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The Novel Poll results are in


… and oh dear. Well, that’s a little embarrassing. The results for the novels for the Locus All-Centuries Poll are in – see here. The best science fiction novel of the twentieth century is apparently Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best fantasy novel of the twentieth century is The Lord of the Rings, the best sf novel of the twenty-first century is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and the best fantasy novel of the twenty-first century is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

These results only show that most people confuse popularity with quality. I love Dune and I’ve read it many times, but it’s not a very well-written book. In fact, Herbert’s prose rarely rises above the embarrassingly bad. The Lord of the Rings is the giant elephant in the fantasy room, and it’s about time fantasy got over it. The less said about the twenty-first century novel choices, the better. I’ve read neither, I have no intention of reading them, they are not books I’d ever consider would merit the description “best”.

Unsurprisingly, my own choices did woefully badly. Only one actually made it onto a list – Watership Down at number ten on the 20th Century Fantasy Novel. For the record, here are the actual positions of my choices, where 0 (zero) means the book was not chosen as number one on a list by anyone.

20th Century SF Novel
221 – 1 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
206 – 2 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975)
16 – 3 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
283 – 4 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
0 – 5 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
349 – 6 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
0 – 7 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
35 – 8 Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
0 – 9 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
76 – 10 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)

20th Century Fantasy Novel
229 – 1 Aegypt, John Crowley (1987)
265 – 2 In Viriconium, M John Harrison (1982)
236 – 3 Rats & Gargoyles, Mary Gentle (1990)
34 – 4 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
0 – 5 Lens of the World, RA McAvoy (1990)
10 – 6 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
102 – 7 The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (1995)
62 – 8 Tehanu, Ursula K Le Guin (1990)
18 – 9 The Book Of The New Sun, Gene Wolfe (1983)
0 – 10 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992)

21st Century SF Novel
14 – 1 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
67 – 2 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
0 – 3 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
0 – 4 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
0 – 5 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)

21st Century Fantasy Novel
0 – 1 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
87 – 2 A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park (2005)
0 – 3 Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005)
155 – 4 Hav, Jan Morris (2006)
0 – 5 Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke (2001)

So there we have it: popularity contest picks most popular novels and calls them “best”. In other words, a total waste of time. I knew going in that some of my choices were reasonably obscure – not totally obscure, as they were published by major publishing houses – but even so I expected some people to recognise their quality. Sadly not. And even my choices for the more popular and better-known authors didn’t even make it into the final top ten or top five. I mean, no halfway-intelligent person can consider Old Man’s War to be a better book than Light. Not, and be taken seriously. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Sf and fantasy aren’t taken seriously. And never will be as long as we pull stupid strokes like the results of this poll.

So, science fiction and fantasy, go and stand in the corner.

24 thoughts on “The Novel Poll results are in

  1. I suspect in future the rule with popularly voted awards will be: “Author who has the most twitter followers writes the best book.”

  2. “popularity contest picks most popular novels and calls them “best”.”

    Quick question: where do you see Locus claiming these are the “Best”? The results page is titled: “20th and 21st All-Centuries Polls Results.” I’d say they’re pretty honest about this being a poll of the public, not a “Best Of” situation.

  3. Ian — I know this is quibbling over semantics, and let me say up front that I am darn near as disappointed with the results as you are. (But, I’m not at all surprised.) The lists are sausage fests, and I think it shows how much farther we have to go in shifting the overall cultural dialog about literature and quality.

    That said, while Locus asked the wider public to vote for the works they consider the “best” works of the 20th and 21st century, I don’t think they’re actually claiming that the resulting list is any definitive “Best of” list. If they were, wouldn’t they put “Best” in the results title the way anthologists put “Best of the Year” in their titles?

    That said, I think curated lists with more consideration are even more important than these sorts of polls, and places like the SF Mistressworks are invaluable for helping to gradually shift that overall cultural narrative.

    • I take your point and agree it is quibbling 🙂 I think if you go into a poll asking for the “best”, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that’s what the results will be implied to be. Because otherwise they’re… what? Most popular? Except surely number of units sold would be a better metric for that?

      Thanks for the kind words on SF Mistressworks. I did jokingly suggest on Twitter an alternative poll, perhaps taking votes only from a small group of people known for their (insightful) commentary on genre matters. Of course, that opens the door to confirmation bias, but…

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Ian.

