About a quarter of a century ago I developed a concept to identify the classic books of science fiction. The current version, the one I call 3.0, is here. For a long time now I’ve wanted to update my site to a 4.0 version, but I’ve been put off by the amount of work involved, and intimidated by newer and fancier sites that attempted to do what I have done. Worlds Without End is beautiful, also covers fantasy and horror, and allows users to track their reading. SFFMeta took a completely different approach to the problem of finding great SF books to read, and I love different approaches, but their site appears not to have been updated for a year. Top Science Fiction takes a poll approach, so it reflects change over time. GoodReads has several lists that help identify popular science fiction by themes.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the gross old saying goes. There’s two issues here. Finding great books to read, and identify books as potential classics of the genre.
If I’m going to take the trouble to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0, then I want to produce a much better product. I need to update my old system and offer new features. This will be tricky, because essentially I’m just making another list of books. I have no desire to get into building a fancy web site. I want to update my list and make it better indicator of classic science fiction, that’s all. But, better how?
Back in the 1980s I wrote what I now call, The Classics of Science Fiction 1.0, as an article for the fanzine, Lan’s Lantern, and it’s interesting how it came about. My friend Mike asked me what were the best science fiction books to read knowing I had been a life-long science fiction bookworm. I told him I could tell him the ones I loved, but I doubted that one person’s opinion counted for much because tastes vary so greatly. We then began an ongoing discussion about how books are judged to be classics, and how to systematically identify them. Over the years, this has remained a fascinating subject for me.
I have lived long enough to see books that were once very popular, and ones I loved, disappear from the pop culture consciousness. My favorite writer growing up in the 1960s was Robert A. Heinlein. In the 1950s and 1960s, the big three of science fiction writers were Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I doubt many young science fiction readers today would pick any of them as their favorite writer, and older readers like me are dying off, so the fan base for Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov is shrinking. Will any of their books survive the test of time and be deemed classics? I’ve already written about Heinlein’s declining status.
Of course, young people today are discovering books that came out in the 1990s and 2000s that they think will be the classics of the future. Just because we love a book doesn’t mean it’s destined to be remembered. The qualities of a contemporary page turner are obviously different from a timeless classic, although some of the qualities are shared by both.
Thus the term “classic novel” is quite slippery. Many people feel when they read a book they absolutely adore that it must become a classic. When I was young. Books by E. E. “Doc” Smith were considered classic science fiction, but his work is almost unreadable today. In the literary world at large, a classic novel is one that endures, is often taught in school, quite often is filmed or serialized on TV, like Masterpiece Theater, and has achieved a reputation of being great. Think Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina.
Another quality of a classic is they tend to define an era – for example, The Great Gatsby defines America in the 1920s. Because science fiction is usually about the future, it misses out on this specific quality, but classic science fiction novels do evoke a sense of time of when they were written. Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are science fiction novels that represents the 1960s science fiction.
No one person has thoroughly read everything making it hard to accept any individual as an authority on classic novels. Popular culture changes over time, so no novel ever becomes a permanent classic. The classic novel is a moving target, which is why I want to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0. My system is based on The Wisdom of Crowds. I collect fan polls, recommendation lists by book critics and academics, and other means for identifying popular books. I call each a citation list. I ignore, and the system inherently ignores, any recent book. I compile all the citation lists into a database and create a cutoff of a minimum number of citations. From this I create a resultant final list that I call The Classics of Science Fiction that contains all the books that got the minimum number of citations or more.
For the Lan’s Lantern article, which I consider The Classics of Science Fiction version 1.0, I used 8 lists, with a cutoff of 3, producing 69 titles on the final list. I no longer have a copy of that list.
When the web came out I created The Classics of Science Fiction 2.0, and it was based on 13 citation lists, with a cutoff of 3. and it produced 169 titles. An old copy is here.
Version 3.0, which is live on the web now, and has been around for many years, has 193 titles, using 28 citation lists, and a cutoff of 7 citations. The newest books it recognizes is from 1992.
What I’d like to do is rebuild the database with more citation lists, and hopefully identify books that came out through 2004. I still want to use a 10 year DMZ so as not to let a wildly popular new book get on the list. Often avid readers, especially young ones, think the book they are reading at the moment is the best book they’ve ever read. I think we need time to identify classics. Even 2008’s The Hunger Games is an obvious choice to many, but will it be in the future? A few years ago His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman was being touted as second only to The Harry Potter books as a great contemporary fantasy series, but is it today? All too often we are thrilled by new and novel stories only to quickly forget them.
