Monthly Archives: June 1996

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, John Clute

Dorling Kindersley, 1995, 312 pages, C$50.00 hc, ISBN 0-7894-0185-1

Chance helps those who help themselves, they say. Or whatever. In this case, patience reward the deserving… or so I like to think.

Explanations: When the SFBC came out with their own edition of the quasi-legendary Encyclopedia of SF at better than half the price of the 90$ volume, I was ecstatic: Having borrowed my university’s copy of the encyclopedia more time than I like to think about, I salivated over the prospect of owning my very own copy of the bible… er… encyclopedia.

Same thing when the Illustrated encyclopedia came out. I spent many minutes in the bookstores, trying more or less spectacularly to keep my drool from dropping on the copies I was shamelessly studying. But the price tag of 50$ had a certain effect on my spending urge. Nevertheless! I vowed to myself: Once upon a time, this book WILL BE MINE! (I’m rotten at verb tense, but the store security people were really impressed by my delivery. They even asked to do an encore performance outside the store. No, really.)

But time dragged on, the effect of Pepsi wore off, the summer job kicked in and the idea faded. Until a certain day when an SFBC notice arrived in the mail, saying something like “Oh, you haven’t bought anything from us in six months. Awww… Here’s a coupon: Buy one of this month’s book and get another free.” Surprise, surprise: The month’s letter contained a flyer hawking the charms of both encyclopedias at 37,95 each. I decided… to sleep on it.

The morning after, it STILL seemed like a good idea. Off went the coupon. Final price? 47,02$ Can. for both books. Tee-hee-hee. That’s right. Both volumes for a bit more that half the cover price of the 1,300 pages encyclopedia. Ahem. Well, I did have to gloat somewhere, didn’t I? Fear nothing; Here’s the reviews:

The 1,300 pages Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction belongs on every serious fan’s reference bookshelf. More than a list of SF authors and bibliographies, it includes critical commentary, movie reviews, coverage of most medias, general themes essays and a lot of non-US material.

It is immensely useful: Even a few months after I’ve received it, I’m still using it regularly to check facts, dates or just for general entertainment.

The biggest flaw is inevitable: Obsolescence. Published in 1992, it’s beginning to (!) show its age. Some major writers of nowadays (Egan, Sawyer, Stephenson, even Straczynski) are absent, or casually dismissed on the basis of a single book.

(The book also contains quite a few errors, I’m told. My edition contains a 16-pages errata appendix, and some of the errors contained there are glaring. Researchers are advised to check there in every case after reading any article: Most major writers have an errata.)

Anyway, this is a bible, and should be treated as such.

The Illustrated encyclopedia of SF is an entirely different book. Do not be fooled by the author’s name (John Clute) because the IEoSF isn’t a subset of the EoSF.

For one thing, this book would have been better titled An Illustrated History of Science-Fiction or somesuch. In addition of settling the confusion between the IEoSF and the EoSF, it would also better describe the scope of the book.

Most of the IEoSF‘s bulk is composed of several retrospectives through SF’s history: Once by decade for themes, once by decade for historical context, once by four “eras” for magazines, one by half-decade for authors, once by decades for major titles and another time by decade for movies. Graphic works and television series are also covered historically, but in a less formal manner.

This book works at several levels. At the lowest, “gee-whiz-what-nice-pictures,” it succeeds pretty well, reproducing great book covers and pictures of the authors. It makes a great coffee-table book for the SF fans in the family. (It also makes a great source for scanning material, but… ahem… I digress…) On another level, it offers many pleasant surprises for the knowledgeable SF fan: Classic books covers, oft-needed author’s portraits (“Hey, that’s Nancy Kress? She’s kinda cute!”), fun 50’s magazine covers. Finally, the commentary that “surrounds” the pictures is worthwhile in itself.

Of course there are flaws. Not every author has a favorable picture of him/her; the covers offered are not always the most aesthetically pleasing. The definitely British origin of the book will jar a few readers’ perceptions. The critical content will probably please no one completely, and we often get an exasperating impression of superficiality from the bite-sized comments. Finally, like the EoSF, this book is firmly fixed in time, which is to say 1994. Although not a big problem yet, it will come…

Purely subjective fannish nit-pick: The mention of “Babylon-5” as being a derivative of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is indicative of sloppy research and perception from John Clute, but this particular judgment is colored by my intense devotion to the TV series… [In a recent interview with the Webzine Science-Fiction Weekly (www.scifi.com), Clute basically admitted that his opinion has changed since.]

Nevertheless, this is a magnificent book. Even my uncle (far from being an SF fan) spent a good ten minutes just poring through the illustrations in the encyclopedia. Impressive to fans and non-fans alike, it offers what very well may be the most comprehensive historical view of the genre, and thus deserves a place on the bookshelf of even the most casual reader.

Just be sure to get it back once you’ve loaned it.