Science Fiction Studies

#85 = Volume 28, Part 3 = November 2001

Rob Latham

Recent Works of Reference on SF, Fantasy, and Horror

Richard Bleiler, ed. Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. 2nd ed. Scribner’s, 1999. xxviii + 1009 pp. $125 hc.

Neil Barron, ed. Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet. Scarecrow, 1999. xii + 816 pp. $85 hc.

Robert Sabella. Who Shaped Science Fiction? Kroshka, 2000. xvii + 282 pp. $23.95 hc.

Roger Shepard. Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Career Development Group (Library Association), 1999. xviii + 416 pp. £25 pbk. Distributed in the UK by Trigon Press.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of reference books devoted to the fantastic genres. In second editions of major works, Richard Bleiler has updated his father Everett’s 1982 book of the same title, while Neil Barron has fused and revamped his previous reader’s guides, Fantasy Literature and Horror Literature (both published by Garland Press in 1990). Though the two books offer valuable revisions, they also have their problems; yet they are considerably superior to similar efforts by Robert Sabella and Roger Shepard.

Bleiler’s Science Fiction Writers is a bio-bibliographical guide, providing critical essays on important or influential authors, capped with primary and secondary bibliographies. In the first edition, 75 writers were covered; the new volume adds 23 entries, most for figures whose careers began or were consolidated during the 1980s and 1990s. In most instances, the original entries have been retained or revised by their authors, while in some cases they have been updated by other hands through the addition of postscripts. Rather than grouping the authors chronologically into periods, as did the first edition, the new book is organized alphabetically; but it does include a Chronology that roughly gathers writers by the decades in which their careers were launched. The entries themselves are generally solid, providing information about the subjects’ biographies, major works of fiction, and significant themes. Some go critically deeper than others, those penned by John Clute (ten entries), Peter Nicholls (five), and Brian Stableford (18)—the triumvirate largely responsible for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s, 1993)—being probably the most insightful.

Which leads to a key question: what, essentially, does this book add to the coverage in the Encyclopedia, aside from more detailed plot summaries of individual texts and bibliographies that are a few years more up-to-date? Generally speaking, the answer is: not much. In some cases, the greater scope of the essays in Science Fiction Writers permits more broad-based and detailed critical judgments. Nicholls’s entry on Algis Budrys or Stableford’s on Fritz Leiber, for example, offer brilliantly shrewd assessments, alert to generic and historical contexts, that would simply not be possible in the more constrained span of encyclopedia articles. This sort of in-depth coverage is particularly valuable in the case of such marginal figures, who have been relatively neglected in the secondary literature. Unfortunately, not all of the essays in Bleiler’s book venture this sort of searching commentary, being content instead to rehearse extant critical viewpoints, especially when dealing with authors whose careers have been exhaustively catalogued elsewhere.

This discrepancy in coverage makes one wonder, on occasion, just what sort of volume Science Fiction Writers purports to be: a safely "consensus" overview along the lines of the Dictionary of Literary Biography or a more discriminating parsing of the field? This question is hardly answered by turning to the specific ways that the volume has been updated. To put it bluntly, no real effort seems to have been made to rethink the general contours of the book’s coverage: of the 23 new entries, only three add figures one might reasonably argue had been overlooked in the first edition (Harry Harrison, Katherine MacLean, and Kate Wilhelm); the rest, as noted above, gather talents whose careers blossomed after roughly the mid-1970s. Yet one cannot help but wonder why other neglected writers from the past have not been added, especially given some of the entries that have been retained. Is David H. Keller really a better representative of 1930s "super-science" stories than Edmond Hamilton? Are MacLean and Margaret St. Clair truly the most significant women writers who emerged during the 1950s, rather than Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, or Andre Norton? Do Chad Oliver and Eric Frank Russell give a better sense of second-rank American and British authors than would, say, James Schmitz or Keith Roberts? And where are Avram Davidson, Ron Goulart, R.A. Lafferty, Keith Laumer, Barry Malzberg, and Norman Spinrad? Does their absence make sense given the presence of Fred Hoyle and Luis Philip Senarens?

