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“The Best of the Centuries” – Reflections on What Makes A Story Important

“I am not with you when you read. The voice you hear is your own. I am giving you a frame: you are the one imbuing it with beauty.” – Robert Jackson Bennett

The votes are now in for Locus Magazine’s ambitious online poll asking for readers to rate the best fantastika of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some other folks have posted their lists and I thought I would post mine, and discuss why I made some of the choices on my list. As I started listing candidates I found myself thinking about what “the best” means to me and what works qualify. I re-read and compared stories to see if they were exemplars of the form. I pored through shelves of  books to find more novelettes (which, as Ian Sales noted, is  “an entirely arbitrary and useless category.”) and pit favorite stories against each other in my mind. But eventually I found myself wondering, with all of this reading and comparing, what “the best” was, and if that was what I was really trying to find.

What constitutes the best is not a bounded set; changing tastes, preferences of genre and style, levels of interaction with both the field of production and the stories themselves all factor into the creation of a “Best of” list. This may be one reason we find it intriguing to make such lists; to answer the question of what we think is worth lauding as exceptional or foundational or mesmerizing at a given moment. I was glad that Locus didn’t qualify what the term meant and tried to not prejudge what should be considered (although they did provide lists to prompt readers’ memories). In the end, I found that what I really wanted to put on the list were stories that tried to change the way I look at the world, that inspired me to read and create, and that gave comfort and provocation to be in the world.

All of the works I listed for the poll are, in my judgment, well-written and merit praise, but this is based on both objective and subjective criteria, which often varied from work to work. Narrative structure, word choice, evocation, and theme all factored into my valuation of each story. But I also took into account what I learned from a story and how it energized my imagination. The best combines what is on the pages of a story, and what I gleaned from them.

20th-Century SF Novel:

  1. The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson
  2. On Wings of Song, Thomas M. Disch
  3. The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin
  4. The Female Man, Joanna Russ
  5. Ubik, Philip K. Dick
  6. Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
  7. Life During Wartime, Lucius Shepard
  8. China Mountain Zhang, Maureen McHugh
  9. Nova, Samuel R. Delany
  10. Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

The broadness of the century made this list daunting to me. I could have added several dozen great novels to  this list. What I decided to include were two sorts of books: those that had stuck with me since first reading them, and those knocked my thinking out of the inevitable ruts our minds sink into. The first half of this list are all books whose messages and ideas have never left my imagination. These are books that I measure my own writing against, and that continue to give me food for thought.  I read them all for the first time in high school, and even when they made me uncomfortable or perplexed I found that keeping engaged with them, accepting their challenges, made me a more discerning reader and thinker. The Delany belongs in this category too; while there are other novels of his that are more sophisticated, more complex and mature, Nova remains the one that I go back to frequently to invigorate my reading and writing. The other four titles here all startled me at the right moment with their themes and the power of their prose, teaching me about trauma, war, identity, and the comic poetry of risk. Each novel was an education on every level; though there are other books with more precision or history to them these ten stimulated my love of literature and the potential of fiction to enrapture a reader.

20th-Century Fantasy Novel:

  1. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
  2. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola
  3. Peace, Gene Wolfe
  4. Kindred, Octavia Butler
  5. Une semaine de bonté, Max Ernst
  6. Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
  7. Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees
  8. Freedom & Necessity, Emma Bull & Steven Brust
  9. Bartholemew Fair, Eric Basso
  10. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

With the exception of Wolfe I encountered these novels in adulthood, three of them just in the last couple of years. Tutuola, Mirrlees, and Basso have all profoundly shaken up my ideas about what fantasy literature is capable of and what a writer can do with language and the expectations of the reader. All three of them lead you to mysterious places and constantly erode your sense of stability, daring you to trust the strangeness and not worry if there is solid conceptual ground beneath your feet. The Ernst does this too, but with images rather than words, while Bull & Brust provoke the reader to think about the fallacies and hidden lessons in history and philosophy. Butler, Kushner, and Peake inspire and fascinate me with their exemplary prose styles and the distinctiveness of both their settings and the ideas that a reader can conjure from them. All of these novels are singular pieces of art that never seem to run out of rewards for the reader to uncover.

