Daniel over at Castalia House has an interesting blog post up called Evidence for the Bust Years: The Decline of Science Fiction, According to Readers. He is advancing the idea, using book ratings out of 5, as a proxy for the quality of science fiction over time. He outlines his method and the results are interesting.
I preselected a single book from each year that I know sold reasonably well in its day. I tried to do this without regard for my bias in favor or against it (if I have read it at all) by drawing my choices from a number of pre-selected lists.
You may be surprised by what turned up.
For example, for the 1950s, I took a gander at the American Science Fiction Classic Novels of the 1950s For general guidance, particularly the decades of the 1970s through 1980s, James Wallace Harris’ site was invaluable. Daniel Immerwahr’s Books of the Century helped me to fill in a few significant gaps, as well.
Basically, I tried to fairly pre-select a decent list of a top-selling (perhaps in some cases the highest selling) science fiction, with a representative from each year between 1948 and 2010.
Then, and only then…I cross-checked those books’ reader reviews at Amazon.
Now, I weighted my choices slightly. For example, in 1969, I had to choose (among hundreds) between Ubik, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I chose LeGuin as the representative out of those three, even though Vonnegut was the better seller for that year, and Ubik was a better story than the other two. Left Hand of Darkness, however, was definitely a top-seller and also more stereotypically represents popular science fiction in the paperback market of that year.
’69 was a tough call, but no where near the most difficult. Dying Earth, Martian Chronicles, and I, Robot all came out in the same year. Which one would you pick to represent that year’s popular books? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. After all, I was just trying to select a reasonable example from that year though it became decidedly obvious that some years were simply more abundant than others.
Award-winning (or at least nominated) books make up a good sampling of my selections, but not always. If I did not recognize a book (or at the very least the name of the author), it was eliminated, even if it had won an award. I tried, very inartfully, to identify a representative book from the era that has a chance of still having even a modest fanbase today.
I ended in 2010, because I think the last five years might produce more heat than light.
My selection, therefore, has a clear streak of subjectivity, but one that I hope had little to no impact on the mystery I’m trying to unlock: