Last year NPR put out a list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy novels as voted on by their listeners. Such lists can be helpful for keeping up with the current zeitgeist of a genre (or in their case, genres). However, lists voted on by the public tend to severely underestimate the influence of older works which are not currently on everyone’s mind. For a more balanced picture of a genre, you need to find a list like the one created by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. They created their Basic Science Fiction Library to help public libraries know what books they should carry and to help scholars understand which authors have been influential in shaping science fiction over time. Many of these books are older; not all of them are either in print or available for the Kindle. However, the majority can be found.
If I were attempting to create a bibliography for either a library or an academic paper the KU list would be an ideal resource. However, if I just want to quickly find a piece of classic science fiction to read, their text based list just becomes daunting. At over 100 authors and at least 300 books, where to start? Frankly when I sit down to read a book, I don’t want to spend an hour reading book reviews or commentary. And there is the rub. We all say we don’t judge books by their cover. But when we are standing in a book store — you know, that place that just closed down the street where they used to sell books on printed paper — just cruising to pick up a quick read, the majority of us do judge books by their cover. Ask almost any author, and they can tell you horror stories of how the publishing company screwed up their best work by putting the wrong cover on their book.
For instance, take the cover of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in this blog post. (The book covers are alphabetical by author; it’s in the first row.) Here is a double-edged sword if there ever was one. The movie was popular, and movies do drive people to read books later so they can compare the two. So on the one hand, Will Smith might help sales. On the other hand, if the movie stunk — and there are those who didn’t like the Will Smith film — you just slapped a really bad cover on one of the most important books in all of science fiction. From a book seller’s point of view, tough call.