Worlds & Time

Saturday, October 29, 2011

BestSFBooks Ranking System

So, since I'm sort of obsessed with Speculative Fiction awards (you may have noticed), my boyfriend emailed me a link the other day:

I took one look at it and decided that I have serious disagreements with the rankings generated by that site, although they generally do what I do, which is count various awards that books get and then rank them by the number of awards and nominations.

The first issue that I have with their method of ranking is that they count the wins and the nominations at the same value. Which has some merit, I admit. I also maintain a straight count of nominations and wins counted as "1" each. You can look at that and get a 2 vs. a 6 and generally tell that if that first book has two wins and the second book has six nominations, that second book is probably more widely liked among a general audience.

But I also maintain a "weighted" score which provides me with a different look: where wins are worth 1 and nominations are worth .5. A book with three wins should have a higher ranking than a book with 3 nominations or even a book with 5 nominations. And so you can easily differentiate in that way between the big winners and the big nominations.

If you're looking for a list of the best speculative fiction, I don't think the straight number of awards gets you to that book. The BestSFBooks site gives second place over the last 3 years to Anathema and The Dervish House each with a count of 7. But The Dervish House has 4 wins and Anathema has 3. If you're looking for an actual ranking of the books, then I would rank Dervish House higher than Anathema, although I would still rate Anathema higher than a book that got 3 wins and two nominations (like Blackout).

The second quibble that I have with their rankings is that they're weighted toward British Books.

Several of the awards that they rank are international. Hugo Awards, Locus SF/Fantasy Awards, John W. Campbell Awards, and World Fantasy Award are (as far as I can determine) all open to books published anywhere in the world. Hugo Awards are explicitly open to books in any language, although the general voting membership is English speaking and I don't think a non-English book has ever made the shortlist.

But BestSFBooks also lists the British Fantasy Society Award, British Science Fiction Association Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards, all of which are only open to books published in the U.K.

Those Awards directly compare to only one strictly American award: the Nebula Award. And, while the American Nebula Award can go to either a science fiction or fantasy book, those categories are split out amongst two of the previously listed British awards, giving double weight and twice as many nominations to the British awards before even taking into account the Arthur C. Clarke excess.

There is one more American award on their list, the Philip K. Dick award, but the Philip K. Dick award can't be directly compared to the British awards, or even the other American awards. The Philip K. Dick award is specific to a subset of American speculative publishing: original paperback science fiction publications, which means that usually the awards go to books that aren't nominated in any of the rest of the categories. There are notable exceptions (Yarn, Nova Swing, The Devil's Advocate), but mostly the Philip K. Dick award targets an entirely different category or book than the other American science fiction awards do, so it doesn't tend to boost the numbers of awards from American authors. In fact, since the Philip K. Dick targets some books that are paperback reprints of British books, it can further inflate the number of wins or nominations of British works (such is the case with Nova Swing, for example).

So the top books on the recent lists are British, and there are a lot of British authors on top as well. This year, skipping the obvious winner of The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (sometimes the out-and-out winner is British, I have no quibble with that) there are two British books and two British authors on top of the first American in either category. Overall, there are five British books and five authors writing in the British scene on the top 10 award winning lists of the last year.

Over the last three years, you can see much of the same. Five of the site's best speculative fiction books are from British authors, but there is a shift as 6 of the top 10 "best" authors are writing for a primarily British audience as well.

Over ten years, the 10 best books have Americans in only three spaces. And there are only four Americans on the authors top 10 list.

All of this shouldn't be construed as implying that British science fiction authorship isn't enjoying a bit of a golden age at the moment, with authors like Mieville, Stross, Gaiman, McDonald and Clarke, but I do think that the way that BestSFBooks counts it's points skews toward British writers and books.

Third, I'm not sure that I would count the SFsite Reader's and Editor's choices as awards with the same weight as the Hugos, Nebulas, and Locus awards. Or even smaller awards like the Philip K. Dick. That's just a personal choice though, in the same way that I count the "big three" as the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards (I freely admit my Amerocentrism, and my list is primarily for me) despite the John W. Campbell awards' claims.

Fourth, and I agree that this is a bit quibbly with regard to a website called BestSFBooks, but they're really doing a disservice leaving off all of the rest of the categories beyond novel. There are some amazing short stories out there, and there are plenty of novellas that get limited publication as their own books. Heads by Greg Bear jumps instantly to mind.

Finally, i wish they had an "all-time" option. There are lots of great older books that could easily rank against more recent books if BestSFBooks gave them the chance to compete. Let's see some Ursula K. Le Guin toward the top.

Kudos to them for maintaining a usable, clear and professional site though. That isn't easy and they should be lauded for that.

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