Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The problem with lists is...

A few posts ago I mentioned a new column by John DeNardo over on the Kirkus blog: How to Start Reading Science Fiction. This is a topic that interests me, since I sometimes worry that modern SF is essentially impenetrable to a new reader. Part two of the column has been posted, and it is a list of 10 Accessible Science Fiction Books.

I'm a little reluctant to dive in and start criticising. Obviously I was never going to agree with everything on the list. That's the nature of lists, and it seems to be the nature of the internet that an awful lot of it is full of people arguing about lists. 

But I am a little disappointed by DeNardo's choices. Unfortunately, it's because I've only read two of them. I was kind of hoping that I'd be familiar with more of the list, so I could try to judge whether or not I thought it was indeed full of genuinely accessible SF books (and, honestly, what exactly that means).

The two books that I have read are Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Ender's Game absolutely deserves to be on that list, in my opinion. Not only is it a great book, but I think it's very accessible. Particularly to young readers. It's one of the few Hugo Award-winning novels I can name where I know a bunch of non-SF readers who have read it, and enjoyed it.

I'm somewhat more sceptical of The Road appearing on that list. Not because it isn't a great book -- it is a great book, and you should all rush out and read it right now. I also think that it absolutely qualifies as a science fiction novel, although that's not where you'll find it in the book store. My concern is that I'm not sure it is representative. If I gave a new SF reader The Road and they loved it, I have no idea what I would recommend next. Would they ever read another SF novel like it?

I'm not sure if this is just me being down on the quality of most SF writing. Maybe I am. Or maybe I'm guilty of elevating The Road above genre fiction just because it comes from the literary fiction section of the book store. But that is almost certainly a topic for another blog post. One I may never write.

On the plus side, at least now I've got a few more books to add to my reading list!


  1. Thanks for the feedback, Nick. I understand what you're saying about lists never being definitive, but that's kinda the point. It sparks discussions like this one.

    RE: "If I gave a new SF reader The Road and they loved it, I have no idea what I would recommend next. Would they ever read another SF novel like it?"

    I wouldn't use this criteria as a reason to *not* include something as it's too limiting and not without a solution. I think there are lots of good (and -- gasp! -- even better) post-apocalyptic stories out there. The WASTELANDS anthology edited by John Joseph Adams is a great place to continue reading Post-apocalyptic sf. THE ROAD is just the gateway (for readers who don't normally read sf) to see if they like the themes.

    I'd love to see your list!

  2. Hi John, thanks for popping over to comment. I hope my post didn't sound negative -- I really do applaud you for the column. Any discussion about bringing in new readers has to be a good thing.

    I take your point about The Road as an introduction to post-apocalyptic SF themes. I guess my counter would be that the thing which struck me the most about that book was its prose style, and I'd be a little worried about the comparisons it might invite with subsequent SF books a new reader might tackle.

    That sounds harsh, though, and probably unfair. I'd really rather not be harsh. As I say, this is perhaps more revealing of my own unreasonable prejudices than anything else. But hey, that's why I started this blog: to explore my own poorly thought-through preconceptions. The Road is a book I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone.

    Anyway, I look forward to your next column!

  3. My thinking was that Oprah, by choosing THE ROAD book as a BookClub selection, proved a novel with sf themes can be read and enjoyed by the mainstream. To my mind, that made it a perfect candidate for sf noobs to start.

    RE: Next article:
    As a matter of fact, Part 3 posted earlier today: http://www.kirkusreviews.com/blog/science-fiction-and-fantasy/how-start-reading-science-fiction-part-3-award-win/


  4. It was a selection for Oprah's BookClub? Huh. That's pretty cool. You know, it's funny that I'm arguing against putting The Road on that list, considering I'd enthusiastically suggest everyone read it!

    And you've reminded me, John: I still haven't read Robert Wilson's Spin.