Friday, 20 June 2008

The SFX Top 100 List

The UK's SFX Magazine recently published it's Top 100 List in its summer special about SF and Fantasy literature. This is the latest in a number of such polls to be conducted on the Internet in recent months, but the SFX one is of interest as it directly informs the buying habits of many of its readers, and other magazines and papers sometimes pick up on such stories run in SFX.

First some number-crunching. SFX is in its thirteenth year and is Europe's biggest-selling SF&F monthly, shifting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 35-40,000 copies per month. It is not a literary-focused magazine and mostly focuses on TV and film. However, its literature section is reasonably decent compared to other media mags of its type (the disappointing SciFi Now comes immediately to mind) and I have SFX to thank for introducing me to several of my favourite authors, including Alastair Reynolds, Neal Stephenson, Paul Kearney, Guy Gavriel Kay and Peter F. Hamilton. One of the side-effects of the mag not being literary-based is that the list offers an interesting insight into those who pick up SF&F novels but don't really discuss them on-line (you know, the 90% of the SF&F book-buying public that all of our blogs and forums and review sites have no impact on whatsoever). On that basis, the list is surprisingly decent. The magazine's reasonably non-partisan nature also makes the list more useful than some of the other recent polls: Westeros.org, the George RR Martin forum, voted GRRM as its Best Author; Malazanempire.com, the Steven Erikson forum, voted Steven Erikson as its Best Author; and Wotmania.com, the Robert Jordan forum, voted Robert Jordan as its Best Author. In each case the result was not really a surprise.

That said, SFX is a UK mag and a lot of the feedback for the poll from outside the UK has been of the flavour of, "Who is Robert Rankin? James Herbert? Simon Clark?", which is certainly understandable.

Approximately 185 people voted on the SFX Forum for the list. But more than 3,000 other votes were also counted for the list, which makes it far bigger than any of the other recent online polls.

For reasons of length, I've broken coverage of the list in two pieces. Expect the second part in the next few days. The Bottom 50 looks like this:

100. James Herbert UK horror author, best known for The Rats and several sequels, and also for writing the novels that inspired the mid-1990s movies Fluke and The Haunted.

99. Gwyneth Jones
Haven't read.

98. Sara Douglass
Australian fantasy author. He first series, The Axis Trilogy, started off as light popcorn fare and made it as far as the third volume before becoming too cheesy to really stand up. I'm told her later books are better.

97. Charles Stross
One of SF's current big hitters, whose novels are nominated for Hugos almost automatically every year. I have tried a couple of his hard SF novels and not really found them to my taste, although I plan to try out his fantasy series, The Merchant Princes, at some stage.

96. Terry Goodkind
The most controversial author in fantasy, whose Sword of Truth series has been a big hit but whose ultra-right-wing tendencies and lead characters who seemingly base their leadership ideas and military tactics on George W. Bush aren't really to my taste. However, the series did give us the Chicken That Is Not A Chicken But Is Evil Incarnate, one of the seminal moments in modern fantasy, which may account for its place on this list.

95. Brian W. Aldiss
Underrated classic SF author who's still churning out important new work (his latest novel, H.A.R.M., is on my to-read list). Non-Stop, Hothouse and The Helliconia Trilogy, still the greatest achievement in SF worldbuilding to date, are bona fide classics of the genre whilst Report on Probability A still makes peoples heads hurt to this very day.

94. Ken MacLeod
Scottish SF author, known for mixing up left-wing politics and SF to interesting effect. Another author on my 'to read' list.

93. Olaf Stapledon
Formative writer of early SF who gave us massive, far-visioned works such as Last and First Men and Star Maker.

92. Michael Marshall Smith
An interesting author whose mid-to-late 1990s SF output (most notably Spares) marked him as a writer to watch, but he diverted into writing mainstream thrillers as Michael Marshall instead.

91. Jon Courtney Grimwood
Regrettably, another author I have to read.

90. Christopher Priest
Probably the most underread author in SF, although that's now starting to change thanks to the recent movie adaption of his novel, The Prestige. Priest explores themes of duality, memory and reality in his fiction, but arguably never better than in his most recent work, The Separation.

89. Jonathan Carroll
Another author I have to read.

88. Scott Lynch
A relative newcomer to the genre, but The Lies of Locke Lamora made an impact like few other debut novels in recent years have when it landed two years ago.

