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MIND MELD: Non-Fiction Books About Science Fiction That Should Be In Every Fan’s Library

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We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: Which non-fiction books about science fiction should be in every fan’s library?
Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is, according to Locus, the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. He’s the author of 71 novels, over 250 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 41 anthologies — and he’s the Guest of Honor at this year’s Worldcon.

For a history of our most important magazine, you can do a lot worse than A Requiem for Astounding, by Alva Rogers. Explorers of the Infinite and Seekers of Tomorrow, both by Sam Moskowitz, aren’t all that well-written, but he knew just about every one of these giants personally. Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree is a nice, serious history of the genre. Much more fun is Damon Knight’s The Futurians, the history of the late 30s/early 40s New York fan group, and except for Pohl, Wollheim, Asimov, Knight, Blish, Merril, Kornbluth, Lowndes, and Kidd, why, they hardly produced any major figures at all.

Speaking of Knight, his In Search of Wonder remains one of the best critical collections, along with Blish’s The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (both written as “William Atheling, Jr.”). Also worth a look are Benchmarks by Algis Budrys, and Science Fiction at Large, edited by Peter Nichols.

If you’d like to read every word of every speech and panel given at the 1962 and 1963 Worldcons, try The Proceedings: Chicon III, edited by Earl Kemp (it’s being reprinted for Chicon 7), and The Proceedings; Discon, edited by Dick Eney. Noreascon I also did a Proceedings, though I think we were multi-track by then and it just covered the main track. A nice catch-all book was Sprague de Camp’s Science-Fiction Handbook, which he later revised and updated.

The best biographies are Fred Pohl’s The Way the Future Was, Jack Williamson’s Wonder’s Child, and the wonderful 6-bio catchall, Hell’s Cartographers. And then there’s E. Hoffman Price’s wonderful Book of the Dead, which covers his experiences with Lovecraft, Howard, Kuttner, Clark Ashton Smith. et al. And don’t overlook Bob Silverberg’s Other Spaces, Other Times, or Eric Leif Davin’s Pioneers of Wonder: Conversations with the Founders of Science Fiction. John Campbell deserves a shelf of his own, and you can begin filling with the first two massive volumes of The John W. Campbell Letters, and his Collected Editorials from Analog. There are endless indices to the magazines, but only one truly thoroughgoing history of them: Mike Ashley’s wonderful 3-volume The History of the Science Fiction Magazine.

Books on and about science fiction that belong on most writers’ shelves include Barry Malzberg’s Breakfast in the Ruins and Norman Spinrad’s Staying Alive and Science Fiction in the Real World. Half a century ago Advent gathered Heinlein, Bester, Kornbluth and Bloch for The Science Fiction Novel, then assembled Heinlein, Campbell, Doc Smith, and four others for Of Worlds Beyond. The Panshins wrote Science Fiction in Dimension, a very nice follow-up to the more limited Heinlein in Dimension, then won a Hugo for The World Beyond the Hill. Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell remains a classic. And there are a couple of fine compendiums edited by Reginald Bretnor: The Craft of Science Fiction and Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow. Two charming books containing some serious and a lot of hilarious fanzine articles by Robert Bloch are The Eighth Stage of Fandom and Out of My Head. And on the subject of fandom, the best is Fancyclopedia II, with many more entries than the original. And of course there are the histories of fandom: The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz; Up to Now by Jack Speer; and All Our Yesterdays and A Wealth of Fable by Harry Warner, Jr. Finally, I’ll mention some of my own: a trio of Hugo nominees, Putting it Together, I Have This Nifty Idea…, and (with Barry Malzberg) The Business of Science Fiction.

I realize that I haven’t mentioned some of the very popular recent “must-have” books like the Nichols/Clute Encyclopedia and similar, but that’s because I assume anyone reading this Mind Meld already has them or at least knows about them.

Paul Kincaid
Paul Kincaid has won the Thomas D. Clareson Award from the SFRA and the BSFA Non-Fiction Award. He is the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction. A new collection of reviews, Call And Response, will be published in 2013.

