Jonathan Cowie and Tony Chester's Essential SF: A Concise Guide is precisely that: a concise guide to science fiction authors, books, stories, films, and TV series. The Essential part is in the eye of the beholder. Cowie and Chester, in wanting to produce a guide small enough so that fans and collectors could carry it around to bookstores and convention dealers rooms, have listed works that have won the Hugo Award and were listed in Locus polls. The films they chose for inclusion were based on similar polls for SF films. But are these works and authors the "best" of what the genre has to offer?
Yes, but the guide is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes. Cowie and Chester are British, so there is a markedly British slant. For instance, they list a large number of specific British and European conventions, but hardly any American ones, and their organization, The Science Fact and Fiction Concatenation—which I'd never heard of before receiving this book—gets an entry, showing to me that they broke from their own criteria to list something they thought was important to the genre as a whole, but which may only have significance to them. Not being an expert on British SF, I could be wrong on that score, but it strikes me as being a little self-important on their part.
As for their criteria, I must say that having strict guidelines for inclusion was necessary in a book of this type. Wanting to avoid an unwieldy tome comparable to the Clute and Nicholls The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Cowie and Chester stuck with works that received popular votes such as the Hugo, thereby leaving out committee-awarded works like the Nebula winners. This may upset some people, but the award itself gets an entry, and works that won the Hugo and also either won or were nominated for the Nebula mention the award as well. As for the authors, I'd like to see a more complete listing, but Cowie and Chester chose to only include those authors who had two or more works listed as separate entries. So why did they list Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God and Hominids without including a separate listing for Sawyer himself? Perhaps this is a simple error. Still, for a more complete listing, there's always Clute and Nicholls's Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia.
But for any of its perceived flaws, Essential SF: A Concise Guide is a handy compendium to the huge world of SF. It has already filled some important gaps in my knowledge and given me some book titles to look for at the local library, and I especially like the list of every Worldcon, featuring where it was held and the guests of honor. The small size makes it much more handy than Clute and Nicholls's encyclopedias, and will be useful to those of us who write about science fiction as much as read it. This baby's going within arm's reach on my reference shelf.
James Palmer has written articles, reviews, interviews and poetry for the defunct SciFiNow.com, as well as RevolutionSF, Strange Horizons, Every Writer, Vision: A Resource for Writers, and Scifaikuest. He reviews short fiction for Tangent Online, and writes a movie column entitled "Barium Cinema" for Continuum Science Fiction. He holds a BA in English, and lives in Georgia with his wife Kelley. In his spare time, James enjoys reading more than is good for him, and breeding carnivorous plants for sentience and mobility. For further insanity, visit his website.