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The Mammoth Encylopedia Of Science Fiction
edited by George Mann
Robinson paperback £9.99
review by Steven Hampton
There's plenty to nitpick here, but The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is not the abysmal failure that certain overhasty reviewers would have you believe. As the publicity blurb declares, it's an "up-to-date, concise, clear and affordable guide" and editor George Mann has managed to update his original 1999 edition (published in the USA by St Martin's Press), adding some info on the millennium's latest names and titles.
Opening with an unforgivably brief summary of science fiction's history and origins, this is a disappointing - but necessarily limited - reference work, featuring sections about SF 'on the page' (which inexcusably dumps the few magazine listings in with its selection of author biographies), and 'on the screen' (covering 100 of the "most influential" genre films, and an erratic range of the most popular TV series), before exploring the territory of SF glossaries with a catalogue of "terms, themes and devices" and tacking on a chapter on societies and awards, a 68-page appendix of book titles - listed with authors' names, and the inevitable catchall index.
There are, arguably, too many puzzling editorial irregularities for the comfort of serious and mature SF fans. Appropriately, the book's main section looks at written SF, but here the novelist reigns supreme over the creators of short fiction. Which means that several newcomers (like Canadian, Jan Lars Jensen) with only one genre book to their credit get priority over more respected figures (such as Howard Waldrop and R.A. Lafferty). Other choices are, well, simply put - inexplicable: you get Star Wars spin-off king Kevin J. Anderson, but not movie novelisation maestro Alan Dean Foster. Vernor Vinge and Iain M. Banks are rightly praised for their unique contributions to the reinvention of space opera, but Dan Simmons' elegiac Hyperion sequence is disregarded. New girl, Justina Robson, merits a half-page, while Alison Sinclair and Tricia Sullivan are awarded whole pages - on the strength of three SF novels each, but greater talents like Connie Willis, and long established women authors Kate Wilhelm and Marion Zimmer Bradley are ignored. Prominent fan writer, David Langford (and his amusingly glib Ansible newsletter), is included, but the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman (and his classic Famous Monsters) is notably absent. There's an entry for Alastair Reynolds, but not for Neal Asher. Relatively minor figures of the cyberpunk boom, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Bethke get mentioned here while more important and subversive writers like Algis Budrys, David Zindell, Michael Bishop, Damon Knight, James White, E.C. Tubb, and the Strugatski brothers, among many others, are unjustifiably overlooked.
Apparently not very keen on SF history, Mann clearly intends this book to represent a snapshot of the genre in its current state of flux. Which may explain the omission of such noble wordsmiths as James Tiptree Jr, (dead for a while, now), but doesn't explain the lack of an entry for more recent loss to the genre of John Sladek. The book's entries for magazines betray a curious intellectual snobbery (or pop culture blindness?). Ireland's Albedo One rates a plug, as does Andy Cox's exemplary The Third Alternative, and the nonfiction magazine Locus. But where are comparable titles like Tony Lee's The Zone, Chris Reed's ever-stylish Back Brain Recluse, or the unforgettable Critical Wave? Top genre magazines from today's newsstand - like Analog, Asimov's SF, and Interzone are adequately listed, so why have media mags Starburst and Starlog been left out? Patchy coverage of genre artists is included in the printed SF section but this area is grossly under-covered. Jim Burns, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Michael Whelan, and Chris Moore are all present and correct, but Chesley Bonestell, Bob Eggleton, Ron Miller, Stephen Bradbury, Peter Jones, J.K. Potter and David Hardy are nowhere to be found. Sadly, the giant publishing realm of SF comics is not even touched upon! Furthermore, Mann offers almost no commentary on the vital literary field of genre poetry, or the fecundity of the international small press movement.
It's hardly capable of being comprehensive at a mere 610 pages, but at least this doesn't claim the nauseatingly smug 'ultimate' status, that David Pringle's remarkably unimpressive offering in the SF encyclopedia stakes did. Other good points are the extensive cross-referencing between authors and themes, and helpful lists of further reading on similar tropes for each biography. This book may prove rather unsatisfying if compared to something like John Clute and Peter Nicholls' outstanding contributions to SF criticism, but it is a whole lot cheaper, and it mostly succeeds as an above-average quality volume, albeit one primarily suitable for teenagers who're just developing an interest in SF. Buy it for your son or daughter, nephew or niece, your friends' or neighbours' kids. Youngsters that regularly watch Star Trek and The X-Files will surely welcome it, and find it useful.
tZ Genre Greats: Profiles of Prominent Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers and Authors
tZ Making Sense of Wonder: A Serial Glossary of SF Themes
tZ The Planets Project: A Science Fictional Tour of the Solar System
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