Denvention3 20 Essential Books Panel

At the 2008 Worldcon in Denver I moderated a panel titled “20 Essential Science Fiction Books of the Past 20 Years.” The other panelists were Charles N Brown, Gary K Wolfe, Graham Sleight and Karen Burnham. This essay includes the lists presented by each participant, and a few reflections on the panel.

Prior to selecting the works, we set ourselves a few ground rules. Most importantly we agreed not to quibble amongst ourselves about the meaning of “science fiction”, “essential”, “book” and even (for the benefit of those of us with dodgy math) “twenty”. If someone put a book on a list, that was OK.

Secondly we agreed that it was OK to treat a series as a single book so that, for example, it was not necessary to spend three choices on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Karen abused this shamelessly by nominating the entire Culture series.

We did not lay down any ground rules about the types of book allowed. Some panelists restricted themselves to novels, while others chose to range widely, even including things that are not normally regarded as “books”.

Finally, at Graham’s suggestion, we agreed to treat John Clute and Peter Nicholls’ Science Fiction Encyclopedia as a “free book” not counting towards the 20. This is because we all agreed that if there was one book that was absolutely essential, this was it. (The idea came from the BBC radio program, Desert Island Discs, in which the celebrity guests are all allowed to have a copy of their preferred religious book and the Complete Works of Shakespeare with them to their desert island. We did not discuss which of Clute and Nicolls was God and which Shakespeare.)

Graham also contributed the signature word of the panel: “emblematic”. In drawing up our lists, we mostly ended up not trying to pick the twenty “best” books (whatever “best” might mean), but rather a list of twenty that somehow encompassed the field as we understood it. Karen even imagined a man who had been living in a cave for 20 years and wanted us to tell him which books to read so that he could catch up on the state of science fiction since he had been away.

Here, then, are the lists, plus some commentary by some of the panelists.

Charles N Brown

  • Mother of Storms, John Barnes (1995)
  • Evolution, Stephen Baxter (2003)
  • Queen of Angels, Greg Bear (1990)
  • Diaspora, Greg Egan (1998)
  • Pattern Recognition, William Gibson (2003)
  • Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1996)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2006)
  • Fairyland, Paul McAuley (1996)
  • Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds (2001)
  • Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson (1998)
  • Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1990)
  • Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (1999)
  • Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996)
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross (2005)
  • Grass, Sheri S. Tepper (1989)
  • Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

Gary K Wolfe

  • The Gate to Women’s Country, Sheri S. Tepper (1988)
  • Hyperion & Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989, 1990)
  • The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (1990)
  • The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996)
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
  • The Book of the Long Sun (Nightside the Long Sun; Lake of the Long Sun; Caldé of the Long Sun; Exodus From the Long Sun), Gene Wolfe (1993 – 1996)
  • Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents, Octavia E. Butler (1994, 1999)
  • Furious Gulf, Gregory Benford (Galactic Center Series – not all in period) (1994)
  • Fairyland, Paul J. McAuley (1996)
  • Excession, Iain M. Banks (1996)
  • Diaspora, Greg Egan (1997)
  • The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod (1999)
  • Crescent City Rhapsody, Kathleen Ann Goonan (2000)
  • Light, M. John Harrison (2002)
  • The Separation, Christopher Priest (2002)
  • Pattern Recognition, William Gibson (2003)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2004)
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross (2005)
  • Spin & Axis, Robert Charles Wilson (2005, 2007)
  • Counting Heads, David Marusek (2005)

Graham Sleight

  • The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman (1989)
  • Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990)
  • Hyperion & Fall of Hyperion Dan Simmons (1989, 1990)
  • White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991)
  • China Mountain Zhang, Maureen McHugh (1992)
  • Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1992)
  • Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (1992)
  • A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
  • The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996)
  • The Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light; Idoru; All Tomorrow’s Parties), William Gibson (1993 – 1999)
  • The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
  • Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand (1997)
  • Distraction, Bruce Sterling (1998)
  • Ash, Mary Gentle (2000)
  • Stories of Your Life & Others, Ted Chiang (2002)
  • Evolution, Stephen Baxter (2002)
  • Light, M John Harrison (2002)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2004)
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
  • Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon (2006)

Graham adds:

This list is the one I’d sign up to today – putting it together was a very difficult exercise and I might change my mind tomorrow. As I said on the panel, I’m assuming that whatever desert island these books are lodged on also has a well-thumbed communal copy of the Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of SF. I’ve gone back and forth on a couple of these titles, and so I’d like also to record another batch of books that were bubbling under and very nearly made it:

  • Good News From Outer Space, John Kessel (1989)
  • Grass, Sherri S Tepper (1989)
  • The MD, Thomas M Disch (1992)
  • The Parable of the Sower & The Parable of the Talents, Octavia E Butler (1994, 1999)
  • Fairyland, Paul J McAuley (1995)
  • Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (1999)
  • Tales of Old Earth, Michael Swanwick (2000)
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross (2005)
  • The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007)

