Towards the end of this post, I start citing some data and showing off some charts. If you’d like to see the data for yourself, I made the Excel file available via my public Dropbox folder.
I still have a copy of my final term paper from senior year AP English Literature. It’s called “The Role of Science Fiction in Modern American Society,” and yesterday I reread it for the first time in 17 years. Compared to most of what I turned out in high school, this paper holds up fairly well. It was the only paper I wrote out of unreserved love for the subject matter, and it shows.
I spent the first half of the paper working out a definition of the genre that, with a little bit of polishing, still resonates today. The basic idea stems from the idea of the monomyth.
As you can see from the chart, the monomyth requires the hero to journey into unknown lands. Adventures take place beyond the edges of maps. Throughout most of history humans, didn’t have to go travel far to reach unknown lands, but as the Age of Discovery came to a close in the 18th century, the edges of the maps were filled in. Adventure stories required new lands to find, and advent of technology pointed the way. In modern adventure stories, heroes journey into the future and onto other planets.1
There can be more to science fiction than just changing the setting of adventure stories, however. Extending the quest for the unknown beyond the borders of the present and the known has additional implications. In my paper, I cited James Gunn’s article, “Science Fiction and the Mainstream.” In his article, Gunn quotes several astronauts who, upon leaving the Earth behind for the first time, found their identities fundamentally altered. From my 1999 high school paper:
Bill Anders said the sight of our home “evoked feelings about humanity and human needs that I never had before.” Rusty Schweickart said, “I completely lost my identity as an American astronaut. I felt a part of everyone and everything sweeping past me below.” Tom Stafford said, “You don’t look at the world as an American but as a human being.” Michael Collins: “I knew I was alone in a way that no earthling had ever been before.”… Ed Mitchell [said] “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it.”
My thesis was (and is) that, just as traveling a few hundred miles upwards into space and seeing the Earth spread out beneath you is fundamentally different than traveling a few hundred miles along its surface, there is something qualitatively different about the kind of hero’s journey that takes us beyond known places and times. From this imagined remove, we are uniquely positioned to look back and ask the big questions: what does it means to be human? What really matters? This leads into Brian W. Aldiss’s statement from Trillion Year Spree that “Science Fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe.”2
This may seem to have little to do with science per se, but the connection is there. As Marcelo Gleiser argues so eloquently in his book The Island of Knowledge, the real heart of the scientific mindset is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the pursuit of knowledge, and this understanding bridges the philosophical emphasis of sci fi as I’ve outlined it with the tradition of technology in sci fi as a recognizable outward characteristic genre: “the incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.”
The trouble with a community unified by asking questions is that there’s absolutely no guarantee that folks will end up with the similar or even compatible answers. This has been the lesson many sci fi fans have been learning in a particularly brutal way over the last couple of years. To me, the nasty infighting over the Hugo awards and other issues was both horrifying and depressing. I spent literally hundreds of hours reading and researching and interviewing anyone who would talk to me to understand what was driving the hostility. I learned a lot, but the most important thing I learned was something that Mike Resnick told me.3 He said, “The SF community has always warred with itself and eaten its young. This is just the latest of many, many incidents.” He added that “the damned field erupts in internecine war every few years,” and told me:
[The controversies of 2014-2015 are] far from unique. Tempers were hotter, and took longer to cool, during the New Wave/Old Wave battles. Cliff Simak spent almost his entire Worldcon Guest of Honor speech trying to make peace between the two sides back in 1971, but he was too rational for it to do any good.
I had a hard time believing him at first. The anger and vitriol—often between authors I respect who have written books I love—was so jarring I thought it had to be unprecedented. In the months since then, however, I’ve come to accept and understand his view. When you’ve got a genre defined by asking big questions (often about sensitive topics like religion, culture, politics and economics) this kind of fractiousness is probably inevitable.
More than anything else, the controversies of the last couple of years taught me that the science fiction community—for all that it may have a cohesive guiding spirit—is divided into radically different tribes who neither get along nor understand each other. And that got me thinking an awful lot about what a sci fi canon would look like. Is there a common core of books that forms a universal touchstone that cuts across tribal boundaries? Or do different ideological groups cluster around distinct tribal canons in insular, closed groups?
I’ve been collecting data for about two years now in an effort to answer these kinds of questions. I have a day job and a family, so it’s quite a slow process. I initially hoped to conduct one major, cohesive pair of studies and get some definitive answers right away, but now my ambitions are a lot more realistic. Instead of trying to get all the answers in one fell sweep, I’m plugging ahead one slow step at a time. In the rest of this post, I’d just like to share some of the results from my very first—and very simplest—step.4
What I did was simply compile all of the major, English-language, general science fiction awards for novels that I could find into a single list. I also added best-of lists and polls or lists that seemed prestigious enough to be interesting. I ended up with 10 awards and 7 lists / polls covering a total of 1,092 distinct works by 679 different authors. I looked at various clever ranking and weighting schemes, but in the end I stuck with what was simplest: I just counted the total number of awards, nominations, and poll / list placements on both a per book and a per author basis. (For simplicity, I refer to just “instances” as the number of time a book or an author wins an award, gets nominated, or shows up on a poll or list.)
