Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Encylopedia of Science Fiction Online

The third edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, undoubtedly the definitive reference work in the field, has now gone on line in what is referred to as its beta form. The use of such a term means that it is not yet complete. I’ve already noticed that there is no entry for Jeff Vandermeer, or for the New Weird, the cross-generic hybrid form which he helped to coin and to promulgate. The editors reckon that their work is about three quarters of the way to fulfilment, although in its updatable online form, it will always remain a work in progress (and I note with sadness that the entry for David Bedford already needs amendment, the composer having died earlier this month). At 3.2 million words, however, there is plenty here to browse through, and the editorial team of John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight, along with the contributing editors in charge of specific subjects have clearly put in a huge amount of hard work. The authors of all entries are identified by intitials, but there is not as yet a guide letting us know whom these represent. JC and PN are evidently Clute and Nicholls, and I’m assuming that the KN who contributes to several film and TV entries is Kim Newman. This is no doubt something which will be added anon. One of the key advantages to having such a beast online is the ease of following links through to related themes, works or authors. Graham Sleight, on the Encyclopedia’s blog site, points out that the six degrees of separation tendency towards exponential connectivity is in full flowering here, with every entry no more that six clicks away from every other. Well, that’s got to be tested out, hasn’t it? Let’s see if I can get from Samuel Delany to I Married A Monster From Outer Space. We have a link in Delany’s entry to Alien, which takes us to Monsters, which leads naturally on to Monster Movies, which includes a direct link through to I Married A Monster From Outer Space. Hey, that was easy.

Five steps from Samuel Delany
The thematic entries have always been at the heart of the previous editions of the Encylopedia, and collectively provide a comprehensive guide to the wildly disparate strands which constitute the genre. This is the closest you’re likely to get to finding an answer to the knotty question of just what SF is (and just as importantly, what it isn’t). Here you can distinguish the difference between Absurdist SF, Fabulation, the New Wave, and the playful puzzles of Oulipo (a movement of which John Sladek was an enthusiastic proponent and which, in its very form of self-imposed linguistic or structural limitation, sends us back to absurdism). John Clute’s newly adopted term Fantastika, his attempt to embrace all the subsets of the modern fantastic (of which SF is one) within an all-embracing framework, makes its appearance here. Some thematic areas naturally lead on to one another. The sudden apprehension of the Appearance vs Reality divide would push the newly enlightened protagonist towards Conceptual Breakthrough, a key concept at the heart of much SF. There are several entries taken from the outer reaches of scientific knowledge which demonstrate just how damn strange and counterintuitive the universe can be – all grist to the SF mill. The sensory cross-cutting of Synaesthesia, so memorably conveyed through the typographical eruptions of Alfred Bester’s The Star’s My Destination, and the theoretical paradox of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment, with its implication of bifurcating realities. Unobtainium offers a rather wistfully humorous definition of a non-existent element which would allow scientists to effortlessly achieve the impossible. In SF, of course, you can just invent such a convenient means with which to build dream futures or speed off to the stars.

One of my favourite critical terms from the second edition of the Encyclopedia, Big Dumb Object, is retained, such awe-inspiring but mysterious artefacts turning up in the likes of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Greg Bear’s Eon and, best of all (in terms of writing, characterisation and story) Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, with its Dyson Sphere (an artificially created shell which englobes an entire solar system, thus making maximum use of the sun’s energy). SF’s many eschatological scenarios are summed up in the entries for End of the World, End of Time, Entropy (that staple of the British New Wave of the 60s), Dying Earth, Cosy Catastrophe (the somewhat unfairly derogatory epithet coined by Brian Aldiss and directed at British post-war SF such as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids and Terry Nation’s TV series The Survivors), Global Warming and Climate Change (newly added apocalypses). Ruins and Futurity demonstrates the melancholy pleasures of picking through the rubble of fallen civilisation (echoing the romance of ruins extolled by the Romantic movement in the late 18th and early 19th century). There are some great SF neologisms here, too. Kipple is Philip K Dick’s term for the entropic build up of household detritus which occurs with no apparent human input. The mordant word Corpsicle refers to the frozen bodies of those who have put themselves into cryogenic suspension in the hopes that they’ll be woken up one day after the world has all been sorted out (corpsicles play a central role in Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik). The helplessness of such cryogenic subjects would, of course, leave them open to Organlegging, a sinister modern variant of an old-fashioned illicit trade, subject of many an urban myth and often linked in SF to Clones (which have increasingly tended to be used as emblematic objects of exploitation and slavery). A Ship of Fools is a symbolic vessel which has sailed across the ages, and can be easily updated to suit the technology of the times (even future times) without loosing its allegorical power. It could be found in the context of a Comic Inferno, which exhibits the kind of sardonically bitter humour directed at the folly of humanity and the dystopian hells it creates for itself that SF is so adept at providing (with Kurt Vonnegut as one of its exemplary practitioners).

