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March 18, 2005

What SF is Great Literature?

Question from Jim Millen in the comment thread of the previous post:

Just out of curiosity, John, are there any SF books in particular that you would say are great literature? Obviously I guess this is going to be hugely subjective, but I'd be interested in what you, or anyone else for that matter, thinks.

I'm writing up a response, which I'll post here as an update, but I don't want the rest of you who would like to give your own answers to have to wait on me to finish. So if you would like to nominate some science fiction (or fantasy) that you think is genuinely great literature, please do. It would also be swell if you could at least briefly explain why that those works ring the "great lit" bell for you.


Update: Here are five of my "Great Lit" picks for SF/F:

Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley -- generally regarded as the first SF novel, and sets the fiction template for future tussles between hubris-filled scientists and God/nature.

1984, by George Orwell -- Once of the first and best evocations of a political dystopia, and one of the few SF books that is more important as political literature than as science fiction.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury -- Another dystopia, one that places literature itself in the crosshairs. I think The Martian Chronicles also qualifies, for being a brilliant testimony of the mid-20th century's relationship with Mars.

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin -- Glorious writing that re-imagines New York into the sort of place that makes Oz look pedestrian. Arguably the best written fantasy novel ever.

The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman -- Uneven (particularly in the parts when Gaiman had to pay fealty to the DC comic book universe) but ultimately one of the best examples of how the graphic novel format can be used to illuminate an already compelling tale (or set of tales in this case); it also features a main character tragically true to his own nature.

Alan Moore's Watchman is also brilliant and arguably great lit, too, but for my money it's a little too dependent on context (i.e., you have to know enough about comic books and superheroes to get all the deconstructing Moore does). The Sandman series is largely self-contained (even the previously-mentioned DC comics universe intrudes only lightly, and you can still get the full effect of the work without knowing anything about it -- ask my wife).

Posted by john at March 18, 2005 11:58 AM

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KenL | March 18, 2005 12:21 PM

John, you mention at least one of them in your posting about why LOTR isn't.


Kevin | March 18, 2005 12:22 PM

I find the whole idea of trying to establish what "great literature" is a little too subjective to be worthwhile. If we start by leaving off the word great, and just consider the question of whether or not SF is literature, we can leave the determination of whether or not it's great to the individual.

Probably the most appropriate definition for the work literature is this (from dictionary.com):

Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value: “Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity” (Rebecca West).

The recognized artistic value is the tricky part here. I would say that "Snow Crash" has artistic value for precisely the same reason that many people would say it isn't "great literature".

I'm not very critical of books I read. I like a lot of SF that many people probably wouldn't consider "great literature". So I guess the question is, what is the point of trying to identify what SF is great literature, and what isn't. There is something worthwhile in most author's style and writing, even if it isn't perfect (or even great).

Now that I've made the argument against making a list, here are a couple nominations. :)

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Jeff Porten | March 18, 2005 12:26 PM

First book that comes to mind on this question is Dune, which has both the epic sweep and the long stretches of turgidity that I associate with great literature. Every time I reread it, there are times I say, "Why do I like this book again?", but then it still manages to grab you by the throat long after you've put it back down.

I'd put the Foundation Trilogy as a whole in the same class, if only because so much of what is in there acted as a seminal blueprint for the genre.

More recently, I'm amazed at the scope of the works by Gaiman and Stephenson (if Stardust doesn't become a new classic, there's no justice in this world). And I note that a certain Mr. Scalzi's work has a strong tendency to create the lingering impressions that I attributed to Dune earlier. Honestly, I'm more inclined to call John's works "great reads" than "great lit", but I won't be surprised if he pens something of the latter category someday. (Excepting the turgid part, which I don't think he could do without heavy medication.)

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 12:27 PM

"I find the whole idea of trying to establish what 'great literature' is a little too subjective to be worthwhile."

Nonsense. It's good clean fun, and even granting the inherent subjectiveness of such an endeavor it would be interesting to see what SF works pop up as "great lit" in a number of people's estimations.

Dawn B. | March 18, 2005 12:28 PM

Having usually hated "Great Literature" in school and enjoyed most SF/F, I can't say as I would want to nominate anything for Great Literature.

Josh | March 18, 2005 12:33 PM

I'd nominate "Dune" by Frank Herbert. A good complex book full of characters, intrigue, danger, a little romance, and even a few messages and morals. I'd put it next to Dickens any day.

Kevin | March 18, 2005 12:35 PM

Nonsense. It's good clean fun, and even granting the inherent subjectiveness of such an endeavor it would be interesting to see what SF works pop up as "great lit" in a number of people's estimations.

If the purpose is to have fun making a list, that's great. As long as it isn't being used to promote the snobbery of "great writing" I'm all for it.

There will always be a critic, no matter how good the work. I'm a huge Bradbury fan, but I've read so many opinions about how poor someone thinks his writing is that I tend to ignore it. Maybe that's the good thing about making a list of great literature, rather than a list of what isn't great literature.

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 12:44 PM

"As long as it isn't being used to promote the snobbery of 'great writing' I'm all for it."

Ha! Have you read my novel? I'm the last one who should be making a fetish for "great writing." "Good writing" is what I'll settle for personally.

