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essential sf novels – the analysis


So there we go: 50 essential science fiction novels, as chosen by Jared Shurin (here and here), James Smythe (here and here) and myself (here and here). And, of course, there’s the original list.

Only three books appeared on all three lists: Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. None, you’ll note, were published as sf novels. Two are by women. Only the one by a man appeared on the list.

There were several books which appeared on two of the three lists: Flatland (Jared and James), The Time Machine (Jared and Ian), The Sword of Rhiannon (Jared and Ian), The Stars My Destination (James and Ian), Solaris (James and Ian), The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Jared and James), Neuromancer (Jared and James), Watchmen (Jared and James), Mindplayers (Jared and James), Red Mars (James and Ian), The Road (James and Ian) and Zoo City (Jared and James). I myself have read 23 of James’ 50, and 26 of Jared’s 50. There were several titles on both lists I’d not heard of, and I plan to pick up copies.

Across all three lists, there were 34 books out of 150 by women writers (including duplicate choices). We could – should – have done that better. There were nine books by non-Anglophone writers. So, a fail there too. Theme- and subgenre-wise, however, the choices were widespread, with everything from a Choose To Your Own Adventure to a bande dessinée.

Time-wise… both James and Jared liked the 1950s (both with 10 books), and the 1980s (9 for James, 12 for Jared). I preferred the 1970s (12 books) and the 1990s (also 12 books). Which is odd, as I think I’m oldest.  The 1980s was the most popular decade overall, with 28 books chosen by the three of us. Jared like the most 19th century novels (4), and James liked the most 21st century novels (11).

Finally, for the record, here’s the list which sparked off the ones put together by Jared, James and myself. I’ve done the meme thing to it – you know, bold if you’ve read it, italicise if it’s on the TBR. Also, * if it’s on my list, † if it’s on James’, and ‡ if it’s on Jared’s.

1 A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
2 The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)
3 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
4 When Worlds Collide, Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie (1933)
5 Odd John, Olaf Stapledon (1935)
6 Nineteen Eighty-Four†‡*, George Orwell (1949)
7 Earth Abides, George R Stewart (1949)
8 Foundation†, Isaac Asimov (1951)
9 The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury (1951)
10 The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (1953)
11 Ring Around the Sun, Clifford D Simak (1953)
12 Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (1954)
13 The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
14 The Chrysalids†, John Wyndham (1955)
15 The Death of Grass or No Blade of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
16 Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein (1959)
17 The Sirens of Titan†, Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
18 Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank (1959)
19 A Canticle for Leibowitz†, Walter M Miller (1960)
20 Venus Plus X, Theodore Sturgeon (1960)
21 Solaris†*, Stanislaw Lem (1961)
22 The Drowned World†, JG Ballard (1962)
23 Hothouse, Brian Aldiss (1962)
24 A Wrinkle in Time‡, Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
25 Dune*, Frank Herbert (1965)
26 Make Room! Make Room!, Harry Harrison (1966)
27 Logan’s Run, William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1967)
28 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick (1968)
29 The Left Hand of Darkness‡, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
30 Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
31 Ringworld, Larry Niven (1970)
32 Rendezvous with Rama*, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
33 Roadside Picnic, Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972)
34 The Female Man*, Joanna Russ (1975)
35 Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (1976)
36 The Stand, Stephen King (1978)
37 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy†‡, Douglas Adams (1979)
38 Nor Crystal Tears, Alan Dean Foster (1982)
39 Ender’s Game‡, Orson Scott Card (1985)
40 Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks (1987)
41 Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
42 Hyperion†, Dan Simmons (1989)
43 Red Mars†*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
44 Ribofunk, Paul Di Filippo (1996)
45 Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (1999)
46 Uglies, Scott Westerfeld (2005)
47 Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
48 Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (2007)
49 Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (2008)
50 Embassytown†, China Miéville (2011)

I make that 32 read and 3 on the TBR. There are, I must admit, some bizarre choices – Alan Dean Foster? But no more so than the lists James, Jared and myself put together, I suppose. There are a number of traditional choices, books I avoid because I don’t think they’re very good, even though most people claim them as “classics”. Such as, of course, the Asimov. It’s also a very testosterone-heavy list – I make it 5 female authors. I was embarrassed I only managed to list 16 on mine, but that’s three times more than this list. Finally, of those books I’ve not read or are not on the TBR… I’m not bothered about actually reading them. Which I guess means this list fails in one respect.

Overall, it’s been a fun exercise. I’m not sure I’d generate the same list if I were to do this a year from now. I suspect James and Jared would say the same…


2 thoughts on “essential sf novels – the analysis

  1. In your comment about two of the three books appearing on all three lists being by women; “Frankenstein” I’ve always thought as not really being SF (or horror for that matter). And Margaret Atwood is notorious for her wish to distance herself from the genre.

    Oh, and of all the books on Abe Book’s list that you haven’t read (or even lined up to read), the one that really cries out to be read (IMO) is “Death of Grass” by John Christopher.

  2. Interesting. Of the four lists represented I have read 44 of the abebooks’ list, 37 of James’, 36 of yours and 29 of Jared’s.

    Two comments:

    1. I cannot conceive of an essential SF reading list without a Silverberg novel from the years between 1967 and 1976.

    2. Read Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s not only essential it is extremely good.

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