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Ansible 101½, Xmas 1995

From Dave Langford, 94 London Road, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 5AU, UK. Fax 01734 669914. ISSN 0265-9816. E-mail ansible[at] Logo: Dan Steffan. Available for world peace, universal goodwill, cosmic harmony, or SAE.

BAH! HUMBUG! No Christmas Ansible appeared at the 21 Dec London pub meeting, because of reasons: I'd been ill, overworked and, above all, devoid of smartarse ideas for a special issue. Instead, the Ansible nostalgia machine probes through extraliterary dimensions and – in a cheap ploy to avoid writing any actual new material – presents a tiny anthology of 1992-1995 oddments from my obscure (ever since 1976) apazine Cloud Chamber. Meanwhile, Merry Xmas and all that.....

• I devoutly believe in typo-free perfection in books and even lowly fanzines, but am always nervous of going on about it. This is because of an important law articulated by John Bangsund, stating that '(a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written; (b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing and proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book; (c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault; (d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.' All this is called (but of course) Muphry's Law. [3/93]

• ... the infallible Robert Sheckley cure for writers' block. He said he tried a drastic exercise to get things flowing again (an enema for the muse, as Nick Lowe liked to say): making himself type 5000 words a day, any words so long as he met the quota, grimly bashing out stuff like ... Oh words, where are you now that I need you? Come quickly to my fingertips and release me from this horror, horror, horror ... O God, I am losing my mind, mind, mind ... But wait, is it possible, yes, here it is, the end of the page coming up, O welcome kindly end of page....

After days and days of this, Sheckley made the great discovery that it was now actually easier to write a story than go on suffering. And so he did, quite quickly and happily. I have passed on this sure-fire advice to several aspiring authors who believe there is a Closely Guarded Secret to it all, but none of them ever thanked me. (Incidentally, it was Robert Silverberg who, when once asked if he'd ever had writers' block, said: 'Yes – it was the worst ten minutes of my life.') [3/93]

• ... the really laugh-a-minute stuff is the CD-ROM Hutchinson Encyclopaedia, whose cross-references all appear to have been generated by computer. Thus Stalin once joined the Social Democratic Party ... and selecting this highlighted phrase in his entry rushes you straight to the entry for an SDP which I rather suspect is not the same one. Hang on, it gets better. The first word of Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is meticulously cross-referenced to an instructive article on County Down. When reading of Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight it's so handy to be reminded at the touch of a key of its connection with Brighton Rock. And Heinlein scores a double with twin cross-references from Stranger in a Strange Land to Strange (a golfer) and Land (of Polaroid fame). I swear I'm not making any of this up. [5/93]

• When The Dragon Knight appeared I speculated that Gordon Dickson would shortly be slaying a few copy-editors – since the name of an important talking wolf, 'Aragh' in the earlier book, had become 'Aargh' throughout. But a Dickson letter in SF Chronicle revealed this to be all deliberate: he'd consulted 'Michigan's leading academic researcher and writer on the wolf' for correct snarl-phonetics, and made the change deliberately to indicate a wolf's own pronunciation. Unfortunately this pedantic research leads to an inescapably silly name ... but I suppose we were all lucky the wolf expert didn't insist that it should be spelt and pronounced 'Arf' or 'Woof'. [6/93]

• By the way, 'Stapleford' is a typo that haunts Brian Stableford's life. It's really an anti-typo: his grandfather (or thereabouts) was called Stapleford and the 'correct' spelling comes from a transcription error way back then. Either universal morphic fields are struggling to re-impose 'Stapleford', or sf fans' spelling tends to be affected by the powerful semantic attractor of Olaf Stapledon.... [6/93]

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis ... what a weird curate's egg this one is. The bit that most makes me gnaw the carpet is Lewis's extension of that old knock-down argument about abortion (where medical students make the hypothetical decision and are told, 'You have just murdered Beethoven, har har'). Good old prophetic Merlin pops up and immediately rounds on the heroine for conspiring with her husband to delay having children – because she has thus caused a champion of Good to fail to be born. Where is this daft reasoning supposed to lead? All women should begin a desperate round of successive pregnancies from the earliest possible age, just in case? [8/93]

• 'So the foul Dark Prince bears Stoatbender, Sword of Bestiality, does he? We stand little chance, since in his belt he also carries the Sword of Splatter – great Gutbuster itself.'

'Not so: the Ambiguous Queen may indeed ride in arms with him against us, wielding Prongsweller, the Sword of Potency; but our armoury holds not only Groinsucker, Sword of Embarrassing Penile Limpness, but the mighty god-blades Papersnipper, Rockwrapper, and Scissorsmasher ... not that they're much use except against each other. And, too, we have Salamislicer, the Sword of Delicatessens, whose precise magical power I forget.'

'What then of Doomfucker, Sword of Screwing Around With Destiny?'

