Glow-in-the-Dark Comedy

radioactive ballsReview by Mike Glyer: Marty Cantor greatly admires Dave Langford’s satirical novel, The Leaky Establishment. It’s a story spun from Dave’s experiences working at a British nuclear research establishment in the 1970s, although his fictionalized coworkers are so comically exaggerated and the things they do are so improbable that only their lawyers will recognize them.

Marty bought a remaindered copy from Dave in 1987 at the Brighton Worldcon and enjoyed the story so much he wanted to help it gain a wider fannish readership. But Marty didn’t want that so desperately that he immediately started publishing No Award and wrote the review himself. No, Marty’s a patient man, willing to wait, like those Tralfamadorians who started the human race in order to get a spare part to fix their spaceship. First, Marty waited ten years to start No Award. Then he assigned me to write the review. And I made sure he waited a lot more.

I admit the reason is that I was envious. Every time I’d sit down at the keyboard I’d ask myself, “After all, is Dave out there writing an article-length treatment about my pro sale?” And I’d work instead on something I found little less emotionally-charged, like another editorial about TAFF, or an obituary.

I procrastinated so loudly and so long that people began to suspect. An evening came when there was no more possibility of escaping. “How far have you gotten with Marty’s article?” Diana asked. I answered, “If I write something, I will have begun.” She pointed emphatically in the direction of the computer and ordered me to work.

*   *   *

Dave’s novel, The Leaky Establishment, is a locked-room mystery in reverse. His character, Roy Tappen, borrows a filing cabinet from work to use at home and unknowingly also takes home a plutonium warhead. He spends the rest of the book trying to infiltrate the warhead back where it belongs without Security or his boss discovering it ever left the facility. The problem assumes such epic proportions that everyone becomes entangled, even the Queen.

It begins innocently. “‘Hi, Roy,’ said young Llewellyn, making yo-yo motions with the string bag dangling from one hand. Inside was a dull metal sphere, not as big as a football.” Roy’s not bothered when Llewellyn leaves this 200-kiloton maguffin in his wastebasket as he dashes to the loo: “When dull metal spheres not as big as footballs were forever passing across one’s desk, in and out of labs, or being stowed under canteen tables during lunch, it was difficult to take them as seriously as some would prefer.”

This glimpse of scientists as casually indifferent towards plutonium aims to shock us in a humorous way. It violates everything we know about nuclear safety — assuming, as is true of most fans, that all the science we know comes from Heinlein stories. Who can forget the image of John Ezra Dahlquist coming home from the long watch in a lead coffin? Or Rhysling, made a blind poet of the spaceways while dumping atomic fuel in a spaceship emergency?

For example, we know from Heinlein’s “The Long Watch” that the fissionable material used in bombs is housed inside a casing made from a type of metal able to contain the most dangerous particles. The flow of neutrons that does pass through is theoretically only dangerous after prolonged exposure, which technicians avoid by monitoring a telltale strip of film worn on their wrist.

Well, if your knowledge of nuclear weapons hasn’t progressed past whatever Manhattan Project research was declassified by the Truman administration you’re likely to come away from The Leaky Establishment resentfully disbelieving that Dave Langford could tease about a serious health risk like plutonium poisoning . Fortunately, we get to eavesdrop as protagonist Roy Tappen explains the science to his skeptical wife:

Tappen took the wheel and delivered a short, husbandly lecture on nuclear nasties as he drove: how the hollow plutonium core was safe as houses… and how the aluminium jacket kept the naughty parts as securely locked away as a nun’s, the whole thing unable to do anything antisocial unless one inadvertently surrounded it with plastic explosive to collapse it and make it go, er, supercritical…

Wait — an aluminium jacket? They wrapped the plutonium with gold in “The Long Watch.” Admittedly, Langford’s preface warns us he’s deliberately blurred the technology, and we all know that Admiral Heinlein, writing at the height of the Cold War, wouldn’t have blabbed anything important. Maybe they both fibbed about the metal casing. For all we know the warheads are dipped in chocolate.

