Review: Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia

Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by John Clute

This might seem like an odd choice, even for someone who’ll read absolutely anything like me—an outdated coffee table encyclopedia of science fiction? While I do like science fiction, my childhood allegiance lies with fantasy instead. But there’s always a history to be discovered with used books, and this copy offered up a fantastic example with its handwritten declaration exclaiming, “To Lexi/ From Pop Pop/ Happy hunting”. Who is the no-doubt adorable sci-fi fan Lexi? Why is her Pop Pop so awesome as to get her a Hugo winning book? What on earth does “Happy hunting” mean? You can see how I got transfixed in the thrift store and just had to take it home to peruse.

Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia is a coffee table book illustrating the history of science fiction—or, as Clute puts it, SF—since the beginning of the genre in the 1800s with the advent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Going decade by decade, this book breaks down the highs and lows of the genre in its history, as well as including author biographies and lists of noteworthy science fiction film and television since the 1930s.

First off, this is an attractive book that hasn’t aged too poorly in the intervening sixteen years between its publication and my reading of it. It’s nice and sturdy, the pages are a good weight, and it’s colorful without being overwhelming. The poor picture quality for older works covered, such as Star Trek: The Original Series, is telling, but I don’t think I would have pegged it as a 1995 book if it didn’t have a sticker declaring it’s status as a winner of the 1996 Hugo for Best Non-Fiction Book right on the cover. It would definitely look good on your coffee table open or close, and provide accessible amusement and education to a casual reader bored of the conversation, which is really what I look for in a coffee table book. (Or would look for. I don’t have a coffee table of my mine to gracefully litter with well-chosen coffee table books. Oh, someday…)

If you’ve ever read a DK illustrated reference book, the format is much the same—while the writing is a little more in-depth than what I’ve encountered from DK before (bear in mind I’ve only encountered DK titles aimed at children), it’s still rife with images to make their points. But it’s ultimately a vehicle for John Clute’s opinions on the genre, which started to rub me the wrong way as I got towards the end. Like any speculative fiction fan worth his salt, Clute defends science fiction against being dismissed as the semantically useless term “genre fiction”, which is all well and good. But Clute has what feels like an arbitrary view on what constitutes science fiction—it must provide a vision of the future we could logically end up in. Yet he considers Star Wars, the archetypical science fantasy, science fiction and dismisses Mork and Mindy as non-SF, as he puts it. It’s a mild hypocrisy—rejecting one hierarchy only to construct one of your own—but it still rubbed me the wrong way. And Clute can occasionally show his age; he refers to Asians as “Oriental”, which, Wikipedia tells me, is apparently kosher in England, and at one point ponders why women in a society without men would bother with makeup. (Having just written a paper about androcentrism and its effect on representations of femme people, I may have said some unkind things to the book.)

But ultimately, I find this encyclopedia utterly fascinating in hindsight. The early 1990s weren’t, to the best of my knowledge, exactly rife with science fiction classics, and it’s interesting to see a history in what feels like a fallow time for science fiction. Doctor Who is cancelled, with no hope of a return to the air—Paul McGann’s elegant Eighth Doctor (and his terrible television movie debut) are still a few years away, as is, obviously, the 2005 reboot. A pre-A Song of Ice and Fire George R. R. Martin is given a biography next to Anne McCaffrey, complete with a photo of him with non-white hair. Films skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000 are featured as noteworthy installments in science fiction. And there are plenty of recommendations to pick up; I know my reading list and film viewing list have expanded significantly after reading this. It’s not exactly enthralling, but a coffee table book doesn’t need to be, now does it?

Bottom line: Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia is a lovely coffee table book about the history of the genre, although Clute’s mild hypocrisy might rub some readers the wrong way. Still, it’s lovely and downright charming in its datedness—imagine a world where Doctor Who was cancelled and never came back! Oh, it’s too horrible to even bear!

I bought this book at a thrift store.

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