Q&A with the Founder of ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’

Neela Debnath

Peter 2 for fanzine 285x300 Q&A with the Founder of ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’

Considered by many to be an authority in the field of science fiction, Neela Debnath spoke to Peter Nicholls (right) the Founder of ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’ about his passion for the genre.

What first drew you to science fiction?

When I was a twelve-year-old boy, sixty years ago, the concept of the teenager barely existed, and even if it had, it would not have applied to me. I was an omnivorous reader, who soon discovered that there was a gulf between children’s books and books for grown-ups that did not have a publishing category to fill it. The idea of ‘young adult’ fiction was not so much futuristic as absurd. One day, I went to the library with my dad, who was a book reviewer for theMelbourne Age’ and therefore, unlike many adults, rather in favour of reading. He suddenly pounced on a book called ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ (1920) by David Lindsay, but could not have known that it was one of the rarest science fiction books ever published. He said, ‘I loved this, and you may like it too.’ It was a difficult read, not a kid’s book, which described what could only be called metaphysical adventures on a strange planet. I loved it, and was haunted by it for years. I kept an eye out for other books that could duplicate this sort of strangeness. The next one I found was ‘I, Robot’ (1950) by Isaac Asimov and from its copyright pages I learned that there were magazines available that published lots of this sort of thing. I had at last discovered a kind of fiction that spanned the gap between child and adult.

What are your favourite works of SF and Why?

Someone once quipped: ‘the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve’, meaning that what you read when you are twelve impresses itself upon an area of the brain that will seek out more like it. It follows that as your reading level and experience becomes greater, your favourites will continually alter. Readers in their seventies may have developed the kind of sophistication that would allow them to enjoy the sequence of four novels known as ‘The Book of the New Sun’ (1980-83) by Gene Wolfe. Unusually, the book masquerades as a fantasy about an ancient and depleted civilisation of the future, but readers will sooner or later notice that all this fantasy has an astonishingly firm – if elusive – underpinning of SF. Younger readers may, however, be more likely to enjoy ‘Snow Crash’ (1992) by Neal Stephenson, set in a much closer future than the one Wolfe creates, starring among others a high speed pizza delivery girl, and some very clever, very young hackers creating a cyberworld.

My favourite SF films include ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977), ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), ‘Videodrome’ (1982), ‘The Truman Show’ (1998), and for fun, ‘Mars Attacks!’ (1996) and ‘Men in Black’ (1997). My favourite television shows include ‘Doctor Who’ (1963-present), ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (1981), ‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002) and ‘Wild Palms’ (1993).

How did ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’ come about?

In 1971 I became the Administrator of the Science Fiction Foundation at North East London Polytechnic, now a part of the University of East London. During the next few years I became something of a one-man band, answering questions about SF, building up a decent SF library, editing a magazine about SF, teaching classes in SF. No other tertiary level institution had anything comparable and very few of them had SF titles on any syllabus. At that time the divisions between respectable fiction and all the various popular fiction genres, from popular romances through to fantasy and horror fiction to SF, were deep and often un-crossable. On the one hand there was literary fiction, which is what the pages of reputable newspapers talked about, and on the other hand, there was trash fiction. It was a deeply elitist, undemocratic system.

I was primarily a pioneer of SF in the United Kingdom. At this time in the USA there were quite a few pioneers already, and the first academic classes in SF were beginning to appear. My more lonely attempts as a pioneer in the UK were proving successful, the Science Fiction Foundation was being inundated with queries, and my job was upgraded from part-time to full time. The queries were the main problem. If only there was a single reference book that could answer the questions that were daily put to me. This was in the mid-seventies.

Then I heard rumours that a London publisher was expressing cautious interest in producing a book about SF. I could myself write the very reference book that I really needed to own. I approached the publishers, suggested the way to go was an encyclopedia, and the deal was done. ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’, edited by Peter Nicholls, was published in 1979. It turned out to be far too big a job for one man, and the team I assembled to work with, not so many of them now, is still active on the online third edition. The most important of these is John Clute, my deputy associate editor in the 1979 edition, my co-editor in the 1993 second edition, and now (with David Langford) co-editor on the current edition.

How do you feel about the encyclopedia going online?

