2012 Snapshot Archive: Peter Nicholls

First published at Helen Merrick’s blog.

Peter Nicholls is a Hugo-award winning SF critic and scholar, best known for his work in conceiving and editing the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. He has also been an academic, film-maker, anthologist, first administrator of the  Science Fiction Foundation (SF), and editor of Foundation: the review of Science Fiction. He is Editor Emeritus of the third, online edition of the Encyclopedia, the SFE3.

Your two previous editions (in book form), and the current third edition (on the internet) of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction have been a central resource for SF critics and researchers. Can you tell us a bit of the history of how the first Encyclopedia came about?

In 1971 I had been made Administrator of the Science Fiction Foundation at North East London Polytechnic. The main thing my employers wanted was for me to help produce a literary course for undergraduates, including science fiction, that was reputable and viable. They didn’t get that, because the Council for National Academic Awards would not validate it, though their criticisms of it did not single out the sf content or indeed even mention it. However, my job was becoming obvious. I had to argue the case for sf’s importance and intrinsic interest to the academic world on one hand, and to the public at large on the other. In other words, I remade myself into a Public Relations hack, but not quite a hack — I worked too hard for that, organizing travelling book exhibitions, editing a journal (called Foundation; it’s still going strong), giving lectures at other universities, organizing art exhibitions and lecture series, doing radio broadcasts and a tv special, and so on. Lots of stuff, a bit easier to do than you might expect. The British media were very supportive, partly because they thought my job was interesting, and also because sf is cool.

However, with all this publicity, the number of written and telephoned queries we received, mostly questions about science fiction, increased every year. We had a moderately good library in the Science Fiction Foundation, but answering these questions became more and more time consuming. It was difficult, too, because in the mid-1970s there was not very much published about sf. There were few historical and/or critical studies and few reference books of any kind. I took to moaning ‘if only there was a science fiction encyclopedia’.

And that was really that. The Fates intervened within a year, and I heard a rumour that a book packaging company called Roxby Press was interested in doing a big, illustrated book about science fiction. That was the catalyst I needed. A mental light bulb turned on right over my head. I myself could research, edit and write that very same science fiction encyclopedia I knew I needed. It had a wonderful, circular logic to it. I went to see Roxby Press, and they asked me to prepare an outline. There’s no need for too many details, I signed a contract in October 1976 and was ready to roll, still having no realistic idea of how much work this book would be. Over the next nine months I found out. It was sad that although I only really needed an encyclopedia for my work at the Science Fiction Foundation, finishing the book would take so much work that I would have to resign from the Foundation to do it. Another ironic circle. I resigned as of the end of 1977. One further decision in early 1977 arose from the realization that I had no hope of ever finishing the book if I tried to do it as sole editor and sole senior writer. I decided to invite my friend John Clute to be Associate Editor to my General Editor. This also had lasting consequences, in his life as in mine. In the same essay that I quoted from at the beginning, I wrote of John Clute:

‘John Clute…writes so vividly of subtext that he sometimes forgets, as he inhales the electrifying pure oxygen of his inbuilt aqualung, that there is an ordinary text up there on the surface, a position he visits only occasionally with a magisterial gruffle and spout before he sounds again into our sf deeps. The point I’m trying to make is that if Clute hadn’t existed, I would have had to invent him.’

So I unleashed a monster upon an unknowing world, and sf criticism has never been the same since. The encyclopedia manuscript was delivered in June 1978. It was published in 1979 by Granada, to whom Roxby Press had granted English rights, and also in 1979 by Doubleday in New York. It was three quarters of a million words long; and it had been touted by us beforehand—we were so innocent—as essentially complete. But encyclopedias are never complete, though it took us more than thirty years to realize just how incomplete it was. I cannot tell you how proud I am now that we (35 contributors including the by now five editors) researched and wrote this book in twenty months. My children I’m sure think of me as a sleepy old fellow who doesn’t do much more around the house than putting out the rubbish bins once a week. I sometimes think it’s sad they didn’t know me back then. They were not even born. Roadrunner was a dawdler next to me.

Do you ever feel that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is to you what the Monster was to Dr Frankenstein?

It is now more than a third of a century since I began working, in 1976, on The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which was published in 1979. That was the year I turned forty. It is an irony that science fiction, which is largely read by young people and is largely about new things, has possessed me as strongly as ever over a period extending from middle age to what might be called old age now that I’m 73. Real-world actuarial research predicts that human life spans will steadily increase. Maybe I’m no longer by current standards very old at all. However, it is no coincidence that my hair (black and sinister) began turning white (benevolent and harmless) during my time planning and working on the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It is not surprising that encyclopedists tend to have a haggard look. The thing is, they have no holidays at all, because they cannot allow themselves to fall behind. Only the swiftest and most focused can survive. You may start in the job thinking that an encyclopedist has to be a harmless drudge for only two or three years until the book is done. But you soon learn that the book is never done, and if the subject of an encyclopedia is science fiction, then we have a double jeopardy, because sf by its nature changes very fast indeed and thus inflicts twice the damage.

During the 1980s I either edited and/or partially wrote four or five books. In the case ofFantastic Cinema (1984) I entirely wrote it. I wrote a great many reviews. I wrote chapters or segments of other people’s books. I did not have to go back on the dole. I married in 1983, after a bachelorhood of nine years, which was ushered in back in 1974 when I split with my American girlfriend. My new wife Clare and I had a baby son, Jack (who, sigh, attended Clarion West Writers’ Workshop in Seattle last year. Time flies.) We even, possibly foolishly, came to Australia (back to Australia in my case) to live in the new Eden, and promptly produced a second child, Luke. None of this enabled me to shut out the quiet footsteps of my very own Frankenstein monster, the Encyclopedia, which had tracked me down over half a world. I had thought I might be safe back here in Australia, but in a parody of “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” the Encyclopedia recaptured me and then coaxed me (or compelled me) into working with John Clute–this time we were equal co-editors–to write a second edition. I flew back to England to sign the contract in August 1990. The book was published in 1993.

This edition was not to be illustrated, but in other respects was much more difficult than the first time around. There were more than twenty years of new authors, films, tv shows, magazines and so on to be covered. We had to repair omissions and errors in the first edition, having long since realized how far the first edition had been from being ‘complete’. But the worst thing was simply the extra stress for John and me because we were working half a world apart, and the opportunities for misunderstanding each other were much magnified. It’s true that technological aids, consisting of the fax machine and a primitive home computer, enabled faster contact than previously, but that was not enough for us completely to recover the easy camaraderie that had characterized our previous collaborations. It also meant that John was relying much more heavily on the technical editor than before. This man was Paul Barnett who used the nom de plume John Grant for his work on the Encyclopedia. I had met him a few times, but didn’t really remember him. Unfortunately he remembered me and regarded me—I’m not sure why–as arrogant. At the beginning his communications with me were polite but chilly. By the end he was openly hostile and sarcastic. Many of the editorial changes Barnett made to my copy I disliked but we were running late and the changes stood.

It is not surprising then that the second edition was not a good time for me. Also, I had two young children in the house but was 52 years old, which probably had a bearing on why I was writing more slowly than in the 1970s. However, I was still no stranger to 12-hour working-days, six or seven days a week. The damage done to my relationship with John Clute was soon deepened, when I was squeezed out of the editorial team of the proposed Encyclopedia of Fantasy, because I refused to work with Paul Barnett again, but Barnett had the ear and the support of the publisher and a successful coup was mounted. One result was that though there were still nominally two co-editors, Barnett taking over my old position as John Clute’s co-editor, the Fantasy Encyclopedia effectively became a one-man book, Clute having an editorial personality that Barnett could not match, or so it appeared from what was now the outside. This arguably destroyed its balance: there were too many eccentrically titled theme entries, not enough solid entries for authors of commercial genre fantasy. It is certainly an interesting book, but perhaps more interesting if taken as John Clute’s theoretical attempt to define the nature of fantasy, and less interesting if taken as an encyclopedia. If this is the case, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction had indeed become a Frankenstein monster wreaking havoc not just on me, but also on John Clute, for it was the distancing between us that had occurred on the second edition (ESF 2) that finally resulted in my elimination from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and its consequent lopsidedness.

