On the Net

Digital Heroes

by James Patrick Kelly


In the beginning, there was unbounded enthusiasm in this space for the digital revolution. I was thrilled by email and podcasting and ebooks and audiobooks and ezines and social media and the innumerable websites offering expertise and opinion on about just about anything a SF reader could think of. When did the misgivings start? Maybe in 2005, with the column that wondered if we should be “Afraid of the Darknet.” 2007 saw the controversies surrounding self-publishing among the “Pixel-stained Technopeasants.” Then came warnings about loss of cognitive function in “The Internets May Be Hazardous to Your Health!” in 2011. Certainly by 2017, when we asked the question “Is the Internet Broken?,” misgivings had swollen to grave reservations.

Early adopters naïvely hoped that the internet would become a kind of digital utopia. Information wanted to be free! The technorati would create a new online society! Today as I click through the farflung precincts of the net, I sometimes feel as though I am stalled in traffic on a disinformation highway, to misquote Al Gore https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Gore_and_information_technology. Trolls, fakes, and liars lurk everywhere, and even when honest folk post, the lure of monetizing the web sometimes degrades the quality or quantity of what they share. Ask yourself whether you trust the internet as much today as you did ten years ago. For me, alas, the answer is a regretful no.

Yet the incredible potential remains. To remind myself of this, I’m dedicating this column to celebrating three sites on which I’ve relied in all my recent writing. Not only are these sites trustworthy and valuable, but they are created by unselfish and unsung heroes who embody the spirit of those early and glorious days of the net.

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You’ve heard of the Nebula Award http://sfadb.com/Nebula_Awards, right? The Hugo http://sfadb.com/Hugo_Awards? Did you know that they are only the tip of the accolade iceberg? There are, or have been, over a hundred different SFF awards. Some are named for past giants of the field, like the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award http://sfadb.com/Cordwainer_Smith_Rediscovery_Award and the Shirley Jackson Award http://sfadb.com/Shirley_Jackson_Awards, others recognize specific categories like the Golden Duck http://sfadb.com/Golden_Duck_Awards for children’s and YA SF books and the Sidewise http://sfadb.com/Sidewise_Awards for works of alternate history.

Perhaps because SF and fantasy were once regarded as pariah genres, our community craves validation and gives many awards every year. Keeping track of them is the indefatigable Mark Kelly (no relation), sole creator of the science fiction awards+ database http://www.sfadb.com. www.Sfadb.com went live in 2012 on a site hosted by Locus http://locusmag.com. Mark built and now manages www.sfadb.com all by himself. Altogether the site contains some 110,000 records for awards, citations, and reprints. “I might mention,” says Kelly, “that I have typed, or keyboarded, every one of the awards records myself, from print or online listings.” He updates the database every week or two, more often when major winners are announced. Sfadb gets 20,000 to 25,000 visits a month (more than a few by me) and is truly a labor of love. “The site earns nothing,” Kelly explains. “There are Amazon links throughout, but they are rarely clicked. I set up a contribution link early on, and got maybe two so I removed it. I do what I do. My purpose obviously is to compile awards data for use by the entire science fiction community, and for that matter, anyone else who might Google, for example, ‘Poul Anderson awards,’ and see the first result be http://sfadb.com/Poul_Anderson. I’m gratified that my compulsion for compiling lists has become so generally valuable.”

How will important sites like www.sfadb.com with no staff beyond their creators fare in the future? “It’s sustainable for as long as I live. What I don’t have is a succession plan.” Meanwhile, Kelly is expanding to “combine awards data with other data, citations for books and reprint data for short fiction, carefully weighting all the data, to generate ranked lists of top SF novels, fantasy novels, novellas, etc. I'd like to think of these as a guided tour through the most significant novels and short fiction of the fantastic genres.”

This would enhance my own regard for the site. If nothing else, sfadb offers one of the most comprehensive reading lists in our genre.

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Insofar as I can be said to have a career as a writer, it is as the owner of a small business, or as the IRS likes to say, a sole proprietor https://www.sba.gov/content/sole-proprietorship. An important aspect of this business is keeping track of inventory, i.e., the stories I’ve written. Alas, I’m not very good at this. Sure, I’ve posted a bibliography on my website, but I know there are lacunae. If, for some reason, you really want to find a listing of all my works http://isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?236 or those of your favorite author, there’s only one place to click, the Internet Speculative Fiction Database http://isfdb.org.

