Encyclopedia of Madness

The Godzilla of SF references is set to stalk the earth once more, crushing your puny Terran cities with its massive erudition. Yes, work has begun on a third edition of the monumental Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – and this time, instead of shouting helpful advice from a safe distance, I'm on the firing line as one of the editors. Can the fragile Langford sanity survive this onslaught?

The first ESF was assembled in the late 1970s by an editorial team headed by expat Australian critic Peter Nicholls. A mere 730,000 words long, it was rushed to Granada Publishing in mid-1978 to be printed in good time for a launch at the 1979 World SF Convention in Brighton. Publishers being publishers, the schedule slipped and eager buyers at Worldcon were allowed only a tantalising peep at one (1) set of bound proofs.

When a second edition was planned by John Clute and Peter Nicholls a decade later, the curse of Granada lingered on. The good news was that they'd carefully preserved the entire text on computer disks. The bad news was that these were eight-inch floppies. Although the ESF computer consultant – an idiot volunteer called Langford – found plenty of outfits that could still read standard 8" disks, none could cope with the inscrutable format used by a typesetting machine long since scrapped. Woe, woe, and 730,000 words to be retyped ...

Around 1992, my own personal madness took the form of offering to proofread the electronic draft of the second edition, which ran to some 1,300,000 words and arrived on a stack of 5¼" disks. Every time a little alarm bell rang in my head I made a note, and bunged in 25,000 words of queries. Imagine the delirious excitement when I flipped through the huge 1993 ESF and found a couple of Langford credits where my personal words of wisdom had been spliced into entries!

My next ESF duty was to tidy up the official list of second-edition corrections and put it on a website. You can still read the gory details at sfe3.org/addenda (much of this list also appears at the back of the paperback).

The history of the ESF went slightly pear-shaped in 1995, with the launch of a CD-ROM version from Grolier. This time the good news was that the second edition text had been kept safe and even expanded by another 50,000 words, with all known corrections included. Bad news: Grolier's presentation of ESF as a multimedia Windows package was awful beyond belief.*

The CD horrors only began by making you read the entries in a tiny rectangle which – no matter how large your screen – couldn't be resized. Nor could you change the font from the designer's choice of Thog Sanserif Demi-Unreadable. Also, Grolier lost all the special characters, with accented letters appearing as ordinary ones, or as hyphens, or occasionally vanishing altogether. Certain symbols simply trashed the rest of the entry. The long article NUCLEAR POWER was reduced to a paragraph and a half, stopping dead at "E=mc" because Grolier couldn't handle the superscripted 2.

Then there were countless dud hyperlinks (you actually have to proofread to tell whether ALIENS means the theme entry or the movie), and the search facilities ... don't get me started on the search facilities. I ended up writing my own software to make that wretched CD-ROM usable.

Which is one reason why I was summoned from obscurity to join the third edition's editorial team. Oh joy, oh paranoia!

The new ESF is being published by Time Warner** – on line. Goodbye at last to the terrifying space problems of 1993, when great wads of 1979 material vanished to make room for new stuff. Obsessive fans complained that Vance Aandahl, whose entry opened the first edition, was ditched in 1993 for publishing only short stories and no full-length books. We've reinstated him.

What next? Peter Nicholls and his son are attacking 13 years of films and TV series. John Clute is feverishly writing new author entries. These damned authors have bred like flies, and all too many – who couldn't or can no longer sell to major publishers – now have their own small presses. ESF policy used to be "no vanity press authors", but this is now a difficult judgment call.

And me? First comes the easy job of copyediting 1,350,000 words of hypertext, fixing dodgy links and putting back all those foreign accents ...

David Langford expects to be stark raving bonkers before the 2007 ESF delivery date.

* A longer Langford rant about the Grolier CD and its aborted predecessor appeared in Odyssey magazine (1998).

** Well, it was to be published by Time Warner Book Group, owners of the Orbit sf imprint. After the latest corporate takeover in 2006, we're still dealing with the Orbit people but they are now the Little, Brown Book Group.