Finding The Best Science Fiction Books To Read

Why read an average book when you could read a great book?  With so little time to read, why waste time on a so-so book?  But how do you find the best books to read?  Most people read whatever they stumble across at the moment.  Other folks read book reviews and get recommendations from friends.  Even fewer join book clubs.  About 25-30 years ago I pondered this problem for finding the best science fiction books to read when I developed my Classics of Science Fiction list.  It was first published in a fanzine, then on a gopher server, and finally at a series of web sites.  That was one solution.  Since then I have found a number of web sites that offer other solutions.

worlds-without-end

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End is a reader database discussion site that’s pretty much like GoodReads, but focuses exclusively on science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Worlds Without End collects lists like my Classics of Science Fiction, fan polls, awards lists, author recommended lists, and puts them in one location and then links the titles to a database.  If you join their site – it’s free – you can tag books on the lists to monitor your reading progress, or even add your SF/F/H books to their database.  You can create your own reader challenge in their Roll-Your-Own reader challenge.  Right now they have 32 challenges for 560 members having read 1077 books and reviewed 527 of them.

If you’re a blogger who reviews SF/F/H books, you can join Worlds Without End, tag the books you review, add an introductory review to their site, and then link to the full review on your site.  If you’re a reader you can read the reviews, or discuss the books on their forum.  All the book lists, forums, and reader challenges link back to the books which allow you to track your reading habits, and even measure your progress reading through the reading and awards lists. Since everything is linked to everything else, it makes researching a potential book to read a snap.

Here are my reading stats for Awards lists and Book lists.  Click to enlarge.

Award Books Read

 

Book Lists Read

You can also look up books by publisher.  For example their site lists 256 authors for Tor covering 1,056 titles, of which 335 have been nominated for awards with 55 of those books winning an award.

You can quickly call up an author and easily check off which books you own, read or want to read, and mark whether or not it’s one of your all time favorites.  You can also rate your reads, and then list them, or see how your ratings compares to other members.

Another way to find books to read is see which members have rated books you also rated high and then look at other books they’ve rated high that you haven’t read.  There are many ways to use this site, and the social aspects are very good at helping you find like minded readers.

Best Science Fiction Books

Best Science Fiction Books

BestScienceFictionBooks.com is a newer site that’s not even completed, but has some features to start working with now.  It looks like they hope to compete directly with Worlds Without End, but for now they have mostly lists up.  Some of their lists are pretty good, others are questionable.  But I assume over time they will be refined.  For example their list for Best Alternate History books is pretty good.  Unfortunately most of their features link to file Not Found pages, which is a bad sign.  There was another site, SFFMeta that was going for a couple of years, that wanted to identify the best SF/F/H books and has recently disappeared.

I wish the people at BestScienceFictionBooks.com luck because building a big site like this takes a tremendous amount of work, and even building a great site doesn’t always draw in readers.  I mention this site to mainly give them some attention that might boost their efforts.

Good Reads

GoodReads

GoodReads has been around a very long time, and now that Amazon has bought them, they’ve become the 800-pound gorilla of reader reviews/book database sites.  Just look at the numbers attached to the books on the Time Travel book list.  The #1 book is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger which has 899,564 ratings that average 3.93 stars out of 5.  #2 is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon with 285,187 ratings.  The Time Traveler’s Wife has just 73 ratings and 141 reads at Worlds Without End.

This brings up the problem which site to use.  Worlds Without End is a site for hardcore science fiction fans.  GoodReads is a massive site for all bookworms, so science fiction has to compete with many other kinds of books.  All the time travel books you find on GoodReads will be on Worlds Without End, but the reverse won’t be true.  Logic sort of dictates to go with GoodReads, but I find it more appealing to consider Worlds Without End.

Sometimes its better to be a small fish in a small pond.

I have reviewed other book database sites before, and directly compared LibraryThing to GoodRead.  It took a lot of work to get my collection entered into LibraryThing, but then I didn’t maintain it.  I exported my LibraryThing data and imported it into GoodReads.  I like GoodReads, but didn’t maintain my data there either.  By now I realize that I’m not that interested in maintaining a database of my books.  The value of these sites is for finding out what books other people like.  So the appeal shifts to social media.  I’m in two online book clubs at Yahoo Groups, each with a small number of members.  That works out well for a discussion group.  That’s why I’m leaning more to working with Worlds Without End than GoodReads.  About one quarter of my reading is science fiction.  So hanging out with a small group of people who read a lot of science fiction is an attractive idea at the moment.

However, taking the time to list my favorite SF books will help me meet other members that share the same reading tastes.  I will take that time to enter in my favorite books, but not all my books, or even all the books I’ve read.  Spending any time on so-so books is just a waste of time, especially reading time.

GoodReads is very enticing, as is LibraryThing.  I’m tempted to use Worlds Without End for science fiction, GoodReads for classic and literary books, and LibraryThing for nonfiction.  And in each case just focus on my favorites.

One thing I’d really like is to discover a way to find the best new books to read.  Every year when I write my reading summary I wish I had read more books published new in that year.  What I’d like is a Rotten Tomatoes for various kinds of books, especially for nonfiction.  SFFMeta.com used to do that for science fiction, but they are now out of business – a reminder that new sites will have a hard time making it, because SFFMeta was a well designed site.  Amazon with GoodReads might knock out all competitors like they are doing to local bookstores, but I don’t know.

There are other book listing sites that cover the “best books ever” concept which I wrote about in “Identifying the Greatest Books of All Time.”  These are the true classics, and not just science fiction books.  It’s also fascinating to see which few science fiction books make it to the general classic lists.  Here is the Top 10 site for fantasy and science fiction.  The only SF genre title is Dune.  It’s amazing how few SF books are recognized by the literary world at large.

A List of Books is one of my favorite sites for identifying all-time classics.  It uses the same methodology I used to create the Classics of Science Fiction, but allows members to track their reading.  I’m using it to track all the books I’ve read on the 100 Best Novels by Modern Library.  That list contains just three SF novels.

And what I’ve found out over the years is the books considered classics by literary scholars and readers really are some of the best books I’ve ever read.  Few science fiction books come up to their level.  Another site that does this is The Greatest Books.  Just glance at their page about Ulysses by James Joyce, and look at the lists that pick Ulysses.  When you consider all books, the competition for the best gets tough.  Right now science fiction books are in the minor leagues, so it will be fascinating to see if I live long enough to see if more science fiction books get recognized to general classics.

If you study these sites its possible to pick books to read that have a much greater chance of wowing you than randomly buying a book at the bookstore, or taking a friend’s recommendation of what to read.  And even if you don’t like these classics, you’ve at least educated yourself about science fiction history.

JWH – 8/21/14

Can Any One Novel Be More Valuable Than Another?

People love to create Best of Lists for what they think are the greatest novels of all time, but I’ve got to ask:  What is the value of one novel?  Is any one novel really more valuable than any other novel?  I’m reading Anna Karenina (1877) because it was the #1 novel chosen from 125 writers voting for their all-time favorite novels in the book The Top Ten ed. by J. Peder Zane.  Can I say Anna Karenina is really more valuable than any other novel?  It might be more valuable to the people who contributed to the Top Ten, but is it more valuable to any reader than any other book?

Can professors of literature definitively say one list of novels is more valuable than other because of their worth to culture?

What do we get out of a novel?  What makes a novel valuable?  What makes a novel loved, or inspiring, or artistic?

I have a degree in English Literature, and I’ve been a lifelong bookworm, and I maintain a site about The Classics of Science Fiction, and yet I know nothing that proves a novel as value other than any one reader’s fondness for a particular novel.

I’m almost finished with Anna Karenina and it’s been very enjoyable, but I wouldn’t rank it #1 on any list I’d create.  But let’s compare it to some other novels from the 1870s I’ve read:  The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875), Middlemarch by George Elliot (1874), The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (1874) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876).  I’ve give them in the reverse order of when I read them, because I think that matters.

Of these, I currently rate The Way We Live Now the highest, but that’s because it was the most entertaining, most engrossing, most diverting book I read in a long time.  But I have talked some of my friends into reading it and they found it boring.  And if I had read it when I was young I would have found it boring too.  And if I had been made to read it in school I would have hated it.

How often do we read a novel other than to be entertained?  Is entertainment value the only real criteria for evaluating a novel?  School teachers and college professors think reading is good for us, and good people read good books.  They imply that the novels they make us study in school are more worthy than novels we’d choose ourselves, but is that true?

Can society qualitatively prove that Pride and Prejudice is superior Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  What educators want is a literate society, and that’s understandable because scientific studies show that a literate population is more successful.  But can science prove reading one book is better than reading another?  Or can we, with mere logic?

I think a kid who has read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) should learn something important about race relations.  I wish I had read and understood Pride and Prejudice when I was a teen because it would have helped me understand girls better.  Reading Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22 taught me about the absurdity of war.  But is social awareness why educators want us to read books?  I don’t know.  It is a kind of value.  I thought I learned a lot about Asperger’s from reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003).

