The Science Fiction Handbook by M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas (book review).

These days, with so much information on-line, the purpose of a text book must be such that consulting it is the only way to get at the contents. More and more, academic books are being made available in electronic versions (my nephew has all his dentistry handbooks on his Kindle saving him the problem of lugging around vast quantities of paper). Worthwhile and essential tomes can still be expensive to download but it saves trees, the quality of the paper in books like this is very high. For a student of literature, the situation might be different as ideas rather than facts are what are needed. I note that both the authors, M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas, of ‘The Science Fiction Handbook’ are American academics so presumably this was originally aimed at their students. The issue I have with this is that until a student becomes an employee of the educational establishment in the USA, they seem discouraged from having ideas or theories of their own and are expected to fill their essays with quotes from the writings of their tutors and similar. I would hope that this book has not been produced simply as a source of quotable material.

The Science Fiction Handbook

The volume itself is very short for a book labelled a handbook, especially considering the size of that infinitely useful volume ‘The Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction’ edited (amongst others) by John Clute. So the question remains, why does a student of Science Fiction need this particular book? It has its limitations. To begin with, as the introduction says, it considers only ‘Science Fiction In Western Culture’ ie North American with some British texts considered. There are no translations considered. Verne doesn’t even get a mention in the index, despite being a very influential French writer.

Part 2 is subtitled ‘Brief Historical Surveys Of Science Fiction Genres’ and covers ten themes. Readers would probably quibble about these, especially as ‘Time Travel’ is considered in the same essay as ‘Alternative Histories’. Each essay considers the topic from an evolutionary point of view and ends with a reading list. This latter is the most useful for the student as there are non-fiction references pointing to more in-depth discussions as well as a fiction list for those wishing to actually read the books. There is also a list of ‘notable films’ for those who have problems with words.

Choosing ‘Representative Authors’ for Part 3 must have been a horrendous task as so many will disagree when their favourite influential writer is left out. Only nineteen have been chosen for the brief (less than two page) summary of their contribution. Not only has Verne been left out but also Ballard and Clarke and all the information here is readily available on the Internet.

The final part is made up if ‘Discussions Of Individual Texts’. The twenty books considered perhaps is the best pointer to the purpose of this book. Surely it is the substance of the lectures that the students should have been attending during their course. We used to have to take notes. Now all you need is to buy the book compiled by your tutors and not bother with classes. It even has a glossary at the end.

Overall, unless you are a student who has elected to take a literature course with these authors as your tutors, you can do just as well finding this information elsewhere.

Pauline Morgan

December 2014

(pub: Wiley-Blackwell. 348 page enlarged paperback. Price: £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4051-6206-7)

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