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Ansible 136½ OryCon Extra

D. West cartoon

From Dave Langford, 94 London Road, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 5AU, UK. Fax 0118 966 9914. ISSN 0265-9816. E-mail Logo: Dan Steffan. Cartoon: D. West. Available for SAE, whim, beer, or transatlantic GoH invitations.

HELLO AGAIN! This special no-news issue of Ansible is produced just for OryCon people and consists of (a) heartfelt thanks for inviting me back, despite the nightmarish memories of my 1989 GoH appearance which must still haunt the committee; (b) a clutch of Langford oddments from magazines and fanzines that might possibly not be seen on this coast of America. Have fun....

On Holiday

It’s all routine now. Another brief escape from traffic-cursed Reading to scenic Snowdonia, whenever the Civil Service permits (Hazel theoretically gets copious holidays, but is usually too overworked to take even a week all at once). Another Harlech sojourn (a word which Stephen Donaldson, to John Clute’s eternal delight, believes to be a verb meaning ‘travel’ – day after day the fellowship sojourns from place to place, etc). Another round of postcards like the usual one to SFX magazine: ‘WE HAVE TAKEN YOUR COLUMNIST LANGFORD HOSTAGE. SEND UMA THURMAN GIFT-WRAPPED IN GOLD LAMÉ OR WE WILL GIVE LANGFORD BACK.

While wandering the beach we invented a new game called bard-flinging. As any fule kno, the name comes from our natural habit of calling any washed-up mass of flotsam and jetsam a bard, based on Edward Young’s dramatic poetic outbreak: ‘... What wrecks abound! / Dead bards stench every coast.’ – duly indexed in The Stuffed Owl under ‘Bards, dead, common objects of the sea-shore.’ Hazel wanted a bit of strong nylon cord for some domestic purpose, and brightly coloured remnants of fishing-lines and ships’ ropes are a major eyesore on Harlech beach ... so an expedition to look for some usable bits turned into a major and exhaustive bard-hunting crusade, hauling stringy nylon fragments from bardic masses of seaweed containing the occasional decayed gannet. You never know whether a tug at a half-inch stub will disclose a vast coiled entanglement or, well, a one-inch stub.

Bard-flinging, soon to take its rightful place in the annals of sportsmanship between caber-tossing and dwarf-throwing, is the art of detaching great slimy fly-bedizened lumps of maritime glop from the current bit of rope by whirling it sling-fashion around one’s head. Points are scored for distance covered by the hurled detritus, for spectacular impacts on innocent bystanders, and for not (a common beginner’s problem) having the whole lot go down the back of one’s neck. As soon as I’ve devised further unnecessarily complex rules and caught the attention of a future Olympic committee, bard-flinging will be the sport that makes Britain great again. It should be good for an OBE.

Tiny Tale of Terror

Things have a way of sneaking up on us. A certain Wednesday in mid-June began with characteristic Langford bleariness: Hazel had gone off to be a civil servant and I was pottering around in an old dressing-gown, doing constructive things like putting milk-bottles away in the fridge and wondering what on earth I was going to say next in a longish and boringish essay for the British Library’s book of critical appreciations of Jack Vance. As does not happen very often, a full bottle bounced out of the fridge and smashed on the kitchen floor, and I uttered certain words. Ten minutes later the great milk lake was more or less blotted up, the bits of bottle were gathered into a plastic carrier-bag, and (this part refuses to come into precise focus) as I picked up the bag for disposal something somehow slipped: a nasty glass shard got me in the wrist. There was a sense of utter disbelief as I saw blood jetting out in an arc several feet long, the way they say it does in detective stories but one never quite assimilates.

Instantly forgetting all first-aid precepts, I got things more or less right by applying direct pressure and a wad of paper towels, and took stock. Already I was feeling extremely odd and the kitchen was best not described. It suddenly seemed unwise to try walking to the hospital; the world kept going wobbly. With rather too few usable fingers, I dragged a jacket with keys and things in the pockets to near the front door, deposited my hearing-aid on top of it (it seemed impossible actually to put it on without letting go), wrestled with the phone for a while and eventually got through to the ambulance service. Phone now covered in red polka-dots. Oh dear. Hazel won’t like that. Left the front door open, just in case, and propped myself against a wall which seemed to be undulating rather a lot. Aeons passed.

The paramedics decided to sit me down and bandage me up in the front room, leaving me thinking a great deal more ‘Oh dear. Hazel won’t like that,’ as surprisingly copious pools of blood collected on her favourite carpet, table and William Morris coffee-table book. Confused interlude: ambulance, oxygen, much rattling and bumping, emergency room, some hidden but welcome hand thrusting in my hearing-aid so I could answer questions ... and eventually relative calm on a bed with my injured arm strung up in a sort of left-handed Nazi salute while the other was immobilized by a drip-feed. You know those times when scratching your nose seems the most important thing on Earth? At least I was appropriately garbed for the occasion. ‘Old dressing-gown and pyjamas,’ I mumbled, ‘we have been through many adventures together, but none as strange as this.’

