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The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was edited by Peter Nicholls with John Clute and is a huge reference work on the world of (yes, you guessed it) science fiction. It first appeared in 1979 and was later revised in 1993 and 1999. The book has over 4,360 entries spread out over more than a thousand pages and involved dozens of contributors. You can read here about everything from Star Trek to parallel worlds to the end of the world to HG Wells to Atlantis to The Twilight Zone to Godzilla to HP Lovecraft to The Stepford Wives and on and on. There are over 500 films reviewed in the book too, many delightfully obscure, like Kingdom of the Spiders with William Shatner. I got hold of this through that bookswap site and it's a fantastic book to have on your desk and dip into at random places. Many of the entries here are like essays and spread over more than one page and although the film reviews scattered liberally throughout the book are much more to the point they still manage to be much longer and more comprehensive than the stuff you get in books like Maltin's Movie Guide. The film reviews on everything from The Last Starfighter to Dark Star are often very enjoyable.
I like the fact that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is rather opinionated too and while this naturally means you'll disagree with some of the more subjective passages thrown your way it adds to the fun of the book. It's essentially a sort of comprehensive science fiction A to Z in alphabetical order and includes a vast range of topics and people to look up. These include theme entries like cyborgs and time travel and the legacy of individual countries like France and Japan and many others in this field. There are also many essays related to the world of comics and graphic novels with people like Alan Moore profiled in the book. And, of course, many, many, books, films and television series. Some of the concepts that feature in the book are certainly interesting and occasionally take you off to some strange places. For example, the 'Hitler Wins' device, which is discussed here. Many sci-fi novels and stories have taken place in an alternative world where Hitler and Germany won the war - most famously perhaps Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle. All the books and stories in this vein are drawn together and noted and this is always a great strength of the book.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is quite a good place to make some new discoveries and learn about all of those old books and films that have passed you by so far. There are some really interesting foreign sci-fi films reviewed in the book that I had certainly never heard of. One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was looking up old television series like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone (the classic b&w sixties versions I hasten to add) which I think are still great spooky fun to watch today with the lights off late at night. Although The Twilight Zone is the more famous of the two anthology shows, the book suggests that The Outer Limits was probably better - although it was much more slanted towards the horror/monster end of the sci-fi spectrum than The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone, the book opines, was at its best when Richard Matheson was involved and paranoia was the order of the day. There are over 100 television shows with a sci-fi bent remembered and mused upon in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - everything from Blake's Seven to The Man from U.N.C.L.E to The Incredible Hulk.
If I had a slight criticism of the book it would be that it perhaps takes its subject a little too seriously at times. By this I mean things like nitpicking the science in some old cheapo space adventure film from the seventies or something. I'm not personally someone who is terribly concerned by the science being 100% accurate if I'm watching an episode of Star Trek or whatever (not that I'd notice the errors anyway!). The book also - in terms of its subjective interjections - seems to prefer its science fiction to be worthy rather than fun or sprinkled with too much humour or knowing winks to the audience. A case in point here is the section on the Star Trek films. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction actually seems to prefer Star Trek: The Motion Picture (generally regarded to be a tad ponderous and slow in most other places) to the rest of the bunch. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Trekkie fanboy favourite for its entertaining mixture of humour and action, is dismissed as a cheap, melodramatic, muddy looking, and flat picture which 'mystifyingly fans seemed to prefer to its more considerable predecessor'.
The 1980 camp classic Flash Gordon also fails to amuse the author(s) here. 'There is little of interest in this tongue-in-cheek lurid fantasy which tries to make a comic-strip virtue of wooden acting. The plot is largely derived from the 1936 film serial and the rushed special effects similarly recall the ludicrousness of that film. The romantic elements are subjugated to a rather listless kinkiness.' I think when it comes to the more flippant examples of the genre the book is perhaps a tad Scrooge like and dismissive on occasions. The book though, I thought, did a great job in looking at the films of John Carpenter, a director who is trashed in the likes of Maltin's Movie Guide. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has some really interesting reviews of the various Carpenter films and even talks about how some of the films were rather sadly unappreciated at the time, like The Thing for example. 'It was not very successful and widely criticised for being merely a string of curiously disgusting special effects. But the Hawks version itself was not very subtle. There is a case for arguing that the Carpenter version goes as far as genre movies normally dare in questioning not just the nature of humanity under stress but its value.'
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a big, comprehensive guide to all things sci-fi and a great book to own. I've had this for about a year now and can still open it at a random point and find something new to read about. This is definitely a book for science fiction fans to get hold of.