Friday, December 28, 2012

Ranking the Unrankable


Over at Locus Online, they had a poll to decide the fifty best science fiction novels and fifty best fantasy novels of the Twentieth Century, and I managed to squeak on -- just barely.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter placed 46th on the fantasy list.

Which is very pleasant for me because it gives me the opportunity to explore the inherent flaw in such (admittedly fun to read, argue with, and/or have a book on) lists.

Let's start with my own work.  Is it really better than Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, which ranked 49th?  It's go more words, certainly, and more ideas.  But it's a safe bet that my book has had a lesser effect on world culture.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, is probably longer than my novel, and has become a part of the Canon, insofar as we have one anymore, and it was only 48th.

Up at the top of the list, nobody could argue against The Lord of Rings, which essentially created the fantasy genre, placing first.  And I certainly have no problem with George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones in number two place.  But The Hobbit at number three?  Even Tolkien himself had a few harsh words for its and-what-do-you-think-Bilbo-did-then? style.  (He said his children hated it.)

As for newly-minted Grand Master Gene Wolfe's masterpiece The Book of the New Sun placing eighteenth on the fantasy list . . .  The work is science fiction, as witness its also placing twenty-fourth (still criminally low) on the SF list.

But when you except those few books which belong somewhere near the absolute top of any such list, what you're left with is a terrific demonstration of the impossibility of ranking books as if they were Olympic runners or apple pies in the county fair.  Is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (41 and, once again, science fiction) just a smidge better than George Orwell's Animal Farm, ranked 42?  Or are we comparing lemurs and monkey wrenches?  Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (19 and yet another science fiction novel) is of vast importance to both science fiction and fantasy.  But is it really better than the book in twentieth place, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita?  Having walked in Woland's footprints in Moscow, I'm perhaps too much of a partisan to say.

It's all neon donuts and Western waterways, hawks and heartbreaks, movies and meatballs -- how can you measure such disparate works against each other?

You can't.  But it's a lot of fun to try.

So I applaud Locus Online for this enterprise.  And if you want to have even more fun, try this:  Make up a list of ten excluded books that should have made each list.  You'll find it's harder than it sounds to narrow your list down to such a small number.

You can see the lists (and methodology) here.

Above:  Detail from the brilliant wraparound cover Geoff Taylor did for the Millenium edition of my book.  Not only a great cover but an independent work of fantasy.  If only I could have peered into the future and seen it, I would have incorporated a couple of details into the text.



David Stone said...

Shame on me for being self-congratulatory, but I was surprised at how many of the SF books on the list that I have read- I always considered myself under-read in SF compared with fantasy.

Glad to see that _Stand on Zanzibar_ is there. Seems like no one I talk to has ever heard of that book, but it was a big deal to me as a teenager.

Surprised to see that _Dhalgren_ is there and not _Triton_. Not saying there is anything wrong with it, but it's a huge and very unconventional piece of fiction.

Also, I was kind of surprised to see Lord Valentine's Castle on the fantasy list only. If they put BotNS in both categories, I don't see why they wouldn't do the same for this book.

Michael Swanwick said...

The lists were made by popular vote with no list of suggestions to prime the pump; so what we're seeing is how people perceive the works.

I remember when Dahlgren came out. One of my friends, and possibly the most successful, said to me, eyes glowing, "That book SPOKE to me." I was years away from being published, and I thought: I want to write a book that will have readers like that.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

I think the only hope for surveys of this sort is to exclude books written in the last few years. It will always be the case that pleasant but forgettable books from the last year or so will earn scores that will in ten years seem absurd.

Still - it's a fun list. I think the chief pleasure comes from grumbling about how one's favourites aren't in the correct position - but that's a very real pleasure.

David Stone: I too encountered Stand On Zanzibar as a teenager and it made a huge impression on me - having raised myself on a diet of optimistic can-do pulp it came as a surprise from serveral angles.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

I just noticed:

> Let's start with my own work. Is it really better than Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, which ranked 49th?

Yes. I'm of the pretty firm opinion that all books are better than The Little Prince. I feel about it the same was Mark Twain felt about Jane Austen - its omission is a good start to any collection.

I'll admit that my opinions may be due to the emotional scarring caused by seeing an awful student theatre production of it while at university.

mcp said...

I should point out (since Michael didn't even notice) that "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" ranked 5th for 21st Century Short Story.