To his credit, Bleiler does, in his Introduction to the Second Edition, acknowledge some of the theoretical and practical difficulties involved in judging the historical importance of individual authors, especially when attempting to gauge the place of more minor talents:

When the pool of choices is widened and deepened to include those writers who are generally deemed to be of lesser magnitude but who are nevertheless noted as creative forces for the sheer volume of their output, or who wrote one significant work and then lingered, or who were once widely read but are so no longer, the problems of determining importance increase exponentially and often can be resolved only by personal choice. (xvii-xviii)

But there are, of course, other criteria available to the editor—critical reputation and/or popularity, for example, as determined by published reviews, book sales, and the bestowal of major awards. On the basis of such canons of approbation, it is perfectly understandable why Bleiler has chosen to commission new entries on Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Michael Bishop, David Brin, Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, C.J. Cherryh, William Gibson, Joe Haldeman, Christopher Priest, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shepard, Bruce Sterling, Ian Watson, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe. Yet can recourse to "personal choice" really justify the inclusion of Richard Cowper, Pat Murphy, Sheri S. Tepper, and Howard Waldrop in preference to D.G. Compton, M. John Harrison, John Varley, or Joan Vinge?

Perhaps these are quibbles. Yet they seem to me important in determining just what sort of book this is—a potentially idiosyncratic compendium of biocritical essays or a genuine attempt at a definitive survey of the field. Simply put, there are by now far too many of the former sort of works cluttering up library shelves—for example, most recently, Robert Sabella’s Who Shaped Science Fiction?, a gathering of exactly 100 tiny (two-page) entries on major figures in sf history. Sabella’s book appears to exist largely as a handy resource for high school students undertaking research—though it does, unlike Bleiler’s volume, make a valiant (if hopeless) stab at the assessment of relative importance: its entries are arranged in declining order of their subjects’ presumed significance rather than simply alphabetically. The result is a work one can argue with more strenuously than one can with Science Fiction Writers, which is perfectly competent but lacks a coherent animus. This, of course, would lead one to conclude that Bleiler’s goal is a sober and responsible overview rather than a critical staking-out of turf; however, judged against the magisterial coverage in the Encyclopedia of SF, his book provides at best a series of expanded and updated notes on several dozen key figures in sf history. Larger libraries will probably want to acquire Science Fiction Writers, but smaller ones might think twice (especially given its hefty price tag) if they already have Clute/Nicholls and the 1982 first edition.

Though inferior in every way to Bleiler’s volume, Who Shaped Science Fiction? has a few small things to recommend it (not least being its much more affordable price). First, it does not focus exclusively on writers: of the top twenty names cited, eight are listed primarily for their careers as book or magazine editors (John W. Campbell, Jr., Hugo Gernsback, Donald A. Wollheim, H.L. Gold, J. Francis McComas, Anthony Boucher, Robert H. Davis, and Ian Ballantine). Second, Sabella makes an effort—alas, half-hearted—to recognize the importance of sf media figures as well with the inclusion of Gene Roddenberry and Stanley Kubrick. At the very least, such an approach provides a better sense of true significance than an author-based model of the genre’s history. Finally, though Sabella claims to focus exclusively on "the shapers of American science fiction" (xvi; emphasis in original), there are entries on H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, Mary Shelley, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, H. Rider Haggard, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelley, John Wyndham, and Kingsley Amis. (For his part, Bleiler made a more concerted effort to represent the range of Anglo-American sf, with a few cursory nods to "continental" talents such as Verne and Karel Čapek.)

Unfortunately, Sabella’s entries are too cramped to provide real insight, though they are well-informed and generally reliable. The capping chronologies are, however, random hodgepodges of information, and the book has no bibliographical value. Its relative-ranking structure provides entertaining fodder for debate—as do similar pecking orders such as David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels—An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984 (Xanadu, 1995)—but it has no clear critical point since it is never really argued for in any systematic way. Who Shaped Science Fiction? will not mislead students or neophytes (which is a good thing given the number of shoddy "reference" works in existence), but it adds nothing to extant scholarly compendia—from which it has been, judging from the References section at the end of the book, substantially cobbled.

Neil Barron’s new book is a considerably more original work of research and synthesis—as one might expect from the compiler of the four editions of Anatomy of Wonder (the most recent appearing from Bowker in 1995), still the standard reader’s guide to sf. Like its predecessors Fantasy Literature and Horror Literature, Fantasy and Horror has been conceived as a companion volume to Anatomy, offering similarly in-depth overviews of these two fantastic genres. Despite some problems of organization and emphasis, it is a very useful volume.

