The Sunday Salon: NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books

In June, I was alerted by my fellow The Lord of the Rings fans to NPR’s call to nominate books for their Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. Setting aside the problem of conflating the genres—I mean, I get it, but it does mean a lot of good books in both categories will fall by the wayside—I enjoyed looking through the comments for new recommendations and, of course, taking the opportunity to peddle Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering like it’s my job. (If you read and liked The Lord of the Rings, you should read it. End of story.) The nominations were counted, the votes were tallied, and on Thursday, NPR unveiled the fruit of its labors—their top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books (circa Summer 2011). I’m not going to copy the list verbatim—you can find a printable version here if you so desire—but I am going to talk about some of the selections that made it, be they good or bad in my book.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Rightfully taking the top spot is The Lord of the Rings—after all, we Ringers did swarm this poll. But when anyone thinks of fantasy, for better or for worse, they think of The Lord of the Rings. Personally, it’s one of my favorite novels, sweeping, epic, and achingly human in the noblest of ways. Other fantasy writers have been trying to copy Tolkien since 1954; in fact, there’s a saying that every fantasy writer has a Tolkien rip-off they have to get out of their system, which is proven true by Guy Gavriel Kay’s bibliography. But copying the trappings—the epic worldbuilding, the languages, the races—isn’t the same as echoing its beautiful, tragic heart.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

And then we have this representing the height of science fiction. While The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is fun, it’s so… insubstantial. This poll was entirely user-generated—I’m not going to say anything about “the tasteless mainstream”, fear ye not—so I understand, since it’s a hugely popular series, but compared against The Lord of the Rings, it just looks… puny.

4. Dune by Frank Herbert

I would put Dune before The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—to be fair, I haven’t revisited it since high school. But the scope, its ideas, and its heart—despite its cynicism—make it, I think, a worthier representation of science fiction as a genre.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Absolutely deserves its slot in the top ten, even as an incomplete series. (I wonder how it will fare in polls like this in the distant future, when it’s finished?)

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

While I’m a bit surprised it’s in the top ten—I don’t meet many people who have actually read it—it definitely deserves it. Quite honestly, I think it’s the best thing Gaiman has ever written and, oddly enough for a British writer, a work of fiction that really gets at the heart of what it means to be American.

22. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I am kind of shocked this is that low on the list; again, I would definitely put this over The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to represent the peak of science fiction. Sadly, I do have to wonder if it’s due to The Handmaid’s Tale being a feminist cautionary tale in a genre so associated with teenage boys, who are, in my experience, usually still working on the concept of interacting with women as people. (I mean no offense to teenage boys who have already figured that one out, but I still meet grown men who have trouble with that concept.)

32. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Okay, while the title of the poll essentially meant it was a stew of speculative fiction, I have no earthly idea why Watership Down was eligible. Don’t get me wrong—I love it; it has a line that never fails to give me chills. But it’s about regular Earth rabbits on regular Earth in the regular 1970s. No magic, no science, no nothing.

42. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I have to admit, The Mists of Avalon is my favorite Arthurian novel, and I’m quite glad it made the list at all—I think it’s an important and good read.

45. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

As is The Left Hand of Darkness, which involves so many things I love—questioning social institutions, desperate treks over frozen tundras, and the question of how to relate to someone who is fundamentally alien from you. I really want to revisit this via audiobook, but the only audiobook of it is available on cassette. Fun times.

47. The Once and Future King by T. H. White

I’m not going to rage about this—personally, I hate it—and instead, I’m just going to think about it in the abstract as Professor X and Magneto’s favorite book. That’s a happy place. Well, fundamentally tragic but happy place.

48. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

There’s a lot of Neil Gaiman on the list, including material that is much better than Neverwhere. I always feel sorry for it; I feel like it doesn’t really get a chance in comparison, you know? But I’m glad people like it more than I do. It deserves some love.

64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Not only is this a good (if long) book, but it also seems to have kicked off this current round of magical Regency novels, which is an important thing in the history of fantasy, I think.

71. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Really? Look, I did enjoy this book and there are currently a handful of quotes of it up on my bedroom wall—it’s a good book. But it’s also bloated and suffers from worldbuilder’s disease. I suppose you could argue by introducing contextual maps and integrating more graphic elements it brought something new to the genre, but I’ve seen that done in smaller doses before. Hmm.