87. David Weber
Author of the interminable Honor Harrington series of space operas. I have one of his more recent SF/Fantasy crossbreeds, Off Armageddon Reef, waiting to be read.

86. M. John Harrison
Probably second only to Goodkind for the controversy he causes in the genre. Probably the most polarising author on this list, with people who read him seemingly fairly evenly divided between those who love him and those who hate him. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp: the Viriconium omnibus is one of a very small number of books that I disliked so immensely whilst reading that I couldn't finish it.

85. Jacqueline Carey
Her Sundering duology is on my to-read list, but she is better-known for her Kushiel series of erotic fantasy novels.

84. Kim Stanley Robinson
American hard SF author, best known for his interesting Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, the first book in the series, remains his single finest novel) but his Years of Rice and Salt and earlier novels set in California in three different parallel timelines are all worth a look.

83. Theodore Sturgeon
Classic early SF novelist, although possibly best-known for coining Sturgeon's Law: "90% of science fiction is rubbish but 90% of everything is rubbish."

82. J.V. Jones
British fantasy author whose Book of Words trilogy was a decent beginning to a career which really took off with the much darker and more interesting Sword of Shadows quintet (Book 4 due in 2009).

81. Joe Abercrombie
British fantasy author whose First Law trilogy has made a substantial impact on the epic fantasy field over the past three years, bringing a wry sense of humour and fusing with character-building which approaches GRRM levels on occasion. His 'difficult second album' due next year, Best Served Cold, will no doubt determine whether we see him stay at such a lofty position or - gasp! - climb even higher in future years.

80. Joe Haldeman
Dispiritingly, I have never read The Forever War, but I did enjoy Haldeman's Worlds Trilogy.

79. Simon Clark
British fantasy/horror author, best-known for his sequel to John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, the inevitably-titled Night of the Triffids, which won him the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2001.

78. George Orwell
Arguably only two of his novels fit into the genre, but when one of them is Nineteen Eighty-Four and the other is Animal Farm, that's all you need. An essential writer to read.

77. Samuel R. Delaney
The author of numerous critically-respected SF novels in the 1960s and 1970s, probably the best-known of which is Babel-17. Another author I haven't read.

76. Charles de Lint
Prolific Canadian fantasy author. Not read as yet.

75. Julian May
A well-known female SF author, best known for her Saga of the Plioscene Exile series, which I tried a long time ago and couldn't get into. A re-read may be in order.

74. Edgar Rice Burroughs
The creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars and a formative writer in the pulp SF-adventure field.

73. Robert Silverberg
Hugely prolific author in both SF and Fantasy. His finest single novel is probably Dying Inside, but he is best-known for his Majipoor series.

72. Susanna Clarke
A surprisingly high entry for someone with only two books to her name: the massively successful novel Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell and the Ladies of Grace Adieu collection. Definitely an author to watch in the future.

71. Stanislaw Lem
Polish SF author, best-known for Solaris, which inspired no less than two movie adaptions.

70. Larry Niven
A major SF author of the 1960s-80s, best-known for Ringworld and his other Tales of Known Space.

69. Alfred Bester
An excellent SF author. The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!) is one of the most essential books to read in the genre. His Demolished Man is also a majorly influential novel.

68. Katherine Kerr
An author I haven't read, despite multiple attempts to penetrate her huge Celtic fantasy Deverry series, which after thirteen volumes is finally drawing to a close with her next volume.

67. Jack Vance
In my opinion, one of the five or six most vital authors to read in the entire SF&F field, whose Dying Earth and sequels inspired a huge number of other writers (including Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe). His Lyonesse Trilogy is also excellent.

66. Harry Harrison
Comic SF author best-known for The Stainless Steel Rat and umpteen sequels, plus Bill, the Galactic Hero. Steer clear of his later alternate-histories though.

65. Marion Zimmer Bradley
An American SF, Fantasy and horror writer, best-known for her Darkover and Avalon series, although the only book of hers I ever read was a mediocre horror book called Witch Hill. The Mists of Avalon is on my to-read list.

