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I love lists. You love lists. We all love lists. If you don't love lists then I refer you to my Strange Horizons review of Fifty Key Figures In Science Fiction (2009), edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint, which explains why everyone else does.

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 is a list inspired by another list, David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984. When Pringle wrote that book, he was best known as the editor of UK critical journal Foundation; I know him for the two decades he spent immediately afterwards as editor of Interzone and therefore as the single person with the most influence over my development as an SF reader. He explains his list thus:

In my opinion, these hundred titles are 'the best' that contemporary science fiction has to offer. Admittedly the reasons for selection are personal, but I have endeavoured to make my choice as balanced as possible, without pretending that it is anything other than an individual's choice.

In contrast, the new curators are both as well known for their fiction as their criticism. Broderick is Australia's preeminent SF critic and was probably Australia's preeminent SF writer until Greg Egan came along. Di Filippo is an endlessly prolific American short story writer who has also found time for a dozen or so novels as well as gigs reviewing for various major magazines in the field. Here is their take on the "best" dilemma:

We can't guarantee that any single reader will agree that our tally really is the best. . . . What we can promise you is that the novels we discuss are among the most significant works of science fiction from the last quarter century, books that reward careful reading while proving pleasure, amusement, novelty, wonderment. (p. 11)

Fair enough. The rest of the introduction is devoted to typical border skirmishes and ruminations on familiar fodder and can be readily ignored.[1] Similarly Pringle provides a pretty pointless preface to this new list where he lavishes praise on Broderick and Di Filippo and passes on the baton. This is no surprise since they are following very much in his footsteps. Although they have dropped the additional subtitle, make no mistake: this is still all about the English language (it is essentially the best of Anglo-American science fiction). The sole innovation is that Broderick and Di Filippo sensibly take the decision not to repeat authors.[2]

Well, I say that but this is a bit of a fudge. For example, both The Sparrow (1996) and its sequel Children of God (1998) by Mary Doria Russell count as a single entry, as does Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010). Many of the other entries walk us through the whole of the author's career, perhaps understandable in this age of rampant sequelitis. Pringle didn't have to contend with this issue but it does lead to some odd quirks. Bizarrely, Alastair Reynolds gets an entry for the "Revelation Space trilogy (2000)" that ignores everything apart from his debut except to say that "these initial three books would all turn out to be set in the same future continuity, and eventually the saga would be extended by two others" (p. 188). It doesn't bother to name the other four novels or mention that the trilogy is formed of the first, second, and fourth books. This is scrappy, off-putting stuff and heralds a book that is chaotic, perverse, and frequently incomprehensible.

Before plunging into that, I want to say a little about the list itself. Not too much, both because it is a pretty interesting list and because wrongness is so subjective. For example, from my point of view, many of the authors here have been rightly selected but are represented by the wrong book: for every Iain M. Banks represented by Use of Weapons (1990), there is an Adam Roberts represented by Salt (2000). But I promise to hold my tongue on these. Broderick and Di Filippo have earned a soft spot from me on this score by noting in their entry for Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth (1985) that the fact that this posthumously published novel is merely a pale shadow of VALIS (1981) is the "irrefutable majority opinion" (p. 20).

Still I do briefly need to mention the list's balance and its sins. On the first point, the Pringle list contains just nine novels by women. Michael Moorcock wrote in this foreword:

It would be a good sign, I think, if the next list of 100 Best SF Novels (from 1985) contained a predominance of books by women, and by black people—only two black writers (Delaney and Butler) are included here—as the present list contains (for understandable reasons) a majority by white middle-class men. The potential is there. I continue to believe that it has a good chance of being realised.