At the core of the book are the extensive annotations of fiction and nonfiction titles. Chapters 1-7 cover well over 2,000 works of fiction, providing concise capsule summaries and critical evaluations, and chapters 10-12 canvass over 500 scholarly texts—reference sources, works of history and criticism, and studies of individual authors. Other chapters give information about library methods and collections (chs 9 and 17), genre publishing (ch 9), mass media (ch 13), art and illustration (ch 14), and magazines (ch 16). New to this edition are full chapters on fantasy and horror poetry (ch 8) and on pedgogical issues (ch 15), as well as sections of chapters on online resources (ch 10) and on radio programming (ch 13). The culminating chapter (ch 18) is a compendium that includes lists of "Best Books" (culled from various critical sources and the votes of expert judges, including the authors of the individual chapters); major awards; books in series; young adult, children’s, and translated titles annotated in the volume; and relevant organizations and conventions. The volume is capped by a checklist of sources for critical commentary on some 950 writers, an author/subject index, a title index, a theme index, and a list of contributors. There is also a brief introduction, entitled "The Return of Fantasy," by David G. Hartwell, which replaces the more personal, meditative intro penned by Michael Bishop for the first editions.

In the section on primary works, chapters 1-3 annotate approximately 350 titles through the end of the nineteenth century, while chapters 4-7 treat about 1400 titles through 1998 (the cut-off date for the volume’s coverage). As one can readily see from these rough tabulations, works published in the twentieth century outnumber their predecessors by a factor of four to one. Barron himself seems a bit defensive about this, judging from his Preface, where he quotes from a review of the earlier editions in which S.T. Joshi lamented this imbalance in coverage, and claims that the new edition represents his "considered judgment of the relative importance of, and interest by today’s readers in," the fiction of earlier periods (ix). I must admit to being unpersuaded, especially since the imbalance in the current volume is even more pronounced: while the overall number of titles covered remains roughly the same, some 200 works published through around 1950 have disappeared to make room for an equal number published since that time. Moreover, the annotations of more recent fiction tend themselves to be longer: roughly eight post-1950 titles are canvassed on two double-columned pages, as compared to nine pre-1950 works. This overall skewing of coverage in favor of contemporary texts makes a bit of a mockery of the volume’s subtitle, which trumpets the book as, among other things, a "historical guide." If a key criterion for inclusion is what contemporary readers happen to be interested in, so much for literary history!

Happily, of the three chapters on pre-twentieth-century fiction, Frederick S. Frank’s on "Early and Later Gothic" (1762-1896) and Brian Stableford’s on "Fantasy in the Nineteenth Century" are deeply erudite, shrewdly judgmental, and altogether excellent. Chapter 2, however, on "The Development of the Fantastic Tradition through 1811," by Dennis M. Kratz, is a dubious catchall that ranges briskly from Hesiod to Dante to Jonathan Swift. No theoretically coherent or historically responsible definition of "fantasy" could possibly unite the disparate texts surveyed herein, which include Arthurian romances, Renaissance allegories, folk and fairy tales, even "Indian and Oriental" works (such as the Mahabharata, categorizable as fantasy only from a modern Western perspective). By contrast, the two chapters on early twentieth-century horror and fantasy, both produced by Stableford, are so well-conceived and brilliantly magisterial that one can only wonder if this estimable author-critic has read, in fact, everything.

The two chapters on contemporary fiction comprise around 40% of the volume’s coverage of primary works; while they are competently piloted by Stefan Dziemianowicz (horror) and Darren Harris-Fain (fantasy)—subsuming and updating the relevant chapters in the first editions by Keith Nielsen and Franz Rottensteiner (and incorporating as well YA fiction, no longer the subject of a separate chapter)—they could have been, in my view, more judiciously edited. Does the reader really need six entries each for Robert Aickman and Tim Powers, great as they are, or fourteen for Steven King, prolific as he is? Is Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (1988) a more important work of fantasy, historically speaking, than Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan (1895) or Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion (1931), both dropped from the current edition? These cranky enumerations and invidious comparisons could be multiplied indefinitely, but I think the point is clear: the book’s systemic bias towards recent work is lamentable. That said, one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else such generous surveys of contemporary fantasy and horror literature, and Dziemianowicz’s annotations in particular show a fine eye for hidden influences and telling details.