    In this Game of Lists, I would offer that the only insightful and interesting lists come from specific readers who have clearly defined and admitted their subjectivities. The emphasis here would be upon celebrating discriminated subjectivities, rather than upon broadcasting empty claims to objectivity.

    You might achieve interesting results by having two strong and discriminating readers make their lists and then sit down to discuss them. Then some sort of tertium quid might emerge from the dialogue — something really memorable — unlike the Locus or Rolling Stone magazine polls.

    “Best” is far too abstract as a general category. I will invoke the names of Jack Vance, Mervyn Peake, Lord Dunsany, and E. R. Eddison — and, for my own subjective desires and emphases, the Locus lists evaporate into vapor.

    But then I am rather Paterian in this. . . .

    ‘Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness. To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.

    ‘ “To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly. The objects with which aesthetic criticism deals—music, poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human life—are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces: they possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence? The answers to these questions are the original facts with which the aesthetic critic has to do; and, as in the study of light, of morals, of number, one must realise such primary data for one’s self, or not at all.’

    — Walter Pater, “Preface,” Studies in the History of the Renaissance

    • I think too many people equate an easy read with an entertaining read, and “I like this” with “this is good”. Which makes any poll, like the Locus one, of no use from the start. Juried awards are plainly more effective at identifying excellence than popular vote awards, but genre puts so much importance on its popular vote awards it makes science fiction and fantasy targets of ridicule. And rightly so.

  5. As with any poll, the answers you get depend on the questions you ask and who you ask. On the basis of this being a poll kicked off by Locus, are you really that surprised at the results?

    Around 2000, some UK media organisation or other launched a poll for “The best music of the Millennium”. The results that came back were almost 100% from the pop charts of the preceding five years, which was almost certainly down to the target audience that took part in the survey. As any objective indicator of the best music from the years 1000 – 2000 C.E., it was just total meaningless gibberish.

  6. And the thing is, if one starts talking about “serious” readers vs. fans and dilettantes, the accusations of “elitism” and “snobbery” fly thick and fast. But there ARE elite writers and the fans don’t often seek them out because they’re more “difficult” or “challenging”. A fan tends to be a timid, conservative creature, suspicious of innovation, thin-skinned to the point of being paranoid. They have their safe reads and comfort books, their acknowledged formulae and conventions and anything that ventures outside those narrow parameters is treated with grave misgivings, if not outright hostility.

    Thus, those abominable poll results. An embarrassment, but hardly a surprise.

  7. And I don’t agree with 28 of your 30 choices. It’s a matter of opinion, collective opinion in this case. Interesting, but as much use as the Oscars in determining quality.

    • You don’t agree that they’re good books, or you didn’t like them? Because there’s a difference.

      • Many I haven’t read, either through lack of time or interest, so that’s why I wouldn’t consider those among the ‘best’. Others I have read and just didn’t think they were good enough for a ‘best’ list. For the record, the two I agree with you on are Mythago Wood and Watership Down.

        • And yet look at the actual results, a list of books that are allegedly better than the books I chose. Do you seriously think Nine Princes in amber is a better book than Mythago wood? That Foundation is a better novel than The Dispossessed? Or Stranger in a Strange Land better than Dhalgren? That only white males are apparently capable of writing the best science fiction and fantasy?

          • It’s not an either or situation. Naturally I think my own choices are far better than either those chosen in the poll or your choices. Which was entirely my point, that it comes down to opinion, either singular, or group. And no, I don’t think that Nine Princes in Amber is better than Mythago Wood (I’ve already mentioned that’s one of the books I agree with you about), or that Foundation is better than The Dispossessed. I’ve never read either Stranger in a Strange Land or Dhalgren. But overall I slightly prefer the choices of the poll to your personal choices, just as I suspect you would prefer the choices of the poll to my individual picks.

            Do I seriously think that only white males are apparently capable of writing the best science fiction and fantasy? Of course not, and the Locus poll suggests no such thing, with nine of the 30 choices being by female writers. How many are non-white I don’t know, but I’m not thinking of the colour of someone’s skin when I decide how much I like a book.

            • I suspect I would prefer your choices to those in the actual poll results. And judging the quality of a work is not entirely opinion either. Some books are plainly better-written than others, and I can provide a number of reasons why that is the case. I wouldn’t bother reading Stranger in a Strange Land, but you ought to give Dhalgren a go.

              The percentage of female writers in the poll results is appalling given their contribution to the genre. There are no non-white writers in the results. And that’s because not enough people do think of the colour of someone’s skin.

