Of course there are lists, and there are lists. A list of U.S. Presidents is objective, a list of the best restaurants in Paris is subjective, and any subjective list is open to disagreement and debate. This list will, by nature, be highly subjective, and no doubt there will be many differences of opinion. Let's hear 'em! -- write in and tell me how wrong I am.
Terms and Definitions -- the S in SF
The classification of written works of art into genres and subgenres is largely a convention of convenience for the publishing industry, and we need not be bound by marketing categories. You may have noticed that we call Strange Horizons a "speculative fiction" magazine, rather than a "science fiction" or "science fiction and fantasy" magazine. I wholeheartedly agree with this broadening of genre definitions. To save my RSI-prone wrists, I will be using "SF" to designate "speculative fiction."
Just what is "speculative fiction"? There's no one definitive answer to that question, and to consider the issue fully would take us on a long digression. In a literal sense, all fiction is "speculative" (my dictionary has, in part: "involving, based on, or constituting intellectual speculation... marked by questioning curiousity"). For our purposes, let's call SF a "supergenre" that combines the subgenres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, utopian/dystopian literature, alternate history, and magical realism. I would argue that mythologies, folklore, and religious texts can also be categorized as SF, but that's a discussion for another time.
While we're talking about ground rules, I should mention that both stand-alone novels and multi-volume series are "eligible" for my list. You could argue that series should be considered separately from individual novels, and I would say that you have a reasonable argument. When you make your own list, you can define it your own way.
I should issue a disclaimer at this point: I'm not nearly as well read in fantasy or horror as in the other subgenres of SF, and my final list will reflect that bias. If only I could find a way to read (safely) while driving, I might be able to correct this deficit. Until then...
What Constitutes Greatness?
"I do think there is something very wrong with an attitude that puts a 'serious' novel on one shelf, and, let's say, [Last and First Men] on another." -- Doris Lessing
There are any number of ways to approach works of SF. Throughout its history, SF, like other genre fiction, has often been looked down on by the literary and academic establishment, as somehow less worthy of serious consideration than "literature" (speaking of marketing categories, can anyone provide a decent explanation of the difference between "literature" and "fiction" that is commonly encountered in bookstores?). This attitude is alive and well, which I can attest to from personal experience.
It's true that genre fiction, in whatever genre, is somewhat limited by the conventions of that particular genre. But this is far from reducing genre fiction to formulaic writing. There's no reason not to judge works of SF by the same criteria that apply to "literary fiction." So, as in any form of fiction, characterization and plot are key elements in a novel's success. Credible, multi-dimensional characters create a sense of identification between reader and the fictional milieu, and plot has a particular importance in SF.
Too often, though, plot is emphasized at the cost of style. I put a lot of weight on stylistic and esthetic criteria when evaluating a work, and for me mediocre writing undermines the wildest imagination. For example, Larry Niven's Ringworld series takes place in an intriguing universe, but I find his writing drab. Similarly, I quite enjoy Harry Turtledove's alternate histories, but his books suffer from underediting. He doesn't quite seem to trust his readers to remember important details of his characters, and he has a tendency to repeat his character descriptions several times in the course of one book.
This is not to say that a literary-esthetic approach to SF is the only valid approach. When I read Harry Turtledove I don't expect brilliant writing, "only" an entertaining tale. Nothing wrong with that. But to receive consideration as one of the very best, a novel must transcend the limitations of the genre.
One key element that is more genre-specific to SF is what I'll call the "sense of wonder." Good SF should challenge, provoke, question... which is the nature of Art, in general, to be sure. But speculative fiction, in particular, must speculate, whether to critique the present, understand the past, or suggest possible futures. You know you're reading good SF when several times in the course of your reading you look up and think to yourself, "that is so damn cool...."
And the Winners Are...
Narrowing the list down to five selections was hard enough, so I'm not going to attempt to list these choices in any particular order. So here's my list for the best SF novels of all time:
Frank Herbert, Dune
I've often referred to Dune, in an offhand fashion, as my choice for the greatest SF novel ever written. This surprises some people, and that surprises me.
(I should mention that my praise for Dune is limited to the first volume of the series; the subsequent volumes never grabbed me in the same way, as I found them increasingly murky and impenetrable, despite several rereadings.)
