Last month, NPR asked its listeners to nominate titles for a list of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy novels ever written. A panel of experts went through the nominees and narrowed it down to 237 finalists, and now we're being encouraged to vote for our favorites. Looking over the list, I found I hadn't read many of them, but I thought I could perhaps find something to say about the ones I have.
Let me first say that while I understand their decision to exclude horror and paranormal romance titles from consideration, if only because we almost certainly would have seen the Twilight books end up in the top ten, which would instantly call the credibility of the list into question, I think it was a big mistake to disallow young-adult or children's titles. As I said to mmaresca on his writing blog: "when the result [of not considering YA or children's books] is that The Silmarillion made the list of finalists but The Hobbit didn't, it really calls into question why they're even bothering." There are any number of other books for young readers that have earned a place on any list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels--A Wrinkle in Time, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, His Dark Materials, and the Heinlein juveniles, to name a few--and that this list will not include any of them makes it a lesser list.
On to the nominees:
- 1632, by Eric Flint
- I read this because at the time I was on a small alternate history kick (I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy works around the same time), and also because it was available as an ebook via the Baen Free Library. I was not moved to read subsequent books in the series, nor any other books by Eric Flint. Interpret that how you will.
- 1984, by George Orwell
- It's interesting to see how American conservative politicians have embraced the principle of doublethink--2008: filibustering judicial nominations is unconstitutional! 2009; These judicial nominations must be filibustered!--and how the conservative media establishment has adopted the practices of the Ministry of Truth. We're lucky that the Internet is sort of an anti-Memory Hole.
- American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
- Apparently I'm quite the Neil Gaiman fan. My favorite of these is the Sandman series, though it's so epic in scale and size that's it hardly seems fair to compare it to something as short as a one-volume novel. Of the novels, I think my favorite was Anansi Boys.
- A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
- I read part of this when I was in college, but I thought it was rather boring so I never finished.
- The City and the City, by China Mieville
- I really like the underlying idea of this book, and it's well written, but it points up my biggest stumbling block when it comes to fantasy and science fiction: made-up words and names like, in this case, Besźel and Ul Qoma never fail to throw me out of the story. As I said to my sister-in-law this weekend, "when I see names like Daenerys, I pretty much lose all interest."
- The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- I haven't read this, but something about it was nagging at me. Finally I remembered "The Possessed," a short story by Arthur C. Clarke that is wholly unrelated to the LeGuin novel.
- Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
- I'm surprised Speaker for the Dead didn't make the list. I'm not at all surprised Xenocide and Children of the Mind didn't. Hoo, what a couple of stinkers.
- Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
- I think Bradbury is one of the greatest short story writers ever, but I've never been all that fond of his novels. I think he has a tendency to get carried away trying to be lyrical and poetic in his descriptions, and that tendency is especially apparent in his longer works. But his short stories are necessarily immune to it; the first line of the first story in The Martian Chronicles is, "One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets." Yes, it was cold, I get it.
- Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
- Speaking of short stories, here's a good novel that started out life as a great short story. I don't know why Keyes though it needed to be expanded to novel length.
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
- Strictly speaking, I have not read this. I listened to an unabridged audiobook recording of it. Pretty creepy when it's read out loud.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
- I was wondering why the Hitchhiker's series as a whole didn't make the list, but then I remembered So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. On the other hand, if the entire Xanth series made the list, it's hard to justify leaving off the Hitchhiker's series.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
- You know why I liked this book? Footnotes. I love novels with footnotes.
- The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- See above for what I think of The Silmarillion being a finalist. As for LOTR ... I can't deny it deserves a place on a list of all-time great science fiction and fantasy works, but to me it reads like a transcription of the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. A lot of it is his incessant use of "names like Daenerys," but it's also the way he lets the mythopoeia get in the way of the story.
- The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
- Huh? I guess the Fire Swamp and the holocaust cloak are pretty fantastical, but you're really stretching the limits of the term to call this a fantasy novel. That said, it is a great book.
- Ringworld, by Larry Niven
- As I recall, I took kind of a backward path to this; I became familiar with some of the aspects of Niven's Known Space series though the Star Trek animated series episode "The Slaver Weapon," and I think one of my friends from junior high told me about variable swords, possibly in conjunction with our brief flirtation with the Traveller role-playing game. Anyway, good book, though I seem to recall being somewhat dissatisfied with the ending.
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon
- To someone who is unfamiliar with science fiction and fantasy fandom, it must seem odd when the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to a science fiction novel, it went to one that was completely ignored by both the Hugos and the Nebulas. But in my experience, the fandom tends to be blind to anything that is shelved outside the scifi/fantasy section of the bookstore, unless the author is already a known quantity (like Neil Gaiman) or it becomes so popular among the mundanes that it becomes impossible to ignore (like the Harry Potter books). Cormac McCarthy isn't and The Road didn't, so it went unnoticed. But if McCarthy's next book even remotely resembles science fiction or fantasy, you can count on him at least getting a nomination.
I know this because that's pretty much what happened to Michael Chabon. His fantasy-tinged, nerd-friendly novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won a Pulitzer in 2001. He followed that up with Summerland, a juvenile fantasy about baseball; a Sherlock Holmes pastiche; and a comic book series featuring the Escapist, a comic book character he created for Kavalier & Clay. Then came The Yiddish Policeman's Union, an alternate history with no science fiction or fantasy elements that nevertheless was nominated for and won both the Hugo and the Nebula. Now, I'm not saying it wasn't good or that it didn't deserve the awards, but Kavalier & Clay was better, and it actually was a fantasy novel of sorts. But back then Chabon wasn't a known quantity, so he was ignored. By the time YPU rolled around, genre fans had decided he was worthy of their attention, so they fell all over themselves giving him the award he probably should have won for Kavalier & Clay.
- Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
- Hey, speaking of Terry Pratchett, you know what's missing from this list? Good Omens. Man, that's a great book. Small Gods is good too, definitely one of the more palatable Discworld books. I don't know what it is about Discworld ... seems like the sort of thing I'd really dig, but aside from this and Hogfather, none of them have really grabbed me.
- The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
- The read the first one of these in junior high or early high school, on the recommendation of a friend who thought I would appreciate the humor. Apparently I didn't, because I never read beyond that first one.
- The Stand, by Stephen King
- I read the original version, not the expanded version King released after he decided he was too rich and successful to listen to his editor.
- The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
- Haven't read it. But I'll bet that if I added up all the times I entered the word ELOI into a crossword grid, it would meet or exceed the total number of words in the novel.
- Watchmen, by Alan Moore
- No, it's Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In some cases, it's fair to credit the creation of a comic to just the writer. That is definitely not the case with Watchmen.
- Watership Down, by Richard Adams
- I can't remember if I read this or not. Just to be on the safe side, I checked a copy out from the library this afternoon, so if I haven't I will have soon. Regardless, I have seen the animated film version, which I remember as being quite good.
- The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
- I read the first two books in the series, then read the Wikipedia articles about the rest. I highly recommend this approach.
- Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
- Read the book, saw the musical. Liked 'em both, but on balance I think I preferred the musical.
- The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
- I've read a few of the Xanth books, but not all of them. Frankly, I have trouble believing anyone has read all the Xanth books. I suspect even Piers Anthony has only skimmed some of them.