I have already worked out a way to define the Classics of Science Fiction by collecting lists from science fiction fans and critics, but this morning I got to wondering which science fiction books, if any, are recognized as classics by people who normally do not read science fiction. Over the years I’ve encountered a lot of lists recommending the best novels to read, and occasionally a science fiction novel gets thrown in.
One of the most famous lists, and maybe the most authoritative in recent years, is the Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels. On their list they had Brave New World (#3), 1984 (#13), Slaughterhouse-Five (#18), and A Clockwork Orange (#65). These are very famous books, but I don’t consider them true science fiction, at least not in the genre sense. They may use SF settings and techniques, but Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut and Burgess were not SF writers. By the way, ignore the list on the right column that does contain many genre SF novels. That comes from imprecise fan voting and not from scholars and experts.
Recently, the Library of America published it’s first volume to contain genre science fiction, Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick. LOA is even more selective than Modern Library, so should we consider The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik the stand out SF genre novels of the 20th century? I think we need some corroboration first.
Another list to counter the Modern Library list is the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. 1984 (#9), Brave New World (#16), Slaughterhouse-Five (#29), A Clockwork Orange (#49), Cat’s Cradle (#66), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (#72), and The War of the Worlds (#85) show up. Notice the overlap of the first four titles, but also notice the addition of four titles in the back half of the list. Still none of these novels are what we’d consider genre classics? No Dune or Ender’s Game. And the H. G. Wells books was from the 19th century.
The 150 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century compiled from several lists at the Friendswood Library finally seems to get us somewhere. On this list we do find some familiar genre titles – Fahrenheit 451 (#28), Stranger in a Strange Land (#31), 2001 (#66), and Dune (#86). It’s nice to see a few of our favorites listed among all the standard literary work that get mentioned so often and taught in schools. But we’re still not seeing any overlap. There just doesn’t seem to be any consensus, unless it’s the same four mentioned for the Modern Library list.
Time offered The Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present. Their editors throw in Snowcrash, Neuromancer, and Ubik. This is the first validation of the Library of America choosing PKD. It also overlaps with 1984, A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse-Five, and leaves off Brave New World. Overall this list adds many newer literary favorites and dumps some of the standard heavyweights like Ulysses. Still there is no consistent sign of a genre favorite in the minds of the world at large.
If we really broaden the search and include books like 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die we can catch a number of genre classics: Cryptonomicon, Neuromancer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Chocky, The Drowned World, Stranger in a Strange Land, Solaris, Foundation, and I, Robot. Still, it’s as if the mundane world is willing to throw us a bone and include a few token SF titles. We’re still not seeing a stand out genre novel. Science fiction appears to be something fleeting in the peripheral vision of the literary world.
If you look at Top 100 Sci-Fi Books and my Classics of Science Fiction by Rank, you’ll see a lot of common overlap. Both of these lists were compiled by taking many lists and cross-tabbing them. I would guess by looking at all the lists that maybe Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land are the two titles that the general reader may know about, but I have met plenty a bookworms in my life that I have had to educate about these titles. I would say Ender’s Game is the the most popular title that my non-science fiction reading friends have discovered.
Most people think of Star Wars and Star Trek when you ask them to define science fiction. The world of science fiction literature is really a sub-culture that few people know about. However, if I had to introduce the world at large to SF, I would recommend these titles as the most popular SF books to try:
- Stranger in a Strange Land
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Bladerunner)
- Ender’s Game
However, from reading and studying books that talk about the best books to read, I can easily imagine that these titles will be forgotten in about another fifty years. I think in the end, say in 2108, if you ask a bookworm about science fiction of the 20th century, they will list off: 1984, Brave New World and Slaughterhouse-Five. I tend to think A Clockwork Orange will lose favor because its too hard to read. In the end science fiction will be represented by books that were never from the sub-culture of science fiction writers.
On the other hand Dune, Ender’s Game and Stranger in a Stranger Land may hang in there. Books go in and out of favor by the public. Stephen King may turn out to be the Charles Dickens of the 20th Century. Stranger in a Strange Land might be its Gulliver’s Travels and Ender’s Game its Alice in Wonderland.