San Antonio-based author/critic Damien Broderick and his fellow author/critic Paul DiFilippo recently took on the daunting task of deciding on the best science fiction novels released from 1985 to 2010. The resulting book, Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, will be released May 18 by NonStop Press.
Some of the novels selected by the pair likely will come as no surprise (China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, for example). Others, however, may be unknown to all but the most voracious genre readers (Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women and Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief) Others still, such as Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning The Road, walk the narrow line between SF and literary or mainstream fiction.
We asked Broderick and DiFilippo to justify their choices — both the surprising and unsurprising ones — and tell us how they managed to narrow down the avalanche of SF released between 1985 and 2010 to a list of just 101 choices.
There’s no shortage of lists proclaiming to catalog the best and most important works of any number of genres. What sets this book apart?
DAMIEN: We kicked off from the 1985 classic, David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984. His subtitle was a sly reference to George Orwell’s great dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. Was Orwell writing science fiction or literature? Both, arguably. Other books in Pringle’s list were far more recognizably “generic”: Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Bester’s The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, Clarke’s Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars. (To my amazement and delight, one of my own novels was included.) But Pringle didn’t stop with Orwell in noting the crossover between SF and mainstream writing: there’s Burroughs’ Nova Express, and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. We decided to cast our net equally wide, snaring great representative novels written in English in the period following David’s closing year of 1984 when Gibson’s Neuromancer came out, and marked the emergence of a new kind of SF, cyberpunk.
Why do the years 1985-2010 bear exploring? How does that period stack up against other eras of SF in terms on the ambition and quality of work produced?
DAMIEN: In those 26 years, it’s arguable that more mature science fiction was published than in all the preceding century. It isn’t as utterly groundbreaking as the work of the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the iconography of SF as a form of imaginative creation gelled, but the skill and depth of the genre are now so enriched that almost every new writer starts at a higher level of competence than was ever achieved by most of the classic Golden Age writers. Even though fat fantasy trilogies and sparkly vampires and shambling zombies have overwhelmed the market, this last quarter century is still the true Golden Age of SF.
There’s been much debate about what science fiction is and isn’t. Margaret Atwood, for example, maintains that The Handmaid’s Tale — one of your choices for this list – is not an SF novel. What’s more, a handful of novels on your list have more often been categorized as fantasy than SF. How did you determine where to draw the line when it came to what is and isn’t an SF novel?
DAMIEN: We’ve chosen novels that in a 101 different ways are as wily and inventive as the best speculative writing and as well-wrought and insightful into the nature of human consciousness and society as anything by, well, Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing or Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon or Cormac McCarthy—some of whom, marvelously, are here as well, with their own distinctive contributions to the canon of recent speculative fiction. As we say in the Introduction, “What we can promise you is that the novels we discuss are among the most significant works of science fiction from the last quarter century, books that reward careful reading while providing pleasure, amusement, novelty, wonderment.” As for Atwood, we note: “it’s no accident that, as well as being shortlisted for the mainstream Booker Prize, [The Handmaid’s Tale] won the Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and James Tiptree, Jr. Awards for best SF novel, while selling more than a million copies to readers who always supposed they disliked SF.”
As you examined SF novels of this era, what themes emerged? Why do you think these themes have been so prevalent?
PAUL: In a way, as Damien alluded to earlier, these novels of the past two-point-six decades have used pre-established tropes and tools that the great SF pioneers created to deal with recent technological and cultural changes that were both more and less dramatic and deracinating than what came in the first half of the twentieth century. Many social commentators have remarked that the advances from 1900-1960 were so radical—air travel, global highway systems, antibiotics, radio, television, etc—that they put the advances of 1960-2010—computers, internet, nascent genetic engineering—in the shade. Consequently, the SF of our period—dealing as good SF does with the zeitgeist—was less widescreen baroque, to use Aldiss’s term, than what came before it. Late-period Gibson is more low-key than Bester, that’s for sure! On the other hand, the bubbling-under revolutions (all the stuff trending toward the Singularity) as well as some truly unprecedented social-media technology, do presage enormous changes in what it means to be human. So, long story short, I’d say the dominant theme of much of this SF is “What does it mean to be human?” Now, this has been a longstanding concern of SF since the genre began. But I find it dominant above many other motifs at the moment.
