Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia

This one came to me as a gift.

This review is for the smallest subset of those few readers who like to read about science fiction.

Review: Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, Brian Stableford, 2006.

Yes, I read every entry in the 575 pages of entries, from “Acoustics” to “Zoology”. (A bibliography, index, and list of entries pushes the total page count past 729 pages.)

The only comparable book I’ve come across is The Science in Science Fiction from 1982 which Stableford co-wrote with David Langford and Peter Nicholls. That was considerably thinner and featured many color illustrations. This book has no illustrations. That book focused on the scientific accuracy behind many common science fiction themes. This one throws a much wider net. For instance, there are entries on “Aesthetics”, “Occult Science”, “Pataphysics”, “Poetry”, “Narrative Theory”, and “Publication, Scientific”.

Generally, the scientifically themed entries focus on the development of a science or scientific theory and its interplay between science fiction and science fact. Generally, that’s the history of a subject and its scientific development and later use in science fiction. But the documented flow of ideas isn’t always from science to science fiction. The “Omega Point” started with philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and then was picked up by a series of scientists and fiction writers. (Stableford doesn’t seem to place much credence in the whole thing.) “Space Travel” could, arguably, be said to have first been initiated by literary dreamers and taken up by scientists.  “Paracelsus”, “may be the “great grandfather of quack medicine”, but he was also one of the fathers of modern chemistry and influenced both science and fiction.

The entries range from half a page in length to several pages in the case of popular science fiction icons like “Robot” or areas of universal intimacy or concern like “Sex”, “Medicine”, “War”, and “Psychopathology”.

Stableford shows how some subjects are popular in science fiction because on their melodramatic utility and rhetorical utility. Through many entries, Stableford rails against the, as he sees it, pernicious “Frankenstein complex” which immediately thinks the worst of a new technology. Several of the entries cover the general literary use of certain sciences and technology (like “Telephone” which includes over distance-annihilating methods of communication) and not just their coverage in science fiction. Some mention is made of non-Anglo works of science fiction, specifically German and French works. Unfortunately, this book was written before the bulk of Stableford’s work in translating French works, and it’s very doubtful it will be updated to reflect that.

Some scientists, philosophers, and inventors (“Edison”) get their own entries as do several fiction authors. Many of the latter are those you would expect, but there are surprises like Clifford D. Simak, Robert Silverberg, C. H. Hinton, and Clifford A. Pickover. A surprising number of short stories are referenced including many authors I associate with the Analog stable.  It was nice to see some get their due.

If you’re the type who might buy this book, does it offer something you can’t find at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia online? (Its Stableford entry says, of this book, “a massive encyclopediacal examination of the complex back-and-forth relationship between speculative fiction and scientific knowledge and advances.”)

So, let’s compare some entries in each. “Nanotechnology” seems to have shown up on the SFE in 2012 and is shorter there with much less material on the theory of the technology and its history.

“War” on SFE is short and refers you to “Alternate History” (which this book also under “Alternative History” and “Holocaust” or “Post-Holocaust”), neither of which gets an entry in this book. The SFE’s “Future War” (penned by Stableford) is shorter and removes historical context mentioned in the book.

So, if your tastes run to actually owning encyclopedias about science fiction, this one is worth a purchase, especially given its unique focus.

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