A couple of caveats before I start my list. First, and most obviously, the SF Encyclopedia is absolutely essential, but since it is now online, every fan should have access to it anyway.

Secondly, because I list a book doesn’t mean I agree with it. I have sometimes quite significant disagreements with every one of the books I mention, but that’s not the point. The point is that these are books that have interesting and informative things to say, that make you think, and that can help to sharpen your own views on the subject.

There are probably hundreds of books I could name here, but I’ll confine myself to just half a dozen, because they are all very accessible, very knowledgeable and, if you’re like me, books you find yourself turning back to on several occasions.

Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika In The World Storm by John Clute. To be honest, any book by Clute should automatically find its way into your library. I pick this one because it is made up of essays rather than reviews, which means more space to engage with the topic, and a more wide-ranging approach. This is what it is like to argue with the genre.

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany. The oldest book on my list, and as much as anything it is here out of sentiment. It was this book that taught me how to do sf criticism. And I think it is still essential.

Rhetorics Of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn. This is one of those books that have been latched onto by other critics and academics. I suspect it is impossible to read any serious work on the fantastic written in the last few years that does not reference this book. So you have to read it just to keep up with the discussion.

Colonialism And The Emergence Of Science Fiction by John Rieder. When it comes to science fiction, one of the most fruitful of all the many literary theories that get batted around the academy these days is post-colonialism. It is remarkable how much these ideas seem to tell us about the genre. And Rieder’s work is among the best in this area that I have come across.

The History Of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts. There are any number of histories of the genre these days. None of them get it all right, one or two get it hilariously wrong, but if you’re going to read just one I’d pick this book. Because of its range (going back to the 17th century), and because it covers film, television, radio, theatre and more besides the literature, it gives you an excellent account of the scope of the genre.

The Fire In The Stone by Nicholas Ruddick. This is an account of one of those curious off-shoots of science fiction, prehistoric fiction, that emerged in the wake of Charles Darwin’s work and is still with us today. It is fascinating because of what it reveals about a subgenre most of us are probably only vaguely aware of at best, and it is also a joy to read.

But, of course, if you ask me again tomorrow I’ll come up with a completely different list of the key works of non-fiction about science fiction.

Gary Westfahl
Gary Westfahl, who teaches at the University of La Verne, is the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-two books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), the three-volume The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), and the recently published The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012).

In the age of the Internet, books that simply provide facts are no longer necessary; individual websites may not be completely accurate, but one can normally ferret out the facts by means of thoroughgoing browsing. Granted, there are still some books that offer more information than the Internet can provide; but a decision to purchase a book today should generally be based on other criteria: is the book well written? Is the author likely to present interesting observations alongside the relevant data? Is the book entertaining to read? Here are some books in my personal library that I would recommend on these grounds.

Science Fiction Literature
I may disagree with almost everything he has to say about science fiction, but Brian W. Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (1973) remains an eloquent and charming survey of the genre’s history. (Avoid the 1986 revision “with David Wingrove,” Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, rumored to represent only Wingrove’s additions to Aldiss’s original text.) For a more up-to-date history, I might suggest Brooks Landon’s Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars (1997). Due to my particular interest in science fiction of the pulp magazine era, I have found the biographical sketches in Sam Moskowitz’s Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction (1963) and Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (1966) consistently useful, and Everett F. Bleiler and Richard Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998) represents a unique and valuable resource, offering summaries of every single story published in a science fiction magazine from 1926 to 1936, helpfully indexed by their themes. For information on more recent writers, there is a readable book aimed at academic audiences, Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint’s Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction (2010). Regarding the “companions” to science fiction that have appeared during the last decade, I still prefer Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), and I will also put in a plug for one of my own books, Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), since no comparable compilation of quotations has ever appeared. Finally, since the Third Edition is now available online, John Clute and Peter Nicholls’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) is no longer needed, though its companion volume, Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), is still good to have around.

