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A critical bookshelf, part 2

I did one of these a while ago – see here – but I’ve bought more critical works since then… and here they are.


Five books on women science fiction writers, most of which I used as a research for All That Outer Space Allows. Galactic Suburbia discusses pre-feminist sf and demonstrates that it was in fact feminist. Daughters of Earth is an anthology, in which each of the female-authored stories is discussed in a following critical essay. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is about, well, the title pretty much says it all. Partners in Wonder is a history of women writing in genre magazines from 1926 to 1965. The Feminine Eye I found on eBay and contains nine critical essays on authors such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, Suzette Haden Elgin and Suzy McKee Charnas.


Three critical works by some British chap who, I believe, also writes fiction. Sibilant Fricative was shortlisted for the BFS Award, but Rave & Let Die won the BSFA Award. Science Fiction (Roberts) I bought in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016. There is a second edition now available. Science Fiction (Baker) I bought from Amazon. I’m mentioned in two of these critical works.


Uranian Worlds is an annotated list of genre works which feature LGBT themes or characters. My copy is an ex-library one I bought cheap from a reseller on Amazon. Red Planets is, as the title explains, about “Marxism and”Science Fiction”. I’ve yet to read it, though I’m interested in left-wing sf. My Fair Ladies discusses the depiction of artificial women in genre, although it seems to focus more on media genre than written.


Some critical works by writers: Starcombing I reviewed for Interzone (I later posted the review on my blog here). In Other Worlds was a lucky find in a remainder shop. The Country You Have Never Seen is apparently now as rare as rocking horse shit, so I was lucky to pick a copy up when I did (there’s a secondhand copy on Amazon for £693.49!). Magic Mommas. Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts I found on eBay. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand I bought from Cold Tonnage. William Atheling, Jr, was, of course, James Blish.


Every now and again, science fiction throws up these annotated listicle books, ususally with contentious titles like 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels. I wrote a blog post after reading this, which morphed into a correspondence with the author – see here and here. Anatomy of Wonder is currently in its fifth edition and costs £55 new, so I bought an earlier edition for consierably less. Call and Response is Paul Kincaid’s second collection of essays and reviews. And In The Chinks of the World Machine was one of two non-fiction works published under The Women’s Press sf imprint (the other was LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, and I’ve yet to find a copy).


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.