Dune scores very high for "sense of wonder." The strength of Dune lies in its range of vision, the broad panorama of political, economic, and personal intrigue that underlies the more mystical theme of the growth and messianism of Paul Atreides/Muad'Dib. The intricate interconnections of Arrakis' biosphere -- the connection between the life-cycle of the worms, the production of highly coveted spice, and the underground life of the Fremen -- creates an unforgettable picture of epic scope.
Dune also has a gripping plot and a plethora of fully realized characters. The large-scale plot of struggle for control of Arrakis and the spice looms over the more personal story of Paul Atreides' evolution into and acceptance of his role as a messianic leader of the Fremen. Paul is but one of many vivid, convincing characters we encounter: Jessica, Stilgar, Baron Harkonnen, Duke Leto, Gurney Halleck... this list could go on for a while. Dune is a world I've revisited many times, always with great pleasure.
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
"You know what I have? Towards this... android?"
"Empathy," he said.
"Something like that. Identification; there goes I."
First and foremost, if you've seen the movie Blade Runner, based on this novel, put it out of your mind. Blade Runner bears only a passing resemblance to the original, which is far, far more subtle and thought-provoking.
If you've read any of Dick's work (and if you haven't, you ought to), you already know that reality and identity are very slippery categories in the world of his imagination. Electric Sheep is no exception. Several characters in the book are either unaware or uncertain if they are human or androids, and this existential doubt also shadows the main character, Rick Deckard, a hunter of escaped androids (intriguingly, the most convincing proof of Deckard's humanity is his empathy for the androids he's stalking, which contrasts with the indifference the androids "feel" for each other).
Although the novel takes place in a small area of space and time, Dick's manic imagination knows no boundaries, and Electric Sheep contains many fascinatingly suggestive touches. For example, in the post-apocalyptic, fallout-contaminated world of the novel, animal life is rare and highly valued, so much so that there is a brisk business in mechanical animals that people keep as status symbol pets (whence "electric sheep"). Deckard's bounty for hunting down and destroying three androids provides him with just enough money to make a down payment on one live goat, which gives you a sense of the relative societal value placed on a live animal compared to a highly sophisticated yet "unalive" android.
Much of Dick's writing is preoccupied with the questions "what is reality?" and "what does it mean to be human?", and in Electric Sheep these considerations are central. The vehicle for these issues is "Mercerism," a philosophy and practice of collective suffering that anyone can experience by using an "empathy box." The Christ-like martyrdom of Mercer contrasts with the indifference of Deckard's android victims, and in a sense the novel is the story of the struggle between the human and android sides of Deckard's nature. The "real" (humans, animals) and the "artificial" (androids, electric animals) are both opposed and intertwined, and the connections and conflicts between these categories drives the existential uncertainty of the novel and its characters.
Brian W. Aldiss, The Helliconia Trilogy
The Helliconia series -- Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Helliconia Winter -- is so brilliantly executed and intricately interwoven that it's impossible to single out one volume as superior to the rest. Interestingly enough, I first learned of the Helliconia series by chance -- a passing reference in a review of a different series led me to Helliconia a year and a half ago, and I was flat-out awed by what I read.
For sense of wonder, Helliconia can't be beat. Similar to Dune, Helliconia describes an entire world -- its ecology, environment, inhabitants, and the links among them -- in careful, convincing detail. The series unfolds in a carefully crafted fashion, and much crucial information does not reach the reader until deep into the first volume. Since you can read Helliconia for the first time only once, and since the sense of gradual enlightment and increased understanding is a major pleasure of the Helliconia experience, I'm going to avoid saying too much about the details of this work.
Each novel takes up a different set of characters in a different time, and each set of characters engages the reader in their unique ways. Aldiss' writing is brilliant, his characters vivid, and your sense of wonder may suffer from overload as the themes of the series unfold. My only criticism is -- that the series ends.
Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17
"...language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language. The form of this language is... amazing."
Babel-17 has a particular appeal to the logophile in me, as it deals with the nature of language and communication. This thematic concern of Delany's resurfaces most clearly in his later four-volume Neveryon series, and in this work language is practically a main character.
The key concept driving this novel is Babel-17, which at the novel's outset appears to be an indecipherable code being used by the Invaders, enemies of humanity. In order to break this code, the military recruits Rydra Wong, a young poet and polyglot with unusual mental abilities. She quickly discovers that Babel-17 is not a code, but a densely informative and highly analytic language, the very nature and structure of which "programs" its speakers to act and think in specific ways. Wong's insights into, and eventual mastery of, Babel-17 provide the plot impetus that propels the action forward.
