Brian Stableford, Historical Dictionary of
Science Fiction Literature
(Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts, No. 1) (Scarecrow Press, 2004)
Brian Stableford, Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature
(Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts, No. 5) (Scarecrow Press, 2005)
Ahhhh, two excellent new reference guides! It won't surprise many of you that I have a degree of avarice quite unparalleled when it comes to reference material of most any kind. My office here at Green Man is filled with thousands of volumes that I use when I need to know something quirky, such as: what's the tartan for the Fraser clan? That would require using Collins Scottish Clans & Family Encyclopedia. What was the true first edition of Roger Zelazny's Eye of The Cat? That'd be answered by browsing one of the many bibliographies I have for that author. How about the Known Space works of Larry Niven? What has Charles de Lint written in his Newford series and why is it considered urban fantasy? And why is Elizabeth Hand an important writer who should be read by all interested in truly good literature? (Stableford picks her Mortal Love novel as one of the four significant works in his chronology of fantastic literature for the year 2004. Need I say more? Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, Karl Schroeder's Permanence, and John C. Wright's The Golden Age were the other choices.)
Well, for material up to the late '80s, and perhaps into the very early '90s, I could and do consult one of Clute's excellent works, either The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin's Press, 1993) or The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (St. Martin's Press, 1997) as they were, and perhaps still are, simply the best printed reference works on the subject to date, but until the publication of Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature and the Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature, there was only the Internet for more recent citations on science fiction and fantasy literature. Indeed Clute is currently working on an Internet-only edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which will be on St. Martin's Press! It is expected to be published within the next two or three years.
That Stableford is qualified to write these reference works is without doubt. English by birth and heritage, Brian Stableford was born in 1948 at Shipley, Yorkshire. He graduated with a degree in Biology from University of York before going on to do postgraduate research in Biology and later in Sociology. In 1979 he received a Ph.D. Until the late '90s, he worked as a Lecturer in Sociology at University of Reading. Since then he has been a full-time writer and a part-time lecturer at several universities. Some of his best known works include The Empire of Fear and a number of really long series which helps explain how he's written more than fifty novels! More importantly, he was a major contributor to the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
Now I should note that no reference work should be considered the definitive source for anything, and these are no exception to that rule. His strength and weakness is that he is completely subjective in his beliefs on what is included and what is not. His entry for post-holocaust sf does not include either Emma Bull's Bone Dance (1991) or Walter M. Miller, Jr's widely cited A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Sometimes his political opinions get the better of him, such as when he describes Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's A Mote in God's Eye novel as a 'fervently libertarian space opera'! Space opera, yes, libertarian, not at all, as it describes a future Imperium!
Yes, dear reader, I have read both of these works from end to end so you wouldn't have to. Mind you, I read them in the Green Man Pub over a number of rainy, cold afternoons while drinking rather strong Irish coffee, so you might find my opinions suspect! What I'm saying is that right or wrong, Stableford's highly entertaining. You'll likely grumble or nod appreciatively about his opinions, depending on what he thinks of an author, but you'll be more knowledgeable on a given writer or subject than you were before you dipped unto these two works.
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy can also be nitpicked by anyone who knows the subject well. For example, Medicine Road by Charles de Lint is definitely not the sequel to Spirits in the Wires as he says here. The sequel, Widdershins, will see publication next year. It brings to a conclusion to the story of Jilly Coppercorn and Geordie Riddell.
Entries here tend to be shorter than the ones in either The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, not surprising, as, at under five hundred pages, each of these volumes is shorter by far than either of those tomes, and is even shorter than many present science fiction (or if you prefer, speculative fiction, as is currently the preferred phrase) and fantasy novels!
Perhaps, as there is great stuff here, including a detailed chronology of the field, starting in 1726 with book three of Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, more commonly and certainly less pretentiously known as Gulliver's Travels, and ending in 1993 with Charles Stross' Accenlerando series as defining 'the current position of SF's cutting edge'. Also worth noting are the more or less complete listing of works about authors ranging from Brian Aldiss though Roger Zelazny, though Jane Lindskold's definite study of the latter is not cited!
There are oddities in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature -- he says fandom is 'the community of sf fans', but that ignores the fans who are into fantasy. Likewise he says a fanzine is 'an amateur magazine produced by sf fans.' And fantasy fans. . . . And media fans. . . . And so forth. Am I being a bit too fussy? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Needless to say the Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature looks like and follows the same format as as the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature. I like the cover illustration better here -- a William Blake illustration of those which is divine and that which has fallen, The Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed with the Sun -- makes an interesting commentary on what fantasy is, but the very cliched artwork on the other volume's cover of walking flying saucers (!), done apparently by Jason Enterline, is simply visually boring. Sometimes the writers who are not here are puzzling in their absence -- Jim Butcher, whose Harry Dresden series is arguably one of the finest urban fantasy/hard-boiled detective stories around is not here, nor do I feel that more recent releases in Young Adult literature get their full due since such writers as Holly Black are among the missing.
Ok, consider these volumes, like all reference works, to have two intertwined functions. The serious function is to help you find something out about, say, Roger Zelazny. Stableford does a decent job of that. Not as good as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but it is a decade newer than that work, so it has the virtue of being a lot more current. (We do need revised editions of both Encyclopedias in the worst way!) If you are a serious reader and collector of either or both genres, you'll want one or both of these works. Its second function is to entertain it makes great intellectual 'popcorn'. Go ahead, grab yourself your favorite beverage -- I'll have another one of the Irish Coffees that follows the Larry Niven recipe -- and randomly browse it. In an hour or so, you'll find new books worth reading, argue with him over that $#@! opinion he has, and generally be well entertained.
Is each of them worth the cost of nearly ninety dollars? Oh, yes. (Now I obviously didn't
pay for it so my opinion here is also a bit suspect.) I've added both to the
section of reference books that I refer to almost daily. And I'm very much looking
forward to receiving for review John Clute's Historical Dictionary of Horror
Literature, another volume in this series, as I know of no good overview
of the horror genre!