It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

British SF Masterworks


Science fiction is a genre dominated by the US – which is where it was invented. The SF Masterworks series is published by a British publisher. So why not have a Masterworks series of British science fiction? This topic popped up on twitter yesterday, and inspired me to have a bash at creating my own list of fifty British science fiction masterworks.

I’ve not read all of the books listed below – so thanks to Kev McVeigh, Paul Graham Raven and Eric Brown for their input. Not all the books could really be considered “classics”, although the more obscure ones should probably be better known. The only rules I followed in putting together the list are: a) one title per author (unless it’s a trilogy in omnibus form), and b) a completely arbitrary cut-off date of 1995. Some of the books in my list are in Gollancz’s Masterworks series, but many are not. Yes, a few of my favourites have sneaked in there; not to mention a number of non-genre novels by non-genre writers which actually are science fiction.

There are no fantasy novels at all. That’s a list for another day…

1 – Frankenstein, Mary Shelly (1818)
2 – The War of the Worlds, HG Wells (1897)
3 – Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
4 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
5 – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell (1949)
6 – The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
7 – The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
8 – No Man Friday, Rex Gordon (1956)
9 – On The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957)
10 – A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
11 – The Drowned World, JG Ballard (1962)
12 – Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
13 – A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry (1965)
14 – The Time Before This, Nicholas Monsarrat (1966)
15 – A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967)
16 – The Revolt of Aphrodite [Tunc and Nunquam], Lawrence Durrell (1968 – 1970)
17 – Pavane, Keith Roberts (1968)
18 – Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968)
19 – Behold The Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
20 – Ninety-Eight Point Four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969)
21 – Junk Day, Arthur Sellings (1970)
22 – The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1973)
23 – Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke (1973)
24 – Collision with Chronos, Barrington Bayley (1973)
25 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
26 – The Centauri Device, M John Harrison (1974)
27 – The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing (1974)
28 – Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
29 – Orbitsville [Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure, Orbitsville Judgement], Bob Shaw (1975 – 1990)
30 – The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976)
31 – The White Bird of Kinship [The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, A Tapestry of Time], Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982)
32 – SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978)
33 – Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
34 – The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
35 – Helliconia, Brian W Aldiss (1982 – 1985)
35 – Orthe, Mary Gentle (1983 – 1987)
36 – Chekhov’s Journey, Ian Watson (1983)
37 – A Maggot, John Fowles (1985)
38 – Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
39 – Wraeththu Chronicles [The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire], Storm Constantine (1987 – 1989)
40 – Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
41 – The Empire of Fear, Brian Stableford (1988)
42 – Desolation Road, Ian McDonald (1988)
43 – Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
44 – Wulfsyarn, Phillip Mann (1990)
47 – Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990)
48 – Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993)
49 – Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
50 – The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)

So, any I’ve missed out? Any UK authors – born, not simply resident – who belong on this list? Or are any of the books I’ve chosen actually really bad and don’t belong on it?

Perhaps this might turn into a meme – you know the sort of thing: how many have you read, how many do you own but have yet to read… For the record, I’ve read thirty-two of the books, and own a further four I’ve not read.


33 thoughts on “British SF Masterworks

  1. I am going to post a link to this list on the website of Upsalafandom, an active group of interesting people. I trust you won’t mind. BTW. I thought about your remark concerning District 9 of last night on Twitter. I was powerfully affected by the first half, but got turned off when it degenerated into shoot-outs, explosions, and giant armored war machines. The day The Earth Stood Still though, was consistently excellent. So I agree with you.

  2. I was about to chastise you for failing to include Hello Summer,Goodbye, until I discovered you hadn’t. It might be worth mentioning it’s also published under the title ‘Pallahaxi Tide’.

    I’d include in my own list Simon Ings, a writer I rate very highly. I’m slightly surprised not to see Paul McAuley in your list, nor Arthur C. Clarke (no, make that very surprised). Although I’m the first to argue how ridiculously patchy and two-dimensional some of his later books could be, I’d strongly argue that no list of UK SF classics could possibly be complete without including, say, CIty and the Stars (with the admission I haven’t actually read it in many years). I’m far from being a Jeff Noon fan, but each to his own. What about Douglas Adams? Or would you rather view HG2G as a work of satire than sf (there’s an argument either way to my mind)?

    You might also consider AC Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’.

    A word or two about the more obscure titles would be interesting – there’s some stuff on here I’ve never heard of before (98.4, for instance).

    • Gah. Paul McAuley. Eternal Light probably would have been my choice from his oeuvre. I liked Ings’ Hothead and Hotwire, but I didn’t think they were strong enough to get on the list – and would have made it a bit 1980 to 1990 heavy, anyway.

  3. Saw a wee bit of this last night on Twitter. Certainly interesting and there are a number of things on there that I haven’t read, but would really like to (the Bob Shaw and Tanith Lee for starters and I don’t feel that I’ve read enough Stableford).

    Out of interest, what was your criteria for choosing a novel where the author has written many (not a dig at your particular choices, just curious) or was there none?

    It might seem a smidgen obvious, but surely Douglas Adams deserves a place there too?

    • Where an author had several novels which fit the criteria, I picked the one that was most overtly sf, or the one I’d liked most out of those I’d read.

      I suppose I should have included Adams, but I don’t have an especially high opinion of the books.

  4. Ach, shite. You did have Clarke in there. I need more coffee. But I’d argue against including Rendezvous with Rama on the basis that, well, it’s a terrible book with an admittedly terrific central idea.

    And concerning Bob Shaw – wouldn’t you say Other Days, Other Eyes is a more highly regarded title than Orbitsville?