Bill Schafer | March 18, 2005 12:49 PM

I'd say the first two HYPERION novels by Dan Simmons. He takes some of the structure from Canterbury Tales, filters it though Keats, adds tragedy, hilarity and a metal killing machine that would make the Terminator weep.

SaraS | March 18, 2005 12:55 PM

I agree with the Dune comments. I would add:
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
- The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Aside from the science fiction aspect, I'd argue that these have that "recognized artistic value" described in the quote above.

They are also among my favorite books, but I suppose that isn't enough to make them great literature!!


Justin Anderson | March 18, 2005 01:05 PM


Personally, I'd only classify Hyperion as "great literature" -- while The Fall of Hyperion is very, very good it falls short of great for me. But I am so with you on Hyperion. "The Scholar's Tale" makes me weep every time I reread it.

For my own nomination: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. How can you go wrong with Jesuits in space?

Kevin Q | March 18, 2005 01:20 PM

I'd suggest "Earth Abides," by George R. Stewart. I think it's one of few "day after tomorrow" stories that tries (successfully) to be other than an adventure yarn.

Also, easily, "Brave New World." Literature in all of the best senses of the word.

I'd also second "Ender's Game," and "Left Hand of Darkness," as well as any Bradbury that anybody would care to name.


Dave | March 18, 2005 01:22 PM

I don't know of any. But I haven't finished "Old Man's War" yet, so I suppose there's still hope!

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 01:27 PM

Heh. Don't get your hopes too high, there, Dave.

sGreer | March 18, 2005 01:34 PM

I'd second on Dune, which is timeless not just for its multicultural what-if element but its intense political twist on the old sci-fi opera. In the dictionary under 'sweeping' you find... etc.

LeGuin, also, for Left Hand of Darkness. Ender's Game, another book that you don't have to like SF to really get into: any gimmicks are secondary to the actual story's underlying themes. And it's one big mindwarp, brutal, harsh, and pulls no punches. Oddly, Ender's Game, in my admittedly limited opinion, is the SF answer to Ellison's Invisible Man. The cog in the machine, ground down over and over and over, but trying to remain human despite it all.

I don't know if Farenheit 451 counts as SF, but it's definitely dystopian. It still amazes me that I read that as a kid, only to grow up and have 'seashells' of my own. When I tell people that the best writers are visionaries, Farenheit 451 is a top example. Screens that take up entire walls, imagine! F451 may be mostly a solid, competently written work--it's not nearly as graceful as Cooper or Pullman, granted--but there's something so breathlessly mundane. All the throwaway technologies that were unthought of, that Bradbury just tosses over his shoulder while writing. None of this "in your face, look, I'm being all futuristic!" crap.

Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series; CS Lewis' Narnia series; Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Sometimes it doesn't have to be six hundred pages to be timeless. Each of those is the old 'good v. evil' theme, but each with their own twist. Cooper's plays with time and repetition and balance. Lewis with metaphor and allegory, while Pullman takes those same allegories and twists them completely on their head. (Besides, I fell in love with Aslan's voice as a kid, seeing the animated version, so perhaps I'm a small bit biased on the second one.)

Err, was that what you meant?

Mikhail Capone | March 18, 2005 01:45 PM

Hmm.. Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

Maybe Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Scott Lynch | March 18, 2005 02:05 PM

Hyperion was so awesome I flung it across the room and screamed, "You bastard! when I hit the cliffhanger ending. The sequel... not so much. The ending really, really let me down. I actually use the term "Curse of Simmons--" Dan writes such spectacular beginnings that even he sometimes has trouble coming up with matching endings. There are, of course, major exceptions, like Carrion Comfort. Mmmm. But I am so far off topic, the Tangent Police are firing flash-bangs in through my windows and getting ready to storm the place...

Let's just say that Hyperion has the literary allusions lit professors respect, and the endlessly repeating plasma fire incineration-impalements of priests that science fiction fans crave.

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 02:10 PM

I've mentioned this before, but I am apparently one of the few people in the known universe who rather emphatically prefers Fall of Hyperion to Hyperion. The first book has got immense stylistic facility -- It's Simmons ringing the changes on any number of literary genres -- but the second book has propulsion, which is to day a compelling narrative drive I think the first one lacks do to it s structure. Bear in mind I think both are fabulous, but Fall is the book I reread.

Mike Kozlowski | March 18, 2005 02:18 PM

The Book of the New Sun, obviously. Vance's The Dying Earth. Powers' Last Call.

Todd | March 18, 2005 02:26 PM

I propose that any discussion of great literature must be preceded by criteria for what makes literature great. I suggest:.

1. A grand theme that causes one to stop and reflect (Dostoevsky)

2. Innovative or evocative use of language (Faulkner)

3. Sympathetic, complex characters (Homer)

I add one more criteria, exclusively for sci-fi / fantasy:

4. Truly creative or original technology or settings

So, armed with those criteria, here is my contribution, in no particular order. (I leave the task of ranking these to someone smarter than me).

- The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

- Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

- Neuromancer series, William Gibson

- The Silmarillion, J.R.R Tolkien

- Dune series, Frank Herbert

- 1984, George Orwell

Honorable mention: Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Greg Bear (Eon), Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep)

Most overrated (I will throw in a dig here to generate some discussion): Endger's Game, Orson Scott Card. Contrived characters, no theme, pedestrian prose, and a completely predictable plot "twist" at the end. People like this book why?