You will be unsurprised to hear that Moorcock's faith was misplaced. However, almost a third of the entries are for novels by women, so perhaps parity really will be achieved when the third book is due in 2036.[3] The current list is clearly a vast improvement on the Pringle volume and has brought new novels by women, such as Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman (1989), to my attention. On the other hand, if I wanted to point fingers at sins of omission then Tricia Sullivan stands out like a sore thumb. If I only had twenty-five entries to cover the quarter century, I'd still have plenty of room for her. In this respect (and despite what I said earlier), the allure of wrongness is irresistible and I’m unable to entirely contain myself. Broderick and Di Filippo have allowed themselves one more novel than Pringle—presumably because Nonstop Press wanted to draw a comparison to Cassell Illustrated's 1001 X To Do Before You Die series—so, as a compromise, I feel I can blamelessly boot one novel on the list into Room 101 and replace it with Sullivan's Maul (2003).[4]

There are two types of candidate here: the impure and the insignificant. In the first camp, we inevitably have Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Miéville but that ship sailed long ago.[5] We also have posthumous fantasies (This Is The Way The World Ends (1985) by James Morrow), ghost stories (The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy), and Napoleonic dragons (Temeraire/His Majesty's Dragon (2006) by Naomi Novik). With Novik, their defense amounts to a boldfaced bluff: it is a "work of delightful allohistorical imagination that clearly deserves to be listed among the best sf" (p. 245). Skeptical italics mine. I certainly don't consider "the presence of large, intelligent, domesticable flying dragons" (p. 245) to be anything as innocuous as a jonbar point. Broderick and Di Filippo actually admit this when they point out that having a world so radically different that it contains dragons yet so identical that it contains Admiral Nelson is absurd. But, they hurriedly continue, "so is faster than light starflight and time travel, so we must put aside such nitpicking qualms" (p. 247). I'm not convinced this is case closed but, since they are so forceful, I will grudgingly set aside my qualms and move on.

In the second camp, it is hard not to wince when you come across Mother of Storms (1994), John Barnes's unpleasant, disposable disaster thriller. The turd in the punchbowl, however, has to be Shadow of the Scorpion (2008) by Neal Asher. Asher is known to most people as a prolific writer of derivative adventure fiction. Broderick and Di Filippo, however, describe him as writing "hard-edged, inventive novels [that] rank as high as those of Alastair Reynolds or Richard Morgan" (p. 263). Charitably, Asher at his best might approach these two writers at their worst.[6] To use the metric of awards, Revelation Space was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Altered Carbon (2002) won the Philip K. Dick Award, and both placed near the top of the Locus Award for Best First Novel; Shadow of the Scorpion was nominated for nothing. What is more perplexing is Broderick and Di Filippo's attempt to claim Asher—a true believer in the brand of Internet libertarianism that comes with a free fedora—as a politically relevant writer rather than simply a successful purveyor of violent trash:

Granted, there's still plenty of military sf with its head in the ground, recreating old paradigms with real or false. But a few writers with their fingers on the true pulse of events are beginning to depict a future with its roots in contemporary realities. Asher and this novel are part of this phenomenon, by which sf rejuvenates its core concepts. (p. 264)

As the cherry on top of their description, Broderick and Di Filippo next accuse Asher of being subtle—well, there is a first time for everything.

The examples of Temeraire and Shadow of the Scorpion lead us nicely to the question of not who is on the list but what Broderick and Di Filippo say about their list. The back cover presents a simple formula: "each entry features a cover image of the novel[7], a plot synopsis, and a mini-review." As you would expect, Broderick and Di Filippo diverge from this but they do so in ways I can only describe as baffling. I will, however, allow that they have set themselves a thankless task because forming a modern canon and writing meaningfully about it is such a huge endeavor for such a small book. I worried that Fifty Key Figures did not have space to do justice to its entries in its 288 pages; The 101 Best Novels covers twice as much territory in exactly the same number of pages. The result is a considerable amount of compression. But whilst this is both understandable and forgivable, the pair's response to this constraint is less so.

For example, they seek to provide additional context by pointing the reader at works by similar writers. This makes sense when thickening the text by linking to other entries but is more problematic when pointing outside the book. This style works best as an "if you liked this, try this" text box of the sort you often come across in magazines. Here, rather than just happy add-ons, Broderick and Di Filippo make such references integral to their entries but they are so rudimentary as to be, at best, useless and, more likely, downright perplexing. The best example of this is the entry for My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006) by Liz Jensen. Broderick and Di Filippo explain that readers of the book might not expect to see her on such a list:

