Thursday, 26 February 2009

David Langford's Top 20 Pre-1990 Genre Novels

I discovered (or rediscovered) this list a while back. It was compiled by multi-Hugo-winning SF&F critic David Langford back in 2002 for an SFX special. Working on the basis that it takes a decade for a book to proves its classic status, he decided to only go up to works published in 1989 to compile the list.

The Top Twenty
20. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
19. Gateway by Frederick Pohl
18. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
17. Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
16. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
15. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
14. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
13. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
12. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
11. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
10. Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
09. Blood Music by Greg Bear
08. Dune by Frank Herbert
07. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
06. Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
05. Pavane by Keith Roberts
04. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
03. The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
02. Little, Big by John Crowley
01. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Bubbling Under
Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss
The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman by Angela Carter
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
A Wreath of Stars by Bob Shaw

Short Story Collections
The Wallet of Kai Lung by Ernet Bramah
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Neutron Star by Larry Niven
Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R.A. Lafferty
Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Ten of the Worst
Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback
They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
March of the Robots by Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe (writing as Leo Brett)
The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein
Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
O-Zone by Paul Theorux
The Troglodytes by Nal Rafcam
The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis
The Black Star by Lin Carter
Flight by Vanna Bonta

The original link also contains rationales for the choices, explanations for some notable missing books (Langford considers the original Hyperion Cantos to be one long novel, so he seems to have ruled Hyperion ineligible despite just scraping in before the date), some other books he rates between 1990 and 2002 and so on.

I quite like the lists. Giving a work some time before proclaiming it 'the greatest thing ever' makes sense.

For an alternative list, check out Stego's list of his top 100 books here.


Mimouille said...

Totally agree on Gene Wolfe...NOBODY writes like Wolfe. Also agree on Le Guin, and loved Mythago Wood. But I must be among the few who found Gormenghast beyond booooring.

Anonymous said...

David Langford's big awards are in the semi-pro category. He tries hard to be the expert and maybe is, within a very small block. Opinions are supposed to be subjective but his are a small circle who publish one another and scratch each other's backs. So I bear that in mind whenever I see any "decree" from a very incestuous --semi-pro -- bunch.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Credible with a grain of salt. That list is supposed to be works published before 1990? Methinks he got his dates wrong on some of those that didn't come out until late 90s.

Anonymous said...

"Bridge of Birds" has been out of print for years. It's one that's been on my 'to read/source second-hand' list for a long time.

Interesting list.

Adam Whitehead said...

Langford is one of the co-authors of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the last-word reference guide to the genre (although now outdated), so his opinions are pretty heavily respected throughout fandom (and unlike the sometimes impenetrable analysis of John Clute, you usually know what the hell Langford is talking about).

None of the works listed were published after 1989 aside from FLIGHT (which was in the 'worst' category anyway, which wasn't as limited by the year limit).

Anonymous said...

This list is 13 years old.

Furthermore, Flight by Vanna Bonta is not science fiction. Moreover, it was published well after 1990, in 1996 -- months before this (13 year-old) decree of fandom's most-feared joker, (keeper of his friend's good reviews) David Langford.

Was it oversight that Langford placed a book published in the mid90s on that list? If that's the case -- what does it say for his reliability in compiling an encyclopedia or any review?

Or did something else get the best of his "professionalism" that he just had to put a non sf and out of category book on his Worst decree?

A list of titles he claims were published before 1990 is wrong.

It was the mid 90s when Flight first got the attention of a fan SF community's small group of writers that got (extremely) annoyed by praise that came for the book and author from respectable trade reviewers and fans.

So, within weeks of coming out, in the mid 90s, Flight was put on the black-ball list by (that's right semipro category Hugo-winning) Langford, when no one had even heard of Bonta, when the book isn't even sf. This is that list.

When the Flight came out Publishers Weekly compared Bonta to Heinlein in a high praise.

Ironically, according to Langford, Flight and Bonta share his Worst of SF list with Robert Heinlein?

I guess one could say Bonta is in excellent company to be mentioned even in a Worst category with Heinlein.

But it begs the question why would Adam and his friends even bother with a brand new unknown writer at the time who wasn't even science fiction?

A decade + later, (the time Langford claims a book needs to show itself) we've seen the author Vanna Bonta on History Channel, with the novel Flight. It has inspired some amazing people and events.

Despite that an extraordinarily harsh campaign in the guise of "critics" and "reviews" against her, the book, and even her fans, Bonta remains an intriguing and admirable talent.

Obviously PW and Booklist were more reliable sources for reviews and lists.

Bonta has in fact exceeded the global inspiration and effects most writers would ever.

It's not the opinions anyone takes issue with. Like or it hate, that's opinion. It's the bias.

This is a 13 year old very biased list. That's what makes it semi-pro I agree.

It may be tough on the ego to be wrong when a book a reviewer and his circle of friends campaign hard against a book and author and the world continues to love them anyway.

"Experts" like Langford, amateur or not, should realize their campaigns and choices are a matter of opinion, not the law, and blackballing becomes obvious.

That's what makes this list a bit of a joke to many -- albeit there are some great and personal favorites a s well as forgettable books on it.

Clearly, Flight is not a forgettable book. The truly WORST ones are.

I'd hate to think what's biased in the encyclopedia if we're to rely on conflicts of interest driven lists or personal whims/grudges of "experts" purported as "facts."

It would serve the community better to just get back to the love of books and writers.

Seriously. And semi-amused.

I could comment on other choices here but this one really stands out.

Anonymous said...

Adam, you posted that list for David Langford but it is not ethical that you or anyone waive accuracy toward any writer or book.

That's one sorry and telling explanation/excuse that you give that accuracy of the list does "not really apply" to Flight by Vanna Bonta.

One more important remind: Consider the source. And yeah the Hugo were in semipro Fan magazine but he should clearly keep out of the nongenre literary field.

Adam Whitehead said...

First of all, FLIGHT is science fiction. It's got a dragon in it who occasionally turns up as a dog. Several of the characters are figments of the protagonists' imagination who turn up in real life at a Worldcon. Quite a few reviews say it is SF as well, including the PW one linked. By the way, how did Gene Roddenberry review the book when he'd been dead for five years before it came out?

Second, the Heinlein book is THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST, which is widely regarded as his worst novel, and compared to the heights of his talent a massive drop in quality.

Third, the list is purely subjective, as all such lists are. Trawling through reviews for the book, many are positive and many are negative. If a reviewer hates the book but the rest of the world loves it, so what? It didn't work for that reviewer. Look at the abuse heaped on THE DA VINCI CODE yet it sold 40 million copies.

Fourth, only the 'Best Of' list is about books before 1990. The collections list also contains several books published after that date. There is also an additional 'Best Of' sub-list about books published after 1990, for the sake of completeness. It's also not a scientific study, you know?

Fifth, the list was published in 2002, which is seven years ago, not thirteen.

If you want to criticise the list, debate about what's on it and so on, that's fine. If you want to argue for the merits of the book, that's fine (as you say, it seems to be a popular novel with some other critics). But when you instead unleash a storm of inaccurate and unsupportable 'facts' including basic date and genre errors, it does make it hard to take your other claims seriously.