Bill Schafer | March 18, 2005 02:34 PM

I guess I'm really in the minority in considering HYPERION and FALL OF as pretty much equals. The first had more literary pyrotechnics, with each narrator adding to what we knew of the Shrike, but in moving on from that Canterbury style form in FALL, Simmons dodged expectations. I remember expecting another volume of first-person tales, and being somewhat put off at first at the change.

I'll toss a few others here: King's Dark Tower novels. I think they're highly uneven in spots, but from the mid-point of THE WASTE LANDS (fine adventure writing) to the end of WIZARD & GLASS (a western better than LONESOME DOVE, to my mind), King can't be touched.

Then there's also Straub's Blue Rose Trilogy, particularly KOKO and THE THROAT.


Lisa | March 18, 2005 02:35 PM

I have to agree with everything on your list--that I've read, at least.

This may make me vastly unpopular, but I wouldn't be at all shocked to find Stephen King's Dark Tower series on college reading lists 100+ years from now, if only for its sheer scope and wild left turn into meta experimentalist land. I'm the first to admit that man's written some absolute shit, but every now and then, with one book or story (or series) he transcends. The Stand ranks up there for me too, but I'm not sure which version, edited or unedited.

On the other hand, you could make the argument that large bits of "great literature" are really SF in disguise--Toni Morrison springs to mind first. I mean, hell, Philip Roth stood the literary world briefly on its ear last year with an SF premise so old and hoary that it doesn't even earn an eyeroll out of SF editors, jaded or otherwise, anymore (i.e., what if we didn't defeat Hitler?).

I think the line between genre and "great literature" is blurring, and I for one couldn't be more thrilled.

Bill Schafer | March 18, 2005 02:40 PM

Please forgive my not knowing the convention for quotes...

Lisa said:

I think the line between genre and "great literature" is blurring, and I for one couldn't be more thrilled.

The problem, for me, is that this allows writers such as Margaret Atwood to play in the sandbox without acknowledging (or even knowing) the conventions. Which results in books that she claims aren't "really" sci-fi.

I'm not arguing *for* genre boundaries, mind you.

Dan H. | March 18, 2005 02:42 PM

I'll fourth or fifth Dune and second A Canticle for Leibowitz. I read Canticle recently and it's one of the most powerful books I've read.
Lions of Al-Rassan (Kay) seems to have alot of great lit elements.
Would Nabokov's Ada count as SF?

Lisa | March 18, 2005 02:51 PM

I'm with you there, Bill. I think the problem in that case isn't so much that the line is blurred, but that the stigma of 'writing genre' is still so strong. Margaret Atwood is so SF it hurts, but if she were to start admitting it, she might lose, well not street cred, but certainly university tea cred. ;) Of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there's a certain very popular paranormal romance writer who's dying to be shelved in general fiction and escape the "genre ghetto".

My hope is that as the line blurs, the stigma of crossing the line will start to fade. Of course, the problem with all the line-blurring is that librarians and booksellers are going to get very confused about what goes where.

Dennis | March 18, 2005 03:04 PM

The first thing that came to my mind was Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun". I'm glad others thought of him as well. I'd also second Iain Banks "Use of Weapons" and maybe some others as well "Feersum Endjinn"? King's "Dark Tower" series is great. I think Pullman's "His Dark Materials" probably qualifies as well, although it is definitely not a good book for children.
Hyperion, yes.
Dune, yes. You guys are doing great!

sGreer | March 18, 2005 03:24 PM

Doh, two I forgot but few ever seem to bring up, but I think they're pretty spectacular. Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, which I read in HS; it was on the required reading list. It takes Clockwork Orange's concept of an evolved lingo to the extreme edge; the medium is a good chunk of the message itself. Post-apocalyptic mindscrew version of the journey tradition in SF/F.

And Woman on the Edge, by Marge Piercey, the SF version of Turn of the Screw. A protagonist unlike any I'd read until Gibson came along: lower class, not the best educated, in crippling poverty with some pretty hellacious circumstances. Maybe she's sane and it's all real, maybe she's insane and it's just a massive headtrip. I guess the big theme there is both 'what is reality' and 'even if it's not real, do your choices still matter?'

Megan | March 18, 2005 03:34 PM

Many good suggestions I won't bother to second (or third or fourth). From recent years I'll throw in The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson and The Scar by China Mieville for pretty much the same reasons: grand scope, detailed setting, well-drawn characters, distinctive (but not distracting) style.

Dave | March 18, 2005 03:34 PM

Ok, I'm not much of an SF reader, but of the ones listed here that I've read:

NOT Dune. Dull, plodding. Some creative beasties and stuff, but not Great Literature.
NOT LOTR. For pretty much the same reasons.
MAYBE Brave New World. There's a book that explores some serious issues, the way literature should. Not quite beautiful enough in the language department, to my mind.
MAYBE The Martian Chronicles, for the same reasons.
YES 1984. Forgot about that one! I'd say definitely.
YES Frankenstein. Again, big issues, well written. Probably not as definite a yes as 1984, but a good book. There are other "Great Works" that don't hold together as well as this one.

John H | March 18, 2005 04:08 PM

For a horror writer, Stephen King has some very well-done fantasy novels. The Stand, The Dark Tower series, The Talisman and Eyes of the Dragon come to mind.

