Science Fiction Studies

#49 = Volume 16, Part 3 = November 1989

Gary K. Wolfe

A Convention of Cats

James Gunn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. NY: Viking, 1988. xx + 524pp. $24.95.

James Gunn's 1976 Alternate Worlds was literary history disguised as a coffee table book (although some uncharitably claimed the reverse was equally true), and much the same might be said of his new encyclopedia. Like the earlier book, it is the sort of oversized, attractively designed, generously illustrated volume that people who do not read SF like to buy for their friends who do. Both books are "packaged" for the widest possible audience and targeted to the trade buyer rather than the library or scholarly audience --although in the current case there is much evidence that the "packager" (something called Promised Land Productions) has exerted considerable influence over both major and minor editorial decisions. Both books strongly reflect Gunn's more or less official perspective as to what SF is and is not; but in the New Encyclopedia this perspective is strongly skewed by a heavy emphasis on media, which one can only assume is the result of the packager's hopes for a wider audience, and perhaps by the exceptional energy of the contributors who worked on the film and TV entries.

Readers will inevitably draw comparisons with Peter Nicholls' excellent The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (1979) and Gunn's volume is likely to come out the poorer. It is a much shorter book than the Nicholls, with less than a third as many individual entries and considerably fewer "theme" essays. It contains very spotty coverage of international SF, with only five essays (apart from individual author and film entries) on the British Commonwealth, Great Britain, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union. Its treatment of scholarship is lame, with a rather weak essay by Thomas Clareson focussing largely on conferences, and almost no essays on individual critics or scholars. (Sam Moskowitz gets an entry, as does Michel Butor--on the strength of one essay--but there are none for Suvin, Scholes, Rabkin, Philmus, Ketterer, Clareson, Bailey, Franklin, et al.) Cross-referencing, which would seem to be crucial to a volume lacking an index, is practically nil (although there is, significantly, a checklist of movie and TV entries, and a table of contents for the theme essays). Even "referral" entries are minimal, so that a user seeking information about Lewis Shiner (who does not merit an entry) has no way of knowing that some of his work is discussed under "Cyberpunk." In the generally thorough film coverage, one has to already know that Five Million Years to Earth is one of the Quatermass series in order to find it out, since it is only listed under "Quatermass."

In a sense, though, comparisons to Nicholls may be unfair. A volume which devotes three times as much space to Roger Corman as to Doris Lessing cannot be said to have great pretensions as a literary reference work, and in many ways this book belongs more in the company of Brian Ash's The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1977) or Robert Holdstock's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978). While Gunn's book is certainly more of an "encyclopedia" than those volumes, it is very much a "product" in the same sense that they are. It has aspirations to being a "browser delight" more than a scholar's tool, and indeed there are many insightful essays by Brian Stableford, Maxim Jakubowski, Brian Aldiss, John Kessel, Ian Watson, Brooks Landon, Robert Galbreath, Mike Ashley, Russell Letson, and many others. It was a rewarding idea to ask a psychologist such as Alan Elms to do entries on psychology and Cordwainer Smith, and Arthur Clarke's too-brief essay on H.G. Wells is fascinating for what it reveals about both authors (although Gunn's avowed early intention to have living writers write entries on themselves goes blessedly unrealized). Even when an essay is disappointing--Susan Shwartz's monumentally titled "Myth in Science Fiction" is only a half-page long--one often gets the feeling it is less the author's fault than the editor's. The book, in fact, is not really edited so much as compiled; it's a collection of hundreds of little essays by more than a hundred contributors, with little apparent effort to achieve balance, consistency, or a coherent point of view.