Before we look at some of the results, let me emphasize what my goal is here. It is not to conclusively answer questions like: is there a sci fi canon? if so: what goes in it? Those questions are always in the back of my mind, but they will never be answered definitively, and certainly not by analysis this simplistic. The goal is to provide some interesting data to ponder, not try to win a debate or make an authoritative statement.
In fact, the most important objective for me with this little experiment was just to get a look at what sci fi books and authors are highly regarded that is independent of my own social circle. Pulling in every major poll or award I could find can’t get be to objectivity, but I looked at it as a way of at least stepping outside my usual perspective. It’s not a god’s-eye view of the genre, but it might be a bird’s-eye view.
One more word on the data. This was all compiled and cleaned by hand. There are also some weird cases (such as awards going to entire series instead of individual books). As a result, there are certainly judgment calls and there are also probably mistakes. Since all the data I gathered was publicly available (most of it from Wikipedia), I’m making it all available to anyone who’s interested. Download my Excel file, poke around, ask your own questions, make your own charts. If you find anything interesting (either results or fresh sources of data), I’d love to hear from you. Now, let’s take a look.
Here’s the histogram for instances per book.5:
At the high end, there was one book that had a total of 14 instances: Rendezvous with Rama. Then there was one that had 13: Neuromancer. After that, each category had at least two books. At the low end, 518 books (56.1% of all the books) had only a single instance: just one nomination or appearance on a poll or a list.6
Here’s the table:
Trying to break the books into tiers or categories is going to be one of those subjective judgment calls. I decided to take a look at the books that had at least 8 instances because that results in a list with 23 books, which is pretty easy to manage. Here’s that list.7
|Rendezvous with Rama||14|
|The City & the City||12|
|The Windup Girl||11|
|The Time Ships||11|
|The Forever War||10|
|Speaker for the Dead||9|
|Perdido Street Station||9|
|The Fall of Hyperion||8|
|Stand on Zanzibar||8|
|The Diamond Age||8|
|The Left Hand of Darkness||8|
This is a really interesting list for me. I’ve read 13 of the 23 books, and the list includes both my favorite and least favorite science fiction books. I believe Dune and Ender’s Game are the greatest sci fi books of all time. On the other hand, I disliked Rendezvous with Rama so much in high school that I didn’t finish it, I didn’t like Ringworld very much either, and Red Mars is my very least favorite sci fi book of all time.8
I did the same thing for authors. These numbers are hard to interpret because I made no attempt to control either for total books written for total books nominated. As a result, some of the authors had wins, nominations, and poll & list appearances from more than a dozen different books (Jack McDevitt was the most, at 14 distinct works) while others had one or more instances from just single book. Since there were fewer individual authors than distinct books, the distribution also ended up with a longer tail.
The author with the highest number of instances is China Miéville, with 38 instances from just 5 works. That makes Miéville’s books some of the highest-awarded (more than 7 per book), although Paulo Bacigalupi has the most in that regard: all 11 instances coming from just one book (The Windup Girl).
All told, there are 34 authors on the list who have at least 15 total instances. They are:
|Kim Stanley Robinson||36|
|Robert A. Heinlein||33|
|Lois McMaster Bujold||30|
|Arthur C. Clarke||29|
|Ursula K. Le Guin||28|
|Orson Scott Card||27|
|Philip K. Dick||21|
|Iain M. Banks||19|
|Robert J. Sawyer||19|
|Robert Charles Wilson||17|
Once again, the main take away for me is how diverse this list is relative to my own tastes. Some of my favorite authors are on this list; folks like Vernor Vinge and Dan Simmons and Lois McMaster Bujold and of course Orson Scott Card and Frank Herbert. Many of the greats are also present. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick all make the list. But a lot of my favorites also don’t appear here. Some make sense: someone like Walter M. Miller, Jr is hugely influential, but primarily for just one (amazing) book. The list is also slightly present-biased, since there are more awards today than in the 1960s or 1970s.
The list can work kind of like a Rorschach test: what you see in it is in a sense what you bring to it. When the list conforms to our opinions, we take it as credible. When it confounds expectations, we invent reasons to discredit it. And sure, there are definitely issues (mentioned above), but the list is most interesting when we let it challenge us. As mentioned above: I’m really not a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson. And yet there he is, at almost the top of the list. In short: what I like about this list is that it exposes the fractious and diverse nature of the sci fi community.
I still believe–as I said at the outset–that underneath all the discord and conflicting world views there is a central animating spirit to science fiction. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to prove it’s there. And even if I did, I don’t think it would resolve any of the political, religious, and social divides within the community. Which is just fine. The last thing the sci fi community needs is homogeneity. The field is and always will be rambunctious and argumentative. But I still think the quest for sci fi’s common thread–the attempt to bring some order to its loose canon–is fascinating and worthwhile.