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Saturday 26 May 2007

Confessions of an Accidental Encyclopedist,
Or, How I Prepared New Maps of Hell and Other Exotic Territories

by Gary Westfahl

(Note: an earlier version of this essay, entitled "New Maps of Hell, and 399 Other Exotic Territories: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy" was presented at the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention held in Anaheim, California.)

When a book calls itself an "encyclopedia," one would typically expect it to offer a series of alphabetized entries providing complete, comprehensive coverage of its announced subject matter. If the book calls itself an "encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy," then, one would typically expect it to include, among other things, entries on the genres' histories; their major authors, significant texts, and prominent magazines; the genres in other media, such as art, film, television, comic books, and video games; their noteworthy critics and theories of the genre; and their characteristic topics and themes.

In the context of such typical expectations, one might initially be disappointed by The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders; indeed, the first reaction of one person on a listserv was that it "wasn't much of an encyclopedia at all." For, as suggested by its subtitle, this three-volume set only features 400 thousand-word entries on themes, and 200 thousand-word entries on classic works (novels, films, and television programs) worthwhile material, no doubt, but hardly amounting to comprehensive coverage of the genres. And one would have to wonder why the editor chose to create such a strangely limited encyclopedia.

As the editor of that book, I might explain, simply and accurately, that I was originally asked to edit a book to be entitled The Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy; that Greenwood Press changed the title only after the manuscript had been submitted, and that I thus became the editor of an "encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy" more or less by accident. However, such an explanation would implicitly concede that the book's revised title is inaccurate, and I am not prepared to make such a concession. In the first place, despite the aforementioned "typical expectations," it must be acknowledged that many books describing themselves as "encyclopedias" do not follow the format of alphabetized entries covering all possible topics of interest. As one example within our field, Robert Holdstock's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978) offers only twelve essays on aspects of science fiction and a concluding "Catalog" of miscellaneous information. My encyclopedia is comprehensive enough in its own way, and in a way that usefully complements the other encyclopedias of science fiction and fantasy found on library shelves; perhaps it does not conveniently report when Mercedes Lackey was born or how long Amazing Stories was published, but it does explain what writers in the genres have said about topics like Education, Old Age, and Theft, information found in no other encyclopedia.

Furthermore, as noted in my earlier discussion of the other project I published in 2005 — Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits — one can characterize a literary encyclopedia not simply as a comprehensive reference to a genre but also as an extended effort to provide a definition of the genre. And considered in that context, I would argue that The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, serendipitously, is a reference that powerfully conveys some of my own views about the special characteristics of science fiction and fantasy.

Its first message is simple enough: science fiction and fantasy are forms of literature which are about something. On the most basic level, their stories are about places ranging from Arcadia and Mountains to Mars and Space Habitats; about characters like Adam and Eve, Mad Scientists, and Vampires; about objects like Rings, Toys, and Weaponry. More broadly, their stories are about disciplines like Advertising, Anthropology, and Medicine; about human relationships like Friendship, Love, and Marriage; about abstract concepts like Courage, Intelligence, and Progress. This seemingly obvious assertion is necessary because critics who focus on other forms of literature increasingly claim that the texts they study are, in fact, primarily about literature itself — about language, about the profession of writing, about other works of literature. Thus, if you tell modern Shakespeare scholars that the Henry IV plays are designed to convey William Shakespeare's thoughts on governance and the art of leadership, you will be laughed at for your naiveté — because all the smart critics long ago realized that they really represent Shakespeare's meditations on the powers and limitations of language. As another example of this trend, a Stanley Corngold essay about Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis argues that Gregor Samsa's mysterious transformation into a cockroach centrally reflected Kafka's uncertainties regarding the use of metaphor, as well as the anguish of being an author with writer's block. Admittedly, Corngold assembles an impressive array of textual and extratextual evidence to buttress his position, but anyone who has read and appreciated Kafka's astounding story must be appalled by this interpretation. The Metamorphosis has not stunned and moved generations of readers because it so brilliantly explores the nature of metaphors, and one criminally trivializes the text by identifying its major message as "it's hard to be a writer." What is worse, moreover, is that some contemporary novelists, increasingly aware that literary critics represent their most attentive and vocal readers, are responding to this attitude by producing literature that manifestly is primarily about literature — emphasizing elaborate wordplay, convoluted storytelling devices, and knowing references to the act of writing and to other texts.

Thankfully, science fiction and fantasy critics have not fallen victim to this interpretative tendency, and thankfully, science fiction and fantasy writers have generally declined to produce texts that invite such interpretations. To be sure, there are works of science fiction and fantasy which focus on literature, writing, or science fiction and fantasy themselves — Barry N. Malzberg's Herovit's World (1973) being one of my favorites — and such works are discussed in the encyclopedia in the entries on Books, Language and Linguistics, Metafiction and Recursiveness, and Writing and Authors. But such topics have never been central preoccupations of the genres. Instead, science fiction and fantasy writers have generally felt they have something to say about subjects that are more important than literature, ranging from Physics to Politics, and one reason they write their stories is to say those things.

