The 50 Most Significant Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Past 50 Years
March 5, 2003 1:38 PM   Subscribe

50 Most Significant Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books. Not sure what their criteria was, but this is a nice list. Lots of obvious, gotta-be-on-such-a-list choices, but also some surprises that should have people buying some books they might not have thought of before. (The URL is rather cumbersome, but that's the only one I could find).
posted by sassone (105 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Any list of this kind that fails to include Jack Vance is not worth my time.

He is, quite simply, the best writer in science fiction.
posted by rocketman at 1:42 PM on March 5, 2003

"Significant" is such a tricky term. I mean, for my money the "most significant" Moorcock book is The Final Programme, but that's subjective innit?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:50 PM on March 5, 2003

Are the top ten ranked, and then the bottom forty simply listed alphabetically? It certainly appears that way to me.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:53 PM on March 5, 2003

I've read 22 of these books.

I'm surprised and disappointed that Ian Banks and his Culture books aren't on the list. They should be. Also Dan Simmons and Hyperion should be there as well. A newcomer to the fantasy scene, Steven Erikson and his books of the Malazan Empire definitely belong. Shoot, the more I think about this, the more I think is missing, so I'll stop at this.

The thing about these lists is that everybody has their own favorites. I'd say this list is pretty good, all things considered.

Wasn't Moorcock in a rock group or something as well?
posted by ashbury at 1:55 PM on March 5, 2003

Fifty fantasy and science fiction works socialists should read is worth checking too. It's an interesting list, and a little misleading in that most of the titles will be of interest to people who are interested in ideas in the broadest sense, rather than just socialists.
posted by plep at 1:56 PM on March 5, 2003

Crash_Davis: Yeah, now that you mention it, it does seem that way.

The list isn't perfect, but it's a lot more interesting than I thought it would be, and should lead some readers to authors and books they might not have thought about.
posted by sassone at 1:57 PM on March 5, 2003

Wasn't Moorcock in a rock group or something as well?

Wrote some lyrics for Hawkwind. Cut an album with a band of his own called The Deep Fix. I have their album, which is very bad indeed (IMHO, of course).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:58 PM on March 5, 2003

No Kim Stanley Robinson? Booooooo ...
posted by Shadowkeeper at 1:58 PM on March 5, 2003

I answered my own question. Moorcock participated on Hawkwind's album Warrior on the Edge of Time. I wonder if Asimov was in a band? Wait, wasn't he agoraphobic?
posted by ashbury at 1:59 PM on March 5, 2003

Thanks, Pink
posted by ashbury at 2:00 PM on March 5, 2003

No Illuminatus Trilogy?
posted by adampsyche at 2:00 PM on March 5, 2003

"Significant" can mean a lot of things (you could argue that Mein Kampf is a significant book; so, too, with Everyone Poops), so I wish there was some explanation of their criteria. Best sales, most influence on the genre, best writing -- something more than a list we're all going to spend far too much time debating and grumbling about who they left off.
posted by UnReality at 2:02 PM on March 5, 2003

Sassone, this is a great list. :)

(I'd love to see Olaf Stapledon on such a list, but as it only covers the last 50 years, I guess he doesn't qualify).
posted by plep at 2:02 PM on March 5, 2003

Pinky, The Final Programme is indeed a great one.

The list is just fine, though of course it would be different for everyone. Except The Sword of Shannara? I can't get behind that.

I might include Brin's Uplift series.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:04 PM on March 5, 2003

Any list of this kind that fails to include Jack Vance is not worth my time.

Space Opera is my standing favorite Jack Vance.

Also, Stranger in a Strange Land is balls. It offended me in high school with it's cheesy, simply pretext, and a second attempt in college has left me ill at ease, as I hurled its stoner insights across the room. I'd like to further this time to gently steer others away from the broken glass, strewn about its 400 pages.
posted by the fire you left me at 2:04 PM on March 5, 2003

Lord of the Rings and the Silimarillion, but no Hobbit? Interesting...
posted by zekinskia at 2:05 PM on March 5, 2003

Gosh, I never would have guessed during the height of popularity of Tolkien's work that yet another entity would claim itself the authortiy to announce that said work is officially the most important. How thoughtful of them. I mean, it's not like the Science Fiction Book Club would be affiliated with any marketing scheme towards currently-popular titles or anything like that. Children of Dune! Premieres March 16th on SciFi! Order your copy today! Yikes, where did THAT come from?

Crash already caught it. The book sellers pulled a top ten out of thin air to sell a few notable books, then got bored and threw in the rest. Personally, of course, I knew it was fake the moment Douglas Adams didn't make the top five. :)

I mean, I'm not saying any of these books are bad, but this list is as definitive as... umm... well... an internet discussion group.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 2:09 PM on March 5, 2003

Also Dan Simmons and Hyperion should be there as well.

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion should be there, both, yes.

Endymion and The Rise of Endymion should not.
posted by WolfDaddy at 2:16 PM on March 5, 2003

Gosh, I never would have guessed during the height of popularity of Tolkien's work that yet another entity would claim itself the authortiy to announce that said work is officially the most important.

I don't understand your sarcasm here. If they think it's the most important work, why not put it at the top?

And Dune has to be on the top 10, right?
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:18 PM on March 5, 2003

Harlan. Deathbird Stories. M'man!
posted by Shane at 2:31 PM on March 5, 2003

My point was that this isn't some cadre of literary critics, Kafkaesque. It's a bookstore reminding us how the really popular movie has a book you can buy from them. I was just pointing out how this is far from the first time that something with at least a partially profit-minded intention found a way to use ranking systems as a means of hyping a product. It's the same reason the movies mention how they're "the #1 movie in America." Why, spontaneously, in 2003, do we need "the best sci-fi books of the past 50 years?" Is there some milestone? Or is there just a hit movie out?

