Up Through an Empty House of Stars: Reviews and
(Cosmos Books, $21.95, 312 pages, trade paperback available November
2003; also available in hardback priced $34.95, published May 2003.)
It's a diabolical postmodern plot, you know. We reviewers are tired
of being the
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 to 2002. 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
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
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
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.
Review by Stuart Carter.
Elsewhere in infinity