Indeed, science fiction and fantasy are noteworthy genres, I suggest, in part because of the astounding range and variety of the topics they deal with — so that, given the task of deciding upon 400 major themes to cover, my editorial colleagues and I found it difficult to cut our list down to the required number and were often required to combine related topics into one entry (thus, separate entries on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were crunched down to a single entry on Jupiter and the Other Planets, and two entries on Fools and Clowns became one entry on Clowns and Fools). Now, aficionados of other genres might protest, but I suspect that if experts were asked to list 400 themes for a proposed Encyclopedia of Themes in Mystery and Detective Fiction or an Encyclopedia of Themes in Westerns, they would face the different challenge of coming up with enough topics to fill their volumes.

This encyclopedia's second message — conveyed by the fact that it deals with themes addressed by multiple authors instead of the output of individual authors — is that science fiction and fantasy are best regarded as the collective products of a group intelligence at work, not as sets of stories produced by isolated geniuses. In this respect, again, science fiction and fantasy are at odds with the characteristic approaches of other literary critics, who tend to select certain superior writers, designate them as the "canon," and devote their attention only to this chosen few. If asked to characterize science fiction and fantasy, then, such critics would reconstruct the genres as a select group of idiosyncratic talents and develop elaborate theories of the genres that pertain exclusively to those meritorious writers. However, most science fiction and fantasy critics recognize that these genres more accurately represent ongoing conversations between writers and readers, and that even its masterpieces are best understood and become richer if they are considered in the context of that conversation. Thus, conventional critics could easily envision writing an article on Ray Bradbury's uses of rocket imagery, or on J. G. Ballard's very different uses of rocket imagery; but this encyclopedia insists that those writers are part of a community, and that their uses of rocket imagery are best considered (as in the Rockets entry I wrote) within a single discussion also involving the rockets of writers like Jules Verne, Robert A. Heinlein, Judith Merril, and Edmond Hamilton and the rockets of films like Woman on the Moon, Things to Come, and Destination Moon.

A third message embedded in the encyclopedia will be, for some, more problematic — a tacit assertion that science fiction and fantasy are similar, closely related genres which can be appropriately addressed by a single reference. As I need not note, there have been countless arguments to the effect that science fiction and fantasy are quite disparate, even oppositional, genres, and many would object to efforts to blur distinctions between the scientifically accurate, and potentially realizable, visions of science fiction and the magical, and frankly impossible, adventures of fantasy. Yet considering science fiction and fantasy together as one broad category strikes me as defensible on both historical and ideological grounds. Historically, science fiction and fantasy have been constant companions, as numerous writers produced both science fiction and fantasy, as numerous readers enjoyed works in both categories, as reference books examined both genres, as works of fantasy were given science fiction awards and works of science fiction were given fantasy awards, and as science fiction and fantasy books were placed on the same shelves in libraries and bookstores. Since they have been so frequently treated as bedfellows, it seems difficult to argue that they are better regarded as strangers.

More to the point, like married couples, genres that spend long periods of time in each other's company begin to resemble one another. Thus, works of fantasy, instead of allowing almost anything to happen, are increasingly inclined to impose upon their fantastic worlds an overall sense of logic and consistency which recalls the atmosphere of scientific rigor long expected in science fiction. As for science fiction — to briefly offer the sort of controversial argument that the encyclopedia generally avoids — it seems clear to me that only a few writers are now endeavoring to employ the latest scientific findings to seriously explore what might really happen in humanity's future; rather, numerous authors have clung tenaciously to an outdated consensus future in which present-day humans effortlessly colonize other planets, employ faster-than-light spaceships to spread throughout the galaxy, and interact with friendly and unfriendly humanoid aliens. Anyone aware of contemporary science and probable future developments realizes that such a universe simply isn't going to happen. Rather, as signaled by George Lucas's decision to set Star Wars "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" — the distant past that characterizes fantasy — these realms of intrepid humans in spaceships adventuring through a cozy cosmos are about as realistic and potentially true as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Thus, with fantasy increasingly adopting the aura of science fiction, and science fiction increasingly adopting the aura of fantasy, examining the genres in isolation becomes, I believe, increasingly inappropriate.

