Locus 20th & 21st Centuries Poll

Locus this month has been conducting a poll to find out the "best" science fiction and fantasy novels and short fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. Though I first suggested on Twitter that I would be filling it all in with Raymond Carver stories, I gave in today at the last minute and instead filled in the poll with some choices other than Carver stories (though I was tempted to put "Why Don't You Dance?" on there, since it has a certain fantasy feel to it, at least to me).

I'll post my choices after the jump here.

Because I did the poll at the last minute, the choices were as much impulsive as rational. I'm not much interested in differentiating science fiction and fantasy, so I paid only the barest attention to categorization. For lengths, I used the lists Locus posted or what I could find on ISFDB, and for the few items not on either, I just relied on my own memory and guessing.

Were I to write the lists now, or tomorrow, or next week, they would be different, both in content and order. Such is the nature of these things. Only a few items are absolute for me (e.g., Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is the best science fiction novel ever written). Many of the choices are there not because I think they are Eternally & Canonically Important (though many are) but because they remain vivid and powerful reading experiences for me. Also, some things didn't make it on because I would need to reread them to decide — for instance, I couldn't pick one of the novellas from Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness, because though I'm fairly sure one of them belongs on the list, I haven't read the book recently enough to decide between them. M. John Harrison's Viriconium probably belongs on there, too, but I couldn't decide on one of the books in particular, wasn't sure if the big collection would count as a single novel, and in any case had The Course of the Heart on there already (it's another absolute for me — no list of best 20th century fantasy novels is complete without it). And then there are things that probably belong on such a list, but I've never read them, such as Gormenghast. And then there are the obvious items I forgot and will be chastising myself for tomorrow.

I know of lists from a few other folks: Niall Harrison, Cheryl Morgan, Ian Sales. Once Locus publishes the results from the poll, I'll put a link here.

Finally, I am perfectly aware that I will be the only person voting for quite a few of these.

(Note: Because I cut-and-pasted these into the Locus poll form, I deliberately removed diacritical marks and any other punctuation that might mess up the tally. And I'm being lazy here and just pasting my master list in.)

20th century science fiction novel
1. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
2. Ubik by Philip K. Dick
3. 1984 by George Orwell
4. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
5. 334 by Thomas M. Disch
6. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
7. Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
8. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
9. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
10. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

20th Century Fantasy Novel
1. The Castle by Franz Kafka
2. The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
3. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
4. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
5. The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
6. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
7. Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier
8. Neveryona by Samuel R. Delany
9. Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner
10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

20th Century SF/F Novella
1. The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
2. Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany
3. The Stains, by Robert Aickman
4. Great Work of Time, by John Crowley
5. Souls, by Joanna Russ
6. Pastoralia, by George Saunders
7. Pork Pie Hat, by Peter Straub
8. R&R, by Lucius Shepard
9. The King’s Indian: A Tale, by John Gardner
10. Mr. Boy, by James Patrick Kelly

20th Century SF/F Novelette
1. Invaders, by John Kessel
2. The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, by Lucius Shepard
3. The Asian Shore, by Thomas M. Disch
4. The Hell Screen, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
5. The Hospice, by Robert Aickman
6. A Little Something for Us Tempunauts, by Philip K. Dick
7. The Juniper Tree, by Peter Straub
8. Solitude, by Ursula K. Le Guin
9. Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler
10. Sea Oak, by George Saunders

20th Century SF/F Short Story
1. A Country Doctor, by Franz Kafka
2. Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, by Jorge Luis Borges
3. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin
4. Day Million, by Frederik Pohl
5. The School, by Donald Barthelme
6. Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!, by Raccoona Sheldon
7. Or All the Seas with Oysters, by Avram Davidson
8. The Terminal Beach, by J.G. Ballard
9. Abominable, by Carol Emshwiller
10. One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson

21st Century SF Novel
1. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
2. Light by M. John Harrison
3. Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery
4. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany
5. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

21st Century Fantasy Novel
1. Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer
2. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
3. The City & The City by China Mieville
4. Oh Pure & Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
5. One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak

21st Century SF/F Novella
1. Tainaron, by Leena Krohn
2. A Crowd of Bone, by Greer Gilman
3. Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
4. Near Zennor, by Elizabeth Hand
5. Memorare, by Gene Wolfe

21st Century SF/F Novelette
1. Stone Animals, by Kelly Link
2. Only Partly Here, by Lucius Shepard
3. Yellow Card Man, by Paolo Bacigalupi
4. The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford
5. Revenge of the Calico Cat, by Stepan Chapman

