Best Science Fiction Novels
Then and Now

1987 and 2022 polls compared

In 1987 the SF² Concatenation surveyed around half
the 1987 British national SF convention,
the BECCON '87 Eastercon.
In 2022 Media Death Cult polled over a thousand Cult members.
So are some SF titles enduring, or do today's genre readers
have different tastes?

 

What are the key works of science fiction?  This is an obviously fundamental and interesting question for SF aficionados: interesting now and also in times gone by.  This is why over a third of a century ago we, at SF² Concatenation, thought it would be quite nifty to see if we could find out what works SF fans at the British Eastercon rated?

SF² Concatenation was launched back in 1987 at that year's Eastercon, the annual gathering of the British SF community which was, back then, the largest regular SF event in the country.

In case you did not know SF² Concatenation provides an advance post alert service for die-hard regulars

We occasionally (so as not to spam) Tweet links to some of the site's new content ahead of our seasonal edition's. For example, the Tweet for this article's alert is here. If you are on Twitter you can follow, with our very few die-hards, us at @SF2Concat.

We did not know how well our (then paper) fanzine was to be received. However, if it had a fairly positive reception, we had plans to upgrade it to a semi-prozine with a small, four-figure budget (not trivial in 1987) largely garnered from SF book publisher and film distributor advertising.  And so needing content, we decided to survey those at the 1987 Eastercon.  Around 700 attended that Eastercon which was about average for the early 1980's but a little low when looking at the 1980s as a whole. This in no small part was because for Britain 1987 was a Worldcon year (Britain gets to host the Worldcon roughly once a decade) and so some decided that they could only afford to do one four-or-five day convention in a four star hotel that year.  A it happened, the 1987 Worldcon drew fresh blood to British Eastercon fandom for that decade's subsequent years meaning larger late 1980s and '90s Eastercons: maybe we should have done this survey few years later?  The results of this survey were published in SF² Concatenation no. 2 in 1988.(1)

Now jump forward to 2023 and Media Death Cult YouTube Channel has just had another of its subscribers polls as to their top SF novels of all time. (2)

For those who do not know of the Media Death Cult YouTube channel, it was founded in 2019 just before CoVID-19 hit. It has slowly been growing and now (2023) just four years on has over 28,000 followers with videos getting typically getting 7,000 – 8,000 views the month they are posted (though very occasionally sometimes monthly views reached the teens of thousands of views.  (For comparison SF² Concatenation currently gets over 10,000 unique visitors a month accessing up to over 100,000 'pages', as distinct from 'hits' which includes style sheets, pictures and bot visits. So in a very broad sense both SF² Concatenation and Media Death Cult have a roughly similar reach even though both are very different beasts – one being a text rich website and the other a video channel – it is likely that the audience is different even if both are of SFnal relevance.)

The Media Death Cult channel is run by the pseudonymous Moid Moidelhoff who invites others to join him on a journey to explore SF: primarily books but also films and television series. His vids are usually 20 minutes to half an hour long with two or three posted a week and spiced with just a dash of humour. He has developed a few regular features of his reviews, including providing an end-of-review score, 'just like your mother'.  The cult has follower book read-alongs with members commenting on YouTube (see the 'Community' tab on the channel's home page) or the social media chat platform Discord (the platform used by a number of SF conventions during 2020 lockdown including that year's ConZealand Worldcon).  The channel also features SF author interviews that are typically a little over an hour long.

Compared to the few hundred who filled in SF² Concatenation's 1987 poll, over a thousand participated in the 2022 Media Death Cult survey the results of which were posted in January 2023. (2). News of which was covered in SF² Concatenation last spring (2022).

The table below portrays both surveys' results. Because the surveys were conducted a few decades apart, a third column depicts only the Media Death Cult top works published prior to 1987, the year of the SF² Concatenation poll and so this Media Death Cult column compares better with the SF² Concatenation results.  Having said that, a direct comparison of the two surveys does show both which titles have stood the test of time and which new titles are possibly destined to be future SF classics and which new authors fated to be future SF grandmasters.

The table is largely self-explanatory, but for ease of comparison, the SF books that appear in both 1987 SF² Concatenation's and the 2022 Media Death Cult surveys are in bold.

 

SF² Concatenation's

Media Death Cult

Media Death Cult

1987 BECCON Eastercon survey

2023 group survey

2023 group survey
pre-1987 works only

 

 

 

1.   Lord of the Rings

1.   Dune

1.   Dune

2.   Dune

2.   Hyperion

2.   Enders Game

3.   Little Big

3.   Enders Game

3.  1984

4.   Book of the New Sun

4.   Children of Time

4.  The Hitch-Hiker's
      Guide

5.   A Canticle for Leibowitz

5.   1984

5.   The Shadow of the
     Torturer
(Book of
     the New Sun)

6.   The Moon is a Harsh
       Mistress

6.   The Hitch-Hiker's
      Guide

6.   Childhood's End

7.   Tiger, Tiger (Stars My
      Destination)

7.   The Shadow of the
     Torturer
(Book of the
     New Sun)

7.   Do Androids 
      Dream

8.   The Dispossessed

8.   House of Suns

8.   The Forever War

9.   The Forever War

9.   Childhood's End

9.   The Left Hand of
      Darkness

10. The Left Hand of
       Darkness

10. Do Androids Dream

10. Frankenstein

11. Ringworld

11. The Forever War

11. The Dispossessed

12. Do Androids Dream

12. Project Hail Mary

12. Foundation

13. Stand on Zanzibar

13. The Left Hand of
     Darkness

13. 2001: A Space 
      Odyssey

14. The City and the Stars

14. Use of Weapons

14. Neuromancer

15. Neuromancer

15. Frankenstein

15. Slaughter House 5

16. Pavane

16. The Dispossessed

16. Flowers For Algernon

17. The Stainless Steel Rat

17. The Player of Games

17. A Canticle for 
      Leibowitz

18. Way Station

18. The Martian

18. Solaris

19. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide

19. Revelation Space

19. Roadside Picnic

20. More Than Human

20. Foundation

20. I Am Legend

 