What I need now is to assemble a large group of citation lists. I used, with the help of Anthony Bernardo, 28 lists for the 3.0 list. I think for 4.0, I need at least 40 citations, and the cutoff needs to be raised to 10. Just think, any book that is on 10 or more fan polls, academic and critic lists, awards list, and other forms of recognition is at least well remembered and well regarded. It doesn’t mean the book is an actual classic, but my system produces a list that’s not based on my opinion.
I use fan polls to get the idea what readers remember. I use recommended reading lists from writers, critics and academics to balance the judgment of the readers. I use a combine list of award winners to acknowledge another kind of recognition. If a book was made into a movie or television series, I considered it another form of validation. I’ve considered making citation lists based on being in print, having an audio edition, or having many print editions. I wished I had the tools to see how many languages a book has been translated into as another indicator. I could make a citation for any book that’s in the database that has a print, ebook and audio book currently for sale.
First, I need to find as many critic/academic lists as I can, and as many large fan polls as I can. For example, last time I used Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels 1949-1984 by David Pringle as one citation. You can see a list of his picks here. Luckily, Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo wrote a book updating Pringle’s book called, Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010. You can see their list here. That will give me one extra citation. In the subsequent years, many large fan polls have been created, so that will add the citation number.
I’ve been revving up my noggin all day trying to think of new ways to identify a science fiction book as a potential classic. I’ve thought of two so far. One is to make a list of all science fiction books that were on polls/lists of all time great books that didn’t focus on science fiction. The world outside the genre seldom thinks of science fiction, but when it does, it’s notable. The second idea is to search the web for syllabi for books taught in high schools and colleges and see which science fiction books stand out, if any. I have an English teacher friend who likes to teach Ender’s Game.
Another idea is to use sets like American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s as endorsed and published by The Library of America. I compared their list to my list and it was quite different.
I am open to ideas about how to create new kinds of citation lists, so let me know if you have a good idea.
When I look at my current list, I see many books with 7, 8 or 9 citations, and they might not make it to the new list if it requires 10 citations if they aren’t on newer citation lists. This happened when compiling earlier lists. I’ve always considered 193 books to be too many to actually identify the real classics. Many on my list were historical classics that only critics loved and were never on any fan poll. I should also point out that 116 books made it to the 3.0 list with 10 citations, so they would automatically be guaranteed a spot on the new list if 10 was the cutoff. I might need to make the cutoff 12 if the list gets to long.
Harry Harrison had two books on the 3.0 list, each with 7 citations each, the minimum required. Will Deathworld or Make Room! Make Room! carry forward? What about Nova by Samuel R. Delany? We just read Nova at the Classic Science Fiction Book Club, with mixed results. It only had 7 citations. I loved that book when I read it in the 1960s, but I’m not sure if it’s a classic in the 2010s. Will 3-5 more citations show up to support it? But if I was to make a list of the best SF of the 1960s, Nova seems like one of the defining books of the era. But here are the 1960s SF books I considered essential on my review of 1960s SF – is Nova up to their level?
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
That short list already leaves off A Clockwork Orange, A Wrinkle in Time, Way Station, Babel-17, This Immortal, Lord of Light, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Right of Passage, Bug Jack Barron and Ubik, among many other well remembered books.
Ultimately, the goal is the same as I had back in the 1980s, to help people find a list of essential science fiction books to read. Any list of true classics should be short, and dependable. Novice readers should be able to buy a book from the list, read it, and have a strong statistical chance of being suitably impressed. The whole idea of a classic is to be impressive, even heavy. Coming up with any kind of quantitative method to identify those books is hard, but I think my system is the best I can imagine at the moment.
If you look at the top 19 books on the 3.0 list, all of which were on 20 or more citation lists, these books I think have the best chance of any science fiction book at consistently evoking the sense of wonder that defines great science fiction.
Yet, I’m worried that several of them are already fading classics.
I have a feeling that many people will consider this a pointless endeavor. They will feel that chance will introduce them to the great SF books of the past, and time will kill off the unworthy books. That’s true. That’s how it’s always worked. I just consider my project a way of guessing what might happen ahead of time.