Tuesday, June 24, 2008

SFX Top 100: Meming Away the Day

First I saw Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen doing it, and thought "is this a meme?"

Then I saw RobB do it, and I knew it was a meme, since he linked to several others.

So now it's my turn -- below are the Top 100 SF Writers, as voted on by the readers of the British magazine SFX, with comments by Yours Truly.

First of all, a caveat: the SFX list is explicitly of "Favourite" authors, not "best." And there really is no arguing with taste...particularly with bad taste. But, since I want to do this anyway I'm going to pretend that the list is of "Best," and complain or praise on that basis. Remember: I know the difference; I'm just ignoring it as suits me. (And also being sarcastic and/or joking much of the time.)

  • 100. James Herbert
    A minor British horror writer who just sneaks onto the list because the voters are all British. I've never read him, but I don't feel it much of a lack. If this were a list of "Best," this would be the first name jettisoned.

  • 99. Gwyneth Jones
    A fine writer whose work has never done much for me. She's influential and worthy, but probably only made it onto this list at all because she's British.

  • 98. Sara Douglass
    She's a crowd-pleasing epic fantasy writer, in a modern, quite feminine way (lots of talking about the relationship and hurt/comfort), but not what I would call a major important writer at this point.

  • 97. Charles Stross
    I'd think he would be higher on the list, but he's had a lower profile in the UK than in the US so far. And his novel career is still only about a decade old. Still, I bet this is only the first hint that this list -- and the reading audience in general -- leans more to Fantasy than SF.

  • 96. Terry Goodkind
    On the grounds that he's a major bestseller with a very popular series, I'm surprised that he's this low on the list. Does he sell less well in the UK? Or do his readers there think of him as a guilty pleasure?

  • 95. Brian W. Aldiss
    Probably should be higher if we're judging pure worthiness, but never wrote that one big novel to crystallize his fame. Aldiss is inevitably the least of the British New Wave triumvirate (with Ballard and Moorcock), but third isn't a bad place to be. The fact that he's on this list at all shows that he's not forgotten, which is the usual fate for older writers.

  • 94. Ken MacLeod
    Given the length of his career to date, this is a reasonable placement for MacLeod.

  • 93. Olaf Stapledon
    On the one hand, he's easily the third most influential British genre writer ever, after only Tolkien and Wells. On the other, he never was the kind of writer to really be a favorite; there's something chilly and distanced about Stapledon. So hitting the list at all, so long after his death, is probably an achievement.

  • 92. Michael Marshall Smith
    I think of him as a minor writer who isn't even writing SF anymore; the great British public (or some subset of it) clearly disagrees with me.

  • 91. Jon Courtenay Grimwood
    I've read a couple of his books and found them decent but slightly sloppy thrillers with not always consistent SFnal skins on them. He's clearly an enjoyable writer, which is why he's on a list like this.

  • 90. Christopher Priest
    He's an influential and highly respected writer, but I wouldn't have expected many people to list him as a favorite. It's a pleasant surprise to see him on this list.

  • 89. Jonathan Carroll
    I do have the feeling that he writes more-or-less the same book every time out, at least for the last decade and a half, but his best works are mesmerizing fantasy novels that merge everyday life and the luminous. I'd have liked to see him higher on this list, but I'd like to see a lot of things that I never will.

  • 88. Scott Lynch
    Can someone really be a favorite when he's only published two novels? Sure, they're both really fun novels, but it seems a little soon for readers to be nailing their colors to his mast.

  • 87. David Weber
    Would probably rank much higher in a poll taken in the US, but his showing here proves that even the Brits like to see regular explosions in space, complete with earth-shattering kabooms.

  • 86. M. John Harrison
    I think of Harrison as being like Priest (#90) only more so, so I'm not entirely sure if I expected him to place higher than Priest did. Priest feels more British to me, and Harrison more New Wave, so I guess I'm surprised Harrison outpolled Priest. But Harrison has had a high-profile book more recently than Priest, which probably explains it. I've only tried to read Harrison a few times, and never got very far.

