Zine Review: Ansible
Def. Ansible: 1) A device which produces a message at any two points simultaneously, probably through quantum entanglement. It appears in Ursula K. Le Guin's "Ekumen" stories as a means of communication across light years. It was first mentioned in her novel: Rocannon's World. 2) Ansible is Dave Langford's notorious (and Hugo winning) British sf/fan newsletter, published since 1979.
I conducted an experiment at the ConJose WorldCon this year to find out how the Hugo picks of the fans on the convention floor matched with the results that were to be announced towards the end of the con. I found the results surprising.
Out of several hundred fans, all of whom were qualified to at least nominate Hugo entries, Best Novel and Dramatic Presentation were the only categories that they had any opinions about. Even then, almost all demurred, saying that they hadn't read enough of the entries to make a valid choice.
Fanzines? In general, they weren't sure what a fanzine was these days, and largely thanks to the internet, I suspect, didn't need them to keep track of their friends in fandom.
No surprise then, that Ansible, which has won numerous Hugos, including this year's, was pretty much unknown to them. I thought it only right to correct that with a little help from Ansible's editor David Langford. So I rang him up (actually, I emailed him, but rang him up has that great Brit tone, doesn't it?)
SFRevu: In as much as Ansible insists on winning all these Hugos, I thought it would be a good idea to do a piece about the zine. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?
Dave Langford: I can try ...
SFRevu: What is Ansible about? Does it have a mission?
DL: I began with a mission not from God but from Peter Roberts, editor of Britain's previous sf/fannish newsletter Checkpoint, who in 1979 decided to cease publication at 100 issues and told me I was to produce Checkpoint's successor. Not being sensible enough to say No, I inherited Peter's subscription list and published 50 issues of Ansible from 1979 to 1987, by which time I was printing 600 copies running to several pages in tiny print. Overwhelmed with paperwork, I then took a break for a few years.
Ansible was relaunched with #51 in 1991, as a free monthly newsletter (no fiddling around with subscriptions) on exactly one sheet of A4 paper (no collating or stapling), and mainly intended to be handed out at London pub meetings. But it sort of grew, not in size but in circulation, and then fans overseas offered to run off copies from airmailed masters for North American and Australian distribution....
SFRevu: What makes Ansible a Hugo winning zine?
DL: Unsatisfactory answer: the kindly attention of people who vote in the Hugos. Longevity may help, and I do try to make the thing entertaining to read -- in between all those dreadful, proliferating reports of illness and death in the SF world. And the "Thog's Masterclass" department, showcasing "differently good" sentences from published work, is hideously popular.
SFRevu: Who is Ansible? Is it just you, or do you get by with a little help from your friends?
DL: Editorially it's just me. But people all over the world send in news, information and (usually doomed) attempts at self-promotion. There's always a longish list of names in the final credits box, besides those credited in the main text.
SFRevu: How long have you been doing this?
DL: Ansible since 1979, as already noted: the first issue was handed out at Seacon '79, the first Worldcon in Brighton, England. Ansible in its present incarnation has been around since October 1991, and was handed out to all comers at London first-Thursday pub meetings for ten years without a break, until I got tired of that particular routine in late 2001.
SFRevu: How did you come by the name? Are you a Le Guin fan? (I have the first use of the term as being in Left Hand of Darkness, is that right?)
DL: It's also in an earlier Le Guin novel, Rocannon's World. A name for an instantaneous interstellar communicator seemed the ideal choice for an sf newsletter title. Of course I'm a fan of Ursula Le Guin's -- besides writing some wonderful books, she keeps sending encouragement and even submissions for Thog's Masterclass, and has volunteered to write an introduction to the Collected Thog if this ever emerges. (TERRIFIED PUBLISHERS: "Aieee! You've got some of our best-selling authors in there!")
SFRevu: What's a fanzine? Has the meaning changed over time?
DL: I'd boringly define it as a publication produced by one or more sf fans with an sf fan audience in mind. That way, the meaning remains pretty much the same although the range of content has diversified (from sf alone to sf plus sf fandom plus anything sf fans happen to interested in), and so have the publication media (I regretfully gave my old mimeograph to charity in the 1980s).