Although the novel's main concern is with language and communication, there are a number of typical Delany touches; for example, his interest in alternate sexual configurations appears in the form of the navigator triads that are necessary for space flight. Delany's evocative writing style is at his usual high standard, although I'd cite his novella Empire Star as slightly superior in this regard. But Babel-17 has some fantastic scenes as the plot moves towards its mind-blowing (or mind-fusing; read the novel, you'll see what I mean) climax and denouement.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
"Did you ever happen to think... that... there might be other people who dream the way I do?"
It couldn't be a "best of SF" list without something by Ursula K. Le Guin on it. Although The Lathe of Heaven is not as well known as her award-winning novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, it is every bit their equal.
The Lathe of Heaven is written in Le Guin's characteristically evocative style; she is undoubtedly one of the distinguished stylists in all SF. But the strength of this novel is its characterization; The Lathe of Heaven has a tight focus on three main characters, each a distinct and complex personality.
The protagonist, George Orr, has the power to change the world by dreaming. Some of his dreams are "effective" dreams, and upon waking Orr finds reality changed -- but only he is aware of the shift. Because he cannot control the nature or frequency of these effective dreams, he tries to suppress them with drugs; when this fails, he ends up consulting a dream researcher, William Haber, for help.
Dr. Haber quickly discovers Orr's power in the course of therapy, although he doesn't admit this to Orr. Orr is, in some aspects, almost a cipher -- Haber's diagnostic psychological tests all place him in middle of any scale measuring personality traits. A complex, interdependent relationship between doctor and patient develops. Haber is a well-meaning individual, highly idealistic, and he attempts to direct Orr's dreaming through hypnosis and suggestion in order to use the dreams to improve the world, which is in poor shape at the novel's beginning (in essence, Haber tries to dream through Orr). However, Haber's efforts frequently go awry; when he instructs Orr to dream of world peace, peace does come to humanity -- in the form of a hostile alien invasion.
Unable to free himself of the doctor's dominating personality, Orr enlists the help of a lawyer, Heather Lelache, the third principal character of the novel. Her acquaintance and growing friendship with Orr counterbalance Haber's influence, and as surrogate parent figures they struggle for Orr's conscience. Ironically, it is the aliens who Orr "dreamed up" who show him a way out of his dilemma and into peace and acceptance.
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Lathe of Heaven is its philosophical implications. Le Guin does not beat the reader over the head with this theme, but allows it to play a subtle background role. As the quote heading this section suggests, what would happen if many -- or all -- people had the power to change reality by dreaming? There's a suggestion that the entire novel may, in fact, be a dream of Orr's. Like Electric Sheep, The Lathe of Heaven calls into question our understanding of "reality."
It was difficult to leave J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings off this list; as for so many others, reading this series was my introduction to SF, and there's no denying the enormous influence this work has had. I still vividly recall my first reading, in my pre-teens, and how I literally shook with cathartic release as Gollum fell with the Ring into Mt. Doom. The emotional power of art has never been quite so clear to me. But despite my fond memories of the series, I find The Lord of the Rings to be just a little too precious (sorry!) for my current tastes.
Several other works or authors received serious consideration but just missed out on the final list. I wish I had room for the marvelous Kate Wilhelm on this list -- either Welcome, Chaos, or Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Robert Silverberg was, in effect, penalized by having many novels of similar high quality, but no one clear masterwork. I'd probably choose Nightwings if I had to pick one of his novels, but it's a dartboard selection.
Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game often rates highly in polls for greatest SF novel of all time, and it is a fine work, but for me it falls into the second tier because there isn't anything outstanding about the writing. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is a high-energy romp, thoroughly enjoyable, but the pacing bogs down for a while in the middle of the novel. Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (the original trilogy, not the later prequels and sequels) merited consideration, as it was an early paradigm of the Epic Galactic Empire theme frequently encountered in SF, but although Asimov is a very accessible writer, his prose is pedestrian.
I could go on with honorable mentions for a long, long time. I haven't even mentioned Octavia Butler, or Alfred Bester, or Theodore Sturgeon, or... you get the idea. There are always new horizons to explore.