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Up Through an Empty House of Stars
David Langford
Cosmos Books, 312 pages

Up Through an Empty House of Stars
David Langford
David Langford says: "Born 10 April 1953 in Newport, Gwent, South Wales. Studied at Newport High School and (1971-4) Brasenose College, Oxford. BA (Hons) in Physics 1974, MA 1978. Weapons physicist at Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston, Berkshire, from 1975 to 1980. Freelance author, editor and consultant ever since-main fields: science, technology, science fiction (both fiction and criticism), humour, small-system computing and futurology. Sideline in software marketing/consultancy (as Ansible Information, in partnership with fellow author Christopher Priest) since 1985. Married since 12 June 1976 to Hazel Langford -- no children but some 30,000 books. Most work published under own name; one admitted pseudonym, William Robert Loosley. Hobbies include real beer, antique hearing aids and the destruction of human civilization as we know it today."

David Langford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Ansible Web Site
SF Site Review: Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek
SF Site Review: The Leaky Establishment

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

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David Langford is a man who needs no introduction, although Terry Pratchett's infamous description of him being a "wit, slightly deaf person, raconteur and finest swordsman in Christendom" is a good place to start. Every month he publishes the Ansible newsletter, which is the definitive gossip column of the genre, and only the other month he won his twenty third Hugo, an impressive haul by anyone's standards.

Up Through an Empty House of Stars collects Langford's reviews, essays and other pieces from 1980 up to his review of China Miéville's The Scar from September 2002. The collection is predominantly made up of reviews (from publications such as Vector, Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction and SFX1) and covers an eclectic selection of books. This is because, rather than attempting to present a Great Books theory of the last two decades of SF, it gives us the grab bag of the professional reviewer. This means we get his thoughts on intriguing sounding novels that never made it into print in the UK like Peter Watts' debut Starfish (1999) and new translations of forgotten European fantasy like Alfred Kubin's The Other Side (1908), alongside more famous works. Here and there these reviews are discretely updated with footnotes. In the case of Iain Banks' Inversions this means that enough time has elapsed that Langford can reveal exactly what is so "naughty" about the novel.

The collection chucks a bit of everything at us: pieces on detective fiction; imaginary novels; Asimov's future history; the attraction of gadgets; his award-winning introduction to Maps: The Collected John Sladek. Some common threads run through it though: over the course of the book favourite authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Pratchett, Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe emerge. His love and respect for Wolfe's work in particular comes through strongly, admiring reviews of both The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun in their entirety are present here.

Anyone who has ever read Ansible will know just how compulsively readable Langford is and rather than just reviewing these reviews now seems like a good time to give an example:

"When Damon Knight was born in 1922, the usual supernatural visitors clustered round the cradle with their gifts: 'He will write SF with grace, wit and compassion,' one surely said, while a second promised that he'd produce the first decent book of SF criticism, and other prophesied the founding of the SF Writers of America, the renowned Orbit series of original anthologies, influential editorial posts, and so on. But the bad fairy, Commerce, who hadn't been invited, pushed through and added her curse: 'He will always be too much respected for his own good, and will never quite succeed at novel length.'"
This is not only a wonderfully concise introduction to Knight but also showcases why "wit, grace and compassion" is an excellent way to describe Langford's own writing. In fact he is more than just witty, he is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and even when lambasting poor novels, such as Heinlein's The Number Of The Beast or Kevin J. Anderson's Hidden Empire, he is fundamentally good natured. On top of this, the only reviewer I can think of who matches Langford's inventiveness is Interzone's inestimable film critic Nick Lowe.

Adam Roberts recently made the important point that what is so vital about Langford is that he is both well informed and accessible, in tune with the genre from within, poised between the twin dangers of fannish blandishments and academic excesses of theory. Langford opens his introduction to Up Through an Empty House of Stars with the words: "I've always loved those books about the SF genre that manage to be both insightful and entertaining." This is exactly what he has produced.


1 1 Missing are his many reviews for White Dwarf, a British role-playing magazine, which are collected separately in The Complete Critical Assembly (2001).

Copyright © 2003 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.


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