According to the pseudonymous “Ahasuerus,” current project administrator and developer, the ISFDB began when “Al von Ruff http://isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?1677 came up with the idea in 1995 and contacted me, since he was aware of my frequent responses to bibliographic questions asked on Usenet.” Today, all of the many contributors are unpaid volunteers, to keep expenses to a minimum. Al von Ruff continues to pay for the domain name and for the hosting. Ahasuerus writes, “We are all volunteers who enjoy working on bibliographies. There is something inherently gratifying about creating order out of chaos. ‘Entropy, where is thy sting?’ I suppose. At this time there is no mechanism for accepting contributions.”

The database statistics are updated once a day and are publicly available. Today the ISFDB has 211,000 author records, 626,000 publication (edition) records, 1.8 million title records, 39,000 series records, 30,000 publisher records, 88 supported award types, 759 award categories, and almost 60,000 award/nomination records. According to Ahasuerus, “Anyone can create a submission to add, modify, delete, or link ISFDB records at any time. However, unlike Wikis, all ISFDB submissions have to be reviewed and approved before they are incorporated into the database.”

The primary goal of the ISFDB project is to create a comprehensive picture of written speculative fiction: authors, magazines, publishers, novels, stories, poems, reviews, book editions, series, and awards. Some author records also include biographical information. “When our efforts to disentangle titles, author pseudonyms, and/or duplicate names yield previously unknown information, we try to inform other major biobibliographical sites to ensure that everyone stays in sync. For example, our recent work on Jules Verne des Voignes http://isfdb.org/cgi-bin/note.cgi?Author+157431 has led to corrections in multiple online databases. Other sites like the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction reciprocate.”

Most ISFDB users are active readers of speculative fiction, as well as booksellers, editors, authors (like me!), academics, and software developers. In order to serve this audience, the editors have made many changes over the years, as Ahasuerus explains: “Bibliographies are reflections of the SF field. As the field changes, we need to change as well. For example, originally, we didn’t support ebooks or self-published books because they were marginal at the time; now it would be unthinkable. Webzines, audio books, humongous hubs hosting original and fan fiction of all kinds—the list goes on and on.” At first the ISFDB project scope was limited to English language works, although they are now up to 157 supported languages—Klingon was added just a few weeks ago. “Unfortunately, coverage of non-English works and authors is still weak. It would be great if we had more contributors who could work on Chinese, Russian, Korean, etc., titles.”

I’m in awe of the scrupulous attention to detail and the sheer good will that characterizes ISFDB. It’s an irreplaceable asset to the SF community.

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sf encyclopedia

Long before there was an internet, I was a fan of the print First Edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited and mostly written by the late Peter Nicholls http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/nicholls_peter and John Clute http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/clute_john, with others. After my dog-eared 1979 trade paperback fell apart, I popped for the 1993 hardcover Second Edition and then the 1995 CD iteration. The online Third Edition http://sf-encyclopedia.com launched in 2011 and is hosted by Gollancz https://gollancz.co.uk. “It is a free site,” explain John Clute and editor David Langford http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/langford_david, “and contributors are not paid, though the chief editors receive a modest stipend. Gollancz, which has been publishing SF for ninety years, benefits from the prestige of housing the central critical record of the field.” Appreciative readers can donate here http://sf-encyclopedia.uk/donate.php to support SFE.

Between them, Clute, Langford, and Nicholls have written more than half of the SFE, although there are many other specialist contributors. Content is added almost daily, so that the online SFE is now 6,000,000 words long, more than eight times the size of the First Edition. It contains over 13,230 full entries, including some 11,500 on authors, nearly 1,000 on themes and tropes, 2,400 on films and filmmakers, and over 1,000 on magazines and fanzines. “From the first,” the editors write, “the SFE was designed to be a broad-church easy-access level-playing-field presentation of science fiction as a whole, world-wide, with an inevitable emphasis on English-language work, as comprehensive as we could make it.”

As a barely fledged writer in 1979, I did not merit an entry in the First Edition. While this was understandable, I nevertheless felt the omission keenly. It was with both relief and gratitude that I read my (short) entry in the Second Edition. I had arrived! The SFE continues to report on the flood of new voices exploring our genre. Hundreds of authors were added in 2020 alone. Do I agree with everything the editors say about them? No, but that isn’t the point. Unlike www.sfadb.com or the isfdb, the SFE mixes fact with opinion. “The SFE remains as objective as we can make it. But no enterprise of this sort should even pretend to full objectivity, and we do not. There are many voices here, dozens of contributors. They are not anonymous. The initials of the author or authors of each entry are given at the bottom of each entry.”

The SFE continues to keep pace with changes in our writing and reading communities. “Since 1979, the SF field has broadened, deepened, lost its way, found new passages: but the central spine of genre SF as we encountered it then remains central to the SFE, like the core of an onion. The story of SF may grow, and we’ve grown to follow it.”

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There. I feel better about the net and so should you. As the poet says, “O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”


Copyright © 2021 James Patrick Kelly

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