Reading has always been one of my favorite activities. I honestly think the ability to read might be the skill I value most, even though it’s (fortunately) a super common skill. As a little girl growing up in Kansas, I loved how books could transport me anywhere, and anywhen. Nowhere is that more true than in the sci fi and fantasy genres, where you can push beyond even the limits of the laws of physics and the space-time continuum.
In the summer of 2014, as I was cranking into my post-doctoral position at Kansas State University, I stumbled across NPR’s Top 100 List of Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels. I was new to both genres – a couple years prior, I had made it most of the way through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and by the fourth book had given up on the life expectancy of any character whose story arc I enjoyed. I lamented my dissatisfaction with the series to a number of my friends who read fantasy regularly – what I wanted wasn’t Martin’s medieval war story with a side of dragon (#sorrynotsorry), I wanted something with more *actual* fantasy. Every person had the same response: then you should read the Wheel of Time. I spent the last year of my doctoral program wallowing through Jordan’s 14-book, ~12,000-page series, which was actually a nice mental break from the 5-chapter, 215-page hellscape that was my dissertation.
Regardless, once I found the list, it perfectly fit the combination of my voracious reading habit and my anal retentive love of crossing things off lists.
In the time I’ve been working on the list, a lot of people has asked me the following questions:
How was the list compiled?
All of NPR’s Top 100 lists are compiled in roughly the same way. For this list, NPR readers nominated over 5,000 titles, which were then reviewed by a panel of experts and culled to a finalist list, which was then opened to an online poll that received over 60,000 votes. The 100 books receiving the most votes made the final list. The books are ranked in order of most to least votes; from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (receiving 29,701 votes) to C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (receiving 1,452 votes).
Before you freak out that your favorite book or series isn’t on the list, it’s worth noting that this list intentionally excluded young adult and horror/thriller novels, both of which now have their own Top 100 Lists.
Since this is essentially a popularity contests, there are a number of criticisms that can be levied, the most frustrating (in my opinion) being the dearth of diversity in authorship. The list is overwhelmingly white male, which is also true of both genres generally. The top ranked book by a woman is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at #20, and while many male authors have multiple entries on the list (including Tolkein, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Stephenson, Gaiman, Vonnegut, King, Orwell, Sanderson, Clarke, Pratchett, Wells, Niven, and Verne), only one female author appears more than once (LeGuin).
Seriously? A HUNDRED books? Did you actually read them all?
Yes, and no. Many of the books on the list are actually a series, so the list totals ~320 individual books.
I had previously read ~10 of them (including two of the heftier series Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Jordan’s Wheel of Time) and I did not reread those. Two of the list are graphic novels (Moore’s The Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series) which I skipped because I don’t care for graphic novels. I also let myself out of a series if I truly hated it and had read a significant portion of it to give it a fair chance. I did not complete Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire for the aforementioned reasons. I also did not finish Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because it is literally 40 books long; I read the first dozen or so and then could not stand any more terrible puns or juvenile plot lines based around gender stereotypes and I simply could not bring myself to interlibrary loan a book titled The Color of Her Panties.
Other than those few exceptions, I read everything on the list. Totaling over 250 books.
Geez, how long did it take?
Almost exactly four years. I did also intersperse some books that weren’t from the list, but not many.
I’m interested in sci fi and fantasy, but I don’t want to read the whole list. What do you recommend?
This is hard, because it depends so much on preference, and because my opinions of the books are probably influenced by the order in which I read them since I had read so little sci fi and fantasy prior. But with those caveats, here are my personal top 10, in the order in which they appear on the list:
(I promise there are no spoilers in these descriptions, everything I discuss here are either general themes/topics or plot info you learn in the first couple chapters)
8) Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy: just read everything by Asimov. Foundation is great, I, Robot is great, the robot novels (of which only Caves of Steel is on the list) are all great. Just really, read everything he ever wrote. They are fantastic on their own, and also frequently referenced throughout other sci fi works.
20) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: If you went to high school in America, it is highly unlikely that you have not read this book. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you haven’t read it since high school, read it again. Shelley’s monster is a far cry from the green-skinned, knob-necked zombie of pop culture and her portrayal of the monster’s ostracism by society and Frankenstein’s guilt over his creation are powerful and timeless. The story behind her own life and the writing of the book just make it all the more fascinating.
23) Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series: I’m a little conflicted with Stephen King. He’s a fantastic character writer and I often feel like the fantasy and horror aspects of his novels detract from the quality of his character development. The Dark Tower is no exception – you have a fabulous blending of four characters who are so different that you would never expect them to work well together (and yet they are the perfect ka-tet), but shit gets weird fast. It’s a long series, and if you make it through Song of Susannah, you’ll be wondering what brain trauma King went through as a child that would account for his plot lines, but at least read through Wizard and Glass because Roland is a fabulous story teller.
27) Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: this book is halfway between a collection of short stories and an actual novel. Each chapter is a separate time slice in human colonization of Mars, and as the reader you kind of ‘play God’ by knowing all the back history of previous chapters that current characters don’t know. I was hard-pressed to pick only one of Bradbury’s several entries on the list, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. The Illustrated Man (another collection of short stories) is also good, and Something Wicked This Way Comes has some of the most poetic writing I’ve read.
43) Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy: one of the frustrations I frequently ran into with fantasy series were that there was little internal logic to how the magic worked (it seemed anyone, no matter their ability, could always just dig deeper in a time of real need and do just about anything). In Mistborn, not only is Sanderson’s storytelling fantastic, but the structure of the magic is really specific and clearly defined, and the cleverness comes in how it is used. The storyline is also far less predictable than a lot of the fantasy series on the list. I felt like most of them were protagonist (frequently an orphan) finds magical ability, then maybe love, fights evil, rides off into the sunset, blah blah blah. This is one of the few series where I found the ending surprising without just being a contrived last-minute plot twist.
54) Max Brooks’ World War Z: I haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t imagine it does the book justice. The book is split into a bunch of small sections following numerous individuals’ experiences with the zombie outbreak – regular people, government officials, doctors and scientists trying to understand the ‘infection’, etc etc. I was struck by the realistic feeling to most of the stories – like, I’m pretty sure this is what would actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred.
77) Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy Series: Ok, full disclosure, this series has some rather graphic S&M scenes. And, I don’t mean 50-Shades-Of-Gray-my-inner-goddess-is-moaning kind of crap, I mean real violence. The up side is it’s all 100% consensual, since this society takes the religious precept “Love as thou wilt” remarkably literally. I really enjoyed following a strong female protagonist navigating her own sexuality and trust issues, and the series’ discussions of morality in love, sex, and loyalty/betrayal and how these interweave with religious and societal norms.
83) Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: This was probably my favorite entry on the whole list. It’s a 10-book series that follows The Culture, a society of numerous intelligent and sentient species (humanoid and non) and artificial intelligences that interact with other ‘less advanced’ societies. Each of the books follows different characters and occurs on different planets and in different time periods, which means they need not be read in any particular order and most can be read as a stand-alone book. I really enjoyed the theme throughout the series of the impact of ‘benevolent’ manipulation by The Culture on other societies and on individual agents of The Culture. Also, the AIs that control spaceships are so advanced that they have individual personalities, which means that the ships are plot-driving characters and have their own social interactions/norms. Not all the books have quite the same tone, which makes it not feel as repetitive as other long series, and many of them are written with a wittiness that makes even the longer novels easy to read. If you’re not ready to commit to the full series, I recommend starting with Consider Phlebas (which occurs during the Culture-Idiran war) followed by Look to Windward, which discusses the impacts of that war 800 years later.
92) Robin McKinley’s Sunshine: this is McKinley’s only entry on the list, as much of her work is young adult or children’s fiction. I really enjoyed Sunshine, though if I’m being totally honest, I’m including her in my top 10 more for body of work as a whole and not just this novel. You should also read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown and Dragonhaven and Pegasus.
3) Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series and 100) C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy: really, what I loved in these two were the second and third books in Card’s series (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) and the first of Lewis’ trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet). These deal with the behavior of human individuals and societies when faced with newly discovered intelligent, sentient species and the danger of cultural misunderstandings, especially in the face of xenophobia. Card’s series also delves into inter-planetary ecology. Discovering intelligent life was a common theme in the sci fi entries, but I thought these two addressed it best.
An aside for books about war
Many novels in both genres focus on war, to the point that I am now really sick of reading about war, especially in fantasy where it’s mostly hand-to-hand combat with lots of beheading and disembowelment… There were some noteworthy ones, however, which didn’t quite rise to my top 10, but were still thought-provoking.
56) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and 74) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: I accidentally read these two back-to-back and found them to have interesting similarity, even though they’re rather different. Both follow an individual soldier throughout his career and both focus on how war and general life in the military separate soldiers from the civilians they protect. The Forever War focuses on social and temporal separation as the protagonist accrues time dilation while traveling to battles throughout the galaxy. Old Man’s War focuses on biological separation through the development of genetically engineered super-soldiers and trends more towards the question of what it means to be human.
81) Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen Series: this is another hefty series – 10 books at 1000+ pages each. It actually has a lot in common with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – countless characters that you cannot possibly keep track of, numerous political factions all fighting over the same area for different reasons, and no one’s safe from death (but even dead, they might not really be gone). It’s better than Game of Thrones in my opinion, though because the characters are a lot more diverse and the cultures they represent are more richly developed and there’s a thread of humor woven through that keeps it from being too terribly depressing.
So…. what are you going to read now?
Oh, so many things! There’s The Guardian’s dystopian novels that reflect today’s socio-political climate, there’s The Guardian’s five best climate change novels, there’s NPR’s novels for understanding Trump’s election, there’s every book Obama recommended during his eight years in office, and there’s Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf list of feminist writings. That sentence maybe came off more political than I intended, but I’ve been stuck in sci fi and fantasy for four years now, and I feel like I need to reconnect with the real world. I also have plans to slog through James Joyce’s Ulysses with a friend with whom I previously slogged through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so maybe I should just round out the Top 10 Most Difficult Novels.
I just love books. And lists.