At The Valve, Andrew Seal writes:
“I’m not asking for a canon or a best of [science fiction]—in fact, that’s rather the opposite of what I’m interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which [SF] books aren’t just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?”
Clearly this is going to vary widely, infinitely, depending upon who the reader is.
That said, a problem with work that self or primarily identifies as SF is the primary focus on the fantastic, which is often largely a media creation, a marketing tag or categorical brand, emphasizing fantastical cleverness above all, whatever else gets explored.
Would one call the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Odyssey, or the Inferno, or Utopia, or The Praise of Folly, or Gulliver’s Travels, or Wizard of the Crow SF? Then where are such great, even landmark works (of all literature) in these discussions? These are all fantastical fictions but they are so much more besides that it may sound odd to call them SF, or Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or Speculative Fiction, even though they are. It may seem odd (at first) to include them integrally into such discussions but they should be included, even centrally because they are examples of great landmark works of literature regardless or genre or type that happen to be fantastical. Even while inseparable from their fantastic elements, core elements in some cases, these are stories primarily known and emphasized for something greater than their fantastical cleverness and achievements just as Middlemarch and other such great Victorian novels, for example, are primarily known for something other than their mimetic fidelity or dramatic or comic acuity.
Many of these conversations assessing contemporary SF works are self-confining when they don’t jump out of the SF media/marketing box.
Such discussions often exclude crucial novels that may be in many ways either conventional or unconvential SF works but that aim for and achieve much more than the clever fantastic: works like those that I’ve mentioned and others such as Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper and Ecotopia and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, The Dispossessed, and The Parable of the Sower, and others. And at Lib Lit, the journal I co-edit, stories like Joe Emersberger’s “The Publisher,” “Dave the Prophet,” “Segundo’s Revenge,” and “Wovokia,” among others (http://liblit.org/fiction/). Fantastical works like these long have been and currently are at the very least as challenging to current achievements in SF as those mediated and marketed as SF, as not much more than some clever fantastical trip, maybe marginally topical or otherwise thematic. Their fantastic elements and natures qualify them to be in the SF discussion, and for some of them their genuine landmark reality or normative power and import are a great challenge to what qualifies as vital and accomplished fiction throughout the years, both fantastical and otherwise.
I don’t know that this is news to many but seems worth serious emphasis. Fantastical cleverness is great but normative import and vitality is at least as much a factor in making or breaking a great novel or story, no matter the genre or type of work. Emphasis on the normative achievement and urgency of such works can also help break open the demeaned media/marketing box that SF is too often pushed into or left confined within.