In summary, then, I freely admit that, if judged by the criterion of complete, comprehensive coverage, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy does not measure up to typical expectations. However, if the book is instead evaluated as an informative statement about the fundamental nature of science fiction and fantasy, I would argue that it is providing a provocative and stimulating alternative to other references with similar names — even though, as explained, that was not its original purpose — uniquely presenting science fiction and fantasy as genres intensely interested in a wide range of subjects, genres produced by writers closely attuned to a surrounding community, and genres that are inextricably linked together.

All of these thoughts about the broader messages embedded in this encyclopedia, of course, came long after the project was completed and published; while actually working on the encyclopedia — and on Science Fiction Quotations, more or less simultaneously — I had no time for idle reflections. Also, as is obvious from this essay's date of publication, it took me a very long time after its completion before I was willing to think about, or write about, my encyclopedia, since the process of putting the book together does not exactly bring back pleasant memories. Generally, I prefer to do my own work instead of depending on other people, yet this massive reference required me to depend on many other people to complete their assignments in a timely manner. And as I dreaded, and more often than I could have possibly anticipated, those other people let me down.

This was the original plan: after working with my capable Advisory Board — Richard Bleiler, John Clute, Fiona Kelleghan, David Langford, Andy Sawyer, and Darrell Schweitzer — to finalize the list of 400 themes and 200 classic works to be covered, I wrote four sample entries — two on themes (Freedom and Mars), two on classic works (Octavia E. Butler's Kindred and the 1978 film Superman) — as models for other writers and as my only contributions to the volume. I then produced an extensive set of guidelines to provide further assistance, recruited about 150 qualified people to write the other 596 entries, and resolved to devote my energies solely to the task of copyediting the completed entries as they arrived. However, as examination of the finished volume will reveal, I am actually the credited author of 83 entries, not four. Clearly, something happened to alter my original plans.

It is true that, in a very few cases, a submitted entry was in my opinion so fundamentally flawed as to require me to put it aside and write the entry myself. But the larger problem was this: many people who had promised to write entries, and signed contracts to that effect, never provided those entries. In some cases, they sent profusely apologetic e-mails explaining that work on other projects or complications in their personal lives would make it impossible for them to fulfill their commitments; in other cases, people simply stopped responding to my e-mail messages, so I never learned why they did not complete their assignments. The result was that, five months before my deadline, about 150 of the 596 assigned entries were missing and apparently never going to arrive. And while a number of those entries could be hastily reassigned to trustworthy contributors who graciously agreed to do additional work on very short notice, it became apparent that I would have to write most of the missing entries myself. Soon, I settled into a dreary routine, coming home from work everyday and churning out yet another entry on some topic that I would never have chosen to address — Chivalry on Monday, Talents on Tuesday, Mountains on Wednesday, Virginity on Thursday …. And in this way, I found myself contributing to the volume's definition of science fiction and fantasy in an entirely different fashion.

Here was the problem I faced: as a matter of principle, I generally prefer to regard science fiction and fantasy as genres of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and to a lesser extent of the nineteenth century, consisting largely of works explicitly written and published as science fiction and fantasy. Thus, I have been less than enamored of critical approaches that extended science fiction beyond conventional generic boundaries or back into the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, classical literature, or even to the myths and legends of preliterate cultures. All of that stuff, I would have argued, has little real relationship to the modern genres of science fiction and fantasy. However, as I began writing entries on topics that I would not have voluntarily undertaken, I sometimes found it difficult to recall sufficient numbers of recent science fiction and fantasy works to complete a thousand-word entry, and I was on a frantic schedule that allowed little time for additional reading and research. Thus, I was obliged to rely upon what I already knew, which happened to include large amounts of ancient mythology and other works of classical and modern literature (encountered while pursuing a Ph.D. degree in English). For this reason, the entries I wrote sometimes reflected a more expansive view of science fiction and fantasy than my own critical perspective would have sanctioned.

As one example, consider the unwanted entry referred to in my title, on Hell. Now, few could object because I began the entry by considering the Hades of Greek mythology, with some comments on how it is sometimes observed in later works such as J. Kendrick Bangs's A Houseboat on the Styx and the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. And, proceeding on to the Hell of Christianity, few could complain about a lengthy discussion of its depiction in Dante's Inferno and related modern texts. Then, after a few hundred words defensibly devoted to these texts, I moved on to mention an astonishing grab-bag of more recent texts, including the opera Don Giovanni, with its concluding scene of Don Juan being dragged into Hell; William Beckford's Vathek, featuring a rare depiction of the Islamic Hell; the final Doc Savage adventure, Up from Earth's Center, which apparently brought the good Doctor into contact with the underground denizens of Hell; an episode of The Twilight Zone, "A Nice Place to Visit," in which a seemingly paradisal afterlife is revealed to actually be Hell; Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, where the newly dead characters memorably discover that "Hell is other people"; and the unusually unpleasant Looney Tunes cartoon "Satan's Waitin'", wherein Sylvester the Cat appears destined to lose all of his nine lives and face eternal damnation in a traditional Hell of fire and brimstone. The final paragraph in the entry then refers to a description of Hell in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — a striking passage, to be sure, but on what grounds does someone mention such a text in an encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy? In my defense, I should note that the entry does include references to established genre writers such as Poul Anderson, C.J. Cherryh, L. Sprague de Camp, Esther M. Friesner, Robert A. Heinlein, Janet Morris, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Shea. Yet some commentators might understandably feel that the entry has, as a whole, cast its net far too widely — certainly, more widely than persnickety critics like Gary Westfahl would ever recommend. (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Jean-Paul Sartre? Sylvester the Cat?)

