Monday, October 20, 2008

Review - Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
Edited by Jeff Prucher
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

You might remember a few years ago where the OED was soliciting help from science fiction fans to help track the etymology of some terms that have an origin with science fiction. Consequently It isn't mentioned in the introductions to Brave New Worlds but I strongly suspect that this new dictionary of science fiction terms may have grown out of that earlier effort to trace some of these terms.

This dictionary is an interesting effort. Over the past century science fiction has generated a vast collection of jargon. Sometimes the jargon becomes so well integrated that it can be hard to remember that it is jargon. If you asked random people on the street what an "alternate universe" is the majority would be able to give you some kind of answer. Other terms like cyberpunk will be casually dropped by fans but have no meaning for the general public.

For that reason I don't think it's particularly helpful as a reference book even though science fiction fans are certain to find many fascinating facts in it. Unlike the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and it's Fantasy counterpart the dictionary isn't completely supplanted by the Internet. Searching for terms is more likely to find their use than an explanation of them. Authors who use unfamiliar terms are likely to explain them in the text or through context. The only place where you'd find a significant use for Brave New Words is if you weren't an SF fan and were conversing with SF fans about science fiction. In that case you're unlikely to even be aware of Brave New Words, let alone have a copy of it handy.

Taking the book from that perspective I referred to it as I read a few different message board and usenet threads that would have science fiction terms casually dropped into them. I was able to find much of the jargon used but I couldn't find things like "near-future" (it's an obvious construction but it has a specific meaning in science fiction) or the prefix "psi-" despite the presense of "psionics".

So I can't recommend it as a reference book but it does contain a lot of interesting etymological data for fans. Here's a good sampling of what I got from the dictionary. Who has the first recorded use of the following terms: sci-fi, sense of wonder, and deep space?

Robert Heinlein was the first person recorded to abbreviate science fiction as sci-fi and the first entry listed with sci-fi having negative connotations is 1974. That entry does make it clear that fans had already built up a dislike of the term.

That elusive sense of wonder that drives science fiction and fantasy was first mentioned by H. P. Lovecraft. I bet you thought he only created words like "squalmous".

The first reference to interstellar space as "deep space" goes to E. E. "Doc" Smith and that construction has leaked back into science.

In the end I liked Brave New Words. Despite the weaknesses in its format and design I appreciated the examination of the history of the words. Though I won't be pulling it off the shelf to check unfamiliar words going through it once is worth your effort.