I'm not saying LOTR ins't one of the best sci-fi books ever; I'm just saying as the shoddy layout of this list proved, the bookstore doesn't really care. Eh, maybe I just hate Top-whatever lists.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 2:31 PM on March 5, 2003

The author of the above linked "50 books for socialists" list, China Mieville, is a fairly awesome writer in his own right, who in a few years will most definitely be on this kind of list.

If you haven't yet, do yourself a favor and read Perdido Street Station.
posted by signal at 2:35 PM on March 5, 2003

Mein Kampf is a significant book; so, too, with Everyone Poops

Sad Hitler never finished that trilogy.
posted by billder at 2:42 PM on March 5, 2003

What, no Battlefield Earth?!
posted by Berend at 2:46 PM on March 5, 2003

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

I hated A Canticle for Leibowitz - Miller was too pleased with his own shallow cleverness. But lots of people loved it- (that's why I read it).
posted by small_ruminant at 2:46 PM on March 5, 2003 [1 favorite]

A lazy list. 11 to 50 are in alphabetical order.
posted by Mwongozi at 2:47 PM on March 5, 2003

I think it's a little cynical to assert that this list's sole purpose was to sell more books. I was impressed and a little surprised to see that the SFBC only carries 11 of the 50 books they deem to be "most significant," and only half of their top ten. I also think it's unfair to say they gave up after the tenth book - the remaining 40 are all (at least the ones i've read) perfectly good books, and at the top of their genre. Rankings beyond a top ten are pretty pointless anyway - how much more influential really is the 23rd most influential science fiction book than the 24th?

As for why the best in the last 50 years, 1953-2002? Probably because the SFBC was founded in 1953.

Also, Children of Dune isn't on the list.
posted by chrisege at 2:47 PM on March 5, 2003

Where's Neil Gaiman's Sandman series? It seems like the list is skewed a bit toward established "classics", but in terms of *significance*, it really caught a broad swath of readers, and referred to a broad selection of mythologies.

Good to see Alfie Bester on the list, though. Demolished Man just kicked my ass - reading that instead of working probably contributed to my being laid off. Heh.
posted by notsnot at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2003

Ug. I can't stand Stranger in a Strange land. I should probably re-read it though, as I read it in a sci-fi class in 12th grade. Probably ruined it for me. Not a big fan of Slaughterhouse 5 either. Same reason, probably.
posted by aacheson at 2:53 PM on March 5, 2003

Even though it's not specified, this is strictly an English-language list, right? I'm not familiar enough with sci-fi/fantasy to know for sure that none of those authors wrote in a language other than English, but any list that covered non-English authors would have to have Lem on it, wouldn't it?

Also, Stranger in a Strange Land is balls. It offended me in high school with it's cheesy, simply pretext, and a second attempt in college has left me ill at ease, as I hurled its stoner insights across the room. I'd like to further this time to gently steer others away from the broken glass, strewn about its 400 pages.

the fire you left me, I'm pretty sure that it was fully Heinlein's intention to disgust you with those "stoner insights". I think the book is in large part satire, though somewhat ham-fisted satire, and the central characters are definitely meant to be absurd. Those who took up the book as a hippie call-to-arms were missing the point. Except for the free love. Heinlein was definitely into the free love.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:54 PM on March 5, 2003

Kafakesque: I agree with your assessment of the Sword of Shannara. Significant? Significantly bad and derivative! Also, Mists of Avalon? Significantly boring! (I admit, I never finished it...maybe the end gets better). Overall, though...good list. I would put Delany's Nova ahead of Dhalgren though.
posted by drinkcoffee at 2:59 PM on March 5, 2003

Can someone help me with Dahlgren (#20)? I'd read some interesting commentary about that book but found it to be plodding to the point I didn't finish it. Is there a take that I missed? An interesting twist at the end?
posted by krtzmrk at 3:00 PM on March 5, 2003

Why are sci-fi and fantasy always bundled together? Perhaps many common themes or something, but very different types of reads. I want two lists. That's my complaint.

and billder the everybody poops hitler trilogy incomplete line made me laugh.
posted by folktrash at 3:03 PM on March 5, 2003

posted by woil at 3:17 PM on March 5, 2003

krtzmrk, I'd love to be able to help you with the Dahlgren, but in all honesty, after two abortive attempts, and finally making it through the whole thing on a third try, I really found it cumbersome, pretentious and boring. For me, it was very clearly one of those artifacts of its own time--that whole post-literary approach might have really felt ground-breaking when it was written, but by the time you read it today, you've also probably read a ton of po-mo dross that makes it now seem trite. Unless you read it today when you're processing the same philosophical insights for yourself the first time, it just seems dated and self-evident.

I'd be genuinely interested to hear someone's take on it who feels very differently, but I had a hard time seeing an argument that doesn't come down to 'it was groundbreaking for its time'--if that's all there is to recommend it, it really just means it's pretty irrelevant today.
posted by LairBob at 3:19 PM on March 5, 2003

I couldn't resist after checking what's on No. 6.

Please somebody help me; I'm really not into sci-fi a lot (though I've read something extremely good once), but after hearing everyone praising Gibson's "Neuromancer", I went ahead and bought a copy; I had every good intention to like this book..

