Friday, 8 July 2011

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - Third Edition

The 1993 edition

Exciting news about the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which is to be released in a free online ‘beta’ version later this year. This version is to be edited by John Clute and Dave Langford. Clute has been involved as editor and major contributor from the outset. He was associate editor to the original 1979 edition, for which Peter Nicholls was overall editor, and co-editor with him for the 1993 edition, which was greatly expanded but which lost the original’s illustrations. Clute made up for this with his own Science Fiction:The Illustrated Encyclopedia, published in 1995, a profusely pictorial volume with wonderfully epigrammatic text. The first edition covers from Clute’s own collection are a particular delight, and he has lent a good selection of them to the British Library for their current exhibition Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It. A further CD-Rom version of the Encylopedia was produced in 1995, with slightly expanded text and extensive visual content, including short film and author interview clips. Dave Langford was critical of the disc’s technical limitations, however, which made its ready utility as a reference work impractical. He offered alternative viewing software, which I would guess is itself outmoded. A huge amount has happened in the intervening 18 years since the last edition, with SF ideas and language permeating the mainstream consciousness to the point where genre boundaries have become increasingly difficult to define. I note that Jonathan Clements is a contributing editor on ‘all aspects of Japanese and Chinese SF’, which should be a fascinating area to explore. The SF of China is relatively unknown in the West, but with the country’s rapid and, for its inhabitants, hugely dislocating shift into industrialising overdrive, it seems the perfect literature to express the contemporary experience (if it’s allowed to, of course). Author and critic Adam Roberts is the contributing editor on music, which, particularly in its popular forms, continues to be infused with SF imagery (and with the renewed use of vocoders and other voice altering technology, seems to aspire to the condition of artificial being). Some music has even directly adapted SF literary works: Philip Glass’ operatic adaptations of Doris Lessing’s ‘space fiction’ novels The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (with libretti by Lessing herself) and Tod Machover’s opera based on Philip K Dick’s Valis being examples. The witty and perceptive Nick Lowe, who has been writing a long-running film review column for Interzone magazine, is in charge of movies, which bodes well (film coverage has been a slight weak point in previous editions).

The 1979 edition
The new version promises to contain almost three times the wordage of the 1993 model, which certainly makes an online version a more sensible option than a printed volume. The second edition was itself a hefty 1370 pages long, and a 4,000 page tome would severely test anyone’s lower arm strength (a workout for body and mind). Ungenerous souls might suggest that such increased volume is down to Clute’s love of big words and obscure language (his logophilia, to get into the spirit of it). Indeed, his early editorial partner Peter Nicholls had a gentle pop at him in his essay on SF criticism, The Monsters and the Critics, included in the 1976 collection of genre essays which he edited. He quotes from a Clute review from New Worlds of Brian Aldiss’ The Eighty Minute Hour titled, with marvellous (and pointed) prolixity ‘I say begone! Apotropaic Narcosis, I’m going to read the Damned Thing, Ha Ha’. Apotropaic Narcosis would be a great name for a band, don’t you think? Doom metal or industrial, perhaps. Apotropaic is an adjective referring to something supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck, by the way, and I am now determined to find an opportunity to casually drop it into a conversation. I think such criticisms are unfounded, anyway. You might need a big dictionary to accompany a Clute review, but once you’ve looked up the words (and thereby expanded your vocabulary, Readers Digest-style) you find that they’re entirely apposite, and that nothing else would have made the point with quite such clarity. Language is there to be used, and to deride its employment to the fullest extent is just another aspect of a pervasive tendency in this country (and others) towards anti-intellectualism. Precision of language is absolutely essential to the critic, and Clute is an exemplar of the careful, finely tuned use of linguistic tools. Which is why he has become, for many, the pre-eminent critic in the field, whose contributions to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction have helped to make it, without question, the definitive reference work on the subject. Fans, readers and academics can await its appearance in a new form with the eagerest of anticipation.

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