Non-Fiction Reviews

Brave New Words
The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

(2007) Jeff Prucher, Oxford University Press, US$29.95, hrdbk, xxxi + 342 pp, ISBN 978-0-195-3-0567-8


Brave New Words, by those with a finger on SF's pulse, has to be one of the most anticipated non-fiction books on SF of recent years. So does it live up to expectations? Those familiar with my reviews of SF non-fiction will be aware that I have little truck with the artsy approach that has polluted much (though not completely all) of what passes for SF academia in both Europe and North America not to mention that little which I have come across elsewhere. I subscribe to the Bob May (former UK government's chief scientific advisor) view to academic knowledge that the really valuable approaches to the leave little wriggle room for 'correct' answers. Anyone can sit down and write an essay on their (personal) view on an aspect of SF (or anything else for that matter). They can cite all the references they want but that in itself will not validate their views; nor will dressing up prose in what is meant to be an 'academic style'. What a non-fiction book needs to do is to inform with facts. Fortunately for us Jeff Prucher delivers, so giving serious genre buffs a valuable reference work that is also truly academic.

What Jeff Prucher has done is to try to find the earliest uses of SF terms in order that their origins can be elucidated. So it might be that we think of terms such as 'genetic engineering' as something that arose in the 1990s with the precursor research to GM food. Thinking such, it would come as a surprise to learn that Jack Williamson used it in Dragon's Island back in 1951, especially as DNA's structure was only elucidated in 1953! Or that the term 'free fall', as in weightlessness, was used by John W. Campbell in the story Islands of Space back in 1931 before V2 rockets, or the first orbiting satellite (1955). It is quite fun to learn form Brave New Words that some terms used by the general public (as opposed to those clearly from an SF constituency) do have a genre origin. Meanwhile some others that have (or had) a more general street association, such as 'fanzine', also owe their origins to SF: in this instance it was used back in 1940 by SF fans.

Aficionados can 'test' the book (or themselves): the Karl Popper approach to science. I was mildly surprised not to see Forrest Ackerman credited with coming up with the term 'sci fi' -- its first recorded use is apparently by Robert Heinlein in 1949. Perhaps Ackerman only used it verbally and not in a printed publication for this last is what counts: Jeff Prucher needs a clearly citable source and not hearsay for him to include anything in his dictionary.

Now please do not say that I am claiming that Jeff Prucher has come up with definitive origins for all the terms in this dictionary. As with real science, new evidence and/or data continually comes to light, which is how we make scientific advances. Nor do I agree with some of his nuance. For example I clearly recall back in the late 1970s it being explained to me at length that the difference between a 'Trekkie' and a 'Trekker' was that while both enjoy the show Star Trek the former goes to conventions and is perhaps more obsessed, while the latter is simply someone that regularly watches and enjoys the show. This does not unduly contradict Prucher's definition but, should you get the book you will see, he has a slightly different approach. Conversely some terms' original meanings I did not know in the same sense as Jeff Prucher does. I understood (as someone somewhat connected to the UK bioscience community) that the term 'xenobiology' was the study of foreign species: a term, granted, that means less today than it did decades ago and that the scientific contemplation of alien life was actually 'exobiology'. Having said that I do not doubt the assertion that Heinlein used the word to mean the study of alien life back in 1954. (I mention this because I half-heartedly looked into the meaning of the term a decade ago in response to a re-branding exercise (to secure research funds) with the creation of the term 'astrobiology'. This, according to 'astrobiology' adherents, has its own nuance, to which I say pity they had not thought of this before their official 'astrobiological' research community launch...) This strict and diligent approach, though, means that once feedback and comment have been received, and fresh research undertaken, the next edition of Brave New Worlds -- and I do hope there is one -- will be even better.

In addition to the dictionary entries, there are also 11 short essays on areas of SF terminology and these too are illuminating. To continue with the Trek theme: I never knew that 'Prime Directive' (with capitals) had been used before Star Trek but it had, although not in the sense of non-interference. There is also a good reference section as well as a separate list of reference works. Take all the authors and writers (both fact and fiction) cited plus those of the acknowledgements and the list is worthy of a who is who of SF.

To return to where this review began. The strength of this work is that it strives to be strong on facts and low on opinion, which is something I would very much like to see more of in for what passes as SF academia. Yes, it is well referenced. Yes, it has a consistent style that facilitates reference use. This book is therefore one of the few (OK, a score or so) non-fiction books on the genre that genuine students of the genre, as well as its serious aficionados, will want on their shelves. It is also a book that I hope that college libraries -- those into language and terminology -- with a dictionary section will certainly feel the need to get. This is truly a scholarly work.

Jonathan Cowie

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