Roundtable on All-Centuries Novel Polling

Russell Letson

OK, I’ll play, with some caveats–but not ’til later, when I’ve finished my year-end wrap-up piece for Locus. Meanwhile, here’s a note I wrote to myself the other day while looking at the comment threads on the Roundtable and posts about the lists:

What exactly makes a book worth putting on a “best” list? To be more precise, what kind of “best” would we be talking about? It would necessarily be tied to some value system that may or may not be shared with others–for example, it might be “books that made the greatest impression on me when I first read them,” or “books that even on reflection or re-reading decades later I still find moving or inspiring or informative.” And note that the last clause incorporates at least three sets of possible values. Maybe a real “best” would have to score on all three axes.

Or I might prefer to compile a kind of canon appropriate for an introductory course in Anglophone SF. Or I might want to make a list of the most morally improving works. Or the ones with giraffes in ’em, or naked ladies playing football. (Cue Marty Feldman ticket-office sketch.) But a wide-open name-the-best poll is always going to reflect the N-dimensional subjectivity of its respondents. A poll of Locus staffers or Roundtable regulars will likely have a different bias than the All-Time poll, but that doesn’t mean that our “best” is going to be any less N-dimensional. We might skew slightly older (I know I do), and I suspect that our collective reading history might be a bit broader even than that of the population that found its way to the All-Time Best Poll, which in turn means that some items might score higher. I, for example, would certainly include Last and First Men and Star Maker on a top twenty, along with The Stars My Destination, for rather different reasons. Those are personal touchstones. And Stapledon and Bester would both be on my required-reading list for a less personal Classics of SF course, along with Le Guin, Knight, Pohl with and without Kornbluth, Aldiss, Anderson, Heinlein, Leiber, Arnason, Goonan, Delany. . . . It would be a five-year program.

Paul Graham Raven

Gonna politely decline to play this one, I think; a little like Russell, I find the word “best” to be so hollow (or, in some cases, so loaded) that I don’t know how to even start, so I’d rather leave the field to those willing to fight upon it. 🙂

Jeffrey Ford

For what it’s worth … I didn’t bother to number them and they’re not in any hierarchical order. There are so many others that could easily take the place of these on any given day. I gave up early on trying to determine “the best” because it froze my memory. Instead I just tried to think of ones I really enjoyed. One of the things that I got a kick out of about the Locus list is that Dune was at the top of the SF pile for the 20th century. I never read it, but I’m going to give it a go this year. I’ve read enough about it and a lot of writing that dissed it unrelentingly. So much for the critics. Dune ain’t goin’ nowhere. I couldn’t come up with enough 21st Century SF to make a list, but I did add my own Dark Fantasy/Horror category. Why not?
20th Century SF
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Phillip K. Dick
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Eden – Stanislaw Lem
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet – Eleanor Cameron

20th Century Fantasy
Arabian Nights and Days – Naguib Mahfouz
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Amos Tutuola
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffmann – Angela Carter
The Baron in the Trees – Italo Calvino
The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe

20th Century Dark Fantasy/ Horror
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
Falling Angel – William Hjortsberg
Flicker – Theodore Roszak
I am Legend – Richard Matheson
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

21st Century Science Fiction
I don’t know enough about science fiction in the 21st century to even take a stab at this. If I made a list it would definitely include a work from China Mieville (Perdido Street Station or The Scar) and probably Light by M. John Harrison. It would include these, though, as they were two of the only science fiction novels I can recall reading. Sorry.

21st Century Fantasy
The Golden Compass – Phillip Pullman
The Prince – Ib Michael
The Melancholy of Anatomy – Shelley Jackson
Madeleine Is Sleeping – Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
City of Glass – Paul Auster

21st Century Dark Fantasy/Horror
The House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Arabian Nightmare – Robert Irwin
Strangers – Taichi Yamata
The Ring – Koji Suzuki
Beyond Black – Hilary Mantel

9 thoughts on “Roundtable on All-Centuries Novel Polling

  • January 11, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Ellen – sorry, but you don’t get to cite “Alice”, published in 1865, as a 20th century book. (Otherwise I would have put it top of my list as well!) In fact, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz barely qualifies, published in 1900, but the Oz series extended well into the 20th century so that should be allowed.

    But you panelists are bending the rules like Gumby so I guess you can cite whatever books you want! Certainly the “Alice”‘ books could be considered as the most widely known and influential fantasy in English literature.

  • January 11, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Dan -going over my list (before seeing your comment) I suddenly realized-oh sh-t! wrong century. It was me being bad.

  • January 13, 2013 at 1:28 am

    A Horror/Dark Fantasy category? Where are those lists of novels and stories?

  • January 13, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Space27–Ellen Datlow and Jeff Ford sort of created that category on their own. The overlap (two votes) between the two of them are:

    The Wasp Factory (1984) Iain M. Banks 2
    The Haunting of Hill House (1959) Shirley Jackson 2

    It’s nestled between 20th C Fantasy and 21st C SF.

  • January 13, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Oh, that list. Just two items? I’m a little bit disappointed. But I did vote for The Wasp Factory.

  • January 13, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Speaking of the wrong century, I know two novels from the 1800’s that I could have put in the 20th Cent. vote and got away with it:

    Star, C.I. Defontenay (1854, in french)
    Two Planets, Kurd Lasswitz (1897, in german)

    They were first published in english in the 1970’s.

  • January 15, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Great lists and remarks from everyone, but the focus on the almighty novel slights so many superb writers, from Cyril Kornbluth to Willam Tenn. to Fredric Brown to Harlan Ellison. One of my top ten SF books of all time is Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon. I can’t think of a single SF novel, however fine, that I would be willing to give it up for. It’s as essential as Dune or Neuromancer or any other that I can think of. So Tiptree wasn’t comfortable with the novel form – so what?

  • January 18, 2013 at 3:52 am

    Thomas – I think Karen felt it would be hard enough herding the cats on the panel to make their picks for novels, without trying for all the short fiction categories. You make a good point that there are short form masters like Ellison and Tiptree, and some of those masters are reflected in the short fiction lists: Ellison with 6 entries, Tiptree with 5. Both of them ranked as high as #3 in a category for the whole 20th century – not too shabby. (Harlan had both #3 and #4 in the 20th Century Short Story category.)

    My favorite example of a short form master is, of course, Ted Chiang, who seems to have no interest in publishing a novel but knocked down the top spot in three different short fiction categories. Nobody would consider him slighted because he can’t show up on the novel list.

  • February 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    How can you not put REH on the list if not at the top? Best story teller ever. No Michael Morcook? YOU PEOPLE ARE INSANE.


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