Some philosophy

After the last couple of posts about logistics, I thought it might be worth saying a bit about more abstract issues, like the approach the SFE takes. This is very much a personal take on things – David Langford or John Clute might well put things differently. But various things – particularly the rise of Wikipedia – have made us do some thinking about what it is we offer that’s distinctive. Here’s a first go at listing what we’re trying to do.

The SFE is aiming to be:

  • A coherent whole. Although no one person has written the 3m words of the SFE, we hope and believe they reflect a consistent sensibility. The group of contributors and editors are approaching the field from the same sort of perspective. If you were crazy enough to read the whole of the SFE, it ought to reflect an argument about the shape and history of the field; and we hope that argument would start to come through even if you only read a few entries. That said, we think the overall sensibility of the SFE is pretty broad-church: you won’t often find us dismissing an author because, say, his/her political views aren’t the same as the contributor’s.
  •  A balanced whole. This is really a consequence of the previous point. If we’re starting from an argument about what sf is, that ought to have an effect on what we choose to focus on. So, for instance, the length of entries is a rough index of how important we think a topic is.
  •  A linked whole. The SFE’s links should lead you intelligently through the text. It’s an important aim for us that links in entries are chosen as carefully as the words themselves. The introduction to the second edition said that the theme entries for topics like space opera or aliens are the “connective tissue” of the SFE – that’s even more crucial now. John Clute has always described our approach to linking as “centripetal” – that is, continuing to refer you on to related topics within the body of the Encyclopedia. (A fun fact: every SFE entry is no more than six clicks away from every other entry; some day, we’d like to get in some snazzy visualisation tools to demonstrate navigating round the galaxy of SFE entries.)
  • Transparent. It’s very important to us that individual entries are signed, so that those who’ve written them are accountable – both to us as editors and to the wider community. When we mess up, we’ll say so, and we’ll try to give credit where it’s due.
  • Filtered. Wikipedia will very often have available an entry summarising the plot of a Doctor Who episode within a day or so of its broadcast. We’re not aiming for that – partly because it would duplicate what they do very well, partly because we don’t have the resources. But more importantly, we think it’s important to be able to step back and give the bigger picture. We want to locate a topic like Doctor Who in the wider context of written and tv sf, and to suggest its links to the rest of the sf world.

I would add “comprehensive” to that list but, if you’ve read my earlier entry on beta texts, you’ll know we’re not there yet. We are aiming to be, though, by end-2012. (So, for instance, one of our goals is to have an entry on everyone who’s published an English-language volume of sf – with a few exceptions such as vanity publishing.) I’d  also add here that we see our core role as being to cover English-language sf. We would very much like to broaden our coverage in future outside the Anglosphere – and Jonathan Clements’s expanded Anime coverage points in this direction.

We’re not:

  • Neutral.  As hinted above under “A coherent whole”: if we’re making an argument about what’s important in sf, that’s inevitably going to involve some value judgments. I think I’ve read enough sf to be able to say (as I have) that Richard Morgan is an important author; and I suspect everyone else on the project has read more sf than me. This links back to transparency: if someone’s making a value judgment, it’s only fair that readers see who that someone is.
  • Perfect. Much as we’ve all worked to avoid them, there will I’m sure be errors in the text. Of course, we want to get things right and so we will correct any errors as soon as we can. As per my previous post, the best way to flag any errors to us is via our email contact form.


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6 responses to “Some philosophy

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing what promises to be an absolute must-have for all of us science fiction fans who care about the history of the genre.

  2. nickpheas

    The one thing I would like to see more of, though I imagine it would be a full time job for several people, would be articles about books.

    Books after all are the lynch pin of the genre, without them we wouldn’t have the films or the TV series. It seems slightly odd that the film of 2010 deserves an entry summarising the plot and critiquing the work, but 2010:Oddessy 2 just gets a half paragraph as part of Arthur C. Clarke.

    It’s not as bad as the printed editions of course. One can at least search for a book by title and for the most part find the authors article. When we just had books we had to look it up on library catalogs first.

    • Nick: I take the point about books and films not quite being treated equally. But we have such a huge job to do just in creating and maintaining the author entries that I don’t think book or series entries are on our immediate agenda. As you say, there’s a resources issue here: if someone suddenly offers us a million dollars, we might be able to take this on, but not right now…

  3. Andy Duncan

    Individual books likewise did not have entries in the encyclopedia’s second edition, whereas individual films did. Therefore, whether one likes or dislikes the absence of book entries, it is consistent with the encyclopedia’s historic focus.

    One argument for continuing to give films, but not books, individual entries is that films are by their very nature more collaborative than books, whereas the books, generally being products of a single author, are more logically discussed in that author’s entry. There the significance of, say, the Helliconia books to Brian Aldiss’s career can be better assessed than if each title were entered piecemeal.

    • Let me remind you there was also “second-and-a-bit” edition in 1995, The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction on CD-ROM, which – besides slight updates – included over 300 book entries from Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder. Mind you, they were not that great or coherent with the main body of SFE; and I guess getting another “special arrangement with the publisher” might be on the order of those million dollars mentioned above.

  4. Pingback: Beta Text of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 3rd edition | Machina Memorialis

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