After which, of course, the day settled to nice comforting boredom ... punctuated by trolley journeys (in which I studied several miles of ceilings belonging to the Royal Berkshire Hospital), x-rays, many blood pressure checks, the threat of an operation to stitch up that gashed artery, the cheering discovery that after several hours of pressure the bleeding had more or less stopped of its own accord.... By early afternoon I’d managed to phone Hazel’s office with warnings about the great 94 London Road abattoir, and to extract a pen and (great good luck) notebook from that jacket pocket. So for want of anything else to do, I wrote 17 excruciating pages about Jack Vance as originally planned.

Towards evening, with the dodgy arm in a sling, I returned home by taxi at my own expense: a compromise between the conflicting schools of medical advice You Really Shouldn’t Walk Yet and Er, We Don’t Have A Spare Ambulance. Hazel was soon back, enjoining me to do nothing, sit still, be utterly calm let her clean up, etc. Then, as I’d rather feared, she took a look at the bloodbath and went to lie down and recover while I guiltily scrubbed away at the evidence one handed. It’s amazing what you can do with cold water, though: the carpet, the coffee-table and – thanks to a laminated cover – even the defiled William Morris book cleaned up good as new.

All that now remains is a small scarred lump on my wrist, but I still find it hard to look milk-bottles in (as it were) the eye. Nasty, vindictive little beasts.

Even more alarmingly, this bloodstained episode had brought out the antifannish worst in me. Kim Huett helpfully reminded me of traditional Langford reactions to disaster, ‘Was almost concerned when I read you had inflicted HIDEOUS INJURIES upon yourself. The twin themes of suffering HIDEOUS INJURIES and owning HIDEOUS CARS in your fannish writing blunted my sympathy somewhat though. The author who cried OUCH too often perhaps?’ But the truly horrific subtext was that all through that aching day, I’d failed even once to think of the traditional consolation ‘Hey, there’s a fanzine article in this!’ – and instead scribbled endlessly away about Bloody Revenge Themes In Bloody Jack Vance. Am I going all sercon; am I turning inexorably into John Clute? The only way to exorcize this horror is to write about it after all....

Writing By Numbers

This is a tale of long ago, before there were home computers. In those days men were men and we programmed gigantic mainframe machines with hand-punched cards. If the punch had gone astray, you had to gnaw holes in those cards with your bare teeth. Tell that to today’s youngsters and they won’t believe you.

It all began with an erudite article on computer-generated sf in the very first issue of Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, back in 1972. Next issue, programmer Doug Letts proudly showed readers what his Plot Machine Mk.1 could churn out. Here’s the climax of its 150-word debut novel:


Reading this stirring stuff, I had the fatal thought, ‘I could do better than that ...’ Unfortunately I also had access to a huge computer in the Oxford University nuclear physics department, and started typing in immense lists of vaguely science-fictional nouns, verbs, names, exotic weapons, etc. This led to three exciting discoveries.

The first was that persuading a computer to generate grammatical sentences is horribly hard work. That ever-growing writing program, called SFCOMP, ate up all my study time and started to cut seriously into my pub-going time. The second, depressing discovery was that SFCOMP’s semi-random prose was lots more popular than my own efforts to write sf. A chunk of its output was even pirated by some fly-by-night student magazine, under the title ‘The Rampant Moles of Morog’ – which for some reason featured in a long, long program array of implausible alien menaces.

My third discovery was that popularity can be a Bad Thing. That old mainframe computer wasn’t designed for security ... anyone could copy anyone’s files. At the height of its fame, there were eighty or ninety bootleg copies of SFCOMP (by now a vast, sprawling program) cluttering up the very limited and expensive disk space. This was when the computer manager worked out what was happening, summoned me to his office, and in a few uncouth and poorly-chosen words told me I was banned from his nice machine. If you’ve ever wondered about the petty tyrants called T.W. Thacker who so often died gory deaths in my early fiction, this is why.

SFCOMP stories were cunningly arranged to start quietly and get more frenetic as the narrative lurched onward. Thus a typical one might gently begin: ‘It was the 20th century AE (After Einstein), and the sadistic Murgatroyd was ravishing the gorgeous cat-girl.’ Murgatroyd turned up a lot; other regular characters were Elric, Fardel, Glockenspiel, Woodcrog and George Hay (editor of Foundation). I forget why.

Unsubtle rhetorical questions alternated with violence: ‘“You are trapped, fool!” observed Elric, mindlessly pointing his poisoned arrow at the Rampant Moles of Morog. Were the very laws of chance against them? The devastating George Hay was pondering on the destruction of the ecosphere and blasting a rogue octopoid to shreds. Had the Shadow Minister of Propaganda betrayed humanity? In the chaos of wrecked time-lines, the Keeper of the Sacred Voles was aiming a superhuman useless weapon at the marble floor ...’

When SFCOMP produced ‘In the chaos of wrecked time-lines’ or ‘Transfixed in eternity’ rather than ‘It was a nice day,’ you could tell it was straining for a narrative climax. They just don’t write them like that any more, although A.E. van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard often came pretty close.