Well, we’ve all cooled down since then, apologies have been made between John and me, and accepted, and I again think of John as one of my closest friends, perhaps the closest. And, importantly, I can now see that the blemishes I once felt were disfiguring my contribution to the second edition are seldom more than trivial. In fact, it is a very good book, and I’m proud of it.

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia [SFE3] is currently online in a Beta version, and is already well over 3 million words. What have been the highs and lows of seeing this amazing project come to fruition?

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, third edition, is an online expansion and revision of the book version, including new material that first appeared in the CD ROM version of 1995 published in the USA by Grolier. It went online with a beta version (rather like an advanced review copy of a still unfinished book, which is not quite fruition) in October 2011. The officially ‘finished’ alpha version is due to go online at the end of November, this year, 2012. This will be 19 years after the second edition. A third of a century has gone by between first and third editions. Did I and John Clute knowingly sign up for this?

Work has been continuing on SFE3, at least since 2007, five years ago, but longer and more intensively for Clute and Langford than most of their various associates. By the end of 2010 the central group of Nicholls, Clute and Langford, now joined by sf critic Graham Sleight, a comparatively recent conscript, and also John and Pamela Lifton/Zoline who had backed us financially during the dark years, had incorporated ourselves as Science Fiction Encyclopedia Ltd. This company then signed a deal with Gollancz/Gateway, now our publishers, who would provide the SFE3 website, and a sum towards other costs of production divided into three equal parts over a two-year period. In exchange we would provide on our home page a hyperlink to the Gateway website, where Gollancz advertises and sells science-fiction e-books from the very extensive list of books to which they hold electronic rights. This was an arrangement of the first importance, a definite high spot; without this arrangement the chances of our distinguished but unsponsored group maintaining a web presence would not have been good. Very importantly (another high spot) we have total editorial control of SFE3 content. [By what I regard as a happy coincidence Malcolm Edwards, an old friend of mine, helped broker the deal. Malcolm is now Deputy CEO and Publisher of Orion Books, which owns the Gollancz imprint, but that, I’m sure has nothing to do with this! The coincidence is that, before he reached dazzling heights in the publishing business, he was a Contributing Editor of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s first edition.]

In the years since 2007, SFE3 became a small family business for the Nichollses; my then 21 year-old son Jack Nicholls began trying his hand at writing film entries at that time. At about the time he stopped (to concentrate on studies and writing fiction), my wife, Clare Coney, began proofreading all SFE3 copy. Clare was made Technical Editor just under a year ago, and her work continues.

If you put a lot of small family businesses together—and supportive partners have played a big role in many areas of SFE3–you can achieve a remarkable amount. The CD Rom text of 1995 was 1,378,000 words long. During May, 2012, the word count had achieved 3.5 million, substantially more than doubling its size. We expect to reach four million words by the end of the year, in the ‘finished’ alpha version. This is really astonishing productivity for a comparatively small group, many of them unpaid.

I am uneasy about saying too much about SFE3, which is still a work in progress. It feels unlucky to make possibly premature judgments. It will not be until after the website takes its final form that some questions will be answered. But there is still room to list a few more good moments.

A really important high spot for me was being acknowledged in SFE3 as an ‘Editor Emeritus’, which went further than necessary, although some acknowledgment had to be made, because I wrote and edited so much of the first and second editions, and nearly all of those entries have made it through to SFE3, either revised or as they were. This means that I remain an important copyright holder, and I still rank second only to John Clute in the list of contributors to SFE3 counted either by solo entries, or by solo entries plus partly written entries.

What does being an Editor Emeritus entail? It could be merely a salute to the aged from the younger and stronger (and I am the oldest editor, but only a year older than Clute!), meaning little except ‘Let’s say goodbye to the old codger!’ The preliminary material to SFE3 specifies my role more clearly:

‘Editor Emeritus Peter Nicholls wrote or revised some entries in the current edition, and exercised some quality control via editorial advice on a number of other entries, but on a very much smaller scale than previously.’