Jensen is not marketed as a genre author, nor reviewed in genre venues. And she doesn't exactly rate big coverage from mainstream, establishment publications either. . . . These factors make it unlikely that genre readers will have a deep familiarity with her work. And that's a shame, given her superb prose, witty fantastical conceits, narrative drive, and mature sophistication. (p. 240)

I agree. I first came across Jensen when I reviewed The Rapture (2010) for Strange Horizons and I've been working steadily through her backlist ever since. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time is a wonderful book and, if there was any justice in the world, it would be winning genre awards rather than Connie Willis's latest offensive and unstoppable juggernaut of a time travel novel. So obviously I am very pleased to see it included here, but the way Broderick and Di Filippo contextualize the career of a writer they expect their readers to be unfamiliar with is extraordinary. Jensen's Egg Dancing (1995) "possessed all the satirical verve and zing of a Kit Reed or George Saunders" (p. 240). The Paper Eater (2000) is "one of the best dystopias of recent memory, easily comparable to the work of Max Barry and Rupert Thomson . . . with echoes of Matt Ruff, Philip K Dick, JG Ballard and William Gaddis" (p. 241). The Ninth Life of Louis Drax "ventures firmly into Patrick McGrath or early Ian McEwan territory: New Gothic" (ibid).

Although they kindly give us two chances to get each reference, I’m not sure this is a particularly sensible approach. Signposting the reader from one author they might not know to another they might not know doesn't really enrich the reading experience when no other details are provided. In this instance, even if the reader does know the references, it is arguable how helpful they are. For example, you can't possibly describe Thomson as a writer of dystopias; Broderick and Di Filippo must be specifically thinking of one of his novels, Soft! (1998), which does share some elements of consumerist satire with Barry's Jennifer Government (2003) whilst remaining a radically different book. There is no excuse for not making the connection explicit. On the other hand, when they do make the connection explicit by linking Jensen with McGrath and early McEwan under the umbrella of New Gothic it just seems wrong; there are gothic notes to Louis Drax but it is nothing like Spider (1990) or The Comfort of Strangers (1981).[8]

Not content with novelists, Broderick and Di Filippo also throw in references to Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (1996) and Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981). And here is how My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time itself is described: "a mix of Tom Holt and Kage Baker, Harry Harrison and HG Wells, James Blaylock and Lemony Snicket" (p. 241). Enlightened? A Door Into Ocean (1986) by Joan Slonczewski also gets half a dozen peers and they are even more eclectic: John Uri Lloyd's Etidorhpa (1895), Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener (1853), Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), Damon Knight's Masters of Evolution (1959), and T. J. Bass's The Godwhale (1974). This is followed by a description of the novel as "feminist/monkey-wrenching/utopian/biopunk sf" which is only half tongue-in-cheek (p. 36). Similar excess is on display in the entry for Richard Calder, "high-calorie, mucilaginous mix of Egyptology and Jack the Ripper, Nabokov and Beardsley, flesh and metaphysics, the first two books croon like Nine Inch Nails covering nostalgic music hall ballads" (p. 86).[9]

If I was a betting man, I would say Di Filippo was behind both entries. Given I have no way of knowing about the method of production behind the book, I don't want to speculate about the extent to which collaboration did or didn't effect the unhappy result. However, there is at least some evidence from the text that entries were initially written individually since the unidentified authorial voice does occasionally lapse into "I" or "me." For example, one rather dubious comment that an anarchic situation makes "me think that civilisation is indeed a female-oriented, -sustained and, upon its passing, female-lamented construction" (p. 104).[10]

If they are taking it in turns then you half suspect the pair are playing a parlor game, competing with each other to reach new heights of excess. Here they are on Salt, Adam Roberts's debut novel[11]:

It's like reading Crowley's "In Blue" as rewritten by Barry Malzberg. It's like reading Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed as rewritten by Norman Spinrad, or her The Left Hand of Darkness reworked by Ken MacLeod. Or Robinson's Red Mars altered by Mark Geston. Or Eric Frank Russell's Wasp redone by Stanislaw Lem. (pp. 190-1)

Broderick and Di Filippo turn on the fire hydrant of reference, retire to a safe distance, and let the pressure hose of words flail wildly about, bashing the reader's brains in. In the end I stopped counting these references but I think Sherri S. Tepper wins the overall prize with eleven just for Grass (1989). These are numbing in their volume but also their repetition.[12] One reference to Rudy Rucker's "power chords" theory of SF was plenty and the same totemic Golden Age authors such as A. E. Van Vogt, Poul Anderson, and (of course) Robert Heinlein turn up again and again.