64. Richard Matheson
The author of the excellent I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man.

63. Dan Simmons
I read and reviewed the first two books of his superb Hyperion Cantos recently.

62. Elizabeth Haydon
An author I have not read.

61. Terry Brooks
Brooks' 1977 novel The Sword of Shannara (which critics most kindly describe as 'inspired' by Tolkien) kick-started the entire modern epic fantasy explosion, for good and for ill, so his impact on the genre cannot be doubted. That said, the Shannara series is best read as a 'gateway' series for younger readers starting out in the genre. On that level, his books work well as adventures. His more recent novels have shown signs of growing ambition as he fuses urban and epic fantasy together.

60. Richard Morgan
Probably the most striking author to enter SF in the last few years, whose blistering Altered Carbon and sequels rocked a somewhat staid genre as very few books have, whilst his most recent, Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Black Man stirred up a fair bit of controversy. He is now taking on fantasy with his new novel, The Steel Remains, due in August.

59. Stephen Baxter
The natural heir to Arthur C. Clarke, who combines hard SF with broad-canvas epic stories about humanity's future. His single finest novel remains The Time Ships, a stunning sequel to The Time Machine taking in the history of the universe itself.

58. Jennifer Fallon
57. Mercedes Lackey
56. CJ Cherryh
Three authors whose work I am not familiar with, although I vaguely recall trying a Lackey novel once and putting it down after three pages, but I may be wrong about that.

55. Harlan Ellison
Probably the finest SF short fiction writer of the 1960s and also responsible for the best episode of the original Star Trek (The City on the Edge of Forever), Ellison is better-known for his personal reputation these days rather than his often innovative and interesting fiction.

54. Jasper Fforde
53. Octavia Butler
Two authors I am not familiar with, although in the latter case I know that is a massive oversight.

52. J.G. Ballard
Better-known for his mainstream novels and memoirs (the first of which was filmed by Steven Spielberg as Empire of the Sun) these days, Ballard started out in SF with a series of books depicting possible futures for our world, such as The Drowned World. His 1973 novel, Crash, caused a lot of controversy on release, which was repeated with the 1996 movie version directed by David Cronenberg.

51. Robert E. Howard
The creator of Conan the Barbarian, which arguably stands alongside the likes of Dunsany, Tolkien, Vance and Peake as a vital piece of formative fantasy. Those reading Conan for the first time today may be surprised at how fresh it still feels (certain odd attitudes towards female characters notwithstanding), and how mercifully easy it is to divorce the character from the image of Arnie once you actually start reading the books (Conan the Barbarian is a good movie, but not tremendously true to the more cunning in-print character).

50. Sherri S. Tepper
An interesting SF author, best-known for her early 1990s novel Grass, which is on my to-read list.

8 comments:

Lawrence said...

Excellent overview, although I find it some entries a bit too "coloured" for my liking.

96. Terry Goodkind
"The most controversial author in fantasy."

Is he? The fact that his book sell literally millions of copies is rather telling. You and I might not agree with his ideas and argue that SoT is the worst series published in history, but I wouldn't say he's "the most controversial". Because if he was, to the general 90% out there, he probably wouldn't sell half as much books as he does now. He might be controversial online (you could even argue that), but I don't think the general fantasy buying public were as much put off by the Chicken That Is Not A Chicken But Is Evil Incarnate as we were on Westeros.org ;)

95. Brian W. Aldiss
"The Helliconia Trilogy, still the greatest achievement in SF worldbuilding to date."

What about Dune? Peter F. Hamilton massive scale worlds? Nothing comes close?

"Report on Probability A still makes peoples heads hurt to this very day"

Now that's what I call an interesting remark. Is it still in print these days?

90. Christopher Priest

Really need to read his SF. In fact, I should thank you here for bringing him to my attention.

88. Scott Lynch
"A relative newcomer to the genre, but The Lies of Locke Lamora made an impact like few other debut novels in recent years have when it landed two years ago."

Once again, I think you have to differentiate between online (marketing) success and the impact he made on the 90% that does not visit forums, blogs and review sites. Did the shock waves reach the shores of the book buying public of the US and the UK? I wouldn't be surprised if his impact wasn't all that big, to be honest.

86. M. John Harrison
"Probably second only to Goodkind for the controversy he causes in the genre."

And again, controversial online. Despite his comments on worldbuilding etc. I think he's still well-respected in most SF-circles. Viriconium does polarize people, yes, I agree. But his influence on New Wave SF and popular authors such as China Mieville is undeniable.

