Reader Request Week 2011 #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade
Via e-mail, Gareth asks:
Old Man’s War was voted the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the last decade in that Tor.com poll.
And if not, what is?
Well, let’s take this in two parts.
OMW certainly did place number one in the Tor.com poll, but let’s keep two things in mind about that. One, I mentioned the poll here and encouraged readers here to vote in the poll, thereby introducing to the voting pool folks who were probably more inclined to think favorably of my work than not. This may or may not cause harrumphing from people who feel this unduly influenced the voting, but, you know: Dudes. You may be failing to grasp the concept of a popular vote. And I feel fine about it because a) people could vote for more than one novel (and did), b) I encouraged folks to vote for the novels they felt were best, and not my own if they didn’t believe it was, c) hey, OMW is a pretty good novel. So there you have it.
Two, getting the number one ranking in a poll where you are allowed to list as many novels as you felt were “best” in the last decade (and all those votes are weighted equally) doesn’t necessarily mean the number one ranked novel is considered the best novel out of all the books nominated. It means that when people made their lists, OMW was on the largest number of lists. There may have been books on those lists that the voters felt more passionate about than mine — i.e., would have ranked higher than OMW, had ranking been involved — but a plurality of list makers had my book on their lists.
So in the end what the number one ranking on the Tor.com poll means is that OMW is the book the largest number of people who voted thought should be ranked among the best — not that it is, in actuality, the best science fiction and fantasy novel of the last decade.
And you know what? I’m good with that. I’m delighted to have my novel considered among the best science fiction/fantasy novels of the last decade (or in Tor.com’s case, a baker’s decade, since it has an extra year in it), since I think it’s reasonable to suggest there is an overall consensus as to what novels have had recent significant impact on the genre. I think the list the Tor.com voters ultimately compiled is not a bad stab at attempting to get a bead on the last eleven years of our field.
I think polling a crowd to pick out just one book as the best — either on that last or off it — is a bit of a fool’s errand, however. “Best” is necessarily subjective. There are those who genuinely think Old Man’s War is the best science fiction novel of the last decade; I thank them. Then there are also those who feel like the fellow who wrote this memorable, and in its way totally awesome, one-star Amazon review of the book:
This macho fantasy reads like the work of a clever but disturbed schoolboy. It exists only for the scenes of nasty, meaningless violence that punctuate the tedious clichés. ‘Earth’ is represented exclusively by the USA: the only mention of the developing world is so racist you have to suppress all memory of it if you want to continue. The rest of the world seems never to have existed. American geriatrics (who talk like schoolboys) are given super new bodies and sent to fight various aliens (who talk like schoolboys). There are no characters to speak of, no psychology, no development, no suspense. The brief attempts to provide some kind of scientific background are just silly and ignorant. The underlying assumption – that all species are the same, and all are driven by a mindless urge for expansion – is crude, shallow and dreary. One curious aspect: from time to time the ‘characters’ pause in their slaughtering and dismembering to hold conversations which almost but not quite acknowledge how absurd and unpleasant it all is. Then it’s back to the gore. The professional reviewers who have praised this horrible little book ought to be ashamed. It is the literary equivalent of pulling wings off flies.
Old Man’s War has been around long enough now that I’ve been able to watch the different ways people react to the same elements in the book. What some people classify as “compulsively readable,” other people file under “glib and shallow”; scenes some find “visceral” other find merely “gory”; some people praise my talent for dialogue and characterization while others complain that all my characters sound the same. Who’s right? Well, inside their head, every reader is right. You can’t make them feel about your novel any other way than they do. You shouldn’t try. No one has that much time on this planet.
I think Gareth is angling to know if I think OMW deserves its perch on the top of the Tor.com list. Well, qualified as above, sure. I’m not exactly an impartial observer of the book, nor am I without ego as a writer, so when you read the following keep these two facts clearly in your head. With that noted: I think OMW is probably one of the best recent examples of popularly-written, classically-styled science fiction out there, and it does pretty much what I intended it to do as its author, which was to inject a contemporary sensibility to an old-fashioned form of science fiction storytelling. My style is often shorthanded as “Heinleinian,” but I think it might be more accurate to describe it as “Campbell Modern,” which is to say an updated take on plot-oriented, transparent-prose writing that editor John W. Campbell favored. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course — remember that the New Wave of science fiction arose as a reaction to Campbell’s influence, and the entire field benefited from that uprising — but if it is your cup of tea, then chances are very good you like what I’ve got in my teapot. As a representative of that particular strain of science fiction, and I think on its own merits as a tale well told, OMW deserves to be considered among the best SF/F books of the decade.
Is it the best SF/F book of the decade? No. My vote for that is China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and to be clear I don’t think the vote’s even close. Bas-Lag in itself is a monumental achievement in world-building, a place Miéville so cannily describes that I can picture it in my head better than I can imagine some places here on my own planet. I love re-reading Perdido simply to go walking the streets of New Crobuzon once more. The novel’s story is less of a direct narrative than it is following around people too wrapped up into their own concerns to realize just how much they’re pushing their world toward oblivion, but this is a feature, not a bug, in my opinion. And then there’s the fact that as a formal exercise in genre, it’s a bomb lobbed into the intersection of science fiction and fantasy — Perdido is neither, it just is and is enough so that the term “New Weird” was either created or retconned into service to accommodate it.
The way I would explain Perdido, in reference to Old Man’s War, is as follows: Old Man’s War is a thick, juicy steak that when you put it in your mouth you go, “Damn, I forget how much I love steak.” Perdido Street Station, on the other hand, is molecular gastronomy: a whole new way of looking at cooking, which when the results are put in front of you, you go, “Wait. Is that food?” Both are good, and depending on your taste, one may suit you more than the other. But at the end of the day, one is a truly excellent steak, and one is an invention. And that matters.
So, yes: I think Old Man’s War is among the best science fiction and fantasy novels of the decade. But for my money I think Perdido Street Station actually is the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the decade. You are of course free to disagree. Indeed, the fact that you probably do disagree is part of the fun.
It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.