Most people would point to The Stand as his best work, but I would argue for Eyes of the Dragon.

Douglas Anders | March 18, 2005 05:26 PM

Gene Wolfe, without question, writes great literature.

The Book of the New Sun gets all of the attention, but there is quiet greatness hiding in his Latro books (Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete) The worldviews of our Bronze Age ancestors was very strange and Wolfe uses that to create a wondrous alien world that we almost recognize.

I have recomended these books to many, and I am often later told that the reader now looks at the ancient world in a completely different way.

Scott Lynch | March 18, 2005 05:44 PM

I'd honestly peg Misery as King's real masterpiece-- it has perfect sizing and pacing, for once, from a guy who freely admits to writing books that are, shall we say, a tad unwieldy. It also shows off his honesty, his human insight, his best and most subtle stylistic tricks, and his mastery of narrative mechanics all at once.

Not that I'm down on the Dark Tower sequence. Oho no. For me, the only one that even flirts with falling short is Wolves of the Calla, which suffers from a few hundred pages of the literary equivalent of standing around with your hand in your pants.

I read The Stand at such an impressionable young age that its sense of atmosphere was burned onto my brain; I think about it nearly every time I find myself driving down an empty country road, which is all the time, since I live in the sticks.

Nina Katarina | March 18, 2005 06:15 PM

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Harry | March 18, 2005 06:47 PM

All the cool kids are talking about SF as literature lately.

Here's one: http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/2005/03/in-ghetto.html

Warning, overly long and not for folks who are prudish about language. Still, it's interesting.

Mitch Wagner | March 18, 2005 07:39 PM

Definitely yes! to "Canticle for Lebowitz." I'll add Vernor Vinge's "Fire Upon the Deep" and "Deepness in the Sky" to the list.

Arguendo: "Literature" and "Science Fiction" are two separate genres, with large overlap, like mystery, romance, thrillers and nurse novels are separate genres. Just because a novel is literary doesn't make it better than sf. Doesn't make it worse, either. It's just a different genre — although a particular novel or story can be both sf and literary.

"Dune" is great sf, but it's not great literature. The characters are cardboard, and the prose is crude. Still, I read it about a gajillion times when I was a teen-ager, and I expect that if I were to re-read it today I would enjoy it just as much as I did then.

It's cheating to include "1984" and "Fahrenheit 451" on the list of sf that's also great literature, because those novels are primarily literary, not sf. Orwell is a literary writer, and "451" is literary, too, like a lot of Bradbury's work, even if Bradbury did start out writing in Weird Tales and has lots of spaceships 'n Martians 'n robots 'n shit in his books.

John H | March 18, 2005 07:54 PM

Misery is certainly one of King's best, but I was trying to limit myself to those novels that would qualify as fantasy, which Misery wouldn't.

While I wouldn't classify it as great literature, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's trilogy is one of my all-time favorites. I can hardly wait for the new film adaptation to come out...

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 07:56 PM

"It's cheating to include '1984' and 'Fahrenheit 451' on the list of sf that's also great literature."

Nonsense. They take place in future/alternate time and/or feature speculative technology. They're science fiction.

Mitch Wagner | March 18, 2005 07:58 PM

Yes, they're science fiction, but they're primarily literary fiction. The science fiction elements aren't primary to the stories; the primary points of the stories are to make the political polemics.

(Also: she sells seashells by the seashore.)

John H | March 18, 2005 08:13 PM

What's interesting is how nobody seems to be mentioning Arthur C. Clarke or L. Ron Hubbard. I wonder if that's just an oversight or an intentional snub...

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 08:17 PM

Mitch: And? In both cases the political systems were speculative and relied on technology as an integral part of their system of control. Get rid of the science fiction elements, and you don't have a story. Which is indeed the very definition of SF.

John H | March 18, 2005 08:18 PM

No Asimov either - interesting...

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 08:22 PM

John H: It's because none of the three are very significant stylistically. Interesting ideas, all; workmanlike prose at best from each (Clarke being slightly better than Asimov or Hubbard).

Also, please don't post each comment twice. It will save me from deleting half your comments.

John H | March 18, 2005 08:31 PM

How about H G Wells' Time Machine?

(Sorry about the double-post. Not sure how that happened...)

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 08:33 PM

What about it? If you like it, list it.

You're still double posting.

John H | March 18, 2005 08:55 PM

I think the double-posting is from doing a refresh on my BlackBerry - it's resending the last command. So I won't be doing that again.

And yes, I would submit The Time Machine. Wells' foresight was remarkable for his time.

(If this one double-posts, I will give up for tonight...)

Mitch Wagner | March 18, 2005 08:59 PM

Well, another reason it's cheating to include F451 and 1984 on the list is because those novels are pretty widely acclaimed to be great literature already, both in the sf and literary communities.

It's like coming out with a list of the Top Movies Of All Time and putting "Citizen Kane" at #1 and "Casablanca" at #2. They're safe choices, not very interesting

John Scalzi | March 18, 2005 09:29 PM

Yeah, but "Citizen Kane" is a remarkable film -- a tour of 40 years of cinema plus a preview of new the cinematic trophes that would be used through the rest of the century; so whether it's an interesting, it's certainly justifable. Likewise (in their own ways) 1984 & F451.