The extrapolative side of SF is encompassed by the scientific scrying of Futurology and Futures Studies, the latter being the currently fashionable name for the former. Personally, I prefer futurology. It sounds more, well, futuristic and exciting. Futures Studies sounds like just another way of predicting market trends in order to pile up yet more virtual wealth, with no interest in modular habitations on the moon or superfast frictionless monorails. The flickering origins of modern, brightly arc-lit SF are explored in Gaslight Romance, Gothic SF, Occult Detective, Scientific Romance, with Steampunk and Retro-pulp indicating their persistent charms. Hitler Wins, Shaggy God Stories, Hollow Earth and Little Green Men cover some of the well worn storylines and plot devices of the genre. Airship Boys and Radio Boys celebrated the excitement of invention and technological know-how in the early 20th century, and included the character of Tom Swift, later lovingly pastiched and updated by Alan Moore as his science hero Tom Strong. The archetypal Robinsonade tale of isolation in unknown territory also indicates the way in which SF adapts older forms for a new age. The themes guide us through the dizzying diversions of Time Dilation, Time Distortion, the Time Loop, Time Stasis and Time In Reverse, help us distinguish between a Jonbar Point, Trojan Point and Lagrange Point, and memorise Wells’s Law, Clarke’s Laws and Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. We are also given a glimpse of the hidden worlds of Wainscot Societies, a Polder (one of my favourite terms from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, with its co-option of a geological term for use as a thematic literary device), and a Pocket Universe, along with those perennial SF misfits the Wild Talents and the Pariah Elite. The darker side of science and pseudoscience and its potential for social control is found in Eugenics and Dysgenics, with its extension into Social Darwinism. Such control could be a part of a Godgame, which highlights the way in which SF has created a modern mythological framework for telling stories about the world, which sometimes verges on or intersects with a religious outlook. There’s an entry on Christ here, as well as on the Matter of Britain and the German idea of Sehnsucht, or longing, which lies behind a good deal of religious yearning. Meanwhile Quantum Computers, the idea of an Alternate Cosmos, and Panspermia and Xenobiology (both great words) give a number of new ways of creating mythologies of creation, evolution and godlike intelligence.

SF writer and critic Adam Roberts handles much of the section on music, and assembles an impressively eclectic list of artists who have used generic elements. These range through the alphabet and across the globe, with Acid Mothers Temple from Japan, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Pete Namlook, Kraftwerk and Stockhausen from Germany, Biosphere from Norway and Bjork from Iceland, Leos Janacek from Czechoslovakia, the mighty Magma from France (perhaps the ultimate SF band – who else can lay claim to having invented their own alien language), David Bedford, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Fridge, Robert Fripp Gustav Holst, Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, Joe Meek and Stereolab (hooray) from England, and the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane (mutating into Jefferson Starship for the wonderful Blows Against the Empire, an old favourite from teenage years), the Flaming Lips, The Residents, Afrika Bambaata, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa from the US of A. All of whom seem to point to the way in which SF and musical invention and exploration go hand in hand.