But. After reaching page 60 or something, I'm bored (and have stuck there for days); it all just seems so predictable. And some parts, which are supposed to sound uber-cool (?), just sound incredibly stupid.

Could someone please remind me what makes this book so great? (I'm not being ironic here.)
posted by kchristidis at 3:47 PM on March 5, 2003

Any list of this kind that fails to include Jack Vance is not worth my time.

He is, quite simply, the best writer in science fiction.

My sentiments almost exactly--Avram Davidson's presence should be mandatory as well.

But not necessarily on a list with Starship Troopers, Dragonflight or Thomas Covenant the Unreadable.
posted by y2karl at 3:48 PM on March 5, 2003

I have read Dhalgren. I have never met or talked with anyone who has read it. Though I'd like to.

It is a hard read, and I wouldn't recommend it for this reason.

I found the language incredible, - I've never read anything else like it.
posted by balinx at 3:57 PM on March 5, 2003

Hmm--twenty-one out of fifty. I also noticed the English-as-a-first-language deal--shouldn't Stanislaw Lem be here somewhere? In any event, I couldn't figure out the criteria either. Significant in terms of literary history? Sales? Quality? What?

I'm going to join the anti-Stranger in a Strange Land crowd; I read it once in elementary school (!), when for obvious reasons I couldn't really understand it, and again in college, when I just didn't like it. But then, I never could cotton to Heinlein. (Wasn't Stranger supposed to be satire? As an undergraduate, I came across some reference to Heinlein's dismay at the book being read "straight," but then again I could be misremembering things.)

Love Ellison, though, and Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" is one of my all-time favorite SF short stories.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:57 PM on March 5, 2003

On Dahlgren and Delaney in general... I read a good number of Delaney books when I was a young kid. I liked them enough to consume all of the Delaney I could find. I have no idea what was in them. In general I can't remember a thing about stuff I read, watch, or listen to for over an hour after I finish except whether or not I liked it, thought was interesting, or whether I want to reconsume it.

That said, that liking for Delaney was pretty directly responsible for getting me laid for the first time and meeting the smartest person I know (she's also pretty astoundingly nice and loving) so I have a lot invested in liking Delaney.

For long complex literature my experience is that one day I can pick a book up, fall into a trance, and finish it and the next day I could easily pick up the same book, get bored, and put it back down. Obviously, some books are more interesting than others but some days I'm more interested in a particular book than others.

My argument for saying that you should pay attention to Delaney would not be that "it was groundbreaking for it's time" or "read this and you'll get laid". My argument would be that there's almost no interesting science fiction or fantasy out there and you shouldn't miss out on on the few interesting works. A more trollish argument would be that if you can slog your way through crap like Tolkien and Asimov you should have the stomach for Delaney.
posted by rdr at 4:14 PM on March 5, 2003

18 out of 50 for me, and most of those in high school and early college.

krtzmrk, Lairbob, balinx--I read Dhalgren as well, the new reissue that came out last year. My opinion of it was pretty much "There's two months of my life I can't get back," and not because of the difficulty--that I didn't mind. My problem was that it had the peculiar stink of late-1960s pop philosophy, which (as Lairbob said) is trite if you're not sixteen, which is too young to read a book that's as difficult as Dhalgren. Also, Dhalgren is home to the most howlingly awful sex scene in all of modern American literature (if you've read the book, you don't have to ask what I'm talking about--if you haven't, trust me, you don't want to know).

I wish Tad Williams' Otherland has been on the list--it's not the best new writing I've read in the last ten years, or the most innovative, but it's certainly the most ambitious, inside or outside of the genre. I haven't read anything else by Williams, but I doubt he could match that, so why bother.

On preview--Delany is more complex in some ways than Tolkien and Asimov, but next to Thomas Pynchon, Delany, and most SF in general, seems pretty small-time.
posted by Prospero at 4:24 PM on March 5, 2003

38 of 50 -- most of those not read are fantasy. Any list that includes Donaldson's Covenant is suspect to me. (I finished that series just because I was hoping the snivelling little shit of a protagonist would be eaten by rats in the end and I didn't want to miss that.)

Besides Lem -- as others have noted -- I would include Calvino and swap Stephenson's Diamond Age for Snow Crash.

kchristidis: Neuromancer was great at the time it was written. You may be bored with it because many of its concepts (cyberspace, jackers, etc.) are commonplace now, but they were new in that book
posted by joaquim at 4:29 PM on March 5, 2003

You mean "the heated ring of his lips"? Or the three-way in the loft?

(Read Dhalgren three times, first as an eleven-yr-old. Can you tell?)

kchristidis, consider that Neuromancer was written in 1983-84. All those passages that sound so cloying now do so only because of the massive wave of works derivative of them we've endured since. They *were* uber-cool in the mid-Reagan years, when so little else was.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:31 PM on March 5, 2003

glad to see Cordwainer Smith and Theodore Sturgeon...but my fav is Van Vogt.

the posts above explain about Neuromancer....didn't gibson Invent the term Cyberspace?

happy 1000th post to me
posted by th3ph17 at 4:34 PM on March 5, 2003


Orwell died in 1950, so anything he ever wrote had to have been over 50 years old.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:47 PM on March 5, 2003

I was surprised to find that Zelazny's Amber series was not listed as one of the "most influential" sci-fi books, until I realized that maybe I'm the only one whose life was drastically and measurably altered by reading them. Lord of Light was pretty good too, though.
posted by Hildago at 4:56 PM on March 5, 2003

balinx: A couple of dhalgren links, reviews and a RPG.

