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The ten thousand things and the one true only.

by Kip Manley

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Things to keep in mind:
The secret of good fences.

As the world of the literatures of the fantastic was (we knew even then) much more extensive than the world of anything that we might end up defining as English-language science fiction (hence SF), our initial overall challenge was to work out how to sort the traffic: anything we licensed as SF please park here; everything else go somewhere else (but we knew not where).

Any initial arrogance about defining our terms was quickly chastened. The task, we decided pretty soon, was not exactly to create a universal definition of SF, for we knew (by then) that this could not be done; the task was to create an encompassing but porous boundary marker that would convince us that it plausibly enclosed something or other that fitted better inside than out (and which should be written about). Clearly we needed to operate within a narrower remit than E. F. Bleiler had applied to the construction of his brilliant Checklist of Fantastic Literature (1948), which included without distinguishing amongst them “science fiction, fantasy and weird books in the English language,” and making no claim to completeness. Bleiler’s superb book was a sampler; for our part, in order to create a work of reference that left nothing out, we would attempt to adhere to a description of SF “defined” as a marriage of the various definitions of the genre that were then current. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction would be, in other words, a tenement. The published result was an interwoven edifice of entries within a boundary line marked SF, exceedingly fuzzy, leaking every which way; an eruv that did not safely distinguish the sacred from the profane. The moat protecting our tenement was a water margin.

But it worked for a while, and in a way it still works, partly because our “definition” of SF as being essentially whatever everyone else thought it was seemed sufficiently broadchurch to allow users and scholars to make use of us without surrendering their own takes on the matter. Our deliberate refusal to know exactly what we were talking about—our refusal to know what SF truly was—was, I continue to think, a good model for writing encyclopedias.

John Clute

—posted 102 days ago


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