Whether a book that calls itself an encyclopedia needs a coherent point of view is of course subject to debate, but it at least needs a traffic cop. One can accept Gunn's principle of including only those newer writers "who promised, at this early stage in their careers, to develop a body of work" (p. vi) as an excuse for omitting A.A. Attanasio, but what is the principle that says there should be an entry on B-film actor Richard Carlson instead? Willis McNelly's essay on Alfred Bester claims him as "one of the giants of the science-fiction field during its GOLDEN AGE [such caps are the main system of cross-referencing], which his works helped define." Dutifully going to Barry Malzberg's entry on GOLDEN AGE, we find it ended seven years before Bester's first novel was published. Clifford Simak's death predated Robert Heinlein's, but Heinlein's death date is recorded while Simak's isn't, thus raising questions about the volume's actual cutoff date. I.F. Clarke's intriguing little essay titled "Progress" mentions no SF at all, although one supposes that its purpose would have been to discuss the ideas of progress characteristic of the genre. Someone should have been watching for these things.

In any reference work, one might quibble with the contents of the articles themselves, but for the most part Gunn has found knowledgeable contributors whose judgments are defensible and sound. Sometimes the value of these essays depends upon knowing where the contributor is coming from, however. When Poul Anderson claims that the creation of alien worlds "must be consistent with current scientific knowledge" (p. 8), he is not describing SF but telling us how to write it. As a writer of hard SF, Anderson is under no obligation whatsoever to be interested in the metaphoric value of such alien worlds; as a critic, he ignores this value and the writers who seek to exploit it at the risk of distorting his essay, which clearly implies that alien worlds are the property of himself and writers like him. When Orson Scott Card discusses the "mainstream"-- an important essay, since the term is used automatically to describe any non-genre writer who gets an entry--he makes a useful distinction between the commercial and the literary mainstream, but proceeds to rehash the most paranoid arguments about "literary" fiction and the academic establishment (mentioning by name no culprits more recent than Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Henry James). He concludes that SF and mainstream literature "are not likely to merge; their communities are clearly separated and unlikely to compromise their identities" (p. 301). Gunn himself, however, in his essay "The Future of Science Fiction" a few pages earlier, tells us that SF "is likely to become more and more like the mainstream, and part of the mainstream is likely to use the ideas and tropes of SF, until the two genres become almost indistinguishable in the middle" (p. 191). Other essayists, such as David Brin on "The Universe," are simply given topics too big to meaningfully handle.

In general, these theme essays give the volume what overall focus it has, and there are some continuing themes in them that unmistakably reveal Gunn's editorship--the recurring mention of SF as a "literature of change," the concern with the mainstream, the optimistic trust in technology and science, the fascination with the mechanics and business of SF (the latter of which gets its own entry). A few essays, such as H. Bruce Franklin's on "Nuclear Promise and Threat," seem oddly out of place in this context. Associate Editor Stephen Goldman's many contributions, on the other hand, may be the most characteristic in the volume. Here, for example, is what he says about "Superpowers":

Authors have considered such questions as What powers would confer true superiority? How would such powers reveal themselves, and what advantages or disadvantages would they involve? How would individuals and society as a whole respond to the possession of such powers? How would others react to those who have such powers? What kind of world would the presence of these extraordinary powers create? (p. 453)

He then goes on to discuss several works that address these questions, but he never bothers to ask why SF became fascinated with this theme, or what its significance is to authors and readers, or how the theme might be related to the changing social history of the genre. I am not suggesting that he should have written a different essay; merely that the essay he has written reveals the enthusiasm of an unquestioning reader who sees this highly suggestive theme as merely one of a number of innocent speculative questions upon which SF has worked endless clever variations. Much the same attitude characterizes the entries on religion, alien worlds, scientists, spaceships, and several other tropes collectively discussed by Gordon R. Dickson in an essay somewhat misleadingly titled "Literary Conventions." By contrast, Gregory Benford's entry on "Aliens" speculates thoughtfully on how that image has been used and misused as "a template on which we can project our hopes and fears" (p. 11). The usefulness of a volume such as this must surely depend in part on the questions it asks, and therefore on the questions it answers. And as Thomas Pynchon reminds us, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers" (Gravity's Rainbow, p. 251).

