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How Well-Read Are You in Science Fiction?

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.

About James Wallace Harris (9 Articles)
James Wallace Harris is fascinated by the concept of science fiction, its history and execution. Jim searches for science fiction where writers use scientific knowledge to explore the possibilities of what reality could exhibit beyond our current observations or extrapolates on what reality could unfold in the future. He delights in stories with original speculation that offers philosophical thought experiments which entertain our sense of wonder. Jim studies old science fiction to understand how people of the past imagined the nature of their existence.
Contact: Website

17 Comments on How Well-Read Are You in Science Fiction?

  1. Oh my thank you. I found this site years ago…didn’t bookmark it and have been trying to find it ever since.

  2. Richard Fahey // April 28, 2016 at 1:48 pm //

    Jim,this was a great article,but to get a discussion going,I think I’d have to provide a list or sub-lists of books.As suggestions,I could compile separate ones from the 1950s,60s and 70s of perhaps say,20 books each,or if you prefer,a substantial number ranging from the 1930s to the 80s or 90s,whichever you prefer.

    Whatever way you would want to do it,you could see the defining books I’ve read,and any gaps of essential books that are missing.I would want to include a very few not published in the SF genre.

    I hope you think this a good idea.

  3. Richard, Worlds Without End has six of my lists republished there, including five for the Defining Books of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. They also have a forum where they’ve set up reading challenges for those decades. But I’d like to see your lists. Maybe you should make your lists before you look at mine, and then we can see how we compare. I wrote about each of those decades at my blog, and tried to describe the feeling of each. Even back in the 1960s, the stuff from the 1950s seemed different from what was coming out in the 1960s. Then how SF felt seemed different again in the 1970s.

    You must really be into science fiction if you think by decades.

  4. Sounds like a great site. However, when the Terms of Use has a number of misspelled words in it… Yeah, I’m like that. Can’t help it.

  5. Richard Fahey // April 28, 2016 at 4:10 pm //

    I’ve been over to Worlds Without End,but there’s a lot to read there.I think that’s where I voted a few years ago for my favourite SF books.I commented some time back on your blog about those decades.

    I’ll see what I can do.

  6. Paul Fraser // April 29, 2016 at 2:49 am //

    Hi Jim, thanks for the link to Worlds Without End: it looks like a fascinating resource. I am filled with trepidation about how poorly read I will find myself to be…

  7. Perhaps you don’t know http://www.premiosylistas.com site.

    Premios y Listas (Awards & Lists) contains 40 complete awards, with all editions nominees and winners.

    27 Authors, scholars and critics Lists, 23 Reader Polls and multiple winners lists category to category: Hugo & Nebula and Hugo, Nebula & Locus winners, and more.

    Also a comparative using 19 SF different lists to obtain a SF list of lists: http://www.premiosylistas.com/2_listas/lst/PYL2015SFNN.html

  8. Enrique, this is a fantastic resource. It shows what the barrier of language hides from us. Is this site your work? The comparative list is excellent and I wish I could read Spanish to understand how it was created.

    I’m curious. It’s a Spanish site, but about English/American books. Is there a big interest English/American SF in your country? I always assumed in every language would have it’s own famous science fiction authors, and translated works would be less popular.

  9. Yes, it’s a personal work, and language is a very little barrier. If you use google translator it is well understood.

    The SF Comparative List, use this lists :

    http://www.premiosylistas.com/2_listas/lst/ListsCF.html

    use number of appearances, but balanced in function of the years included in each list.

    By other hand, the Spanish SF is very influenced by American and British SF – probably excessively-, but now there are many interesting works by Spanish Authors.

  10. Enrique, you and I have very similar interests. I assume you’ve seen my Classics of Science Fiction site and Worlds Without End. I wonder how many of us are out their compiling lists? Is there one for every country and language? I hope people are reading these comments and visit your site. I will find ways to promote your site in future essays, and on my sites. It’s a great resource.

    By the way, how old are you, and what is your background? I was born in 1951 and have been a life-long science fiction fan. I wanted to write science fiction but never could muster the discipline. I worked as a computer programmer and database manager before retiring.

