|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #116, April
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Rather to my surprise, there's a silver anniversary of vast SF insignificance this year. A quarter of a century ago, in 1979, the editor of the British newsletter Checkpoint decided to cease publishing with his 100th issue. Instead he passed the buck to me with the subtly persuasive words, "Here's the subscription money, young lad – start your own SF newsletter and don't use my bloody title."
Thus Ansible was born, and has been trying ever since to fulfil the rash promise made in its first, desperately thin instalment: "future issues will contain news." Number 200 should be out by now ... but can I bear to go on?
In the old days, the most tiresome parts of publishing Ansible were bashing out the text on a noisy golfball typewriter (yes, we had no word processors, until issue 42), wrestling with the hideous inky mess of an old-fashioned duplicator, and stapling paper copies for a 1980s circulation that eventually passed 600.
Now there are different annoyances. Apart from thinking up the actual words, production is a doddle – each monthly issue is a single A4 sheet, and those nice people at the print shop do all the work of running off a few hundred copies. The trouble is the e-mail subscription list, with around 3,500 members.
Hideous embarrassment struck in late 2002, when it turned out that the Majordomo mail software (at the university department that hosts Ansible) had a back-door address that allowed some unknown wretch to spam all my subscribers with the Klez virus attachment. We hastily transferred the list to the more secure Mailman program, and all was well. Except that publishing the new list address aroused the interest of countless Nigerians wishing to export millions of dollars. By now they've offered me enough to buy NASA and run my own Mars missions.
It's easy to ignore these amazing opportunities, and many people rely on software to ignore them automatically. Which led to further tiresomeness when one e-mailed issue of Ansible was identified as a "Nigerian scam" by too-sensitive filters at sff.net, where many SF writers hang out. As a gleeful correspondent reported: "The combination of three phrases ('i am' & 'million' & 'transfer') activated our deflector screens." Oh dear. Guess who deals with the complaints from subscribers who miss an issue?
Things have been going downhill ever since. When the August 2003 issue went out, some ghastly filter software called Antigen objected to a single uncensored word of profanity in a letter from an eminent SF author – er, that is, Michael Moorcock saying (as is his wont) "f*ck". Well ... poot.
In September, the censors were horrified by one passing mention of a drug whose name begins with V. The context was George R.R. Martin's innuendo-laden Worldcon remarks about the Best Novel Hugo, which he lasciviously called "The Big One". Naturally Ansible had to record that at the closing ceremony, "George R.R. Martin's ill-concealed, Viagraesque longings were gratified at last! In the form of a glittering, inflatable Hugo rocket – liberated from the Noreascon party and fully seven feet long – George received The Even Bigger One." Meanwhile, real spammers spell it "V1a!g'ra" or similar, avoiding simple-minded filters.
In October, the censors blocked a quotation from an innocuous 1950 SF novel by A.E. van Vogt, containing a common children's word for "cat". Is nobody allowed to talk about pussies any more? Bye-bye to that ghastly old pervert Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat" ...
In December, I must admit that an item on unusual dialect words (Ansible often runs offbeat stuff) did include one whose definition was the austere, almost clinical term "penis". Maybe I should have written "an organ which we cannot mention but is an anagram of snipe." Paradoxically, Ansible has subscribers at both HM Customs & Excise and the House of Commons, who respectively monitor and legislate about porn, but seem to be prevented by their own software from discussing the details in e-mail. It's a funny old world.
In January 2004, those particularly tiresome Antigen filters bounced Ansible for reasons which even my fervid imagination can't make out. Unless it was the paragraph about Anne Rice announcing the end of her Vampire Chronicles series, which – almost inevitably in this context – made use of the word "suck"? I'm reminded that US visitors to the 1987 British Worldcon seemed unduly fascinated by current vacuum-cleaner ads: NOTHING SUCKS LIKE AN ELECTROLUX!
I swear (that is, I protest) that e-mail censorship is getting steadily worse. Before the end of 2004, Olde Langforde predicts, Ansible will be blocked by easily outraged content control software for mentioning such fatal phrases as "Michael Moorcock" or "Philip K. Dick". Just as some censorware notoriously pounces on placenames like Scunthorpe and Penistone, SF readers will never again be able to discuss Lawrence Yep's novel Sweetwater. Or Andrew Stephenson's Nightwatch. Or, indeed, John Robert King's Bruno Lipshitz and the Disciples of Dogma. Or, filthiest of all, Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot ... [Ugh! That's quite enough of that – Ed.]
David Langford would not dream of plugging the Ansible sign-up page at news.ansible.co.uk/asubs.html.
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