If you’re into science fiction and fantasy at all, you’re probably aware that NPR had an expansive project to allow voters to nominate the top 100 science fiction and fantasy works, under the guidance of credible panelists: John Clute, Farah Mendlesohn, and Gary K. Wolfe. After a few months of reflection, here’s my thoughts on the list. So, before I start bagging on it, let me first say that I was surprised at how solid it was. Many worthy works get the nomination they deserve, and there’s a good cross-section of the two genres represented. The list had quite a bit of thought put into it, and it tries to balance not just science fiction with fantasy, but also quality works with popular ones.
Also, if you need help navigating the list, SF Signal provided this badass flowchart to help speed you on your way.
The problem with lists is that they either go full subjective—I’d put money down that you’ve heard of less than half these books, on a very personal and eclectic list—or end up as flaming train wrecks. Like this one, which isn’t so much a list of best books as much as it is a list of what this guy’s read. (Seriously, I consider Gene Wolfe a living legend and great writer, but this is overkill taken to eleven. If you want to die from alcohol poisoning, take a shot when you see Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, or Ursula LeGuin on there.) Or this one, which reads as a very strange popularity contest, having included (and excluded) a number of strange exceptions.
Or this one, the train-wreckiest of them all, which points out my biggest criticism with these lists: science fiction and fantasy deserve their own separate lists, something that was echoed in NPR blogger Glen Weldon’s commentary. True, there is much overlap in terms of authors and tropes, but they are their own distinct genres, and deserve to be treated as such; there have been countless explanations of how the two are different. Most of the reasons for a combined list boil down to the fact nobody wants to set-up preexisting guidelines before hammering down the list, in order to properly shelve borderline works like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series (which features a lot of dragons, but McCaffrey is quite proud to consider it Hard SF).
Part of the reason for separate lists is shown in the fantasy choices: you could fill your own list with the great fantasy choices that weren’t included, because only the big-series writers (Jordan, Martin, Goodkind) and a smattering of modern series made the lists. Excepting the timeless classics, of course, such as Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien, predictably, hit the top spot. What boggles me is Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire ranking third; yes, I love the series, but I think most of the popularity comes from the new HBO series. In another two decades, after it’s finished (knock on wood) and readers have a chance to reflect on it, I’m not sure it would poll third. Meanwhile, the lone China Mieville lurks at the bottom, along with Elric and Kim Stanley Robinson and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun… yet, Salvatore’s Drizzt novels are in the 70s. Blasphemy.
It’s also worth noting that best-of lists are the only times literature classics descend from the lofty heights of literary works to slum it in the genre-fiction ghetto. Orwell and Huxley, plus Mary Shelley, I’m looking at you; way to tie up the lists with books that are already esteemed and recognized to begin with.
This is also trying to keep my personal/subjective feelings at bay. That Asimov’s Foundation always places high on these lists astounds me. Same with Starship Troopers, two fine military SF short stories bookending a fascist civics textbook—seriously, have people read it before voting on it? Same with Snow Crash, which I despised; at best it’s a self-parody of the cyberpunk genre. I’ve heard people call Stephenson a/the father of cyberpunk which continues to annoy me, since it’s antithetical to the works of Gibson or Sterling. Also, The Silmarillion? The mythical coda that combines the rollicking enjoyment of the Old Testament with the density of the phone book?
But this is just postulating around my bigger issue: griping about what’s on is merely code for griping about what’s left out. Clifford Simak’s City, one of the greatest and most influential books to come out of the ’40s. Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, two of the best and most timeless SF books from the 1950s, either one of which deserve to be on here. Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, popular enough to remain in print for an entire frakking century. Give it another year, maybe it’ll be third because of the Disney movie. Greg Bear’s Blood Music. David Brin’s Uplift trilogy. Where the hell is Harlan Ellison? No C.J.Cherryh, Robert Silverberg, H.P. Lovecraft, Tim Powers, J.G. Ballard, Charles de Lint, Glen Cook? Am I alone in remembering Stanislaw Lem and Lord Dunsany?
Again, it has a number of holes, and the order reflects the nature of best-of polls as more popularity contest and less introspective critique, it’s one of the better lists out there. For the most part, the selections are all worthy, and while I question the order/arrangement, it’s nice to see many great works haven’t been forgotten.
And The Analysis…
Rant mostly over; time to put on the analytical hat. I think the list is influential in showing the current views of SF&F readers (who, by proxy, are also NPR listeners), based on what’s there and what’s not. It’s an interesting look at what’s going on in the genre; while it still has a popularity contest feel to it, there’s a lot of thought put into the candidates and inclusions.
The standard proto-SF makes an appearance in the form of Wells and Verne. Nothing from the pulp era, which follows, as it’s a niche market, with few authors of the time left alive to praise the lost legends. There’s a great deal of Campbellian Golden Age SF—Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke—but not a lot of New Wave (I guess Dune, The Forever War, and Le Guin), though the major cyberpunk (Neuromancer) made it on. Then there’s a scattering of modern titles, mostly from the ’80s (Ender’s Game, Hyperion); I might have missed them, but I didn’t see anything newer than Stephenson and Time Traveler’s Wife. (Is this telling us that science fiction books need time to develop as classics, or that recent trends in the genre haven’t resonated with readers?)
The most debased part of the speculative fiction genre—media tie-ins—also have some entries: the incredibly solid Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, and the D&D Drizzt books. It’s good to know that Zahn’s work is still appreciated, considering it started the expanded universe trend yet retained a lot of quality writing. The popularity of the Drizzt books is reflected here, though I would have put them in the YA category the editors used as a demarcation point. Even then, a lot of the works’ influence has been from media tie-ins: Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner, Game of Thrones, The Princess Bride…
I’m very glad to see the anti-graphic novel camp die down enough for Watchmen and Sandman to make appearances, but when will the anti-manga camp evaporate so Katsuhiro Otomo’s mammoth Akira shows up?
By contrast, the majority of the fantasy novels have been written in the last few decades. I find that fascinating: science fiction, the genre of tomorrow, consists of books written before 1990, while fantasy, the genre rooted in the mythic past, dominates with books written in the ’80s-2010s. The rebellion against the Tolkien clones of the ’60s and ’70s (Terry Brooks, David Eddings) has yet to begin, but there’s a larger following for the modern mega-series and lengthy tomes: Jordan, Martin, Goodkind again, plus Rothfuss and Mary Stewart. It’s also worth noting the abundance of comic fantasy (Pratchett, Fforde, and arguably Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony). Watership Down is a good choice, Conan shows up, along with Amber and Elric, so there is some diversity across the genre.
Considering horror is often lumped into the two genres due to overlap—particularly because horror, like comedy, is less a genre and more a stylistic tone overlaying a work—it’s sad that there’s only three on this list. Granted, one is the worthy I Am Legend, and the other is the catchy pop-culture phenomenon that is World War Z.