I haven't read dhalgren since it was first published. In that far-away time positive gay or bisexual characters were impossible to find. I felt at the time a lot of the "plot" had to do with Delany's own coming out.

That wasn't the only reason I liked the novel though. Delany's images were vibrant. His characters were far from cardboard. And his city reminded me of the riots in the US only a few years before.

Prospero: I agree that the novel is rooted in the years it was written. I'm not sure what age Delany was writing for, but college freshman seems about right...or mature high school student. In any case you've convinced me to read it again. I somehow blanked that sex scene out of my memory.
posted by ?! at 5:01 PM on March 5, 2003

Just so I don't end my participation on a negative note re the Delaney stuff, let me offer folks a book that'd probably never make a list like this, but if you're looking for a challenging, rewarding read, in a book that's technically sci-fi (at least, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic England), try Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. I'm sure this'll probably provoke some pretty polar love/hate responses, but if this is your kind of thing, it's an amazing work.

Hard to imagine that the same guy who wrote the "Frances the Badger" books wrote this, but Hoban creates an entire fractured language, providing the internal narration for a kind of idiot savant child living in the primitive ruins of our world. (Even just the character's name, as a kind of "riddley walker" wandering the landscape trying to figure things out, gives you an idea of the ambiguous, multiple-layer word play--it'll either have your the inner grad student crying "Polysemous!", or it'll make you throw it into the fire.)
posted by LairBob at 5:12 PM on March 5, 2003

The list is just fine, though of course it would be different for everyone. Except The Sword of Shannara? I can't get behind that.
There was actually a thread about Terry Brooks a while back. Also, I would put the Dragonlance series up there somewhere. Granted, its maybe not as deep as some of the other stuff, but I know it's been the catalyst for many people my age getting into the entire fantasy genre.
posted by jmd82 at 5:16 PM on March 5, 2003

I'm surprised how much I agree with a lot of the comments here. Heinlein - yup, Dhalgren - yup, and the missing ones as well ) especially Vance and Van Vogt.

And the Swords of Shannara? C'mon people. I also found it odd to see Snow Crash up there. While a fun read, I took it mainly as satire on the whole cybergenre, and can't see who it would influence. Now Cryptonomicon....

I recently re-read Neuromancer, which was a total revelation to me back when I first read it, and it definitely comes off as trite and trying-too-hard-to-be-cool. I think that's mainly due to the fact that half of sf ripped him off (badly) once he became popular.

There were some pleasant surprises, eg Terry Pratchet, and some misses (the entire 'hard sf') body of work. And if they were going for straight influence, leaving out the series which spawned a thousand novels, Dragonlance, is, while not great writing, certainly significant.
posted by sauril at 5:32 PM on March 5, 2003

I'm with you Hildalgo, Zelazney's Amber changed my life.

All these top 10 lists are really pretty silly, but most of the books listed are terrific (nuff said about Terry Brooks). Personally I was pleased to see Terry Pratchet on the list (Men at Arms being my personal fave) as well as Cordwainer Smith - I had believed I was the only person under the age of 50 who has read his weirdly beautiful stories.
posted by elendil71 at 5:40 PM on March 5, 2003

i was very pleased to see Pratchet on the list as well, but i think Harry Harrison and Bruce Sterling deserved some mention which they didn't get. And personally, i would have put Snow Crash in the top 10, but then, i really love that story.
posted by quin at 5:45 PM on March 5, 2003

the Sword of Shannara. Significant?

yeah, i think it kinda could be considered significant, cuz it sorta launched dragonlance and like edding's belgariad and jordan's wheel of time etc. altho i'd have to put piers anthony before brooks :D split infinity!

i got halfway through hoban's turtle diaries and didn't so much give up as lose interest, but not out of not liking it. i liked it! it was just... i dunno, maybe i should watch the movie that was on the cover :D

can't say the same for dhalgren, stranger in a strange land or ulysses for that matter! like the most "difficult" book i've been able to read and enjoy is the sound and the fury :D

in addition to some of the other "omissions" mentioned, i'd like to have seen permutation city by greg egan and the big time by fritz leiber! cuz like i thought those were really cool books :D

also maybe some children's/YA books? like interstellar pig and the boy who reversed himself by william sleator rocked! or like stuff by john christopher, robin mckinley, robert c. o'brien and lloyd alexander :D
posted by kliuless at 5:56 PM on March 5, 2003

Elendil -- It seems we have similar tastes in sci-fi, then. Watch your back.
posted by Hildago at 6:09 PM on March 5, 2003

I'm a little bummed that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye didn't make this list (but then if it's on my own mental list of favorites, maybe it doesn't matter). I read it when I was an impressionable young lad of sixteen or so, and I thought it was incredibly richly detailed -- I wanted to read an entire chronlological series leading up to the novel's own events. Its sequel, The Gripping Hand, wasn't nearly as arresting, but by then I'd become a jaded thirtysomething and much harder to impress.
posted by alumshubby at 6:24 PM on March 5, 2003

LairBob & Prospero, thanks for your validation of my Dahlgren analysis. I don't mean to bash someone's work just for fun but I was wondering if there was some sub-text I was just missing. Apparently not.

LairBob, your follow-up reference to Riddley Walker reminds me that I have seen other similar recommendations for that book and I now have to get it elevated to my short list.
posted by krtzmrk at 6:37 PM on March 5, 2003

To join the club, simply

So, what, exactly does this
posted by shepd at 6:49 PM on March 5, 2003

I guess I've never really thought of Douglas Adams' books as science fiction, despite the fact that they take place in outer space. They always seemed closer to Samuel Becket than Issac Asamov. Same goes for Vonnegut. If the standards are that broad it seems like Gravity's Rainbow should be in there.