Science Fiction Film and Television I continue to consult the pioneering work in this field, John Baxter’s Science Fiction in the Cinema (1970), which to a large extent defined how the field would be examined; I also enjoyed reading two very different surveys of science fiction film history, John Brosnan’s Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (1978) and Vivian Sobchack’s Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (1987), an updated – and superior – version of The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film 1950-1975 (1980). To drift slightly off the subject, few film books are more delightful to read than Denis Gilford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), and Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983) is a singularly fascinating tribute to junk cinema of all varieties. For a more global perspective, Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies (1984) represents a stimulating and almost comprehensive survey of science fiction films from 1900 to 1980, even if his summaries of obscure films are not always accurate (as I know from my own research). More trustworthy are the briefer, sometimes flippant entries in the various editions of John Stanley’s Creature Features Movie Guide (I own the Fourth Edition from 1994). For science fiction television, Roger Fulton and John Betancourt’s The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction (1998) is a solid if sometimes incomplete resource, and given my special interest in television of the 1950s and 1960s, I regularly make use of two remarkably detailed references, Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion (1982) and David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s The Outer Limits Companion (1986).

Science Fiction Art Of the flurry of illustrated books about science fiction art that appeared in the 1970s, Brian W. Aldiss’s Science Fiction Art (1975) was surely the best, featuring Aldiss’s enlightening comments about scores of major artists, though contemporary readers would probably prefer a more recent survey, Vincent di Fate’s Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art (1997). For information about the careers of individual artists, Robert Weinberg’s A Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (1988) was long the standard reference, but it has now been supplanted by Jane Frank’s updated and expanded version, Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary (2009), which represents essential reading about this subject despite its annoying errors. There is also at least one lavishly illustrated book available about almost every major science fiction artist, and which ones to purchase will depend on individual preferences. Among many others, I would personally suggest Stephen Korshak’s From the Pen of Paul: The Fantastic Images of Frank R. Paul (2009, also published as Frank R. Paul: Father of Science Fiction Art), celebrating the field’s pioneering visionary; Frank Kelly Freas and Laura Brodian Freas’s Frank Kelly Freas: As He Sees It (2000), a compendium of paintings by one of the field’s most ubiquitous and creative artists; and Frank’s The Art of Richard M. Powers (2001), chronicling the works of the unique artist who provided memorably bizarre covers for so many paperback books during my youth.

Science Fiction Comic Books and Video Games For an overview of the entire field, with an emphasis on its creative talents, I am currently reading, and very much appreciating, Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human (2011). Turning to more focused studies, Steranko’s The Steranko History of Comics 1 (1970) and The Steranko History of Comics 2 (1972) offer a brilliant survey of comic books in the 1940s (it is unfortunate that he never completed what was projected as a six-volume history), while Jules Feiffer’s lengthy introduction to his The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965) also covers this territory in a provocative and amusing fashion. For an intriguing look at the people behind the creation and development of comic books, I would recommend Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (2004). Information about later developments involving the field’s major companies can be found in Les Daniels’s surveys, DC Comics: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes (1995, 2003) and Marvel: Five Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics (1991). Covering the Silver Age of comics, Craig Shutt’s Baby Boomer Comics (2003) takes a scatter-shot approach to its subject, but is amazingly comprehensive and consistently entertaining. And to obtain an artist’s intriguing thoughts on the genre’s special qualities, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) remains required reading. Regarding the youngest form of science fiction, the literature on video games is limited to date, but two enjoyable studies of the field’s history are Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson’s High Score!: The Illustrated History of Video Games (2002) and Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture (2011).

The instant after I submit these comments, I am sure I will recall another wonderful book that I somehow forgot to mention; but if my list is incomplete, that is in a sense appropriate. For a library of books about science fiction, like any good library, should always be considered incomplete, constantly awaiting what will prove its next essential addition.

Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan is an editor, publisher and critic. She blogs regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings. She runs an ebook store, Wizard’s Tower Books, which sells work from her own publishing company and many other fine small presses. Cheryl is also a director of San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions, Inc. and of the Association of the Recognition of Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation, and a trustee of the Bristolcon Foundation. She lives near Bath in England, which is not quite as wet as it sounds.