Even Melville turns up again (unnamed) in perhaps the most unlikely description in the book, that of Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula K. Le Guin:

So this is an sf novel, but not as we know it, Jim. It's perhaps science fiction's equivalent of Moby Dick or Ulysses, but more engaging, lucidly written than either of those often unread masterpieces. Neither is it an entertainment in the vein of The Demolished Man or Ringworld. (p. 22)

The first sentence is merely embarrassing. The second is boldly mad: they start by absurdly building up the often unread Always Coming Home to the level of literary colossus before deploying a sharp elbow against their own benchmark work. The third is a non sequitur: what is that "neither" linking to? This habit of non sequitur can also be seen in the entry for This Is the Way the World Ends: "not light hearted or thrilling entertainment" (p. 26), apparently. Broderick and Di Filippo have just described a "black, bleak" novel about nuclear holocaust so I don't think anyone would be under the impression it was a knockabout romp. My favorite example of this information-free nonsense is when we are told of Greg Bear: "Like John Varley, he has explored projects in Hollywood" (p. 61). You could replace Varley's name with anyone from William Faulkner to Madonna and the sentence would still say exactly the same (which is to say nothing).

The tri-sentence habit of escalating incomprehensibility is also on display in Always Coming Home, and also pops up in the entry for Barrayar (1991) by Lois McMaster Bujold:

Commercial science fiction has always been primarily a form of adventure fiction, initially targeting mostly men and boys, so it's not surprising that military stories and settings should be prominent sellers. It is no accident that a movie with the explicit title Star Wars was the first truly massive sf blockbuster. This emphasis remains even when anti-war aspects infiltrate, in novels like Joe Haldeman's award-winning Forever War and its sequels. (p. 64)

The first sentence is fine, although very low in nutritional value. The second is an unsupported claim that doesn't really convince. To start with, I think the success of Star Wars did take everyone by surprise and to reduce this unheralded success to the fact that it is military SF seems untenable. Perhaps more importantly, despite its title, it isn't really a war story; it is more of a swashbuckling romance. Broderick and Di Filippo might equally say that Star Wars presaged the space opera boom that is still ongoing. Military SF is a hardly the only form of commercially successful adventure fiction. The third sentence is broken-backed at the level of its individual words. "Emphasis"? What emphasis? Are they claiming the whole of the science fiction genre has an emphasis on military SF? If so, they haven't previously stated this so there is no "this." "Even when"? More like, especially when! Obviously, anti-war fiction has an emphasis on war; this is a tautology, not a surprising revelation.[13] "Anti-war aspects"? This is just sloppy, equivocal writing. "Infiltrate"? Are we to understand Haldeman didn't know what he was doing? That the anti-war "aspects" ambushed him? Or is it that that the whole genre is so bloodthirstily gung-ho that such "aspects" have to be snuck in under the radar? The sole relevance of any of this to Barrayar itself is the notion that Bujold is writing a different sort of military SF to the violent trash I referred to earlier.

Too often we have surprisingly large chunks of introductory space devoted to what can only be described as red herrings. The entry for Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card begins with a lengthy discussion of its lack of inclusion in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction in 1979. I understand what Broderick and Di Filippo are trying to do but it is overplayed: "By the second edition, from 1993, when John Clute had come onboard as co-editor, Card merits two full pages. Plainly something had happened to boost his stature" (p. 16). Well, yes, fifteen years had passed and he'd published about twenty novels. The long focus on the Encyclopedia actually obscures the point Broderick and Di Filippo are trying to make, that without Ender's Game, Card might now be "a minor, respectable, forgotten craftsman" (p. 17). As another example, the entry for Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes opens with a two-paragraph ramble about change in science fiction, including mentions of five other authors (all male), before mentioning Beukes herself.[14]

