Rough Guide, 2005, 325 pages, C$21.99 tpb, ISBN 1-84353-520-3
There has been a number of books about science-fiction films over the years, but few of them are as enjoyable as John Scalzi’s The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. Beyond a simple overview of the field, Scalzi’s guide manages to find a clever balance between fact, personal quirks and consensus opinion. The result is a reference book that will inform neophytes and please long-time fans; no mean feat considering the nature of the field.
The good people at Rough Guide have done their homework: The book covers an outline of the field’s history, a canon of essential films, a series of “icons” (notable people, characters, places) and a bunch of related information. In addition to the fifty essential film of the canon, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies briefly reviews 250 other SF films: It’s hard to think of another movie that ought to have been included. (Well, maybe not that hard: EQUILIBRIUM should have been mentioned. But seriously, how would you manage to fit an entire genre in no more than 325 pages?)
The meat of the book are, of course, the fifty films selected as canon. Most of the expected classics are here (STAR WARS, 2001, BLADE RUNNER, THE MATRIX, TERMINATOR 2, etc), alongside some more daring choices (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, ALPHAVILLE, 28 DAYS LATER). Some choices will generate some controversy (THE INCREDIBLES?) but the list is, overall, quite solid for a historical overview. If the list, read cold, can seem bizarre, it’s hard to disagree after reading the full write-up of those films: Scalzi does a fine job at explaining why those particular films were selected and why influence often trumps quality or success.
But the canon isn’t the only worthwhile part of the book. More than half of this Rough Guide is spent discussing the historical origins of SF (including a short but good history of the written field), the icons of the genre (including actors, directors, characters and landmarks), an overview of SF cinema around the world and a quick look at television SF. All put together, it does give a good overview of the field for whoever would want to know more.
But the Rough Guide will also interest core genre geeks: Scalzi is a knowledgeable cinephile (his credentials include a decade-long stint as a movie critic) and a confirmed member of the SF community: He can discuss the field like the best of them, and so for genre geeks the book is like sitting down with a fellow fan who’s seen pretty much everything. What’s also noteworthy is that while Scalzi isn’t afraid to hold some strong opinions, most of his outlook on the genre will match the collective opinion of well-read fans. (Dissing STAR WARS is a hard sell at the office, but it’s almost de rigueur at a Science Fiction convention ) Unlike, say, C.J. Henderson’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, there is no significant re-evaluation of the field in here: knowledgeable fans will, despite a few hasty generalizations due to lack of space, feel comfortable in handing over this guide to neophytes.
Alas, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies was roughly shoved through production, and the unacceptable number of small silly mistakes shows how quickly the book was produced. Beyond the simple typos (“Fishbourne”, etc), there are a number of other slight errors (Seaquest DSV was retitled and lasted a second season; AMERICA’S SWEETHEART was released in 2001) that mar the otherwise reasonably exact content of the book. Hopefully all will be corrected in the second edition.
Any discussion of Scalzi’s work would be incomplete without acknowledging the accessibility of his prose. Scalzi’s writing has been forged by years of journalism and blogging: His prose is crisp, crystal-clear and immediately enjoyable. Grab the book in bookstores, start reading a page at random and see how long it takes you to stop.
All in all, Scalzi’s Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies does what it set out to do. The material can be thin, but the selection is appropriate, the sidebars are satisfying and it’s hard to find significant fault in the book’s overall stance toward SF cinema. Given how it’s a quarter of Rough Guide’s slate of genre cinema guides, I’m awfully tempted to rush out and get the three other books.