Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Top SciFi and Fantasy Books?

So NPR recently polled its readers for the 100 best scifi/fantasy novels, and published the results here. These types of exercises are pretty meaningless in that they are highly dependant on the people that respond (have internet access at home, have time to kill, are fans of the genre and poll host, the books that they've happened to have read, etc.) I know my co-writers are not necessarily fans of these genres but I'm a huge SciFi buff so indulge me as I offer some reactions to this list:

- There’s no way that you should combine SciFi and Fantasy together. While there are sometimes some blury lines between the two, most often books fall hard to one side or another of this line. The survey would have been MUCH more relevant if the had been sepearated – even if to the top 50 in both.

- Nice to see that enough other people like Neil Stephenson that four of his books made the cut. Having said that, as pure SciFi, The Diamond Age (#75) is 1000% better than Snow Crash (#26). The Diamond Age is a trip because it combines stunning ideas, excellent writing, and believeable words together while continually pulling the rug out from underneath you, so that the world at the end of the novel is completely transformed from the world at the beginning. It's a hell of a lot of fun! Snow Crash feels like Neuromancer-lite and is probably is more popular because it’s less complex and was his first book that propelled Stephenson into the mainstream. Cryptonomicon(#53) is an excellent, amazing read (have to read it again sometime) but it’s not strictly scifi (in this case, the book is lumped in with the genre because of his past work). Anathem (#86) was unreadably dense.

- Only one PKD (at #21)? Really? The problem here is that some of his best writing and ideas are in short stories, and he doesn’t have any truly excellent collections like Ray Bradbury (both The Martian Chronicles at #27 and The Illustrated Man at #91 helped flesh out my dreams). I would have voted for UBIK, one of the best mind-fucks of a book i've ever encountered.

- Again, suffering for being a novella rather than a novel, but Arthur C. Clarke’s
"A Meeting with Medusa" is one of the best SciFi writings I’ve come across.

- To have left Solaris off this list completely is an inexcusable oversight. To be recognized as being even remotely credible, this book really has to be in the top 20.

- Have Canticle for Libowitz (#35); haven’t read it yet. Should move it to my bedside table.

- The first Dune (#4) really is an excellent novel. It sticks with you. Haven’t read any of the sequels though.

- China MiƩville should really be higher than #98.

- As much as I like William Gibson, they did him right by only including Neuromancer (#14), although I can’t imagine anyone would quibble with the Burning Chrome collection.

- A bit surprised that Stephen King’s It didn’t make the cut - I still think it's the best thing he's ever done. Can’t speak to The Stand (#25), as it’s the only major Stephen King novel I haven’t yet read. Enjoyed the Dark Tower series (#23) but it didn't blow me away.

- I’m not much of a fantasy reader, but I do enjoy some of the classics like Lord of the Rings (#1) and LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea. If you want a good fantasy read, pick up the old Years Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling) at your local used book stores; they were gold mines of good stories, and I still pick them up to this day to read a story or two.

Cross-posted at Thought Ambience.


  1. I was surprised by how many of these books I've read - and the fact that, in almost all cases, I read them 20+ years ago.

    I imagine that a lot of people are voting out of sense of nostalgia. There was a time in my youth when *everyone* was reading The Sword of Shannara. I read it, and I enjoyed it. But other than because of nostalgia, I fail to see why it is on this list.

    Suprisingly, Harry Potter doesn't make this list. I haven't read any Harry Potter books, so I can't vouch for them, but my guess is that they are just too recent. 20 years from now, when people make one of these lists again, Potter will likely be near the top.

  2. That's an excellent point, and bolsters my thinking that lists like this are inherently subjective based on the audience. The kids who read and love Harry Potter are probably not (yet?) listening / reading NPR and thus didn't participate in this survey. Also interesting to see how public opinion weighs in - conventional wisdom tells you that "Snow Crash" was Stephenson's break out novel, and "Cryptonomicon" was his mainstream break through, with "The Diamond Age" getting lost in between, but to anyone who has really read the books, i'd argue that TDA beats out SC every time.