Let's get this out of the way right at the start: The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a good book, and one I will make regular use of in my work. It is by no means perfect, though, and by its very nature invites robust criticism.
TMEoSF, to abbreviate its title, is promoted as "the most up-to-date, concise, clear and affordable guide to all aspects of science fiction", which immediately sets up some standards by which to judge the book, but also, by omission, highlights some areas where no such claims are made. Comprehensiveness, for a start, is an obvious criterion to consider for a book with "encyclopedia" in its title, but comprehensiveness is not claimed, so perhaps it is harsh to judge the book for failings in this area -- a subject to which I will return.
The first things to look for when judging a book like this are the entries for favourite authors. Are they there? Do I agree with the author's analysis? TMEoSF generally does very well here: the entries neatly sum up an author's oeuvre, cross-referencing other authors and subjects, helpfully suggesting further reading, and providing a bibliography (consciously selective for the more prolific authors). There is, of course, far more to it than entries for individual authors, but I'm biased: that's what most interests me. I'll look at other types of entries later.
One oddity about this book is its attribution: on the front cover it claims to be "edited" by George Mann; on the back cover it says it's "compiled" by Mann; on the title page it is simply "by" Mann. The latter appears to be the true attribution, but perhaps the publishers felt the "edited by" lent authority...? Other encyclopedic works covering the genre have generally been produced by authors and editors with longer pedigrees, so one hurdle this book clearly has to overcome is the need to appear authoritative. TMEoSF does this admirably and quickly: one may dispute Mann's opinions (although in most cases he is fair and reasonably objective), but it's hard to criticise his broad and deep knowledge of the field.
The author entries alone, being both perceptive and far more up-to-date than the industry-standard Clute/Nicholls encyclopedia, make this book an excellent addition to the bookshelves of both genre fans and professionals. A crucial test of this book is that it's one that I intend to keep within easy reach of my desk.
Okay, let's be honest here and correct an earlier claim: the first thing I look for when judging a book like this is not the entries for favourite authors -- I look to see if it has anything to say about me... And yes, there's a nice entry covering my work and also infinity plus -- another reason to buy this book!
So, let's look a bit more closely at how TMEoSF fares in probably the two most important areas: coverage and usability.
Let's get the question of coverage out of the way first of all.
At 600 pages, TMEoSF is a hefty book, but it simply can't compete on comprehensiveness with the Clute/Nicholls encyclopedia. TMEoSF still tries to do an awful lot, covering authors, artists, websites, magazines, TV, film and no doubt other areas too. But it just can't do all of these justice, either in breadth or depth.
So TV gets a look in, but only the "twenty most important or popular" series -- barely skimming the surface! A hundred movies are covered, but again, anyone wanting worthwhile coverage of this area will have to turn elsewhere. The World Wide Web is a volatile medium for sf, with many high profile sites failing, but although a few websites get a look-in -- infinity plus among them, as I may have mentioned -- there are no entries for some of the most significant fiction webzines such as Omni, Event Horizon, Tomorrowsf or SciFiction, each of which has made significant attempts to professionalise web-publishing of fiction, including the publication of some of the best short fiction in recent years. No mention either for the non-fiction websites such as SF Site, or SciFi.com; my favourite non-fiction sf site, Locus, does get a mention, but only as an addendum to the entry for the print-based Locus.
Turning to authors, Mann does acknowledge in his introduction that he has had to leave some out, but even so there are some startling omissions. There is a welcome bias towards writers active in the last decade but also, given this book's simultaneous US publication, a more questionable bias towards UK publishing -- that's fine if clearly stated, but I suspect there will be more raised eyebrows over this book in the US than in the UK. There are some astonishing gaps even in the UK coverage, though: no entries for Ian McDonald (I can think of no possible reason for this, as he is both widely published and critically acclaimed), Ian R MacLeod (only two books, okay, but an author of very high standing in the field), Nicola Griffith (one of the most striking novelists to emerge in the 1990s), and earlier authors like Christopher Evans (not prolific, but with several well-received novels published during the last two decades), John Christopher, Barrington Bayley et al.
And as the UK bias isn't made very obvious until you read TMEoSF, one would expect coverage of such significant US authors and editors as Connie Willis, Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick, Robert Sawyer, James Patrick Kelly, Dan Simmons, and so many more!
For me, the biggest failing is not the omission but the lack of clarity in delivery and structure. Presented as an encyclopedia, TMEoSF is hardly encyclopedic. If, instead, the internal biases had been made explicit, this would have been a more effective book: by publicly concentrating on recent genre history, entries for earlier authors (already covered well elsewhere) could have been discarded altogether, allowing entries for those contemporary writers and publications excluded from the current volume.
That wouldn't have been such a good marketing ploy, of course: it's far easier to shift an encyclopedia of an entire genre than a bringing-up-to-date... It would have been a better book, though.
Turning to the second area, usability, my assessment is similarly mixed: whilst TMEoSF is good, it's not as good as it could be.
TMEoSF shuns the conventional alphabetical listing one might expect, offering a welcome alternative presentation split by category. Or, at least, it partly does this, which is its undoing...
The book opens with an interesting historical overview of sf. Whilst not disagreeing with the widely accepted view that the first true work of sf is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Mann makes the point that this was a work well ahead of its time, and more influential in the formation of modern genre sf were the works of Poe, Wells and Verne.
Thereafter, the book is split into: Science Fiction on the Page; Science Fiction on the Screen; Terms, Themes and Devices in Science Fiction; Societies and Awards; an Appendix, which very helpfully lists books alphabetically by title, making it easy to find an author of a particular work; and an Index.
Whilst this categorisation is a welcome approach (not necessarily the best approach, but different), it falters in its execution. The Screen (TV and movies) and Themes sections are clear enough; it's the "on the page" section that suffers, covering not only books and authors but also anything that doesn't quite fit elsewhere... The entries for artists, for instance, are a welcome inclusion but they are lost within the "on the page" section and in such a scheme really deserve separate treatment. Their inclusion in the first section also leads to oddities that would not exist if treated separately: for instance, Mann acknowledges that HR Giger's main impact has been on design for movies but he's an artist and so has to go with the other artists in the "on the page" section. Separate sections for artists, magazines and websites would have been the logical conclusion of Mann's approach, and would have helped prevent these categories being lost in the noise of "on the page" as they currently are.
As I said at the start, TMEoSF is a good book, and one I will use often, despite its eccentricities. My abiding impression, though, is that it's an under-developed book, one not taken to its logical completion, with gaps to be filled and structure still to be teased out. One wonders if the author (or is that "editor"?) is even now working on a companion title covering fantasy fiction. If he is, I do hope he takes it that extra step.
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© Keith Brooke 13 October 2001