I think we can safely assume books have value for broadening our horizons, to help us empathize with people different from us, to virtually visit foreign countries and distant times.  If you read the books on The Top Ten list, you will be educated in a way that’s different from a normal classroom education.  Of the 1870s books I mention above, they will teach you about life in England, America and Russia during that decade and what people were like.  Of do they?  And what about the Jules Verne book?  It wasn’t real at all, but it was one of the most fun books I read as a kid.

And do we really want to put a value on novels based on how much daily-life historical information it might contain?  And do we get information from the novel, or does it merely reinforce what we already know?  Do you learn about racial injustice from To Kill a Mockingbird, or do you learn about racial injustice and then admire To Kill a Mockingbird?

For me to admire Anna Karenina, I think it took me 60 years of growing up and gaining the experience so I could admire it.  I think that novels only mirror our current state of development and you can’t give children wisdom by giving them novels to read.

A list of great books are only great if you’re ready to perceive their greatness.  We can’t share shared culture, but we can share being at the same psychic place with other people.  That’s why it’s so great to talk with another reader about a book they just discovered and loved and you’re in the same place too.

So, then is the value of a book it’s ability to be an emotional or intellectual trigger?  Then to make a list of Top Ten favorites really is saying, if you’re been where I’ve been, then these books might work for you.

While working on The Classics of Science Fiction I learned several things about books and their lovers.  If you’ve only read five books, then those are the five best books in the world, and if you loved one more than the others, it’s the most mind blowing book ever.  I’d often get emails from kids asking why a particular book wasn’t on the list because in their mind it’s the most far out book they know about and it deserves to be recognized.  Are there books I could give these kids to read that are absolutely superior to what they’ve already discovered?  I can’t guarantee that.  My list is based on the consensus of twenty-eight other lists.  I was trying to be scientific about building a best of list.  But even the weight of my statistical method is no proof of value.

If you look at the final rankings, three books were on 25 of 28 previous best of lists.  They were Dune by Frank Herbert (1965), The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953).  Statistically the odds are good that any science fiction fan reading these books should like them, but that’s not true.  Most kids today would be blown away by The Hunger Games, and maybe Dune, but would probably find the other two dated, even though old-timers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s love those two books.

Again, I think this is because what makes a book valuable is what’s inside us when we come to the book.  It’s very difficult to be young and time shift.  Contemporary books mean more to the young than old books.

In my science fiction book club we’re all listing our all-time favorite ten science fiction books in a database.  There is very little consistency.  It’s my theory that we each define science fiction differently.  That there is no 10 great science fiction books that define the genre, but there are 10 books that define science fiction for each of us.  My Classics of Science Fiction list is merely a statistical sample of how many baby boomers define themselves with their favorite books.  There is a lot of overlap for a handful of books, and then we wildly diverge.

It’s like how most baby boomers loved The Beatles, but not all, and how there is no consensus at all about which groups would fill the #2-10 slots for the top bands of the 1960s.  I still love The Beatles, I just don’t listen to them anymore.  I still play Bob Dylan songs from the 1960s every day.  Why is that?  I still reread a handful of books I discovered as a teen in the 1960s.  But the rest, even the ones I loved then, I don’t care for anymore.  Again, how books are valued is by something inside us, and it changes.

I’d love it if we could get every bookworm in the world to put their all time favorite 100 books into a worldwide database, with each numbered by rank preference, and tagged by the year and age they read them.  Then I’d like to see the meta results.  How many books would become universal favorites?  How many would be teen favorites?  How many would be old age favorites?  How many books are loved outside of their generation.  This would be a fabulous experiment.  But it’s about the only scientific way I can think of to put a value on a book, and compare them.

JWH – 4/24/12

Reading Beyond Science Fiction

Years ago I wrote an essay about what where the classic books of science fiction.  I later made it into an web site called The Classics of Science Fiction.  I always meant to use the same techniques to build a web site that reveals the all-time classic books of general literature, and not just limit the search to one genre.  I finally got that site started at Classic Booklists.  It’s just a baby step, because my friends and I hope to do a lot more with the idea.

Until I was fifty, I mostly read science fiction books.  Sure, I sampled far and wide, but I stuck to the tried and true genre I grew up with, always looking for my new sense-of-wonder fix.  Then I discovered audio books at Audible.com and my reading habits completely changed.  Back then, there just wasn’t that much science fiction offered on audio, and so I had to be open to new kinds of books.  I started listening to classic English novels, best sellers, modern American literary works, works of history, biography, science and philosophy, anything that was promoted as a great book.  I quickly discovered sense-of-wonder doesn’t have to be about rocketships. 