Also, where are Clockwork Orange and Brave New World? Are they not significant or not sci-fi? Also, I think I'd have to vote for The Once and Future King.

I agree about Stranger In A Strange Land. Terrible book. I suppose I'd have to concede that it's "significant" though.
posted by boltman at 7:17 PM on March 5, 2003

regarding the Lack Of Vance:

(a) he's not a SF writer
(2) I don't really care! the first half of the Vance Integral Edition recently cleared the presses in Milan, and will be showing up at my doorstep sometime in late April. suckers!

personally, I'd like to have seen Donaldson's Gap series on there, or Cherryh's Cyteen or other books from her Merchanter universe, or some Martha Wells (or, yes, some quality Vance).

but no one can make a list that satisfies everyone; and yet this one comes damned close, maybe the closest I've seen yet.
posted by dorian at 7:20 PM on March 5, 2003

I guess I'll have to chime in with a dissonant note, and say I love Dhalgren. I've read it through six times, and each time something new catches my eye. Sure, parts of it have aged poorly, and it has its awkward moments, but the language is breathtaking. (I know, I know. I sound like a smitten teenager.) I had the pleasure of hearing Delany read the first dozen or so pages aloud at a book fair a couple of years ago. It brought home my original suspicion about the book, and why Delany doesn't like to talk about it: it isn't intended to be a linear narrative, but instead a kind of epic poem. That would explain the odd hatred it's garnered over the years, anyway.

As far as the rest of the list goes, it demonstrates quite nicely the reason I'm not in step with the Secret Masters of Fandom. I happen to like a lot of the books which have gone unmentioned so far: Book of the New Sun is among my favorite books of all time, as are Fahrenheit 451, Stand on Zanzibar, and Slaughterhouse-5. But as has been said already, no list will please everyone.
posted by mkhall at 7:33 PM on March 5, 2003

I think Starship Troopers should be ranked higher than 46, but what really surprises me is that Stanislaw Lem and Robert Howard aren't on the list.
posted by Beholder at 7:40 PM on March 5, 2003

Neuromancer was intentionally written with built-in obsolesence. It's described as taking place in the very near future, like a fictional addendum to Toffler's Future Shock. Reading it today for the first time would certainly make one wonder what all the fuss was about 20 years ago. It started a sub-genre of science fiction, several authors wrote and discussed it the way journalists and programmers talk about weblogs today. It shaved the time futuristic concepts to became real the way blogs allow us to take our own ideas and put them into immediate distribution.

Generally, this list is the lamest science fiction 'best of' list ever. The two genres should be separate and as crash pointed out, the damn thing is alphabetized, and thus a complete joke.

Besides, there's no Vernor Vinge in the list.
posted by yonderboy at 7:53 PM on March 5, 2003

I read about 25 of those before I hit 20 (except for the P.K. Dicks). Then, for reasons I can't explain, I stopped and my mother, for reasons unknown to me, threw out all my sci fi's. I didn't read much fiction again for at least 1o years.......

What of Latin American, African, Spanish, French, German or Russian authors? I still treasure "Definitely Maybe" by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (1976?)......

No H.P. Lovecraft?.....OK, too old, as would be Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells......Swift, Dante, ........"Titus Groan" (!!), first of the "Gormenghast Trilogy" by Mervyn Peake....."The Little Prince" (!!) by St. Exupery....Emmanuel Swedenborg's writings, maybe....ancient Vedic texts for sure....and the Bible?

50 years seems like a restrictive premise. I'd rather see 100 of the all time best.

Then you could consider oddities such as "Flatland", or "Alice in Wonderland".........
posted by troutfishing at 7:59 PM on March 5, 2003

I see these lists every couple of years and find it interesting how it changes. Much quicker than any general Best of Fiction list. Look who's not on the list. Ray Bradbury would have been in every published top 10 list until recently. He isn't even mentioned here. Most of his stories were never placed past the year 2000 and he was never the futurist that Clark and Heinlein were. Still... I never heard of Philip K. Dick till the movie Blade Runner came out(#8 on the list) in what, 1982? I was 16 then reading Asimov, Moorcock, Zelazny... Ahhh, memories.
But it is evident that some SF writers becomes "dated" much faster than others.
posted by norm111 at 8:06 PM on March 5, 2003

Why are sci-fi and fantasy always bundled together? Perhaps many common themes or something, but very different types of reads. I want two lists. That's my complaint.

It's because every attempt to define the difference between science fiction and fantasy ends in tears (see rec.arts.sf.written for details). For example: Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun? Feels like fantasy, but it's "really" SF, except for all the magic and miracles. Asimov's Foundation Trilogy? Obviously fantasy because the only way a space ship can go faster than light is if it's magic. Dune? Anne McCaffery's dragons-in-space? Philip K. Dick's solipsism? Terry Pratchett's SF-ish aproach to a fantasy setting?
posted by straight at 8:30 PM on March 5, 2003

1984 was finished in 1948 (started in 1943, and published in 1949). Orwell changed the title from The Last Man in Europe (wrech) to 1984 by simply reversing the digits in the year -- 48 to 84. Anyway, it's 5 years too early for this list's criteria.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:33 PM on March 5, 2003

Are the top ten ranked, and then the bottom forty simply listed alphabetically? It certainly appears that way to me.

