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

Electric Cars and Wikipedia

I’m going to kill two birds with one stone in this post.  I started out researching electric cars and quickly discovered one of the best sources of information on them is Wikipedia.  Since this came just after seeing a major attack on Wikipedia the contrast of the two stories is too hard to ignore.  If you have time, look at this video “The Truth According to Wikipedia.”

These people think Wikipedia is evil but my experience is just the opposite, I think Wikipedia is very positive and creative, and represents a new paradigm in thinking and transmitting knowledge.  I wanted to find out about electric cars and Wikipedia provided a very comprehensive survey of what’s going on with that technology, and had links to more information and related articles.  I jumped over to the Encyclopedia Britannica and found zip – well that’s due to the fact that it’s a sales site and doesn’t offer a way research electric cars without paying.  I bought the deluxe DVD of the EB over a year ago and it included one year’s access to the online version of EB.

For awhile whenever I looked up something I’d check EB first and then Wikipedia and in all cases I preferred the information I got from Wikipedia, so I stopped using EB.  I could check my DVD copy of EB for what it says about electric cars, but I didn’t reinstall it on my new machine and I don’t feel like hunting down the DVD right now.  And it will be out of date.  In other words, if Andrew Keen and company want an authoritative encyclopedia to compete with Wikipedia it needs to be on the web and free.  I can understand EB wanting to make money but can’t it make money like all the other commercial Internet sites through advertising?

Even if you aren’t interested in electric cars, look at the Wikipedia entry for electric car and plug-in hybrid.  I found the stub for electric cars at EB and it promises 227 words if you buy the online subscription.  Wikipedia is offering thousands of words of info for free.  Sure there’s a chance that some of Wikipedia’s facts might be wrong, but I think the group effort looks extremely good.  I learned all I needed and wanted to know and more.

The major criticism for Wikipedia is it’s written by amateurs – but the results look very professional to me.  I was quickly able to learn about the different types of electric cars, their histories, and the planned models on the drawing boards.  For the plug-in hybrid, the technology I’m most interested in, Wikipedia gives continuously updated listing of press reports.  Other than finding insider blogs from fanatics about electric cars, I can’t imagine needing more information than what Wikipedia is presenting.

I learned quickly from Wikipedia what kind of electric cars are for sale.  The ones I can afford, I don’t want, and the ones I want, I can’t afford or they aren’t in production yet.  I also learned that certain types of electric cars have restrictions to driving on roads with 35mph or less speed limits, which is another reason why I don’t want the affordable electric cars.  The information was so good at Wikipedia that I don’t even feel the need to search further.  Wikipedia is even supplanting the Internet. 

My conclusion is I need to wait for the automobile industry to come up with a good solution.  Not only that, it looks like it will be a long time before Detroit or Japan offers a $20-25k plug-in hybrid that will be practical for the average driver.   It appears for the next few years the best electric cars will compete in price with the more expensive models of Mercedes.

This brings me to the second bird I wanted to kill with this stone.  If global warming is the crisis that scientists are saying it is, why hasn’t our government and others around the world jumped in a created a crash program to manufacture low cost plug-in hybrid electric cars?  If what scientists are saying about global warming is true it’s far more terrifying than anything Osama bin Laden plans to do, or more threatening than Iraq five years ago.  Why is Muslim terrorists more scary than a threat that promises to grind civilization down world-wide?

Politicians who avoid the issue of global warming do so because they fear fighting it will hurt the economy.  I would think one major solution to keep the economy stable and fight global warming at the same time would be the development of an ecological car.  Plug-in hybrids appears to be the next intermediate solution – they still use gas, but much less, so they will work with the existing infrastructure of gasoline supplied energy stations.  Plug-in hybrids will also benefit from people who install solar energy panels on their houses.  If you create a Marshal Plan like effort to promote both technologies we could lower our oil consumption and lower our use of coal in electrical production and thus find two major ways to lower our carbon footprint.

I think our leaders are still in the authoritative mindset of people who are attacking Wikipedia, but the world’s population acts more like the human dynamics that create Wikipedia.  Car makers still want to sell expensive Encyclopedia Britannica editions.  What we need are leaders who can promote solutions to global warming in the same way Wikipedia succeeds.

Jim