SFRevu: Have newsgroups made fanzines irrelevant?
DL: Surely not. They can be fun, but the good bits are hard to find in the unstructured sprawl and babble. I think there'll always be interest in publications -- not necessarily printed ones -- which are competently edited rather than simply compiled or accreted.
SFRevu: There are some fanzines that started out in print, which now solely use the web for distribution. When did you go on the web? Will Ansible go that route?
DL: Charles Stross started begging regular ASCII copies of Ansible on disk not long after the 1991 relaunch, and I believe he posted these to the rec.arts.sf.fandom newsgroup. Then Naveed Khan at the University of Glasgow took to archiving these texts at their Department of Computer Science website, which he still runs. Around 1993 I began posting Ansible myself and e-mailing copies to Naveed. A year or two later I sorted out my own web access and (with Naveed's blessing) took over the Ansible area at http://www.dcs.gla.ac.uk/Ansible ... Before long, minimalist but tasteful HTML superseded all that ugly ASCII. It remains a pretty stark, no-frills site, but I like it that way.
Later still, with much appreciated assistance from a lot of fan volunteers who rekeyed or scanned older issues, we added all the back numbers from 1979 to 1987.
There will still be a printed edition while I continue to enjoy handing out Ansible at conventions and occasional pub meetings; while people who prefer print send stamped addressed envelopes for their copies; and while my conscience tells me to send freebie issues to a few people for whom it's one of their last remaining links to fandom. I mean, I may be an evil skinflint bastard, but there's this guy in prison, and an elderly fan in a nursing home, and so on.
SFRevu: How much time and money do you spend on the zine?
DL: Shudder. Far too much time. The money varies; generally around $25-$35 in your puny Terran currency, but that's just printing and postage -- the on-line stuff is harder to quantify. Since 1992, David Pringle of Interzone magazine has run a kind of Readers Digest condensed version of Ansible, which I prepare monthly for a trifling sum. More recently, Eileen Gunn of The Infinite Matrix has been publishing "The Runcible Ansible", a weekly preview of items which may or may not make it into Ansible proper. So I have to organize some Ansible-ish material at least once a week. Madness.
SFRevu: Do you really have an message on your answering machine which says, "This is Dave Langford, if I've won a Hugo, please leave the category at the beep."
DL: I think this is true in a higher spiritual sense, in that I would surely record such a message for laughs if in fact I owned an answering machine.
SFRevu: Will you be winning again next year?
DL: This seems highly unlikely, and I have only myself to blame. My 2002 acceptance speech, as delivered by Tobes Valois, included some teasing about the Hugo rules -- whereby a circulation over 1,000 (Ansible just passed 3,000 in e-mail alone) and payment to contributors other than in copies of the magazine (I've been known to buy some of them drinks) redefines a fanzine as a semiprozine. Whether or not I was joking at the time, people seem determined to hold me to that! It's a much tougher category, because you're up against Locus. But it's been fun, and I still get a kick out of Ansible's being the only non-North American winner of the fanzine Hugo. So far.
SFRevu Editor's Note: Don't you think it's terribly courageous of us to run an article about the winner of a Hugo we covet ourselves? Doesn't such courage and selflessness deserve your support? I certainly hope so.
No matter who you vote for, make sure you vote for the Hugos. In fact, you can start by adding your suggestions to our Hugo page: http://www.sfrevu.com/Hugo.htm
Availability of Ansible (Dave Langford's sf newsletter) on the net: MAILING LIST
Send e-mail to:
firstname.lastname@example.org ... with the first line of the text reading:
If you were unable to do so before changing from your old address, you can specify it at the end of the unsubscribe line: unsubscribe ansible email@example.com Ansible normally appears monthly and is e-mailed shortly after publication of the printed version on or before the 10th of each month.
Ansible is posted monthly to rec.arts.sf.fandom and uk.people.sf-fans. BACK ISSUES
On the web, Ansible's home page is at ...
THE EDITOR FLAUNTS HIS EGO AT ... http://www.ansible.demon.co.uk/