Panic Stations

Once in a while I've mentioned working on the new Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, something that's been chugging along in the background of my life – and not just mine – for years and years. It's like that long idyll of university coursework that seems to drift on forever until you hear the stark news that your final exams are just six weeks away. Where did the time go?

Suddenly it's all happening! Contracts have been signed, and Gollancz are publishing the Encyclopedia! It's to be free of charge, on line, with the first "skeleton" version going up at the end of September 2011, and we still haven't written the all-important entry for Charles Stross! (Just joking, Charlie. Well, not really. Pretend you didn't see that.) This is the time of testing, as hardened Encyclopedia workers summon their last reserves of strength while Langford runs gibbering into the distant sunset....

The Gollancz announcement would have appeared on 4 July, but America was celebrating the making of Independence Day (I think it was) and our publicity chaps kept their big splash for the 5th. Like every titbit of SF information these days, this news was Facebooked and BoingBoinged and Twittered in all directions. Probably the biggest publicity boost within the SF community came from the Mighty Tweet of Neil Gaiman, bless him, who opined: "The best news of the week, unless Earth is Saved from a Martian invasion on Friday: The @SFencyclopedia is coming back ..."

Am I, and John Clute and the other editors, really panicking? Yes and no. We have a mass of boring old statistics to comfort us. The 1993 second edition of the Great Big Fat Book – which like the 1979 first edition won a Hugo award – contained 6571 entries and about 1.3 million words. This third edition-in-progress keeps growing, and as I write is pushing close to 12,000 entries and 3 million words. That's ... quite a bit. When will it be finished? Technically, never. After the beta version goes on line, we have another million words to add in monthly instalments before declaring victory. Even then, regular updates should continue until the exhausted editors topple with a final sigh of relief into the grave. Tickets for this spectacle will be available through the hyperefficient outlets used by the 2012 Olympics.

Interestingly, some prospective readers are already saying they don't want to consult such a vast reference work on a website. Some fancy having a real book – but the massive second edition ran to 1320 pages of tiny print, before corrections and addenda were stuffed in for a paperback reissue. The third would be over 3000 pages for only the current text, rising to a likely 4000; not even Peter F Hamilton's publishers could cope. Would a CD/DVD alternative be so much different from a website? Other would-be punters fancy installing the Encyclopedia as an app for their smartphone or iPricy. Maybe Gollancz's experts will find a way to keep them happy.

Meanwhile, our stern copyeditor keeps spotting typos and administering short sharp shocks: "Another time traveller who died before he was born!" Oops. And several of the contributing editors, hugely knowledgable experts on various facets of SF to whose vast knowledge I grovellingly defer, have so far expertly failed to deliver anything. Closing time approaches in the Last Chance Saloon.

Must stop now. I have entries to write, ever so many entries. I may be gone for some time.

David Langford nervously invites all of you to take a look at Except Charlie Stross.