The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, Ed. David Pringle

Carlton Books, 1995, 309 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 1-85868-188-X

I recently detailed in these virtual pages my acquisition of The Science-Fiction Encyclopedia and The Visual Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction. To refresh some readers’ memories, my impression was unarguably positive. After all, how can you argue against 1,300 pages in one case and a page-full of photographic credits in the other?

Well, call me jaded, but the 304 pages and page-full of illustration credits of David Pringle’s The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction (subtitled The Definitive Illustrated Guide) aren’t quite as impressive…

The basic problem is how to present the subject, especially when it’s as diverse as SF. Do you go for the connoisseur, the fan or the general public? Talk about books nobody read any more or go for the quicker, stupider movies? To that, add the challenge of presenting visuals properly: By theme, date, subject, illustrator?

The choices made by the staff of TUEoSF are clear: They’re going for the general public and more accurately, the British general public. The cover illustration features the scantily-clad robot from METROPOLIS. The back cover has Jane Fonda as a suitably curvaceous Barbarella, Akira, Arnold S. as The Terminator and the ship from “2001”. That should give you an idea of the book’s media-oriented content.

For better and for worse, SF is now a genre most readily identified with television and movies. A large part of the encyclopedia reflects this. Of the eight sections, one 60-page segment is about movies, another 50 pages discuss TV and radio series. Other notable sections deal with Themes (40 pages), “creators” (writers and directors, 70 pages) and “Heroes and Villains” (45 pages) The last section is especially puzzling, since it’s not very useful as reference and pretty much unreadable to anyone not familiar with the books and movies discussed.

The British emphasis has its moments: The dry humour that permeates the book (a contribution of David Langford, perhaps?) is often disrespectful, irreverent and -yes- amusing, provided you’re in the appropriate mood. Unfortunately, it also means that UK authors get more than their fair share of representation: Two-shot Brit wonders are discussed while more prolific North-American authors are ignored. (Some nice photos, though)

Also notable for fan-boys like me are the positive comments about Babylon-5. (Even discussing the suspicious similarity with DS9, but underlining the fact that B5 was pitched to Paramount first…)

The commentary is excellent, even if the categories are suspicious. Interestingly, more than a few relevant comments about TV-SF later appeared in an article written for the very scholarly magazine “Science-Fiction Studies” by none other than Brain Stableford… who’s a collaborator to this book. (Amazing coincidence, don’t you think?)

But for your money, keep an eye on the Clute books. They’re more complete, much more informative and contain about as much illustrations that this book.

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