Anyway, I did my bit for interestingness by nominating Sandman as great literature. A little from Column A, a little from Column B.

Squid | March 18, 2005 10:39 PM

I am completely and utterly incapable of being objective about Last Call, but having admitted it, I second that one.

Beagle's The Last Unicorn has always struck me as pretty literary, despite a tragic accident when I was, let's say, five that robbed me of my ability to figure out what exactly constitutes literature. Todd's guidelines only seem to be narrowing the field to 'books I really, really like', and that way lies madness.

I actually do read science fiction and even the occasional book without the word 'last' in its title, you people just keep beating me to the punch. I suspect Bester's Demolished Man is not 'great literature', but I would've suspected that about Last Call too before Mike Kozlowski mentioned it, so maybe.

Naomi | March 18, 2005 11:56 PM

I'll agree with those who have suggested Canticle for Liebowitz and The Sparrow; I also agree that 1984 is practically a no-brainer. I've occasionally thought about trying to compile a list of books that influenced their society in a noteworthy and worthwhile way -- whether they were fiction or non-fiction -- and 1984 would be on that list.

I would also submit the following to add to the list:

Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

He, She, and It by Marge Piercy (pubished in England under the title Body of Glass)

Mark Ensley | March 19, 2005 12:16 AM

Interesting question. To me for a work to be considered "literature" in some sense it needs to in some way wrestle with the big philosophical questions about what it means to be human. Furthermore, the work needs to have a timeless quality about it. Will people still be reading it in 200 years? Literary "awareness" in a work is nice but allusions aren't strictly necessary.

What's hard is that being a superb work of art doesn't necessarily make a book literature. For me a book needs to be both excellent in SF and Literary qualities to get on the list, so it's bound to be short.

These all make the cut in my mind:

Fahrenheit 451
The Left Hand of Darkness
A Canticle for Leibowitz
The Handmaid's Tale
Gravity's Rainbow
Brave New World

Authors whose work is literary but I haven't read enough of are:

Samuel R. Delaney
Octavia Butler
Stanislaw Lem

Some that I'm not quite sure about, as my love for them may be clouding my judgement are:

American Gods
Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series
Cat's Cradle
Childhood's End

For my money, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are very important, but not necessarily good enough to be included. I'd stick Hyperion in this category as well. It's a little too self-conscious in it's allusions for my taste.

I absolutely love the work of Heinlen, Card, Stephenson, and so on, but they're not literature to me.

I haven't read The Book of the New Sun or Nabakov's Ada but they're in my short list.

Mark Ensley | March 19, 2005 12:22 AM

One quality I forgot to add to my criteria is that great literary works are almost always multi-layered. A good work of literature works on the normal level of character, plot, setting etc. as well as deeper levels of abstraction, symbolism, or universality.

Simon | March 19, 2005 12:38 AM

Suggestion: Helprin's Winter's Tale is a piker next to John Crowley's Little, Big.

Mark Ensley | March 19, 2005 12:52 AM

D'oh! Forgot to add Italo Calvino and J.G. Ballard to my list of literary authors I haven't read enough of. One problem with him, though, is that he doesn't really write novels. Jorge Luis Borges also is problematic in this way. If we open up the discussion to shorter literary SF, then the list explodes...

Also, authors who almost, but not quite, write SF are those like Umberto Eco, John Barth, Donald Barthleme, and many other postmodernists.

Speaking of postmodernists, Dom DeLillo does write SF, but none of his stuff ever struck me as good enough to be literature.

There's probably room here to bring up Bruce Sterling's concept of "slipstream" writing, which he introduced in this article (which concludes with a great list of books):


Tim Walters | March 19, 2005 01:42 AM

I'm going to go with the idea that there is a specific kind of pleasure I get from reading certain works generally-accepted as Great 20th-Century Lit: Dubliners, As I Lay Dying, Pale Fire, Gravity's Rainbow, etc., and the SF I nominate should be that which gives me pleasure that's as close to the same kind as possible. These authors, of course, are quite different from each other, but seem to have something in common that Swords In The Mist, The Space Merchants, Star Maker, Lord of the Rings, and Last Call don't (although I love these books just as much as any of the others).

So, my list:

Robert Aickman: The Wine-Dark Sea
J.G. Ballard: Crash*
John Crowley: Engine Summer (and I concur with Simon in preferring Little, Big to the pleasant but sentimental Winter's Tale)
Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren
Thomas M. Disch: 334, Camp Concentration
Carol Emshwiller: The Start of the End of it All
John Fowles: Mantissa*, A Maggot
Alan Garner: Red Shift*
Felix Gotschalk: Growing Up In Tier 3000
Alasdair Gray: Lanark*
Richard Grant: Views From The Oldest House
Ursula K. LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness
Rhoda Lerman: The Book Of The Night*
Richard Powers: The Gold Bug Variations*
Christopher Priest: The Prestige
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: Reindeer Moon*
Gene Wolfe: The Fifth Head of Cerberus, The Book of the New Sun

Books with an asterisk are arguably not SF, but I'm using the same reasoning: they give me recognizably SFnal pleasure. It's a long list; I have to wonder if they're all really "great," but I would have a hard time choosing among them.

