Have you read 100 science fiction books? A thousand? Ten thousand? (That’s 1 book a day for over 27 years.) Have you read all the classics? All the Hugo and Nebula award winners? How many books have you read written by women or people of color? Have you read any science fiction by LGBT authors? What about stories from other countries? The Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB) claims 127,466 novels on its statistics page. I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century, a thousand books at least, and it’s actually just a tiny fraction of the whole. 1/127th.
Quantity doesn’t matter when trying to comprehend the scope of science fiction. What we want to read are the works that define the genre. Reading the books that best illustrate the possibilities of science fiction might turn out to be manageable in a few years. How many books? My guess is between 50 and 200. Most fans read for diversion and entertainment, so the concept of science fictional literacy is a non-issue. Few people want to be English majors, so I doubt there are many readers who want to be self-appointed Science Fiction majors. But what if you did want to claim expertise in the genre—which books are essential?
Can you even call yourself a well-read fan of science fiction if you haven’t read Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Demolished Man? How many more are the obvious choices? What about lesser known titles, such as The Last Man by Mary Shelley or Odd John by Olaf Stapledon?
If a university offered a master’s degree in science fiction, how many novels would it expect a graduate student to know to pass comps? The number of books would have to be small enough to study in a few years. Wouldn’t the Canon of Science Fiction, books scholars of the genre designate as the most noteworthy, be this side of 200? What about a well-read amateur? Wouldn’t reading just 50 books, but of course, the defining 50, give anyone an excellent grasp of the genre?
But which books? Who decides? There are numerous lists of great science fiction based on fan polls, awards, lists made by critics and scholars, and even meta-lists of lists. The best site I know that’s gathered most of these lists is Worlds Without End. It has collected 27 award lists, 26 lists by fans, scholars, critics and list makers, and generates 8 composite lists from their databases. Worlds Without End is also a free book management database for SF/F/H readers, much like GoodReads and LibraryThing. By joining Worlds Without End and entering the books you’ve read, own, want to buy, or want to read, it’s possible to automatically match your reading experience to its various best-of lists. And that’s a lot of fun.
I have found the easiest way to enter data at Worlds Without End is to call up a list, like the Hugo award winners, then right-click on any title I’ve read, clicking “Open link in a new window,” which pops up the data entry window, fill in the form, then close the window. That works faster than using the back button, and I don’t lose my place in the list.
I went through all the top lists, entering what I read, owned, wanted to read, or hoped to buy. After the lists I called up my favorite writers and followed the same procedure for their books. This took an afternoon to enter over 400 books, but I played music, and it was a pleasant diversion. Once the data was in, I’m able to see at a glance on any list what I’ve read, what I own, what I hope to read, and what I’m reading because of color coding. Blue and green represent books read, with blue meaning a favorite. Yellow represents the books on your TBR pile, and orange, books you’re currently reading.
Now when I call up the Hugo awards listing, I can quickly see how I’m doing.
This visually tells me I’m doing much better with winners than nominees. Looking at any of the more than fifty lists quickly shows what I’ve read. Worlds Without End also has two stats pages. Here is an image of the top of the awards stats page (5 of 27). It shows I’ve read 64% of the Hugo award winners and just 38% of the nominees.
The best reading rate I have is for the Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time, at 87%. I’ve only read just 59% of my own Classics of Science Fiction list, which is kind of embarrassing to admit publicly, but it’s a meta-list using 28 other lists to generate a final list of 193 books. Studying all these lists supports that 50 number I gave above, for the core classics. If you join Worlds Without End and add your reading history, you’ll probably find you do best at the top of lists, and then trail off.
This list I want to complete the most is Worlds Without End Top Listed list, which like my Classics of Science Fiction, is a meta-list, but more modern. I’ve read 135 out of 229, or 59%. I believe this list is the best current list for defining what a well-read science fiction fan should read. Here’s a screenshot from the top of the list.
I wished this list only contained science fiction, because that’s my focus. Worlds Without End works with SF, fantasy and horror, but since most of its lists are based on science fiction, the Top Listed list emphasizes science fiction. I still wish it had a switch to filter out fantasy and horror–that would improve my stats, and let me not feel bad about books I just don’t want to read.
If you scan down the full Worlds Without End Top Listed list, you’ll see the kind of books studied in higher education when they offer a course in science fiction, and the books that would be called The Science Fiction Canon. This is why I guess above the Science Fiction Canon would contain less than 200 books. If a university offered a PhDs in science fiction, that would be a reasonable number of books to master. It’s hard to justify too long of a required reading list. Most bookworms want to read by impulse, especially new and popular titles, so claiming too many books are classic causes a psychological burden.
This list isn’t perfect. As we become aware of more science fiction from around the world, and get to read translations like the wonderful The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, it will become less focused on American and British science fiction. As Worlds Without End adds more lists to its system, the Top Rated list will change. It’s sad, but books that many people once thought of as classics will become forgotten. Without reading lists or required reading in schools, old books are pushed aside by newer books. Few books have lasting power. Studying these lists at Worlds Without End shows which science fiction book do, at least for now.
Finally, there’s another useful list at Worlds Without End, “My Reading List” – under My World|My Profile, which represents a virtual TBR pile. Currently, World Without End shows it ordered by title. I wish they’d offer a switch to order it by Top Listed. That would show me which books I need to read first to improve my overall reading stats. Using this site to recognize the best science fiction books pushes me to want to read more. With over a hundred thousand science fiction novels to consider, I like that Worlds Without End helps me find the best-of-the-best science fiction to read.