It’s a diabolical postmodern plot, you know. We reviewers are tired of being the downtrodden underlings of writers and are fighting back: soon there will be no reviews of ‘novels’ or ‘fiction’ at all; soon we shall only be reviewing other reviewers’ reviews and there will be no need for writers, just endless circular reviews of reviews of reviews of reviews! Bwah ha-ha!
Exit (as Mr Langford might say) Ming the Merciless Reviewer pursued by a bear.
Up Through An Empty House Of Stars is a collection of reviews and other non-fiction pieces by David Langford from 1980. All of them are about books, I should probably add. And fiction books, if you want me to pin it down a little more. David Langford already has quite a formidable reputation as a reviewer, and it’s entirely possible to see why from this book. It’s not just because of the fearsome crocodile of his knowledge, that has taken large bites out of seemingly every discipline known to humanity, enabling him to fill his writing with interesting facts and erudition, and things that would never have occurred to this reviewer in a million years.
The other thing about David Langford’s writing is that as well as being well informed and perceptive it’s also funny. Lots of people can do ‘clever’: read a few books, watch a bit of The History Channel and, hey presto, you know a few things that other people don’t. It takes something a little bit extra to be able to write about a subject so as to interest other people in what you’re saying.
What Mr Langford can do, within the constraints of a review – a form which straightaway stops him flying off at a tangent (well, nearly) because the whole point of any particular piece he’s written is to synopsise, analyse and promote (or not) a specific piece of someone else’s writing – is simultaneously educate, inform and entertain, as Lord Reith once famously put it. Most reviewers should at least be able to inform; many can educate their readers too, but not so very many can entertain, and even fewer manage to balance all three at once in the Platonic ideal of Lord Reith.
David Langford seems to have been doing this regularly for some time now.
Cases in point are the reviews of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun sequence, which appear sporadically throughout Up Through An Empty House Of Stars. Wolfe is, as Langford points out with some fascinating examples, an author whose writing practically begs close study and necessitates some fairly esoteric learning – for which Langford is just the man. He points out some of the subtle wordplay in Wolfe’s novels that I suspect this miserable wretch of a reviewer would never have noticed.
It is the reviews (usually, but not always, pretty brief) that tend to be the most sparkling and interesting pieces in this book, although let it be said that the assorted essays are very far from being shabby. In particular 1992’s ‘A Gadget Too Far’ (in which he says of Stephen Baxter: ‘Only Olaf Stapledon ever succeeded on this kind of scale, and Olaf Stapledon is dead’, p.125), and the fascinating ‘Introduction to Terry Pratchett: Guilty Of Literature’ stand out in my mind – seldom is genre literature written about so engagingly and with such obvious critical love and respect. In addition, I shall be looking for copies of the Kai Lung stories of Ernest Bramah, thanks to the fascinating ‘Crime And Chinoiserie: Ernest Bramah’ essay from 1991.
The reviews, I suspect, seemed to be more interesting because they are quick, painless and you can feel them doing your critical sensibilities some good almost immediately. It’s gratifying to note that regarding the few books I have reviewed in common with Mr Langford we are generally in agreement – particularly the one title in this collection he is most disparaging about. That said, if you’ve got even half a brain there isn’t much in here to disagree with since the reviews are never nasty – if they are sometimes negative then it’s always with good reason and backed with a strong case for the prosecution. No playground name-calling here.
This collection sometimes isn’t as entertaining as I’d hoped, mainly due to the recurrent exhumations of G.K. Chesterton’s work. Despite constantly reminding myself that the contents of this collection were originally written over the course of 20 years, Mr Chesterton still seemed to crop up every five minutes, which did become a little wearing after a while, especially if (sorry, Mr Langford) you’re not a Chesterton fan.
Overall, if you’re intending to read Up Through An Empty House Of Stars then it’s a fair bet that you’ve probably read more than a couple of the same books as Mr Langford. However, it’s also a fair bet that you will learn more than a couple of new and interesting things, and that there will be more than one unexplored (possibly sf-nal, possibly not) literary avenue you will want to venture down afterwards. You will also be able to dazzle your friends the next time sf comes up in conversation, will have made plans to read or reread many of the books reviewed and have had quite a bit of a chuckle to boot. So that’s a tick for inform, a tick for educate and a big tick for entertain.