    Inverted World is an obvious choice, though I’d be tempted to argue the balance between that and The Prestige.

    • I was waiting for you to notice Clarke’s inclusion 🙂

      Not sure on the, er, Shaw. Orbitsville was mentioned on twitter, which is why I chose that one. From what I vaguely remember, the short story on which Other Days, Other Eyes is based – ‘The Light of Other Days’ – is generally accepted to be a classic, but the novel is much weaker. But I may be entirely wrong on all that.

      I was tied between Inverted World and The Prestige, but plumped for the former as it’s the more overtly sfnal.

  5. Interesting idea and list. I have to confess that no author immediately springs to mind as an ommission.

    The only thing I will say is that I don’t believe Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” should be on the list, simply because I don’t think it’s science fiction. I realise that’s a highly contraversial thing to say but that’s what I think.

  6. Where’s Eric Frank Russell? ‘Wasp’, ‘Next of Kin’ ‘The Great Explosion’, etc., etc.

    He was the guy who helped keep British SF alive in the 40s and early 50s. Won a Hugo too, though not for his best work. Still, that’s more than most of the blokes on your list managed.

  7. Hi Ian, see I thought about writing a post on British SF masterworks but a judicious tweet or two and hey, you wrote it for me! Cheers.
    I will say this, the discussion was greatly enhanced by contribution from Cara Murphy and Andrew McKie so credit to them both.
    And yes we missed McAuley, I’d go for Fairyland myself.

  8. More thoughts.
    Doris Lessing (can’t top a Nobel Literature Prize winner and she reckoned her SF – the ‘Canopus in Argo’ series – was her best writing).
    Colin Wilson?
    Christopher Hodder-Williams?
    Lionel Fanthorpe (as hack SF scribbler supreme).

    • Both Lessing and Hodder-Williams are on the list. I thought about the Canopus in Argo series, but decided it was too weighty, so I plumped for The Memoirs of a Survivor. I thought about Wilson but the only sf novels I could think of by him were the spider World series and the one about the space vampires.

      Still not sure about EFR. I seem to remember being underwhelmed by Wasp.

      • Oops! So they are. My apologies.
        Still, if this was the pub rather than a blog I’d be spending the next few hours trying to persuade you that you ought to swap out some of the authors listed for others more deserving and even more hours that some of the works listed from the remainder aren’t the best by that particular writer.
        Unfortunately, it’s about time I was in a real pub.

    • You’d have trouble finding more British sf authors, surely? There can only be a handful I’ve not included – most of which are self-confessed hacks or pseudonyms of Lionel Fanthorpe… There are a couple from the 1980s, but some of them – Eric Brown, Keith Brooke – I think their best books were published after 1995.

      • I don’t see Neal Stephenson there – ‘Snowcrash’ was published in the early 90s.
        Or perhaps he’s another author you don’t fancy, like a Brit Hugo winner and a Brit Nobel Literature laureate.
        Fred Hoyle?
        Gregory Benford – ‘Timescape’?

        No doubt if I searched my shelves and my memory there’d be a few more, especially from the 50s and 60s, writers who were regarded as solid performers with one or two books but then fell out of fashion.

        I rather suspect that there are modern authors with respectable sales and followings who in 50 years will have the appeal that, say, E.C. Tubb has now. Back then I used to buy his books regularly.
        Now that would be an interesting list to compile –
        Guess Who’s A Stayer.
        Might bruise an ego or two.

      • Neal Stephenson is an American. As is Gregory Benford. The only UK noble laureate who has written sf novels is Lessing, and she’s on the list. Kipling only wrote a sf short story.

  9. Hmm… Just thinking: Should Gwyneth Jones be on this?, perhaps? Could sneak in the Aleutian Trilogy, even though Pheonix Cafe was from 1997.

  10. Pingback: SF Masterwork series continued... - Page 12 - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  11. I’m rather embarrassed to see that i have only read 6 out of the 50 titles. There are a lot that i really want to read though. Death of Grass and first and last men notibly.

  12. David Lindsay? William Golding? CS Lewis?

  13. Robert Harris? Alistair Gray?

  14. Sorry – that should have been Alisdair Gray above. My brain’s obviously not working properly today. Anyway, Robert Louis Stevenson? Arthur Conan Doyle?

    • Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus better belongs on a fantasy list, I think. Likewise, Lewis for Narnia rather than for Perelandra. Which Golding did you have in mind?

      Given that I have Deighton’s SS-GB on the list, Harris’s Fatherland may be a bit of overkill. I’ll see what I think after I’ve read SS-GB (it’s on the TBR). Gray also I think is more fantasy than sf.

      All things considered, I may drop Frankenstein and start off with Wells. Then I don’t need to include Stevenson or Doyle. But then I suppose I might have to include stuff like Shiel, and all those barely-remembered sf-like novels from the first two or three decades of last century…

  15. ‘The Inheritors’ would be my choice for Golding.

    Gray’s ‘A History Maker’ may be a lesser work (for him, at least) but it’s pure SF. However, if you’re only allowing one appearance per list then Gray would certainly be more at home on the fantasy list.

  16. Pingback: British SF Masterworks? – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

  17. Pingback: Genre Diversity

  18. Pingback: Look what the postie brought « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  19. Pingback: An obscure British sf masterwork? « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  20. Pingback: Chekhov’s Journey – Ian Watson | Solar Bridge

  21. LC. S. Lew’s “Out of the Silent Planet” should be there, definitely sF, and very thought provoking. What about Jasper Fforde (especially for Shades of grey”? Also Peter Hamilton, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stephenson. What about Tanith Lee? Some of her books are SF.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.