Once the serious scientific premise is established — that Tappen’s warhead is no more dangerous than a lot of household items — Langford is free to treat the plutonium core like any of the other humorous icons whose appearance at the right moment in the story is good for a chuckle.

The scientists also seem harmless, preoccupied by everything but research. Joseph Nicholas may very well curse Langford’s satire for dealing a cruel blow to world disarmament by convincing the readers that the nuke establishment is hopelessly incompetent and in no danger of enabling Britain to wage nuclear war. Yet Langford’s inept scientists still shine like geniuses alongside anyone else: the characters from other professions are even sillier.

For example, Tuckerized journalist Steve Green makes the mistake of publishing the story he gets from Tappen and a coworker at the local pub in return for a round of drinks. Tappen and Llewellyn down their pints and send him on his way with this perjury:

“Actually, we have to drink beer for health reasons…. Well, as you know, we work in the middle of deadly neutron contamination, and these neutrons can build up in bodies, causing obesity and proctalgia. Fortunately, they’re soluble in alcohol….” “Twelve pints, I’ve already had today,” said Llewellyn.

Tappen gets to enjoy few such moments of superiority. Most of the time he is more like Wooster with no Jeeves to save him, as The Leaky Establishment turns the nuclear research center into a goldmine of laughs. Jokes are set up and triggered in the deft Langford style, and, rather like Ansible, the pace runs a joke per paragraph. There is a risk of squandering the effect unless you force yourself to set the book down after a chapter. If you wouldn’t devour a Far Side or Dilbert collection in one sitting, neither will you want to speed-read this novel.

Tappen is constantly revising his schemes for smuggling the warhead back into the research center, and a parade of distractions keeps him from accomplishing any of them. Security and clerical staffers interrupt him daily to account for equipment, documents and supplies. They disapprove of his laxness and offer stern advice, such as, “[That] bond paper with the Confidential heading should be treated as confidential and kept securely locked away even though it hadn’t yet been written on.”

The suggestion to lock away blank paper that merely says “Confidential” deserves Tappen’s scorn. Of course, there was the time my grandmother gave me some blank paper to sketch on during our 1964 summer vacation in Delaware — at least, it was blank on one side: the logo of the War Department was imprinted on the other. (It had belonged to my late uncle, a civil engineer during World War II.) I happily resorted to the typewriter and began turning out official correspondence notifying my aunts, uncles and cousins in Delaware that their lawns were about to be dredged to allow passage of the battleship Iowa to the Philadelphia Navy Yards, or become gunnery ranges. My grandmother looked up the addresses I wanted and mailed the letters for me. Most of my relatives were too canny to be taken in, realizing that the War Department had been renamed the Defense Department when Eisenhower was president, and that hadn’t been anytime recent, even then.

The Leaky Establishment is invested with all the delightful characteristics found in Dave’s humorous fanwriting. He has the same flair for lucid prose found in a lot of UK writers, from Bob Shaw to C.S. Lewis; maybe it’s the educational system. As a stylist, Dave ruthlessly trims away scaffolding words. (That leaves more for me, and I’ve tried to use them all in this article.) As a humorist, he engages in lots of sophisticated wordplay, and moves freely between the high-brow and low-brow.

At one point his description of “guard dogs of amazing ferocity and incontinence” fashions a parallel structure from two high-sounding but incompatible words, while providing something for the groundlings. Actually, there’s surprisingly much for the groundlings in this book. Excreta, bad smells, farting, drunkenness are oft-revisited sources of humor. It’s a little odd to find him, shall we say, applying a variety of off-colors not usually found on the Ansible palette.

