Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010

Damien Broderick, Paul Di Filippo
Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 Cover

A Guide to the Last Quarter Century of Science Fiction

Scott Laz

Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo’s Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010, presented as a companion to critic/editor David Pringle’s 1985 Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels: An English-Language Selection, 1949–1984, is a worthy successor to the earlier book. Pringle passes the torch in a Foreword to the new volume, admitting that, while a sequel is needed, “Having been unable to keep up with all those new sf works myself, I am delighted that Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo have taken it upon themselves to do the job, and I am very happy to endorse their excellent book.”

Broderick and Di Filippo, for their part, certainly have kept up on the last quarter century of science fiction, and appear to have read just about everything in the earlier era as well. Each entry is laced with references to works (mostly inside, but sometimes out of) the genre, in their efforts to evoke the novel under discussion–both the experience of reading it and its place within the ongoing development of science fiction. For example, Adam Roberts’s Salt is

Like reading Crowley’s “In Blue” as rewritten by Barry Malzberg. It’s like reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as rewritten by Norman Spinrad, or her The Left Hand of Darkness reworked by Ken McLeod (Entry 53). Or Robinson’s Red Mars (Entry 29) altered by Mark Geston. Or Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp redone by Stanislaw Lem. Yes, that strange and enjoyable.

 John C. Wright (The Golden Age) is “the latest of the ambitious deep future New Space Opera boom–David Zindell, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Iain M. Banks, Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Wil McCarthy (most of them with entries in this book)” and is “a sort of extended commentary, from the right, on Olaf Stapledon’s classic, minatory, marxist Last and First Men.”

 Similar quotations could be taken from any of the entries, each of which, in a couple of pages, places the relevant novel within the current context, and often in relation to science fiction as a whole–either as a new treatment of a theme the field has been grappling with for decades, or as a reaction against it, or a movement tangential to it. This valuable contextualization is given alongside brief plot and character descriptions, and background about the authors. While occasionally getting bogged down by their density, most of the entries are clear, concise, and evocative, and all are informative.

Reading the entries sequentially, then, we get an episodic history of the last quarter century of science fiction. If I were to try to come up with any general trends after reading the 101 entries, in comparison to the earlier era of Pringle’s book, it would be that stories of space travel migrated into the far future (the New Space Opera mentioned in the Wright entry), while stories of posthumanity came to the fore in medium-term futures. In looking for similarities, both books have their share of alternate histories (more prominent in later years), and dystopias, which never seem to go out of style. It’s also heartening to see the increasing appearance of women authors. Pringle included nine books by women (including two by Le Guin, and only one prior to 1969), compared to about one-third of the authors in the new survey.

The new list echoes the old in several ways. There is some author overlap (Aldiss, Dick, Vonnegut, Ballard, Moorcock, Poul Anderson, M. John Harrison, Priest, Varley, Stableford, Benford, Octavia Butler, Wolfe, and Gibson), with Brian Aldiss taking the prize for the two most widely-spaced entries–Non-Stop (1958) and HARM (2007)–but that still leaves the vast majority of authors confined to either the pre- or post-1985 eras. Both books begin with a dystopic novel by an author not generally identified with the genre–Orwell’s 1984 for Pringle and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for Broderick/Di Filippo. And both end with what are presented as genre-shifting books. In retrospect, Neuromancer looks like a perfect ending point for Pringle’s survey. Whether The Quantum Thief “is the equivalent, for the end of the first decade of the 21st century” remains to be seen, but a good case is made, and the attempt at symmetry must have been irresistible. (Interestingly, William Gibson came close to ending this volume as well, with Zero History being listed second-to-last.)