20th-Century SFF Novella:

  1. “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” Lucius Shepard
  2. “The Brave Little Toaster,” Thomas M. Disch
  3. “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” Lucius Shepard
  4. “Heart of a Dog,” Mikhail Bulgakov
  5. “The Persistence of Vision,” John Varley
  6. “A Touch of Lavender,” Megan Lindholm
  7. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” James Tiptree, Jr.
  8. “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. “The Saliva Tree,” Brian Aldiss

A few of these entries are novellas that have been issued as stand-alone “novels” but I listed them here anyway. These are all stories that caught my attention for their ability to produce a novel’s worth of meaning and pleasure in a shorter form. Each of these stories is a learning experience in great writing, and each one urges the reader to broaden their perceptions beyond everyday reality. I love reading stories that take chances, and these novellas all try to push at the boundaries we often use to surround the stories we read. They expect the reader to pay attention, to be eager to find something fresh and strange, and to revel in eccentric ideas. The novella drives its point home more forcefully than a novel because of its limitations, but gives the reader more language and space to explore than a short story.

20th-Century SFF Novelette:

  1. “Slow Birds,” Ian Watson
  2. “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” Samuel R. Delany
  3. “Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast,” Suzy McKee Charnas
  4. “The Machine Stops,” E. M. Forster
  5. “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes
  6. “The Dreaming City,” Michael Moorcock

20th-Century SFF Short Story:

  1. “Moments of Clarity,” Elissa Malcohn
  2. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. LeGuin
  3. “Aye, And Gomorrah,” Samuel R Delany
  4. “Speech Sounds,” Octavia Butler
  5. “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” Harlan Ellison
  6. “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut
  7. “In the Penal Colony,” Franz Kafka
  8. “Axolotl,” Julio Cortazar

I’ve bundled the novelettes with the short stories because I found so few of them. Also, due to some foolish editing on my part, I excised two short stories before I sent the poll out, thus I only officially submitted eight nominees. There are more genre “classics” in this combined list such as the Ellison and Delany entries, which is partly due to the fact that short stories have the broadest criteria of “best” for me. There are many great short stories out there, and many can fulfill the role of “best.” This list includes stories that helped me see the world more maturely, that showed me the absurdity and ambiguity of it all, and that tried to find the human essence in alien or outlandish situations. These stories were keenly honed to deliver their message and they do so superbly.

And now, the new century:

21st-Century SF Novel:

  1. Air (Or, Have Not Have), Geoff Ryman
  2. Osama, Lavie Tidhar
  3. Goodbye Babylon, Sebastian Doubinsky
  4. Life, Gwyneth Jones

21st-Century Fantasy Novel:

  1. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
  2. The House of Discarded Dreams, Ekaterina Sedia
  3. Last Dragon, J. M. McDermott
  4. The City & The City, China Miéville
  5. Shriek: An Afterword, Jeff VanderMeer

I had a very difficult time thinking of 21st-century SF to recommend, because my reading has diverged very far from books with that designation. In fact, both the Tidhar and Doubinsky might not be considered SF by some but I put them there because they posit alternate realities grounded in our own. Their provocations are different than those of Ryman and Jones, their subversions more obvious, more visceral and unnerving. The fantasy list is bursting with books full of impossible moments, nigh-surreal prose, and hallucinatory storytelling — the kind of stories that you don’t think will enthrall you until you realize you’ve been reading so deeply that you don’t know where you are. These novels transport you to new places and subsume — not with estrangement or direct variations on our world but with visions and lives that consume your attention.  There are disconcerting disruptions created in the reader’s imagination by these novels that creates moments of reflection and, perhaps, ecstasy.

21st-Century SFF Novella:

  1. “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon,” Elizabeth Hand
  2. “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” Rachel Swirsky
  3. “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance,” Paul Park

21st-Century SFF Novelette:

  1. “Pump Six,” Paolo Bacigalupi
  2. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air,” Elizabeth Hand

21st-Century SFF Short Story:

  1. “The Green Book,” Amal El-Mohtar
  2. “The Genius of Assassins,” Michael Cisco
  3. “The Interior of Mister Bumblethorn’s Coat,” Willow Fagan
  4. “Absinthe Fish,” M. David Blake
  5. “86 Deathdick Road,” Jeffrey Ford

These stories are here because of their combination of innovation and deep affect. They undermine your sense of sanity and interrogate your assumptions about what a story can or should be. They are singular revelations of what a writer can deliver to a reader, the elasticity of language and meaning that can be shared between them. They deftly spark surprise and wonder, even when they seem obtuse or nonsensical (particularly Cisco and Blake’s stories).  Will their quality endure?  I’d like to think so, but being the best is more than a test of endurance or prestige; it is a question. Can readers to keep finding beauty (in many forms) among the words a writer offers to them? What makes a story great is the collaboration it inspires and how its words spur us to make magic again and again.