Other opening gambits are more off the wall. The entry for A Door Into Ocean opens with a suggestion that Slonczewski has been slighted in not being acknowledged as an influence on James Cameron's Avatar (2009). If you can see an obvious connection between the two works then leave it in the comments and I'll give you a gold star. Broderick and Di Filippo seem to be basing it on Ron Walotsky's artwork for the original 1987 edition. The entry for C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen (1988) opens with a description of the science fiction field as a Buddhist Net of Indra; Synners (1991) opens with a rambling attempt to draw a line from Rimbaud to cyberpunk. These would be fascinating if there was more space to address the specifics. At one point, Broderick and Di Filippo devote a couple of paragraphs to assuring us that Gene Wolfe's The Book Of the Long Sun (1993-1996) really is a single narrative and was only split into four volumes for publishing convenience—a single sentence would have sufficed. Broderick and Di Filippo end: "Enough of generalities" (p. 110). Indeed.

When making more sustained arguments, they are still frequently on rocky ground. So, for example, we read of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985): "The novel is set around the end of the 20th century; like Orwell's, its date was already passed. Does this mean it's no longer science fiction?" (p. 13). Are they kidding?[15] Apparently not since they go on to answer their question:

No. Like a number of other fine sf novels discussed below, The Handmaid's Tale is best read as alternative history—allohistory, uchronia—a record of a past that might have occurred had key events taken a slightly different course. Atwood does not appeal to sf's toolkit of quantum superposed realties or Many Worlds theory to justify her fantastika, nor did Philip Roth, Michael Chabon or several others among our 101.

No, of course Atwood doesn't appeal to Many Worlds theory. Are Broderick and Di Filippo mad? Roth's The Plot Against America was published in 2004 and has as its point of departure the 1940 U.S. election.[16] Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union was published in 2007 and flows from the establishment of a Jewish state in Alaska in 1941. In contrast, The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985 and is set in the late 1990s. The difference should be obvious but Broderick and Di Filippo seem to struggle inordinately with the concept of time's arrow. Later they write of Pat Cadigan's Synners: "It isn't that Cadigan's future is deliberately and weirdly retro. Google, Netflix, GPS satellite mapping, iPhones, Kindles, etc, weren't in existence in 1991" (p. 68). Yeah, cheers for that. I can only assume their target audience isn't the interested SF reader at all and that instead they expect their book to suffer the same fate as Ofred's narrative in The Handmaid's Tale, remaining unread until it is dug up by sociologists in 2195.[17]

If Broderick and Di Filippo's critical approach seems unhelpful and their critical judgement sometimes bizarrely off, then their political and moral compass is also out of whack. Sticking with Atwood (and in an incredibly inauspicious start to the book), we read the following:

Atwood's woman-hating Republic of Gilead is all too visible in nations such as Iran and Afghanistan (where she spent some time). Sequestered, cloaked women suffer repression by the Taliban and other theocratic regimes. (p. 13)

Broderick and Di Filippo do go on to immediately acknowledge that Atwood might have been thinking a bit closer to home—"In the USA, where Atwood's imaginary Gilead springs from a harsh Christian fundamentalist conspiracy and coup d'etat, political extremists really do join with science-deniers in aspirations scarily akin to Atwood's cautionary tale"—but they instead choose to lead with an othering stereotype that is basically racist. There is undoubtedly discrimination against women in both countries but this characterization belittles the very women they are notionally supporting and betrays a huge lack of understanding of the reality of the situation. Perhaps they should look up the One Million Signatures campaign.

Their use of stereotypes can be be occasionally positive rather than negative—Scotland is "a territory known for its fierce independence and resentment of authority" (pp. 156-7)—but is still worryingly simplistic. More alarming, though, is their general lack of sensitivity. On Atwood again: "If it is a future not quite as terrible as the crazed utopia of Cambodia under Pol Pot, nor even of the Gulag, still it is unbearably, soul-crushingly bleak" (p.14). Guys, it's not a fucking competition. Perhaps we should be grateful they've heard of Pol Pot, since their world affairs knowledge is decidedly shaky. Later in the book they speculate about updating Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1993) but note the "emphasis on partnering with the Russians and the Japanese might have to be updated with references to Chinese and Hindu partners" (p. 92). Apparently India's 200 million Muslims, Christian, Sikhs, and adherents of multiple other religions won't be allowed in space.[18] There is an unwitting provincialism even when they are straining for the opposite, such as when they say the following of Bruce Sterling, Jeff VanderMeer, and Paul Park (in the context of Park's entry for Soldiers of Paradise (1987)):

