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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The List of "Science Fiction the 101 Best Novels 1985-2010" by Damien Broderick and Paul di Filippo (Presented with comments by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTIONDavid Pringle's classic: Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels : An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984 is a book that I cannot highly recommend enough for anyone interested in sf. Agree or disagree with the choices but it is always insightful and it was one of the two essential volumes alongside the superb Trillion Year Spree which started me into serious sf reading when I came to the US in 1990 after the few scattered sf books and stories available during the communist era I grew up in, books and stories that in addition to the (surprisingly good on occasion) local Soviet and Romanian sf made me a life-long fan of the genre. Incidentally the fact that David Pringle's classic is out of print today in the era of ebooks is kind of ridiculous, but that's how it is at least for now.
Today I saw a meme spreading online about a new such book, this time written by Damien Broderick and Paul di Filippo, book presenting the authors' opinions about which are the 101 Best SF novels from 1985-2010.  

I looked at what books were listed and despite some notable omissions (Peter Hamilton, Liz Williams or Mary Gentle - when Perdido Street Station or Boneshaker are taken as sf, masterpieces like 1610, Ilario, Banner of Souls should be too), some inclusions that are just ridiculous (Naomi Novik for example) and some choices of a book from an author's work that are not that judicious (Adam Roberts' Salt while very good like pretty much all the author writes is far away from his best, same with Greg Egan and Permutation CityNeal Asher and Shadow of the Scorpion etc), I thought the list offers an useful guide to the sf of the past 25 years and I will present it below with a few comments and a lot of abbreviated opinions.


The List with Comments: including a rough star rating for the books I've read which are bolded, a few self explanatory comments and a few abbreviations: ONI - opened but not interested, NIAW - not interested in the author's work as his/her prose style did not work for me in a few tries, NBA - not the best of the author, WIH - I would include on a list like this if I were to make one, TFA - top favorite author with books on one of my two all time favorite book lists).

I read 54 of the list titles - some are multiple books and I read all unless marked, so actually I read more than 54 mentioned novels - and only very few list titles are such that I have no opinion about, three that I never heard of (Nasir, Carter, Faber) and two that I've read some other work from the author which I really liked (Simon Ings' The Weight of Numbers) and was "excellent for 3/4 but bombed badly at the end" (Liz Jensen's Rapture), but I never had the chance to open the specific books mentioned here.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985) (***1/2) TFA, NBA
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985) (* - one of the few books I really hated, I would nominate for worst acclaimed sf of all time and would be a contender to worst sf of all time though there is strong competion there from Battlefield Earth and its ilk)
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K Dick (1985)  NIAW
Always Coming Home, Ursula K Le Guin (1985)  ONI
This Is the Way the World Ends, James Morrow (1985) NIAW
Gal√°pagos, Kurt Vonnegut (1985) NIAW
The Falling Woman, Pat Murphy (1986) NIAW
The Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent (1986) NIAW
A Door Into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski (1986) (** 1/2)
Soldiers of Paradise, Paul Park (1987) NIAW

Life During Wartime, Lucius Shepard (1987) ONI
The Sea and Summer, George Turner (1987)  (*****)  WIH, TFA
Cyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988) (** 1/2)
Neverness, David Zindell (1988) (*****), masterpiece of sf, WIH, TFA
The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989) (**)
Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989) (*****) WIH
Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990) (*****) top sff book of all time, WIH, TFA
Queen of Angels, Greg Bear (1990) (***), NBA
Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991) (*****), WIH, TFA
Synners , Pat Cadigan (1991) NIAW

Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (1991) NIAW
White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991) (*****), TFA
Eternal Light, Paul McAuley (1991) (*****), NBA, TFA
Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)  (***)
Timelike Infinity, Stephen Baxter (1992) (*****), NBA, TFA
Dead Girls, Richard Calder (1992) ONI
Jumper, Steven Gould (1992) NIAW
China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992) ONI
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992) (***)
A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992) (****) seminal sf at the time, badly dated/written

Aristoi, Walter Jon Williams (1992) (*****), WIH, TFA
Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1992) (***)
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993) NIAW
Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993) (****)
Chimera, Mary Rosenblum (1993) (*****), WIH
Nightside the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe (1993) (*****), WIH, TFA
Brittle Innings, Michael Bishop (1994) ONI
Permutation City, Greg Egan (1994) (**** 1/2), NBA, TFA
Blood, Michael Moorcock (1994) ONI, TFA
Mother of Storms, John Barnes (1995) (****1/2) - a disaster novel that is among the best in its sub-genre and was recently reissued but I tend to strongly dislike such