I wish I could talk more about each story, about how architecture and language and setting and the feeling of being taken out of the world is generated by each one.  What makes each one the best in my estimation is unique for each one, because they are a part of my life. To talk about stories is to talk about one’s dreams, one’s weaknesses, and one’s being-in-the-world. We spend so much time reading and so little time understanding what stories give us. I would love to hear about the stories that you think are the best, and why. What have the stories you, dear reader, consider the best done for you? What beauty have you discovered and why does that endure? What do the best stories do for you?

9 Comments on “The Best of the Centuries” – Reflections on What Makes A Story Important

  1. Thanks, John.

    Still kicking myself for not saving my own list. I did have some overlap with you but not a lot…your list is a lot more diverse than mine was, as far as I recall.

  2. The “some other folks” link is broken — needs a colon after http. (Thoughts later, but one after glancing at your 20th c. sf list is that I did not care that much for The Word for World is Forest, but did include other Le Guin novels on my list.)

    • Sam: Thanks for pointing out the link; I’ll get that fixed.

      I was torn between WORD and THE DISPOSSESSED. But the former won out because it’s had more of an impact on me and I liked the approach Le Guin took to the aliens. The echoes of colonialism are a bit loud, but the aliens are fascinating.

      • Sorry John – didn’t catch that. Have fixed it.


      • Yeah, I think it was the loudness of WORD which hurts the novel for me. It re-read to me (last year I think was the most recent?) as so very “in your face” and not at all leaving any of the connections or implications to your imagination; the bad guys were VERY bad, the good guys VERY good. (Maybe I’m not quite remembering that part correctly, but that’s what comes to mind.) The Dispossessed refused (to me) to grant ultimate moral judgement when it came to nearly everything, and that’s one of the things which makes it such an affecting book for me.

  3. One thing I’m enjoying is (I think like you have done) is sort of cross-examining my picks with other people’s. I’m certainly noticing a long pile of books and stories I’ve not read, whew, my plans for 2013 reading are expanding… But I’m also definitely noticing both some direct (same exact book) and indirect (same author or even series, but different book) overlap. Examples being the 20th c. sf Le Guin books across some of the lists: The Word for World is Forest, The Left Hand of Darkness, and (my pick) The Dispossessed. Or Terry Bisson 20th c. short stories, “Bears Discover Fire”, “They’re Made Out of Meat”, and (my pick) “Over Flat Mountain”. Or Jeff VanderMeer novels, Shriek, Veniss Underground, and (my pick) Finch. I’m wondering if Locus will post (anonymized) the “long tail” of votes so we can see these kinds of things; maybe not quite enough people will pick a single particular one of these books or stories, but there’s an obvious affection for these works and writers where different books or stories resonated more with one of us than another.

  4. I’ve really been enjoying reading the lists of bloggers who decided to post them. I find it such an intriguing process to see what people picked, hear why they made the choices they did, etc. Thanks for sharing yours.

    Enjoyed seeing Desolation Road on your list. It was the first (and thus far only) novel-length story I’ve read by McDonald and it is a book I highly enjoyed. I know if made my ‘best of’ list that year.

    I’ve read “The Brave Little Toaster” by Disch and I like that one as well. Some of the other stories (short, novella, novelette) look familiar but they aren’t bringing up enough of a memory to know if I’ve read them or not. I really should do a better job of cataloging and rating the short stories I read.

    I didn’t vote so did not give the list a great deal of thought initially. I have a feeling To Avenge Man by Lester Del Rey would be on my 20th century short story list. I’d have some Cordwainer Smith on the list, though I would have a hard time deciding which short story is my favorite. There would be more of the well known authors on my 20th century novel list simply because that is predominately what I’ve read in the SFF genres.

    As for 21st century I would put Wolfe’s Wizard Knight on my fantasy list, Reynolds’ Chasm City on my SF list. And then there would be several other stories battling it out while I was having your same questions in my head, “what does it mean to be ‘the best'”.

  5. I’m just staring uncomprehendingly at … That … Entry at the top of …

    You know today is my birthday, yes? This is just the best thing ever. Thank you so unbelievably much.

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