Our goal is to identify science fiction books that are remembered over time. We call them the Classics of Science Fiction, even though the term classics is a loaded word for many, and defined in widely different ways. The term science fiction is also controversial and has never been adequately defined in a precise manner. Working on this project is leading us towards a deeper understanding of both terms. We limit the scope of this project to science fiction because we believe science fiction is a singular concept, even though it can’t be easily defined. Throughout the centuries writers have speculated about the future, distant worlds, alternate histories, time travel, unexplored territories, artificial life, robots, intelligent machines, non-human intelligent beings, and other concepts beyond the mundane that could be a part of our reality if we knew more.
Our technique is simple. We found 65 lists that recommend science fiction books and generated a cumulative list of books that include any title that had been on at least 10 of those lists. We call the resultant list when ordered by being on the highest percentage of lists, the Classics of Science Fiction. We also show that list ordered by title, author, and year.
This is version 4 of the Classics of Science Fiction. The first version appeared in the fanzine Lan’s Lantern in the 1980s. The second in the 1990s, the third in the 2000s. For version 1, the minimum cutoff was being on 3 of 9 lists, for version 2, it was 5 of 13, for version 3, it 7 of 28. For this new version 4, it is 10 of 65.
The most revealing table we produced is a comparison of Versions 1-4. Books in red are those titles that didn’t make it to Version 4. Books in blue are new to Version 4. But look for titles that span the lists with growing numbers. Those books might be the ones still read in fifty years.
Stats by decade shows the number of lists per decade, and what percentage of those lists the book was on. We had to use percentages because some books were not eligible for all lists (list created before the book was published, list for female writers, not eligible for an award, etc.)
Looking at a comparison of lists made in the 20th and 21st centuries show a shift from older books to new books, but it also reveals that some older books are still top favorites.
The Science Fiction by Women Writers list shows the popularity of SF books written by women. We use a cutoff of 4 lists to make a longer list. 28 titles were on the Classics of Science Fiction list. 8 of the 65 lists focused on women writers and 1 list on women and people of color, but they often showed more variety than consistency. We hope this list shows the most consistently remembered science fiction books written by women. If you click on the hyperlinked number of lists to look at the source listings, you’ll see the women writers lists did not affect the overall outcome significantly.
Using a cutoff of a minimum of 10 lists produces a final list of 140 books. That’s probably too many. If the cutoff had been 12, it would have produced a list of 101 titles, which is about perfect. Lists longer than 100 tend to wear out attention spans. But we want to remember as many books as possible. Readers of this list should make their own cutoff number. Scroll down the Rank list until you see books you don’t know. That might be your cutoff figure. I think any books that were on 20 or more lists (the first 45 titles), should be well known to any serious science fiction fan. The cruel reality is in 50-100 years, most of the books on this list will be forgotten by future fans.
These lists come from fan polls, award lists, recommended reading lists, reading lists used in schools, from library science books for collection building, from lists claiming to have the best all-time science fiction, and so on. Currently, we have 65 source lists.
This statistical method is effective but not perfect. We can’t claim you will love reading the most popular books. We can only say they are the most remembered books. However, there does seem to be a correlation between being remembered and the odds of readers liking a book. In the future, we hope to find additional methods to identify the classics.
We did not personally select the books. If your favorite book isn’t on the list it only means you love a book that isn’t popular with other readers. It can still be an outstanding novel. Most novels are forgotten right after they are published, including many excellent works. Popularity has never equaled quality, but the books our society calls classics are usually the books that have survived the test of time and are remembered. There are some books on the Classics of Science Fiction list that we don’t like, and some of our all-time favorite science fiction novels didn’t make the cut. Our lists contain books that we can statistically show are being remembered. That’s all. But we think that’s what defines the term classics.
In the past science fiction was written mostly by white males. That is changing. We have done our best to identify books written by women. With each version of the list, more books by women writers have appeared. We have tried to find as many current lists as possible to reflect these changes. Unfortunately, only about one-fifth of the titles from the main list are written by women. Again, the books on this list are not selected by us, but by the methodology we use. The trend it reveals is readers are reading more books by women, and in the future, the percentage of books by women writers will be greater. Version 5, should come out in the 2020s, but starting with this version, we will be updating the lists on a continual basis, as we find new lists to add to our database.
Our methods also reveal how books are forgotten over time. Not only have we worked to show current trends, we have also worked to help remember books that are being forgotten. In recent years I’ve been reading 19th and early 20th-century science fiction, and those books show that there have always been people thinking about science fictional concepts. These older books may feel dated, invalidated by newer science, but they still represent a yearning to speculate. Science fiction, even before it got its modern label, has always assumed there is more to reality than we can measure. Most fans of science fiction probably feel the current state of SF novels reflect cutting-edge science, but within a few decades, contemporary novels will seem as silly and quaint as old Doc Smith novels from the 1930s do to us today.
We feel studying science fiction as a distinct human effort reveals an aspect to our species that has always existed. We believe science fiction is a unique art form. It is distinctly different from fantasy. It is difficult to define science fiction and to classify books as being science fiction. However, once you comprehend the goals of science fictional speculation, the easier it gets to distinguish between science fiction and not science fiction. However, there are many books that don’t speculate that is called science fiction. Science fiction has become a huge entertainment genre, which essentially means there are two concepts trying to share the same label. If you read a book and are only entertained, and even though it might be called science fiction by everyone, it is not what we’re aiming here to identify as science fiction.