Locus Online’s 20th and 21st Century SF Novel Polls

Back in November, Locus Online conducted a poll for the best science fiction and fantasy of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The results, based on 625 ballots, were tallied and posted just last week. Like all such lists, it’s merits are debatable, but I always find them fun and we all know that Americans love lists, so let’s get down to brass tacks here.

As I did with NPR’s top SF/F list, I’ll list them out, bold the ones I’ve read and maybe throw in some annotations, because I’m a dork like that. I’m focusing on Novels here, but Locus also has novellas, novelettes (why is SF the only one that has these?), and short stories. Also, they broke out SF and Fantasy, so I’m only really focusing on the SF side of things. Ok, enough disclaimers, here’s the 20th Century List:

  1. Herbert, Frank : Dune (1965) – Certainly nothing to argue with here, and I like that the Locus poll doesn’t include all the sequels (which, I admit, I never read).
  2. Card, Orson Scott : Ender’s Game (1985) – I’m still surprised that Card’s real life shenanigans have not impacted this novel, but on the other hand, it’s a great book, deserving of the praise it gets.
  3. Asimov, Isaac : The Foundation Trilogy (1953) – I have a soft spot for Asimov, but I think I always preferred his Robot books. Still, I get why Foundation always comes out on top.
  4. Simmons, Dan : Hyperion (1989) – In the queue for this year!
  5. Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) – Great novel, one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years.
  6. Adams, Douglas : The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) – I never connected with this as much as others, but given that this shows up near the top of all of these type lists, I guess everyone else does!
  7. Orwell, George : Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – A classic.
  8. Gibson, William : Neuromancer (1984) – Not a favorite, but certainly a good book and an important one too, in that it represents the whole Cyberpunk thing.
  9. Bester, Alfred : The Stars My Destination (1957) – I am literally going to pick up this book when I finish this post.
  10. Bradbury, Ray : Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – Finally caught up with this last year and enjoyed it.
  11. Heinlein, Robert A. : Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) – Not my favorite Heinlein, but I get that it’s a cultural touchstone and thus always rates highly on these lists.
  12. Heinlein, Robert A. : The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) – This one is my favorite Heinlein, and while perhaps not as high as I would rank it, it’s still pretty well represented here.
  13. Haldeman, Joe : The Forever War (1974) – Interesting that this one ranks higher than Starship Troopers, though I think you could make the case either way. Heck, they’re so connected that you almost never hear about one without the other being referenced.
  14. Clarke, Arthur C. : Childhood’s End (1953) – I like this book and it’s a solid choice, but I like other Clarke novels better than this one…
  15. Niven, Larry : Ringworld (1970) – On the bubble for this year’s queue, but I’ll get to it at some point, I’m sure.
  16. Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Dispossessed (1974) – I’m really not a big fan of this novel and greatly prefer Left Hand of Darkness, but it does usually show up on lists like this, so it must strike a nerve with everyone else…
  17. Bradbury, Ray : The Martian Chronicles (1950) – On the bubble for this year’s queue, but I’ll get to it at some point, I’m sure.
  18. Stephenson, Neal : Snow Crash (1992) – I love that Stephenson made the list, and this is an important novel in a lot of ways (puts the nail in the coffin of Cyberpunk, popularized/presaged a lot of internet conventions). I really can’t complain, even if I prefer Cryptonomicon
  19. Miller, Walter M. , Jr. : A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) – Another one I caught up with last year, largely prompted by lists like this one. It was certainly very good and I can see why it’s on a list like this, even if it’s not really my thing.
  20. Pohl, Frederik : Gateway (1977) – On the bubble for this year’s queue, but I’ll get to it at some point, I’m sure.
  21. Heinlein, Robert A. : Starship Troopers (1959) – For a book consisting mostly of lectures, it’s pretty darn good. As a thought experiment, I love it even if I don’t wholly agree with it. There’s also not much of a story and I can see it chafing some readers. Still, it basically codified the modern Military SF sub-genre, so it’s certainly an important book…
  22. Dick, Philip K. : The Man in the High Castle (1962) – A novel I found much more fascinating in it’s conception (an alternate history in which a fictional character is writing his own alternate history) than it’s execution, it is definitely a good read, but perhaps not something I’d have put on the list.
