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The Leaky Establishment by David Langford
(Big Engine, 7.99, 209 pages, trade paperback; first published 1984; this edition April 2001.)

cover scan

The interesting thing about The Leaky Establishment is not that it's a wonderfully intelligent and funny Civil Service defence research establishment romp, set (and written) back in the 1980s when the Cold War and CND were still in fashion.

It's not that it's the first publication from the promising and enterprising Big Engine publishing company, established by SF author Ben Jeapes.

It's not even that its author is the multiply be-Hugoed David Langford, more often a winner for his fan writing and publishing but this year shortlisted both as fan writer and in one of the professional categories for his short fiction.

No, the interesting thing about The Leaky Establishment is that, like Langford's first novel, the SF Space Eater, this is a one-off. His entry in David Wingrove's Science Fiction Sourcebook (1984), referring mainly to Space Eater, says Langford will surely go on to be one of the field's more popular writers. But where were the second and third SF novels?

Similarly, The Leaky Establishment could surely have set Langford up for a great career in the humorous mainstream. His take on the research and Civil Service mindsets could easily have done for them what, for example, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge did for British academia. But no, he took another course, writing speculative non-fiction, criticism and other journalism, never content to plough the same furrow, it seems. Did no kindly editor or agent ever try to talk to him about career development?

It all starts when computer specialist Roy Tappen smuggles a filing cabinet out of the top-security (or so they like to claim) Nuclear-Utilization Technology Centre at Robinson Heath. He does this in part because the filing cabinet might come in handy at home, but mainly it's for a bet, resulting from a pub boast that it really must be easy to smuggle things out of NUTC. Anyone could do it, if they only put their mind to the problem, and so it proves. Only... only what Tappen doesn't know is that there's a rather important part of Britain's Independent Nuclear Deterrent in the cabinet's bottom drawer, helpfully put there by a cleaner who found it in the office.

And what soon becomes clear is that, although it may be easy to smuggle a nuclear warhead out of NUTC, it's an awful lot harder to smuggle it back in... The ensuing plotting and scheming and relentless deepening of Tappen's personal Shit Creek is outlined with all the compassion of a kindly torturer, as Langford tightens his fluffy thumbscrews on his protagonist and extracts all the dark comedy he can from the mess he has stumbled into.

This is, after all, a very grim subject for comedy:

Here was the famous wall you hurried past owing to neutron leakage from the accelerator, here was the brownish patch of grass where the lost uranium sample had oxidised, washed into the soil and betrayed its presence at last, here was the scrawled graffito on the endemic pipework, PLUTE LEVELS IN NUTC STAFF MAKE THEM UNFIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.

...and one nicely counterbalanced by the author's wonderfully human portrayal of his protagonists and their predicaments.

The Leaky Establishment is a bemused comedy of the blasé, the misguided, the incompetent, the blundering... it is a comedy of human nature. And, unfortunately, of the nature of humans responsible for little things like nuclear weapons research...

The Leaky Establishment is published by Big Engine.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 26 May 2001