That’s not an easy question to answer, because the variety of material that you find in non-fiction is far greater than you find in fiction. Would someone who enjoys literary theory be interested in an art book, or a book on the science in Star Trek? I’m not sure. All I can do is attempt a very high level survey of the field, and hope I find a few books that each reader might find interesting.

If I was asked to name one book that every fan should have, it would have to be the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia by John Clute, Peter Nichols and an extensive support cast. Thankfully the latest edition is now available online, so anyone who has a web connection does have it. This edition is enormous. As of the start of July there were over 13000 entries composed of over 3.5 million words. The traditional material has been vastly expanded by new contributors such as Jonathan Clements on Japanese and Chinese SF, and Adam Roberts on music. It is an amazing resource.

Biographies are a type of writing that I very rarely read. A very honourable exception is James Tiptree, Jr.; The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. The subject is a brilliant writer and a fascinating person. The author, Julie Philips, has done an amazing job with the book. And of course Tiptree’s life and career have left an indelible mark on the field in the shape of the Tiptree Award.

I’m also not a big fan of comedy books, but one I will happily recommend to fans is The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. It brilliantly skewers the tropes of epic fantasy, and is also beautifully produced as a mock tour guide. If you meet Sharyn November, ask her about it and watch her enthuse. In this interview she describes the book as “the most delightful project” that she and Diana worked on together.

One of the interesting things about the Tough Guide is that it can be used as a writing aid. If you want to avoid clichés, that book can help a lot. But there are also many very serious books about the craft of writing fiction. I’m not a great expert, but one that impressed me a lot is About Writing by Samuel R. Delany. It is a collection of essays by, letters from and interviews with one of the masters of the field. A much shorter and more specific, but very useful book, is Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It is a guide for authors attempting to write characters from outside of their own

Writers also need reference works, and if you want to write steampunk then you need a copy of Jess Nevins’ The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. It is out of print at the moment, and going for over $200 second hand, but I understand that an ebook edition is on the way from Jeff VanderMeer’s Cheeky Frawg imprint, so hopefully it will be back soon.

Personally I’m a big consumer of literary theory. Evaporating Genres by Gary K. Wolfe is a recent example that is very easy to read. Although Gary still works in academia, he has honed his communication skills through years of writing for Locus. The book that all of my academic friends tell me that I should read, however, is The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.. A book that has very quickly established a framework for discussion is Farah Mendlesohn’s The Rhetorics of Fantasy. If you want to know what us reviewers mean by terms like “portal fantasy” and “immersion fantasy” then you need this book.

All three of those books were published by Wesleyan University Press, who are one of my favourite publishers. They do all sorts of interesting titles. For example, last year they brought out The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction by Rachel Haywood Ferreira. A huge amount of science fiction has been published in Spanish and Portuguese, and it remains unknown to most of the English-speaking world. In the absence of translations, this book will give you a great overview of this part of the field.

If academia isn’t to your taste, how about a book about the community? There are plenty of them, and one of the most famous is The Secret Feminist Cabal by Helen Merrick. It is a cultural history of feminist science fiction, taking in the authors, the fans, the controversies, the flame wars and the connection to wider political issues.

I’ve not mentioned art at all because I’m not an expert in that field, though one book that I did rush out and buy was Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio. Equally I’ve not mentioned any science books, though I understand that there are many good ones. Actually if you want sfnal books about science you should search out the work of Francis Spufford.

I’m going to finish with a book that I had a small hand in the production of. During my time as non-fiction editor of Clarkesworld I published several articles about SF movies by Daniel M. Kimmel. Some of those found their way into Jar Jar Binks Must Die…and other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, which I’m delighted to see is a Hugo nominee this year. Of course it is up against the SF Encyclopaedia, which is a tough challenge, but it is a real honour to be nominated and I’m very happy for Dan.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, a Stellar Guild series novel edited by Mike Resnick and published by Phoenix Pick (forthcoming Nov 2012). Alvaro grew up in Europe and has a BS in Theoretical Physics from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM). Alvaro is a Finalist of the Writers of the Future contest, and has also published numerous reviews and critical essays in venues like The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, and elsewhere.

