What are the classics of science fiction? Who gets to decide? Do the fans know best, or the critics?
I decided to use the wisdom of crowds. I gathered polls where fans voted for their all-time favorite books, found critics who wrote books on science fiction and included lists of their critical favorites, discovered books by science fiction writers recommending books that influenced their writing, added lists of award winners, and even made a list of which science fiction books have been made into movies, and put them all in a database. I ended up with 28 lists. From there I generated a new list, using any book being on at least seven of the original lists, and I called the results, The Classics of Science Fiction.
You are seeing version 3.0 of the database, with 193 titles, first assembled in 2002. Version 2.0, from 1996, used 13 recommendation lists, and produced 162 classic titles. If memory serves me right, version 1.0, which appeared in the fanzine, Lan's Lantern in the 1980s, used 8 lists and produced 69 titles. I'd like to find the time to create version 4.0, but until then I recommend Sci-Fi Lists Top 100.
Are there other methods for finding great science fiction novels? Is there any way to improve or expand the current Classics of Science Fiction list?
Teaching Science Fiction
For many people, classics are the books taught in school. Teaching college courses on science fiction started back in the 1970s, but I don't think you can get a degree in science fiction like you can in English literature. Occasionally, professors of these courses will put their required reading lists online. Google on "science fiction" with either syllabus or "reading list." James Gunn, a writer on the Classics of Science Fiction list, even has a website about Teaching Science Fiction.
Often the books taught are already on the Classics of Science Fiction list, which validates its methodology. If I could sample enough college courses on SF, I could create another database. If you teach a course, write me at jharris at jameswallaceharris dot com.
Finding New Books that Will Become Classics
I love discovering great books, especially ones I think will become classics. This takes a lot of work, and you have to wait years to see if you are right. To play this game requires reading tons of book reviews, and the web helps tremendously, especially now with the site SFFMeta.com. SFFMeta applies the wisdom of crowds to current book reviews.
I used to look down on bestsellers and bestseller lists, but I was wrong. The bestseller is just another indication of the wisdom of crowds, and Locus Magazine tracks several bestseller lists at their Weekly Bestsellers page. Of course, any book that becomes a best seller, and even wins an annual award, is not guaranteed to become a classic.
Staying in Print
To become a classic, a book needs to keep getting new readers for decades and centuries. That means staying in print. You can check The Internet Speculative Fiction Database for how many editions a title has had over the years. For example, look at Earth Abides by George R. Stewart or Dune by Frank Herbert. Most novels never get reprinted.
On the Big Screen
Books that get made into a movie are rare, so that's one kind of validation. Books that get filmed more than once is almost a guarantee the book will become a classic. There is talk of making a third version of Dune. Any writer that has several of his novels turned into movies is worth notice, like Philip K. Dick. Classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol and Little Women get a movie treatment almost every decade. Such attention is probably the best indicator a book is a all-time classic, the kind that will last centuries.
Audio Book Editions
Audio books have become very popular in the last decade, and like a movie treatment, getting produced in unabridged audio is a very good sign about the success of a novel. Special note should be taken for books getting produced more than once in audio, or if it gets the full cast treatment. Dune has had two audio editions, with the second a full cast production. On my blog, I track which Hugo winners are on audio. Some of Heinlein's and PKD's books have had more than one audio book edition.
Talking to Old Fans
Another benefit of the Internet is online discussion groups. I know of two book clubs devoted to the Classics of Science fiction: ClassicScienceFiction and ClassicSci-Fi. There is also rec.arts.sf.written, a usenet news group, the granddaddy of online discussion about science fiction. This is the place to ask if you remember a story plot but can't remember the title or author, because the old-timers there can usually remember. Another example of the wisdom of crowds.
Word of Mouth
I love asking bookworms who love science fiction what their all-time favorite books are. More often than not, they aren't the books on The Classics of Science Fiction list. This is were the wisdom of crowds breaks down, and the quirkiness of individuals shine. There are thousands of new SF/F/H novels publishes every year, few get reviewed, and 99.9% will disappear into obscurity. Sales are not a perfect measure of literary success. Some great novels never get the attention they deserve. This is a crying shame. But every once in awhile, a book will be rescued by word of mouth, and sometimes even get reprinted. Keep an eye on Amazon's used book prices. If an out-of-print book is selling for hundreds of dollars that's a good sign that word of mouth is boosting its value.
New Versus Old
Most people prefer to read new books. There is an excitement that goes with being on the cutting edge. There is an excitement that goes with being ahead of a trend. There is an excitement of discovering something great before your friends. New is where it's at. Classics are the books that never get old. Classics are the books that define shared culture. To understand the new books in context of the history of the genre makes a reader a wise reader, or even a scholar. If you have that kind of experience you can sometimes spot a new book that has the potential to become a classic, or even recognize when an old popular book won't.
I've been reading and rereading the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list for over twenty years now and I'm developing a feel for them. My methodology produced a list of books that are important to the generations growing up in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There are those of us who grew during those times that have lived long enough to wonder if any of our favorite science fiction books from childhood have become classics. We wonder which science fiction stories have weathered the test of time and still inspire sense of wonder? Will the books we love so nostalgically in memory now hold up to rereading? And most important, are these books finding new readers today?
The last question, that continues to haunt me is: Are there any 20th century science fiction books that will thrill readers in the 22nd century? It's a really tough question, and requires careful study of 18th and 19th century novels. Frankenstein and the novels of Verne and Wells are the oldest science fiction novels we have in the modern sense of what we call science fiction. They had a lot of fantastic competition. Why have they lasted when their contemporaries are forgotten? What will the readers in the 22nd century think of Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Earth Abides or Ender's Game?