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REVIEW: Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction edited by Jeff Prucher

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fun book for hardcore SF fans, but of marginal interest to others.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A dictionary of science fiction terms that shows definition and etymology.

PROS: Tons of information for hardcore SF fans; fun to browse.
CONS: Much of the content overlaps with the website from which it was born.
BOTTOM LINE: This book will consume more of your time than you might think.

Reference works like Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction are not meant to be read cover to cover. Instead, they exist as go-to sources of information. And while this book will certainly serve that purpose, hardcore SF fans (the intended audience) will more often find a casual browse turning into an official time-consuming activity.

Such page-flipping yields some interesting trivia as well. See if you can answer these trivia questions based on some of the book’s entries:


  1. What’s the earliest use of the term “prime directive”?
  2. Which author used the pseudonyms Eric Rodman and Calvin M. Knox?
  3. Who is attributed with inventing the term “slidewalk”?
  4. Who coined the term “ansible”?
  5. A.E. van Vogt coined the term “videophone” in which of his novels?

[Answers appear at the end of this review.]

There are several aims of this particular reference work according to Prucher’s preface: to document previously undocumented word meanings; to provide definitions within the context of the science fiction field; and to identify mainstream words that originated in, or became associated with, science fiction. To that end, Prucher includes words and phrases coined in science fiction – but not fantasy, though he admits the line between them is fuzzy – but only if they are used by more than one source, thus preventing an overly-detailed and cumbersome reference bulked up by every literary invention ever created (assuming that were possible). Prucher also includes meta-terms like those used in SF criticism and fandom. He only includes words used in more than one science fiction universe so words like “dilithium”, which is used only in Star Trek, are not included. Supposedly omitted are words newer than 1999 since they have not withstood the test of time. Curious, then, that I found at one entry whose earliest citation is 2001: “frell” from Farscape, though its inclusion might be due to the fact that the related term “frelling” has a citation from 1999. Prucher uses literature as his primary source, but also includes references from film, television, comics, RPGs, video games, poetry and others. Each entry devotes a fair amount of space to a word’s etymology to show its usage through the years.

Brave New Words emerged from the Science Fiction Citations project which began documenting citations in 2001. So one might wonder what purpose a book like this might serve besides being a portable version of the website. To answer that, I compared the website’s contents with that of the book.

As a point of reference, here are some sample entries and how they differ:

Science Fiction Citations Website Brave New Words
cyberspace (n.) the notional environment within which electronic communication occurs, esp. when represented as the inside of a computer system; space perceived as such by an observer but generated by a computer system and having no real existence; the space of virtual reality. (19 citations)
matrix (n.)= cyberspace (21 citations)
cyberspace (n.) the entirety of the data stored in, and the communication that takes place within, a computer network, conceived of as having the properties of a physical realm; the environment of virtual reality. Compare MATRIX. (5 citations)
matrix (n.) CYBERSPACE or virtual reality (4 citations)
future history (n.) a fictional, self-contained, consistent, chronological framework (esp. realized across a body of work); (also) the subgenre of science fiction that uses such a framework (6 citations) future history (n.) a chronology of the future, as realized in a series of stories set in the same fictional universe; such a series of stories. (6 citations)
grok (v.) to perceive or understand fully; to feel empathy with; to enjoy, appreciate. (5 citations) grok (v.) [coined by Robert A. Heinlein] to understand deeply or intuitively; to establish rapport; to enjoy. (10 citations)
infodump (n.) a large (often unwieldy or indigestible) amount of information supplied all at once; spec. as background or descriptive information in a narrative. (4 citations) infodump (n.) a large amount of background information inserted into a story all at once. (6 citations)
mundane (n.) a person who does not share the interests of a particular group of enthusiasts (used esp. among science fiction fans). (6 citations)
mundane (adj.) belonging or relating to the world which lies outside the sphere of interest of a particular group of enthusiasts (used esp. among science fiction fans, originally of mainstream fiction). (17 citations)
mundane (n.) a person who is not a science fiction fan; by extension, a person who is an outsider to some group. (6 citations)
mundane (adj.) not relating to science fiction or science fiction fandom, or by extension, to a specific group or subject; (of literature) mainstream. (7 citations)
precog (n.) a person with precognitive abilities. (4 citations)
precog (v.) to predict the future by precognitive powers. (2 citations)
precog (n.) [abbr. of precognition] someone who can see the future; someone with the psychic ability of precognition. (6 citations)
precog (v.) to see or predict the future. (3 citations)
NO ENTRY redshirt (n.) [after the red shirts worn by crewmembers in the television show Star Trek, who were frequently killed after arriving on a new planet] a character who is not portrayed in any depth; an extra; especially one whose main plot function is to be killed. (4 citations)
science fiction (n.) Imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freq. set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel (11 citations) science fiction (n.) 1. a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms. 2. a work of science fiction. 3. IMAGINATIVE FICTION. (18 citations)
slipstream (n.) fiction which, while not classified as science fiction, engages to some extent with scientific or futuristic subject matter, esp. such fiction regarded as constituting an identifiable genre; this genre of fiction. (13 citations) slipstream (n.) [after mainstream] literature which makes use of the tropes or techniques of genre science fiction or fantasy, but which is not considered to be genre science fiction or fantasy; the genre of such literature. Hence slipstreamer. (n.), slipstreamish, (adj.), slipstreamy, (adj.) (8 citations)
space opera (n.) a genre of science fiction which uses stock characters and settings, especially those of Westerns translated into outer space; a genre of science fiction in which the action spans across a galaxy or galaxies; a work of these genres. (23 citations) space opera (n.) [by analogy to soap opera and horse opera] science fiction with an interplanetary or galaxy-wide setting, especially one making use of stock characters and situations; a work of this type. (7 citations)
Sturgeon’s Law (n.) a humorous aphorism which maintains that most of any body of published material, knowledge, etc., or (more generally) of everything is worthless: based on a statement by Sturgeon, usually later cited as ’90 per cent of everything is crap’. (7 citations) Sturgeon’s Law (n.) [after Theodore Sturgeon, who first proposed it] a humorous aphorism that holds that ninety percent of any realm of endeavor, or more generally, of everything, is worthless; usually in the form of “ninety percent of everything is crap.” [In a letter to the OED, Fruma Klass (wife of science fiction writer Phil Klass, a.k.a. William Tenn) writes that Sturgeon first used the phrase “ninety percent of everything is crud” in a lecture he and Tenn gave at New York University in the early 1950’s.] (8 citations)
time paradox (n.) a paradox caused by an action of a time traveler which renders the action logically no longer possible, such as the murder of the time traveler’s grandfather at a time before the time traveler’s father had been conceived. (9 citations) time paradox (n.) an event or condition, caused by something a time traveler does while in the past, that is logically impossible based on the state of the universe in their original time. (6 citations)