To challenge the question a little bit, I’m sure that there exist fans of SF (printed or otherwise) that will be perfectly content without ever reading any non-fiction books about SF. After all, there are readers who find enjoyment in mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, historical novels, and so on without ever stopping to read non-fiction books about these types of narratives. Why should we assume that SF is intrinsically different?

That said, the history of SF is perhaps more abundant than other genres’ with readers and fans who became writers (and who were also often reviewers, or at least fan commentators, at some stage); as such, it’s true that many fans enjoy voicing their opinions about particular works, and in turn hearing others’ opinions. The blogosphere that exists around speculative fiction is perhaps larger and more active than for any other self-identified type of fiction.

I would encourage fans who want to know more about SF to carve their own path through the meta-texts, based on whatever it is they’re after. There are as many interesting lines of investigation as there are purposes and personalities. Some readers, for instance, may simply want to know more about particular writers – what kind of lives they have led, what has inspired them. Specific bibliographies of such biographical works are easily available. A good starting point for these are places like the on-line third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the fifth edition of Anatomy of Wonder, The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction and The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. (Incidentally, the first biography of an SF writer I read was James Gunn’s Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction — and it significantly altered my perception of the writer. So beware!)

Maybe the Curious Reader is not interested in biography and wants to explore criticism instead. The journal Science Fiction Studies has an excellent on-line bibliography of criticism, with literally hundreds of recommended titles (and of course, one can to subscribe to keep up with the latest pieces). The New York Review of Science Fiction also publishes fun articles and essays, often by well-known writers. There are countless other references on the history of the field, particular sub-genres like time travel, SF in other media, writing SF, reviews, etc. Given the wealth of choices, I find it impossible to recommend books limited to this type or that, so here instead is a small random sampling of “gateway” non-fiction titles, if you will; works that will hopefully acts as a springboard to many more non-fiction discoveries:

Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction by David Seed – more meaty than its title may lead one to believe

Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by John Clute – highly informative overview that goes well beyond gorgeous coffee-table book

The Time Machines, Transformations, and Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley – a fascinating three-part history of SF’s historical lifeblood, the magazines

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels: An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984 by David Pringle, and the recent sequel Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul di Filippo

Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature by Gary K Wolfe (mostly academic essays); The Language of the Night and Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin (essays); Reflections and Refractions, Musings and Meditations, and Other Spaces, Other Times by Robert Silverberg (essays and autobiography); Breakfast in the Ruins by Barry N. Malzberg (essays); I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov (autobiography); James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Philips (biography)

The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier by Gabriel McKee; Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television by Douglas E. Cowan – on religion and transcendence in SF respectively

Philosophy Through Science Fiction: A Coursebook with Readings by Ryan Nichols, Nicholas D. Smith and Fred Miller

Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia by Brian M. Stableford

Science Fiction: The Early Years by E. F. Bleiler and Science-Fiction The Gernsback Years by E.F. Bleiler and Richard Bleiler – stupendous references on early SF.

Thomas Shippey
Tom Shippey has read and written about SF for 50 years now, but has steadfastly refused to teach it, as that would pollute pleasure with business. He has taught medieval literature at several universities, and the two interests come together – or at least get somewhere near each other – in his books on Tolkien, and his two Oxford UP anthologies of science fiction and fantasy. He now reviews both genres for The Wall Street Journal.

Three books I’d recommend to fans are:

Paul Carter, The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine SF (New York: Columbia UP, 1977) [an affectionate survey, mostly of Astounding]

Robert Crossley, Imagining Mars: A Literary History (Middletown, CT; Wesleyan UP, 2011) [detailed survey of one theme in SF]

John Cheng, Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and SF in Interwar America (Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania Press, 2012) [how SF got into the bloodstream of America]

All these are university press publications, but they are all written by people who are fans, not just professors looking for a paycheck!

