SCIENCE FICTION has always tended to be excessively proud of the fact that it's received so little critical attention. Mainstream literature was taught in colleges and textbooks; and mainstream literature was dead. "Keep science fiction out of the classroom and back in the gutter where it belongs" was a catchphrase of the '70s.
The horror field, which may have respectable ancestors in Poe and Gogol but in recent years has been largely given over to paperbacks so lurid it's embarrassing to read them on the Metro, has been even more resistant to serious criticism. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, edited by Jack Sullivan (Viking, $35), a major book from a major publisher, is therefore something of a departure. It is also an achievement.
Principal contributors include the editor, E.F. Bleiler, T.E.D. Klein, Timothy Robert Sullivan, Robert Hadji and Kim Newman. They and about 50 others supply material ranging from a short but comprehensive entry on the Bronte sisters and an endorsement of Richard Adams' neglected masterpiece The Girl in a Swing to an especially fine essay by Klein on "The Supernatural: Belief and the Writer" (if you don't believe in it, you can't do it, he concludes) and Ramsey Campbell's too-short "The Pits of Terror," which looks at such awful movies as Deafula (Dracula in sign language) and Attack of the Mushroom People.
The greatest virtue of the Encyclopedia of Horror is its presentation of "horror as pleasure" as an integrated whole, considering not only writers but also movies, artists, actors, illustrators and directors. In addition, there are thematic treatments of such disparate subjects as B movies, opera, insects and arachnids, graveyard poetry and sex.
For a book of this scale, errors (a novella Carlos Fuentes is "currently writing" is actually a novel published last year) and contradictions (Stephen King is credited with having sold 70 million books on page 243; by page 468, he's down to 50 million) seem relatively few. A more troubling problem is an occasional tendency to be unfocused.
The entry on King, for instance, wanders through his career, dishing out praise and criticism in meaningless lumps. While the easy point is made that King's novels resemble movies, with flashbacks, flashforwards and scenes that dissolve, it's never explained why the novels are best sellers but the films made from them (with the exception of Carrie) have been both critically and popularly trashed.
In the main, though, this is a useful guide that establishes a literate tradition for horror far beyond the easy frights of splatter films and such authors as V.C. Andrews and John Saul. If it never provides a single compelling reason for our continuing thirst to be scared witless by things that aren't real, it offers the most satisfying survey yet of the kingdom of fear. Picking the Best DAVID PRINGLE'S Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (Carroll & Graf, $14.95) is much smaller in scope than the Encyclopedia of Horror, but as the work of one individual, it's a more personal, intimate work. Pringle successfully does for science fiction what Anthony Burgess' 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 only fitfully managed to do for mainstream literature.
Burgess' selections ranged from the reasonably obvious (Pale Fire, A Dance to the Music of Time) to the intriguing (Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan) to a fair quantity of the downright ridiculous (Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life, Ian Fleming's Goldfinger). It was a book designed mainly to provoke; any fan of modern literature could compile an entirely different but equally presentable list.
Such reshuffling would not be possible with Pringle, due not only to the more limited supply of science fiction titles but also to the greater defensibility of his nominees. Pringle's recipe sounds eccentric -- he warns that "no more than ten or a dozen of these novels can be described as literary masterpieces," with the rest "masterpieces of their sort" -- old favorites, influential or popular works, or added just for balance. Yet the results are good.
According to Pringle, the greatest modern sf novelist (with six novels listed) is Philip K. Dick, that sad, confused, paranoid man who, by charting his own breakdowns, depicted an increasingly unstable world. A compilation like this reminds readers that the best and most influential are not always the most popular: Dick, who died in 1982, never had a best seller, and is only now getting the critical regard he deserved.
An editor of the two leading British sf publications, the magazine Interzone and the critical journal Foundation, Pringle is at his best with the '70s and '80s. He includes not only modern classics like Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun tetralogy and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed but also such unpredictable, worthwhile selections as Barry Malzberg's bitter mock-space opera Galaxies and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's ode to militarism and high-tech, Oath of Fealty. His enthusiasm is infectious enough to send you back to his choices.
