Critical Mass

An exciting sf project of the 1990s, rumours of which made critics salivate copiously, was the CD-ROM of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls (2nd printed edition, 1993). Since I'm the lowly artisan called upon when the Clute computers need fixing, I somehow became unofficial software consultant to the baffled editors, rising rapidly to the coveted position of Chief Whinger.

The secret history of the CD-ROM Encyclopedia (let's call it the SFCD) includes a first version that got as far as proof copies on gold CD-Recordable discs before being scrapped. The project was then in the hands of an outfit called Nimbus, who were big in CD mass-production but, it turned out, pinheaded in matters of presentation software.

What Nimbus proposed for the SFCD was a crude home-made MS-DOS viewer program which was barely adequate for displaying and searching classic texts, as in their own CD-ROMs of Lewis Carroll and Jane Austen, but hopeless for the Encyclopedia and its dense use of cross-referencing.

My enthusiasm for their proof SFCD dwindled rapidly as I encountered one stunning software "feature" after another. Headword, author and title lists were presented in narrow menus 24 characters wide ... making it a bundle of fun when, for example, you looked for a specific, numbered anthology and were confronted with a long list of titles all reading YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICT.

Cross-references were handled with stupefying clumsiness. What modern computer users expect is to click on a highlighted link and go straight to the indicated entry. Nimbus preferred a system whereby you pressed a "Link" key; whereupon, at glacial speed, the software would assemble a non-alphabetical menu of all the links in the current entry, from which you selected where to go. As for browsing further ... forget it. After following a cross-reference from ALDISS to SHELLEY it wasn't permitted to pick a link from SHELLEY to, say, FRANKENSTEIN: you had to backtrack through ALDISS to the headword list and start again.

Then there were the search facilities. Nimbus's motto was "Seek and ye shall not find." Their SFCD search option didn't take you to the searched-for text but dumped you at the beginning of the entry – or succession of entries – containing it. Searching for Report on Probability A would get as far as ALDISS, after which you hunted through the text by eye to spot the helpfully highlighted title. Except that Report on Probability A wasn't highlighted, since it broke over a line-end and the system failed with all such titles, as well as with many containing hyphens and all titles perverse enough to begin with "The". (Because these were recorded as e.g. AFFIRMATION, THE in the title menu and The Affirmation in the text, that's why.)

"Be our plenipotentiary," John Clute conveyed to me. "You know this technical stuff. Get them to fix it." But Nimbus wouldn't, and grumbled about elitists demanding impossible luxury features. Only ivory-tower intellectuals could possibly wish to follow chains of cross-references, or expect a computer search to take them to the phrase being searched for. Ordinary readers, the silent majority, would read the SFCD laboriously but happily from end to end, their lips slowly moving all the while....

Ordinary readers wouldn't mind little things like losing track of which entry they were reading, just because the headword rapidly scrolled out of sight as you read down the entry. Meanwhile, whole lines of the 25-line screen were permanently devoted to reminding you that you were still, in fact, no kidding, reading "The Encyclopedia of SF on CD-ROM".

Further Nimbus interrogation elicited the magic phrase, "the functionality of the software is fixed" ... understood to mean, "the programmer doesn't work here any more and no one else understands his stuff."

At this stage I got carried away and started programming my own partial solution, in the form of "stealth" software that could lurk in the background while the rubbishy Nimbus program ran, and furtively add extra features: automatic searching within entries, highlighting sought-for titles even when they began with "The", keeping the current headword visible, setting up function keys for missing facilities like going to the beginning or end of the current entry, and much more. Although the basic grottiness of the Nimbus SFCD couldn't be disguised, it was possible to improve it considerably.

A semi-happy ending loomed when Nimbus finally agreed to include my brain-child on the official SFCD, and pay me royalties. But shortly afterwards came a titanic editorial convulsion as the whole project was taken away from Nimbus and bought by Grolier. That's my life.

