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Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
edited by Jeff Prucher
Oxford University Press, 342 pages

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
Jeff Prucher
Jeff Prucher is a freelance lexicographer. He has previously been a bookseller, office temp, editorial assistant for Locus, and software quality assurance engineer. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and more books than they realistically have room for.

Jeff Prucher Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Science fiction is a language. Not just a vocabulary, all those funny words that can make newcomers to the genre run away screaming, but a grammar, a syntax, a set of perspectives and attitudes entailed by the words and structure of the fiction that is simply untranslatable to some readers. A dictionary, as lexicographers from Dr. Johnson down have discovered, doesn't just codify the language, it can help to understand its structure and history. A dictionary of science fiction, therefore, seems like a worthwhile and indeed timely enterprise.

Unfortunately, Brave New Words appears to be at least three dictionaries. There is, indeed, as advertised, a dictionary of science fiction. This contains all those words that originated in the genre, or that were adopted and transformed by the genre, and that have acquired a life beyond their origin. Thus words like "robot", "spaceship", "extra-terrestrial", "mad scientist", and so forth are defined and given citations to demonstrate their usage over time. It is fascinating to note, for instance, how quickly the word "robot" acquired a life of its own. We all know that the word was coined by Karel Capek in his play R.U.R., which was first translated into English by Paul Selver in 1923, yet already in June of 1923 the Times of London is quoted using the word in a way that would suggest it expected its readers to be familiar with the term. Such discoveries are part of the delight of a dictionary like this. Unfortunately, a dictionary based on historical principles is meant to show also how words and their meanings evolve over time. The entry on "robot," for example, gives 11 citations for its first meaning, "an intelligent or self-aware artificial being," ranging from Capek's original Czech (1920) up to a quotation from Locus from 1988. Yet read these as you might, you would get no notion of the way the usage of the word has changed over time; Capek's original was closer to what science fiction writers now tend to call a "cyborg," while the "metal man" of popular imagination was something that came later, developing out of American science fiction of the 1930s and 40s.

The interesting thing about most of the science fiction terms contained here is how many of them have outgrown the genre. One of the most valuable things about this dictionary is the number of citations that have been gleaned from the Times of London and the San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American and the New Yorker. Perhaps unnoticed by the majority of people who use the English language, science fiction has been the source of most of the vocabulary with which we are able to talk about the world today: "laser weapon" and "robotics" and (computer) "virus." At the same time, that means that most of these words will appear in any current standard dictionary also, and with essentially the same definitions and perhaps even some of the same citations as here. When, one wonders, does a word stop being a neologism and just become a standard part of the language?

There is also the reverse process on display here. That word "virus," for example, is a perfectly common medical word that was taken up by science fiction (the first citation here is David Gerrold's When Harlie Was One, 1972) and given a new but analogous usage. It is one of the most common ways that science fiction writers construct their neologisms. When travel across space was metaphorically likened to travel across the sea it became inevitable that vessels for one environment would be given names analogous to those of the other.

"Spaceship" is the obvious example, but going on from that starting point you will also find in this dictionary "boat", "craft", "cruiser" and "vessel." All of these are, of course, standard English words and their use in science fiction is not too dissimilar to their use outside science fiction. It would have helped, therefore, indeed it would have made a great deal of sense, if the standard meaning of the word was given here, at least as a derivation. Unfortunately, if you turn to the entry for "ship," for example, you would be given no hint that the word has ever meant anything other than "spaceship."

One thing to remember with all these words, of course, is that the only words defined here are those that have acquired some form of common usage. A disproportionate number of words and phrases, for instance, have been taken from television programmes -- "beam me up," "smeg" -- because they are known to a wider audience, have therefore acquired a certain popular currency, and also their usage can be traced in novelisations and internet fan sites. But most of the neologisms used in science fiction do not have such currency and were never intended to have it. They are words invented to suit a particular situation in a particular novel, and the chances of other authors facing identical circumstances or indeed wanting to re-use another author's invention, are slight. The vast majority of science fiction words, therefore, may appear in only one or two novels and you will not find them here.

But, without caring to differentiate between them, this dictionary of science fiction words is only one of the tasks this book has set itself. It is also a dictionary of critical terms about science fiction. Now a dictionary of science fiction words is relatively new (there is Brian Stableford's Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature, 2004, but that is not readily available, so Jeff Prucher does more or less have the field to himself), but there have been other dictionaries of critical terms. Gary Wolfe's Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1986, is far more extensive and authoritative than Prucher could hope to be. But what he is really doing is providing a list of the sorts of words about science fiction you are likely to encounter in an introduction or a review. Thus you will come across "sharecropping" ("the practice of writing fiction set in a universe created by... another") or "alternate history" ("a timeline that is different from that of our own world... the genre of fiction set in such a time"), or "planetary romance" ("a genre of science fiction that describes an adventure taking place on a planet's surface"). Actually I am not altogether happy with that last definition. I think the word "romance" implies something colourful and exotic, more A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs than, say, Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust, though both would fall neatly under this definition. But then, critical terms tend to be nuanced and contended, and the brief definitions and matter-of-fact usage citations included here don't allow any hint of such interplay. A word like "slipstream," for instance, has, since it was coined by Bruce Sterling, received no more satisfactory definition than "science fiction" itself, and there are still lengthy arguments about whether there even is such a thing. But you will find none of that in the definition and citations given here. And related terms, such as "interstitial," do not appear at all.

It is among the critical terms, also, that I tend to notice another minor irritant of the book, though it does crop up throughout other types of entry. In a dictionary constructed on historical principles, as this purports to be, the citations usually show the original usage of the word and then the way it has been used since so as to chart its evolution. Unfortunately, time and again the earliest citations given are clearly not the earliest appearance of the word. Indeed a number of these citations actually refer back to earlier or common usage of the term, and one is left wondering why these earlier appearances of the word were not sought out.

There is, of course, good reason to include such critical terms in a dictionary of science fiction. The wider audience at whom the book is clearly aimed will come across terms about science fiction just as often as they will come across the language of science fiction itself. But it is the third dictionary incorporated within this book that most gives me pause, for this is also a dictionary of fannish terms. Even more than for critical terms, there is any number of fan dictionaries, and most of the citations here actually come from such amateur publications. Fan language -- "egoboo", "neo", "thish" -- is a fascinating thing in its own right, though a lot of the more esoteric terms have tended to drop out of regular use even in fannish circles, except when meant ironically. But it is not a language that most people who read science fiction are likely to encounter. Science fiction novels and science fiction criticism rarely if ever use terms like "croggle", "passifan" or even "zine," so you are not likely to look up from a short story or book review and reach for a dictionary to find out what such words mean. You do not need these words to understand science fiction itself, and for all that science fiction and fandom are closely interconnected, their languages are completely separate. Only by becoming a fan are you likely to come across fan language, so all at once a dictionary that has seemed aimed more at the general audience than the specialist suddenly has content that can only be of interest to a narrow and special audience. It sends out confusing messages about what this dictionary is trying to do. It is a valuable reference book, but perhaps it tells us rather less about science fiction than we might have anticipated.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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