  • 85. Jacqueline Carey
    Her current "Kushiel" trilogy seems to be notably less popular than the first one -- I suspect that sexy fantasy really needs to have a female protagonist to draw in a large appreciative audience -- which may have hurt her standing in this poll. For myself, I've enjoyed large swaths of her writing, but generally found that there were too many swaths in all for my taste, especially when so many of them involved people hitting each other, ostensibly for fun.

  • 84. Kim Stanley Robinson
    My cynical brain wonders if his recent "only policy wonks can save us from runaway global warming!" trilogy was better received in the UK than over here (where it seem to have just passed through town quietly; I haven't checked sales). His profile seems to have been slowly dropping since the heyday of the Mars books; maybe it's dropped less -- or come back more -- in the UK.

  • 83. Theodore Sturgeon
    In a list of pure merit, this would rank somewhat higher. But, for a guy who's been dead a quarter-century and was never much of a novelist, being 83rd favorite writer is pretty darn good.

  • 82. J.V. Jones
    I believe Jones didn't have the same publishing hiatus in the UK as over here, which may be what makes this seem like an odd choice to me. I may also be judging her too harshly, but she's always seemed like just another average decent fantasy writer to me -- which makes me wonder if the upper reaches of this list will be awash in similar types.

  • 81. Joe Abercrombie
    Who's written, what?, two-thirds of a trilogy so far? Some people may have really low standards, but I don't think anyone can be your favorite writer if you don't even know how he handles endings yet.

  • 80. Joe Haldeman
    A fine SF writer, and I'm happy to see a sizable number of Brits remember him and like his stuff.

  • 79. Simon Clark
    See James Herbert (#100) -- Clark is the equivalent for the next generation. I guess there are people who like horror novels as a matter of course; I find such people creepy and cross the street to avoid them.

  • 78. George Orwell
    I've written about how powerful and important Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are before, but I suspect this he's mostly an "I really should" choice. Animal Farm is deeply enjoyable, and could easily help Orwell get on this list, but not Nineteen Eighty-Four. When I think of favorite Orwell, it's his reportage and essays that come to mind, not his SFnal works.

  • 77. Samuel R. Delany
    This is an awfully good showing for a writer who's published only gay porn and literary criticism for the past decade and a half (and left his last major SF work as half of a duology). I've never really loved any of Delaney's novels, so he wouldn't be on my similar list, but he's utterly respectable.

  • 76. Charles de Lint
    Only intermittently to my taste, but a respectable and popular writer -- probably would rank higher on an American version of this list. (And even higher than that in Canada.)

  • 75. Julian May
    Her books are quite enjoyable, which is surely why they're here, but it's all one long series (in two discrete parts). That's not quite the same problem as Abercrombie (#81), but it's close.

  • 74. Edgar Rice Burroughs
    I know that there are people who read ERB for pleasure, but I find his prose like a piece of gravel in my shoe -- rough, uncomfortable, and forever keeping me from moving forward with any grace.

  • 73. Robert Silverberg
    One of the best writers ever to work in SF and the author of many, many great novels and stories. I'd place him higher.

  • 72. Susanna Clarke
    Again, she hasn't written enough for me to be comfortable classing her as a favorite -- it's just one novel and a small stack of short fiction so far. What's there is good, but it's not a whole lot, yet.

  • 71. Stanislaw Lem
    I've never read anything by Lem I'd really call enjoyable; I'm not sure if that's my fault, his, or his translators'. But he'd be nowhere on my similar list.

  • 70. Larry Niven
    Some of Niven's stuff has been really wonderful -- "Inconstant Moon" is one of my favorite stories -- but I've never tried to seriously read lots and lots of his work. He clearly has a devoted fanbase, though.

  • 69. Alfred Bester
    One of the greatest writers in the history of the field, but, still, showing up remarkably high on the list for a guy who wrote two novels fifty years ago.

