and Gene Wolfe.
Which British writers of the genre do you rate highly, past and present?
There are seven in the above list. H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon and John Wyndham are so obvious but mustn't be forgotten. It's worth investigating the authors who were writing fine book-length fantasy long before Tolkien came on the scene: William Morris, E.R. Eddison and Hope Mirrlees, for example. Can I sneak in Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm as SF? This is mostly a wonderful send-up of novels about primal earthy rustic passion, but if you look closely it's set in a future Britain with personal air transport, public videophones and a mysterious back-story about war with Nicaragua. As for present-day British SF authors, three whose new books I always look forward to are Gwyneth Jones, Ian McDonald and Alastair Reynolds.
In your opinion, who are the most underrated authors in the field?
Too big a question to answer in detail. A personal favourite, who never achieved huge fame because he was too damned clever, is John Sladek – ace satirist, parodist and all-round wit. Interest declared: Chris Priest (another Sladek fan) and I typeset and reissued all four of his story collections via our small press Ansible E-ditions, and I spent ages putting together a bulky fifth called Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek. I should also say a word for Ernest Bramah, creator of the storyteller Kai Lung – The Wallet Of Kai Lung, etc – whose fantasies are amazing feats of deadpan pretend-Chinese narrative, often wildly funny.
You have also written novels and short stories. Do you find it hard to separate your roles as both a critic and author?
Yes, there is a clash, and I'm afraid the usual result is that the fiction loses out. There's always nonfiction waiting to be written, always another column or review deadline hurtling closer in a terrifying blaze of headlights, and even a short story means a special effort. I try to write and sell one every year, but don't always manage even that. My [solitary effort of 2009 appeared in the 2010] anthology Is Anybody Out There? (ed. Nick Gevers & Marty Halpern) [and I'm inordinately pleased that it was picked up for a Year's Best collection]
Can you tell me about your short story collections?
Thought you'd never ask. Ignoring the oddments and chapbooks, there are two collections that I desperately hope will entertain anyone who likes my nonfiction. Just about all the infamous Langford parodies and pastiches of other authors are gathered together in He Do the Time Police in Different Voices (2003). And all the straight SF, fantasy and horror – with a few exceptions that I didn't like when I reread them – is in Different Kinds of Darkness (2004), opportunistically titled for the story that won a Hugo. Be sure to buy a copy of each for every room in the house.
How do you take criticisms of your own work?
With my best possible imitation of bland unconcern, if only because getting hot and bothered about a review is a good way to make yourself look stupidly self-important. Indeed, rushing to retaliate in print has been called the ABM or Author's Big Mistake. After a decent interval, in the cool light of hindsight and emotion recollected in tranquillity, I track down offending reviewers and kill them.
Have you ever received feedback (positive or otherwise) from the authors you have reviewed?
Once in a while, and – perhaps surprisingly – more often positive than not. For example, Harry Turtledove and Donald Kingsbury seemed pleased that I grasped what they were getting at in novels I'd reviewed, and China Miéville burbled that my piece on The Scar was “lovely”. On the negative side, I once had a venomous letter from the publisher of an almost unreadable small-press fantasy: this was so abusive as to make me suspect he was also the author. Another fantasy novelist, Philip G. Williamson, charmed me with a memorable image in his letter of reproof when I described a 1990s effort as readable but routine: "I may well don the outer garments of generic fantasy, but my underwear is full of surprises, and I feel you simply didn't bother to look." This lingerie-infested rebuttal went on for something like 2,000 words; the review had appeared in The Guardian, where I was allowed just 70 words per book.
You must have met many authors over the years. Can you tell me about some of your literary "encounters"?
On my first visit to a US convention in Boston, Harlan Ellison welcomed me and travelling companions with: "Stop fouling up the goddam hallway, you fucking Limeys." That was probably my high point of good relations with Mr Ellison.
Harry Harrison of Stainless Steel Rat fame laid an evil trap for me at the first World Fantasy convention to be held in London. I'd drifted in the habit of mocking Stephen R. Donaldson's argute, knurred, epitonic and exigent choice of vocabulary in the Thomas Covenant books. So Harry summoned me into this bar, sat me down at his table with a nice drink, and introduced me to Stephen R. Donaldson. Who leaned over and said rather slowly, "I read your review of me." Everything went black and I don't remember any more.
