Wikipedia and Science Fiction Reference Books

I’ve been discussing with Bob Sabella, author of Who Shaped Science Fiction?, about writing a science fiction reference book together.  We wondered if would be fun to write the book I imagine in Science Fiction: 1951.  Then I got to thinking, when is it better to write a stand-alone book compared to when it’s better to add content to Wikipedia?  Many books about science fiction are really just reference books, and Wikipedia already has a great deal of content about the history of science fiction.  Why not make Wikipedia better rather than competing?

Obviously, if I wanted to write a book like The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei Panshin or Heinlein’s Children by Joseph T. Major, the book format is the best way to go.  But books like The Science of Science Fiction edited by Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, and The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by James Gunn have the kind of content that would be perfect for Wikipedia, and Wikipedia already has similar content.   I own the latest DVD edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, but I much prefer using Wikipedia because it’s far more extensive and has abundant hyperlinks.

For the past couple years when I search for answers on the Internet, I don’t go to Google, but Wikipedia.  Google returns so much crap now that Wikipedia is a better source of knowledge. When would an author contemplating writing a reference book or article be better off adding their research to Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has expanded beyond the traditional encyclopedia of a limited collection of short essays to one of unlimited size.  Plus its extensive use of hyperlinks makes it possible to add content in layers across many dimensions of facts.

Let’s use science fiction for example and say we want to write a book about science fiction as a general introduction to the genre.  Just by using these main Wikipedia pages as our general table of contents we can easily see the breath of research that already exists in this online encyclopedia:

These pages have hundreds of links to further articles, some of which are quit extensive, like the article on Robert A. Heinlein, which has hundreds of more branches.  How can a writer wanting to write an introductory book on any subject compete with Wikipedia?

The book I dreamed about writing in my last post would have organized events in science fiction by years and crossed referenced that listing with the evolution of themes, sort of like a pivot table.  Wikipedia already does some themes like I want:  Alternate History.  This is done quite well.  But other theme articles, like Generation Ships, still need work.  I’d love to see its list of fictional works dealing with generation ships organized by decade and year in same way alternative history stories are treated.

Wikipedia also has articles on specific years, for example, 1983, and then sub-topics for that year, like literature.  I’d like to see a sub-topic called “science fiction” where it lists the magazines and stories published that year, showing their covers, a list of major book publication, fandom events and awards, new films and television shows, plus comments about significant science fictional ideas presented that year for various themes.

Everything I want to see in my dream reference book on science fiction could be part of Wikipedia.  I don’t know if they’d like a bunch of cover art images added to the articles, but Wikipedia could expand in that direction if they wanted.  And that Table of Contents I listed above could also have section called Year.  I’d be very happy.  As long as Wikipedia doesn’t go out of print, it’s constantly being updated and refined.  The encyclopedias of science fiction in book form I mention above are several years old and very outdated.  I don’t know, but I imagine some of their editors and authors might already be working on Wikipedia entries.

At one time I wondered why fans didn’t create a separate wiki for science fiction, but what’s the point?  Why compete with Wikipedia?  If every topic had it’s own wiki there would be thousands of them to keep up with when you wanted to search on a topic.  It’s much better to have just one front end.

One you start thinking about Wikipedia this way many questions about the future of knowledge pop into mind.

JWH – 2/17/9

5 thoughts on “Wikipedia and Science Fiction Reference Books”

  1. Pros:
    -easily updateable
    -can consistently add to the literature
    -lots of access (heavy duty references are $$$)
    -can be found through google etc.

    Cons:
    -How do you pick who edits and contributes?
    -digital format limits as many users as it helps
    -Academics resist nontraditional electronic resources–would the audience who would make the most of it really use it?

  2. Cait, you’re right in that anyone wanting a serious reference book for citations will not use Wikipedia. However, there is a large market of popular non-fiction books that people buy for fun that Wikipedia would provide competition. People already use Wikipedia instead of encyclopedias. They might prefer it over almanacs. Books about pop culture which people refer to for list making, simple biographies, trivia, simple bibliographies, etc. might soon be ignored in favor of Wikipedia. Remember those old movies on TV books that got fatter and fatter each year? Well, I quit buying them after the Internet came out.

    I know I’ve stopped referring to many reference books on my bookshelf and use Wikipedia and the Internet instead.

    I think Wikipedia is now competition for more than just the Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book.

  3. I see my first comment disappeared, so here goes again.

    There are alternatives to the wide-open wiki. For example, “the Collaborative Online Medical Encyclopedia Goes Live. Medpedia, a new online medical encyclopedia relying on user-generated content from anyone with an M.D. or a Ph.D. in a biomedical field, officially became available today.”

    They have a model that only allows qualified professionals to edit articles. The disadvantage for SF is obvious – much knowledge resides in the fan base. The advantage is like a moderated listserv – some editorial control to improve content.

    The critical elements are authority and sustainability. Authority, if those who edit are honorable people, will accrue as the project grows. Sustainability is another thing – The SuperNova: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Wiki, for example, is mostly nonfunctional now (and similar to what you envision.) It illustrates the problems of sustainability.

    The SciFi.com Scifipedia is lurking out there, with some content – but appears to be another essentially failed effort. Avoiding the fate of SuperNova and the Scifipedia would be a big challenge.

    Wikipedia has a wealth of info on SF already, and could be viewed as the largest competor to what you envision.

    In the context or the two moribund examples above, why not place the wiki in a stable organization, such as Jim Gunn’s AboutSF web site, or some other organization that would offer a long-term platform that does not rely on one individual? Or, perhaps, build a support group that systematically adds to the the SF pages in Wikipedia and works diligently to improve the content of all the sf pages?

  4. I can understand why a medical wiki might want to have more control over contributors. There will always be places for private wikis too. But for something like science fiction, I think Wikipedia already has too much momentum to allow any competitor to gain on them.

    I also think they could improve the way they allow edits in Wikipedia to make things more secure, and the Wikipedia organization is exploring these options.

    After thinking about what Wikipedia has already done with science fiction I would never think about writing a reference book that would compete with what it’s already done. However, I might learn what it take to be a volunteer and might find ways to contribute in little ways.

  5. “Why not make Wikipedia better rather than competing?”

    Because people like to get recognition and see their names on books.

    “How can a writer wanting to write an introductory book on any subject compete with Wikipedia?”

    I guess with better, more entertaining writing, essays, inside stories.

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