83. Theodore Sturgeon
Classic early SF novelist, although possibly best-known for coining Sturgeon's Law: "90% of science fiction is rubbish but 90% of everything is rubbish."

It's a bit sad that his best remembered for this one quote and not so much for his SF output. He was very prolific short story writer, but most of the collection have gone out of print these days.

81. Joe Abercrombie
British fantasy author whose First Law trilogy has made a substantial impact on the epic fantasy field over the past three years, bringing a wry sense of humour and fusing with character-building which approaches GRRM levels on occasion.

Again we just have to see about his "substantial" impact on the genre in the next few years to come. Too early to tell now, is it? Seems to me, though, that Joe Abercrombie was following in a specific trend in fantasy (increasing realism in fantasy - the gritty aspect we all hold dear) and added to it, not so much changed the rules of the game.

80. Joe Haldeman
Dispiritingly, I have never read The Forever War, but I did enjoy Haldeman's Worlds Trilogy.

On other side of the Heinlein coin if you ask me. One hand you have Starship Troopers, on the other you have The Forever War.

76. Charles de Lint
Prolific Canadian fantasy author. Not read as yet.

More importantly, he was writing Urban Fantasy before everyone decided to jump on the bandwagon. You could say he is the bandwagon. ;)

56. CJ Cherryh

I have yet to read CJ Cherryh, but I do know she is one of the most prolific femine SF writers, her output includes the Hugo Award winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) and Cyteen (1988).

As for the other I haven't commented on, interesting thoughts. Still need to read so many authors, it is almost discouraging.

Adam Whitehead said...

Helliconia is definitely a more impressive worldbuilding success than Dune, mainly as I feel that after the first book Herbert really stopped focusing on the planet of Dune itself in the same way, whilst Aldiss makes Helliconia come alive and change over the course of 3,000 years. I also ponder if Helliconia was an influence on ASoIaF at all: Helliconia is in a binary system which causes the seasons on the planet to last for something like 800 years apiece.

I am a huge fan of Hamilton, but he has to sometimes sacrifice depth for breadth, with dozens of planets to describe in each one of his really big novels. That said, Far Away, Lalonde, Atlantis and now the planet Makkatheren is on are all great creations.

For the rest, yeah I should have qualified a lot more responses with "...online," but that would have been repetitive.

Maltarn said...

I'm surprised at seeing Jasper Fforde so high up on the list, I'm not sure whether I'd have classified his stuff as SF&F (I think the term he uses himself is "meta-fiction").

Anonymous said...

In my younger days, CJ Cherryh was my favorite author, especially her Morgaine trilogy - used to read the series once a year.

Until...Richard Morgan came along. So far I have loved everything he's done. In fact, if I could write, it would be exactly what and how he writes. Thank goodness he's come on the scene.

Yaseen said...

Agh! Nobody seems to comment on Jennifer Fallon, either she isn't read, or there is nothing much to care for.

But I was annoyed that you miss two authors, but comment on everybody else. Having said, I really did appreciate the work you did to comment on everybody's work, as it helped me look at other authors I had not read before, and what to read from them (thanks for mentioning thier most famous and 'read-worthy' pieces).

So please, can you make a comment on numbers 58 and 57?

Adam Whitehead said...

Actually the 'not read' comment applied to all three authors, as I've never read Jennifer Fallon. I did try a Mercedes Lackey many years ago and hated it, I gave up after about 50 pages, but I decided that wasn't enough of a sampler to offer an opinion about her whole career.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read CJ Cherryh. Don't see Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth A Lynn, Joan Vinge . . .

What's the point of a list like this if you haven't read some of the most prolific/important authors in the genre? Please try again when familiar with the field.

Bryan

Adam Whitehead said...

Well, you could ask the 3,000 people who voted for the list. I'm just commenting on it.

And prolific/important authors? Lynn isn't very prolific. Vinge doesn't appear to have been published in the UK, hence my unfamiliarity with her. Moon is a popular author but not a noteworthy one: she has not produced works with the reputation of being transformative or massively influential in the genre. Also, at this time, only her latest SF novels are available in the UK. Her classic fantasy work is not in print here at the moment.

CJ Cherryh has the repuation of being important and influential, however, which is why I will be acquainting myself with her work at some time in the future.