21. 2001: A Space Odyssey

21. Roadside Picnic

 

22. Slaughter House 5

22. Tiger, Tiger (Stars
       My Destination)

 

23. Neuromancer

23. Rendezvous with
     Rama

Author mentions in the above poll top ten (11 to exclude Tolkien)

24. Leviathan Wakes

24. Speaker for the Dead

 

25. Flowers For Algernon

25. Fahrenheit 451

 

26. A Canticle for 
      Leibowitz

26. Ubik

1.   Robert Heinlein

27. Solaris

27. Starship Troopers

2.   Phillip K. Dick

28. Blindsight

 

3.   Ursula K. LeGuin

29. A Fire Upon the Deep

 

4.   Arthur C. Clarke

30. Roadside Picnic

 

5.   Larry Niven

31. I Am Legend

 

6.   Frank Herbert

32. Tiger, Tiger (Stars My
      Destination)

 

7.   Gene Wolfe

33. Rendezvous with Rama

 

8.   Isaac Asimov

34. Speaker for the Dead

 

9.   H. G. Wells

35. Fahrenheit 451

 

10. Michael Moorcock

36. Ubik

 

 

37. Jurassic Park

 

 

38. Starship Troopers

 

 

39. The Dark Forest

 

 

40. Annihilation

 

 

Before we go any further, it should be pointed out that the two surveys did not poll exactly the same question.  The 1987 SF² Concatenation survey was a desert asteroid poll with participants asked which SF novels would they wish to be castaway with on a desert asteroid.  This is not a point pedantry.  Some may view classics such as – and here I invent wildly – as H. G. Wells' The Time Machine as being so well read by fans and perhaps dated that they would not select it as one of their ten to be marooned with for goodness knows how long. So, a classic, best SF novel might not be one of a few that you would be marooned with for life.

As for the results, you need to be aware of arguably wild cards.  The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed Pavane coming in at number 16 on the 1987 SF² Concatenation survey results.  Could this be that its author's status that Easter, Keith Roberts, being a Guest of Honour at the 1987 BECCON Eastercon, influenced matters?

On the Media Death Cult front, you need to be aware that a number of the titles had been mentioned a few times on the YouTube channel the previous years. For example, Leviathan Wakes is part of the 'Expanse' series of novels and the first few of these had been reviewed on the Channel and the Expanse television show has been mentioned in a number of the Cult's TV-related videos.  Was this an influence? Nobody knows, but it is worth being aware that such potential biases exist.

These caveats in mind, the result do not show a wildly difference in SF tastes between the 1980s and 2020s generations of fans: in fat, there are similarities.  10 of the SF² Concatenation top twenty appear in of the Cult's top 40: indeed all but one, Tiger Tiger / Stars My destination appear in the Cult's top 30.  When it comes to authors, there is an even greater similarity: 7 in SF² Concatenation top twenty top ten cited authors appear in the Cult's top 40. This bumps up to 8 authors if Alfred (working class) Bester, author of Tiger Tiger / Stars My destination, who was not one of the top ten most cited author but was in the mix as a lower ranking author. ('Working class Bester' was how he referred to himself at the 1979 British hosted SF Worldcon. What a blast that convention was…)

Perhaps the most striking thing is that Frank Herbert's Dune came first in the Media Death Cult and second in SF² Concatenation's. It was only beaten in the latter by The Lord of the Rings which was itself a wild card is that is clearly not a work of science fiction but one of fantasy. However, such are the 1987 Eastercon participants' predilections that it was cited by so many and high up in their rankings.

That there is a greater similarity in the authors cited raises the question as to the differences. While Ursula K. LeGuin appeared in both surveys with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Arthur C. Clarke saw The City and the Stars appear in SF² Concatenation's and much stronger showing with 2001, Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama, in Media Death Cult's but no The City and the Stars.  One can contemplate why until the cows come home: 2001 is very famous and the film fairly regularly shown on television; Childhood's End had its own television mini-series in 2015; while the The City and the Stars has not had such a media profile…

Anyway, I leave it to you to peruses the results and come to your own conclusions.

I will make one observation: if the similarities between both surveys serves to legitimise the respective 1987 and 2022 SF communities involved as to their SFnal prowess (so to speak) then perhaps some of the authors cited in Media Death Cult recent survey perhaps point to which SF authors will be considered SF grandmasters in over a third of a century's time hence.  Only if you are reading this in the future will you know!

Jonathan Cowie

References

1.  Chester, T. & Cowie, J. (1988) The Concatenation Poll results. SF² Concatenation, 2, 14-15.

2.  Moidelhoff, M. (2023) Your Top Science Fiction Books Of All Time (Survey Results). Media Death Cult. January.

 


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