The kinds of question Gunn's Encyclopedia, or its editors or packagers, seem to want you to ask are fairly simple ones focusing on the most popular aspects of the genre. For the most part, the entries on historical figures or lesser-known authors seem almost cursory and obligatory compared to the attention lavished on currently popular authors and films. Thus Jerry Pournelle gets something like three times the space devoted to Olaf Stapledon, and James Gunn's own entry is larger than Jules Verne's. The entries on writers such as Miles J. Breurer, Henry Slesar, Raymond Z. Gallun, or Fletcher Pratt--writers for whom we are likely to need an encyclopedia in order to gain basic information--are so short as to be almost useless. (Breurer's entry is even shorter than that on actor Leslie Nielsen.) Although coverage of younger writers is generally strong, many contemporary and not-so-contemporary writers are omitted altogether, including not only the aforementioned Shiner and Attanasio, but William Sloane, Kit Pedler, Gary K. Wolf (not me but him), René Barjavel, Brian N. Ball, John Blackburn, Mary Gentle, Lisa Goldstein, Rex Gordon, Michael Kube-McDowell, Karen Joy Fowler, John Lymington, Mike Resnick, Robert Moore Williams, Rosel George Brown, Pamela Zoline, L.P. Davies, Naomi Mitchison, James H. Schmitz, Michel Jeury, and doubtless many others whose names I will remember only when I have reason to try to look them up.

Even the film and TV articles--which make up nearly a third of the entries--lean ponderously toward the popular, with substantial entries on King Kong, Godzilla, Frankenstein, and such series as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Planet of the Apes. There are no entries, though, for lesser-known but intriguing films such as The Quiet Earth, Memoirs of a Survivor, The Monitors, or The Final Programme. Despite the coverage given to Mad Max and Godzilla, directors George Miller and Inoshira Honda have no entries, but a schlock director like Arthur C. Pierce does. Depending on whether you read Darrel Schweitzer's entry on the film or Bill Warren's on the director, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is either "one of the finest science-fiction films ever made" (p. 98) or "less successful" than his earlier films and "notable mainly for its visual style and satiric point of view" (p. 260).

In short, we are given the most information precisely where we least need it, and the information and judgments we are given vary widely from one entry to the next.

Thus my earlier point: The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is not really about looking things up. It is about browsing; it is about wallowing; it is about having one's suspicions confirmed. To say that there is nothing to be learned from this book would be invidious, because much of what is here is quite good. The major flaws lie in arrangement, balance, and consistency, not within the essays themselves. In many cases, the contradictions among essayists, the oddball entries, the unexplained omissions--the very qualities that limit the book's usefulness as a reference tool--give it an energy and a personality that are as dynamic as the field itself. When one awkwardly checks the key to contributors at the front to discover that a particular essay was written by Brian Aldiss or Philip Jose Farmer or Hal Clement or L. Sprague de Camp or Barry Malzberg or Norman Spinrad, one is tempted to go back to the essay to look for clues and subtexts about the contributor, and to reread it in a new light. It is apparent that most contributors had no idea what others were saying, and that they were given considerable leeway in defining their own parameters. This is hardly the road to disciplined scholarship, but it isn't necessarily a bad idea, either--it's only bad when one considers that this may be the only source some slothful undergraduates may turn to for the last word on SF. What was apparently intended to be the official corporate handbook of SF thus emerges as a cacophony of independent and often brilliant voices, reflecting the field's refusal to get organized.

In the end, The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction reminds me of a book like Mrs. Oliphant's The Victorian Age in English Literature, published in 1892 and now utterly fascinating because of its very lack of distancing from the material it covers. It also reminds me of Lee Hays's comment on trying to reunite the singing group the Weavers after 20 years: "It was," he said, "like trying to organize a convention of cats." If The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction doesn't quite work as the definitive reference it was originally intended to be, it works quite well as an important artifact of the genre as it now stands, a kind of critical mirror-maze of current opinions and perspectives. Taken in this sense, it reveals far more than it tells.

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