Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Locus All-Centuries Poll, or how I cut off both of my Hands

See, there were two stories by Elizabeth Hand that I wanted to get onto my submission to the Locus 20th and 21st All-Centuries Poll, unfortunately there were so many other stories that couldn’t be denied a place on the poll that I ended up cutting both of the Hand stories.

Okay, it’s a cheap metaphor for how painful it was to pare down my lists of best science fiction and fantasy stories of the past 110 years. Sue me. It was painful to leave stories off the lists. Then the Locus Poll expected me to rank the stories in each category, which was just as painful as leaving others off the list entirely.

20th Century Best SF Novels
1: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
2: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
3: 1984 by George Orwell
4: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
5: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
6: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
7: Pavane by Keith Roberts
8: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
9: Neverness by David Zindell
10: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

You’ll notice there’s no Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke; no Dune by Frank Herbert. While I have affection for their novels, my opinion of their work has faded a bit over the years and it’s time to move along and recognize great work that might otherwise be ignored. I knew I had to get a Samuel R. Delany title on the list and it was hard to choose, since I think Nova and The Einstein Intersection are brilliant. Somehow the multifaceted Dhalgren stood out. I was pretty sure I was going to get a Bruce Sterling novel on this list, either Holy Fire or Schismatrix, and yet it didn’t happen. Also, I’m pretty sure Engine Summer by John Crowley belongs here. And maybe A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Perhaps if I had the list to do over again in a couple weeks it would be different.

20th Century Best Fantasy Novels
1: Little, Big by John Crowley
2: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
3: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
4: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
5: Peace by Gene Wolfe
6: Was by Geoff Ryman
7: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
8: The Innkeepers Song by Peter S. Beagle
9: The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock
10: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The Lord of the Rings isn’t there, is it. No apologies here. Tolkien’s work is important. Still, I’d rather use my vote to recognize the work of others.

20th Century Best Novella
1: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
2: Souls by Joanna Russ
3: The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance
4: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
5: Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
6: 24 Views of Mt. Fuji by Hokusai by Roger Zelazny
7: Her Habiline Husband by Michael Bishop
8: The Star Pit by Samuel R. Delany
9: The Big Front Yard by Clifford Simak
10: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin

I had a tough choice for which Zelazny novella to pick. Eventually “24 Views of Mt. Fuji” won out over “He Who Shapes.” I wanted to get Kage Baker’s “Son Observe the Time” and Elizabeth Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill” on the list. Alas.

20th Century Best Novelette
1: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
2: Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight by Ursula K. LeGuin
3: Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy
4: Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany
5: A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny
6: Black Air by Kim Stanley Robinson
7: Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith
8: E for Effort by T. L. Sherred
9: The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth
10: Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester

It was hard to choose which Kim Stanley Robinson novelette to include. “Black Air” just edged out “The Lucky Strike.” Other novelettes that were edged out were Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” and “A Martian Odyssey “ by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

20th Century Best Short Story
1: Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson
2: Sur by Ursula K. LeGuin
3: When It Changed by Joanna Russ
4: A Romance of the Equator by Brian W. Aldiss
5: Day Million by Frederik Pohl
6: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories by Gene Wolfe
7: Narrow Valley by R. A. Lafferty
8: I See You by Damon Knight
9: Jeffty is Five by Harlan Ellision
10: Love is the Plan the Plan is Death by James Tiptree

Two short stories it was particularly tough to leave off were “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany and “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw.

Here we shift to the 21st Century, defined in the poll as the years 2001 to 2010.

21st Century Best SF Novels
1: Light by M. John Harrison
2: Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
3: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
4: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
5: In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Harrison’s Light can be read on its own, or as the first volume of a trilogy that continues with Nova Swing and Empty Space. Goonan’s In War Time should be read as the first half of a duology, concluded in This Shared Dream. I would have liked to have an Ian R. MacLeod novel on the list, perhaps House of Storms. Other painful omissions include The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and The City and the City by China Miéville.

21st Century Best Fantasy Novels
1: Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin
2: Great Roumania (four volumes) by Paul Park
3: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
4: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
5: The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe

Great Roumania by Park is a single novel published in four parts, starting with A Princess of Roumania. Series of this type are difficult to accommodate in polls, but it makes little sense to vote for the first volume alone.

21st Century Best Novellas
1: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
2: Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod
3: Vishnu at the Cat Circus by Ian McDonald
4: Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park
5: The Chief Designer by Andy Duncan

I could have chosen MacLeod’s “New Light on the Drake Equation,” but “Breathmoss” is one of those stories that snuck up on me and I’ve never been able to forget it. There were a bunch of Robert Reed novellas that I would have liked to add to the list, such as “A Billion Eves” or “Dead Man’s Run.” And I painfully chopped off another Elizabeth Hand novella, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon.”

