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?