Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985 – 2010 by Damien Broderick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Any authors who dare to compile a list of ‘best’ SF novels do so at their peril. If there is anything more divisive to SF fans than what constitutes the genre itself, then it is what novels or authors are most representative of that genre. (For a genre supposedly based on inclusivity and universalism, SF is renowned for its rivalries and schisms, some petty and others quite epic; this book will no doubt fan some of those fires.)
Kudos then to Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo for defusing the critical minefield by making two very bold statements in their introduction: firstly, that SF is a mode of reading and, secondly, that the term itself is more of a marketing distinction than it is a literary one.
The latter point is best underlined by some notable inclusions in this list, namely The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are authors not normally associated with SF, even though their books highlighted here share many of the techniques and tropes of the genre.
This, of course, is the 2012 sequel to David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels: 1949-1984, published in 1985. This means that the next instalment is due in 2035, which is a scary thought, given the momentous social, political and technological changes that the world has undergone in this 25-year period – as encapsulated by the SF genre itself.
Indeed, Pringle comments that “the world is different, but science fiction carries on vigorously, reflecting our times back to us in imaginative form.” Broderick and Di Filipo pick up on this point in their introduction: “Science fiction is the tool that allows us to master such change.”
Science fiction is the one type of literature that promotes, to use the phrase pioneered by the bloggers at Boing Boing, the creation of ‘happy mutants’. It’s the literature of cultural Darwinism, the sieve through which we pan for ideational gold.
The authors provide a sobering snapshot of the world (way back) in 1985, when a state-of-the-art cellphone was the Motorola DynaTAC and a state-of-the-art computer was the Commodore 64, cyberpunk was the ‘in’ thing (Bladerunner was released in 1982), and Ronald Reagan took up the reins for his second term as US president.
What is remarkable about this book, and which makes it such fun to read, is how diverse SF is as a genre (and perhaps even moreso as a socio-political and cultural movement). This is very much the sort of book you dip in and out of when the mood takes you. For seasoned SF readers such as myself, it offers some surprises – I have not read Linda Nagata, Jamil Nasir, William Barton, Raphael Carter, Rosemary Kirstein or Howard Hendrix, for example.
On the other hand, there are some baffling inclusions, such as Suzanne Collins and Audrey Niffenger, but I think this has more to do with illustrating the zeitgeist of the times than literary merit (one hopes).
Equally, there are notable exclusions: Samuel R. Delany’s Nova is in the Pringle book, but not Dhalgren. And Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is not, and neither is it squeezed into this second compendium. Let us hope that Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012) makes the third volume at least.
Some prominent critics like Michael Moorcock have already referred to the lack of women writers and writers of colour on this list. However, given recent developments in the genre, the 2035 instalment will likely make for very interesting, and very different, reading. Here is to the next 25 years.
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