Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, Damien Broderick & Paul di Filippo

Non-Stop Press, 2012, 288 pages, $14.99 tp ISBN 978-1-933065-39-7

As someone who rather enjoys reviewing science-fiction novels, I’m not exactly the friendliest target audience for a book such as Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 (henceforth 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010). I’m not a librarian looking to stock up my collection; I’m not simply a reader looking for a few new book recommendations. I am, in some distant ways, a colleague of Broderick and di Filippo in the Grand Community of SF Reviewers, fact-checking them and trying to find out whether they did their jobs correctly.

And then there’s the question of canon-making.

Books like 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 are essential in the formation of a continuing genre SF canon. They point at novels that should become part of the genre’s continuity, present an updated view of the genre’s last few years and can influence what we think of the genre by claiming novels that did not emerge from the SF genre conversation, but may come to influence it someday. David Pringle’s introduction explicitly sets 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 as a successor to his own Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984 and in doing so sets it up as part of a critical continuity. Much as the previous volume was used to stock up libraries and influence reading choices, this one also attempts to present a certain vision of the genre’s latest quarter-century.

Dispending right away with some essential statistics and credential-building: 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 does indeed proposes 101 novels for consideration as the best of that 25-year period. (The complete list is available here.) I have read roughly 57 of those novels, depending on your definition of “read”. If you look through my Alternate Hugo list of favourite SF novels, you will find that I too think the best of about 20 of the 101 novels, and that I also quite like 16 more. The rest, well, does reflect a certain critical consensus.

But moving beyond pointless shelf-measuring contests, 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 is remarkable for the way it tries to redefine the Science Fiction genre in at least two ways. For one thing, this is a very inclusive list. Authors only get one entry on the list, which means that some entries act as general discussions on the entire body of work of an author (the entry on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game includes commentary on Speaker for the Dead, for instance), and also allows more authors to make it on the list. You can see how this may skew the result: My own list of “best SF novels of 1985-2010” would probably include five Charles Stross novels, for instance, but Broderick/di Filippo only (rightfully) select Accelerando.

They also reach out and claim novels that may not conform to a strict definition of SF. This isn’t merely going and claiming The Hunger Games trilogy as an explicit bid to bring YA back to SF (even though the book itself has significant flaws as science-fiction, Broderick/di Filippo make the point that it’s the kind of work that escapes the self-referential tendency of genre SF), but also going and claiming works such as Perdido Street Station, Temeraire and Zero History that are great books, but are usually more closely aligned with other genres rather than SF.

Fortunately, there is more to 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 than just a list you can look up elsewhere on the web: Much of the real value of the book is in the (sometimes frustratingly short) commentary offered on all listed novels. Broderick/di Filippo are professional reviewers, and their commentary is usually able to highlight what makes each novel special, and why they deserve to be read. There’s an attempt to present broader trends through the lens of each selection. The sum of each entry ends up forming a set of broad opinions about the state of the genre from 1985 to 2010. It’s a broad set of opinions, and it isn’t immune to the kind of silliness you get when trying to develop 101 critical approach vectors to tight deadline: in other words, don’t be surprised to find a lot of very strange assertions in the text of the book as it overreaches and states things that may not sustain scrutiny. But that’s what you get for explaining 25 years of SF in 101 750-words segments.

Broadly speaking, it does occur to me that the selection of 2010 as the last year of this roundup is going to be more significant than simply the end of a quarter-century. As you may recall (Bob), 2010 marked a second post-recession year, the introduction of the iPad, the consequent explosion of the eBook market and the beginning of major changes to the publishing industry. (Including more and more authors taking control of their backlist and publishing them as eBooks –who’s going to check how many of those 101 novels are available as eBooks, and will be in a year?) 2014 is still far too early to tell where we’re going to end up, but the rise of eBook self-publishing as a viable commercial alternative means that the next 101 Best SF Novels 2011-2035 is going to look very, very different from the 1985-2010 installment, which may represent the last hurrah of a genre with well-defined boundaries defined by the traditional book-publishing industry.

And that’s fine. Part of canon-making such as listing the 101 best novels of 1985-2010 is allowing us to define the past and prepare ourselves for the future. No one knows how the genre will evolve in the best few years, but it can depend on solid foundations to find its way.

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