The Silence of the Langford

by Dave Langford

Cover image

Publisher: NESFA Press
Copyright: September 1996
Printing: December 1997
ISBN: 0-915368-62-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 278

Buy at Powell's Books

Dave Langford wins a Hugo award yearly, and yet if you're not familiar with science fiction fandom (as opposed to just being a fan), you may never have heard of him. That's because most of those Hugos, with the exception of a short fiction win, are for various forms of fan writing. Langford writes reviews, critical essays, humorous essays, fannish news, and random blatherings, as well as the occasional short fiction, scattered across dozens of different publications and convention appearances. You can find quite a bit of it on his web site, or even better, you can pick up The Silence of the Langford from NESFA Press, support a fan-driven small press that has done invaluable work for the SF community, and get a collection of some of the best of Langford's writing.

This collection is mostly essays and speeches, with a smattering of reviews, a few representative samples from Langford's fanzine Ansible, and three short stories. It is not a review collection (see The Complete Critical Assembly for that); it is, instead, a collection of more general writing about SF, sprinkled with writing about a few other topics.

The opening essay is "The Dragonhiker's Guide to Battlefield Convenant at Dune's Edge: Odyssey Two," a brilliantly funny convention speech that fires both barrels at some of the more egregiously bad bits of science fiction, succeeding so well that I was laughing out-loud at a critical annihilation of a book I personally rather liked. This is also the speech in which Langford spells out exactly how he feels about L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, and it's one of the best rants I've had the pleasure to read.

The beginning of the collection is full of gems like this, from "Trillion Year Sneer" (more snarking at bad SF writing), to a great collection of short articles for an old computer magazine, to a few columns about mystery novels that gave me a new appreciation for analysis of the genre. Although I liked the essays aimed directly at analyzing writing the best, the topic almost doesn't matter; Langford can make me laugh out-loud while digressing on almost any subject, hiding wonderful turns of phrase and a delight in language in the middle of the most prosaic of essays. This collection is best read a few essays at a time, rather than in one long sitting, so as to not get overwhelmed and lose the effect.

Sadly, it is a bit front-loaded, and the end of the collection (including the short stories) aren't as strong. (Although I did find "Inside Outside," the last essay of the collection, one of the most interesting.) The stories here are decent idea-driven ones, but they don't rise above the average SF story the way that his essays rise above the average SF essay, and frankly the excerpts from Ansible giving news of years long past, while understandable inclusions from the perspective of a sample of his work, are almost filler (falling short of that solely because Langford's writing style is always entertaining).

Still, even if some of this could be skipped, you owe it to yourself to read Langford's writing if you're an SF fan. You do need to be reasonably well-versed in SF, and it helps to know something of SF fandom and the nature of SF conventions, so this book isn't for everyone. It also helps to have read the books that he mentions. If you are in the right target audience, though, highly recommended.

Here are the capsule reviews of the short stories:

"The Arts of the Enemy": This isn't a story in the traditional sense, but rather a monologue told in the second person singular, one of those perspectives that only works in short stories and there only rarely. It's from the perspective of a villain to someone in his power, the standard post-capture bragging rant of the comic-book mastermind, except with far less feeling that the hero is going to escape. An interesting idea, and a much more intelligent villain than the usual variety, but not something that's likely to stick in my memory. (6)

"Leaks": A paranormal with an apparently worthless ability manages to find a unique application for it in the nick of time. Mostly a puzzle story, although there are some nice jabs at atomic research here. (Nothing as good as the essay "The Leaky Establishment: The Final Drips" earlier in the collection, though.) An average enough problem story in the semi-superhero genre, marred by some descriptions that I didn't really want to have read. (6)

"If Looks Could Kill": Definitely the best story of the three, this is a detective story with a paranormal twist. Someone is murdering people with the evil eye, openly, and yet there is no way that the murderer could apparently have done the deed. Not a locked room mystery, in that the twist the story relies on introduces new facts, but satisfying enough, with an amusing ending. (7)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-05-30

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