Karen Burnham

  • The Capitol Science Trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain; Fifty Degrees Below; Sixty Days and Counting), Kim Stanley Robinson (2004 – 2007)
  • The Culture series, Iain M. Banks (ongoing)
  • Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami (1985)
  • The Commonwealth Saga (Pandora’s Star; Judas Unchained), Peter Hamilton, (2004, 2005)
  • Air or Have, Not Have, Geoff Ryman, (2004)
  • The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996)
  • Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad, Minister Faust (2004)
  • Diaspora, Greg Egan (1997)
  • Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link (2006)
  • Pump 6 and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi (2008)
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross (2005)
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
  • The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1993)
  • Revelation Space series (Revelation Space; Redemption Ark; Absolution Gap), Alastair Reynolds (2000 – 2003)
  • Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (2005)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2004)
  • Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang (2002)
  • Arabesk series ( Pashazade; Effendi; Felaheen), Jon Courtenay Grimwood (2001 – 2003)
  • Fairyland, Paul McAuley (1996)
  • Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan (2002)
  • Hyperion Cantos (Hyperion; Fall of Hyperion; Endymion; Rise of Endymion), Dan Simmons (1989 – 1998)
  • SFWA European Hall of Fame – James & Kathryn Morrow (eds) (2007)

Cheryl Morgan

  • The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson (1995)
  • The Flower Cities series (Queen City Jazz; Mississippi Blues; Crescent City Rhapsody; Light Music) Kathleen Ann Goonan (1994 – 2002)
  • Perdido Street Station, China Mièville (2000)
  • The Holdfast Chronicles (The Furies; Conqueror’s Child; the earlier two volumes are out of period) – Suzy McKee Charnas (1994 – 1999)
  • Revelation Space, Al Reynolds (2000)
  • The Fall Revolution Series (The Star Fraction; The Stone Canal; The Cassini Division; The Sky Road), Ken MacLeod (1995 – 1999)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (2004)
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
  • Air or Have, Not Have, Geoff Ryman (2004)
  • The Course of the Heart, M. John Harrison (1990)
  • Soldier of Arete, Gene Wolfe (1989)
  • The Aleutian Trilogy (White Queen; North Wind; Phoenix Café), Gwyneth Jones (1991 – 1997)
  • Waking the Moon, Elizabeth Hand (1994)
  • Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
  • Rats & Gargoyles, Mary Gentle (1990)
  • The Arabesk Trilogy (Pashazade; Effendi; Felaheen) Jon Courtenay Grimwood (2001 – 2003)
  • Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
  • Sandman: Dream Country, Neil Gaiman with Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran and Malcolm Jones III (1991)
  • Grass, Sheri Tepper (1989)
  • The Fortune Fall, Raphael Carter (1996)

In doing this post I see that I got the title of the Sandman book wrong during the panel, but I did describe it correctly (it is the one containing the World Fantasy Award winning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”).

My own bubbling under list, if I had one, would probably contain many of the books mentioned above, including Pattern Recognition, The Sparrow, China Mountain Zhang and Accelerando. My Banks pick would have been Inversions, but Use of Weapons is great too. And I have realized that I didn’t include anything emblematic of the SF Thriller, so I’d like to add White Devils by Paul McAuley.

Ian McDonald’s River of Gods was the only book (other that the Clute/Nicholls encyclopedia) to get the thumbs up from all of the panel. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books came close, but we couldn’t quite agree on which bits of the series we liked. Other writers featured prominently but with different books – notably Neal Stephenson.

Because I know people will count, here are the numbers of women writers mentioned by each panelist in their main lists:

  • Charles N Brown – 2
  • Gary K Wolfe – 3
  • Graham Sleight – 7
  • Karen Burnham – 3
  • Cheryl Morgan – 7 and Raphael Carter (who declines to identify)

Prior to the panel John Hertz wrote to me suggesting Infinite Worlds by Vincent Di Fate which is an encyclopedia of science fiction art. It is an October 1987 book so it just squeezes in, but it doesn’t cover anything that is new in our period. (Cheryl can’t read numbers – it is a 1997 book, and therefore very useful.)

Charles insisted on letting the audience know that he disapproved of many of the choices of his fellow panelists. We begged to disagree with him. In particular Karen and I came to the defense of Minister Faust whose work we both love.

There had been some suggestion prior to the panel of adding our suggestions for the 20 essential books of the next 20 years. My own contribution was Slash … (pronounced “Slash dot dot dot”), an anthology edited by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette and containing steamy stories of gay sex between male science fiction authors. The other panelists were unwilling to suggest anything in public, which is probably just as well.

Graham notes that a discussion along similar lines (and prompted by the panel) was run on SF Signal. You can read it here.

11 Responses to Denvention3 20 Essential Books Panel

  1. Thank you! The panel was excellent and my note-taking inadequate, this helps a lot.

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  3. I did my own bit of data mining/organizing over at Spiral Galaxy, rating works and authors by how many folks put them on their lists, plus shuffling in items from Niall Harrison and the SFSignal comment thread.

    Thanks for putting up the lists!

  4. Bob says:

    Thanks for these lists. There were only 15 works in all the lists that I haven’t read. Guess I have my next few months reading planned out for me!

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  6. Vantuna says:

    Thanks for these lists — I’ve been noticing the graying of my bookshelf lately (yes, I’ve dusted; you know what I mean) and wondering where to start to bring myself into the 21st century.

    For what it’s worth, I’m going to work my way through Graham’s list first, since among the books there I *have* read on that list are several beloved favorites.

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  9. Jed says:

    Thanks for posting this, and especially for “Slash…”–brilliant.

  10. Amy says:

    Loved your lists! I buy scifi and fantasy at the library where I work. I’ll double check my collection and make sure that I haven’t missed any!

  11. Cheryl says:

    Amy : Thank you! I think that’s what I’d call “mission accomplished”.

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