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Starcombing, David Langford

Starcombing, David Langford
(2009, Cosmos Books, $14.95, 223pp)

David Langford is a British institution. I picture him as resembling a faculty building in a concrete-and-glass university campus of the 1950s, possessing neither Gothic grandeur, nor the ivy-clad and leather-elbowed academic elitism of a red-brick. And certainly not the imposing belligerence of a Brutalist edifice. Rather, an unassuming but welcoming façade, one which would not look out of place in a city-centre precinct, one which speaks of learning that is open and available to all. Within the building, with its foyer lined with twenty-eight Hugo Awards, is a labyrinth of passages. Small signposts indicate the ways of “science fiction”, “literature”, “nuclear physics”, “Thog’s Masterclass”, “Harry Potter” and other areas of knowledge. The corridors are quiet, and those who pad their lengths do so silently. Every so often, a door can be heard softly closing. There is an atmosphere of erudition and wit – the halls are thick with it. And it is said, in hushed tones of course, that in the labyrinth can be found a vast library, containing many legendary arcane tomes. The library is searchable too, by means of an elegant user interface programmed by the man himself.

At semi-irregular intervals, Langford issues prospectuses. Starcombing is the most recent. It contains eighty-five articles, drawn from a variety of sources – Foundation, SFX, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Nature and Nature Physics, assorted fanzines, and even some previously unpublished pieces. The earliest is from 2000, and the latest from earlier this year. They are arranged chronologically. An author’s note describes Starcombing as a sequel to both Up Through an Empty House of Stars (2003) and The Sex Column (2005), both previous collections of Langford’s writings.

Starcombing is a book in which one should wander around; a plan is not necessary. Nor, in this labyrinth a thread, narrative or otherwise. Alternatively, there is the index, which signposts the route directly to whatever is sought. Some might consider that cheating… because this is a book in which aimlessness is an advantage, in which dipping in and out is a valid use of it. The articles Starcombing contains are short, often no more than a page or two. They can be read as and when desired. Not that Langford’s writing needs to be taken in small doses. On the contrary, his writing has always made it appear as if his learning and humour came easily to him.

Highlights of Starcombing include ‘Maps of Minnesota: Stalking John Sladek’, a piece from The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2001 about tracking down Sladek’s unpublished stories and poems for a posthumous collection; three previously unpublished essays from 2004 on James Branch Cabell, John Myers Myers and Thorne Smith for a project which was abandoned by its editor; an essay on HG Wells from Fortean Times; and four short-short stories from Nature and Nature Physics. I suspect I am not alone in wishing Langford would write more, and longer, fiction. Much of Starcombing comprises Langford’s column from SFX and, while they are entertaining, their nature, intended audience and shortness weighs against them. If I have one complaint, it’s that the contents page does not give the origin of the various articles; it is only given as bulleted note after each piece.

Those familiar with Langford’s writing will know what to expect from Starcombing, and probably already have their copies on order. Those who have yet to read Langford should begin immediately, and Starcombing provides as good as introduction as any of his non-fiction collections.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #224 September-October 2009.

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