21st Century Best Novelettes
1: Second Person, Present Tense by Daryl Gregory
2: The Witch's Headstone by Neil Gaiman
3: The Bordello in Faerie by Michael Swanwick
4: Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
5: Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi

“The Bordello in Faerie” by Michael Swanwick is one of the few stories I chose that wasn’t on the Locus reference list. It’s a young man’s coming of age story told by way of his sexual experiences with a variety of fantastical women. I found it to be unforgettable.

21st Century Best Short Stories
1: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
2: The Pelican Bar by Karen Joy Fowler
3: Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
4: The Faery Handbag by Kelly Link
5: The Night Whiskey by Jeffrey Ford

I would have liked to include “Booth’s Ghost” by Karen Joy Fowler here. That would have meant pushing “The Pelican Bar” off the list and I couldn’t let that happen.

Related links:
Locus Online
Locus All-Centuries Poll reference lists: 20th Century novels, 20th Century Short Fiction, 21st Century novels, 21st Century Short Fiction.


  1. Definitely a daunting task to try to whittle down 20th century offerings to a small list of books to nominate. Hard enough with 21st century.

    On one hand I can see your argument about wanting to recognize the works of others, and yet I'm not certain how that translates to judging a work to be the "best" of a given century if it is left off the list just to give someone with less recognition more recognition. Not arguing here, just making an observation about how agonizing (and yet totally fun) these lists are. I always enjoy the discussion they generate and inevitably find new (to me) works that I am curious to try out.

    Sorry you lost both your hands. ;)

    1. Carl,
      As much as I respect Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Herbert, I feel that my list of 20th Century SF novels is genuinely stronger for having left them off.

    2. I understand, I think what I was trying to communicate was that if you genuinely think one of these novels is one of the 'best' of the century but leave it off to put a less recognized novel on the list, is it still a 'best of' list. And I'm coming from the standpoint of really not having a strong opinion one way or the other, especially given the fact that we all know Tolkien, Asimov, Clarke, etc. will get their votes.

      I think it would be interesting for a group like Locus to do a poll like this with the stipulation that certain set-in-stone classics be left off the list. Like a hallowed hall of entries that are already deemed to be the best because of x,y and z. Leaving those off, what others would we see?

      I love the work of all the big names that you mentioned leaving off, but does it do me any good to see their names crowd a top 10, 20, etc. list? I'd much rather see either authors I haven't read or books by authors that are lesser known but darn good books. But then that isn't a "best of" list either...but it is a highly useful reading list, which is often what I like to look at "best of" lists for in the first place.

      Neglected to mention earlier that I was thrilled to see The Wizard Knight on your list. It was my first experience with Gene Wolfe and it was a memorable first experience.

    3. Glad to hear that you enjoyed The Wizard Knight. As you can probably tell, I'm an admirer of Gene Wolfe's work. I think The Wizard Knight is a good introduction to Wolfe. It's accessible, yet it has enough layers to it that rereading it will offer new discoveries. Wolfe is one of my favorite authors to reread.

  2. I don't find it very believable that Le Guin is higher regarded than Tolkien among "distinguished" readers. Her wizard of earthsea is very nice and has some of its own strengths but still it reads essentially like a Tolkien light, and I think Le Guin basically writes it as a Tolkien disciple, or at least you find most of the same qualities and "lessons" (while Le Guin may read deeper than most Tolkien critics), although you may niggle about some of the differences and your preferences of individual mindset.

    Also I would give Mervyn Peake more credit in fantasy than Le Guin for similar reasons if I include them both. I uninhibitedly endorse Le Guin, but her writings are mostly fairly straightforward, almost traditional storytelling (even in her SF it is apparent - btw it is not a pretentious criticism from me but just a basic evaluation of relative achievement), whereas Peake is highly ambitious, powerful and of infinite shades of feeling and atmosphere.

    1. Calling "A Wizard of Earthsea" Tolkien-light does Le Guin a disservice, I think. She does several interesting things in the novel, such as using the Jungian notion of the "shadow aspect," and Eastern mysticism, and the idea of a language of the nature of things, through which magical power is derived. None of these elements are original; still they are intertwined and depicted in a beautiful and sophisticated manner.

      Le Guin derives considerable power from the compactness of her novel, something that Tolkien and Peake lack. In a few short chapters she shows us a school of wizardry (again, not an original idea) with subtlety that a lesser writer such as Rowling can't match even given seven volumes.

      "The Lord of the Rings" has many virtues. And, as I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it has many flaws. Here are three: women disappear from the narrative for hundreds of pages at a time and when they do appear it is in small roles, the main antagonist is a non-entity, and Tolkien has a binary view of good and evil.

      I agree with your description of Peake's gifts. I find it hard to compare his achievement with Le Guin's since he rejects the confines of the genre that she embraces.