  • 68. Katherine Kerr
    As others have said elsewhere in a different context, I always mix her up with Katherine Kurtz. I think Kerr is the Celts in Space writer, and I guess a fair number of people like her stuff.

  • 67. Jack Vance
    A great, wonderful, idiosyncratic writer who apparently is remembered more than I was afraid he would be.

  • 66. Harry Harrison
    An intermittently interesting writer, most of whose books are aging badly (even the very lightweight ones). I wonder if he placed this highly mostly out of memory.

  • 65. Marion Zimmer Bradley
    Not my kind of writer, but indubitably popular.

  • 64. Richard Matheson
    Really? All those movies based on his books must be paying off. Good for him!

  • 63. Dan Simmons
    The SF Simmons, the horror Simmons, the mainstream Simmons, or the ranting-against-Muslims-on-the-Internet Simmons?

  • 62. Elizabeth Haydon
    Another solid but unspectacular fantasy writer, as I see it -- I guess a lot of people like that.

  • 61. Terry Brooks
    Like Goodkind, I would have expected to see Brooks higher on this list.

  • 60. Richard Morgan
    They do like him over there in the UK, don't they? I still think his first book, Altered Carbon, is much, much better than anything else I've read by him.

  • 59. Stephen Baxter
    Very talented, very prolific, and fond of writing a chunk of novels in one style and then moving on -- the latter doesn't seem to be a recipe for popularity, but Baxter has made it work somehow.

  • 58. Jennifer Fallon
    Another one of those fantasy writers; I've liked what I've read of hers, but there are an awfully lot of women who write big fat books that I never have enough time for on this list.

  • 57. Mercedes Lackey
    Lackey writes shorter books, and was one of my guilty pleasures for at least a decade. She's also got a huge back catalog at this point, so I honestly could have seen her higher on the list.

  • 56. C.J. Cherryh
    Another writer who does a lot of different things -- many of them very well, but not always to everyone's tastes. It's goo to see her solidly in the middle of this list.

  • 55. Harlan Ellison
    I'm sure he'd be angry at placing this low, if he found out this list existed. (And he'd probably also hate SFX on principle, which is not unreasonable.) But, for a writer who doesn't write novels, hasn't published anything new in nearly a decade, often denied writing SF, and has personally alienated half of the pros in the field, #55 isn't a bad showing.

  • 54. Jasper Fforde
    His novels are all very entertaining, but they're beginning to seem like they're all the same thing. He could potentially be Terry Pratchett if he wanted to be.

  • 53. Octavia Butler
    Another writer I'm surprised to see chart this high; I've read some of her stuff, but I always felt dutiful (rather than joyful) in doing so.

  • 52. J.G. Ballard
    I'd personally rank him much, much higher, but I have quirky tastes. It's great to see him on the list at all, let alone in the middle third.

  • 51. Robert E. Howard
    Unlike ERB, Howard was actually a good writer of prose (despite working for the pulps most of the time), and I find his best work endures. Glad to see others agree with me.

  • 50. Sherri S. Tepper
    Tepper writes for an audience that has a different set of equipment in their trousers than I do; that's fine, but it means I can save some time by not reading her books.

  • 49. H.P. Lovecraft
    Even I'll admit he can be clunky, especially reading him these days. But his SF/horror hybrid hasn't yet been equalled at the things it does best.

  • 48. Mervyn Peake
    Another writer that I'm sure the British esteem more highly than Americans would, and another one who only wrote a few books. The first two Gormenghast books are excellent neo-Dickensian fantasy, and the third is not quite as good and quite different.

  • 47. Jules Verne
    Do Brits read Verne for pleasure? Or is that what the non-readers voted, because they can remember his name? Nosy Americans want to know.

  • 46. Alastair Reynolds
    He's been publishing novels for about a decade, which is long enough to become one of my favorites.

  • 45. Neal Stephenson
    He's an odd case of the writer who started as SF, and never denied writing SF, even though most of his output is not what most of us would call SF unless we squint and make excuses and flail our arms out a lot. What I've read by him - not including the doorstop historical trilogy -- has been reliably smooth and entertaining.

