Roundtable on Non-Fiction

Mark Kelly

When I was still trying to keep up on science news, 20 years ago, the go-to magazine for breaking science news was New Scientist, a British weekly with short news articles and longer thematic essays. I subscribed for a decade or so until unread issues piled too high. (And it was expensive, like $100/year.) These days of course there are any number of websites, perhaps even New Scientist’s, that provide similar coverage. I don’t try to keep up to that extent anymore, though I do read occasional books by folks like Stephen Hawking, Laurence Krauss, and Steven Pinker.

For SF matters, I think those core titles that Gardner mentions, by Damon Knight and James Blish, are still essential reading for anyone interested in critical discussion of SF. I would add more recently Gary K. Wolfe’s several books of collected Locus reviews. But the web has provided a variety of worthy resources, from reviews on Strange Horizons to posts on Torque Control and reviews on, to mention just the first three that come to mind. The web has made criticism – beyond routine consumer reviews – more accessible to more people than ever before, for those interested in finding it.

For general literary matters, again the web has made accessible the book review sections of the major papers in a way that was never possible when you had to subscribe in order to get print copies. (I remember stopping by Barnes & Noble every Wednesday or Thursday to buy the print NY Times Book Review section, sold separately and available several days before the nominal Sunday publication.) Aside from those, there are any number of literary blogs of which I’m vaguely aware; the only ones I check regularly are Bookslut, the National Book Critics Circle blog, and Amazon’s Omnivoracious.

Cat Rambo

I am a dictionary reader.

Ones I particularly like are A Dictionary of Obscure Words, Talk the Talk, the American Heritage, and the Compact OED my brother got me years ago in grad school. Raymond William’s Keywords and the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, not to mention Barbara Walker’s The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.

Also foreign language phrase books and 19th century housekeeping manuals.

Beyond that, travel books, particularly the ones of the 19th century women explorers. Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance.

Cecelia Holland

Some of the best books are books by people who aren’t really professionals at the subject but have gotten a bee in their bonnet–there’s a fabulous book about dromons, for instance, by an Australian named Pryor, and crusader medicine, by an archaeologist who was looking for information about the  injuries and disease in the crusader bones he was excavating, couldn’t find anything, so wrote his own. You can’t get that passionate edge just from wanting a degree or a promotion.

John Clute

You kind of have to be brain-dead not to do research, even though the more robust among us may tend to claim otherwise. It’s what minds do in the info-ocean or sink. Call it breathing.

I’d identify at least three broad categories for me:

1) Incipit-surfing: a book of poems, a book review, a blog, any one who writes of extremis or in extremis. A year or so ago Stan Robinson introduced me to the poet William Bronk. If there were world enough and time I’d read him daily.

2) Specific texts or sites focused on the subject on hand. Pretty obvious.

3) If you’re a writer (fiction or nonfiction) or editor, any theoretical or investigative text (not counting almost anything from the university-based humanities industry, unless you’re trying to become a freemason, or pretzel maker) that will jar your mind out of task-gaze. Because there is a great danger we all in this forum do face (among all the other dangers): of becoming idiot savants, deeply learned as regards ourselves, but pig-ignorant of the fact that the most precious idiolectic things we know about ourselves are probably shared by thousands, many of whom almost certainly do our unique thing better than we do. A big world out there.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Gardner mentions Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. I would also throw in James Blish’s Advent essay collections The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand. Though the content of these three books mostly appeared first in science fiction magazines, the reviews/essays were eye-openers for me when I read them in my youth, because they were among the first books I read that assessed science fiction critically by the same standards used to assess literature. Prior to this, most non-fiction I’d read on science fiction had been fannish and non-critical. From Knight and Blish, I learned that good science fiction has to work as good fiction.

Gardner Dozois

I also read The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand, back in the day, although I think that In Search of Wonder had more of an impact on me.  Of course, Damon Knight and Robert Silverberg were the two writers who were my personal mentors when I was a young writer, particularly Damon.

6 thoughts on “Roundtable on Non-Fiction

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  • March 15, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Mr. Letson,
    What are the Advent titles, Tuck Encyclopedia ,the old Day-MITSF-NESFA Indexes and the Bill Contento’s newer work you are referring to ? I am only beginning my SF research hobby and I am curious about these books.
    Can you please provide more information, such as full titles and the authors names.Thanks.

  • March 16, 2012 at 6:54 am

    James–Reaching to and reading from the shelves I can see from my keyboard:

    Donald Tuck, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 3 vols. The ur-encyclopedia, a monument of amateur scholarship, and now superceded by generations of later work. Still, it was a Very Big Deal back in the 1970s and 80s.

    The rest of the books are various indexes to fiction published in the magazines and anthologies. Donald B. Day produced his pioneering Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1926-1950 in 1952. G.K. Hall published a corrected edition in 1982. Neither is easy to find now.

    The follow-ups includedThe MIT Science Fiction Society’s [MITSF] Index to the S-F Magazines, 1951-1965 (1966) and Norm Metcalfe’s Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1951-1960 (1968), and a long series of year-by-year indexes from NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association). The Bill Contento got rolling with his Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections (G.K. Hall, 1978) and a follow-up covering 1977-83 (Hall, 1984), and then a long series of annual indexes in collaboration with Charles Brown: Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror: [year] (Locus Press, 1984-).

    If you’re serious about SF bibliography, hunt down a copy of the late Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder–the last edition is the 5th. What’s wonderful about these books is that, with the exception of the Anatomy, they were compiled by amateur scholars and researchers. (There were bibliographies and studies produced by literary academics in those early days, but that’s a different list and a different story. Nor have I mentioned the incredible work of E.F. Bleiler.)

  • March 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Every aspiring SF&F author should read Ursula Le Guin’s critical essays on the uses and purpose of fantasy, especially those collected in “The Language of the Night” (1979). If nothing else, just read the essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” to see how to differentiate real fantasy from faux fantasy in your writing.

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