Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reviews - Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy

Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia
Edited by John Clute
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Non-Fiction Book

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy
Edited by John Clute and John Grant
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Non-Fiction Book

If we old folks had a question before there was the Internet and Google and Wikipedia then we needed to try to find the answer in books. Now I hear some of you young people shouting, "How is this possible? You can't put in words to search a book?" And that's true but for the more general questions we could look those words up in an encyclopedia (it's like Wikipedia, but with less random editing).

There's actually four encyclopedias that have won the Related Non-Fiction Book Hugo over the years (one French encyclopedia also won an honorary Hugo) and for my first reviews of non-novel winners I thought I'd pick a matched set. It turns out I was wrong. Even though both were compiled in part by John Clute these books couldn't be more different and the result is one that's nice to pick up an have even if it's a little out of date and one would be of dubious value when it was current.

The descriptions I read of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia had it as a slight reworking of Clute's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction which won in 1994 only with some illustrations and updates added. Since it was the "updated" version of the Encyclopedia I chose it and I received not an encyclopedia like I thought I was getting but a very nice coffee table book that hits the high points of science fiction up to 1994 when the book was published.

(This is really making me wonder what book the descriptions I was reading was about. It claimed that the text was the same only with occasionally magazine and book covers added in.)

This is a coffee table with all of the benefits and detriments that come with that. The book is lavishly illustrated with huge images of covers, frames from movies and television, and illustrations filling each page. The text is very sparse outside of the author biographies but there are nice touches like the illustrated time lines that bring together science fiction publishing, popular culture, and world history. There is a fairly large listing of short "TV Guide" style reviews of science fiction films as well.

By far the best section of the book are the authors. The biggest names get a full two large pages (the book measures about 10 inches by 11 inches) while the rest get a full page or half page. Everyone has fairly complete bibliographies (some authors being so prolific that this takes up the bulk of their space). A fun touch is that each biography feature's the author's autograph. There's roughly one hundred of these profiles and they occupy over a third of book's space.

The organization and focus leave something to be desired. The book is divided into short chapters for major themes and history. Magazines receive a scant eight pages which are far from encyclopedic. Illustrators in general only get two pages. Since the book only covers "major" authors and titles you may have some trouble finding them and they are divided up by what decade their major works are in. Quick questions: is Vonnegut in the 50's or 60's? Niven in the 60's or 70's? At least there is an index so you can find someone quickly.

Still, even with these shortcomings Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia looks nice and it has a good overview of the entire genre. You can find inexpensive copies so I'd recommend grabbing one; it's a fun addition to a fan's library.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy I have to judge more harshly. Unlike Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia it actually attempts to be an encyclopedia. It claims that it contains more than 1,000,000 words spread across 4000 entries and it does contain an awful lot of information. Still I found that this massive tome just wasn't that useful.

One factor is its age. In the 13 years since Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia was compiled not an awful lot has happened with science fiction. We've gotten a few more movies and television series along with the usual new authors and releases but there hasn't been a major upheaval. Fantasy on the other hand has exploded. I suspect that a revised edition of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy would have to double in size to cover the last ten years. To use an obvious example, the year after it was compiled an obscure British book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released and absolutely nothing happened. No wait, I have that backward: everything changed. It wasn't J.K. Rowling changing fantasy on her own, of course; the success of Harry Potter and everything that followed was a symptom rather than a cause of the greater interest. The fantasy genre is everywhere now and a lot of the material in The Encyclopedia is hopelessly out date.

There's a real problem with editorial voice in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy also. Sections about authors are often accompanied by judgments on their writing. I am not turning to an encyclopedia for reviews, I'm looking for information. It's one thing to mention that an author has major themes that are controversial, had their stories strongly influenced by another author, or has done the majority of their fantasy in licensed works. It's another to say that they're "disgusting", wrote "a weak copy of" something, or "set their sights low". A very good example of this editorial confusion is the entry on for "goddess" which appears to be an attempt to compromise one author's absolute belief in new age mysticism and another's referencing actual anthropology and archeology. It makes for a very odd entry.

Finally the organization of the encyclopedia makes things very difficult. There are entries for authors, movies, television series, and major fantasy themes but no entries for individual books. If you can remember the title of that book you liked but not the author then you're out of luck. There's also some odd oversights; I noticed comic book illustrators in the entries but when I looked up the most famous one of them all, Jack Kirby, he was missing (yes, Kirby's comic book work is better described as science fiction but he had more than his fair share of fantasy such as his run on Thor). Japanese animation which was booming with fantasy at that point only gets one lump mention as "anime" while a handful of key movies have entries that simply refer back to that anime entry. Children's fantasy outside of written works is almost completely missing. There is also a very heavy UK bent with many UK authors getting space far out of proportion to their importance.

Despite these failings there are good points. The entry on opera covers every major opera with fantastic elements that I can think of and is an example of The Encyclopedia's detailed entries on fantasy that pre-dates the twentieth century. The attempts to categorize the shapeless all-encompassing form of "fantasy" is interesting to nerds like me who feel the need to break everything down though I've never heard most of the terms found in the encyclopedia used in the same context ("Crosshatching", for example, they define as settings where the fantastic and mundane coexist but do not intermingle much). And if you do know an author you want to find out more about you will find them along with a listing of their major works.

This book has been supplanted by the Internet it just isn't worth it to go back. While writing this I tried to compare the shorter entries found in The Encyclopedia to Wikipedia to see if there was any place where The Encyclopedia had an advantage. I found one entry for Sir William Russell Flint (an early twentieth century illustrator) where the hard copy had more detail on his works than this one online resource. I'm not a fan of Wikipedia but I have to concede that it is more efficient than reference books like this and it is not the only source of free information out there. In the end The Encyclopedia of Fantasy just isn't worth it.