  • 44. Clive Barker
    He seemed to be poised to take over the whole world in about 1991 -- that didn't happen, and his books got farther apart (and often smaller), but he does still have a lot of readers.

  • 43. Jim Butcher
    I like him, and I find this placement about right.

  • 42. Tad Williams
    Another writer of big fantasies -- though I am surprised that Brits apparently like him substantially better than Brooks or Goodkind.

  • 41. Kurt Vonnegut
    Now, now, Vonnegut never wrote fantasy. He explained that over and over again. Who are we to doubt him? (The non-SF books he did write often tend to the sophomoric -- probably not a concern for the SFX crowd -- but were occasionally gems rather than pebbles.)

  • 40. Trudi Canavan
    A writer I've never read, and who seems to be notably more popular in the UK than here. Yet another one of those newish female fantasy writers.

  • 39. Michael Moorcock
    The architect of the New Wave and an unabashed writer of pulpy adventure. Has written more pretty darn good novels than the any random two writers put together.

  • 38. David Eddings
    I get the impression that his fans only really like the Belgariad and related works, but they really like those.

  • 37. Alan Moore
    SFX readers prefer to look at pictures than to read long columns of text -- it's not Voice of the Fire that they're thinking of here. He has written some great stuff, but he's also written some pure filler and some pseudo-spiritual bumf.

  • 36. Orson Scott Card
    Some people love thinking of themselves as the tormented super-genius who saves the entire human race. Others have grown up. (I kid OSC; he's done a lot of other things in his career, and I've enjoyed quite a few of them. But it's Ender's Game that's driving this placement.)

  • 35. Stephen Donaldson
    Bestseller outcast unclean! I had an intense love-hate relationship with the first six Covenant books, and I still think that Donaldson has caused more people to say "That word: I do not think it means what you think it means" than any other.

  • 34. Gene Wolfe
    I'd place him much higher, but a lot of people find his work too hard to follow. So this is a pretty good placement.

  • 33. China Mieville
    His career is still quite young, and I wonder how many of these are "he's so dreamy!" votes, but he does have the writing chops (and the storytelling chops, too) to carry it off.

  • 32. Raymond E. Feist
    Above Brooks and Goodkind? The Brits' tastes in epic fantasy are subtly different from those of Americans.

  • 31. Lois McMaster Bujold
    RASFW would be outraged at this low placement. I haven't kept up with her current fantasy series, but she's been a dependably readable writer for nearly twenty years, which is no mean feat.

  • 30. Roger Zelazny
    One of my personal favorites; he'd have been in my top 5. I imprinted early and hard.

  • 29. Anne McCaffrey
    Once she would have been in the top 5 of a poll like this, but perhaps her recent works (particularly the co-authored ones) have dimmed her fans' enthusiasm a bit.

  • 28. Steven Erikson
    A remarkably high placement for a guy who's written seven dense, small-mammal-crushing fantasy novels that are only comprehensible to readers who have already read a small library of fantasy. I mean, I'm happy for him, but it could be a sign of incipient fantasy decadence.

  • 27. William Gibson
    I'm several books behind, but he's both important and a lot of fun to read.

  • 26. Guy Gavriel Kay
    Very respectable, both the writer and his showing here.

  • 25. CS Lewis
    Seriously? Is this based on Narnia, on the fact that non-readers could remember his name when polled, or is there some huge UK cult around Till We Have Faces?

  • 24. Diana Wynne Jones
    I wonder if her high placement means a lot of SFX readers are younger, or if they're remembering their childhoods. (Or if they're just still reading Jones because they love her books.)

  • 23. John Wyndham
    ...Beynon Harris Parkes Lucas. (From memory -- goes to check, and finds that, as usual, I put the "Beynon Harris" before the "Parkes Lucas," but at least I remembered all of them.) I don't think I've ever read him, but I like his name.