Most first encounters, though, are too boring to relate. I knew Neil Gaiman before his comics career, when with other SF hacks we were both writing funny articles for Knave magazine – whose editor was allowed to publish more or less anything between the obligatory tit pictures, and liked our stuff. Neil slipped me the first issues of Sandman at the regular London SF pub meeting, and if I'd carefully preserved them in plastic bags they'd be worth a few bob now. Before Terry Pratchett became legendary, we used to swap horror stories about our work at different kinds of nuclear establishment: his were the kind of nuclear devices that weren't supposed to blow up. I wrote for Christopher Priest's fanzine many years before he published The Prestige ... he's still darkly suspicious about how, although there's no reference to this in the book, the film dialogue mentions a stage magician's trick knot called the Langford double.
Most people in the SF world know each other either directly or at one or two removes – "The Six Degrees of Kevin J. Anderson" as it is known – but not always very interestingly.
What is your book collection like?
Severely in need of pruning. It dominates five rooms of this large Victorian house and has established colonies in several more, plus all the hallways and landings. I giggled no end at the recent New Yorker profile of Neil Gaiman which babbled that the sheer size of his library made him irresistible to brainy women: five thousand volumes! The Langford collection was way past the 10,000 mark by 1980, and we no longer have the courage for a recount.
Which publications do you write for these days?
Any that will use my writing, really. I'm glad to say that the monthly newsletter Ansible rarely rejects my offerings (this may owe something to nepotism). Otherwise the most regular appearances are in SFX every month, where I write about whatever SF/fantasy topic comes to mind and have agonizing spasms of padding when the mind refuses to cooperate; and every other month in Interzone, with the "Ansible Link" news column and its depressing flow of genre obituaries. Not-so-regular spots include "Random Reading" mini-features for The New York Review of Science Fiction, and "Curiosities" columns about dusty old forgotten books for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
What have you read recently which you'd recommend?
I'm not sure that it counts as reading, but I eventually got hold of Luigi Serafino's Codex Seraphinianus, which is the most science-fictional book I've ever owned. A bit like the undecipherable Voynich Manuscript or one of those fantastical alien encyclopedias in stories by Borges. It's written in an unknown script which ought to make sense of the tantalizing and utterly bizarre illustrations and diagrams... if only you could read it. A thing of wonder and mystery.
What is it about science fiction in particular which you find so appealing?
Jet packs! Food pills! Space elevators! Immortality! What's not to like? One serious answer might be that I always loved science (and took my degree in physics) and so by extension was attracted to fiction with science in. Which leaves me somewhat stumped for an answer to the parallel question “What is it about fantasy ...?”
As a writer, what is your daily routine?
Oh, the usual. Stumble around zombielike in a dressing-gown, turning on computers and the house network. Tea. Peer blearily at e-mail. More tea. Warm up the fingers with Spider Solitaire or some such. Still more tea. Notice a vaguely interesting SF-related story online; add a link from the Ansible site; maybe write it up for the next monthly issue. Answer e-mail. Guiltily realize no money-earning work yet done. Yet more tea. Suddenly a breakthrough – John Clute sends a new batch of material for the Encyclopedia of SF (third edition in progress), and that takes the rest of the morning to format and incorporate into the more than 2.5 million words of current working text. Teapot empty. My wife mutters something about it being lunchtime and am I ever going to get dressed?
Has print on demand publishing been imperative in getting some of your works published?
It has to help. The US Wildside Press has long been happy to reissue my backlist titles and publish new collections of both fiction and nonfiction in their Cosmos Books imprint. POD means they can do this without sinking capital into great stacks of books on which warehouse charges then have to be paid.
Your website is very comprehensive. It must be an important resource for your readers?
I hope so. Maintaining the SF links is a real chore, especially the convention lists. I keep thinking I should give up the Ansible newsletter and website, and reclaim that chunk of my life, but it's got a grip on me like some terrible addiction. Have I really been doing this since 1979? I must be mad.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The writing life is generally lonely and thankless; any sort of recognition lights up the whole day or month or year. There have been plenty of happy moments like awards, convention guest-of-honour spots, heartwarming reviews, and gloating over the first copy of each new book. The Hugo Awards have delivered a series of pleasant surprises since 1985, the biggest coming in 2001 when (having won many times in the fan categories) I somehow bagged the Hugo for best short story. It was part of the dream, from my early days of reading SF, that one day I might appear in one of those anthologies of Hugo winners that Isaac Asimov used to edit. Unfortunately the series had been discontinued before my big moment came. And so, alas, had Isaac Asimov.
I don't usually do blurb quotations, but was tickled when UK novelist David S. Garnett asked everyone he knew to contribute a cover quote for his novel Bikini Planet – without seeing the text. After long thought, I presented him with: "If science fiction's founding father H.G. Wells could read this remarkable novel, he would be alive today."
Interview by Neil Daniels 2010