A First Stab At A Science Fiction CanonS

They're ambitious, those Brits — the Guardian newspaper has been publishing a listing of 1000 books you must read, and now it includes every must-read science fiction novel. Let the canon-shredding commence!

Says the Guardian, in its intro:

It is sometimes assumed that science fiction, fantasy and horror must mean spaceships, elves and vampires - and indeed, you'll find Iain M Banks, Tolkien and Bram Stoker on our list of mind-expanding reads. Yet these three genres have a tradition as venerable as the novel itself. Fiction works through metamorphosis: in every era authors explore the concerns of their times by mapping them on to invented worlds, whether they be political dystopias, fabulous kingdoms or supernatural dimensions.

It's definitely an interesting list — probably different from what most American newspapers or critics would have chosen. There's a lot of literary stuff, some of which everyone recognizes as science fiction (like Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon) and some of which nobody does (Henry James, Herman Hesse). Oddly, both Iain M. Banks and his literary twin, Iain Banks, make the list. It's probably weighted a bit too much towards earlier works, but it contains a surprising number of ninteenth century titles, enough to be provocative. There's some stuff in there which is more properly fantasy, like Harry Potter and The Sword In The Stone.

Oh, and they misspelled Samuel Delany's name. Oops.

Mostly, though, it's a pretty great list — it does what a list of must-read books should do, which is make you rethink the shape of the genre. Not just by debating which books they left out and which they shouldn't have included, but also by making you think about how far back the genre stretches, and how much it's changed in recent years. The recent authors on the list include rising stars like Alastair Reynolds and China Mieville, as well as some literary stars like Nicola Barker. You can sort of see an arc, from 19th century fabulism through 20th century pulpiness, back to a kind of fabulism in the 21st century. Or maybe I'm just projecting a bit.

Easily as interesting as the main list are some of the side articles, like Michael Moorcock's list of the best dystopias (which contains few surprises but is still an interesting bit of analysis.) And Roz Kaveny's list of radical novels. Susanna Clarke names her favorite world-building series. And there's the best of J.G. Ballard, an author who belongs on any must-read list. [Guardian]