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Crucial British

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SFX has posted a list of the “10 Most Crucial British SF Novels” here. They define crucial as “the books that pull off the apparently paradoxical trick of defining the genre by revolutionising it”. Their list goes as follows:

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
The War of the Worlds, HG Wells (1898)
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks (1987)
Light, M John Harrison (2002)
River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2004)

So, let’s see… I’ve read all of them except The Day of the Triffids and River of Gods – but the latter is on the Olympus Mons that is my TBR pile. I didn’t like Brave New World and I no longer think The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is very good. As for the rest – yes, they’re excellent novels.

But how “crucial” are they?

Well, it’s a very… traditional choice of titles. The first five are all novels claimed by the genre, but many non-genre fans don’t even consider them science fiction. And while The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is unabashedly sf, it’s as popular outside the genre as it inside. So it’s not until 1987 and Banks’s Consider Phlebas that we have a true genre novel, one that was published as science fiction by an author who self-identifies as a science fiction author (when he has that middle M, of course).

I also question the “defining the genre” and “revolutionising” credentials of some of the books. Frankenstein was certainly seminal, as was The War of the Worlds. But Nineteen Eighty-Four is by no means the first dystopia – Zamyatin’s We predates it by nearly three decades, for a start. Ballard was one of several writers – the New Wave – who revolutionised the genre, and Crash is an excellent example of that movement’s works – but what makes it more “crucial” than, say, one of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels?

Banks’s Consider Phlebas was an early New British Space Opera novel, but as a defining movement New British Space Opera didn’t really kick off until the publication of Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty in 1990. As an indication of this, Take Back Plenty won the Arthur C Clarke Award that year; Consider Phlebas wasn’t even nominated when it was published. Of course, New British Space Opera later morphed into New Space Opera and is still going strong.

Much as I like and admire Light, I can’t quite see what’s so defining or revolutionary about it. It’s not like it kicked off a slew of fiercely literary space operas. And opinion on it among genre readers is sharply divided. An important book, yes. Just like Harrison’s 1975 space opera The Centauri Device. But crucial?

And finally, River of Gods… which I haven’t read. And is set in and about India. But unlike British novels such as The Raj Quartet is not about Brits in India. There has not been, as far as I’m aware, any sort of post-colonial movement in science fiction, either started by River of Gods or in which River of Gods squarely belongs. Perhaps there should be.

Certainly SFX’s list is a list of books worth reading. But I think my “crucial” list would look a little different…. Like this, in fact:

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
The Time Machine, HG Wells (1895)
Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
The Cornelius Quartet, Michael Moorcock (1968 – 1977)
Desolation Road, Ian McDonald (1988)
Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
Fairyland, Paul J McAuley (1995)
Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds (2000)
Bold As Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)

Now discuss.

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11 thoughts on “Crucial British

  1. What no Vurt?HHG revolutionised radio, but it's old hat compared to the late great Sheckley, Vonnegut and Sladek.I wonder if Aldiss's Report on Probability A isn't the New Wave choice – if only as early chronology?Perdido Street Station?

  2. Um, forgot about Vurt, although offhand I can't think of anyone who followed in Noon's footsteps….I had trouble thinking of a representative New Wave novel, and the Cornelius Quartet was a belated choice. Is Perdido Street Station sf? Surely New Weird is more often seen as a branch of fantasy? I did think of including it, but then decided it wasn't sf.

  3. On reflection, it's not like there've been all that many following in Bold As Love's footsteps, so perhaps I should have put Vurt on the list.

  4. Brave New World may be weak as a novel, and as you say 1984 was scooped by We, but both had such a huge influence on 20th-century thought that I don't think you can leave them off.I like Report On Probability A, but it's basically a genre exercise, merging SF and the Robbe-Grillet-style "new novel". Maybe I should read the Cornelius books again, because at the time they just seemed like hippie damage, and not even good hippie damage like Barefoot In The Head. Crash may be an obvious choice to represent the New Wave, but, well, it's the obvious choice. It's a work of genius, and subtly but definitely influential.Here in the States, Consider Phlebas made a small but definite splash, whereas I've never even heard of Take Back Plenty. So I back it as a crucial point in space opera, even though one could argue that it was in turn influenced by Barrington J. Bayley.There seems to be at least a post-colonial trendlet, although River of Gods is more in the middle of it than at the beginning: Divine Endurance, early Paul Park, recent Paolo Bacigalupi.I agree that Light doesn't belong here (although A Storm Of Wings might, due to its influence on the New Weird).One might also add The Space Machine, for inventing steampunk well ahead of its time.I'll have to think about an American version of the list.