  23. Zelazny, Roger : Lord of Light (1967) – One of those books that made me wish I paid more attention to Siddhartha when I read it for school. A really interesting novel though, with a sorta literary tone I don’t feel like we get much of these days.
  24. Wolfe, Gene : The Book of the New Sun (1983) – Another one that’s on the bubble for this year’s queue.
  25. Lem, Stanislaw : Solaris (1970) – I saw the movie, does that count? I am curious to see how the novel stacks up, though I don’t know that I’ll get to it this year.
  26. Dick, Philip K. : Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) – I suppose I should really break down and read this sucker, the story Blade Runner was based on… but I picked up a bunch of Philip K. Dick books in a sale last year, so I’ll probably settle for those this year.
  27. Vinge, Vernor : A Fire Upon The Deep (1992) – A great book featuring one of the most original alien species in all of SF. The ending is a little odd, but the novel is overall well deserving of this sort of recognition.
  28. Clarke, Arthur C. : Rendezvous with Rama (1973) – I have not read this in a long time, but it was one of the formative SF novels I read when I was younger, and I definitely like it better than the aforementioned Childhood’s End.
  29. Huxley, Aldous : Brave New World (1932) – I should really get on this one at some point, but I’ve just never psyched myself up for this dystopic experience. Someday, perhaps.
  30. Clarke, Arthur C. : 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Another Clarke book I like better than Childhood’s End, and I like the relationship between the book and movie (both of which I think are great).
  31. Vonnegut, Kurt : Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) – Another one on the bubble for this year’s queue.
  32. Strugatsky, Arkady & Boris : Roadside Picnic (1972) – This is the first book on the list that I’d never even heard of! Sounds interesting and now that I look into it, i see that this is another Soviet novel adapted to film by Andrei Tarkovsky (like Solaris), though I have not seen that…
  33. Card, Orson Scott : Speaker for the Dead (1986) – While I loved the aforementioned Ender’s Game, for some reason, I’ve never visited any of the sequels. Perhaps that should change this year…
  34. Brunner, John : Stand on Zanzibar (1968) – Another new wave dystopia? Maybe. It doesn’t seem as relentlessly annoying as others of its ilk, but again, sometimes I find it hard to muster enthusiasm for such works.
  35. Robinson, Kim Stanley : Red Mars (1992) – I’d like to check this novel out this year, along with its two sequels. They seem to be pretty well regarded…
  36. Niven, Larry (& Pournelle, Jerry) : The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) – This one pops up on a lot of lists. It’s in the queue.
  37. Willis, Connie : Doomsday Book (1992) – A really good book, not sure I’d have ranked it this high.
  38. Atwood, Margaret : The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – Another dystopia that doesn’t really rev my engine, but it’s something I should probably check out at some point.
  39. Sturgeon, Theodore : More Than Human (1953) – It’s nice that Sturgeon made the list, and this novel is certainly a worthy inclusion.
  40. Simak, Clifford D. : City (1952) – Another book I’m unfamiliar with, though it does sound interesting…
  41. Brin, David : Startide Rising (1983) – This is the second book in Brin’s “Uplift Saga”, a series I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. On the bubble for this year!
  42. Asimov, Isaac : Foundation (1950) – Not sure why this is separated out from the Trilogy listed above at #3?
  43. Farmer, Philip Jose : To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) – Another book I’m not particularly familiar with, though I’ve seen Farmer’s name bandied about often enough.
  44. Dick, Philip K. : Ubik (1969) – A book I caught up with last year and really enjoyed, moreso than I thought I would.
  45. Vonnegut, Kurt : Cat’s Cradle (1963) – Yeah, I need to read more Vonnegut, I get it.
  46. Vinge, Vernor : A Deepness in the Sky (1999) – I really enjoyed this book, though I find that it shares a lot in common with A Fire Upon the Deep. I can’t really fault anyone for including this book, but if I were making a list, I wouldn’t include both.
  47. Simak, Clifford D. : Way Station (1963) – Another interesting sounding book… Probably won’t get to it this year, but you never know…
  48. Wyndham, John : The Day of the Triffids (1951) – I’ve seen this book on so many of these type lists that I figure I should check it out at some point. Killer plant story, I think I may have seen bits and pieces of a movie adaptation or something…
  49. Keyes, Daniel : Flowers for Algernon (1966) – One of the novels I caught up with last year, and it’s a fantastic, heartbreaking novel.
  50. Delany, Samuel R. : Dhalgren (1975) – This gets thrown out a lot in such lists, but I’ve never quite brought myself to attempt such a large, forbidding tome. Or maybe my preconceptions about it are completely off. Only one way to find out, I guess, but I’ve got enough stuff I want to read in the short term…

