A Reference Book Ian Likes: The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (1978)

First things first, this isn’t an actual or proper encyclopaedia. It’s a collection of essays that each detail a particular aspect of the history and make-up of Science Fiction. But it’s lavishly illustrated and features a fairly comprehensive list of magazines and awards relevant to the field as well as a chronology of movies that are important to the development of the genre. And it has a pretty extensive index which helps if you’re looking for a particular author or topic. Which makes it a reference work of some sort. But not a true encyclopedia… or encyclopaedia, depending on where you went to school.

So, if you were like me at the time – 10 years old and with a burgeoning interest in the field – it’s like being let loose in a combination goldmine and candy store.

It was edited by Robert Holdstock and featured a foreword by none other than Isaac Asimov, who I was coming to realise was a bit of a big deal at the time. I’d vaguely heard of a couple of the other authors in the table of contents but the only one I really knew anything about was Patrick Moore, and that was from his occasional appearances on The Goodies and through a couple of kid’s SF novels of his that I’d read.

However there were a few gems in there that set me on the path to becoming the huge nerd that I was later to become; Harry Harrison wrote a chapter on the use of gadgets and hardware in SF; Brian Stapleford wrote a fairly brief but comprehensive survey on the history of Science in Fiction and how it became the field we knew and loved; David Hardy penned a piece on the role that Art played in Science Fiction; Alan Frank did an only occasionally-sneering piece about Sf on the big and small screens… and there were several other essays about different aspects of Science Fiction that were deemed important enough to be written about.

I came to this book, as I said, aged 10, in 1980. My family and I were out shopping on a Friday night, as we sometimes did. I saw this lavish tome on a pile of remaindered books in Coles (before they became one of the two supermarkets that dominated Australia, Coles were a large chain of department stores, and sold everything from clothes to meals. But I digress…). While my family were browsing elsewhere, I was leafing through this book, goggling at the gorgeous pictures (some of which my mother would have forbidden me to look at if she’d glanced through a little more closely). I loved it and I really wanted it… so a deal was struck wherein I would receive it as a Christmas present (it was just a couple of months away) but I would also be getting a bit less in pocket money for the next few weeks since it was so expensive, and we were also preparing for a big family trip away that summer. I agreed quickly because that seemed a pretty fair deal to me – the book was $6, which was a horrendous sum of money in those days (the average paperback at the time was about $3).

Once Christmas came, I spent a pretty big chunk of those holidays buried in the pages of this book. I didn’t get a lot of the high-falutin’ words about history or literature but I did pick up a lot of stuff about how magazines were printed in the golden age (on really cheap, crumbly paper, hence the name “pulp fiction”), and also about the professional disdain that other writers had for SF (“Space Opera” sounds really cool until you discover that it has a similar etymology to “Soap Opera”). But I found out a lot about writers and artists and I had a reading list for the next few years.

Fortunately I already knew a few of them; I’d read a couple of James Blish’s novels at this point and was thrilled to discover them mentioned in this hefty tome (as an aside, isn’t it great when you pick up a reference book in a field that you know very little about and discover that what you are aware of is quite highly-regarded?); I’d recently read my brother’s copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids, and I’d tried a couple of short stories from Asimov’s I, Robot.

Other authors had to wait until I had a little more disposable income, but they were well worth it.

But I was also interested in other mediums of SF. The chapter on movies and TV was invaluable there. It mentioned a few things that I knew a little bit about – it was pretty complimentary about Doctor Who and Star Trek but sneered briefly at Blakes 7 – and was fairly condescending about a lot of really rubbish films, reserving its respect for the likes of Metropolis, or the new (at the time of publication) Star Wars. But I realised that I had a decent resource when our local channel showed This Island Earth and I could look up a reference to it in this book! Honestly, I think I could pin down a lifetime of geekery to that moment where I could find something I was watching and check out some other information about it (a fairly flattering paragraph that extolled its production values but didn’t cover the fact that nothing the characters did really affected what happened in it). It also mentioned that it was based on a novel (still unread to this day, however).

I was getting the idea that SF could be fun! A lot of these authors had fairly strong opinions, but they were pretty clear about what they loved and why they loved it. For someone like me who hadn’t been exposed to any sort of literary criticism or book review before, it was quite the revelation that people could think something that had been published was rubbish! To me, everything that was published must be good: I mean, it cost money! Why wouldn’t it be quality? It was a long time before I realised that I had been lucky and hadn’t read something that I would consider a dud (I was 10, remember), but mostly it was down to my parents saying, “Oh, perhaps it’s just a little too old for you.” Which I took a) to mean that grown-ups behaved in ways I didn’t understand, and b) as a challenge. But when, in Douglas Hill’s chapter on “Major Themes” he said…

‘Spacemen went looking for Earth-type planets to exploit and colonize in the same spirit as the covered wagons rolled into Texas, over the bodies of Comanches.’

