Thog's Masterclass

The Live Presentation

David Langford writes: This "Live Thog's Masterclass" has been delivered, or performed, or whatever you call it, at more British conventions than I care to remember -- not to mention a couple in the USA, the 1999 Worldcon in Australia, and the 2003 Worldcon in Canada. It developed from an earlier, anarchic version (seen at the 1994 Eastercon and 1995 Glasgow Worldcon) in which Paul Barnett and I forced hapless audience members to read "randomly" chosen Thog quotations. The text below is more or less as revised for the 2004 Discworld Convention.

Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to the wonderful world of Thog the Mighty. In case anyone doesn't know the hideous background -- I'm Dave Langford, I publish a nasty little sf gossip-sheet called Ansible, whose secret history I'll be talking about on Monday, and one of Ansible's most deplorably popular departments is Thog's Masterclass. This is a showcase for memorable sf and fantasy quotations which have been hand-picked by that legendary barbarian Thog for being ... differently good. Thog has an eye for the sort of prose which is best appreciated with a large spiked mace. Examples will follow, and by special permission of Mr Slant of the Lawyers' Guild, none of them are by Terry Pratchett.

To set a suitably low tone, let's begin with a few of Thog's most cherished lines from the big names of fantasy, sf and even that mainstream stuff. Sensitive authors should already have left the room. As Erich von Däniken put it in Chariots of the Gods? -- 'It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.' Or to quote the series blurb for the Usborne Spinechillers imprint, these are 'Full length spinetingling tales -- too scary to read in the dark!' Here we go ...

Now you may be asking yourselves, is Thog's Masterclass just a sadistic exercise in tearing defenceless prose fragments from their literary context and holding them up to the cruel light of scorn? I'd like to assure everyone that that's completely correct. One redeeming feature is that we are all guilty. Every author, even Terry Pratchett, gives hostages to Thog. Even John Grant, the original creator of the character Thog, woke up one day to find he'd written this about a tomboyish young heroine confronting the realities of growing up: 'Then she would feel her breasts and discover that she lacked a penis ...'

The idea of collecting the best of Thog's Masterclass into a book came from Ursula Le Guin, who volunteered to write the introduction. Admittedly the sf publishers so far have all wailed 'We can't print this, you've got our best-selling authors in there!' ... But planning the book forced us to work out some system for classifying Thog quotations under various tasteful headings. These include 'Eyeballs in the Sky', 'Mysteries of Anatomy', 'The Purple Prose of Cairo', the very popular 'True Romance' department, and one tasty section which I'm afraid is entitled 'See Nipples and Die'.

Under Mysteries of Anatomy, for example, we discover again and again that in the worlds of sf and fantasy, even the humans have strangely alien bodies. Would anyone like to guess what exactly is happening in this bit from A.A.Attanasio's The Dragon and the Unicorn? -- 'That was before the sixth gate of his body opened, and the strong eye siphoned the energy from his throat into his skull, leaving behind a wake of laughter.' Here are some more puzzlers:

Getting more crudely anatomical, there's a wonderful euphemism for uncontrollable flatulence in Flight by Vanna Bonta -- 'Juristac's reproach had been sufficient and he pleasured in the effect it had created on Loptoor who remained several paces behind him, emitting rapid dispersals of fear.' Possibly his bladder was full of it.

Onward! The Eyeballs in the Sky department takes its name from the old Perishers comic strip, and deals with the inventive things that fictional characters' eyes get up to. Our biggest catch here is Vladimir Nabokov, whose painful line from Invitation to a Beheading is immortalized in the Oxford English Dictionary: 'And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.' And more:

But I can see various eyes in the audience falling to the floor and bouncing listlessly around. Probably it's time to get a bit less physical and move to the pure delights of prose craftmanship, in Thog's collection of Flowers of Rhetoric. One that haunts my dreams is this unforgettably vivid image from Jane Gaskell's The Serpent -- 'I suppose I looked mesmerized already as a skinned rabbit.'

Beyond these mere temperate 'Flowers of Rhetoric' is the steamy hothouse area of the Thog Complex which holds more exotic blooms, under the title The Purple Prose of Cairo. A certain lavish over-the-topness is the entry qualification here, especially if immediately followed by a verbal pratfall.

In another part of the psionics laboratory, carefully preserved under vacuum-sealed glass, is Thog's collection of Great Scientific Insights. Some of these are not immediately obvious, like the bit in Brian Aldiss's story 'His Seventieth Heaven' -- 'The name of the satellite was Gratitude One. It orbited Earth once every twenty-four hours, three thousand two hundred kilometres above the centre of the Earth ...' Which, when you think about it, is over 3,000 kilometres underground.

But even the most fearsome scientific pedant can't quarrel with this bit of chronology from A.A.Attanasio's The Dark Shore -- 'Less than a day remained before dawn ...'

But this is what the science in fiction used to be like, from D.R. Smith's 'In the Grand Manner' published in Novae Terrae in 1938 --

'Something glittered on the alien blue-green sward not fifty yards from the ship. Intensely intrigued, all rushed to it.

'"Why, it's only a cogwheel," cried Madeleine. Steve gave her a glance from which love and respect were conspicuously absent.

'"A left hand helical mitre gear," he said, with emphasis on the last word. "Involute tooth form, helix angle about twelve, ground after hardening," he went on didactically.

'"What does it all mean?" cried Madeleine hysterically. Steve regarded her irritably.

'"It means I know more about gears than you do."'

This subtle portrayal of gender relationships leads naturally into Thog's True Romance department, full of misty-eyed moments guaranteed to bring a tear to the most hardened fan's nostrils. Of course there is some more hardcore material too. Leigh Brackett's 'The Secret of Sinharat' sets the tone with its hint of a slightly unusual sexual position: 'The women of Shun are tall and strong, bred to stand beside their men in war as well as love....'

In a small annexe to the 'True Romance' department, behind a locked door with signs saying AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, NO CHILDREN and BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD, we find some particularly thrusting Thoggisms under the overall title See Nipples and Die. For some reason an awful lot of these lines seem to be from Robert Heinlein's 'The Number of the Beast -- ' ... including the immortal female reflection 'I'd be an idiot to risk competing with Deety's teats.' and the subtle masculine insight of 'My darling keeps her feelings out of her face, mostly, but those pretty pink spigots are barometers of her morale.' Meanwhile:

Moving rather hastily on, we come to the category despairingly called Beats Me -- for those epigrammatic moments when at first glance we can't quite see what the author meant, and a second look makes things suddenly less clear. Our old friend A.A.Attanasio is particularly good at this: here's a slightly worrying line from The Dark Shore -- 'Since she has died, her fragrance is everywhere.'

One of the rules of Thog's Masterclass presentations is that we must always pay homage to Thog's favourite author: Robert Lionel Fanthorpe. Here is a rare passage from his novel Neuron World, showing Lionel's mastery of colourful prose. This, science fiction fans, is the definitive description of what hyperspace looks like:

Fortunately things cheer up a bit as the ship emerges into normal space and at last there's enough light to read the thesaurus. After the outlook has been grey for about a page, not to mention canescent, opalescent, pearly and cinerary, we're treated to a prose poem of roguish reds, ornate oranges, outlandish yellows, garish greens, brilliant blues, iridescent indigos and volatile violets. Really there should have been a warning on the cover: READING THIS BOOK COULD MAKE YOU GO BLIND.

For some reason the room has begun to go a bit dim, and I think I need to grope my way to the bar. To finish, here's a startling critical insight from the on-line catalogue of Powell's City of Books in Oregon: 'Terry Pratchett is one of America's most entertaining writers.' Many thanks to you all for listening so long.