The book’s full title, Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, is an apt description of what you can expect from this lavish tome. The heavy book, weighing in at over five hundred pages, is presented in hardback and printed on high quality glossy paper, with full-colour illustrations and photographs. The iconic glowing red eye of HAL, the psychotic computer in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, keeps tabs on you from the cover.
To look at, Sci-Fi Chronicles is beautiful. Thankfully, the text is informative and engaging too, making for an insightful as well as aesthetically pleasing read. Sci-Fi Chronicles takes readers on a chronological journey through the history of the genre, discussing its impact in (primarily) books, film and television. You’ll find that it pays homage to early cinematic influences that helped to define the genre such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and HG Wells’ Things To Come. Although a relatively recent genre, tracing its origins back to Victorian Gothic horror stories such as Frankenstein, it has since burgeoned and exerted a huge influence on popular culture. For this reason, the book concentrates solely on entries that fit the specific science-fiction mould: you’ll find very little fantasy here (Buffy fans, take note) or horror, save for when there’s a strong science fiction crossover (Alien).
Where such a distinction is wisely made, you’ll find included literary endeavours such as George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece about the evils of Stalinist totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Justifiably? Yes, because the best science fiction can draw parallels to the world we live in to explore ideas or take current trends to an extreme. Dystopian thrillers such as John Wyndham’s 1951 classic The Day of the Triffids and Terry Nation’s remarkable 1970s series Survivors fall into this category as neatly as Orwell’s polemical and deeply political novel, the influence of which spreads far and wide, notably on Terry Gilliam’s best film, Brazil.
Naturally, such a compendium is always going to make omissions, and the most glaring will vary depending upon the prejudices of the reader. We were surprised to see no mention of The Omega Factor, the quirky 1979 British TV show that was a direct influence on The X-Files. The under-rated Slipstream also fails to register.
The book is split into several main sections depending upon era, but these distinctions are largely arbitrary. The most useful way of leafing through the volume is to use the years that appear at the top of the page as a loose guide, or to find a specific entry in the index. Significant authors recur throughout the book. For example, Arthur C. Clarke has his own section in 1946, the year he came to prominence. This relates to his life’s work, where screen adaptations (such as 2001: A Space Odyssey) are discussed further down the track. Titles that have been adapted many times (e.g. The War of the Worlds) or that have several sequels to the franchise (Star Wars, Jurassic Park) have their whole history discussed together, as do long-running television shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek (in their various guises). This may lead to some confusion, when modern versions of ventures with ancestry, such as Flash Gordon, The Thing, Batman and Superman, are placed at their genesis in the 1930s. Once you get the hang of the structure it becomes second nature.
A major plus-point of the book is the prose. Like most encyclopaedic volumes, Sci-Fi Chronicles is the work of many contributors, but it has been excellently edited together by Guy Haley, who has instilled a strong house style in his various writers. It is sparkling and engrossing, but avoids the pitfall of similar tomes of slipping into sarcasm and indulging in the trashing of pet peeves. The book is informed and scholarly enough to avoid cheap red top clichés, where objectivity and balanced critique are maintained throughout. Negative criticisms are fair, and conveyed constructively.
Fans of prolific sci-fi author Stephen Baxter will enjoy seeing his staunch defence of science fiction in the introduction.
We strongly recommend this coffee table/bedtime reading book (we say that because its weight precludes an easy slip into your pocket) to all fans of science fiction. There’s something for everyone, whether your personal preferences are for high-budget Hollywood flicks, low-budget British television or anything in between. Sci-Fi Chronicles puts the whole genre into a perspective few have previously thought about. Reading a chronological history of the genre, and charting its major developments, influences and groundbreaking entries challenges the reader to reassess its impact and relevance like never before. Sci-Fi Chronicles is sure to have you returning to old favourites, as well as sending you in new directions wherever curiosity is piqued.