[Essential SF: A Concise Guide by Jonathan Cowie and Tony Chester, Porcupine Press, 2005. 269 pp. ISBN 0-9549149-0-2]
There is much to enjoy in Essential SF. Authors Jonathan Cowie and Tony Chester clearly love science fiction with a deep and abiding passion. This comes through in a dozen ways: in their ability to speak with affection about some truly terrible movies, in their ability to identify which versions of Frankenstein are good and which are less so, in their ability to sum up the distinct tendencies of national fandoms, in the Byzantine reasoning used to justify the inclusion of an important SF figure who would not quite make it by the formal standards sketched out at the start of the book, in their not just ability but willingness to categorize individual books in a series into different genre categories (you’ll be happy to learn that Larry Niven’s Ringworld is hard SF, but his Ringworld Throne is science fantasy, while his Ringworld’s Children is a mix of hard SF and space opera), and half a dozen other qualities. This book is a 269-page love letter to science fiction, and as such, those who already love science fiction will enjoy it. If you’re jonesing from convention withdrawal, dip into this volume and you’ll feel like you’re attending a lively, friendly, and well-informed panel on What Every Good SF Reader Should Read and See that goes on into the wee hours (probably at a local pub). Will you agree with everything said? No, of course not. But you wouldn’t expect to agree with everything said at that sort of panel, and the very act of arguing would raise the collective level of critical acumen.
However. . . Cowie and Chester did not set out to write a love letter, to SF or anything else. Nor are they, as they are quick to say, trying to displace Clute and Nicholls, and write a new Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Rather, they set out to write a guide for science fiction readers who want to make sure they’ve read everything that really matters: “a concise guide to a select listing of what is in essence the ‘best’ of science fiction; hence may be regarded as ‘essential SF’.” So, to judge them by their own standards, do they do this? Not especially well, I’m afraid.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this book, and read it cover to cover with pleasure. Even though I’m a lifetime SF reader, I learned things about the field, especially about science fiction beyond the American borders. I’ve made notes about half a dozen authors I’d never gotten around to reading, and sketched rough priorities for which of their books to read.
So, why do I say Cowie and Chester don’t do their jobs especially well? First of all, I take issue with their standards used. In their section “About This Guide And Its Use,” Cowie and Chester indicate that they want to identify “the material that defines” SF’s “shape and has influenced SF’s evolution.” That’s one goal, and it is a historical and critical one. A second goal is to identify what is the best science fiction; this is also a goal requiring clear judgments. However, rather than addressing a number of historical questions, even within the field, they used a number of fan polls to identify the best: they provide entries on works that won the Hugo Award and/or the Locus poll, and included “top films” as defined by the UK Festival of Fantastic Films and those listed in the Concatenation all-time poll. As Cowie and Chester point out, and I should quickly note, many of the works included would have qualified by registering on more than one list. True enough, and many of the works that have won Hugos are both good and historically important.
However, not all the works that have won Hugos are, and despite SF’s traditional embrace of the popular voice, not all works that are popular are good. If you’re trying to identify what’s good, you have to provide more critical standards than fan polls, or else you are just listing what’s popular. For the most part, because the films listed are popular, one could browse a good video store and find most of these works sitting on the shelf; these are already the SF movies people watch. Ditto many of the popular titles. A public library will have many of the popular works; it might not have the lesser known bests.
Second, the history. It’s useful for reference guides to be organized alphabetically, as Essential SF is, with short entries for each term or title. Such an organization allows a reader to consult it easily, and the brevity of the entries is a temptation to browse. However, it is very hard to indicate historical progression this way, and the result is that all SF is presented in an a-historical, scattershot fashion. Their organizational schema works against their goals, in other words.
So do their choices on what to include, or rather, what to exclude. I freely grant that every term, title, and individual listed in Essential SF should be included in a discussion of broadly appealing science fiction. However, if I were trying to identify the essential works of science fiction, especially those which had been historically influential, I would insist on including the following names, none of which were included: Samuel Delany, Tom Disch, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan? Barsoom? C’mon, guys! I checked three times to make sure I wasn’t missing things!), Edgar Allan Poe, James Tiptree Jr., Andre Norton (if she’s not essential SF. . .), James Gunn (for his scholarship if nothing else), Olaf Stapledon, C. S. Lewis, Damon Knight, Octavia Butler, and Gordon Dickson, to name a quick baker’s dozen of absent giants. Can any book guide a reader through essential science fiction and leave out so many wonderful, fine, and/or influential writers? Nope. This is better titled “Contemporary SF That Has Won Popular Awards.”
Finally, I take issue with the content of some of Cowie and Chester’s entries. Sometimes my issues may well be, oh, what’s the word? Petty. I hate misspellings and grammar glitches, and I found a number without looking for them. The plot summaries are uneven: some compress difficult concepts elegantly into small spaces, and others leave out essential details. Some books were placed into genre categories (like the hard SF vs. space opera example above). Others were not, even books that seem in the details given to be pure fantasy.
In closing, if someone asked me if I enjoyed Essential SF, I’d say yes. But if someone asked me what book to give to guide readers in the field, I’d point them to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and to A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction (by Searles, Last, Meacham, and Franklin). The last is years out of date, but more reliable by far.