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Primarily the book comprises 100 short essays on the selected works, covered in order of publication, without any ranking. It is considered an important critical summary of the science fiction field.
Science Fiction was followed in 1988 by Pringle's Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels (published by Grafton Books) and Horror: The 100 Best Books (edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, published by Xanadu).
In the introduction Pringle offers the working definition, "Science fiction is a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science." In turn, modern science is the "scientific world-view ... as it has come to be accepted by the intelligent layperson", which arguably "first became common property in the mid to late 19th century."
Within fantastic fiction he distinguishes science fiction from "Supernatural Horror" and "Heroic Fantasy". They may be represented by Dracula and The Lord of the Rings, featuring "the irruption of some supernatural force into the everyday world" and "set in completely imaginary worlds" respectively. He also names the subclass "Fabulations", which do not belong in this book "unless they have a significant scientific or technological content".[NB 1]
In contrast, science fiction has a real world setting and "fantastic developments which are explicable in terms of the scientific world-view." World-view does not mean accepted theory or fact: "many sf writers cheat: they use sleight-of-hand rather than genuine scientific knowledge." "The skilful use of pseudo-science and gobbledygook" may be good enough to exploit the world-view.
The time period covered is approximately that for science fiction as a category of book publication, although the selected books were not all published in that category.
Pringle admits that fewer than thirty selections may generously be called even "masterpieces of their sort". On the whole,
Some of them are old favourites of my own ... Some are other people's favourites, novels which have been outstandingly popular or influential, or which seem to be especially good representatives of their type. A small minority, perhaps as many as ten, are books for which I have little or no personal enthusiasm: they have been included for the sake of balance and variety.