The shape and sound of the future - The Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Expo
There are a few names which I would have included, particularly from the field of electronic music, which provided the de facto soundtrack to SF and the future for decades. The Radiophonic Workshop should definitely get a mention, particularly as its invisible composers such as Daphne Oram, Desmond Briscoe, Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills, Paddy Kingsland and Malcolm Clarke provided the soundtrack to so much SF TV and radio from the 70s through to the 80s. The way in which their sounds entered the bloodstream of the British people was reflected in the fact that the soundscape composed for the recent British Library exhibition on science fiction was released on CD as Radiophonic 42 (and very good it is too). Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic ‘tonalities’ for Forbidden Planet and Bernard Herrmann’s hovering theremin for The Day the Earth Stood Still should also earn them a place. Edgar Varese’s Poeme Electronique, played through 400 speakers at the Philips Pavilion designed by Iannis Xenakis for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with projections chosen by le Corbusier, provided possibly the ultimate vision of a modernist future. Also in the 50s, at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center, Otto Luening was producing pieces with titles like Fantasy in Space and Moonflight, which made the link between electronic music and the dream of a future beyond the bounds of the planet explicit. Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon also captured the future-directed spirit of the age. A poppier electronica with science fiction on its mind and in its dreams was also produced by Tom Dissevelt on the records Fantasy in Orbit and Song of the Second Moon (with titles such as Moon Maid, The Visitor from Outer Space, The Ray Makers and Orbit Aurora) and Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley (whose sprightly ditties such as Unidentified Flying Object, Little Man from Mars, Cosmic Ballad, Visa to the Stars and Girl from Venus have titles which speak for themselves). Visions of the future were still being expressed through electronic music in the 80s and 90s, with the Detroit techno of the likes of Derrick May and Juan Atkins, disguising themselves in the dehumanised, android forms of Cybotron and Model 500, and in later LPs such as Jeff Mills’ Metropolis, a 2000 soundtrack to an hour long edit of Fritz Lang’s film. Recently, there have been a number of groups and artists like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker who look back to the rippling kosmische arpeggios and sequenced loops of the likes of Tangerine Dream and Cluster, reflecting a general sense of nostalgia for futures which never in the end came to pass.

Lunar landscapes - Pram's The Moving Frontier
The Czech composer Janacek is included largely on the strength of his opera the Makropulos Affair, which features a synthesised potion which grants immortality, but the Glagolithic Mass always sounded like it could describe a strange geological feature on an alien planet. There are more classical connections with SF which could be explored. John Adams’ Harmonielehre opens with music representing a dream image of an oil tanker taking off from the waters of San Francisco Bay, an idea which delivers a real SF rush. He also later wrote an opera, Doctor Atomic, concerning Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Two composers who have directly engaged with SF works are Philip Glass and Tod Machover. Glass collaborated with Doris Lessing on operatic adaptations of two of her Canopus in Argos novels, The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four and Five and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (beware mainstream writers who write SF in which everything is clearly and neatly divided into zones and numbered areas). Machover based an opera on Philip K Dick’s late novel Valis, a book which is part brilliant, part cracked (but which part is which?) Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has also created works such as Io, Solar and Lichtbogen (her depiction of the fluttering, luminescent veils of the Northern lights) using a blend of conventional orchestral instruments (played unconventionally) and electronics. A distinctive film composer who also deserves inclusion is Kenji Kawaii, who has collaborated with anime director Mamoru Oshii on most of his pictures, including Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Avalon and the Sky Crawlers. Oshii himself has yet to be granted an independent entry, and there is no mention of Avalon, one of the best SF films of the new millennium. The article on anime is itself also absent, so this is obviously an area which will be fleshed out in due time. As far as pop and rock are concerned, I’d add Mahogany, whose Connectivity is full of an old fashioned utopian optimism for bright, clean technologised futures. Pram make haunted clockwork songs with instruments which sound like a mixture of the primitively electronic and the steam-driven. They summon up Melies landscapes and magic lantern journeys, with titles such as Dancing on a Star, Nightwatch, Legendary Band of Venus, Moonminer, Metaluna, Space Siren, The Last Astronaut and (the title of their debut LP) The Stars are so Big, the Earth is so Small…Stay as You Are (originally a line from the Country Joe and the Fish Song Magoo). Whether you want to or not, you can’t ignore Rush either. Whilst other metal bands tend to look to Tolkien or occult horror when seeking literary inspiration, Rush always used SF themes, whether in the nightmarish trip into the black hole of Cygnus X-1, the post apocalyptic car ride of Red Barchetta, their plot-summarising homage to the Twilight Zone, or their prog space opera 2112, drawing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-serving individualism to create a rather simplistic dystopia. And if the Human League, then why not also their fellow Sheffield Ballardians Cabaret Voltaire; and if Zappa, then surely also Beefheart, with his Big Eyed Beans from Venus, Sun Zoom Sparks, Neon Meat Dreams of a Octafish, The Blimp, Space Age Couple, not to mention Flash Gordon's Ape. The Past Sure is Tense seems to express a preference for the future. Ant Man Bee and the fish-headed dandy on the front of Trout Mask Replica suggest mutant cabinet of curiosities vivisected hybrids, whilst Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, Rockette Morton and Winged Eel Fingerling sound like the weirdest crew of a spaceship since Captain Lorq von Ray piloted the Caliban towards an exploding star in Samuel Delany's Nova. Air would also seem to fit the bill, and Laurie Anderson has always made music which looks at the world through the curious, distancing lens familiar to SF readers, her songs taking the perspective of an alien looking at the earth and the behaviour of its inhabitants as if for the first time. She’s been a composer in residence at NASA, too, which must count for something. Finally, Burning Star Core and the Exploding Star Orchestra are surely worth a nod just for their brilliant names, which give out the promise of some of the most searing, ecstatically intense music you’ll ever hear. Eat your heart out Disaster Area.

