Oxford has published the paperback for its science fiction dictionary Brave New Words, giving us the ultimate triviagasm. Want the origin of terms like "moon base" and "parallel universe"? How about "expository lump"?

Then you've come to the right place. The book, edited by freelance lexicographer (awesome title) Jeff Prucher, is essentially a history of science fiction told in a series of dictionary-esque entries. It might be more accurate to say that this is a history of SF fandom, however, as much of the book is also focused on fan culture and a lot of the phrases that Prucher has chosen are ones that have resonated with fans and been taken up by them in their own publications. Terms like "expository lump," for example, "an explanation of some element in a story . . . that is overlong or clumsily written and which interrupts the narrative flow," are clearly from fandom. (And of course the word "fandom" is defined at great length and with some relish.)


What's fun about the book is discovering how old so many science fiction terms are - especially ones that people have claim to have invented recently. Such is the case with the term "flash crowd," whose synonym "flash mob" an editor at Harper's recently claimed to have coined. Nope: It was actually coined in 1973 by Larry Niven, in a short story called "Flash Crowd" where flash crowds assemble via teleportation.

And then there's the plain cool stuff, like discovering that the term "moon base," which sounds so NASA, was actually used first in 1948 by Robert Heinlein in a novel called Space Cadet (and yes, Heinlein is also the guy who invented the phrase space cadet, too). And although the idea of parallel worlds and universes feels so contemporary - especially now that J.J. Abrams is doing it in Star Trek - it is actually an idea that first appeared in HG Wells' Men Like Gods in 1923.

There are some obvious omissions here: Oft-used contemporary terms like "fanwank" and "frak" are missing. And you can read all about "femmefans" (female SF fans) but there is no entry for "feminist science fiction."


That's why I think this book functions best as a fun historical companion to mid-twentieth century writing (with a few nods to other media) and fandom. Here you can learn all about 1940s fanzines and weird old concepts that have morphed (a word first used in 1982 by the way) into new ones. And that's the joy in this book: Discovering discarded concepts like "wireheads" (people who stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains with wires), "waldoes" (remote-controlled biological avatars), and "spy rays" (a beam of energy that can hear transmissions or thoughts).

Brave New Words is a fun adventure in retro futurism, and is the perfect companion for the person who loves to sink into old science fiction novels.

Brave New Words via Amazon