I'm horribly embarrassed that I didn't notice this.
posted by Beholder at 8:34 PM on March 5, 2003

Whoops, I see Ray's in at #10.
posted by norm111 at 8:53 PM on March 5, 2003

Any list of this sort will be subjective... the only answer to the objection "but they didn't include X" is to write your own.

I'd like to put in a word in defense of Dhalgren; I see that my online essay on the novel was kindly linked by ?! (thanks, ?!).

I'll just say I find Dhalgren rich, strange, and beautifully written; that it seems to me successful in the way it melds "high" with "low," or modernist literary experimentation (Joyce) with SF/pulp traditions; that it deals in powerful and complex ways with all sorts of issues around sexuality, race, and social class--without resembling in the least the sort of kitchen-sink naturalism that usually characterizes literary attempts to deal with such issues; and that it manages to be "visionary" in its feel or emotional pull, without spouting any of the New Age-y rhetoric that I can't stand, and that usually accompanies even the best visionary writing. Lots of negatives here, I realize, but the greatest thing about Dhalgren, for me, is that it is compelling in a way that almost totally resists categories and characterization.

That said, Dhalgren truly is a difficult book; if you find it daunting or unreadable, I suggest you give some of Delany's more accessible texts (say, Babel-17, or Nova, or Trouble on Triton, or Tales of Neveryon--or for that matter, some of his more recent, non-SF work, like Atlantis, or the essay Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) a try.
posted by Rebis at 9:19 PM on March 5, 2003

adampsyche : No Illuminatus Trilogy?

I thought that was reportage, not SF! Heh.

adamgreenfield : (Read Dhalgren three times, first as an eleven-yr-old. Can you tell?)

I'm beginning to believe we were separated at birth.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:33 PM on March 5, 2003

also maybe some children's/YA books?

Wizard of Earthsea is on the list. They are children's/YA books and they are absolutely fantastic.
posted by rdr at 10:02 PM on March 5, 2003

I would have definitely included the "Watchmen" graphic novel in the top 50. I read it every couple of months and still find new things to enjoy about it.
posted by grum@work at 10:30 PM on March 5, 2003

44 out of 50. I read a lot of science fiction while a student at MIT. I think the MetaFilter crew can put together a better list than the Science Fiction Book Club based on comments like these. I do appreciate the link, though, Sassone, for starting this discussion. Thanks everyone else for the ideas. I have trip to the bookstore planned for tomorrow.

This list is sort of "classic" science fiction with a couple of newbies thrown in, except that it's not really classic - no Wells' Time Machine or War of the Worlds, no 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, no Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. I would add a few, though, in keeping with the sort of genre that is being established with this list: Cuckoo’s Egg - C.J. Cherryh; Eon - Greg Bear; A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess; Brain Wave - Poul Anderson. You can scratch Terry Prachett and Anne McCaffrey off the list to make room.
posted by JParker at 11:03 PM on March 5, 2003 [1 favorite]

I've read 41 of these books and for me, Foundation Trilogy is the #1 SF Book of all time. As I recall, Stanger in a Strange Land makes perfect sense if you have a medical marijuana card; it should be replaced by "Farham's Freehold". I made the mistake of loaning my cherry copy of "I Am Legend" (later known as "Omega Man") to an asshole nephew who "lost" it. Surprised that Stephen King's "The Stand" and Robert McCammon's "Swan Song" and/or their mutual root source "Earth Abides" by George R. Stewart didn't make the list.
posted by Mack Twain at 12:43 AM on March 6, 2003

Hm, I'm late to this party.

I've read 28. Fewer than I expected. Oh, and parts of maybe half a dozen more, before giving up. These include Dhalgren, Book of the New Sun (read the first volume, never finished the rest; have to go back and try again), Thomas Covenant (ewwwww), and Interview with the Vampire (you're an immortal undead spawn of darkness, please stop whining and just deal with it).

Dhalgren: seems to be a 'love it or hate it' book. I never finished it. A fanzine took a poll about a year after it was published, of how far people had gotten through it before they gave up. Average was about 150 to 250 pages. But Gibson says it was one of the influences of Neuromancer. Oddly, it took me five or six tries to get past the first 20 pages of Neuromancer. But then, I took off, loved it, and read the next three Gibson's in a rush. BTW, Count Zero is probably better than Neuromancer.

Yes, this list largely omits 'hard' sf. But so little sf is hard. Most of it is little more than fantasy or historical fiction in scientific drag. Not that there's anything wrong with that... The list does include Clement's Mission of Gravity, which is definitely hard sf, and very enjoyable, and Ringworld, which is arguably 'hard', although it's basically a story of adventure and derring-do.

alumshubby: The Gripping Hand, wasn't nearly as arresting, but by then I'd become a jaded thirtysomething [...]

It's not you. The Gripping Hand just sucks really badly. My god, what a disappointment. When you're halfway through the book and they're still doing exposition to explain events of the first novel, something is seriously wrong.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 1:31 AM on March 6, 2003

It's threads like this that make me wish there was a bookfilter.
posted by Beholder at 2:02 AM on March 6, 2003

Two le Guin entries but neither of them is The Dispossed? Two PKDs and neither is A Scanner Darkly? Fie on thee, listmakers.

On the other hand, I'm glad to see Timescape made the cut.
posted by rory at 4:41 AM on March 6, 2003

Read four and a half of them, and not even heard of half of the rest, although a couple of the others are on my rather extensive wishlist. I'm quite an avid reader of sf, too; I guess my tastes are just a bit modern for this list :)

I do wonder what they meant by "significant", though. Significant in what way? I would have expected to have seen a Culture novel in there, and some Bear (Blood Music, or Slant).