  5. Tim, there's no denying the popularity of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New world, or their impact on Western anglophone culture. But. They weren't emblematic of science fiction at the time, nor do I think they actually had that much impact on the genre. After all, not everyone claims them as sf.On reflection, perhaps Crash is a better exemplar of New Wave fiction, but Jerry Cornelius seems to me a better representative of the movement.I always understood Banks to be pretty much unknown in the US until Orbit started their imprint there a couple of years ago – prior to that he'd only been published by Night Shade Books. Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the BSFA Award shortlist for 1988 so I've no idea if Consider Phlebas was even nominated. But I don't recall it creating as much buzz as Take Back Plenty, which kicked off the whole New British Space Opera thing.Park's Coelestis is certainly post-colonisal sf (and was first published in the UK), but he's a US author so not relevant to this list. Gwyneth Jones' Escape Plans is also set in India – but it's a novel that very much stands on its own. Likewise Divine Endurance (its "mid-quel" Flowerdust notwithstanding).If Jeter was inspired by The Space Machine, then yes it'd count. But I don't know that he was. And Jeter remains the originator of steampunk – both the term and the writer of one of the novels to which he applied it.I'd be interested to see a US list. You should put one together. Of course, the first book you'd have to include would be… Ralph 124C 41+….

  6. I don't think you get all those SF dystopias (Revolt in 2100, Wolfsbane, The Black Flame, etc.) without the influence of BNW and 1984. And I think they can be considered as SF for the purposes of such a list as this–they're definitely part of the genre conversation.Banks doesn't have mainstream popularity in the States like he does in the UK, but he's always been in print here (I have American mass market paperbacks of The Wasp Factory, The Player of Games, Against A Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn to prove it), and quite popular in SF circles, so much so that every SF bookstore in the country carries his British editions for those like me who can't wait for the American editions. Whereas I've literally never seen a Colin Greenland book. Is it really possible that he wasn't influenced by Consider Phlebas, award or no?"Crucial" to me implies that there's still some reason to read it, so no "Ralph" for me.

  7. Take Back Plenty was published in the US by AvoNova in 1992. Clearly they didn't promote it very well. What caused the buzz here in the UK was Greenland's re-appropriation of pulp sf furniture in a knowing post-modern space opera. Banks was known for writing superior bigscreen space opera, but he wasn't doing anything as revolutionary as Greenland did. If you've not read Take Back Plenty, then I recommend it. And again, Orwell and Huxley weren't working within the tradition of sf, so I don't see how they can be defining. Besides, neither can be said to have invented dystopia, so nor could they be considered revolutionary.

  8. Orwell and Huxley were in the SF tradition as much, or as little, as Shelley, Wells and Stapledon were. I don't think there's a context-free right answer to whether they were writing SF; in this context I think it's more useful to say that they were. The alternative is to base SF entirely on the American pulp tradition, and cut the list in half.I don't think something needs to be revolutionary to be crucial. These works are touchstones, and if you haven't read them you don't know what's going on.Take Back Plenty sounds very worthwhile, and I will try to track down a copy, but based on your description I'm actually more convinced that Phlebas is the right choice–Stross, Macleod, Reynolds and Harrison's space operas all resemble it a lot more than they resemble "re-appropriation of pulp sf furniture in a knowing post-modern space opera." Even accepting that Greenland made a bigger splash in the UK, one wouldn't say the Sex Pistols invented punk because they were more popular than the Ramones, would one?Maybe we can compromise on The Zen Gun

  9. I don't think something needs to be revolutionary to be crucial. Well, given that the definition of the list was "the books that pull off the apparently paradoxical trick of defining the genre by revolutionising it", then yes, it does need to be revolutionary. And likewise it needs to help define the genre. Neither Huxley nor Orwell did at the time of publication.From awards alone, Greenland had more impact than Banks. And it's the reaction of British sf which determines whether a book is crucial.And no, I wouldn't say the Ramones invented punk. Perhaps they were to British punk what Banks was to the New British Space Opera – a proto version, but not instigators, or part, of the movement.

  10. Take Back Plenty reinstated Space Opera to English SF. Immediately prior to it Greenland and most other English writers in the speculative area were focusing almost exclusively on fantasy.Consider Phlebas, on the other hand, kick started the flourishing of Scottish writers of SF which came in its wake.Before the appearance of Phlebas I personally thought it would not be possible for an SF novel by a Scottish writer to be published in the UK as there simply were no role models to follow. Phlebas certainly encouraged me. (Maybe not a good thing I hear you say?)

  11. From awards alone, Greenland had more impact than Banks.Surely the whole point of a list like this is to evaluate with the benefit of hindsight, rather than relying on contemporary reaction.And it's the reaction of British sf which determines whether a book is crucial.I was thinking it was "crucial SF works by Britons" rather than "works crucial to British SF." But even if it's the latter, the reaction of British SF was that a lot of writers started imitating Banks. Greenland may have his imitators, but if so I don't know who they are.And no, I wouldn't say the Ramones invented punk.Neither would I, but they were a huge influence on UK punk: http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/ramonesuk.htm

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