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100 Greatest Works of Science Fiction
by Steven H Silver

Entertainment Weekly I'm looking at the October 16 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which proudly proclaims that it includes a list of the 100 greatest works of science fiction. The magazine does not qualify this by saying the 100 greatest SF films, or TV series, but leaves the list open to include books, magazines, video games, and comics. However, the bulk of the list, seventy-six items, are either films, television series or both. It would be easy to point to items, both cinematic and literary, which are more deserving of a place on the list, but I do not intend to do that. Rather, I'll offer some alternatives.

First, I would like to digress and discuss the history of science fiction as a genre. Although science fiction has existed since the nineteenth century with works like Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (#4), the genre wasn't formulated as such until Hugo Gernsback named the field with the founding of Amazing Stories (#19). In its early days as science fiction, the field had something of a ghetto mentality, and was frequently looked down on by critics, authors and the public who were not a part of that ghetto. For decades, science fiction has been attempting to put that image behind it. In many ways, the list published in Entertainment Weekly proclaims that the ghetto is gone.

However, it does this by omission. Not only are the poor quality pulps ignored, but the list does not include a single short story, the foundation upon which science fiction was built. The closest the list comes is the inclusion of the film A Boy and His Dog (#96), based on Harlan Ellison's short story of the same name, and Isaac Asimov's collection, I, Robot (#21).

Entertainment Weekly Entertainment Weekly In fact, other than Amazing Stories, the only other magazines listed are comics such as Weird Science (#35), Superman (#10), and Watchmen (#98). Based on the published list, such magazines as Galaxy, Astounding/Analog, Asimov's SF, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, to name just a few, made no significant contribution to science fiction.

It is interesting that several of the films listed were based on novels or short stories. Although the films are listed, the article does not discuss why the film version of such works as Blade Runner (#13), A Clockwork Orange (#22), The Thing (#30), Solaris (#36), or Soylent Green (#38) for instance, are better than the works by Philip K. Dick, Anthony Burgess, John W. Campbell, Stanislaw Lem or Harry Harrison upon which they are based.

And that is one of my problems with the list. It seems to naturally assume that the filmed version of a work is better than the print version, with a few notable exceptions such as 1984 (#13), Slaughterhouse Five (#50), Dune (#83), and The Time Machine (#15). Of the thirteen novels listed, only five have not been made into films, almost implying that any important work will be filmed eventually.

I find this notion interesting because of another thought which has been going through my mind over the past few days. I've heard a lot about the fragmentation of fandom, caused, at least in part, by the proliferation of titles. Whereas a fan could read just about everything published in the forties and fifties, a modern fan could read twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, and still miss stories and novels which are being published. On the other hand, a fan who was determined (and who had a good video machine) could easily watch all the science fiction films and TV series which are currently being made.

Films, therefore, have become the modern common ground for science fiction fans. At a convention, a fan of, say, Michael Bishop, might not be able to find another Bishop fan (he's worthwhile reading), a fan of Babylon 5 (#97) will easily be able to find other B5 fans. While not all science fiction fans have read Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977), it is a safe bet to assume that nearly all science fiction fans have seen Star Wars (#1) from the same year.

Written science fiction, therefore, may have become a causality of its own success. By becoming more and more common, with more and more titles published annually, it has caused the fragmentation of its own fan base. Perhaps it is inevitable that cinema is pushing out literary fandom, since it allows for a more homogenized base, and therefore allows more common ground for conversation. Nevertheless, in order to keep growing, science fiction needs to be aware of its roots. Literary SF continues to grow by looking at what has gone before and building on it, not re-creating it. Although Hollywood may produce quality sf, part of the way Hollywood works is to attempt to recreate its most recent success.

Although I said I wasn't going to point out replacements, I'm going to suggest some novels which would fit very well on Entertainment Weekly's list, perhaps replacing such films as They Live! (#95) or Lost in Space (#69):
Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination
Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game
Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five"
Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Murray Leinster's "First Contact"
Walter Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy

Copyright © 1998 by Steven H Silver


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