Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction

By Calvin, Ritch | Extrapolation, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction


Calvin, Ritch, Extrapolation


The Trouble with Quibbles. Mark Bould et al. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. London, UK: Routledge, 2010. 288 pp. ISBN 9780415439503. $26.95 pbk.

Reviewed by Ritch Calvin

In the 1967 episode of Star Trek entitled "The Trouble with Tribbles," a trader gives Lt. Uhuru a furry little pet called a "tribble," which she, quite predictably, brings aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. However, the tribbles famously multiply at an alarming rate: bring one on board, and the next thing you know, you're up to your neck in them. Havoc ensues, but in the end, the tribbles redeem themselves by revealing a Klingon plot to poison a shipment of grain. A similar sort of multiplication takes place once you start thinking about objections to and criticisms of a book that purports to identify "fifty key figures" within the field of sf. And the more "harmless" they seem, the more they seem to multiply. How does one find a balance between useful critique and mere quibbling? Could the quibbles serve a purpose, in the end?

The very nature of the collection raises a number of questions. For one, why fifty, which seems a perfectly arbitrary number? What are the criteria for inclusion, or for exclusion? In a short introduction, the editors offer some answers to these questions and some insight into the process. Each editor created a list of fifty key figures. When collated, they collectively had a list of roughly one hundred. After they winnowed that back down to fifty, the outside readers suggested a few other names. Eventually, the final list of fifty emerged. True, fifty is a round(ish) number, but so is sixty. So is seventy-five. Why not fifty-three? Sixty-nine? Should the number of entries be (predetermined by an arbitrary number, or on the quality and merits of the individuals being considered? Granted, a great many other criteria might have been involved in the decision (e.g., the total number of pages, or final cost of the volume). Nevertheless, we have fifty entries. Ah, but which fifty?

Of course, the immediate and most obvious response to a book of this type will be: "How could you have left out X?" Or: "If you've included Y, how can you not include Q?" Here again, the editors attempt to forestall such criticism by way of the title of the collection. Those presented here are fifty "key" figures, not the fifty best, and not the fifty most important. Rhetorically and editorially, that makes perfect sense. Besides, the latter claims are fundamentally unsustainable. Nevertheless, the editors acknowledge that many significant and beloved figures have been omitted. Their list of individuals who had been considered and then dropped includes the writers Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan; editors John W. Campbell, John Carnell and Judith Merril; musicians George Clinton and David Bowie; scientists Copernicus and Wernher von Braun; performance artist Orlan; and actor Sigourney Weaver. However, even their list of exclusions excludes a great many. For example, no Sun Ra, P. Funk, or Janelle Monáe? No Herbert Weiner or Ray Kurzweil? No Stelarc? To be fair, the introduction does not give a full list of those considered and dropped, so perhaps they were, in fact, included in the discussions.

At 250 pages, Fifty Key Figures is a relatively short work as encyclopedias and reference works go. Perhaps the brevity leaves open the argument for including more key figures. On the other hand, it also keeps the book's cost lower, thereby making it more accessible for students. While length and cost are slightly less of an issue for researchers in the field and for reference libraries, cost must remain a factor for students and general public use. As a point of comparison, The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (by the same four editors) runs twice the length (576 pages) and almost twice the cost ($49.95). (Both are also available in Kindle editions.)

As a quick comparison, The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction takes a different approach. …

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