Review: 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 Guys Lit Wire]

Review: Redshirts


Redshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 3.75 to 4 out of 5

John Scalzi is one of my favorite science fiction authors, for three reasons:

1. How can you not love someone whose Goodreads bio says, “John Scalzi, having declared his absolute boredom with biographies, disappeared in a puff of glitter and lilac scent”?

2. On top of being a fairly prolific novelist (and a contributor to Stargate Universe), Scalzi maintains a terrifically smart and entertaining blog.

3. On top of being prolific, smart, and entertaining, Scalzi does something rare and exceptional: he writes really great funny science fiction — of which Redshirts is only the most recent offering.

If you are a fan of Star Trek, you probably get the reference in this book’s title. If not, I’ll try to explain. Have you ever noticed — or heard people joking about the appearance that — horror movies casting black actors as the expendable buddy who falls victim to the ax murderer/vengeful ghost/etc. early on in the film? The “black dude dies first” trope (you can substitute “meme” for “trope” if that makes more sense to you) doesn’t actually happen that often in contemporary horror, but it happened often enough that it’s become heavily parodied (see Scary Movie — or don’t, because that’s a terrible movie, but it’s an example). This is an echo of the redshirt phenomenon from classic Star Trek. When the episode included an away mission, they would send the “important characters” (your Kirk, Spock, etc.) who obviously needed to survive — but someone has to fall victim to the malevolent natives, right? Often-nameless crew members in red uniforms (meaning they were part of the security detail) were expendable cannon fodder, dying horrifically to advance the plot, and becoming a catchphrase among geeks everywhere.

Scalzi latches on to this trope for this hilarious and thought-provoking, self-aware parody of the original Star Trek series (self-aware in that it eventually acknowledges the relationship between the novel and the TV show). In Redshirts, the lower-ranking crew members of the Intrepid have begun to realize that, in their words, “everyone on this ship [is] monumentally f***ed up about away missions.” And no wonder; every mission seems to follow the classic ST model. Not only do new recruits get mysteriously mowed down in an almost orchestrated setup for the glorification of a handful of “important” crew members, but random bits of exposition and motivation seem to pop into their heads as if being uploaded. It’s bizarre, ominous, and — as our protagonists quickly discover — often fatal.

A few plucky redshirts band together to try to unravel the mystery in time to avoid gruesome death vis-a-vis whatever inexplicable battle or situation arises next. With the assistance of a yeti-like ship hermit and tongue-in-cheek application of heavy-handed deus ex machina, our protagonists bust through the veil dividing their reality from that being parodied. The results are not only funny and smart, but surprisingly touching as the two worlds collide and improve one another.

If you’ve ever stayed up late over coffee (or your “conversing about hypothetical issues with friends” substance of choice) bouncing crazy ideas about multiple universes and time travel with your equally geeky friends, or if you’re the sort of person who likes to sit in the back of the theater and make snarky comments about implausible plot developments and the abuse of your suspension of disbelief, you will probably get a HUGE kick out of this book. (Being a fan of ST isn’t a requirement, although it will enrich your reading experience as you draw connections between characters and cast members.) This would be an amazing book club selection, for the right book club; I find myself itching to ask other readers about one of the central characters and his power over the craziness aboard the Intrepid. The three “Codas” — short story epilogues that add some rather lovely layers to the story — provide some excellent food for thought and discussion as well.

Redshirts isn’t liable to win the Pulitzer (although it did debut at #15 on the hardcover fiction best-seller list), but it was exactly the sort of book I needed on a cold February night (and yes, it flies — once you get sucked into the tractor beam of this novel, be prepared to lose a few hours). This novel is transportive, grin-provoking, and the literary equivalent of sharing a great inside joke with a clever friend. And if you’d like to give it a try, you can actually read the prologue and the first four chapters for free.

You can also read Wired‘s interview with Scalzi — it’s pretty good, too.