Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Is this the best of SF?

SF greats, ancient and modern
I was interested to note a debacle started by a US list of top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. We'll come back to this furore over the suggestion that many of these books were 'shockingly offensive' in a moment, but first a couple of comments about the list itself.

To me it seems a mistake to conflate fantasy and science fiction - where most of their SF choices seemed sensible, I wouldn't have included over 50 per cent of the fantasy, which makes me suspect that there should be two separate lists.

If we just concentrate on the SF books, there were inevitably some ridiculous omissions. No John Wyndham, for instance (probably reflecting this being a US list). No Alfred Bester, James, Blish, Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth or (if you want to be more obscure) no E. F. Russell. However it wasn't a bad list overall - no one will ever agree with everything in such a collection.

So what about the moaning article in the New Statesman (pointed out to me by Niki Gamm), which berates this list? One complaint in the article is that most of the SF books are pre-1990s. I think this, to be honest, is entirely reasonable. I struggle to name more modern authors other than Banks and Stephenson who are truly great. I do wonder if it's because a lot of the best SF is about surprising the reader with really original ideas, most of which had been played out by the 1980s.

The other complaint, the one that makes the books in the opinion of the article's author 'shockingly offensive' is that a lot of them appear sexist. I'm sorry, but to complain about this is revisionist nonsense. You can't apply the standards of the day to the past. You might as well take offence at the sexism, racism and anti-semitism in Dickens and Shakespeare. I'm afraid it shows little imagination in the reader if they can't read a book in the context of the time in which it was written.

You might as well moan that the science and technology in old science fiction is pretty well always wrong. Of course it is. And it certainly can be amusing. For instance, Blish notes that it's impossible for electronics to work near Jupiter because the gravitational pull is so strong it would crush the valves (vacuum tubes). However it would be silly to downgrade the status of a story just because it contains such an issue. It's certainly true that there are some pre-Enlightnment II books that I find it difficult to read now because science, sexism or racism issues are so badly handled - but that doesn't apply to many in that top 100 list on the SF side (I can't comment on the fantasy).

I think it's great that we don't have the same problems with sexism, racism etc. in modern writing as used to be the case. But to arbitrarily dismiss something written before attitudes changed simply because it fits with the values of the present seems a patently naive view.


  1. Yes, that's it, exactly. I can't imagine why they would have brought SciFi and Fantasy into the same list anyway.