In the first place, we haven’t all read the same things. I share Adrienne’s concern that there’s a considerable number of books I’ve missed altogether, and it’s interesting to hear about them even if they won’t all get added to my pile of Books To Read Before I Die. Paul’s comment on K.J. Parker’s The Company, for example, has the odd effect of making me want both to read it and to flee from it. Nice trick, Paul.
Another value is that these ruminations give us a second chance to call attention to worthwhile books that may not have achieved as high a profile as we think they should. Graham mentions Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories (OK, it’s not a novel, but let’s have some leeway here), which I agree is a very powerful collection with a distinct point of view, but which as I write is sitting some 330,000 positions behind Anathem in Amazon’s sales ranking (and no, you don’t need to remind me how unscientific, crude, and time-bound that is, either). My point is that it’s a book which shouldn’t get lost in last year’s flood of titles.
By contrast, and even though we might agree it would deserve a spot on a best list, Anathem doesn’t really need our attention. Anathem already has the biggest enclosure in the zoo. Anathem has gawkers, and probably a lot of readers as well. Anathem doesn’t need to care what we think of it.
Except—and this is my third argument in support of why we’re doing this—in terms of putting these books in context. Adrienne’s right that novels like Anathem and Nation are the work of writers who have come fully into their own voices, but I find Paul’s skepticism over Anathem’s revolutionary nature convincing, despite my earlier comments. Believe it or not, Paul, I’d actually thought about comparing it to Dhalgren in my original post, but I think you’re correct in noting that Dhalgren really seemed to upset people in the ’70s in a way that Anathem doesn’t.
Maybe there really wasn’t a revolutionary SF book last year, and as Russell points out, maybe “revolutionary” here is more a metaphor than a literal application of Kuhnian ideas. But I do think there have been books and stories that stimulated other writers to rethink the ways in which SF could be written. I think Heinlein did this a long time ago, and Greg Egan more recently.