Non-Fiction Reviews

Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained: A Guide to the Mysterious, the Paranormal and the Supernatural

(2007) Chambers, 35, hrdbk, 760 pp, ISBN 978-0-550-1-0215-7


Those of you who know me through one way or another know that I hugely enjoy science or that I hugely enjoy science fiction: some of you -- especially regulars to this site -- do indeed know that I revel in both. However I am acutely aware that to some these two loves of my life do not appear to sit comfortably next to one another. To such folk I have to explain that science is science and about facts and that science fiction is by definition fiction. There is no tension between the two as one does not masquerade as the other even if the two are related.

Having said this I absolutely detest fictional science, science perverted in any way be it for commercial, political or religious purposes as well as quackery. My tolerance threshold for any of these is close to -273 Celsius (absolute zero). So given this you may well expect me to blast this title, with its UFOs, mothmen, yetis, dowsing, ghosts and so forth as a complete waste of time hokum. Not a bit of it. Let me explain.

There are a number of ways that you can consider something like UFOs. You can uncritically accept that there are alien space craft landing on Earth, occasionally stealing people for weird perverted experiments and so forth, or alternatively you can say that there are flying objects that some people have seen and been unable to identify and then go on to say what these people (perhaps genuinely?) believe these to be. The former is an approach to be shunned and despised as sloppy thinking. The latter is all part and parcel of having a healthy open mind that does not let in just any old bit of flotsam. Indeed, to take the case of UFOs further, UFOs do exist because there are claims of sightings of flying objects that have not been identified, but UFOs being confirmed as alien spacecraft do not because if they did then they would be identified and so not UFOs. If you are capable of making this distinction and have a sense of fun, the coincidence, psychological illusion and oddity, then this dictionary is for you.

This Chambers dictionary is very much in the spirit of Charles Fort (whose name was given to create the term 'Fortean') who was a bit of an intellectual rouge who teased scientists and the religious with oddities that challenged their respective beliefs. (Fort also apparently coined the term 'teleportation' but I could not verify this with Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of SF.) Indeed a look at a list of the contributors shows that many have had articles frequently published in The Fortean Times and if truth be told if I had been Chambers' commissioning editor then this is exactly where I would have turned for appropriate and largely sane contributors.

This dictionary is a treasure trove of the exotic, the weird, and the downright nutty. It is a reference work that many into science fiction, and especially its cousin fantasy, will welcome on their shelves. SF as a genre is steeped in the human culture from whence it comes and human cultures have their respective myths, legend and folklore. Consequently any guide to this last is not necessarily that far removed from the fantastical that SF offers. This is also a reference work that some scientists might like if only because when approached by some members of the public with a passion for some particular item of Forteanna then it helps to know what they are talking about. At the end of the day this is (thankfully) a sober work and it clearly states that there is no scientific rationale for things like dowsing but does offer some commonly given explanations. Also, as you would expect from Chambers, this is a properly designed and structured dictionary that is illustrated on many of its pages with line diagrams, black & white as well as colour photographs. As a reference work I do hope it does sufficiently well to warrant new revised editions every decade or so. After all it is our human foibles that gives our species, and indeed life, much of its charm.

Jonathan Cowie

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