  11. “Science fiction is just another type of literature and is just as powerful as any other form of literature.” – that is from Kirkus Review on Why Science Fiction Matters.

    Is SF just another form of literature? Much of the problem is that the article starts off talking about Star Wars. Although most people regard Star Wars as science fiction, Roger Ebert figured out and said it was not in 1977. At the time the 10 year olds were not listening to him.

    Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle beat Clarke’s Fall of Moondust for the Hugo in 1961. But which book was forward looking for its time and which was backward looking? Is it the forward looking SF that is worth reading? How many people can’t psychologically cope with Climate Change now?

  12. Umbrarchist, I’m glad you quote John’s essay, it deserves more discussion too. And this is twice now that’s it’s been linked with this essay. Last night I saw News360 linked us together.

    Your question is an excellent one. Why PKD over Clarke at the 1961 Hugo awards. Science fiction matters because it’s multiplex, so there’s no exact answer, but I have three possibilities.

    First, maybe the Hugo voters were used to stories promoting the colonization of the Moon, and saw PKD’s alternate history has new and exciting.

    Second, maybe at the story level they realized Dick was a better writer. Clarke was a visionary promoter of technology and space exploration, but he wasn’t much of a writer. He was tone-deaf to drama, characterization and emotion. On the other hand, Dick excels at writing about the little guy confronting a philosophically complex reality. Moondust is fading today, while High Castle is still gain readers.

    Three, maybe the voters could tell that The Man in the High Castle would become one of the greatest classics in science fiction, whereas The Fall of Moondust was not Clarke’s best effort. If Childhood’s End, The City and The Stars or Rendezvous with Rama had been up against The Man in the High Castle, the vote might have gone differently.

    If science fiction was just about promoting space exploration its history would be much different. And that’s fascinating to think about too.

    One of my big worries is science fiction is not doing enough to help people cope with climate change. Too many people want to go see Star Wars and not enough want to read books like The Water Knife. I believe people should read more science fiction that does matter.

    Jim

    • “One of my big worries is science fiction is not doing enough to help people cope with climate change.”

      In a way that is a curious statement in relation to A Fall of Moondust. What does infrared have to do with climate change? The term is used 17 times in that book but how many people can explain what it is. So some SF has uses beynd the literary.

  13. Very similar interests, definitely.

    Yes, I know Classics of Science Fiction site and Worlds Without End.

    I not think there’s a ¿madman? in each country, no there are so many people obsessed with compiling lists… 4 or 5 madman around world, not more…

    Very grateful to promote my website, it really is not well known, but I think it is a good resource.

    By other hand, I’m a systems engineer – and DBA- for more than twenty years and science fiction fan since age 12/13 – I know I can not write fiction, maybe reviews- and I hope to retire in 10 years (more or less).

    During this year I hope to add SF awards from Germany, France, Italy, Japan, etc … and more lists…

    Enrique

  14. Thank you for the article Mr. Harris. I’ve often posed the same question to myself: how well read in sf am I?

    My answer as of today should be: well enough. There will, of course, always be people more studied in the field of sf but personally, I feel that I have read 95% of what I ever wanted to read. Or maybe 80% or whatever; I mean, there still are pots of gold at the rainbows end to strive for…! My focus is 20th century sf before circa 1990. Then of course, I know what I know of 19th century sf. And of all this I’ve kind of had my fill for the most part. Now remains to digest and conceptualize what I’ve read.

    And then the heretic thought, entertained by me in the wee small hours: there are other literary fields than sf that are worth the effort, like certain classics of mainstream, crime, whatever. If I manage to read books of this kind stored in my library, that’s effort enough.

    However, that was off topic. The post was about science fiction and the things “you should have read”. And here’s an essay of mine that, from the mere angle of books treated, sums up what I think are “must reads” in the field of sf and fantasy of the 20th century. This is how I’ve conceptualized the x number of sff books that I’ve enjoyed through the years:

    http://lennart-svensson.blogspot.se/2016/04/book-news-science-fiction-seen-from.html

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