…it became obvious that perhaps there was something a little more complex than simple adventures translated from the Wild West to Outer Space going on here, just as plainly as it was clear that Hill thought we had progressed a bit since those days. So, when I did come to read those classic stories from the “Golden Age” I came to them with an understanding that they were from a “different time.” But all that did was make me love a lot of stories a lot more when they really did knock my socks off, because a lot of those older authors (Martin Weinbaum, for one) totally knew that what they were writing could be a lot better than it was.

So, I moved on from reading this book to getting an idea of what my reading tastes were like. I had a couple of anthologies of SF stories at the time and it was fun cross-referencing them against the mentions in the Encyclopedia. But I occasionally read some authors who barely warranted a mention or were left out entirely and I was left to my own devices then.  As an example, I read And So Ends The World, an apocalyptic novel from 1961 by Richard Pape, and it consumed me. It spanned several years, featured an international cast and pretty comprehensively tried to destroy the world. But my encyclopedia had no mention of him or the novel. I thought that maybe it wasn’t any good… but a second read of it, because I really did enjoy it, made me think that perhaps it had just flown under their radar. And when I was a bit older, I realised that it was more fantasy/mysticism than SF, so it was probably out of its brief.

Another example came in 1985 when I read L. Ron Hubbard’s doorstopper Battlefield Earth. I loved the first few hundred pages and the last couple hundred but the middle had left me cold: it was filled with talk about economics and mineralogy and some disdainful mentions of psychology and medicine. But the bits I loved, I really loved. Back I went to my trusty Encyclopedia. Hubbard received two mentions in the body of the text: one as a writer of fiction and another as the author of an article about something called “Dianetics.” A look at the extended notes at the rear of the book taught me that he was no longer really associated with Science Fiction… Hmmm, I wondered, where did he go? It took me another couple of years before I found out. Yet Roger Zelazny, whose Chronicles Of Amber I started reading around the same time, was all over this book for a heap of his novels and stories, many of which were not really SF at all. It was a little frustrating but, I’d realised on an earlier reread, many of the authors had conflicting opinions about a lot of things that didn’t really interfere with the overall thrust of the book and did make me think a little bit more about the topics under discussion: the chapter on film, for instance, had raved about Star Wars, while another chapter was a little dismissive of it. It just made me think a little harder about what I was consuming and if it was any good or not.

However, most authors that I read and enjoyed, or not as the case may have been, could be found here and I soon began to read my way through a lot of classic authors and develop my own tastes or frames of reference for what constituted some “good” genre fiction.

Mostly, though, I read it and reread it because it was interesting and it was great to find out things about books I’d read or movies I’d watched and it gave me a real appreciation for what I was reading and watching.

Or even looking at, because the featured artwork was astounding. Each chapter featured a two-page spread by a renowned author taken from the covers of a book they had illustrated. They made what might otherwise have been considered a fairly pedestrian book into something really special. And each illustration was clearly tagged with the artist and the work it was taken from so I could find them in the wild, later. As someone who didn’t know his Foss from his Frazetta prior to this book, this gave me a little more appreciation for a hitherto unknown aspect of publishing.

However, something concerned and distressed me about it: nobody else appeared to have read it or heard of it! As I got older and started reading magazines and other reference books, I searched frantically for some kind of mention of it… but to no avail. Plenty of mentions of other Encyclopaedias of SF, notably John Clute and Peter Nicholls’s essential volume (which I eventually got a copy of years later), but there was nothing about this one, which made me feel that it was perhaps a dud. Even the editors and contributing authors never mentioned it in their bibliographies: Robert Holdstock, who I came to admire greatly in coming years, never mentioned it in his “About The Author” pages; Mike Ashley – one of the UK’s great experts and anthologisers of SF and an author of a chapter here – never seemed to list it. Even Isaac Asimov excluded it from his extensive bibliography. But when I finally hooked up to the internet, I found a lot of kindred souls with their own fond memories of it, enough to make me feel glad that I’d hung on to it for as long as I had.

All round, then, The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction – despite not really being one – gave me a pretty good introduction to a field that I had only been picking small flowers around the edges of. It led me to making more adventurous inroads into my reading with more confidence than I might otherwise have had. And it set a pretty high benchmark for all reference books I was to use afterwards.

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