That description of what I have added to SFE3 is almost exactly correct, so far as I am concerned. It is, of course, a very minor achievement, compared to that of most of the other editorial staff, but in my eyes it was miraculous. I had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2000, and the next six years or so suffered intense depression and spent much of my time playing computer games. I did very little writing. As soon as I began work on SFE3 I became revitalized, not all at once, but perceptibly. That was especially true after I made two trips to London, one in October 2011, with Clare, for a week, and one in March 2012, travelling alone, for a month, on both occasions staying with the Clutes, where I quickly realized how very much I had been deprived, back in Australia, of the intellectual stimulation of discussing books, whether genre or non-genre, speculative fiction or poetry, with John Clute and many other friends. It derives from an easy camaraderie something I never quite found, or did not find often enough, back in Australia, not even with my wife, who is also my very good friend.

For me, a high point was the discovery that David Langford, with whom I have worked before but not as an Encyclopedia co-editor, was more than just a computer whiz seemingly capable of repairing technological glitches with an air of calm assurance, which I had known already. He is also among the very best encyclopedia writers that I have ever met. His theme entries are absolute models of their kind, succinct, good humoured, accurate and displaying an astonishing memory for books and authors who ought to be referenced in the entry, and very seldom have I ever caught him in an omission of an important and relevant reference. I am not a modest man but I think he is better at it than I was, even at my peak, and certainly less rambling. We all know about John Clute’s expertise, and it has been a great pleasure to work with Langford, who, in a wholly different style, turns out to be a really worthy and appropriate co-editor for him. I’ve always known David was good; now I know he’s very, very good.

My final high point is the pride I take in my fellow editors’ stubborn refusal to use Wikipedia as a model for SFE3. I have quite a few reasons for this: 1. Each SFE3 entry is signed by the author’s initials, which means that the writer is taking personal responsibility for the entry; 2. SFE3 publishes opinions and critical judgments, but Wikipedia does not; 3. SFE3 publishes original research, but Wikipedia does not. Despite Wikipedia’s undoubted usefulness in many areas (for example, film synopses) I have found it to be slightly more prone to error than SFE3. I believe that there is a profound philosophical difference between Wikipedia and SFE3, and that SFE3 should, and does, eschew the blandness that surely must follow from policies that disregard all opinions, and will not admit new findings (i.e. original research) that have not appeared in a reputable online source or (presumably) in print. Today my own entry in Wikipedia was flagged with the comment that this biographical article needed more citations for verification, and indeed it had already told me this some time ago. At that time it would not accept a verification from me (I tried) because it was not a citation. Thus I am not regarded as a suitable person to correct data about my own life, because original research is forbidden! As a result, the world believes that my 26-year-old son Jack is still living in the parental house which he fled two years ago.  Of course the great virtue of Wikipedia is that it uses donated labour, and has been successful to a degree that very few commentators in its early days would have deemed possible. SFE3 has far fewer compilers, and whether or not they are volunteers, they don’t get to write entries until they convince a senior editor or two that they are capable of doing so. This means that SFE3 is labour intensive.

You asked about low points. There have not been many, but there have been some difficulties. I don’t want to particularize, beyond pointing out that preparing a vast Encyclopedia when confronted by a deadline seemingly approaching at the speed of light is stressful, more particularly when contributors who would like to write more entries cannot responsibly do so because they need enough money to live on. Nobody ever got rich writing sf encyclopedias, and I suspect that would go for plenty of other specialist encyclopedias as well. Perhaps encyclopedists should not be compared to all-for-one-and-one-for-all musketeers; rather, they may be like members of some holy order that takes vows of poverty, like the Cistercians.  There have been occasional runs of bad health, and stress-related bad temper. I have myself. We are not as young as we were in 1979, when we lived in sunny ignorance of the Frankenstein monster that I had created, and which the Encyclopedia could become. To change the metaphor, but not much, John Clute once said of his nearest and dearest, ‘They may not have known it would be a life sentence.’


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