Non-Fiction Reviews

The Rough Guide to
Sci-Fi Movies

(2005) John Scalzi, Rough Guides, 9.99 / Can$21.99 / US$14.99,
trdpbk, x + 325pp, ISBN 978-1-843-53520-3


This, having been launched nearly two decades ago, is a somewhat late review but one still worth making. Any serious SF buff will want a range of non-fiction SF books on their study's shelf for reference and this one has its place, albeit this 'rough guide' will probably better serve newcomers to cinematic SF and this is where this guide really scores: there is much here for the newbie to dive into and there are also brief introductions to other areas of SF including conventions and magazines. The other reason for getting this guide is that it was written by John Scalzi, and its the John Scalzi before he became John Scalzi with his breakout, Hugo short-listed novel Old Man's War that also that year won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Mind you, there yet is another reason for getting this guide and that is the early part of the 21st century's first decade had yet to see the wholesale adoption of internet connected TV. In Britain we had just five terrestrial channels and just a few other, mainly satellite channels. There were no streaming platforms let alone streaming film providers and makers such as Netflix. Back in 2005, if you were a regular cinema goer you could pick up all the big studio SF releases and by going to a handful of film fests, a number of the indie offerings. Sadly, the days of SF conventions being a source SF cinema are well and truly gone. Back in the late 1970s and '80s, it was standard that the Eastercon, say, or Brit venued Worldcons would have a solid SF film track. Even so, up to the early 2000s it was not that difficult to become cinematically literate in SF. Today, what with there being so many channels, streaming platforms and providers, and what with the cost of digital cameras and editing falling, there is just so much being produced, it is impossible to keep up. The early 2000s, from whence this guide comes, was about the last time you could get a genre film guide in a little over 300 pages and it be meaningfully useful.

There is one final reason why a film guide from 2005 is worth checking out and that is because some films from earlier decades are rarely seen today. For example, as far as I am aware, the film Dark Star (1974, trailer here), directed by John Carpenter, has not been aired on any British FreeView channel for over half a decade, and 12:01 (1993) SF's answer to the fantasy rip-off Ground Hog Day (1993) but based on the much earlier short story and novel, I simply haven't seen about (a friend even let me do a NetFlix search: no joy.) And so it is worth seeing whether a cinematic guides compiler presents something of which even a seasoned film viewer might be unaware. Here I discovered The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984, trailer here) which Scalzi gushes about and, though I am glad to learn of its existence, he totally failed to tempt me: the trailer and his gushing served to put me off. Anyway, them's the breaks: you can't expect everything with a fair wind.

This 'rough guide' includes chapters on:  cinematic origins;  history;  50 classocs;  cinematic SF icons;  genre crossovers;  the science;  locations;  non-Anglo SF;  and the SF scene beyond cinema. All this enables a few hundred films be mentioned. And here, of course, is a downside of such rough guides in that it is difficult to give all the films a fair review in such a small space. For the most part Scalzi does a competent job. Having said that, there were a few glaring omissions. For example, the entry for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which does get fair space three whole pages-- as it is one of Scalzi's 50 classics, there is no mention of Arthur C. Clarke! Other omissions might, for some, be more forgivable. For instance, the short piece on The Omega Man (1971, trailer here) makes no mention that it was one of a number of very loose adaptations of Richard Matheson's novella, I Am Legend. Having said that, it does a great job of comparing how the film Starship Troopers (1997, trailer here) was malformed out of the Heinlein's classic novel.

Yet for its few flaws, this is a competent guide. True, the seasoned SF film buff will find little new, but for youngsters, who have only for a few years just discovered that there is SF cinema beyond the Marvel-verse (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the BIG franchises, this is a mine of useful information. The section on SF beyond the cinema would particularly useful to them and this, even after two decades, is not as dated as other guides tend to become. For example, the Worldcon is given a mention (though truth be told by 2005 the rot there had set in: since then we have only had one Worldcon with a decent SF film programme and that was the 2010 Melbourne Worldcon with its three parallel streams of cinematic offerings from around the world).  Ditto the Eastercon which last had a semi-decent film programme in the 1990s.  And, indeed, the section cites two British Film Fests -- Sci-Fi London and Festival of Fantastic Films -- that are still going two decades on (although the latter has really morphed into a vintage-horror film fest, with little discernable SF let alone recent offerings apart from shorts, but this is at least genre-adjacent).

So, if you know of a youngster who is showing signs of full-blown addiction to visual SF, then do seek out a copy of this guide for them. They will appreciate it.

Jonathan Cowie


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