80. Wicked by Gregory Maguire

A thousand times yes. I definitely nominated this one; I truly love it. Upon seeing it on this list, I’m struck by how it uses fantasy to explore humanity in a way we often see in science fiction rather than fantasy. Also, prickly heroines.

89. The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon

really? Again, a good book, but it’s so firmly romance and doesn’t explore much beyond that. (To be fair, I’ve only read the first book, but I’m not interested in following the series.) I’m really just pointing this out because NPR’s description frames Claire as “haunted by her feelings for a young soldier”. I’m assuming they left out “in her pants”.

This week, I finally conquered The Silmarillion! I was very pleased with myself indeed. I also whipped through Johnny Weir’s Welcome to my World in about a day, so I could get to Kushiel’s Dart. I’m leaving for school in about a week, and my libraries at school don’t have Kushiel’s Dart, though they have everything else Jacqueline Carey’s written, so I need to get it read.

I’m giving away a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex until the 26th! Tor.com is giving away 10 ARCs of How Firm a Foundation by David Weber until Monday. Heather at Book Addiction is giving away a copy of The Leftovers by Tom Perotta until Saturday. Tor/Forge is giving away a Mistborn prize pack of all four Mistborn books—including The Alloy of Law—until September 6th. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of NPR’s list?

14 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books

  1. I’m upset that they put Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” higher on the list than “Starship Troopers”. Also, can we go ahead and agree that Martin’s books are far more engaging and interesting than Tolkien’s? I know that deference must be paid, but let’s give credit to quality instead of seniority.

    • Sorry, Ed! I’m going to have to agree to disagree with you there. I think Tolkien and Martin are both very, very good, but they do such different things with the same genre that it’s hard to compare them. I refer to you to my friend Richard’s commentary on the subject here. I find Tolkien’s works and Martin’s works equally engaging and interesting, but for very different reasons.

      I’m more of a fantasy kid than a sci-fi kid, so I will definitely defer to your opinion there.

      Thanks for stopping by, Ed!

  2. I don’t consider myself a huge sci-fi/fantasy reader, so I have to admit that I was quite pleased with myself to see that I had read at least an excerpt of everything in the top ten except Ender’s Game. And I really want to read that.

    And I agree with you on Gaiman. His stuff deserves to be on the list. He’s one of the best – especially who is still alive and writing. Maybe the best.

    • Ender’s Game is quite good—I had to read it in middle school, heh.

      I don’t think he’s the best—which is not a commentary on him as a writer, but speculative fiction as a whole, even when separated into fantasy and science fiction. The genres are just too varied to have someone be the best at all of it. He’s quite good, although I thought Fragile Things was incredibly disappointing.

  3. I was also surprised Watership Down was on the list. I mean, I love that book like my life, but it’s not really speculative fiction. I was sad Canticle for Leibowitz didn’t make it in the top ten! It is maybe my absolutely most favorite of all sci-fi books (and it is real sci fi).

    • Canticle for Leibowitz is on my list, definitely.

      Yeah, there was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it as high on this list as I would have thought; I mean, I definitely thought Dune would outrank The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  4. I know this was done by poll, but I can’t believe that Watchmen or Frankenstein were not in the top ten. Hello? Watchmen changed the face of superheroes forever, and without Frankenstein we might not have modern horror. And I love Sunshine, but I think The Damar books (The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword) should have been on the list, too.

    Oh, well, again, it’s the whole issue of a poll, though. Like, I like Stardust but I can definitely think of other books that deserved a slot.

  5. With all the talk I’ve seen here and in other places about A Canticle for Leibowitz, I picked up a copy today. When I start writing my hard science fiction story again, I’m planning on reading a few pages before I start writing.

    The lack of Octavia E. Butler is criminal. Her writing is some of the most distinct and flowing in all of science fiction. I love her work because it’s not only imaginative, it comes from someone who knew she could write better than what she was seeing. (Note to self: read more of the Patternmaster series.)

  6. Pingback: Wandering The Web | The Age of Will

  7. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Lord of Light « The Literary Omnivore

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