Should we worry how closely the Tappen character resembles the author? No. We know better than to become snared in the naive, fannish trap of automatically identifying the creator with his protagonist. For one thing, we can clearly tell Dave apart from his protagonist based on this early description of Roy Tappen’s lab security pass, “…with a photo labeled R TAPPEN, SSO, but in fact showing an unshaven homicidal maniac with a crippling hangover and at least one glass eye, photographed after forty-eight hours of strenuous axe-murdering.”

Dave also assures us in an Author’s Note —

There is of course barely a grain of truth in this book. All the characters are quite fictitious, as are the Civil Service eccentricities and peccancies inserted for the sake of the plot… I state the obvious because it’s been suggested to me that my fantasy research establishment could be taken as a portrait of the real one where I chased neutrons in my carefree youth. Perish the thought.

And I say a wink is as good as a nod to a blind man. We can depend that The Leaky Establishment contains no autobiographical bits. We should not be disturbed that Marty’s copy of the book is autographed, “Best wishes from the seaside at Chernobyl. Wish you were here.” It’s purely coincidental how faithful Dave’s completely made-up situations are to what we at the IRS laughingly refer to as our real lives.

One commentator about television comedies said humor flows from two main sources: jokes, the amusing byplay of ideas and images, and character, the exploration of human behavior and interaction. This axiom came to mind after I finished reading The Leaky Establishment and was trying to understand why I was able to read the last several chapters in one sitting and found them equally funny as the rest of the book which I’d read a chapter at a time.

The first 80% of The Leaky Establishment focuses on jokes. The last 20% is driven by character development. The early text is dense with clever wordplay, and the main plotline advances slowly as Dave digresses into a number of situations that can be mined for more humor. This early narrative is warped by the extra gravity required to force the story to set up punchlines.

The last few chapters pick up the narrative pace. And as the story winds up, Dave widens his focus and gives us a really good look at someone besides his point-of-view character, Tappen. Dr. Roger Pell finally gets to breathe and wave his arms onstage as a character who matters. Until then, he’s simply identified as a source of eccentric, jerry-rigged household gadgets. He ultimately turns into the book’s most developed and lifelike character, a warped Dickensian type of scientist who towers over the landscape of other satirical caricatures.

Neither Tappen nor Pell have the personality we expect in scientists. What kind of personality is that? The answer is in yet another Heinlein short story, “It’s Great to Be Back!”, about a husband and wife who couldn’t wait to get off the Moon discover they can’t wait to move back. One of the things they realize is that Loonies are so much nicer. Why? Father Heinlein prods, “You know the answer: Intelligence. It costs a lot to send a man to the Moon and more to keep him there. To pay off, he has to be worth a lot. High I.Q., good compatibility index, superior education — everything that makes a person pleasant and easy and interesting to be around.”

Dave Langford himself would seem to be the proof of the theory that the type of person selected to work at a highly classified research facility must have many sterling qualities. For if not to the Moon, I know people who will fly to Portland, Minneapolis or another place they wouldn’t ordinarily feel the urge to visit if Dave will be present as fan GoH.

Instead, Dave’s portrayals of his old co-workers at The Leaky Establishment warn us not to believe Heinlein about scientists’ amiable personalities. They aren’t making the kind of physicists Heinlein knew anymore. If anything, it’s a favor to society that today’s technocrats (who are simply loony in the original sense) are penned together on a reservation — at least during working hours.


5 thoughts on “Glow-in-the-Dark Comedy

  1. I found this site when I googled Jim Goldfrank (message there). Then I started to read on…great site even though I’m not a fan, well not that well read in science fiction. I do enjoy a good book though,so I will just have to get this one if I can. Great review.

  2. The implementation of Space Invaders on a teletype machine did have that smell of authenticity though.

  3. But where can one purchase this estimable tome? Is Dave selling it?

    (which reminds me, it’s been far too long since I submitted anything for Thog)

  4. The plutonium spheres reminds me of a HS classmate who said (at the 50-year reunion) that her father would go over to SF airport to pick up plutonium, in his Jimmy. (Yeah, it did eventually kill him.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.