SFCOMP also spawned an eldritch H.P. Lovecraft version: ‘“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!” belched the squamous Elder God as he unspeakably made the Voorish Sign at a nearby shoggoth ...’ After escaping from Oxford, I lovingly recreated these programs in FORTRAN on much bigger computers at a certain atomic weapons research establishment which had better remain nameless. Copies still exist, on microfiche. Is it time for SFCOMP and HORRCOMP to stalk cyberspace once again?

Well, no. So long as Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen King keep paying me huge sums to suppress this possible competition, the software must remain under wraps. But I can still dream.

[MS-DOS and Windows versions eventually emerged: see here.]

A Christmas Column

[This column apparently leaked through an illicit time-warp from an interactive holographic edition of SFX magazine dated Christmas 2048.]

It’s been a year of exciting science-fictional developments like nanoflakes, scrotties – how come no sf writer ever predicted scrotties? – HyperViagra, and the Even Newer LibLabCon Alliance’s introduction of surveillance cameras in all British houses to safeguard us from illegal acts. (That last one was actually predicted in George Orwell’s forgotten novel 1984, now a prohibited book under the 2016 Freedom of Information Act.)

What better way to celebrate such a thrilling year than by getting absolutely smashed over Christmas? Luckily, there are several new technologies for dealing with humanity’s ancient foe, the hangover....

Nanoware cures are being heavily hyped this winter. We all know how they work – the medicine may look like thick white goo, but a teaspoonful contains tens of millions of microscopic nanomachines which rapidly spread through your aching tissues, dismantling surplus alcohol molecules and neutralizing their toxic breakdown products. The market leader NoCrapulaTM promises to eliminate your hangover in 8 seconds – but if you don’t mind waiting half a minute, rival brands are much cheaper.

Remember, it’s vital never to exceed the stated dose. As doctors warn us, our bodies’ chemical processes use small amounts of alcohol, and removing these entirely may lead to unfortunate side effects such as death. And it’s no fun spending Xmas banged up in your local hospital’s Intensive Resurrection Ward!

Specially interesting is the GoodTimesTM morning-after remedy, which not only zaps that hangover but erases all embarrassing memories of last night’s office party. Make sure your boss takes it too. Boxes of chocolates spiked with GoodTimes are now employees’ number-one choice as Xmas presents to management.

However, be warned that the much-hyped Deep Freeze Cure is little more than an urban myth. It might have worked back in the early days of cryonics, when crude revival techniques would often give an illusion of improvement by killing off large numbers of your nervous system’s pain sensors. But nowadays the technology is too good: if you wake up with your head splitting and rush to spend a week in cryonic storage, I can guarantee that your hangover will still be with you – perfectly preserved – when you’re defrosted.

Beware also of cowboy microsurgeons who go from door to door over the Christmas and New Year period, offering instant relief by means of a head transplant. It may help in the short term, but many purchasers later regret their decision.

They say, of course, that prevention is better than cure, and the best way of all to avoid those morning-after collywobbles is to have your digestive system rearranged by retroviral gene-splicing (not available on the National Health Service). The economy version introduces a new pre-stomach organ known as the PARTYPOOPER, which breaks down ethanol into harmless sugars before it can reach your bloodstream or affect you in any way.

More expensively, the SCROOGE biotech organ stores all the alcohol you consume in a teflon sac and allows it to be drained off through a small, tastefully located tap for later resale, or for immediate use as a passable vodka substitute. The trouble with both these amazing developments is that hardly anybody wants them, since so few of us can face Christmas at all without getting blotto.

Some old codgers still swear by an old-fashioned method which sounds primitive, barbaric and dreadfully twentieth-century. Before going to bed, you take a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate and drink a huge amount of water to counter alcoholic dehydration. The traditional snag is that anyone who really needs this treatment is in no state to do anything so complicated before falling into bed. But not any more! Although it’s technically illegal, a bootleg chronowarp unit lets you jump briefly back through time and persuade your drunken former self to gulp all that water and bicarb. Take care not to violate causality, though, or the Time Police will be down on you like a ton of scrotties.

Lastly, there’s Newphoria – that low-cost synthetic alcohol substitute developed in 2004, which according to scientific tests is harmless, non-addictive, produces all the short-term euphoric effects of booze, and never, ever gives you a hangover. Naturally, therefore, it was immediately banned as a dangerous drug. Possession or consumption of Newphoria is a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment as slave labour in the scrotty factories. You know it makes sense.

Merry Xmas!

[Our ‘David Langford’ AI’s Christmas 2048 column was sponsored as a public service by the Brewers’ and Distillers’ Association.]

The Next Fix Is Also Free

Ansible tends to avoid printing e-mail addresses – except the one in the masthead – and URLs, which are reserved for the electronic edition. But since there’s room, here are two blots on the escutcheon of cyberspace:

Ansible 136½ © Dave Langford, 1998. Credits: ‘On Holiday’, Cloud Chamber 88 and (expanded) Crifanac 8, 1998; ‘Tiny Tale of Terror’, Cloud Chamber 86 and (expanded) Outworlds 70, 1998; ‘Writing By Numbers’, forthcoming in SFX 47, 1999; ‘A Christmas Column’, forthcoming in SFX 46, Xmas 1998. Don’t tell SFX, anyone! 12 November 1998