Soni | March 19, 2005 01:48 AM

If alternative histories count, then my vote is for Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. It follows a group of connected souls through several cycles of reincarnation as they live through a world where the Black Plague of the 14th century was 99% lethal and Islam and Buddhism became the dominant cultural movers in the world in the vacuum left by the near-complete obliteration of Christian Europe. The individuals are never precisely the same people each time around, instead always representing the same sort of personality in different manifestations, but are each time drawn together in various ways and in various circumstances that lend a rich interweaving of suspense, narrative and character development (as each soul grows and advances spiritually, or fails to ).

The writing is superb, the voice rich and complex and the characterization amazingly deep and varied. Although I do agree with the Amazon reviewers that the ending lacks the strength of the rest of the book, I personally feel that it is not a fatal flaw (every book has something that we'd all like to change, and I feel that the artistry of the writing and characterization makes up for the wind-down in plot). And, if the ending asks more questions than it answers, I feel that it manages to do so in a way that leaves the reader some philosophical "independent study" to do on their own.

This one is definitely going into my personal "keeper" collection to be read over and over.

Mark Ensley | March 19, 2005 02:16 AM

One more: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Jade | March 19, 2005 02:32 AM

Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner. Absolutely beautiful language, characters I love and can't claim to fully understand, and a meditation on the many forms and requirements of personal honor.

Mark Ensley | March 19, 2005 03:18 AM

Kim Stanley Robinson rocks, Soni, and I considered adding The Years of Rice and Salt but it seemed a bit too new.

Tim Walters, you might want to look for the article Bruce Sterling wrote about the concept of Slipstream writing.

Abigail | March 19, 2005 03:22 AM

Simon and Tim beat me to it when they pointed out that Little, Big is infinitely superior to Winter's Tale. I also second the mention of Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, although I think it's been recently overshadowed by David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (a book which I have seen referred to as SFF, but that seems fuzzy to me). I'd also add Girl In Landscape by Jonathan Lethem, Light by M. John Harrison and Grendel by John Gardner. I think Alfred Bester's superior work (and probably the best Golden Age SF I've ever read) is The Stars My Destination.

No mention of short story anthologies, by the way, except for the superb The Martian Chronicles. Probably the best SF I've read in recent years has been Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others and Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang. In fantasy, Kelly Link's collection Stranger Things Happen isn't perfect, but it comes darn close, and Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (more a non-linear novel than a short story collection) is some of the best literature - genre or other - I've read in years.

Philboid Studge | March 19, 2005 10:53 AM

Nary a word about Philip K. Dick?

Simon | March 19, 2005 12:02 PM

John Scalzi has an interesting point in implying that there's a difference between "SF that is great literature" and "SF that is the best SF" though of course a given book could be both.

Tim Walters has taken this ball and run with it, though the result is that the "certain kind of pleasure" he's using to define Great Literature turns Great Literature into a specific genre which, as Mark Ensley seems to be observing, overlaps with SF mostly in what's called Slipstream in the field (and New Wave among older material). There's merit in this approach, but it can be taken too far.

Scott Spiegelberg | March 19, 2005 12:33 PM

I offer Connie Willis, particularly The Doomsday Book. I wept; was struck by the amazing observations on language, society, and religion; and thought the writing was quite elegant.

Simon | March 19, 2005 04:19 PM

Willis's Doomsday Book reminded me of John Hersey's The Child Buyer: I felt I was wandering through a fog inhabited by particularly dimwitted characters. Couldn't possibly be more different a reaction from Scott's.

Tim Walters | March 19, 2005 04:30 PM

There's merit in this approach, but it can be taken too far.

And I'm sure I did! One could just as easily argue that slipstream is neither fish nor fowl, and is less of a contribution to Lit than books that represent the unique essence of Skiffy (whatever that is).

While I'm agreeing with you, I'll also cry ixnay on the Doomsday. I thought it had a decent 120-page novel struggling for the beach, but ultimately drowning in a tide of repetitive, dull exposition. Basically, the part set in the present day should have been reduced to a short setup.

Tim Walters | March 19, 2005 04:36 PM

"I thought it had" => "I thought it contained"

It would take more than this change to make that an acceptable sentence, but every little bit helps.

Tim Walters | March 19, 2005 04:39 PM

Philboid: Dick's writing can be clunky, but, come to think of it, I'm not sure that's an insuperable obstacle. His best books are certainly great.

Abigail | March 19, 2005 06:05 PM

Yet another vote against Doomsday Book. There's a good story in there somewhere, but as it stands the book is at least twice as long as it needs to be. Plus, indifferent writing, plot holes you can fly spaceships through, cardboard characters and inappropriate, overused humor. It has my vote for the most egregious Hugo/Nebula win ever.

gary gibson | March 19, 2005 07:10 PM

I'll agree there's a definite distinction between sf as great sf, and sf as great literature: maybe the difference is that the latter makes a particular point about what it means to be human. That's not to say sf-which-is-simply-great-sf is somehow 'less', just that it makes different points about different things.

Keeping that in mind, I'd vote for Bester's Stars My Destination, which I didn't fully learn to appreciate until I read an editorial by Norman Spinrad in Asimov's some years ago (since collected in a book of essays by Spinrad, probably long out of print) called The Emperor of Everything. If you can find it anywhere, anywhere at all, read it, if you're at all serious about sf. Stars My Destination really is about what it means to be human, and in that respect I consider it (without going into great detail) to be great literature.