Phew, that took longer than expected. It’s an interesting list, and I faired pretty well, though it’s perhaps not an ideal list. If I were to put together a favorite SF list, I’d probably feature a lot of books that weren’t on there, but then, that’s the way of such lists based on polls. Here’s the 21st century list:

  1. Scalzi, John : Old Man’s War (2005) – I’m a little surprised at how well regarded this novel is, though I do really love it, so I guess there is that…
  2. Stephenson, Neal : Anathem (2008) – Stephenson is my favorite author, so this obviously makes me happy. I would probably put it ahead of Old Man’s War, but these make an interesting top 2 either way.
  3. Bacigalupi, Paolo : The Windup Girl (2009) – I don’t know about this one. There’s a lot about this that just doesn’t ring my bells, if you know what I mean. No? Well, whatever. I might give this a shot sometime, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon.
  4. Wilson, Robert Charles : Spin (2005) – This has been in the queue for a while, I’ve just never really gotten to it.
  5. Watts, Peter : Blindsight (2006) – I go back and forth on whether I want to read this, but I’ll probably get to it at some point.
  6. Morgan, Richard : Altered Carbon (2002) – If I ever get in the mood for a Cyberpunk marathon, this would be on the list. But I’m not a big Cyberpunk fan, so there’s that.
  7. Collins, Suzanne : The Hunger Games (2008) – I didn’t particularly care for the worldbuilding here, but the meat of the story is solid, thrilling stuff.
  8. Gibson, William : Pattern Recognition (2003) – Gibson’s post-Cyberpunk stuff does seem interesting to me, but I’ve never been so enthused about this one. May need to look a little deeper.
  9. Mieville, China : The City & the City (2009) – I read my first Mieville a little while ago, and would be curious to check out more from him. This one seems as good a place as any.
  10. Stross, Charles : Accelerando (2005) – I didn’t really care for this novel. I just never really got into it.
  11. Mitchell, David : Cloud Atlas (2004) – The movie makes me curious to see if the book reads better than it plays on screen…
  12. McDonald, Ian : River of Gods (2004) – McDonald is an author that I need to check out.
  13. McCarthy, Cormac The Road (2006) – If I can muster enthusiasm, I might check it out. I wouldn’t hold my breath though…
  14. Harrison, M. John : Light (2002) – I’d not heard of this one, but it sounds really interesting.
  15. Chabon, Michael : The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) – I really enjoyed this one, an alternate history novel that reads more like a hard boiled neo-noir.
  16. Willis, Connie : Black Out/All Clear (2010) – I like Willis as an author and would like to read more of her stuff, so this is in the running.
  17. Niffenegger, Audrey : The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) – I’ve been told that this wouldn’t really be my thing. Fine by me!
  18. Simmons, Dan : Ilium (2003) – More excited for Hyperion than for this one, but if I’m super-taken with Hyperion, maybe I’ll eventually make my way here…
  19. Doctorow, Cory : Little Brother (2008) – This one has been on my radar for a while, I’ve just never gotten to it…
  20. Ishiguro, Kazuo : Never Let Me Go (2005) – Something about this has never really interested me. I should look into it more, but…

Hrm, well I didn’t do quite so well on the 21st century list, which is interesting. Every year, I’d be curious to see what it would be like to read, say, all of the Hugo nominated novels/stories, but I never really get around to it… maybe this will be the year.

Some assorted comments about the above lists: Female authors not particularly well represented on either list. Kaedrin favorite Lois McMaster Bujold shows up in the voting a lot, but it appears that her Vorkosigan series books caused a lot of split votes, though she did really well on the Fantasy lists (not discussed above). I’m really surprised that Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow only got one paltry vote.

There’s a ton of overlap with similar such lists, though there were definitely a few interesting choices that didn’t appear on, say, the NPR list. I’d be really curious to see how the 21st century list evolves over time. The 20th century list definitely has a lot of old standbys, but I could see the 21st century list changing a lot as time goes on…

3 thoughts on “Locus Online’s 20th and 21st Century SF Novel Polls”

  1. scepticsmiscellanea

    Wow impressive, I think I read maybe half the books in bold, if that. I would like to recommend two you haven’t yet got to, though. The Day of the Triffids is a lot more intelligent than it sounds at first, but it is a kind of dystopian novel I’m afraid. Quite a genteel and very British dystopia, but a dystopia none the less.

    Secondly, the speaker for the dead is really the only other Card book which is even remotely as interesting as Ender’s Game (well maybe also Ender’s Shadow, but that’s really a remake of Game). It’s quite interesting to compare the character of grown-up Ender, who is kind, forgiving and accepting, with Card’s later excesses.

  2. So The Day of the Triffids isn’t like The Happening? Alright then. I’ll see what I can do.

    For whatever reason, I’ve actually never read any other Card books. I know of his reputation though… But I’ve wanted to check out Speaker for the Dead and Ender’s Shadow for a while. Someday…

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  3. #1. Frustrating to have to register with another site to comment here.

    You’ve got some really good books awaiting you. Loved Stars my Destination & Mote in Gods Eye. Some of the other ones on the list are so good that I won’t even bother to praise them, anything I can say would be wasted.

    I’m actually surprised to see that Frederik Pohl’s Gateway is up there. I read this one last year and rate it as one of the worst reads I’ve had in awhile. I think I liked Hunger Games more, despite Hunger Game’s obvious weaknesses in world building, handling morality, and writing.

    I can’t even excuse Gateway it because it’s an earlier sci-fi novel. Stuff written decades before like Bester’s (see also “The Demolished Man”) and Herbert’s stands up far better. Gateway feels to me like Pohl took a course in Freud in college and decided to center a story around it.

    For some of the newer books definitely do check out Altered Carbon & Spin. Blindsight was interesting one but not an unqualified recommendation. I’m still looking for Roadside Picnic somewhere, have yet to find it.

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