Science Fiction in the Last 25 Years

Entertainment Weekly recently published their list of The New Classics: The 100 Best Reads from 1983-2008.  Guess what?  Only one science fiction genre book, Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson made their list, coming in at #26.  There was some fantasy titles like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) by J. K. Rowling at #2 and His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman at #40, and even a graphic novel, Sandman (1988-1996) by Neil Gaiman at #46, to represent some other genres that are close to science fiction fan’s hearts, but only one real SF title.

Now squeezing in the best literary, non-fiction, YA, genre books and even graphic novels from the last twenty-five years down to a hundred titles doesn’t leave much room for many titles in each category, but to only have one science fiction title seems harsh at first glance.  But I’m not being too critical, it’s a good list, but I think they should have included one other science fiction novel:  Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card.  I say this because so many of my non-science fiction reading bookworm friends loved this story, and even consider it one of their all-time favorite books.  In fact, if EW were to insist on including only one SF title, I’d pick Ender’s Game.

Entertainment Weekly isn’t alone in proclaiming Neuromancer as the only quality SF novel of the last twenty-five years, so did The Daily Telegraph.  Both periodicals also picked Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell, a literary novel with some story settings in the future.  And the Telegraph also picked The Time-Traveler’s Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger, an excellent science fiction story told in a literary narrative.  Personally, I liked both of these titles better than Neuromancer

Of course The New York Times did their What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? and they didn’t even throw in any token genre books at all.  I’ve only read two of their titles, White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo and A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole, and I prefer Ender’s Game, Cloud Atlas and The Time-Traveler’s Wife over both of them, and Neuromancer just a little less.

Does this mean that for the most part science fiction is ignored by the reading world at large, or is it sadly that science fiction books just don’t measure up?  Many of the books listed do have fantastic elements, so I think science fiction and fantasy have made an impact on the modern literary world.  The current Pulitzer Prize winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz is on the list and the title character is a Sci-Fi fan and extreme geek.  I wonder if that’s how the literary world at large sees SF fans? 

Junot Díaz weaves in so many Sci-Fi references, totally off-the-cuff and unexplained, that I assume he thinks they are universally part of our culture.  But I have to wonder if most of them don’t just fly right over the average reader’s head.  Just how many outside of our genre know who Dejah Thoris is, and if you are a younger science fiction reader, I’m not sure if even you know.  The literary world often sneers at science fiction and claims science fiction fans are immature social misfits – and Junot only reinforces this idea, but I think he’s really with us and not against us.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction and a lot of books from these lists and in these book Olympics I’ve got to say that most genre books do not have the times to get on the team, but there’s a gimmick that’s not be addressed.  These top culture best-of-lists aim to find the most memorable titles for the most people.  Genre writers crank out gazillions of titles that are very entertaining in the moment but aren’t very memorable in the long scheme of things.  Also, science fiction books aren’t widely read, so how can the be widely remembered?

I think The Time-Traveler’s Wife straddles both the genre and literary world even though it’s widely loved, few of it’s fans want to think it’s a science fiction novel.  I think Gibson’s Neuromancer is on the list because it’s not about traditional science fiction themes, but about computers, and we know how important computers are in our society.  The Time-Traveler’s Wife is about love, and we know how important romance is to our society.  Science fiction books are often about weird things that most people don’t think about, so that’s why SF books get little attention.  Ender’s Game is about children and childhood first, and most people can identify with that.

If science fiction writers want to get their books listed on these pop culture memory lists, they need to write more books with universal appeal that are memorable.  Another exciting military action thriller can be a great reading experience, but they tend to all blend in together.  The reason why Stranger in a Strange Land is so well remembered outside of the genre is because it’s so unique.  It’s one of the few SF titles that the general public remembers from the last 50 years, and even then I doubt 1 person in 300 would list it if Jay Leno asked them to name a famous science fiction book from the last century in one of his Jaywalking segments.

On the other hand, if Jay Leno was asking a long line of people to name a single title from Entertainment Weekly’s list and give them ten chances, how many on average could succeed?  I have no idea, but I’d guess damn few.  If you gave people ten chances to guess one of the movies off their EW’s 100 Best Films from 1983 to 2008, I’d say 95% would succeed.  Books just aren’t mass media like movies and television, or even music.  I’d say it was damn nice of EW to remember Neuromancer at all, and to make that Top 100 list is a very excellent distinction.  William Gibson and his family should be very proud.  And we science fiction fans should be very pleased too.

Jim

3 thoughts on “Science Fiction in the Last 25 Years”

  1. I’m not sure that readers are ignoring science fiction and I certainly don’t believe that science fiction writing is somehow subpar to the rest of the genres out there…I still think by and large the folks making and compiling these lists are part of a literary elite that doesn’t feel especially inclined to include sci fi on their lists. I actually feel like a day will come when some of the generation who cannot get sci fi and pulp out of their heads as one in the same will no longer be the ones generating these lists and maybe, just maybe, sci fi will get more of the credit it deserves.

    However I think the general structure of sci fi films will always place some stigma on sci fi literature in some readers’ minds. There are readers who just won’t give certain kinds of literature a chance. When what appear to be open minded critics actually say that Rowling’s and Pullman’s books are not the greatest children’s books ever written, what are we to conclude with their inclusion on these lists? That they have more to do with it being a popularity/sales contest than a true judge of the literature on its own merit? I think so.

    In the end these lists are always entertaining for the heated discussions they generate, but I would love to pole those who choose such lists to see just how widely read they really are.

  2. Actually Carl, I think SF is different, and at a certain level doesn’t provide something that the common reader wants.

    SF is idea driven, and literary fiction is emotional. Science fiction is autistic to this emotional aspect.

    There are a few SF books that have emotional elements, but for the most part they are very cerebral. I think that kind of writing has limited appeal. Ender’s Game works with non-SF readers because it is emotional. And The Time Traveler’s Wife works with SF readers because of its ideas.

    SF fans like you and I love science fiction because we love the sense of wonder stimulation. I think a large part of society is blind to that kind of sense of wonder.

    I think modern science fiction is a long ways from pulp fiction but it isn’t literary either. Literary fiction is about people, whereas genre fiction like SF, mystery, thrillers, etc. are about ideas and plot. Now this isn’t bad in any way, but I think the people who make the lists remember books that have emotional impact.

    That’s why I was surprised the EW list didn’t use Ender’s Game instead of Neuromancer. Neuromancer was a breakthrough book stylistically and full of exciting ideas, but I can’t remember one emotional scene from it.

    I think the reason why millions love Harry Potter books is because they are so intensely emotional. They mirror growing up. I think a lot of YA SF&F stories are more emotional than adult SF and fantasy because they focus on the emotional aspects of growing up.

    Here’s specific example, “The Menace From Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein. It was about jealousy. Sure it was set on the Moon and had the neat idea of flying like a bird in the air reservoir, but ultimately it was about jealousy. The average SF story would have only been about flying on the Moon. Cool geek idea, but a “so-what” idea to most mundane people.

    I think if you read more literary stories you might see what SF is missing. Now I don’t mean that SF is deficient. I mean that SF is a screwdriver and literary stories are pliers – tools for different purposes.

    Maybe Carl, we need to get down to specifics. What SF books do you think should have been on that EW list of the best books of the last 25 years? It would be great if SF Signal did a Mind Meld on the topic.

    Jim

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