I have very mixed feelings about this. In principle it is not only a good idea, it is the only possible idea. No other way of producing our encyclopedia would make economic sense. Many book publishing companies are going into the red, some into actual bankruptcy. If this is true for the costs – difficult to recoup as fewer books are sold – of, say, an average novel, then it is doubly true for a big reference work. Our encyclopedia will be longer than 21 novels stacked end to end. Also, an encyclopedia published as a book is frozen in time, and begins to go out of date immediately, whereas an online publication allows instant revisions. Our online encyclopedia should never go out of date, because it will be updated once a month.

People who wish to research SF, or popular culture generally, using our encyclopedia, will almost certainly learn to do things with it as a research tool that we cannot yet even predict. I said at the beginning that I had mixed feelings about the encyclopedia that I founded 32 years ago going online. It should be very clear that I’m extremely proud of what the Encyclopedia team has managed to achieve in actually getting all this information on the web. But I do love books, their smell, their individuality, the fact that you can read them comfortably almost anywhere. I live surrounded by books, and I am a little sad that our publishing online is part of a technological change that will probably kill off book publishing altogether.

Are you involved in the Encyclopedia at all now?

I am the book’s Editor Emeritus, which is more a generous recognition of my past history with the Encyclopedia, than through any expectation that I will be doing much this time round. My Parkinson’s disease has very much slowed my typing down, and there will be and has been some cognitive fall off. However, being responsible for a lot of administration plus being the author of many entries in the first two editions, I am still a substantial copyright holder in the work. There is still plenty to do. I distribute sage advice; I point out failings in prose style; most importantly, I’m something of a safety net. I intervene when I’m convinced that an entry is not as good as it might be. Working on this encyclopedia is a labour of love. Nobody on the team has made a living wage from it except during brief and rare intervals, let alone become rich by their labours.

Why do you think SF is so popular now?

Well, in some ways I think the peak popularity of SF had already passed by the later years of last century. The fact that so many of SF’s wild ideas have already become familiar, either because they now actually exist (space flight, computers, etc.), or because they had become so familiar on movies, television and in comics, that they no longer had the same panache for new generations of readers, who reckoned they’d seen all that old stuff already. Also, as the century reeled unhappily towards its shadowed end (overpopulation, environmental disaster, etc.), SF itself was becoming a great deal darker, not the sure-fire feel-good sort of adventure story that once characterized it, at least in its lower echelons. As the Millennium approached, superstitions aided by legions of doomsayers, gave SF a temporary boost, along with Fantasy. However, a long-term analysis of a professional trade magazine like Locus, which publishes sales figures of SF, Fantasy and Horror fiction, shows a steady upswing of Fantasy sales compared to SF sales, but the difference between them is masked by the fact of ever-growing sales in both genres.

What do you think is responsible for the enduring appeal of SF

SF often stumbles from the sublime to the ridiculous, but on balance I think it confronts unsavoury truths, and even some enjoyable ones, with a far more devastating honesty than conservative mimetic fiction could ever summon up. Mimetic fiction lives in an eternal now, where it is very well adapted to taking still photographs but no good at movies. I would almost be inclined to argue that SF readers are on balance more intelligent than other readers. There will always, I hope, be imaginative readers who find in SF something missing in mainstream fiction. And it is interesting to see how many mainstream writers have themselves been moved at some point in their career to try their hands at SF. Normally they reinvent the SF wheel, but sometimes it works

There is a case for arguing that SF had already done its job by the end of the last century. It told a story of optimistic expansion, followed by growing darkness, so much more vividly than was possible for mainstream fiction, which concentrates on the here and now. Now history and the story that is SF converge, and neither makes much sense on its own any more. But it is still possible to find in bookshops a sunny SF where adventures of daring take place as humankind advances inexorably across the galaxy, making it safe for the Republican Party, and that can be enjoyable too. Until the lights go off outside.

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  • ronandronnie

    Should there not be a distinction between SF(hard or soft),Fantasy(which includes sword &sorcery )and, the most interesting,Speculative fiction.It is not made clear in this article which I`m sure is no fault of Peter Nicholls.

  • Caroline_Mullan

    Readers of this article may be pleased to know that the Science Fiction Foundation is still going strong. Its Library is now housed at the University of Liverpool, ably managed by Andy Sawyer. Foundation, the International Journal of Science Fiction is edited by Graham Sleight and published three times a year. The SFF also organises conferences, masterclasses and lectures, and offers Bursaries and Essay Prizes to scholars of science fiction. More information can be found on the SFF website at

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