Looking over the list, I see books by a Japanese-born author (Kazuo Ishiguro), a Russian-born author (Ekaterina Sedia), a Finnish author (Hannu Rajaniemi) and a South African writer (Lauren Beukes). Is one of the most notable things about the ’85-’10 era of SF its more global nature?
PAUL: It truly is a smallish, more interconnected world these days than ever before. Butterfly Twitter flutterings in one part of the globe almost instantly translate to hurricanes in the ideosphere at the antipodes. Therefore, any reader with his or her radar turned on is currently realizing that voices from around the planet must funnel into the speculative conversation. I think this attitude derives in large part from cyberpunk’s avowed mission to channel a multinational perspective on the future. In my opinion, cyberpunk has never been given quite enough credit for nurturing that shift in the parochial stance of SF. Of course, what’s interesting is not for the American/Anglo SF voice to be precisely replicated, but for it to be mutated and then fed back into the “mainstream” of SF to enhance our visions. We should also note the presence of savvy expatriates, such as Richard Calder, who spent many years in Southeast Asia and came away with some unique stylings and insights. SF has always benefitted from such explorers, such as Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree.
Are there some works on this list that are relatively obscure but deserve more attention? What are they and why should readers seek them out?
PAUL: I think that our more “mainstream” selections, such as Michel Faber’s Under the Skin or Liz Jensen’s My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, are too little known by genre readers, who would really appreciate them and get a kick from their handling of unique speculative elements. Maybe this book will help promote that kind of détente. Within our genre selections, we definitely have a few titles that have not received their due accolades. Carol Emshwiller, for instance, should have her SFWA Grandmaster Award by now. Maybe at the back of our minds in composing this book was the rule that if we faced a choice between, say, a great John Scalzi novel and an equally great Carol Emshwiller novel, we’d go with the Emshwiller because Scalzi had had his share of the spotlight already.
What’s likely to be the most controversial choice on the list? Why?
DAMIEN: Some readers might doubt that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is really SF; after all, there’s no explanation for his global catastrophe. Others might quibble at J. G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But we have our reasons, and we’re happy to entertain controversy.
PAUL: The most controversial choice on the list is going to be whatever book any random reader considers the weakest, and yet which managed to edge out his or her own favorite!
As you compiled your list, were there works beloved by fans and critics that simply didn’t stand the test of time?
PAUL: That stage of triage occurred so far back in the process, I’ve kinda forgotten how it worked! But basically, we started with such a massive list of super-great books that we had to mercilessly winnow down, that we never even brought up the second-tier stuff.
During the collaboration, did the two of you have any major differences on work that should or shouldn’t have been included? How did you iron those out?
DAMIEN: Even with 101 choices, there’s such a tremendous amount of great stuff available that we had no trouble at all reaching a consensus, even though our tastes are inevitably somewhat different. And that adds flavor and richness to the stew!
PAUL: I did have to talk Damien out of making the book be 100% Aussie authors, but aside from that—!
DAMIEN: You do know he’s kidding, right? Obvious it couldn’t be more than 74% Aussie…
Based on the evolution in SF we saw during this era, what do you see as the probable trends in SF writing over the next 26 years?
DAMIEN: It might merge into the great ocean of story, as seems to be happening with the movies. It never ceases to astonish me that so many people who scoffed at SF for years contentedly watch SF films and TV shows without even noticing the genre cooties. On the other hand, mass media SF (or “sci fi”) is almost always watered down. It takes devotion to get the best out of complex SF novels, which have built their special vernacular during the last century or more. Still, people are absorbing those narrative moves just because the future we move through is literally an SF landscape. Even as the unexpected dimensions of this real future reshape and enrich the stories we tell about the futures yet to come…
PAUL: I don’t think SF can ever afford to feature a predominance of novels such as The Quantum Thief. Great as that book is—as attested to by our inclusion of it, ha!—it is a work that requires an intense familiarity with 75 years of past SF and the multiplex parsing protocols of the genre in order to be fully appreciated. We need to feature SF that walks the tightrope between simplicity and multiplexity, between newness and canon-referentiality, between adventure and deep thinking. It’s a hard row to hoe, to write something that will please both newbies and old pros, and which also advances the genre, but I think it can and must be done, if SF is to survive and even broaden its appeal.