21st Century SF/F Short Story
1. There’s a Hole in the City, by Richard Bowes
2. Cold Fires, by M. Rickert
3. Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot, by Daniel Alarcon
4. Delhi, by Vandana Singh
5. Safe Passage, by Ramona Ausubel


  1. In spite of it being ridiculously early in the century to pick a 'best of' list you have an interesting reading list here. Title's I know and enjoy and titles I've not heard of before now. I assume those will be the ones only your are voting for. I'll have to take a look at the master list at Locus. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Any list with Avram Davidson and Donald Barthelme on it is all right by me.

    The whole 20th century is too much for me to handle, but I was thinking of taking a crack at the 21st century list. You might have already nailed it, though.

  3. I put my Locus poll on my blog and I'm pleased to say we have some overlap. I'll be mining your list for reading.

  4. A fascinating collection of lists. I'm sad or happy to say I've not read the large majority of the items on them. I missed the deadline, but if I hadn't my lists would all have had fewer items than called for, if any at all. I love you more than a little for having so many Delany titles on your lists. Stars in My Pocket wouldn't make it onto any of my lists, nor Delany's for that matter; though his opinion of it has warmed considerably in recent years, for a decade-long stretch there he considered it hands down the worst novel he'd ever written. I could see the Prologue to Stars in My Pocket being a good candidate for greatest SF novella ever written, but the novel as a whole? Never. Besides, the greatest SF novel ever written is without a doubt Engine Summer, I'm in complete agreement with Connie Willis on that score. Dhalgren a great fanstasy novel? Bless you! I had it second on the SF list. You are a rebel, sir. A damn smart one too. I haven't read Against the Day but I could readily see Mason & Dixon on the Fantasy list. I concur with you on Neveryona and "Great Work of Time". I would include Swanwick's "Trojan Horse" among the SF novellas or novelettes. And so on. Not much else from me -- so little qualifies, or the things I hope might qualify I feel unqualified to determine, even for myself. Or I can't remember what I've read, it's mostly that really. From KSR, it would be "A History of the 20th Century, with Illustrations". I'd put Tours of the Black Clock on some list or other, so too Kate Horsley's The Changeling of Finnistuath.

    1. Thanks, Ron! (And that reminds that I've been meaning to reread Engine Summer for far too long, because I think I was about 18 when I last read it. But I've just decided to go through the whole Aegypt cycle, which I've been putting off for a while now, so that's the Crowley I'm working on at the moment.)

      I debated Mason & Dixon actually, wondering if it fit as fantasy -- certainly, it's as much fantasy as Against the Day is SF, and is my favorite Pynchon novel (must admit I've not yet been able to finish Gravity's Rainbow), so I probably should have included it. Ahh well, all lists contain their own self-destruct mechanisms.

      I decided a year or two ago that I was just going to buckle down and decide once and for all that Stars in My Pocket is The Best Science Fiction Novel, because that way when people ask, I have an answer ready at hand. (So many other people say Dune. Pah!) My criteria are idiosyncratic and mostly go back to my feeling that it sums up a certain tendency in the history of SF from roughly July 1939 to its publication, and so it stands as a kind of end point of that classical SFness -- taking it about as far as it can go, exploding a lot of its assumptions, and leaving us with a complete incompleteness. Since then, SF seems to have been working its way back toward 1939, so I expect the next iteration of the Greatest Science Fiction Novel to be published in 2029 (as Stars in My Pocket was published 45 years after 1939). I recognize that mine is perhaps a minority opinion... (Although Carl Freedman, at least, also sees it as among the great SF novels, and in his introduction to the Wesleyan edition says it is the book "that, more decisively than any other, has defined for me just what science fiction is capable of and why it is worth bothering about." So there are two of us in the world!)

      I had never until this moment even heard of The Changeling of Finnistuath, so I am thrilled to have a new book to seek out! (Tours of the Black Clock I actually have a copy of but, as with so many other volumes littering the house, have not yet gotten to read it.)

  5. I also did the poll at the very last minute: I discovered it only a couple of hours before its conclusion. I have mainly limited myself to works from the mainstream of English f/sf/h as I see it - broadening it to other traditions or approaches to the fantastic would have enlarged the field of possible choices too much.
    So no Bruno Schulz or Coetzee, no Donoso or Tournier, no Cortázar or Manganelli or Monterroso, no Janet Frame or Muriel Spark, to name but a few favorite authors who could have fit in. Some less orthodox choices managed to sneak in while I wasn't looking, however.
    On rereading I would probably rearrange many positions; apart from the first 2-3 places the order is generally fluid. I should have found some place for Sheckley and Cordwainer Smith.

