Jeff Prucher, Editor
Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
Oxford University Press, 2007
342 pages, hardcover, $29.95
ISBN 978-0-19-530567-8
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2007 by Gary McGath

All disputes over the meanings of science fiction jargon are now at an end. The people who produce Oxford English Dictionary have spoken. And if you believe that, you're no trufan and probably have never even been to a con. But that doesn't matter. Jeff Prucher and the Oxford University Press -- with help from many people, including an editorial board from NESFA -- have produced a valuable and enjoyable reference work on science fiction terminology.

The entries are detailed, usually with multiple examples, and include the earliest relevant published use that could be found of the terms. For instance, when did fen first refer to fannish periodicals as zines? Both "fannish" and "zine" had there first recorded appearance in Jack Speer's Fancyclopedia of 1944.

Not only fannish jargon (aka fanspeak) is covered, but also terms from science fiction which have become part of the language, in some cases escaping into real life. Examples are waldo, robot, genetic engineering, and spaceship.

The book can be useful ammunition in controversies over the origins of some terms, though nothing short of a planet-killer will end the arguments. For instance, the entry on "filk" correctly traces the term to an unpublished essay titled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music" by Lee Jacobs. In that article, "filk" was a simple typographical error for "folk," but it stuck.

Amusingly, the entry itself contains a typographical error. The first "filk song" published as such was Poul Anderson's "Barbarous Allen," originally printed in a fanzine called Die Zeitschrift für Vollständigen Unsinn. The zine wasn't a German-language one; the publisher just whimsically decided that "The Journal for Complete Nonsense" would sound more impressive if translated into German. The dictionary, probably following some sources on the Web, omits the umlaut in "vollständigen." Being a bit obsessive on the subject, I contacted the UCR Library, which has the zine in Bruce Pelz's fanzine collection, and verified that the zine correctly spelled its title.

In addition to the regular entries, there are sidebar pages with longer discussions of topics like "time travel," "Earthlings," and "Star Trek." These discuss broader concepts and related terms.

"Science fiction" is itself included -- and it's one of the toughest words to define in a way that fans will agree on. The first definition handles it well:

1. a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms.

But some may find that too restrictive, so definition 3 is a reference to "imaginative fiction". That's unfortunate, since "imaginative fiction" is defined to include pure fantasy. As I said, this book won't settle all arguments, and it may even start some.

If you're an actifan, your name or the names of people you know may well be listed in the acknowledgements, giving you a bit of egoboo. Mine is, though I'm not sure that any of the citations I submitted made it to the final copy.

If you're a journalist assigned to cover a science fiction convention, browsing it in advance may be useful. Be sure to read the entry on "sci-fi" to avoid a common blunder. For SF fans, the book is fun to read while providing fascinating bits of history.

Available from Oxford University press or from your local bookstore.

Last revised June 10, 2007
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