<grumbles at sf again being lumped together with it's embarrassing younger brother, fantasy>
posted by Freaky at 5:12 AM on March 6, 2003

As a kid I voraciously read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind In The Door, etc. Often overlooked by the critics because of its target audience, I nevertheless remember these books with fondness--they made me realize that the world, the universe was possibly much bigger and stranger and fantastic and complex than I had thought. L'Engle deserves to be on that list.

Let's face it, 50 just isn't big enough to contain all the significant SF books of the last 50 years.
posted by ashbury at 6:18 AM on March 6, 2003

Given that the most recent book in the Top Ten is almost 20 years old, what I'd like to see is a list of the most significant/influental/interesting/whatever SF/F novels of the past 20 years or so. No offense to Heinlein, Herbert, Asimov and Tolkien, but they's dead, and I'd prefer to primarily focus on those writers who are alive and still producing interesting prose.

Here are a some of the books I'd pick for that list myself, in no particular order:

Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
The Sandman Series (Neil Gaiman)
Perdido Street Station (China Mieville)
Grass/Raising the Stones (Sheri Tepper)
Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin)
Ender's Game/Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card)
Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
The Watchmen (Moore, et al)
posted by jscalzi at 7:15 AM on March 6, 2003

Good call ashbury, the Madeleine L'Engle books should definitely be on any such list. Excellent writing, timeless, and opens the door of SF/Fantasy to new classes every year...

I also found Bernard Cornwell's author triology, which starts with The Winter King, fabulous reading. Some of the more powerful fantasy books I read in a long time. But maybe not significant enough (yet?)
posted by pjgulliver at 7:36 AM on March 6, 2003

it should be replaced by "Farham's Freehold".

table for one, please--
posted by y2karl at 7:57 AM on March 6, 2003

I third Madeleine L'Engle. "A Wrinkle in Time" slipped my mind last night.

Carlos Castaneda's early books (especially "Journey to Ixtlan" and "Tales of Power" are considered fantasy - brilliant, high fantasy at that - by many. I'd put one or both of these on my list.

And the genre-benders and "unintentional/speculative" fantasy realm........what about Erik Von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods?"

And has anyone mentioned ('the towering', 'the magisterial') Borges?
posted by troutfishing at 8:03 AM on March 6, 2003

I'd have to second "The Dispossessed". I find "The Lefthand of Darkness" and "The Earthsea Quartet" both rather pedestrian, but I was amazed by "The Dispossessed". I also have to chime in for Vance; I loved "Emphyrio".
Hey! First post!
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 9:21 AM on March 6, 2003

People keep mentioning Lem. Maybe it's my Anglo-American bias, but I find him boring and pretentious. For good Slavic sf, read the brothers Strugatsky.

As for Dahlgren, I was thrilled when it finally came out—Delany was probably my favorite sf author in terms of sheer writing ability. What a disappointment. I slogged on until one day I found that a breeze had blown it from the window ledge on which I'd left it into the toilet, and I considered it a sign from above. I suppose I could give it another try after all these years (I do love his writing), but life is short and this thread isn't encouraging.

Two PKDs and neither is A Scanner Darkly?

By me, it's "Two PKDs and neither is Martian Time-Slip?" That book scared the shit out of me, and it's more coherent than most of his mature work. But I'm just happy there are two PKDs.

I don't understand the complaints about alphabetical order; what, you think it makes any difference whatever whether you rank something as #56 or #57? This seems to me more honest and a good compromise (a Top Ten for those who need such, and the rest simply Among the Best).

Carlos Castaneda? Erich von Däniken?? Hey, how about the guy who writes the Nigerian spam letters?
posted by languagehat at 10:12 AM on March 6, 2003

26ish - if the Cordwainer Smith is a re-titled version of Norstrilia or a short story collection. The JK Rowling and Terry Brooks are unnecessary - pale imitations of Wizard of Earthsea and Lord of the Rings. I'd have liked to see some Iain Banks, although his non-S-F stuff is better, and the Illuminatus! trilogy, Tanith Lee's Flat Earth series, Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey, Charles de Lint's Moonheart and some of Peter Beagle's wonderful tales, especially The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air.
I'm with you on Covenant, joaquim - I wanted to tear off the man's own leg and beat him to death with it after the first trilogy, and I even read the second set, in the vain hope that the villain would triumph - but no such luck!
posted by tabbycat at 11:57 AM on March 6, 2003

But Donaldson's Gap Cycle which starts with The Real Story (sorry, can't get amazon to work to provide a link), is phenomenal!

Please, I beg of you, 1) if you have read these books, please tell me what you thought...I've been waiting to meet other fans

and 2) if you haven't read them, but ignored them because you despised Covenant (as did I) give the author a second chance. These books are terrific, as literature and as fun novels.
posted by pjgulliver at 12:00 PM on March 6, 2003

Also, where are Clockwork Orange and Brave New World? Are they not significant or not sci-fi? Also, I think I'd have to vote for The Once and Future King.

As far as BNW goes, you forgot a third possibility: not within the past 50 years. It was published in 1932. TOAFK probably wouldn't qualify, as three of the four books which make it up were published individually in the period 1938-1940.