The gulf between science fiction and the mainstream is often denied or ignored, but an unintended result of Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels is to point out how deep the rift still is. Only three of Pringle's choices were also chosen by Burgess, and two of these -- Orwell's 1984 and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker -- could have been expected. The third, Keith Roberts' 1968 alternate worlds novel Pavane, is not.
Burgess acclaimed Pavane for its striking invention of a simultaneously modern and medieval England; Pringle was impressed by the loving descriptions of old-fashioned technology. Yet in spite of the novel's classic status, Roberts has a profile so low as to be almost nonexistent. At heart he is a short story writer -- The Passing of the Dragons was one of the best science fiction collections of the '70s -- and short story writers don't sell. Not one of his first 10 works of fiction, including Pavane, is in print in this country; the last three weren't published here at all. Kites of the Realm P AVANE is a nearly perfect book -- concise, moving, as elegant as the dance from which it takes its title. Roberts' new novel, Kiteworld (Arbor House, $15.95), is not quite so good. There are several similarities with Pavane -- a setting in an England on the cusp of change, the linking up of short stories to form a complete work -- but the whole never quite coheres.
The background details are brilliantly done. In this post-holocaust world, civilization has been reduced to a small Realm, and an elaborate defense system of manned kites is used against marauding demons. Roberts knows how things work, and he can evoke the smell of the oil and aviator's dope, the clanking of the steam winch, and the sight of the gaudy, winged kites.
The foreground, regrettably, is more confused. Characters wander from one story into the next in unlikely fashion, and a happy reconciliation and a literal deus ex machina in the finale are completely unbelievable.
The Realm is initially so paralyzed by fear that some householders put seats on their chimneys, to give the demons a rest and thus encourage them to spare the people beneath. Yet the nature of the demons is never made clear. Are they truly malicious? Completely imaginary? Pathetic radiation-doused animals? Or even, as the dust jacket suggests, sentient guided missiles?
By the end, the characters are just as confused as the reader. "What if all the time they'd been watching the skies for nothing? No Demons would plunge from the zenith; shouldn't they rather turn, and look into each others' eyes?" one man wonders. This tension between belief and disbelief, in addition to the colorful folktale atmosphere, makes Kiteworld valuable. The analogies with the present are unforced but obvious, and make this uneven work more ambitious than other recent sf novels. The Machine in the Box CLIFFORD SIMAK has been writing sf since 1931 -- almost as long as the field has existed. On evidence of his latest, however, he's content to ease along on his reputation as a master of the easygoing pastoral.
David Pringle chose a Simak title, the 1963 Way Station, as one of his 100 best. The tale of an alien transfer post set up in southwestern Wisconsin, it was lifted above the ordinary by the author's obvious love for the setting and his gentle humor. Highway of Eternity (Del Rey, $14.95) tries to mix the bucolic with preposterous adventure, as if Simak had been reading too much Robert Ludlum.
It begins when Tom Boone is hired to "step around a corner" -- manipulate reality -- and discover the contents of a mysterious box. The box, of course, is a time machine, which takes Boone back to 1745 Shropshire, where a family from 1 million A.D. is hiding out from aliens that want to make them immortal. The nasty aliens send a mechanical monster after the refugees, and we're off for a trip through timestreams best left untaken.
To say the least, the writing is stilted or forced -- on a single page, characters yell (four times), shout (twice), scream (twice), bellow, protest, and roar. The plot is equally unrestrained, as if a cook were trying to make steak tartare and baked alaska in the same bowl. When Boone notes that "It was unreal . . . all of it unreal," you can only nod your head in agreement.
Books like Highway of Eternity are much better done as movies, where any resemblance to the real world is positively discouraged. Any time spent reading it would be better devoted to searching out old titles by Keith Roberts. David Streitfeld, a reporter for the Style Plus section of The Washington Post, is the former book review editor for the Gannett chain of newspapers.