  • 22. Philip Pullman
    I'm only one book into "His Dark Materials," so have no personal opinion. The placement is reasonable, given how successful the trilogy was and the recent movie.

  • 21. Robin Hobb
    I've read one trilogy, which I found full of interesting stuff but a bit too long and overstuffed. I'm a bit surprised she shows up this high on the poll, ahead of a bunch of writers I'm pretty sure sell better than she does (even in the UK).

  • 20. Stephen King
    I think I've heard of him...

  • 19. Ray Bradbury
    Pretty good placement for an author of his stature; a good proportion of the voters for this poll have good taste.

  • 18. Arthur C. Clarke
    There was a time when Clarke would have been in the top ten, but that was at least a decade ago.

  • 17. Robert Jordan
    Sales don't mean everything, I see.

  • 16. J.K. Rowling
    Ditto for sales not meaning everything; fifteen writers who sell substantially fewer copies (except maybe that Tolkien chap, over the long run) outpolled her.

  • 15. Robert Heinlein
    Wasn't there some friendly argument, either in comments here or over at RASFW, about how Brits don't read Heinlein anymore? I guess that isn't true.

  • 14. Frank Herbert
    Herbert above Heinlein? Ick.

  • 13. Peter F. Hamilton
    Are we in the H's suddenly? I would not rank Hamilton here personally, but it's not my poll.

  • 12. David Gemmell
    They do like Gemmell over there. I've never read much by him, so I have very little opinion on his work.

  • 11. Ursula K. LeGuin
    Makes sense.

  • 10. Robert Rankin
    A very high placement for a very British writer; Rankin's never gotten much traction on my side of the Atlantic, but he seems to be very popular in old Blighty.

  • 9. HG Wells
    I do suspect many of these votes were out of name recognition or guilt rather than by people who regularly read Wells for fun.

  • 8. Philip K. Dick
    And the Dick revival is seen to extend beyond the USA.

  • 7. Iain M. Banks
    Of course. I'm slightly surprised he isn't in the top 5.

  • 6. Isaac Asimov
    This is a surprise -- above Heinlein and Clarke, Bradbury and Wells? Is he considered that much of a classic over there? (And does that mean, like Wells, he's name-checked but rarely read?)

  • 5. George R.R. Martin
    Martin has proved that he can write endings, but he's on this list almost entirely for a series that has not yet ended, and so I consider this placement somewhat premature. He's damn good, though.

  • 4. Douglas Adams
    His stuff -- particularly the later books -- is looking clunkier and more dated as time goes on, but the core of his work will live for quite a while.

  • 3. Neil Gaiman
    This is an impressive placement -- I wonder if it's primarily for Sandman or American Gods?

  • 2. J.R.R. Tolkien
    Typically, Tolkien only comes in #2 in polls like this if Jane Austen is in contention. But now he's been lapped by someone in his own field. Someone check his grave for signs of spinning...

  • 1. Terry Pratchett
    There's probably some element of sadness at his recent medical diagnosis, but he's also a really good, and really consistent writer with a vast audience. So his coming in at #1 is no surprise.
My god, that took vastly longer than I'd expected. I've been pecking away at this for two days...

Edit: Spelling of "Delany" corrected -- thanks to Neil Gaiman (Mr. #3) for the nudge. (Several other spellings -- notably "Jon Courtenay Grimwood," and periods in several authors' names, were silently corrected earlier or at the same time.) And for those of you who followed a nearly blind link from Neil's blog, welcome. Hope this entertains you for at least a moment or two, and please do stick around if you feel like it. The point of this blog is explained, more-or-less, here.


Adam Whitehead said...

Some good comments there, particularly on the divide between UK and US tastes. The one constant comment from my US friends was "Who the hell is Robert Rankin?"

Hobb is a massive seller over here. In fact, I think it was only with his fourth ASoIaF novel that GRRM overtook her. Similarly Feist's sales have been consistently high in the UK and a few years back he was only outsold in UK SF&F by Rowling, Pratchett and Jordan.