Otherwise, I'd say Dune, too, since it's more about the demands people make of their prophets and thereby of their religions than it is about the background environment - Arrakis, and so forth, as brilliantly written and imagined as it undeniably is. One I don't recall getting mentioned in these comments, though, which I think is worth a mention, is Silverberg's Book of Skulls. I was never a big Silverberg fan, but this one took my by surprise: it also cuts (as I recall) to the heart of the experience of life, and is a book I do believe might equally be sold as non-sf as sf.

Also Dick - most particularly A Scanner Darkly, a book I sincerely hope gets the attention it deserves when the movie comes out. it's true his writing could be clunky - especially during the amphetamine-gargling, knock 'em out phase of his career - but not here: here it's lucid, clear and relentless.

I've always loved Ballard, and he's an automatic 'in' for a list like this, but which one to pick? High Rise? Except it isn't actually genre (but still brilliant), so maybe The Drought or even The Drowned World.

Books like Eon, or A Fire Upon The Deep, by contrast, are equally great, but in a different way: they're sf as great sf, but not sf as great literature, in the way these other books (in my humble opinion) are. Exactly where the difference lies and whether it has any real objective rather than subjective value is, of course, a whole giant argument in itself, as exemplified in Hal Duncan's recent essays.

Jon Mann | March 20, 2005 07:17 PM

I'll mention The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick, since no-one else has. I need to reread it to be sure, but it seems to me as singular as, say, Little, Big.

Michael Rawdon | March 21, 2005 01:04 PM

I think Sandman is very good - but short of great - literature, and short for reasons that have nothing to do with the DC Universe. Large swaths of the story are meandering and fairly pointless (this describes most of the first two volumes of the series, for instance, which have the additional drawback of being saddled with poor illustrations - it's no coincidence, I think, that Mike Dringenberg faded into obscurity after leaving the series).

On the other hand, the gestalt of the series is very strong, especially once you reach the concluding volume, which renders a number of otherwise-perplexing plot threads relevant. So overall it's a win.

(FWIW, the comic book I would say is most similar to Sandman is James Robinson's Starman. I suspect the similarity is somewhat deliberate on Robinson's part. Starman self-conciously relies on its ties to the DC Universe, though.)

Funny that you think Watchmen doesn't make the list because it's too dependent on the reader understanding comic books and superheroes in context. I've been reading an extended interview with Alan Moore and it sounds like this is exactly the opposite of his intent: While the story's basic idea is rooted in superheroes, he and Dave Gibbons were trying to craft a story which is highly experimental and did not rely on existing superhero conventions to tell its story.

I think they basically succeeded. Watchmen's impact in the comic book industry was in large part due to its contrast with comic books up to that point (i.e., it got a lot of attention because it was so different), but I think the story in and of itself stands alone quite effectively with only minimal background on the superhero "genre". Indeed, it takes some pains as to describe the background of what a superhero is (i.e., why someone would put on a costume and fight crime). That the nature of superheroes in Watchmen is different from what we're used to is only interesting to people who are used to the prevailing vision of superheroes, but that's not what's essentially interesting about the comic.

Have I talked myself into a circle now?

Sparky TC | March 22, 2005 06:24 PM

Hmmm. I've had this conversation with friends/fellow students since high school, and I've come to one major conclusion: the key to HAVING this discussion is a clear evaluation of terms and criteria! First of all, SF itself. Many (most?) SF/F writers have begun using SF to stand for Speculative Fiction, which brings everyone under a nice wide umbrella, and allows those crossover books that have become more common in recent years a home in TOs. I prefer this myself, since I think that there is a fundamental kinship between the 2 (sub)genres, but hey, it's your thread, John. In the opener you said "science fiction or fantasy", so shall we roll them both in to SF?

Second, a lot of people seem to be thinking of SF in terms of whether it is "classic" great literature, i.e. written by someone dead before your grandparents were born. Others include 20th century great lit. There is certainly a difference in the standards applied to the old vs. the new, as evidenced by the use of the phrase "at the time he/she wrote". Many people find Chaucer and Cervantes to be wooden and dry, but would call them great literature. Basically, is the definition of great lit "works that have had significant impact on the world of literature", "works that have exhibited the strongest mastery of the writer's craft", or "works that have had the largest impact on society"? Or a combo? Personally, I lean towards an equal measure of the latter two. Finnegan's Wake was a revolutionary book, but I would argue that it is so inaccessible to the average Joe as to be useless to him, even if someone else reads it to him. Books are storytelling, in my opinion, and if your point doesn't cross to a large audience even when explained, I think it's too esoteric to be truly great. But again, it's your house, John...

The final issue is one that several people have addressed to one degree or another throughout this thread: is great SF going to be inherently different from great lit? Basically, the question is whether something is great sf because it epitomizes/maximizes the genre, or because it is "literary" (see the first point...). I think to be truly great SF, it has to be both. This is kinda harsh, but to me "great" is not a word to be bandied about. Hal Duncan addressed the matter but falls into the trap? mistake? usual habit of everyone but me and a few writers? of thinking of SF as skiffy, which sends him off on what seems to me a tangential exploration. LOTR and Stranger in a Strange Land are both fundamentally "what if" books. They just go off in different directions from the same question. Yes, I know "what if" is pretty much the definition of fiction, but I think there is a notable distinction between "what if someone's wife left them" and "what if there were elves/rocket cars".


