|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #45, December 1998|
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After past columns putting the boot into obscure authors of lousy sf (not to mention celebrated, best-selling authors of even lousier sf), it's only fair to list some good stuff. You don't need to be told about Iain Banks, but here's a handful of books with three things in common. They're underrated, they're hard to find, and they bring a smile even to the thin, cruel lips of Evil Critic Langford. Alphabetically by author:
Watchers of the Dark (1966) by Lloyd Biggle Jr is based on a wonderfully daft notion. Our galaxy is being invaded by insidious, hostile forces, and its Supreme Council retaliates by ... hiring a private eye, from the primitive world Earth. Down these mean matter transmitters a man must go. His adventures include the soul-chilling experiences of automated alien cafeterias, and mingling in galactic high society where some races want him to marry their nonhuman daughters and others reckon it's good taste to vomit from one stomach to the other. Fine deadpan silliness.
The late Avram Davidson produced both potboilers and stories as subtle as Gene Wolfe's. In between came some classic sf/fantasy comedies. The Hugo-winning "Or All the Seas with Oysters" has become an urban myth for its theory about the life cycle of safety-pins which grow into wire coat-hangers and, eventually, bicycles. In "The Golem", a murderous robot ("When you learn who – or rather, what – I am, the flesh will melt from your bones in terror.") menaces a dear old Jewish couple who know just what to do about golems. "Help! I Am Dr Morris Goldpepper" is a dotty tale of a dentist kidnapped by aliens (yes, Piers Anthony later pinched this idea) and of Earth's unlikely saviours ... the American Dental Association! Scour the import bookshops for the tribute anthology The Avram Davidson Treasury (1998): 38 stories, including those above, with enthusiastic introductions by big names of sf/fantasy.
R.A. Lafferty writes uniquely odd tall tales – one favourite, "Been A Long, Long Time", uses up most of eternity in a real-time experiment to see if enough monkeys with enough typewriters could write the works of Shakespeare (there's a groan-making shaggy-dog ending). At novel length, Space Chantey (1968) is a bizarre interstellar retelling of Homer's Odyssey that takes wilder liberties than James Joyce's version, and is best described as ... er ... indescribable. Eventually Lafferty's style became so pixilated that only small presses would publish him.
Nowadays Alexei Panshin is a learned, respectable critic who writes Big Historical Tomes about sf. But in his impetuous youth he produced the (unfinished, but never mind) Anthony Villiers series of offbeat comic space-operas: Star Well, The Thurb Revolution and Masque World (1968-9). The hero Villiers owes something to Leslie Charteris's "The Saint". He travels with a furry, toadlike alien Trog whose catchword is "Thurb", tangling with such eccentrics as a pal who wants to be the first Big Beaver scoutmaster on a new planet, a dissolute lord fond of hurling melons down stairwells at female guests, and a high-ranking ambassador who becomes addicted to wearing a Trog costume. Grappling with this elegant daftness, ace reviewer Algis Budrys could only say: "Read the book. Stop asking silly questions."
The very rare The Exploits of Engelbrecht (1950) by Maurice Richardson is subtitled "The Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportsman's Club". Engelbrecht is a dwarf Surrealist boxer who, among other things, goes ten rounds with a grandfather clock (which fights dirty), wrestles a kraken, and in the Angling Championship is the bait used to lure a 600-year-old giant pike which in 1448 ate the Bishop of Ely. After which, things begin to get weird ...
James H. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres (1966) takes all the traditional space-operatic plot elements, turns half of them hilariously upside down and goes way over the top with the rest. The hapless hero suffers pursuit, blaster fire, and torture from star-pirate heavies, plus – even worse – henpecking from his unwanted crew of parapsychic girl "witches". Other problems include a monster Sheem Assassin spider-robot, a playful otherdimensional "vatch" of near-infinite power and caprice, and some aliens so disgusting that their vile habits leave yellow stains in space. Can the galaxy be saved from mechanical overlord Moander of the Thousand Voices? Need you ask?
Then there's Robert Sheckley, probably too well known for this list, and perhaps I have room to plug my own borderline-sf nuclear farce The Leaky Establishment (1984) ... [No you don't – Ed.]
Any recommendations for other undeservedly obscure sf comedies? E-mail David Langford: firstname.lastname@example.org ...
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