'God knows. I mean, Gods. For in an instant all our plans may yet be set at naught, while Foul Lord Saberhagen still stalks abroad bearing Plotwrencher, the Sword of Hacks, at whose touch all logic and plausibility are shivered....'

Er, sorry. Conversations like this have tended to run around inside my head ever since (for Pringle-related professional reasons) I sweated through Fred Saberhagen's interminable Swords sequence, originally devised as a computer game scenario and featuring twelve lovingly described Swords of Power but no characters at all. To speak of. [8/94]

• I remember arguing with Tom Shippey just once, at a Novacon after his The Road to Middle Earth had appeared. Jolly good book, I told him. He nodded imperceptibly, not needing to be informed of this. But there was a mistake, I added: the dragon Chrysophylax from Farmer Giles of Ham was spelt Chrysophlax throughout. He began to mutter dangerously about etymology and how his spelling was on the whole more valid. You just got it wrong, I began to gloat, and found myself on the floor with Shippey doing his best to twist off one of my ears. Later he went on a manic rampage through the bar while tactful fans told the hotel staff, 'Don't worry, he's a Professor of Mediaeval Literature.' So much for the peaceful groves of academia. [8/94]

• Among my unfavourite US retitlings are The Spider Strikes (Michael Innes's highly literary don-detective novel Stop Press) and The Perfect Lover (Chris Priest, A Dream of Wessex ... which he wanted to call Interesting Times, only for the publishers to insist it was a boring title that wouldn't sell. Cut to 1994 best-seller lists and Terry Pratchett). [12/94]

• So there I was eating a pizza while waiting for Ansible to be printed, and catching up on Pringle Fantasy Guide reading with a copy of The Greater Trumps, when the salt-cellar I'd placed to hold down the springy pages fell over. It is eerie to realize that metaphor has come to life and one is literally taking Charles Williams's theology with a pinch of salt.... [10/94]

• On the New Scientist/Susan Blackmore theory of a link between magnetic fields, their effect on the temporal lobe, and 'abduction' experiences ... it is clearly time to update an item of 70s/80s urban folklore, the one about the courier who was strictly instructed to use taxis but took the Tube for a bit of quiet expense fiddle – only for the magnetic fields to wipe the precious computer tapes he was carrying, yah boo sucks! Perhaps many of the people you see in tube trains staring blankly into space are in the grip of fluctuating fields and (subjectively) having their orifices explored by midgets with huge eyes and faces made of putty. Whitley Strieber Is Alive And Well On The Bakerloo Line.... [2/95]

• I thought I was joking when I invented a Wodehouse/Lovecraft novel opening for Dave Wood's silly collaborations competition. The Inimitable Cthulhu, of course:

'In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.'

'So I have been informed, sir.'

'Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I'm going into the Park to do nameless, blasphemous rites descended from a shuddering and unhallowed tradition, amid shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky ... forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnameable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils ... insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and demon arcades choked with fungous vegetation ... and then a snifter at the Drones, what?'

'I fancy not, sir. The Dark Priestess of the Esoteric Order of Dagon is in the sitting-room and desires to speak to you.'

'Iä! Iä! Aunt Agatha!'

... but little did I know that an erudite American, Peter Cannon, was busily writing Scream for Jeeves (New York, Wodecraft Press, 1994), a slim collection which really does re-run Lovecraft staples like 'The Rats in the Walls' and 'Cool Air' as Jeeves/Wooster larks – the latter story acquiring the well-judged Wodehousian title 'Something Foetid'. (By the way, my own favourite entry for that collaboration game began 'He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.' – yes, it's the Bester/Milne Tigger! Tigger!) [4/95]

• [Re seminal or ovarian influences ...] Balls/ovaries/etc: sudden memory of a Milford discussion long ago. Chris Priest: 'This story really grabbed me by the goolies!' Various Others Around The Circle: [general agreement, often in similar words]. Transsexual Author: 'Well, this story grabbed me by the ... lips.' [9/95]

• Reward of hubris: 'Writer beams up Sci-fi honours. Writer Dave Langford was feeling on another planet yesterday after scooping the science fiction world's equivalent of two Oscars. / Dave, 47, from London Road, Reading [...] beat thousands of other hopefuls after Sci-fi fans nominated him....' (Reading Evening Post, 31 Aug; I didn't intend to tell them but was shopped by Martin Hoare, rot him. Anoraks get a mention.) [9/95]

Thog's Masterclass too-long-for-Ansible special, researched by Paul Barnett in Susan Key's Phantom (1990): 'I c ... can't,' I stammered, hunting nervously through my pockets, 'I can't seem to find my handkerchief. I m ... m ... must have dropped it when we came across the lake. Do you have any h ... h... handkerchiefs, Erik?' / He looked at me so sadly that I could have bitten my clumsy, stuttering tongue. / 'I don't have much call for handerchiefs, my dear ... there are certain advantages, you see, in being without a nose.' / My hand flew to my mouth. / 'Oh, Erik! I didn't think, I'm so sorry! Please don't give it another thought. I can quite easily sniff.' [9/95]