The film section is edited by Nick Lowe, who has for many years written witty and insightful reviews for Interzone Magazine, which sometimes build up to a Hunter Thompson-like pitch of intensity if the mood takes him. The boundaries between SF and other forms of the fantastic are contentious, but there seem to be a few movies included in this list which fairly definitively breach them: the likes of Death Line, Coraline, Mirrormask, the Evil Dead, the Legend of Hell House (pseudoscience at best), My Neighbour Tortoro and Princess Mononoke (confusingly referred to by its Japanese title Mononoke Hime in an otherwise English language encyclopedia). Mononoke does include the development of the early stages of industrialisation as a major theme, I suppose. And you could argue that Death Line depicts the end results of devolution, with the pitiful cannibal on the Northern Line a lonely Morlock ahead of his time. But the Evil Dead? Hmmm. Is necromancy a science? Several of these entries lack attendant articles at this stage, so the writers haven’t had the chance to elucidate upon their inclusion. I look forward to discovering their logic as the gaps are filled and explanations provided.

Entrancing or agonizing?
Of the film entries I have glanced at, all have been written by Peter Nicholls. He has a pointed and frequently amusing turn of phrase. I particularly like his observation in his piece on the 60s Amicus film Dr Who and the Daleks that ‘despite their fierceness the Daleks prove ridiculously easy to immobilise’. Having recently seen the movie, I can affirm the accuracy of this criticism. Just spin them around and push them down one of the conveniently placed ramps and watch them self-destruct with a lid-busting bang, barking ‘out of control’ all the way. The films are pretty poor, but I wouldn’t call Peter Cushing’s Doctor colourless. Mind you, I refuse to hear anything bad said about Cushing in general. About Larry Cohen’s wonderfully demented film God Told Me To, which mixes wild profligacy of imagination with cheap offhandedness in execution, he dryly comments that ‘it is as well that Larry Cohen has his own production company, Larco, since it is impossible to imagine any other company taking on so eccentric a project’, before concluding that it is ‘perhaps the most baroque SF movie ever made’. Nicholls has a clever way of writing about certain films such that he maintains a critical distance whilst making it fairly clear that this is not really his cup of tea. Of La Jetee, he switches to the passive tense to note that ‘this celebrated French short film is often seen as a breakthrough in SF narration that has yet to be equalled’, and of Tarkovsky’s Stalker he writes that it is ‘agonizingly static, punctuated by abstract philosophical conversations with long pauses, and yet for some viewers it has an almost unequalled hypnotic intensity’. I’m certainly one of those viewers, but I can certainly see how others might find it interminably dull, fulfilling their worst nightmares of being stuck in front of a lengthy, monochrome Russian art film in which gloomy men discuss the meaning of existence. Nicholls summation of Robert Altman’s icy post-apocalyptic tale Quintet is absolutely spot on. He says that ‘Quintet bores the watcher, yet lingers for years in the mind’. I watched it again recently having seen it as a teenager, and found that certain scenes had indeed remained vividly ingrained in my memory as half-remembered dream landscapes. Nicholls’ antipathy towards Nigel Kneale remains from the previous edition, evidently fuelled by the writer’s unkind remarks about SF fans and the ungenerous portrayal of fandom in his rather cruel comedy Kinvig. I think Kneale deserves more recognition, and certainly an entry for his 1968 future dystopia The Year of the Sex Olympics, depicting a society pacified by a constant diet of voyeuristic TV spectacle, culminating in the production of a murderous reality programme, the Live Life Show. However, sometimes a critic has to write what a critic has to write, and he evidently feels strongly on this matter, expressing his feelings clearly and persuasively (and there is something to what he says, truth be told).

Anyway, this is a major work of SF scholarship, a genuine triumph, and all who are involved with it are to be congratulated and, in due course, showered with the appropriate encomiums and awards. If the second edition of the Encylopedia was definitive before, it’s now even more definitively definitive. Doubly definitive. And you can’t get much more definitive than that. Until it’s definitively complete, at least.

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