Visions of Paradise

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Science Fiction Cornerstone

The student is a professor of literature at a local college. A friend is on the board of the local library, which was just burned. All the records about the library’s history were destroyed. In the ruins, the original cornerstone was found. Inside the cornerstone is a collection of literature. The friend feels confident that this collection will be key in determining when the original library was built. The friend asks that the professor identify when the literature was written. In addition, the cornerstone is to be reused in the reconstructed library. The student is asked to suggest a collection of literature to be placed in the cornerstone that best reflects the late twentieth century in American history and letters.

The above assignment given in a recent book devoted to educational assessment sparked considerable thought on my part. How wonderful it would be for the person fortunate enough to select which books representative of the late Twentieth Century should go into the cornerstone. Alas, my knowledge of contemporary literature is not sufficient for me to make such a selection. But science fiction – ah, that is another situation entirely! I feel quite qualified to select the science fiction books which would be placed inside a cornerstone as representative of the entire genre in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

But how many books can I select? Assuming the cornerstone must contain a cross-section of all literary genres of the past half-century, and the size of the cornerstone approximates 2' by 2' by 2', a bit of elementary geometry determines 180 books can fit snugly into the cornerstone. How many genres must that total be divided amongst? Science fiction (including fantasy), mystery, adventure, popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction – and how many genres of nonfiction can there be? Let’s estimate a dozen genres have been chosen to share the cornerstone equally, which divided into 180 yields 15 books in each category.

Fifteen science fiction books to represent the entire second half of the Twentieth Century for future generations of readers? Fifteen books that may be all a generation of future readers might discover should some cataclysm befall the world in the immediate future. Fifteen books. And I get to select which ones they will be.

First I need some guidelines for my selections. Novels only? No, science fiction is as adequately represented by its short fiction, maybe even better represented in many instances. Primarily groundbreaking works that pushed the genre forward, or superior works that represented SF at the top of its form.? That seems an easy choice: if I could choose a much larger sampling, perhaps 50 books, then I would have space to define the entire history of late Twentieth Century science fiction by selecting several dozen groundbreaking books. But being restricted to fifteen books only, better to limit myself to the very best books the genre has to offer.

What else? No author should be chosen more than once – although that restriction should not apply to authors appearing in anthologies. I will try to restrict my selection of anthologies to those with minimal overlap. The books chosen should cover as many different aspects of the science fiction genre as possible, without locking myself into lesser selections that represent a particular sub-genre that perhaps is better off not being represented in the cornerstone.

And no series. Placing three volumes into the cornerstone would take up too much valuable space, and it would be senseless to place only a single volume from a series unless that volume is a self-contained masterpiece that generated a subsequent series afterwards.

All right, enough ruminating. What should the honored books be? I will list my selections by the decade they were originally published:

The Fifties
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.

The Sixties
Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Dune, by Frank Herbert
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

The Seventies

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg
The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley

The Eighties
The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
The Wild Shore, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Nineties
Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop

Any comments?


  • Good list, but I missed _Ender's Game_ by Orson Scott Card.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, At 5:09 PM  

  • I would have picked Speaker for the Dead, but it violated my rule of being part of a series.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 8:10 PM  

  • Great list! I would have added a Vernor Vinge in there somewhere, but the others I agree with.

    By Blogger Arevanye, At 5:54 PM  

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