I have drafted several attempts to justify my work in the context of my published opinions, but none of them sound persuasive to me, so I cannot expect them to sound persuasive to you. In the introduction to the volume, I make the point that individual contributors were given the freedom to take their own critical approaches in writing their entries, which would logically include the option to define science fiction and fantasy very narrowly or to define the genres very broadly. All I can say, then, is that in some of my entries, I took advantage of that freedom and demonstrated that it is sometimes possible to define science fiction and fantasy very broadly indeed, if one is so inclined (or so desperate). For additional evidence of this tendency, one may consult my entry on Automobiles, which mentions such works as the television series My Mother, the Car and Knight Rider, DC Comics' Space Cabby, and the Magic School Bus books, or the entry on Sports, which spends too little time on George Alec Effinger and too much time chronicling the inane antics of Air Bud and other improbably athletic animals.

Finally, while frantically writing the entries abandoned by others and polishing up other late-arriving entries, I was given yet another task when Greenwood Press asked me to provide a list of appropriate quotations to accompany some of the entries. This, I thought, would hardly be a challenge, since I had just finished compiling a book of 2,928 Science Fiction Quotations; yet finding suitable quotations to match various entries proved unexpectedly difficult. In some cases, I had to return to my database to find quotations that had been omitted from the published volume, or ones that had arrived too late to be included; in other cases, I actually needed to browse through relevant texts to find brand new quotations. As a result, while one cannot say that there is a sequel to Science Fiction Quotations embedded in my encyclopedia — since there were only a few hundred quotations, many taken from the earlier compilation — the book does feature some memorable quotations that did not appear in Science Fiction Quotations, and I offer some of them here. And in this way, the encyclopedia conveys another message about science fiction and fantasy already found in that other book — that the genres, along with their other virtues, are often very quotable.

Overall, while I am proud of what The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy has to offer, I recognize that, as a matter of circumstance, I may forever be regarded as an editor who did not provide readers with a book that matched their typical expectations about an encyclopedia. Still, I have no desire to address the problem by editing another, more traditional encyclopedia. Indeed, with John Clute and David Langford now hard at work on a new online edition of the Clute/Nicholls The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, hopefully to be followed by a similar new edition of Clute and John Grant's The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, there would seem to be no need for anyone to edit another encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy — and I have also promised my wife that I will never again undertake such a huge and time-consuming project. However, life is full of uncertainties, and I cannot guarantee that I will never again edit an encyclopedia — because, after all, accidents will happen.

Ten Quotations from The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy Which Are Not in Science Fiction Quotations

There are many things on Mars incredible to the narrow, earthbound men of our little speck of dust.
— Edgar Rice Burroughs, Llana of Gathol (1941)

A story that began more than two thousand years ago may stretch a long way into the dim and distant future.
— H. Rider Haggard, She (1887)

Jim, you're no different than anyone else. We all have our darker side. We need it. It's half of what we are. It's not really ugly, it's human.
— Richard Matheson, "The Enemy Within" (1966), episode of Star Trek

Free. Our ancestors said that was the most beautiful word in the language.
— Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

An ancient, basic tenet of justice is: "Better that one thousand innocents suffer unjustly than one guilty person be permitted to escape."
— Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)

"Vampires, zombies, bogeymen, ghouls, oh my. The und — " She corrected herself. "The differently alive."
— Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay (1996)

These are the stories that the Dogs tell when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north. Then each family circle gathers at the hearthstone and the pups sit silently and listen and when the story's done they ask many questions:
"What is Man?" they'll ask.
Or perhaps: "What is a city?"
Or: "What is war?"
— Clifford D. Simak, City (1952)

The life of a poet lies not merely in the finite language-dance of expression but in the nearly infinite combinations of perception and memory combined with the sensitivity to what is perceived and remembered.
— Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989)

Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the autumn moon is bright.
— Curt Siodmak, The Wolfman (film, 1941)

We were privileged to witness the birth of a universe, now we must, perforce, witness its death.
— Donald A. Wollheim, Edge of Time (1958)

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