Goodkind does sell well over here, but UK-based websites don't really seem to discuss him much for whatever reason. He's certainly not the phenomenal sales force he is in the USA.

Abercrombie's third novel came out back in March and was a huge success (it sold almost as many in Amazon pre-orders alone than Lynch's first novel sold in total first year sales, for example), and with its publication a lot of people picked up the series. It's also worth remembering that SFX is the UK's biggest-selling magazine and the people they pimp at the moment may tend to do well in polls that emerge around the same time, and Abercrombie, GRRM and Clarke have all had lots of coverage recently.

Asimov's high placing I have no explanation for beyond the fact that HarperCollins and Voyager have kept all of the Robots and Foundation novels continuously in print for over a decade, whilst Heinlein and Clarke's reprinting schedules have been very spotty. In fact, very few of Heinlein's novels (aside from Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, the usual suspects) are currently in print in the UK.

Gail O'Connor said...

Wasn't it Patricia Kennealy-Morrison who did Celts in Space? Katherine Kerr wrote the Deverry novels, I believe.

Anonymous said...

While it's difficult to argue over a list of "favorite" authors as opposed to "best", the top 20 or so seems to be a list you could title "AUTHORS RANKED IN ORDER OF UK NAME RECOGNITION" rather than any sort of list you'd expect from people who actually take SF&F seriously.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess SFX is a media-oriented magazine. This is not a list that people who actually primarily enjoy reading would likely produce. Many of the authors on it would certainly appear on such a list but the order is way off. Maybe if you polled people who once read a fantasy novel on an airplane or something.

Oh, I'm not sure Bujold enjoys the same level of adoration on RASFW she once did. Everything she has written since CURSE OF CHALION has been received with lukewarm attention at best. Mediocre, sad to say.

Anonymous said...

I copied the list to my blog but didn't comment, only marked the ones I've read/recommend. And I can't help wondering what the British think about urban fantasy.

Unknown said...

Patricia kenneally-Morrison did indeed do Celts in Space-Kerr is a standard fantasy writer.

Larry Nolen said...

I didn't even know I was starting a meme when I copy/pasted Adam's listing that he posted onto the Westeros Literature forum last week, but it certainly has spread quite a bit! Interesting comments there, especially about Erikson. I thought about that one in particular for quite a while before deciding to reply that I think there might be quite a bit to that assertion. Shall be interesting to see what the next couple of years will bring, once his mammoth series is complete.

Francis said...

The problem Bujold has over this side of the Atlantic is that no one has ever heard of her. I've only met one fellow Brit who's read her who doesn't like her (and that was based on judging her by the Mountains of Mourning (why is that the only one of hers in the Baen Free Library?), and the opinion has now been changed after that friend of mine agreed that yes, she did write enough action after reading Young Miles). On the other hand, just about my entire peer group who have read her have either been introduced by me or by an American or Canadian (or I've recommended her to one friend who's recommended her to another). And Baen subcontract their distribution to Simon and Shuster on this side of the atlantic IIRC.

Brits don't tend to skew as Libertarian as Americans, and Randians are almost unknown. Therefore Goodkind doesn't find half as much traction. And for some reason you find Asimov everywhere - I think he's one of these perpetual motion fame machines you sometimes find. (I've yet to visit either a bookshop or public library with no Asimovs).

And I think that the problem that rasfw has with her at present is that she appears to be morphing into a romance writer.

Anonymous said...

And I think that the problem that rasfw has with her at present is that she appears to be morphing into a romance writer.

I don't think this is a fair criticism of RASFW. Perhaps Bujold's most respected and admired novel in RASFW is A CIVIL CAMPAIGN. ACC is considered her tour de force and yet it's probably her single most romance-like novel. Georgette Heyer is acknowledged right in the book for ghu's sake.

Her later books aren't considered too full of romance, they're considered somewhat boring with mediocre plotting and without the joy and snap of her books through A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.

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