Brave New Words by Prucher, Jeff, ed., 2007

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As the latest book in the SF reference sections, a category that seems to have grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher, fills some pretty empty gaps. Rather than try to find and catalog every SF term out there in the world, Prucher and his compatriots instead have taken a passable shot at defining and giving the etymology of terms that show up repeatedly in the literature and in critical pieces. Not only does this book have a very fine pedigree, being an offshoot from the Oxford Dictionary Science Fiction Citations Program (which boasts some pretty big names), but it is in my opinion a pretty useful tome that doesnít allow itself to get bogged down in the minutia of its admittedly HUGE topic. At just over 300 pages, some may complain though that it does not go into great enough detail.

The book is arranged by term, alphabetically. The detail is pretty precise, but within the first day of ownership, I started noting mistakes. For example, take the term "plasteel," which as you probably know is used in Frank Herbert's Dune. Prucher defines it as "a strong, durable artificial substance that is either a blend of plastic and steel or combines attributes of both plastic and steel," and credits the first use of this term to an October, 1956 Harlan Ellison story called Trojan Horse, in Infinity SF. In each definition Prucher not only gives the first and the most recent use of the term that they were able to find, but important interim uses as well. Dune is not referenced anywhere on the list for the term "plasteel," even though it was a 1965 book that actually gave a definition ("steel which has been stabilized with stravidium fibers grown into its crystal structure") that adds to the definition given by the editor. Furthermore, the first use of the term that I have been able to find on my own is Frank Herbert's 1955 story The Dragon in the Sea. Moreover, in the memorial remembrances section of the Easton Press volume of Dune, Harlan Ellison wrote that he reviewed that book for a SF periodical. If the editor had done a bit more research he likely would have discovered this earlier use of the term, and possibly had an interesting story about how the term spread from one author to the next.

In addition to the above, there are several other sections of note in the book. Prucher has also given us sub sections on the following: Communications & entertainment, Earthlings, expletives & profanity, fanspeak, naval arms, robots, space drives, Star Trek, time travel, weapons and zines. Prucher, of course, details what SF has done to develop the nomenclature within each of these categories. but more importantly, and much more interestingly, describes how the terms and language that has evolved for each of these has been adopted and is used today in common language. For example, Prucher gives a chronological development of the words "Fugg" and "Fugghead," which I and my brother both used to a criminal level in the 70's in an effort to avoid the dreaded bite of soap. Never worked for us, though. And from the 70's, and especially relevant today, Prucher pontificates on how the word "Frak," may get wider acceptance in the future due to the success of the SciFi Channel's reimagining of BSG.

Finally, Prucher gives us a very useful section on pseudonyms, and a very thorough bibliography of SF reference books, both in and out of print. The last time I saw a list of author's pseudonyms was in Tuck's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction & Fantasy (three volumes, published, very slowly, between 1969 and 1981, and reviewed elsewhere on these pages). I was actually thinking a few days ago how I would like for someone in the know to publish a new list of pseudonyms, since those revealed on Tuck's list have either already been revealed or are dead.

There is not much negative I can say about this book, other than it is not the most detailed work out there. I know for sure that Westfahl's three volume Encyclopedia includes quite a few entries geared towards defining and giving the etymology of SF terms. Westfahl's books, which are published by Greenwood and are the most expensive SF reference books out there, are pretty dry in comparison to Prucher's work. I get the feeling that Prucher relied quite a bit on fans (and by fans, I mean fannish) to compile the articles, and the love and dedication to the topics really show through. For those of you who don't know, Fannish are the die hard fans who live, eat, sleep, screw and crap SF each and every day. They are the ones who come to cons dressed as Cardassians or wearing a Franklin Mint copy of one of the swords from Highlander, and who sit around campfires making up songs about SF (called "Filk" or "Filksong," both defined in this book) each evening. I am not one of those persons, and quite frankly they scare me a little bit, but if youíre going to have a conversation with someone about SF, there probably arenít much better out there. Four out of five stars.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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