The opening selections indicate that these critics define the field broadly, and are interested in literary quality as well as novelty or popularity within the more insular genre world. Along with Orwell, Pringle includes books by George R. Stewart, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and Kingsley Amis, alongside Asimov, Heinlein, Silverberg, and Benford. Broderick and Di Filippo take this tendency further, presumably because the use of SF by mainstream writers has only grown in recent decades. (According to their Introduction, readers who prefer to “stick faithfully to their accustomed diversions, preferring yet another franchised episode of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock or Luke Skywalker and his mean dad, rather as some people eat the same breakfast cereal every day”, or for whom “any attempt by sf writers to adapt [literary] techniques to broaden their canvas and elaborate their palette (or palate) is pretentious or boring or uses ‘too many hard words’,” should look elsewhere for guidance.)This time, we have Atwood, Vonnegut, Jonathan Lethem, Audrey Nifenegger, Philip Roth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Liz Jensen, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Chabon, side by side with Ian MacDonald, Charles Stross, and Linda Nagata. The authors address the appropriateness of the SF label for some of these books directly, but clearly come down on the side of encouraging and celebrating inclusiveness, and a broad reading of the field, even when the authors themselves resist it. Apparently, for example, Philip Roth claimed to have “no literary models for reimagining the historical past” when writing the alternate history The Plot Against America! But that doesn’t keep it from being an excellent novel, which is what Broderick and Di Filippo are concerned with. (The prize for “the best alternative novel we’ve seen to date”, however, goes to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)

The inclusion of a few novels that hardcore SF fans might argue with should be a little easier to accept given that the authors have found a way to expand their net beyond the 101 novels of the title. Yes, there are 101 entries, each associated with a particular novel, but, unlike in the Pringle survey, no author gets more than one entry, leaving room for a much larger variety of books. Doesn’t this mean that this is not really the “101 Best Novels”, but rather the 101 best authors? Yes and no. A strict list of the best novels would likely contain more than one entry for some authors (Pringle, for example, was especially partial to Dick, Ballard, and Aldiss), but many of the entries in Broderick and Di Filippo’s book are really about duologies, trilogies, series, or even an authors’ entire output, thus providing information and commentary on many more than the 101 novels indicated in the title. For example, the Perdido Street Station entry discusses entire Bas Lag sequence, Paul Park’s Soldiers of Paradise recommends the entire Starbridge Chronicles, and the Neal Stephenson entry explains first why, in choosing a representative novel, the authors’ narrowed his oeuvre down to Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, and then why they ultimately settled on the latter over the former. In each case, while a single novel is focused on, the lens is often pulled back for a more wide-angle discussion of a significant chunk of an author’s output, when appropriate.

I suppose the final question should be: Are these really the 101 best novels of the last quarter century? The appropriate answers could be: “of course not”; “I don’t know”; or, “it doesn’t matter”.  (For a question like this, I don’t think “yes” or “no” really apply.) Answer number one: Of course not, because everyone’s take on the best novels will be different. A good reviewer will find a way to give you enough of the sense of a book to decide whether you might be interested in it, and I think Broderick and Di Filippo do this very well. Answer number two: I don’t know, because I haven’t read the vast majority of these novels myself. I was greatly looking forward to this book because I’m a fan of Pringle’s 100 Best, and because I’ve read very little SF from the period the new book covers, and have been looking for a guide back into the field. After reading it, I’m pretty certain their critical take on the field will match my tastes reasonably well, but I’m sure others will see a lot of their favorites missing and thus decide they have little use for it–a perfectly valid response. (The fact that they include several of my favorites from the recent period that I’ve been back reading the field–Zero History, Windup Girl, Zoo City, and Quantum Thief–adds to my confidence that I’ll like lots of others on this list.)

Finally, answer number three, and the one I prefer: It doesn’t matter whether these are really the 101 Best Novels, because the book still succeeds as an interesting survey of what’s been happening in the science fiction field during the period covered, and because, even for those whose tastes don’t jibe with the authors’, such lists always serve to start an interesting debate. Other “best of” lists from well-read critics, along with surveys based on the opinions of fans and general readers, will always differ (sometimes greatly), keeping the debate going. (Worlds Without End, of course, contains lots of them!) As readers, the trick is to find those that best match our tastes and inclinations. In my case, I’m looking for a wide-ranging and challenging critical survey, and this one seems a good guide to the period. Broderick and Di Filippo succeeded in getting me interested in dozens of books that I knew little about or, in some cases, hadn’t even heard of. List-lovers should read it, enjoy it, and argue with it.