  6. My Lists:

    20th century science fiction novel:

    1: Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
    2: Joanna Russ, We Who Are About To...
    3: Thomas Disch, 334
    4: Jack Womack, Random Acts of Senseless Violence
    5: Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary
    6: John Crowley, Engine Summer
    7: Raphael Carter, The Fortunate Fall
    8: Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice
    9: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Final Circle of Paradise
    10: D. G. Compton, The Unsleeping Eye

    20th Century Fantasy Novel

    1: M John Harrison, The Course of the Heart
    2: Alan Garner, The Owl Service
    3: John Crowley, Little, Big
    4: Anna Maria Ortese, L'iguana (The Iguana)
    5: Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter
    6: Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
    7: Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast
    8: Stella Benson, Living Alone
    9: Flann O' Brien, The Third Policeman
    10: Russell Hoban, Kleinzeit

    20th Century SF/F Novella

    1: James Tiptree Jr, Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
    2: John Crowley, Great Work of Time
    3: Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus
    4: Joanna Russ, Souls
    5: Arthur Machen, The White People
    6: Tommaso Landolfi, Cancroregina (Cancerqueen)
    7: Michael Bishop, Death and Designation Among the Asadi
    8: C L Moore, Vintage Season
    9: Samuel Delany, The Tale of Gorgik
    10: Gardner Dozois, Chains of the Sea

    20th Century SF/F Novelette

    1: Joanna Russ, The Second Inquisition
    2: James Tiptree Jr, The Girl Who Was Plugged In
    3: Thomas M. Disch, The Asian Shore
    4: Avram Davidson, The Sources of the Nile
    5: Henry James, The Friends of the Friends
    6: M John Harrison, Gifco
    7: M John Harrison, Egnaro
    8: Robert Aickman, The Hospice
    9: Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood
    10: Steven Millhauser, The Barnum Museum

    20th Century SF/F Short Story

    1: Thomas M. Disch, Angouleme
    2: James Tiptree Jr, The Man Who Wouldn't Do Bad Things To Rats
    3: Pamela Zoline, The Heath Death of the Universe
    4: Elizabeth Bowen, The Demon Lover
    5: Shirley Jackson, One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts
    6: John Sladek, A Report on the Migration of Educational Materials
    7: Karen Joy Fowler, The Elizabeth Complex
    8: Richard McKenna, Casey Agonistes
    9: R. A. Lafferty, Old Foot Forgot
    10: Carol Emshwiller, Abominable

    21st Century SF Novel

    1: M John Harrison, Light
    2: Gwyneth Jones, Spirit
    3: Jan Morris, Hav
    4: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade
    5: Christopher Priest, The Separation

    21st Century Fantasy Novel

    1: Alan Garner, Boneland
    2: Nicola Barker, Darkmans
    3: Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black
    4: Russell Hoban, Angelica Lost and Found
    5: Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

    21st Century SF/F Novella

    1: Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
    2: Elizabeth Hand, Illyria
    3: Greer Gilman, A Crowd of Bone
    4: Leena Krohn, Tainaron
    5: Paul Di Filippo, A Year in the Linear City

    21st Century SF/F Novelette

    1: Kelly Link, Stone Animals
    2: Cristopher Rowe, The Voluntary State
    3: Rachel Swirsky, Eros Philia Agape
    4: Glen Hirshberg, Struwwelpeter
    5: Laird Barron, Strappado

    21st Century SF/F Short Story

    1: Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn't See
    2: Maureen McHugh, Useless Things
    3: Karen Joy Fowler, The Pelican Bar
    4: Ian R. Macleod, Isabel of the Fall
    5: Eleanor Arnason, The Grammarian's Five Daughters

  7. Hi Matthew,

    I was going over your very interesting lists and noticed that you have included Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany. According to Locus' rules, this is invalid because it was first published in 2011: you were supposed to choose works first published in 2001–2010. I don't know whether you would like to replace this work with a valid one or not (for the benefit of your readers, not for the Locus poll!).


  8. Thanks, Mark -- I missed that rule (obviously). But no, I like being invalid, so I'll keep it!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)

Compulsory Genres

Writing in Crisis