The volume’s coverage of nonfiction has also been cut somewhat from the first editions. Michael Morrison’s remarkably exhaustive chapter treating works of horror history and criticism is gone, folded into a general conspectus by Gary K. Wolfe (who penned the entries on similar works in Fantasy Literature); as a result, some thirty-odd titles have been lost. Compensating for this, the amalgamated chapter on Author Studies (with Fiona Kelleghan updating Morrison’s and Richard C. West’s original contributions) features over 80 new entries. Michael Klossner’s chapter on mass media, Walter Albert and Doug Highsmith’s on art, and Robert Morrish and Mike Ashley’s on magazines show a pattern of losses and gains, but are, in the main, solid and valuable surveys of their subjects. Of the new materials covered in this edition, Michael E. Stamm’s section on online resources provides at best a sketchy introduction to this terra incognita (or vast wasteland, depending on your viewpoint), and Kratz’s chapter on pedagogy is ill-conceived and impressionistic, amounting to little more than a series of common-sense tips ("cluster texts around various types and definitions of fantasy" [620]) and well-meaning exhortations (avoid lecturing). On the other hand, Steve Eng’s chapter on "Fantasy and Horror Poetry," covering some 50 works, is a worthwhile addition, though it would have benefited from a more theoretically rigorous rationale since at times it approaches the vague, ahistorical eclecticism that deforms Kratz’s chapter on early "fantasy."

The final "Listings" chapter provides a series of useful sidelights on and cross-sectionings of the text. The "Best Books" list offers a meticulously and intelligently constructed canon, as well as a useful guidebook for the amassing of personal and library collections. The Awards section omits the Nebulas, now bestowed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but is otherwise thorough and up-to-date, while the Translations section displays the historical imbalance towards continental (especially French and German) work. One might have wished for a separate chapter on foreign-language fantasy and horror along the lines of the excellent coverage of European, Scandinavian, Middle-Eastern, and Asian sf in the third edition of Anatomy of Wonder (Bowker, 1987), but Barron, in his Preface, simply refers interested readers to relevant articles on national literatures in Clute and John Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy (St. Martin’s, 1997).

I must admit that the new appendix featuring "Sources of Information on Fiction and Poetry Authors" seems to me an odd addition to the book’s back matter. Designed to indicate where biocritical information can be found on individual writers, it is quite literally a checklist cross-referencing some 950 names with fourteen major reference sources. I suppose this painstaking catalogue could conceivably save prospective researchers a few precious minutes, but considering the enormous expenditure of time it clearly took Barron to compile the appendix, I can hardly imagine it was worth the trouble. Besides, most of what this checklist indicates ought to be self-evident—e.g., Clive Barker, a horror writer who began his career in the mid-1980s, predictably receives no entries in either Everett Bleiler’s Guide to Supernatural Fiction, published in 1983, or Frederick S. Frank’s The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel (Garland, 1987), which covers the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

All in all, however, and despite its flaws, Fantasy and Horror belongs on every scholar’s reference shelf—where it should displace if not entirely expunge Roger Shepard’s competing "reader’s guide." A fundamentally useless work, the book lists—and very briefly annotates—some 1200 titles, most of them published since 1960. No justification for Shepard’s specific inclusions and exclusions is provided in the Introduction, and his explanation for the general scholarly niche his tome is designed to fill is unconvincing: "a SF & F reference book which would give ... the author, with his or her year and place of birth/death, most readable (or best) books, with the publishers of the first known editions whether in hardback or paperback in UK and USA, with the awards the book won, if any" (vii). This information is readily available, albeit in scattered sources, elsewhere, and is much more reliable than in Shepard’s often sketchy entries. The "annotations" are terse and impressionistic stabs at summary; here is the entirety of the entry on Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Spring (1982): "The strange world of an alien planet where ‘winter’ lasts centuries. The first volume of a tremendous trilogy to get lost in" (3). Some entries contain—as do those in Barron’s volume—suggestions for further reading; but whereas the annotations in Barron refer readers to specific texts, Shepard merely gestures vaguely at other "similar" authors. Thus, in the entry on Margaret St. Clair’s 1963 novel Sign of the Labrys, the reader is urged to consult the work of Isaac Asimov, T.J. Bass, John W. Campbell, and Anne McCaffrey, but one has no idea precisely why.

What does this recent outburst of reference work portend for scholarship on the fantastic genres? While it certainly points to the ongoing energy and dedication of editors and bibliographers, most of this activity, unfortunately, has been spent to no good end. While it is unlikely that publishers will agree to such a suggestion, one is strongly tempted to urge at least a five-year moratorium on bio-bibliographical compilations and reader’s guides. Perhaps sometime during that span, we will be favored with updates of the Clute-Nicholls and Clute-Grant encyclopedias—which remain, along with a very small handful of other print and electronic resources, the only truly indispensable works.

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