              • I’m planning to post my choices as a blog post – had been before this discussion – so you can see for yourself. Not for a couple of weeks though.

                Some books are plainly better written than others, and some are more important than others for all sorts of reasons. The official poll results include Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I’d argue is one of the most important books of the last century regardless of any genre consideration.

                Do you argue that one should allow ‘political’ considerations such as the colour of a writer’s skin to override considerations of literary or artistic quality? That’s simply another form of discrimination. Best is best is best, regardless of the sex, colour, religion etc. of the author.

                • Do you argue that one should allow ‘political’ considerations such as the colour of a writer’s skin to override considerations of literary or artistic quality? That’s simply another form of discrimination. Best is best is best, regardless of the sex, colour, religion etc. of the author.

                  Well, no, because it’s impossible to untangle all those things from your response to a book. Which means you have to know about them, question them, and act to mitigate them. But that’s a whole other argument…

  8. I liked Dune when I read it, forty-odd years ago, but I always thought that Herbert owed T.E. Lawrence a royalty cheque.

  9. /Old Man’s War/ is a *vastly* better novel than /Light./

    It is not a great novel, but it is gripping, involving, touching, hope-giving, heart-warming, fun, exciting and overall a fresh and interesting new take on what many of us had considered a stale old worn-out subgenre.

    Sadly, the sequelæ are poor, but they do not diminish the original. I found /Children of God/ poor, but it does not lessen /The Sparrow/ as the best first-SF-novel of the 1990s.

    Light is, well, pretentious wank, in my not-remotely-humble opinion. MJH is a fascinating, interesting and very cool bloke and I enjoy listening to him speak but I have read some half a dozen of his books and stories and all have struck me as difficult, obscure, overly stylised and ornamented, mostly devoid of any interesting story or characterisation. He should have been a rock star, not a novelist.

    It is the single most overrated SF novel since John Clute’s appalling, absymal, obfuscatorily-sesquipedalian /Appleseed/, which was also covered in plaudits from the great and the good. They should have known better.

    Personally, I would probably jointly award them the title of “Worst SF Novels of the C21 So Far”, with an honorary mention for /Bold as Love/ which is only disqualified by not actually being SF but a sort of magical-realist-fantasy. But then to be fair, I gave up on BaL about a quarter of the way through as downright unreadable.

    • I know you don’t like Light, or Gwyneth Jones’ writing, but I’m sure you can think of novels that would be more deserving winners than Old Man’s War. The best sf novel of the first decade of the twenty-first century needs to be more than a deliberately Heinlein-esque piece of lightweight sf bunkum.

      Incidentally, it seems likely its position was a direct result of Scalzi mentioning the poll on his blog. Not that he touted for votes or anything, but just a link-through is enough to send his fans to the Locus website.

  10. And yet your own list is depressingly UK/US oriented–there is no acknowledgment of world literature at all. As far as you’re concerned, there is no world beyond the US or UK. So I guess you might say there’s a wider context that is *completely*absent both from the poll and from your own selections. Which is, as I say, depressing, to say the least. – JeffV

    • Until translation is routine, Anglophone writers are going to dominate Anglophone literature. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of non-Anglophone twentieth century sf writers I’m likely to have encountered at novel-length – Verne, the Strugatskys, Lem, Jeschke, and, er, I’m sure there’s more…

    • Hello, Ian & Jeff. Interesting point about “wider context” &c. But that point only matters because “Best of” lists such as the list in question tend to use sweeping terms to fudge what their selections really represent.

      Again, as I said in my earlier post (above), I think that such lists would be smarter & more revealing if we dropped the dull & suffocating & deceptive pretense of objectivity or “representative selection.” For my tastes, I think that I could learn much more from lists created by interesting & articulate individual readers with striking tastes who openly admit their highly-particularized subjectivities & limits & enthusiasms. I actually want more, not less, “discrimination” — using the word here in the Paterian sense.

      I think that such honesty about our inherent subjectivities is, in its curious way, the most objective method. After all, context & experience & access will always ring us round with their walls, no matter our efforts & pretensions to fly beyond them. And, in this interconnected age, honesty about subjectivity need not lead to isolation, trapping each of us apart from each other, “each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.” For a start, we can have Jeff VanderMeer reading Ian Sales’s list as nothing more than a list made by the interesting fellow Ian Sales, and vice versa. That sort of interaction tells us much & will generate more counter-lists, whereas globalizing lists pretending to objectivity tend to give us much mirk & muck.

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