My fave noms for the great tag:

Pullman's Dark Materials (definitely young adult)

The Left Hand of Darkness


Fahrenheit 451

Dick's A Scanner Darkly (which I was very pleasantly surprised to see already mentioned. I've wondered a time or 2 if anyone but me had read it in recent years.)

King's Dark Tower series (same ambivalence as everyone else, but for me it's like watching a power hitter; when he connects, whew! Every so often, the man hits a 700 footer. Yes, 700.)

The Talisman

Straub's Blue Rose Trilogy ( I was lucky enough to read KOKO and The Stand one right after the other, and so when I found out they had written a book together...woohoo!)

Initial nom from me: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

Aside from a tendency to enjoy crossword vocabulary a hair too much, flawless. Iffy on the Second Chronicles...

Personal de-nomination: Ender's Game. Good read, not great. Good examination of fundamental issues, not great. Good read, not great book.

Possible nom I am incapable of evaluating reasonably: the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. If Candide or Gulliver qualifies, so does his work. Unlike a lot of prolific writers, he has improved steadily with age.

Jesmond10 | March 22, 2005 08:14 PM

Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous With Rama. As perfect as the sequels are crap. This is a flawless book - elegant, sparse and, if we ignore those regrettable sequels, richly ambivalent.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse 5. How has this not been mentioned?

I'd inclue some Borges stories for sure, notably Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and The Library of Babel

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels. This seems another fairly obvious inclusion.

Saint Thomas Moore's Utopia is a pretty clear inclusion.

Plus the standard others: Farenheit 451, Brave New World, The Time Machine

Does Stephenson's Cryptonomicon qualify as SF? The Diamond Age is nearly as good.

No Asimov would come even close to making the cut. Indeed, he is an interesting case in that his books ably suggest the difference between great SF and great literature. His prose is appalling, but the Foundation series works as SF through the originality of its ideas, though many of these are now charmingly quaint (they gain voice-recognition software in a mere 20 000 years!).

And yes - I would maintain a generic line between SF and Fantasy. I think the only thing the genres share is a tendency to be grouped together in mainstream bookstores and to be read voraciously by teenage boys. The political aspects of SF have been inherent to the genre from the get-go, while good fantasy is good regardless. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books are undeniably great, but their relevance to our society is almost none. But great SF, be it by Wells or Stephenson is *usually* a kind of futuristic fable.

Bill Lane | March 23, 2005 06:49 AM

Glad to see Feersum Enjinn mentioned a couple of times; structurally impressive, logical extremes of technology and a good sense of humour to boot.

A few new nominations:

Vurt and Pollen by Jeff Noon. Drug-fuelled and frankly insanse, but a stylistic approach unlike any other I know.

Trillions by Nicholas Fisk. A children's book and probably not great literature, although the two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but it started me on SF and is an excellent concept.

The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. I'm rather biased here as he has always been a favourite of mine, but I feel his dry, concise style and small-scale view of Earth-changing events convey his stories in a unique and very English fashion.

Indy | March 23, 2005 09:50 PM

1984 made me feel fridgid, damp and hungry on a sweltering august day just after eating barbeque. it's that intense.

I dunno if it has the depth of theme to be "great" but I really like Orson Scott Card's "Lovelock".

Anonymous | April 3, 2006 01:05 PM


Anonymous | April 3, 2006 01:07 PM

i can't speak very good english so i-can't understand this text and the meaning of the text sry

Richard | April 29, 2006 12:59 AM

I want to put in my vote for 1984, one of the most vivid and haunting books I've ever read. But while great, isn't it a stretch to put it in the SF category? Also, I think Dune is a fine choice--people have criticized it, but I find Herbert's excellent style to be its saving grace.

Anonymous | April 30, 2006 06:26 PM

I haven't read clear through this topic (it being created in March 2005 I don't think it matters that much), but I'd like to comment on a few of the titles I've seen mentioned.

1984, although I've never read it, has always stood in the sci-fi catagory in my mind. Never have I tried to place it in a different genre.

Dune is one of the few books I've seriously disliked. It was boring, disturbed me, and did not benifit me intellectually in any way that I've noticed, unless it was in revealing to me that there actually are books in which I place no value and regret having read. This might sound harsh, but it's probably due to how most people I've heard mention Dune say only positive things about it. I'm sorry if you enjoyed the book, but I do not consider it to be great literature.

Ender's Game has to be one of my favorite books of all time. Not only did the storyline pulled me in, but it made me consider things in a different light. It definately belongs on the list to me.

Of course, these are all highly subjective opinions.

SweetDavid | January 5, 2007 03:28 AM

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Anonymous | March 8, 2007 05:15 PM

I'm going for:

Dune. Yes, but still questionable.
Alfred bester - The Stars My Destination
Arthur C Clarke - Rendezvous with rama (maybe)
HG Wells - The War of the Worlds (forget the films)

Not questionable:
Olaf Stapledon - The First and last Men
Olaf Stapledon - Star Maker

These last two works have had significant influence on SF literature, anthropology and phylosophy. A gauge by which to measure every future history written afterwards.

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