The seminal experience of being indoctrinated in alienness and apartness shines forth in the writings of each, rendering them mutually resonant spirits, rare genre writers who have an interest in recreating the exotic, but inhabited from inside, with full understanding of the manifold traps and joys of multiculturalism. (p. 38)

We could charitably say that Broderick and Di Filippo have their hearts in the right place but they are obviously utterly unaware of the manifold traps of words like "indoctrinated" and "exotic." Unfortunately, such cluelessness recurs, amplified, in the entry for Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow:

Father Sandoz is literally and repeatedly sodomized by these large and punishingly equipped Jana'ata . . . his body unpleasantly damaged by repeated buggerings. (p. 139)

This is not appropriate language to describe abuse. In fact, the language is so breathtakingly crass that I kept having to reach for escalating notation. Literally? Punishingly?? Unpleasantly??? Buggerings!? I'm surprised Broderick and Di Filippo didn't go the whole hog and just describe Sandoz as being bummed silly.[19]

It isn't all like this. The entry for Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995) is a case study in how to write a project like this: Broderick and Di Filippo set out their assumptions so that even if the reader disagrees (as I do) then their perspective is understood; they provide deft, relevant context rather than the arbitrary signposting I've complained so much about; they provide only as much synopsis as is necessary to make their case; and, most importantly, they actually argue rather than assert that case. If only all the entries were like this. Instead, my abiding impression of The 101 Best Novels is of being constantly blindsided; I ended the book not informed or entertained but baffled by these sentence-sized bolts from the blue. I'm sure if Broderick and Di Filippo had a couple of thousand words to write about any of these individual novels or any of the themes they touch on then they would acquit themselves admirably—they obviously know their onions. But their task was something else and, thankless though it was, they were not equal to it. Compression has crushed the life out of their wit and intelligence, leaving the reader with a mangled corpse of a book, punctured by broken bones and leaking shit.


[1] Despite their open and eclectic list, some good old-fashioned genre chauvinism still manages to creep into the book along sundry contradictory clichés and prejudices. So, on the one hand, fans are Slans: "It takes shrewd sf insiders to relish work this complex and detailed" (p. 136). On the other, fans are sheeple: "shelves are crammed with Stepford Sci-Fi . . . people have a right to their denatured comfort food" (p. 198). The "majority" of authors are hacks who "forsake the genre's historical commitment to near-term speculations and politically conscious fiction, fleeing for the bland safety of Middle Earth or Wizard School or Interstellar Empires" (p. 268). But there is still room for backhanded compliments directed inwards: "The key feature of Distant Haze is that, like quite a few good current sf books, it is genuine literature" (p.185). Not to mention outwards: The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) is "considerably more" than just a "romantic confection" "despite the flaws in any sf book written by someone who's redesigning the screwdriver so she can invent the steering wheel" (p. 208).

[2] As a counter-example, Pringle includes three novels by Robert Heinlein on his list. Michael Moorcock notes this in his foreword before continuing: "But many of David Pringle's choices are actually readable!"

[3] David G. Hartwell recently provided some further redress in "200 Significant Science Fiction Books by Women, 1984–2001," an article in issue 293 of the New York Review of Science Fiction. Covering a shorter period but at double the length and with no "one only" rule, it is a very repetitive list. This is exacerbated by his selection criteria: "I restricted myself to works of science fiction (which eliminates certain works valued by the sf audience but published out of genre or specifically as horror or as fantasy)." What this seems to actually amount to is restricting himself to only those works explicitly published as science fiction in the U.S. This means that absurdly this list doesn't even contain Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

[4] Pringle says in the introduction to his own book that if he had had one more slot for his list, then he would have extended his time period by a year to include Bruce Sterling's 1985 Schismatrix. Broderick and Di Filippo instead choose to represent Sterling with 1996's "more engaging, more human" Holy Fire (p. 141). As I said, I'll hold my tongue on this.

