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.
- What’s your favourite SF novel? (guardian.co.uk)
- Literary SF (damiengwalter.com)
- Mieville, Embassytown and radical SF (damiengwalter.com)