Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford

I first heard of David Langford in my late teens, as a reader of the science fiction magazine Interzone. If there’s one story from that period that sticks in my mind more than any other it’s Langford’s story “BLIT,” which is weird because I don’t think I even properly understood it at the time. I haven’t read a single Langford story since (for no reason other than I don’t buy many mags), but the memory of “BLIT” was potent enough to move me to select this collection of thirty-six stories for review.

The book is divided into four sections: 1. Gadgets and Glitches; 2. The Questing Beast; 3. Irrational Numbers; and 4. Basilisks. Those roughly translate as 1. Sci-fi; 2. Fantasy; 3. Horror; and we’ll talk about 4 in a minute.

The sci-fi section is the most enjoyable. The stories are for the most part short. Langford’s prose is generally non-descriptive, and he wastes no time on characterisation. He’ll start a story with two characters talking, and the reader might be left to guess their appearance, their ages, and even where the conversation is taking place. Believe it or not, this is not a criticism; it’s just how he does things. Langford’s fiction is one hundred percent ideas-driven. I have never before read so much variety of original thought packed into 280 pages. This is partly due to the fact that this volume spans almost thirty years of Langford’s career, but it’s also because the stories are very concisely written. There are no wasted words, and if you’re not concentrating properly you can easily find yourself confused. The main reason why this book took so long for me to review is because I enjoy reading in bed at the close of the evening, and with Different Kinds of Darkness I just couldn’t manage it. You have to be fully alert to read Langford.

The only part of the book I didn’t enjoy very much was the fantasy section. The fantasy genre lends itself to description more than any other, and when Langford just kept skimping on detail, the stories failed for me. More often than not I found myself confused, grappling to understand the strange worlds Langford was painting. A few more brush strokes would have taken away the confusion. Thankfully there are only four fantasy stories in the volume.

The sci-fi section occupies an entire half of the book’s pages, and it’s here that you’ll find the best stories. But be warned, to appreciate Langford you have to like your sci-fi wild and wacky. The author is quite liberal with his manipulation of physics, and if you’re prepared to accept that, you’ll be amazed at the unexpected places some of these stories take you. And quite often there’s a lot of humour thrown in. One of my favourites is called “Leaks,” a story about a man with a minor super-power: the ability to transfer liquid from one container to another by sheer will-power. Nice trick if you want a free refill at the bar, but not much use for fighting crime. If that’s not a wacky idea, what is? But trust me, you’ll never guess where a story like this is taking you, and you’ll be delighted when you get there.

I have nothing much to comment about the horror stories, except that they were above average on the whole. I should say that the categorization of all the stories should be viewed loosely, as sci-fi elements tend to crop into most of Langford’s tales, even his attempt at a Lovecraftian one!

The last section collects together four stories which are linked by a common theme. Here we have “BLIT” and its three sequels. These are stories about visual images affecting the brain; i.e. data enters the brain through the eyes, and some data the brain just can’t handle. A BLIT image is a pictures which can kill you if you look at it. The final story, “Different Kinds of Darkness,” is a tale about extreme measures taken to protect the young from exposure BLIT images in public places. I loved this story, and the whole volume is deservedly named after it (and it won the Hugo in 2001!).