I am hard-pressed to remember the last time I had so much fun with an academic book. This collection articles on fifty key people within science fiction written by several leading literary critics provides an outstanding introduction to the current situation of the field as well as the most important figures in its development. They achieve this despite the inherent silliness of restricting the field to only fifty figures. Silly, yes; but that's where the fun comes in. The enjoyment of such a book comes from arguing with the editors and their choices. I had so much joy coming up with my own lists, seeing if my candidates made theirs, examining their list, debating why some of their choices were wrong, delighting in learning of some people I had not previously known, and just basically having a grand time.
Although I passionately disagree with some of their selections, by and large they did a pretty good job. For instance, I decided to create a list of the female figures that I would place on such a list. I came up with (in rough chronological order): Mary Shelley, C. L. Moore, James Tiptree Jr., Ursula K. LeGuin, Joana Russ, Octavia Butler, and Gwyneth Jones. I hoped that Marge Piercy would make the list, but feared that she would be considered too mainstream and therefore not a candidate for inclusion. I also was pulling for Connie Willis, but thought she might be too recent to make the cut. All of those (though not Piercy and Willis) did in fact make their list. The four women I missed were Leigh Brackett, Sheri Tepper, feminist academic Donna J. Haraway, and Nalo Hopkinson. I personally think Brackett is of more historical interest than interesting in terms of today's SF. Tepper is certainly major, though one could question whether she is sufficiently SF (most of her best work was not in SF, the own towering exception being THE GATE TO WOMEN'S COUNTRY. Haraway is no doubt a huge figure, with her "A Cyborg Manifesto" ranking as the most important essay written on artificial beings since John Turing famous essay published in MIND (which introduced the Turing Test). And kudos for including Nalo Hopkinson, who has done important work introducing SF in 3rd world settings.
There are a lot of choices that you can debate. I can see the inclusion of Hugo Gernsback as an editor, but the exclusion of John W. Campbell is utterly inexplicable. I'm not a fan of Campbell's preferences, but his influence on SF is staggering, arguably as large as any single figure in the field. I would have thought he would have been one of the 7 or 8 first figures to have placed on a list. Although Gernsback was the first SF editor, all in all I believe Campbell's influence was greater. And there were a number of very important writers who were omitted, a short list being Frederik Pohl, Stanley Weinbaum, Henry Kuttner (who certainly published as many important works as his wife, C. L. Moore, who did make the list, and who co-wrote many classic stories together), Robert Silverberg, Connie Willis, and Poul Anderson. The omission of Kurt Vonnegut is also tough to take. I was really upset at the inclusion of Steven Spielberg. Sure, Spielberg has made some hugely successful SF movies, but I think his influence on SF has been close to nonexistent, just as his influence on cinema has been close to nonexistent. In fact, Spielberg's lone influence has been to make studios strive to produce box office blockbusters. But aesthetically Spielberg's influence has been negligible or nonexistent. Contrast this with Ridley Scott, who has exerted extensive influence on SF through his blending of film noir, art deco, and SF in BLADE RUNNER. That film in turn exerted enormous influence on cyberpunk and the television series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which seems likely to be the space opera that all future SF series set in space will have to come to terms with (note how STARGATE UNIVERSE seems to owe more to BSG than to SG-1 or SG ATLANTIS). His ALIEN completely raised the level of threat with alien species. This dwarfs anything that Spielberg has achieved in SF. I don't debate the inclusion of George Lucas, even though I'm not a fan of his films. I liked THX 1138, but I agree completely with Orson Scott Card that the STAR WARS films are not actually SF at all, but closer to fantasy. What influence Lucas has had on SF has, in my opinion, largely been negative. But see, this kind of argument and debate is what makes this fun.
One other figure whose insertion utterly baffles me was Gerry Anderson. His inclusion strikes me as a British thing. Most, though not all, of the editors are British and that is the only way I can explain his inclusion. I mean, seriously. THUNDERBIRDS? SPACE: 1999? I could come up with 20 television producers should have been considered before him. His place is so weird that I can't really get my mind around it. The brute fact is that he probably shouldn't make a list of 500 Key Figures. Like I said, must be a British thing, like actors who perform skits in drag.
The articles are really interesting, though they vary considerably from one to another. Some are critical, some are biographical, some a blend. Some have bibliographies of the figures while others mention them in the text. Some are tremendously informative and fascinating, some of them are kind of flat (that is, I am still not sold on Gerry Anderson - like I said, British thing). But this should definitely be part of the library of anyone who engages the study of SF from within academia or any SF fan who just wants to have a good argument with some people it is fun to argue with. And on top of all that, you'll get a lot of great reading ideas. You'll find a host of books you'll want to read. In other words, this is just a great book on multiple levels.