[5] In a move seemingly designed to tweak the noses of a certain sort of science fiction fan, Miéville is described as being "like Ian MacLeod, a fellow British fantasist" (p. 184). You have to salute Broderick and Di Filippo's desire to irk the purists.

[6] For Reynolds, this might be his muddy snowball Pushing Ice (2005); for Morgan, his angry emo pisstake of Elric, The Steel Remains (2008). To be honest, both could still comfortably hold their own against anything Asher has to offer.

[7] These cover photos are drawn seemingly at random from the myriad editions of each novel, English language or otherwise. This is sort of cute and sort of amateurish—the results resemble a Google Images search vomited onto the page. It is also eye-opening to see just how shockingly dated and outright bad the majority of these covers are. They are like pulp refugees from a different era.

[8] The worst example of this is in the entry for Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers when Broderick and Di Filippo simply list a hodgepodge of AI novels seemingly chosen at random. The connection is clear; the point is not.

[9] In case you were wondering, you've just reached the halfway point of this review. If you tire of these footnotes, it could be worse—you could be reading Broderick and Di Filippo's own footnotes. One of these links J. G. Ballard with Alfred Hitchcock, continuing: "these two mordant, icy auteurs share many qualities, an observation that has not found its way into print before. At least the comprehensive book length study by Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of JG Ballard, has no index citation for the filmmaker" (pp. 177-8). Bragging is unbecoming; such lazy bragging is beyond the pale.

[10] That quote comes from the entry for Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993) which, incidentally, makes the novel sound bloody awful.

[11] Broderick and Di Filippo note that "Roberts appeared out of the blue, unheralded by shorter fiction, a mode which to the present he has mostly eschewed" (p. 190). It was bad timing that a copy of Adam Robots, which collects 18 of Roberts's previously published short stories from this period, popped through the letterbox as I was writing this review.

[12] The most egregious repetition in the book is actually unrelated to this flaw. On page 275 we are told: "Like Cherie Priest, Nancy Kress reversed the typical late-twentieth, early-twenty-first-century arc of many a genre writer . . . whose sf beginnings have been swamped" in perfidious fantasy. Three pages later we are told: "Priest's career arc is contrary to that of many authors, writers who began in the smaller arena of sf and then moved to the bigger and better-paying fantasy venues."

[13] There are more concisely impressive examples of witless tautology. For sheer redundancy, the following is pretty good: "Chimera's first chapter admirably exhibits Rosenblum's sophomore skillset (it was her second book)" (p. 107). However, "Orwell's Orwellian prospect" (p.13) takes the biscuit.

[14] For reasons known only to themselves, Broderick and Di Filippo introduce Carol Emschwiller in her own entry as "helpmate and muse" to her "much admired husband" before discussing her work (p. 255).

[15] Broderick and Di Filippo pose the same question for other works that are equally obviously science fiction such as The Road (2006) and Never Let Me Go (2005). It is a strange tic to have about non-genre science fiction given how catholic their list and approach to genre science fiction are otherwise.

[16] In one of the odder passages in the book we learn that a character in The Plot Against America "is named Seldon—although surely not for Asimov's psychohistorian Hari Seldon" (p. 221). Yes, since they've just quoted Roth to the effect that he was unaware of the existence of the entire subgenre of alternative history, it is a fairly safe bet he wasn't a huge fan of Foundation.

[17] It is presumably this same audience that needs the following revelation: "Maya is a lesbian, which her otherwise wildly diverse world regards as a vile crime—as ours did for centuries, and still does in plenty of places" (p. 136).