Gary K. Wolfe
Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities and English at Roosevelt University and contributing editor and lead reviewer for Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field, is the author of critical studies The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction, David Lindsay, Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen R. Weil). His Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (Beccon, 2005), received the British Science Fiction Association Award for best nonfiction, and was nominated for a Hugo Award. A second review collection, Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001, appeared in April 2010. Wolfe has received the Eaton Award, the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and, in 2007, a World Fantasy Award for criticism. A collection of essays, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.

At the risk of sounding pedantic right out of the gate, I think this question depends on what you mean by “fan.” Not all fans set out to be students of SF; some just want to enjoy the stuff and have no more interest in finding out about it than in finding out where their sausage comes from. Still fewer aspire to be scholars of the field in the academic sense (and by now there may be more academic books about SF than there are popular nonfiction books, even though those academic books were virtually nonexistent before the 1970s). So I’ll try to answer this in terms of all three groups—the general reader, the student of SF, and the scholar of SF—while politely ignoring any books I’ve written in whole or in part.

For all these groups, of course, the most obvious and indispensable source is John Clute and Peter Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (in its 1993 second edition) and the companion Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), edited by Clute and John Grant. Even though the SFE is now online and vastly updated and expanded, the paper versions are still a comfort to have, and enormous fun to browse in.

General readers: While the Encyclopedias are the standard source for bibliographical information, themes, and various historical topics, they’re less useful for biographical details and plot summaries. When I find myself trying to remember a few details of a plot, I’m more likely to look at David Pringle’s rather grandiosely titled The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, with its very short squibs about very many books, or possibly his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, which covers novels from 1948 to 1985 (a new sequel to this is Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo’s Science Fiction: The 101 Best novels 1985-2010). You don’t need to agree with their choices or assessments, but the short essays are a good way of brushing up on novels you may have read or heard about. For a general purpose “insider’s guide” not only to the fiction, but also to publishing, the convention scene, fandom, etc., David Hartwell’s succinct and knowledgeable Age of Wonders was updated in 1996.

Students of SF. By “students” I mean readers who are curious enough about the shape and history of the field that they’re willing to read a bit outside their comfort zone in order to get a broader perspective; in a nutshell, these are the readers who know that sooner or later, they’re going to have to get around to Olaf Stapledon. For this group, a general, clearly written, and influential history is Brian Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree, to which most later histories have responded directly or indirectly. Other writer-critics who offer good historical perspectives—and helped invent modern SF criticism–include Damon Knight (In Search of Wonder), James Blish (The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand), Joanna Russ (The Country You Have Never Seen), Samuel R. Delany (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw), and Barry Malzberg (Breakfast in the Ruins).

Scholars of SF. These are those wanting to move beyond a casual reader’s interest and gallop full-tilt into the academic, theoretical, and lit-historical dimensions of SF studies, which can sometimes seem arcane to those outside academia. These are not books that need to be in every fan’s library, but should be in some. The most influential theoretical study is probably Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, but more recent studies like Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction have added some pretty cool new angles to the theoretical debate. Similarly, more recent histories of the field by Edward James (Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century), Roger Luckhurst (Science Fiction), and Adam Roberts (The History of Science Fiction) all add somewhat different (and in the Luckhurst and Roberts cases, more updated) takes on the history of the field from those of Aldiss. Again, you may not agree with their cultural-history arguments, but part of the fun in is being provoked.

You’ll note that, except for the SFE itself, there are no reference books in any of these lists. This is not only because I’ve contributed to a lot of them, but because they tend to be ridiculously pricey and intended largely for libraries. Some of them are very useful, though, as are some of the more specialized histories (the Gernsback years, Australian SF, the British scientific romance) or theme studies (space opera, alternate history, dystopia) that might be fascinating to particular subsets of fans. But by the time we get here, we’re pretty much outside the purview of the question, and on our way toward another question entirely: do SF readers like to specialize in one subgenre, like steampunk or space opera, or do most of them play the field? Is SF fandom still a single fandom at all?

Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan is an editor, anthologist and book reviewer. He edits anthologies on a freelance basis and is the Reviews Editor and an occasional reviewer for Locus magazine. He blogs on his rambling and digressive personal journal, notes from coode street.

There are many, many fine books written about science fiction. There are the obvious heavy-hitter reference works that would probably be of interest to most science fiction readers. The No.1. contender is the Clute/Nichols The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which is hands-down the single most essential reference work ever published about this genre of ours. There is also Donald Tuck’s The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, in three volumes, which remains definitive. But, I’m not sure they’re the kinds of books you really mean, so here is an idiosyncratic sampling of books about SF that might be of interest.

Trillion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldus & David Winegrove – An over-arching history of modern science fiction, starting with Mary Shelley and working its way forward to the days of cyberpunks. Revised and expanded from the earlier Billion Year Spree, it’s one of the best and most interesting histories written to date.

Breakfast in the Ruins, Barry N. Malzberg – One of a number of memoirs written by great science fiction writers that relate the early days of the field, the problems with living as a science fiction writer and so on. It features the excoriating “Corridors” and is absolutely essential.

The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence, Alexei Panshin & Cory Panshin – A very odd and individual take on the evolution of science fiction, it nonetheless contains some of the most interesting writing I’ve stumbled across on the early days of the Campbell Era.

The Way the Future Was, Frederik Pohl – The great writer, editor and agent looks back at his life in science fiction. I believe this is currently being updated, but it remains compelling.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips – Quite simply the best biography about anyone who has written science fiction ever written. It helped that Phillips had such a compelling character to write about, and she does skimp a little on some aspects of science fiction, but it’s utterly, completely essential.

I would also recommend several books of criticism or review for anyone interested in the field. Damon’s Knight’s In Search of Wonder and James Blish’s The Issue at Hand are foundation works and shaped the field in a number of ways. John Clute’s Strokes is equally important.

There are many, many more books of interest. William Patterson’s Heinlein biography, Harlan Ellison’s Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, Robert Silverberg’s utterly critical Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder (aka Science Fiction 101). All are worth reading, but the list above should get anyone started.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

8 Comments on MIND MELD: Non-Fiction Books About Science Fiction That Should Be In Every Fan’s Library

  1. A fine list of participants, JP. Well Done!

    I do agree with Cheryl…you can use The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as a manual of what NOT to do with a secondary world epic fantasy novel…

  2. Some great recommendations here! I found more books to add to my search list and bibliography. Thanks to the panelists for their suggestions.

  3. Holy crap. I’ve got a lot to add onto the to-buy list.

  4. Good to see a shout-out for Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder/SF 101, which is superb.

    I’ll also give a shout-out (if I may) for a book I contributed to, called Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Subgenres of Science Fiction, edited by Keith Brooke and with articles from KK Rusch, Michael Swanwick, Paul Di Filippo and a good few others. It was published by Palgrave MacMillan earlier this year.

    Another book of interest is Storming the Reality Studio, edited by Larry McCaffery, and containing a series of articles about cyberpunk and its variant forms, published back in 1992.

    I also have fond memories of Charles Platt’s ‘Who Writes Science Fiction?’ which contains numerous interviews with leading lights of the new wave movement in particular.

    • Gary — Thanks for recommending Strange Divisions and Alien Territories. I saw it come out earlier this year but didn’t know anyone who had read it, so was unsure as to whether it was worth the investment. Sounds like it is 🙂

  5. For further reading…Matt Cheney has an excellent response to this Mind Meld.

  6. David Howarth // July 12, 2012 at 9:39 am //

    It speaks volumes that nothing by Thomas Disch is on any of these lists. I’m not sure what it says, exactly, but it says a lot.

  7. The wallet does not only cringe…I think my wallet went into a coma.

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