Sailing Bright Eternity, Gregory Benford (1995) (****)
Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers (1995) NIAW
The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson (1995), ONI, TFA
The Transmigration of Souls, William Barton (1996) (*****), NBA, TFA
The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter (1996) (??)
The Sparrow/Children of God, Mary Doria Russell (1996/1998) (*****), WIH
Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996) NIAW
Night Lamp, Jack Vance (1996) (*****), TFA
In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker (1997) (**1/2)
Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman (1997) NIAW

Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand (1997) NIAW
As She Climbed Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem (1997) NIAW
The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod (1998) (*****), WIH, TFA
Bloom, Wil McCarthy (1998) NIAW
Vast, Linda Nagata (1998) NIAW
The Golden Globe, John Varley (1998) NIAW
Headlong, Simon Ings (1999) (??)
Cave of Stars, George Zebrowski (1999) NIAW
Genesis, Poul Anderson (2000) NIAW
Super-Cannes, JG Ballard (2000) NIAW

Under the Skin, Michel Faber (2000) (??)
Perdido Street Station, China Miéville (2000) (*****, top standalone fantasy (!!) of mine), WIH, TFA
Distance Haze, Jamil Nasir (2000) (??)
Revelation Space trilogy, Alastair Reynolds (2000) (*****), WIH, TFA
Salt, Adam Roberts (2000) (**** 1/2), NBA, TFA
Ventus, Karl Schroeder (2001) NIAW
The Cassandra Complex, Brian Stableford (2001) (*****), WIH, TFA
Light, M John Harrison (2002) (*****), WIH, TFA
Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan (2002) (*****), WIH, TFA
The Separation, Christopher Priest (2002) (****), NBA (actually this annoyed me a lot but the author is very readable even when  annoying), TFA

The Golden Age, John C Wright (2002) (*****), WIH, TFA
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2003) (** 1/2)
Natural History, Justina Robson (2003) (*****)
The Labyrinth Key/Spears of God, Howard V Hendrix (2004/2006) (*****)
River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2004) (*****), WIH
The Plot Against America, Philip Roth (2004) NIAW
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) (*****), WIH, TFA
The House of Storms, Ian R MacLeod (2005) (* - hated this one as it was a huge let down after the wonderful The Light Ages; also it is fantasy by any reasonable definition of genre)
Counting Heads, David Marusek (2005) (* 1/2 for ambition; a book that shows why hard sf sells so little overall today; bad jargon keeps getting worse)
Air (Or, Have Not Have), Geoff Ryman (2005) NIAW

Accelerando, Charles Stross (2005) (***, works better at short length)
Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (2005) (*****), WIH, TFA
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen (2006) (??)
The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006) NIAW
Temeraire /His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik (2006) (**, mediocre fantasy, no place on either a sf list or a best of anything but how to churn endless sequels that go nowhere)
Blindsight, Peter Watts (2006) (*****), WIH
HARM, Brian Aldiss (2007) ONI (read B. Aldiss' masterpieces not this stuff)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon (2007) NIAW
The Secret City,Carol Emshwiller (2007) NIAW
In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan (2007) ONI

Postsingular, Rudy Rucker (2007) ONI (great pop math writer, mediocre sf writer)
Shadow of the Scorpion, Neal Asher (2008) (****), NBA (by far, have no idea why authors chose this), TFA
The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins (2008-2010) NIAW
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (2008) NIAW
The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia (2008) (*****) - another fantasy that has no real place on a sf list, but otherwise it would be a WIH for sure
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (2009) (***, mediocre sf, mediocre writing, but captured liberal intelligentsia zeitgeist)
Steal Across the Sky, Nancy Kress (2009) (****) NBA by far
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (2009) NIAW
Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010) ONI
Zero History, William Gibson (2010) NIAW
The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi (2010) (****) (hard sf as fantasy)


Milo MJ said...

Temeraire? Really? How the bloody hell does that count as Sci-Fi?

Liviu said...

Do not get it either here...

Anonymous said...

Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K Dick (1985) NIAW

NIAW - not interested in the author's work as his/her prose style did not work for me in a few tries.

You have to try harder.

Liviu said...

well, every few years I try again Philip Dick and I can't say it ever worked for me; but who knows as tastes change...

Anonymous said...

Was looking forward to reading through, but I'm afraid you lost me immediately by giving Ender's Game one star. Seems our tastes are too different. =(

Anonymous said...

Hi Liviu

Thanks for a great article but this book doesn't sound like anything I need to invest in.

I'm intrigued by your dislike of 'Ender's Game' though. It was one of the first SF books I read, and though I haven't read it for about 15-20 years,I remember it quite fondly.

