Saturday, August 20, 2011

The history, it's crushing me

Brace yourselves: this post contains footnotes and a graph!

I may be a little bit slow, but I'd like to talk today about NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books, which was announced on August 11. This was a popularity contest: first, they asked readers to nominate their favourite science fiction and fantasy books. Then, with the help of a panel of three experts, they narrowed the list of nominees to a few hundred books. Finally, they asked people to vote.

I'm just going to get this out of the way before I go any further: there are a lot of really great books on that list. You could do worse than use that list to guide your science fiction and fantasy reading. Of course, I think you could do a lot better, but that basically just means it's a list on the internet, right?

Here are four things I could complain about, but which I'm going to (mostly) skip. 1: The gender balance isn't good -- by my count, only 15 of the 100 entries were written by women. 2: Is Jules Verne really the only non-English, non-American writer on the list? 3: Why do we always group science fiction and fantasy together on lists like this? 4: The decision to allow series to count as one entry, while perhaps practical, has produced some bizarre results. Do all 14 books of The Vorkosigan Saga deserve to sit at #58? What about the 33 books of The Xanth Series at #99?

Instead of talking about all that stuff, I'd like to focus on the thing that I first noticed: the science fiction portion of the list seems to be dominated by older books, whereas the fantasy portion is full of newer stuff. I checked my gut feeling by finding the year of first publication for each of the entries in the list. I tried to include every book in a series written by the original author (1), and I split them up into fantasy and science fiction as best I could (2).

I ended up with 276 books, 177 of them fantasy and the remaining 99 science fiction. Here's a graph (I know! A graph!) showing the number of books published per decade since the 1920s (3) in each category:

See what I mean? Only 10 of the science fiction novels on the list were written in the last decade (that's roughly 10%), whereas 74 of the fantasy novels (that's 42%) were written since 2000. The most popular decade for science fiction novels in this list was the 1990s, although it's interesting to note that if you exclude sequels, the most popular decade for science fiction becomes the 1960s. Even excluding sequels, the 2000s remain the most popular decade for fantasy in this list.

I suppose this probably isn't surprising, although it does make a little sad. We do seem to be in a bit of a heyday for fantasy (4), and we do seem to constantly hear about science fiction sales being in decline. I could spend a while speculating on the reasons why older science fiction books dominated this survey -- aging readership? A decline in visibility on bookstore shelves? A more demanding audience? -- but I'm not sure how useful that would be. 

It is interesting to ponder, though, whether this is a result of a decline in the accessibility of science fiction to the average reader. That's certainly something I worry about, and it's perhaps suggestive that two of the five original (non-sequel) science fiction novels in the list that were written post-2000 are quite mainstream (The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger).

Instead of teeth-gnashing, though, I want to try making a suggestion: next time you're nominating or voting for a list like this, when you're reminding yourself to think of female writers and writers from places other than England and America, give a bit of though to novels that were written in the last decade. And if you're planning to collate a list like this, why not restrict it to novels written after 1990? Because we all know that Fahrenheit 451 and Stranger in a Strange Land are worth reading by now, right?

What would you put in your post-1990 Top 10?

I'm pretty sure I'll be back here soon -- by my reckoning, the 2011 Hugo Award winners are due to be announced in about 7 hours!
(1) That means none of the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Dune books, no Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time, no Eoin Colfer Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and none of the various Foundation spin-offs.

(2) We could probably argue the toss on a few of these. Where I didn't know, or wasn't sure, I tried to use the Wikipedia entry for a book (or series) as a guide.

(3) There were five books in the list published prior to 1920, all of the science fiction. The first was Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in 1818.

(4) It's worth nothing here that young adult books -- Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, His Dark Materials -- were specifically excluded from this survey. It's just a guess, and maybe a pessimistic one, but if they'd been included I suspect they would have been more likely to nudge SF books out of the top hundred, rather than fantasy ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment