Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, The by Clute, J. & P. Nichols, eds., 1999

Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, The by Clute, J. & P. Nichols, eds. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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It's not very often in this world that the word "indispensable" passes someone's lips that they actually mean it. How often do you use the word where you actually mean it? Is anything truly indispensable, save for things like oxygen and sunlight? Probably not, but in the annals of SF there really are two books that I would be lost without in my collection. One is Neil Barron's Anatomy of Wonder. The other is Peter Nichols' and John Clute's The Encyclopedia of Science FictionI look at them both weekly, not only for help on whatever SF related project I am working on, but also just to pass the time. Though I will admit, the things is so massive that I have to do my leafing at a table.

Reviewing a 1500 page book, with 1.5 million words and over 4,500 topical entries is a pretty daunting task. Suffice it to say, I have not read the entire thing, though one day I may be able to claim that and mean it. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is the second edition of this work, and as of 1999 that second edition is in its third revision. The first edtion was actually edited by Nichols and Clute (names reversed on the title page), and was illustrated. There is a rumor of a fourth revision, but I have not heard anything about it for a couple of years. I think that the time is ripe, as so much has happened to change the face of the genre in the last nine years that a revised work with a scope this broad is vitally necessary. The first edition, printed in 1979, was a much smaller book, and it was illustrated. I have a copy of it, and use it when reading in bed. That is because this one would kill me if it fell on me.

The book is organized alphabetically by topic, and the topic list includes just about everything you could ask for. You can look up specific works, series, authors, publishers, magazines, schools of theory...anything you like, including themes. The organization and descriptions of the various themes used in SF is second only to Gary Westfalh in his recent Science Fiction Encyclopedia published by Greenwood. The three who are primarily responsible for it, John Clute, Peter Nichols and Brian Stableford, have said that they wanted to produce more than an encyclopedia. They wanted to publish a history and analysis of the entire genre, and they have in my opinion, wildly succeeded with the history part - the analysis is a little lacking though. The real benefit of this work is that there is nothing else in the entire category of SF non-fiction is so comprehensive that it will help the user to properly frame and then answer whatever research question they have. The only problem with the book is that it is so wide ranging in its treatment of the topic that individual entries on each book are often reduced to one sentence or less. Many of the entries are quite dry as well, though full of well thought out description. For example, on Dune Malcolm Edwards and Clute have this to say:

Dune is a novel of extraordinary complexity. It encompasses intergalactic politics of a decidedly feudal nature, the development of psi powers, religion - specifically the reluctant but inevitable evolution of its protagonist into a messiah - and war. Its primary impact, however, lay in its treatment of ecology, a theme which it brought into the forefront of modern SF readersí and writers' awareness.

That's it! About Dune! On Ward Moore, one of my favorite forgotten authors, Clute and Nichols have this to say about Greener Than you Think

His first SF publication was Greener Than you Think, a successful comic satire about a mutated form of grass which absorbs the entire world while governments dither.

I think I rambled on about that one for four or five pages in my own review. But, that is what are stuck doing when you want to review the entire genre.

The book is also pretty expensive, though I think itís worth it. For those of you who have the 1999 edition, the editors have updated it as of 2002. Here is a link to that document. For those of you out there who are interested at all in SF encylcopedias, who do not ming a little light criticism, this is the best starting place. None of the commentary goes deep enough to become difficult to understand, and it is more thorough than anything out there. Since there are multiple editions out there be sure that you are buying the one you want to have!

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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