What about it makes it so bad, in your opinion? The message behind the novel, the writing, or something else?

And again, thanks for all your great work. I always look forward to your articles, lists and reviews, and you have inspired me to try many new authors. I have no idea how you manage to read all the books you do, but at least I get to learn about them, and then pick the ones I think sounds the most interesting.

- Dennis S.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comments!
As Ender's game goes, I read it many years ago - basically around 1991-2 when as mentioned I started reading very seriously sf - and I still remembered my visceral reaction to it; something about children bred for war in a modern society I guess, but also probably coupled with the author' style; hard to say especially that so many years have passed and I stayed far away from OSC's work since then, but a combination of content and style.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your answer.

Yeah, I was kind of shocked by the content of 'Ender's Game' too (I was about 16, or so), but that is part of the reason it has stayed with me all these years.

I mean, I never found that OSC was trying to shock me for the sake of shock value itself or for the sake of controversy, but it definitely challenged my understanding of the how's and why's of a society, and it made my young mind think and reflect. This is, for me, often the sign of a great book.

But thanks again. I usually agree with a lot of your reviews, which is why your disliking of this book intrigued me so much.

- Dennis S.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment; it's hard to say what my reaction would be today, 20 years and tons of sf books later, but there was something about OSC' style that just did not work for me - while i stayed away from his novels, I actually read some short stories most notably the famous Sonata one which I actually liked to a great extent but I still felt it a little askew from me so to speak...

At the time Asimov was the god of sf for me while Heinlein and Clarke were hit or miss (for example i quite liked both RAH's Stranger in a Strange Land and Time enough for Love and loved the Moon one but strongly disliked Starhip Troopers, though not at the hate level for Ender...)

neal call said...

Yeah, your dislike of Ender's Game surprised me, but doesn't particularly bother me. It's not the best out there. But tat you're not interested in Cormac McCarthy? You're missing out. I think of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (which I see you enjoyed) and McCarthy's The Road as some of the best stuff (brilliant prose, brilliant concepts) in any genre I've read in recent years.

Liviu said...

I saw more praise for McCarthy recently (put in a way that intrigued me as praise for the author per se is common) so maybe it's time to try again.

One thing I noticed over time is that writers with US mainstream sensibilities never really appealed to me the way French, Japanese, Russian, Eastern European and many UK and Commonwealth (Canada - eg Atwood and even Robertson Davies which i greatly enjoyed once upon a time, Australia etc) authors did and that maybe a reason I like Ishiguro (and not only Never Let Me Go of course) and not McCarthy at least to date

I compiled a list of 15 favorite "literary" authors and the nationality break surprised me too as having no US author there

Ed said...

While I can understand disliking Ender's Game (its undeniably a tad juvenile), I'm shocked at your NIAWs for such great authors as

Philip K. Dick
Octavia Butler
Kurt Vonnegut
Ursula K. Le Guin
Cormac McCarthy
Michael Chabon

These authors have written some of the best prose I've ever read. I can only hope it's because you've simply not read the right works by these authors. For PKD, I suggest starting with Martian Time-Slip or Ubik. For Octavia Butler, track down her Hugo-winning short story, "Speech Sounds". For Vonnegut, try either Slaughterhouse-Five or The Sirens of Titan. For Le Guin, read The Lathe of Heaven. For Chabon, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I think Cormac McCarthy is probably the greatest living American author, and his novels Blood Meridian and Suttree are literary masterpieces (but not SF).

Unknown said...

Why didn't you like Ender's game? I liked it so much. Thanks anyways for sharing.

The Equation Book

hairybloke said...

I've only just come across this book, having made it my mission back in the 80s to read all of the books in Pringle's original. (I still have about 5 to go.)
I am a little surprised at some of the choices. I suspect that some authors were included because of their prior reputations rather than the quality of that particular novel. Ballard and Vonnegut wrote far better years before and seem to have been included out of respect rather than merit. It does seem odd that 'Shadow of The Scorpion' was the Asher choice rather than 'Gridlinked'. Louis McMaster Bujold, CJ Cherryh and Orson Scott Card write workmanlike SF novels, but they can't surely be listed in the best 101 since 1985. It is the omissions that are as surprising as the inclusions. Where is Dan Simmons' 'Hyperion' or Richard Paul Russo's 'Unto Leviathan', either of which would knock the Hunger Games into a cocked hat. Where are Peter F Hamilton, Robert Reed, Ian Watson? It doesn't strike me as a list that has been properly thought through and one which was designed to please the majority of readers than a truly critical choice.


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