[18] In the entry for River of Gods (2005) by Ian McDonald, Broderick and Di Filippo do acknowledge the existence of India's vast Muslim population but immediately go on to spoil this by describing McDonald (born in Manchester, long-term resident of Belfast) as Irish, even though he has accurately been described as British earlier in the book. There is a similar inter-entry inaccuracy when, in an unnecessary passage at the beginning of the entry for Light (2002) by M. John Harrison on the "slow or blocked passage into American editions of many fine novels from the UK," Broderick and Di Filippo say "Charles Stross, nowadays a spectacular success story, took years to get into US print" (p. 198). Yet, as they later say in the entry for Stross's own Accelerando (2005), he "pounded on many dozing publishers' doors with several exciting book manuscripts before Festival of Fools was eventually bought by Ace" (p. 234). This, his debut novel (which was re-titled Singularity Sky), was published by Ace in U.S. in August 2003; it wasn't until July 2004 that it was published for the first time in the UK. Even more strikingly, Stross's Merchant Princes series began being published in the US in December 2004 but won't see print in his own country until later this year. Errors like this are rare; the problem is not that they are wrong, it is that they aren't even wrong.

[19] Broderick and Di Filippo go on to sarcastically describe the response to these traumatic events as "difficult to accept." They are right—the vastly contrived implausibility of the response deals a catastrophic blow to any attempt to view the book as literature—but, having acknowledged this, I'm not sure how they can leave it on their list.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
8 comments on “Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo”

You will be unsurprised to hear that Moorcock's faith was misplaced. However, almost a third of the entries are for novels by women, so perhaps parity really will be achieved when the third book is due in 2036.
This is brilliant and hilarious.

"a true believer in the brand of Internet libertarianism that comes with a free fedora"
Bra-VO!

Jeff VanderMeer

Martin: I'm curious. Did all of the editorializing seem necessary? Like the mention of the Taliban, etc? It seems completely unnecessary for this this kind of book anyway, unless, I guess, the book's trying to make a case for the relevancy of a SF title by how well it reflects current events. I don't really think I want to read a book about a bunch of novels that wants to educate me on political and social situations in a thumbnail way regardless of the accuracy.
As for the mention of my fiction...first of all, I can't think of three writers more different than me, Sterling, and Park--and if they're worth their salt, they're thinking the same thing. And, um, yeah...let's just say that's not how I'd describe my work...

The 101 books on the list are all (or almost all) interesting texts and Broderick and Di Filippo are smart guys so inevitably the works they are discussing have stimulated ideas - sometimes political, sometimes historical, sometimes critical. The problem is that this has led to ad hoc, magpie-like editorialising. A book like this doesn't have to be as bland as the formula I quoted ("each entry features a cover image of the novel, a plot synopsis, and a mini-review.") but it does have to be relatively restrained.

Bravo. You have said what I had tried to get at in my own review, but said it much better.
The only thing that I think you didn't mention, although I may have missed it, is that the authors also have a baffling habit of completely spoiling the very book that they're reviewing! I realize that spoilers are a subject on which both reviewers and review readers differ wildly, but it came as a rather nasty shock to me that their plot synopses sometimes blithely extended straight through the end of the book and often went nearly to the end of the book.
It seems to me that the whole point of an exercise like this is to expose people to works that they've not yet read in the hope that they would read them. To then blunt the author's effect by giving away the twist in the same breath that one recommends the book to the reader's attention strikes me as bizarre.

It doesn't bother to name the other four novels or mention that the trilogy is formed of the first, second, and fourth books.
Shouldn't this the first, third and fourth books ie Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap?
As the cherry on top of their description, Broderick and Di Filippo next accuse Asher of being subtle—well, there is a first time for everything.
My favourite of the many excellent witticisms in an excellent review. Bravo indeed.

Fred VP

This was a very nice argument. Here's my take on the Broderick list, for what it's worth. We agree and disagree and certain points.
1) There should be multiple books by one author. Shepard/Ballard/Aldiss/Gibson's worst book was better than Mother of Storms (and others. MOS is particularly horrible)
2.) Pringle's choices reward multiple readings. While enjoyable, there is no reason to re-read Neal Stephenson, Willis, Asher, Windup Girl, or 3/4 of this list. I think there was a lot of po-mo that could have improved it. Acker, Coover, Auster, Delillo and Pynchon all released books that could be stretched to fit, and would at least reward multiple readings.
3.) We definitely do not need an Affirmative Action scorecard of books on the list. Just the best writing, period.
I would have been much happier if Larry McCaffery (who has an excellent 100 list on wikipedia) and Kathryn Cramer put together the same style book.

 

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