Friday, September 26, 2014

Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy's Greatest Science Fiction

Editor Guy Haley opens this hefty volume with the sentences, "Science fiction is arguably the most exciting genre of entertainment. No other form of storytelling shapes our culture as much, or is as popular." He's certainly got a point, particularly when it comes to male readers (and watchers).
Ask a room full of boys what sort of books they like, and you're going to hear words like adventure, action, battles, and maybe more specific items like robots, time travel, lonely three-boobed green alien women. Obviously that's not a universal preference, but ask a random guy and chances are you're going to find he likes to read something that falls in the broad spectrum of science fiction.

The other thing that a lot of guy readers seem to enjoy is trivia -- just ask my disintegrating copies of Guinness World Records and Ripleys Believe It or Not! annuals. The literary equivalent of a candy buffet is a fat book full of glossy color photographs and attractively arranged factoids, especially when the subject matter is something tasty like sports/games, gross stuff, or a beloved movie or TV series.

And so, Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy's Greatest Science Fiction falls pretty tidily in the intersection of the school librarian's Golden Venn Diagram:


Let's start with the good stuff.

Sci-Fi Chronicles is impressively thick. At about 9"x7", it's no larger than your standard trade paperback, but it boasts 576 pages of thick, glossy paper. If you're looking to become the local authority on all things science fiction (or at least look like it) this resource is going to catch your eye. Measured purely on quantity, there's a lot of bang for your buck here.

Open this book to a random page, and you'll likely find multiple color photographs or illustrations, a couple of columns of readable encyclopedia-style text (more friendly in tone than Wikipedia, but also less exhaustive) and -- probably the neatest feature -- color-coded timelines, subgenre headings, and a sort of "evolution of the text" that shows each of the editions/iterations of the story. The entry on Blade Runner, for example, starts with the book cover for the initial printing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and progresses through the movie posters, video game packaging, and comic books. Your budding speculative fiction pedant will find hours and hours of interesting information here, in very attractive packaging.

Now for the less-good stuff.

I won't waste more than a passing mention of the SF industry's general grumpiness about the abbreviation "sci-fi," nor of the title's cutesy assumption that better speculative fiction isn't being written elsewhere in the galaxy. These were stylistic choices that Firefly Books made for reasons of their own, and I, at least, am not pedantic enough to really care all that much. However, I see no way to avoid bringing up two significant flaws in this volume.

This is not the sort of book you read cover to cover, so as I sat down to review it I tried looking up random science fiction works to see how they were included. After all, if this is (as the back copy claims) "a definitive sci-fi guide for the 21st century... and beyond," it ought to be -- well, definitive, right?

I didn't try to pick especially obscure pieces: The Man From Earth, Logan's Run, The Postman, Sliders, Flight of the Navigator, Explorers, Zardoz, Starship Troopers. A fairly wide variety of science fiction classics, good and bad, commercial and otherwise. To the dismay both of myself and my indignant husband, only half of these had entries, and the other half weren't even mentioned. What kind of "definitive" guide to science fiction neglects what is arguably the best movie of Paul Reuben's and Sarah Jessica Parker's careers? How could any visual history of science fiction leave out the glory of Sean Connery in long braid and red bondage wear?


Leaving aside Haley's questionable criteria for selecting "the galaxy's greatest science fiction," I had a more seriously complaint. While Firefly Books clearly put a lot of energy into the graphic design for this book, it sacrificed attention to detail -- specifically editing. The entry for Logan's Run talks about the film's "widespread appeal laying [sic] in a core concept...". The Sliders page refers to a Professor Maximillian Jones, who doesn't exist; it no doubt meant Professor Maximillian Arturo. It seemed that every page I flipped to had a grammatical or factual error -- little stuff, but a darned shame in such an otherwise well-assembled volume. Heck, even the copy on the back cover commits the sin of repetitive word choice, boasting of "lavishly illustrated entries" on one line and "lavish photo features" only two lines down.

Ultimately, is this book actually "definitive", "truly international," "a must for all sci-fi fans," or representative of "the galaxy's greatest science fiction"? I'm skeptical.

But is it lavish? Yes. Fun? Interesting? Appealing? Yes, yes, and yes.

Does it have multiple pages of Doctor Who coverage for my rabid Whovians, a meaty section on Star Trek for my Trekkies (or Trekkers, since we're being nitpicky), and a respectable amount of attention paid to the science fiction movies and shows contemporary young males are likely to have watched and enjoyed?

Yeah. Yeah, it does. So even if it's sloppier than it should have been, and even if my household is offended by some of its blatant and inexcusable omissions and characterizations (my husband is still muttering under his breath about Logan's Run being described as a minor work), I'm sure it will be well-liked by fans of science fiction and collectors of trivia.

[Cross-posted at DYHJ]


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2 comments:

kindigjerri said...

You can't unsee Sean Connery dressed like that! It may haunt my dreams. I like Sci Fi and military/war reads. So I liked this post a lot! Reading Kent Hinckley's Hearts, Minds and Coffee. A great read a soldier in Vietnam. I recommend that one, kenthinckley.com is his site! Not to try to get that vision of Sean out of my brain!

Sarah Stevenson said...

It does sound fun. Hard to resist a visual history, even if it's not going to be thoroughly canonical. :)