If you're counting, I've read 19 on the list, with another 3 that I started but never finished.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:15 PM on March 6, 2003

I met Donaldson a few years back. I asked him (nicely, of course) why he had made Covenant into such a miserable little twerp. He answered that he had very consciously looked at what other authors were doing at the time, as well as what they had done in the past, and realized that a sci-fi/fantasy anti-hero had rarely, if ever, been used. As he developed the character, he realized that he had far more room to move Covenant around in than he would have if he'd been more well-adjusted. It seemed to suit his (Donaldson's) intentions better.

Miserable lead character and all, I thought the entirety of the Thomas Covenant series was pretty impressive.
posted by ashbury at 1:00 PM on March 6, 2003

35 out of 50 (that I can remember).

Terry Brooks is no longer quite so miserable a writer as he was when he wrote The Sword of Shannara, but still nothing he has written deserves to be mentioned on the same page with Bradbury, Dick, or even Pratchett.

I'm surprised at the Donaldson bashing. I guess people aren't used to fantasy adventures where the protagonist is an emotional basket case and doesn't get better quickly. I found it very well done.

I agree with those who think Jack Vance & Vernor Vinge should be included.

I find it amusing that the list contains both Starship Troopers and also The Forever War, which can be read as a point-by-point refutation by Haldeman of everything that Heinlein was saying in S.T..
posted by tdismukes at 1:50 PM on March 6, 2003

I had tried to read just the first Thomas Covenant book several times, each time giving up in disgust. Then a few years later, I tried again after being seriously impressed by the Gap which point I had no trouble reading as well as enjoying both of the Thomas Covenant series in entirety.

The Gap novels, and of course Bester's most famous two, were the first time I'd ever read anything with such strong anti-heroes, I think. well, also many of Cherryh's works, where people aren't evil heroes or ethical villains or anything of the sort, they're just real human beings.

I guess a weak anti-hero is not such a big transition from there, i.e. getting used to that sort of thing makes Covenant bearable or even interesting, at least it did for me.
posted by dorian at 2:06 PM on March 6, 2003

Who's Bester? What were the most famous two?
posted by pjgulliver at 4:26 PM on March 6, 2003

UHNH! Alfred Bester?!?! The Stars My Destination?!? THE DEMOLISHED MAN?!?

Childhood-defining classix for me, both of 'em, pjgulliver. Do yourself a favor and snap up the reissues. Postwar sf as improv jazz, typographic vendetta, noir daymare. Yes yes yesyeysyeysyeysysyeysysysyeysyses!
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:10 PM on March 6, 2003

pjgulliver: Alfred Bester wrote Tyger! Tyger! (The Stars My Destination) and The Demolished Man. He was also a relief pitcher.

All I can say is:

Tensor, said the tensor
Tensor, said the tensor
Tension, apprehension, and desention have begun.

on preview: what adam said...
posted by ?! at 5:24 PM on March 6, 2003

and where is Robert Silverberg, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Swanwick, Connie Willis, Tim Powers, Jonathan Carroll, Patricia McKillip, Angela Carter (in no particular order) ...

As for children/YA, there is some great stuff out there ... Garth Nix's Sabriel and Skellig by David Almond, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, to name a few.
posted by gudrun at 5:47 PM on March 6, 2003

beholder: It's coming.

I hope this isn't against Metafilter policy, but I'm interested in what jparker proposed. What would Metafilter SF readers name as their top ten SF books?

In the spirit of the political compass, I'm willing to compile the list. Anyone wishing to send their top ten (or so) can email me and I'll set up a web page with the results.
posted by ?! at 5:51 PM on March 6, 2003

don't tease, people need to see the whole mind-bendingly evil verse.

Eight, sir; seven sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two sir; one! (<pock!>)
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

as for making our own list, I'm all for it so long as there's no spamazon linking or the like. (yes, I do love that blogme03 concept...)

posted by dorian at 6:04 PM on March 6, 2003

No Rudy Rucker? I am sad.
posted by thirteen at 6:56 PM on March 6, 2003

?!: you go! I'm working on my list now.
posted by turbodog at 8:57 PM on March 6, 2003

Languagehat - Yes, Carlos Castaneda (early): high metaphysical fantasy. Von Daniken was a curve ball on my part, not serious but intended to gratuitiously offend people's sensibilities of what sci-fi and fantasy are......

tabycat - Peter S. Beagle! (The Last Unicorn). Also, "the Phanton Tollbooth".....

?! - 10? - No no! What about 100? or 250? People here are readers. They scan text rapidly.
posted by troutfishing at 9:30 PM on March 6, 2003

troutfishing - maybe we can each send in 10 and he can post a much more extensive list than just the "top ten" based on how many votes each novel gets. I think that's a better approach anyway, if you're limited to 10 you have to think about which ones to include.

?! - this should be interesting! Thanks for taking it on.
posted by JParker at 9:57 PM on March 6, 2003

And Hildago, you are right. The Amber series is going on my top ten list. Besides, with LOTR and Foundation, I get over 20 books on my top ten list that way!
posted by JParker at 10:09 PM on March 6, 2003

dorian: no links. This is for us, not to start the Metafilter Book Club.

Troutfishing: Just send me 10 lists. ... each in the name of your favorite Meta users.
posted by ?! at 10:25 PM on March 6, 2003

This sounds really cool for some of us less knowledgeable readers!!! Hope to get a link for all to see when all this info is compiled!
posted by jmd82 at 11:56 AM on March 7, 2003

?! - ?.... I am one, and only one. No! I am legion!.......*slaps self repeatedly*...No! I am one
posted by troutfishing at 9:06 PM on March 7, 2003

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