Thoughts on 500 SF novels

Give or take a few. We invited readers of The Guardian to name their favourite SF novels as part of the Guardian Review SF special a week or so ago. The list of over 500 suggestions was published yesterday and has been the most viewed article in the books section all day.

It’s a list that says interesting things about the perception of SF. Firstly, for most readers SF is categorically SCIENCE FICTION. Readers nominating borderline Fantasy writing seemed almost apologetic, despite the fact my opening article had specified any form of speculative fiction. The power of genres as marketing tools remains undiminished, however far they intermingle creatively.

And the classic names of Science Fiction dominate the list. Asimov, Heinlein, Bester, Le Guin, Disch, Zelazny, Delany, Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick are among the most nominated authors. SF is a ‘slow burn’ genre. Many of these now classic books were not best sellers at release, but rather gathered their audience over the years and decades. I’m confident many of these authors will still be remembered a century or more from now.

New writers are few and far between however. It takes a very long time to establish an SF author in the mind of readers, which perhaps explains some of the genre’s struggles in an increasingly high paced publishing environment.

Iain M Banks is by far the most nominated UK author. That’s no great surprise, but I wonder how long Banks will continue to rule the roost so completely. A long time to come perhaps, unless British SF gets over its obsession with Science and starts understanding itself as Fiction, first and foremost. New Wave writers make a very strong showing. Again, that demonstrates that SF only really succeeds when it succeeds fully as literature, rather than simply as ‘a literature of ideas’.

Frank Herbet’s Dune is the most nominated book I think. And quite rightly so. More than forty years after its publication there is still no other work of SF that matches it for the combination of ideas, grand scale and depth of character. Many have tried, tried and died, but Herbet is still the Kwisatz Haderach.

If the list has any single message, it is that great SF is VERY difficult to write. There are literally thousands of good authors in the genre’s history, but only a few dozen great ones. I could spend a long time trying to define what makes them great, but perhaps the single defining factor is that readers instinctively recognise great writing when they find it, and that greatness is still treasured decades after the authors themselves have left us.

UPDATE: A good discussion with @murf61 and @nicolaz on gender in SF and the representation of women in the GU favourite SF list took place on Twitter following the publication of this post. Women writers are very underrepresented in the list, with @nicolaz pointing out that only 4% of the writers listed are women. As raw data gathered from public nominations, the list reflects the public perception of SF as a genre. And clearly that perception is focussed on male writers. I would like to think about ways to change that perception, and welcome ideas on the matter.

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts on 500 SF novels”

  1. Damien,
    that’s a very interesting list and will provide some useful data for all kinds of discussions, at least a few of which I’ll try to kick off now:

    1. is it your perception that the nominators are primarily UK residents or more international in flavor?

    2. in regards to your suggestion that the presence of new wave works indicates a preference for SF lit that is more literature and less literature of ideas, the dominance of older works kind of contradicts that, if we buy into the idea that ‘classic sf’ is mostly the literature of ideas.

    I think the strong mix of ‘new wave’ and ‘classic’ actually suggests the opposite: good science fiction is about strong ideas and it hardly matters how ‘literary’ the work is (though better written works, new wave or not, will rise to the top over time)

    3. You’ll have to define new wave or at least list some of the authors you consider to be representative of it, as I didn’t see all that strong a representation

    4. very interesting that the literatie (some of whom claim not to be writing SF) are so under-represented. Maybe they’re right and regardless of what they write it isn’t perceived as SF (or perhaps it is perceived as such but for all its high-falutin literary value it’s just not received as all that good an example of SF)

    1. Hi Steve,

      First thing to reiterate is that the list reflects the general perception of SF as a genre. Hence your point (4) is right, mainstream authors employing SF tropes simply aren’t perceived as part of the genre. Often with good reason, Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is operating on metaphorical levels that genre post-apocalyptic stories never do, for instance.

      (1) Yes. I would guestimate about 70% British, but could be very wrong.

      (2) and (3) I’m going to define ‘SF Lit’ as writing which is primarily about the human experience, filtered through a metaphorical SF device such as alien contact. ‘SF as literature of ideas’ as writing which is primarily about a concept, often scientific, explored and extrapolated with some insight in to how it impacts on humans. Let’s make it a spectrum with ‘HUMAN’ at one pole and ‘CONCEPTUAL’ at the other. Let’s put Olaf Stapledon at the Conceptual end, and Haruki Murakami at the human end, and plot the other 500 novels along the spectrum. I would argue that they cluster way over to the Human end of the spectrum. Gibson, Banks, Le Guin, Dick, Haldeman, Mieville, Delaney, Lem, Ballard, Bradbury, Silverberg, Blish, Harrison (M John), Disch, Zelazny, Brunner, Wolfe, Moorcock, Spinrad, Ellison…even Heinlein, when he actually manages to be readable, is first and foremost about people. Over on the conceptual side there is Asimov, Vinge, Niven, Brin, Baxter. A few others and some sitting around the middle of the spectrum like Stephenson, Simmons and Card. Thats without considering authors like Lessing and Vonnegut and the others working solidly in the literary sphere. And I think there is evidence for a definite progression in SF, towards human centred work and away from dysfunctional conceptual exploration.

      Also worth noting that there is very little pulp on the list. If SF lays out a fun adventure plot without either human insight or strong concepts it is quickly forgotten, as you might expect.

      Thats probably all I’ll have time to post on this today, but will come back to it later if I can.

  2. I’m curious if you would consider the disparity of female authors on the list as directly related to the fact that most of the entries are older works. I don’t think that justifies the absence of female writers, but it might explain why the novels selected are more often by men than not. Very little public attention has been given to female writers pre-1970 (an arbitrary figure that is probably inaccurate). Part of that is because few women were writing science fiction at the time, but it also has to do with the fact that a lot of the attention paid to female writers of the time has been largely critical or academic in nature, which are both areas where readers are less likely to be involved. There are exceptions, but the impression I get is that all the discussions being had among academics about great pre-1970 female authors are not discussions shared by folks who spend their days watching Fringe or reading popular SF titles. Half the names I mention to my cohost on our podcast are unfamiliar to her, and she’s fairly well read.

    Again, that doesn’t justify it, but it goes towards offering something approaching an explanation.

    1. I think that is a key factor, yes. This list is also reflective of what has been commercially successful in SF in the last half century. And that has been, unfortunately, mostly male writers.

  3. You note the calculation that 4% of the books were written by women. How many of the replies to the question were women? (By implication, were women voting for male writers too, or was this men voting for men?)

    1. I don’t have the data to calculate that unfortunately. The 4% estimate was given by @nicolaz based on her look at the GU spreadsheet. But, I’d be surprised if less than 70% of the contributors were men. Probably more.

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