• Regarding Arthur Mee, I suddenly had a flash of the other Children's Encyclopaedia I possessed long ago, whose synoptic version of Greek mythology included the tragickall history of the lovers On and Ion. Parted by circumstances I now forget, they received the traditional mercy of the gods and were reunited and transformed into a plant whose portmanteau-named root brought tears, called ... at this point, though, retrospective disbelief set in. Were the editors taking the piss? Or was it one of those dummy entries introduced as traps for plagiarists of encyclopaedias (a device I first discovered in a short Fred Saberhagen story)? Echo answered, 'Count the spoons!' [7/95]

• Couplet wisely omitted from published version of Tennyson's poem Happy: 'I never glanced at her full bust but wished myself the snake / That bit the harlot bosom of that heathen by the Nile.' • Thomas Carlyle contemplating the possibility of millions of planets in the Universe: 'A sad spectacle! If they be inhabited, what a scope for pain and folly; and if they be not inhabited, what a waste of space!' • Robert W. Chambers on how I feel after completing a laborious first draft: 'I believe the author shot himself after bringing forth this monstrosity, didn't he?' (The King in Yellow, 1895) [12/95] • 19-century actor W.C. Macready shares a common sentiment:'I wish I were anything rather than an actor – except a critic; let me be unhappy rather than vile!' [7/93]

• We are working through a huge packet of poppadoms whose makers, despite competitive pricing, may be failing through lack of UK market research. Their brand name is: 'Gits'. And whenever I say 'Let's have some Gits with our curry!' Hazel looks at me rather oddly. [12/95]

• [Rob Holdstock bought a new computer from Ansible Information and nervously asked whether what he called the low-radiation keyboard would have the layout he was used to. It was time to compose a reassurance in authentic style....]

Yakimoto Computer Bits

To know you great joy in your newest Yakimoto LOW-RADIATION KEYBOARD, for which we congratulate! Never do you regret. Instructings are simple in all way. First, you know in happy 1993 EC regulation conformities making keys alterated from bad old QWERTY standard. To be pressing Q when intended Z, and so forth for all other. Soon you type at great swiftness!

Attention! New special key coding are added toward your pleasurable conveniences. E.g. for the initiating of Return do now strike not simultaneous both Alt, Space bar and small red click switch placed for avoiding of harmful access underneath disk drive. Likewise is for Tab, except to beware power overload danger if too rapid manipulate, or otherwards. Extreme inadvisable Shift or Esc key when hard disk light at glow! This are important warn.

Use BZ96000-56a/04 hex rotator tool (not supply) for needful adjust each 10,000 keystrokes or any serious overheat.

Please to communicate all your trouble and injury with convenient e-mail sending: Also to fax at number imprinted hereto: ____________________.

Warranty form must be complete. To avoiding incorrectness, as entering name in NAME box or other improper. Sections of shock, burn and radiation unwell most important completed fulsomely. Must to remit by August 1994 or utter void, retaining yourself also all original packing materials.

We give glad assurance Ansible Information is not responsible. Thanking you for refined attendings. [10/94]

[What I did in Oct and Nov 1995: compiled a Terry Pratchett Discworld Quizbook for Gollancz. (It was their idea, not mine.) But:] After enthusiastically approving initial sample material in which tricky and challenging questions predominated, and raving about the wonderfulness of a mass of Work in Progress shown to them in November and likewise full of deviously complex questions, good old Gollancz have now done an about-turn and decided the book should be 'dumbed down' because people won't want quizzes that pose any sort of actual challenge.... I moodily began to compose some questions more in keeping with their apparent desires: • Fill in the missing word: The Colour __ Magic. (Two letters.) • WHICH CHARACTER SPEAKS LIKE THIS? (Begins with D.) • Can you find the name of a three-letter animal in the surname 'Pratchett'? (Clue: it has a vowel in the middle.) • What is flat and stands on the backs of four elephants which are themselves supported by a gigantic space turtle? (Anagram of WILD SCROD.) • What is the subtle literary allusion buried in Terry Pratchett's hilarious coined name 'Cohen the Barbarian'? (Hint: the reference is to the heroic fantasy yarns of Robert E. Howard.) • Rearrange the following words into a well-known phrase or saying: off, fuck. [12/95]

• And a happy New Year to all you future rulers of the sevagram.

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Ansible 101½ Copyright © Dave Langford, 1995. Thanks to Maureen Speller, who runs Acnestis, the literary APA where most of this stuff first appeared, and to our Hero Distributors (who are spared this one): Janice Murray (North America), SCIS, Alan Stewart (Australia), Martin (For TAFF!) Tudor and Bridget Wilkinson (Fans Across The World). 24 Dec 95.