This led to noises of rejoicing at Clute editorial HQ. Grolier Electronic Publishing Inc were big, posh and experienced. They could be relied on for a state-of-the-art Windows SFCD package; Nimbus had still been using old DOS software, which in the present market was the equivalent of having your sales people go around in hoods ringing handbells and crying "Unclean! Unclean!"

So there were surprises all round when the SFCD finally appeared from Grolier as The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 1995. Some of these were perhaps predictable, like the stupid corporate lack of interest in emphasising any connection with an award-winning reference book ... Messrs Clute and Nicholls got no mention on the outer package, and stickers crediting them were added only after much complaint.

The "multimedia" aspect was seemingly inserted in an awful hurry: besides disposable sound recordings and video clips of talking heads, it boiled down to 2,130 pictures, rounded up in evident haste and often – the author photos especially – remarkably bad. (Let's not dwell on cock-ups like how Terry Pratchett's photo became Mike Resnick's and vice versa.) I was asked about reproducing a tatty old copy of my sf newsletter Ansible: "Let me send you the latest issue," I cried, only to be told there was no time. God knows when the Langford author photo was taken; it possesses an eerie youthfulness that puts me in mind of the Picture of Dorian Gray. Evidence of cheapskatery is most apparent in the promised movie stills, which to avoid paying reproduction fees were replaced in 99% of cases by mere pictures of movie posters.

But the heart of darkness of Grolier's SFCD lay in exactly the same place as Nimbus's: the display software. Many defects, with uncanny synchronicity, echoed those of Nimbus. I'd complained that the Nimbus menu cut off all headwords at 24 characters, and that despite using a 25-line text screen it would display only 13 headwords at a time. Grolier, with all the power of resizable text windows at their disposal, reduced this to a display menu 9 headwords long, each cut down to 18-22 letters.

The effect was unbelievable. Horrible in many ways though Windows may be, it has built-in facilities for choosing your own display window sizes, fonts and colours. Nevertheless Grolier force you to read the SFCD in a fixed 16-line text display area occupying a fraction of the screen, with a nasty font that you can't change, and cross-reference links in nasty colours (magenta, mostly) that you can't change either. The whole thing collapses into silliness on a high-resolution monitor, when Grolier's entire, supposedly full-screen SFCD display area becomes a little "leper's squint" slot in the middle of the screen, and can't be made bigger. It is to puke.

Admittedly the Grolier cross-referencing works far better than Nimbus's, with unlimited browsing via text links ... but those of us used to web browsers expect a "Back" key allowing instant backtracking. Grolier merely provide a "history list" which rather laboriously lets you locate previously visited entries but not your previous position in their text.

And then there are the search facilities, which exactly like Nimbus's don't take you to the actual search text – just to the beginning of an entry containing it. Indeed Grolier manage to disimprove on the Nimbus efforts, by not even trying to highlight the found text in the entry where it's been found. If your search lands you at the start of a hefty entry like CINEMA, a long job of further text-skimming awaits you.

These and other intractable problems lured me back to the insidious joys of programming, and of trying to put together a Windows 95 application that can replace Grolier's software by reading the data files on their SFCD and presenting them properly. Progress has been encouraging ... and yes, with my amateurish efforts it is possible to search and go rapidly to the exact text you were looking for, to backtrack instantly to the entry you last visited – indeed, the last 100 entries in succession – at the same text position, and lots more.

The secret is that when using a decent development kit (Borland's Delphi is my choice) you needn't be a world-class programmer to provide resizable windows with fonts that readers can change to their own liking. You merely have to follow standard Windows programming conventions, instead of taking extra effort to produce crippled, ugly software for the sake of – let me guess – Looking Excitingly Different from ordinary programs, or possibly Projecting A Corporate Image. If Grolier produced automobiles to the SFCD pattern, these would show off their unique Grolierhood by having five wheels, a six-inch viewing slot centred in the opaque windscreen, and a reverse gear controlled from the boot.

The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, by the way, was poorly marketed and sold few copies. What a surprise. That noise you hear is the grinding of John Clute's teeth.