You will note that, generally speaking, the book contains more precise definitions than its website counterpart. It also appears that the book also contains a greater number of definitions (over 1,000 according to the book jacket) even though, as can be expected for logistical reasons, the website usually lists more citations. Still, there is a large amount of overlap. Note also that there are differences between the two sources. For example, the entry for the verb form of “precog” cites different origins: the website lists the earliest citation as 1958 from Astounding, while the book lists the earliest citation as 1948 from H. Beam Piper’s “Police Operation” (coincidentally, also published in Astounding).

Rounding out Prucher’s wonderful job of collating and presenting the content, the book also offers “extras” in the form of an introduction by Gene Wolfe (“Speak Science Fiction Like and Earthling”), page-long examinations of some dozen topics, indices that include a list of science fiction pseudonyms used in the dictionary and bibliographies of quoted books and reference works. Prucher also encourages readers to submit citations at the website. Taken together, Brave New Words is a fun book to browse and something that will wind up eating away more of your time than you might think.

Ready for the answers?

  1. The story “With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson (1947).
  2. Robert Silverberg. Although not listed in the book because none of them were sources of citations, Silverberg also employed the names David Osborne, Don Elliot, Walker Chapman, Franklin Hamilton, L.T. Woodward, Paul Hollander, Lee Sebastian and Lloyd Robinson.
  3. Fritz Leiber in his story “Sanity” (1944).
  4. Ursula K. LeGuin in Rocannon’s World (1966).
  5. World of Null-A (1945).
About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

7 Comments on REVIEW: Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction edited by Jeff Prucher

  1. So, it lost two stars mainly because of website overlap?

  2. John,
    This is an intervention: I believe that your “biblioholism” has moved onto a more advanced stage with the primary symptom of reading DICTIONARIES! What will be next? The phone book? The Chinese restaurant menu? Please stop before it kills you. You have friends and family — there is more to life than gettting that next volume, that next stack…
    Your friend,

  3. I would detract a point for it being a trade paperback costing $30.
    Yes, I know most places sell it cheaper, but MonkeyBrain
    Press routinely sells similarly sized tomes featuring equally exhaustive research for $15.

  4. Paul: Mostly. At times the book felt like an abbreviated version of the website. Keep in mind that 3 stars means “good”. The book is good…it just doesn’t feel “great”. And I see you liked it, too!
    Peter: Point taken. I’ll follow your cue and devote more time to Maxim and supermodels. 😉
    Jeff: I try not to let price come in to play because I have no way of determining how a random reader values the dollar. One person might read this review and determine that the price is fair, another might balk. The best I can do is note my impressions.

  5. Peter, I personally am addicted to oddball reference books: The Dictionary of Gods, the Encyclopedia of Angels, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, several Encyclopediae of Science Fiction, not to mention mock-documentary books like Barlowe’s Expedition and Kofeod’s Galactic Geographic and series-specific guidebooks like Peter Hamilton’s Confederation Handbook and Brin’s guide to the Uplift universe (I forget the name of that one). Jess Nevins Fantastic Victoriana is perhaps my favorite.
    Off-genre, Rocklopedia Fakebandica is possibly the greatest useless reference book ever.

  6. Hi
    We will also be reviewing this title on with our Autumnal season upload.
    Re: point about trade paperback. Reference books tend to come out in hardback first as libraries prefere them to paperbacks (even trade paperbacks).
    Re: Point about reviewing dictionaries. In case this was not a joke, it is worth noting that in academia specialist dictionaries are reviewed all the time as nomenclature developments are important (cf. biology and 7 kingdoms). So from my perspective (as a scientist, reviewer and former journal manager) a review like this is not unusual but expected.
    Seems a good review.

  7. John: Yes, yes I did like it myself. I suppose that I look for ways to knock off a score from perfect, and so I interpret a 3 star rating as 5-2, not 0+3. So that’s the way I saw how you came to that rating.
    Jeff: I own a couple of those, too…

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