Listening to The Bible, and The Bible is the bedrock of all classic books, is hearing the voices of primitive people, the voices of men and women at the dawn of history.  The Bible is a gateway to the mind of man before there were concepts like science, history, mathematics, astronomy and so on.  Sure, there’s the whole religious angle, but that’s the least interesting take.  Just listen to the stories and always remember to ask:  Who is telling this story and why?  You will experience The Bible as a series of evolutionary stories that do far more to explain our physical world than the metaphysical.  It was all about national politics. The Old Testament is very much like the Koran, in that it explains the psychology of radical fundamentalism, which isn’t about heaven or hell, but here and now.

When you read classic books always follow the motivation.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, there’s always a mind at work.  No matter how engrossing a story is, step back and look for the narrator’s slight-of-hand.  There are two narrators to watch for tricks, the one within the words telling story, and the unseen other, the actual writer of the words – and trust neither.  For example, within The Bible, who is telling the story about Moses and Aaron?  The Bible is often referred to as the word of God, but God doesn’t narrate this story.  Did Moses have a PR man cranking out press releases?  Did a BC Billy Graham tell stories about Moses in sermons?  Did the early chamber of commerce for Israel hammer out their tale for national unity?  

Reading Jane Austen will only take you back two hundred years, but she will teach you about the mind of women from any time.  Again, what is Miss Austen’s motivation?  Is Pride and Prejudice a timeless handbook for romance or for gold digging?  Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald tells us about the origins of the 20th century American mind at the ground level.  Every French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese novel opens up a mental beachhead into new culture.  This is all mind bending, and as mind bending as science fiction feels when you discover it at thirteen.  

Each classic is like time traveling to a place and time – for instance Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie takes you to Chicago of the eighteen nineties and shows you a world as far out as any science fictional world.  Compare it to Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany and you will see what I mean.  They are both about rubes from the country, or in the SF case, a backward planet, struggling to survive in the big city.  

American history is really an extension of English history, and reading classic English novels is like working with an Freudian psychologist to explore our hive mind childhood.  When you read far and wide in literature and philosophy, you’ll realize that the history of humanity is like the evolution of one great being. 

We have to accept Isaac Newton when he said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as not just true for scientists, but true for everyone.  How far you see across time and space depends on the pile of books from which you view reality.  Harry Potter novels might be the best of fun, but they won’t help you see very far.  On the other hand, they are great books because they aren’t about magic, but contemporary adolescence.

A classic book, a great book, a masterpiece of literature, will educate its readers about the past, and at the same time they reveal a timeless way of seeing the present.  A classic book begs to be read again and again, because each reading will reveal more secrets.  A classic novel will draw you into history and you will feel like your life is growing in two ways, one forward from your individual birth, and the second, a life that grows backwards, roaming further and further towards our cultural birth.  Reading books from the 1950s lets you grok the 1940s, that make sense of the 1930s – and after awhile it’s the 1790s, or the Italian Renaissance, or 400 BC.  Suddenly, all of history becomes your stomping grounds.

Reading classic books is like assembling a map of reality one jigsaw piece at a time.  In the early part of the 20th century people like Mortimer Adler came up with the educational philosophy of the Great Books, and colleges built liberal arts curriculums around The Great Books of the Western World.  This later evolved into Harold Bloom‘s idea of The Western Canon.  Of course, these lists of great books require a lifetime of study, more than most people ever want to pursue.

That’s when I got the idea of collecting many such booklists of recommended reading of classic books, hoping to find the essential volumes revealed through consensus.  I’m just starting with ClassicBooklists.com.  With the help of my friends Mike and Heather I hope to expand it in many revealing ways.  I’ve started reading books about books, such as, Leave Me Along, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan, 1000 Books To Change Your Life by TimeOut.com, The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen, and the epic, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall.

The more you read about books the more it’s obvious that no one person, or editors or scholars or poll of fans have an idea of what the perfect classic booklist should be.  The Classics of Science Fiction is built from 28 lists, and the resultant list is from any book that shares recommendations from 7 or more lists.  Those 193 books represent quite a consensus.  So far I have 12 lists for the Classic Booklist site.  It will take time to build it up.  I plan to add The Classics of Science Fiction list to it next, so we can compare SF books to recommendations for general literature.

So stay tuned.

Jim