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Misguided and outdated
on 26 April 2014
In its favour, this is the most comprehensive available encyclopaedia of Science Fiction.
Against it? I bought it when it was first published (at a price of around £45), assuming it would in turn be an update on Nicholls' previous, smaller and far better Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (indeed, this is what it claims to be on the inside cover, repeating praise from Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov for the 1979 edition). This book was - and remains - in many respects a disappointment. Gone are the illustrations of the previous edition. The newer book is densely packed with essays, by the editors and their contributors. Most are unreadable. In particular, the emphasis is shifted firmly to Science Fiction in film. The book's introduction admits this, citing in its defence that film sci-fi only covers 10% of the book, while making it at the same time the most comprehensive coverage of film SF.
But the first consequence is that any SF film (or TV series), of whatever critical value, receives its own entry, while this honour is accorded to no book, irrelevant of its significance. David Lynch's deeply flawed adaptation of Dune has its own entry (itself not a particularly useful one, and which doesn't include previous attempts to adapt the material). Frank Herbert's masterpiece does not get an entry. The two (at the time) schlock films based on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend each get their own entry. No entry for the book. And so on.
To be fair, this was also the format of the 1979 book, in a period when film SF was relatively rare. I think the editors should have rethought their approach when it came to this edition.
The second consequence is that the book has dated far more quickly than it should; given rapid advances in special effects and the changing trends in film-making, the focus of the encyclopedia makes it effectively a snap shot of the industry at the time it was published. Equally, by approaching written SF through biographical entries, obviously those writers who were still living at the time of the original publication are due an update either because they have produced additional material, or in some cases because they have sadly passed away. Had the editors concentrated more on the written works themselves, it would have remained far more relevant.
Clute, in his own reviews, is a didactic and often (to my mind) a particularly pretentious reviewer. Much of the remainder of the book, beyond the biographies and the movie reviews, is taken up with sometimes strangely chosen essays. Why is the entry, for example, on SF in Belgium, wrapped into one on the entirely fictional country of Benelux (2.5 pages, which covers Luxembourg in its final paragraph - "virtually nothing is known about sf in tiny Luxembourg").
If you strip all of this away, it's a mainly useful* if outdated set of critical biographies for Science Fiction (the biographies make up the majority of the book) and if you can find a cheap edition (I felt ripped off when I originally bought it) and have the shelf space, by all means buy a copy. But a properly balanced encyclopedia of SF, which gives due weight to the written form, has yet to be produced.
* the critical biography of John Frederick Clute is written by one JC.