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Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Novels

A highly scientific study of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy novels was released earlier this week from National Public Radio. While we have no way of knowing if all 60,000 votes were some guy in his basement or actually a bunch of different people, the results are interesting.

I was surprised to see that I'm fairly well read in the SF and Fantasy categories, considering I just had a three-hour-long conversation with someone about how I don't know much about the genres. With that caveat, though, here are a few off-the-cuff and entirely personal reactions:

The Dune Chronicles are number 4? Did they not read the sequels? Or does the first book being awesome make up for the second being the most bizarre thing I've ever read?

The Dark Tower series is only number 23?

The Kingkiller Chronicles made the list! I just read the first two books in the planned trilogy a few weeks ago. And loved them.

While we're linking to other sites, you might also enjoy this review of Lev Grossman's sequel to the Magician (which I didn't much like). The reviewer has a lot to say about the state of Fantastika, as John Clute calls it.

What do you think of the list? What's missing? Does anyone else wish there was more Heinlein and less Mists of Avalon?


  1. Just one Philip K Dick book? I'd have preferred "Ubik" over "Androids" or maybe "The Man in the High Castle" or "Counter-Clock World". And I'm glad to see Brandon Sanderson in the list. He's currently the only fantasy author I still read.

  2. I have a superlong comment!

    Like Josie, I thought I wasn't all that well-read in the genre, but I've read about half of the titles on this list. I've also tried a number of the authors of the titles I haven't read, and have tried but haven't finished a few. So maybe I'm more familiar with the genre than I thought. It's always nice to discover you're better read than you thought.

    Big agreement with the titles by Heinlein, Vonnegut, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury and Burgess. I've always thought that Niven and Pornelle's The Mote in God's Eye was one of the best novels about aliens I've ever read, because the aliens were so convincingly alien, and Lucifer's Hammer was an outstanding end of the world novel. Ender's Game is so brilliant that it had me reading Card for awhile, even though I don't like his fantasy titles at all. Robinson's Red Mars series is fascinating but tries so hard to be factual that it was a little like reading a textbook.

    I sort of wish they'd divided the science fiction from the fantasy, although that's such a huge argument in itself. And I do enjoy some fantasy. The Princess Bride is a huge favorite, of course, and I used to be quite fond of Zelazny's Amber series.

    I have to echo what Josie said about Dune. The first book is a classic, and the sequels were horrible. I'm not that fond of LeGuin. Hated The Time Traveler's Wife.

    And I just finished John Scalzi's Old Man's War trilogy a week or so ago. Coincidentally. It was very good and I recommend it.

    Thanks so much for posting this, Josie.

  3. I've only read 14 of these, and that's including a couple of series in which I've read the first volume but no more! I'm a bad SFF fan and must read more (in my defence, I have read both of the top two). I'd have liked to see more Discworld, which is always disadvantaged by having its votes split across so many books, and I'd have put the Farseer trilogy much higher.

  4. This is bad, I haven't even read a quarter of that list. But as I massive Neil Gaiman fan I am happy to see that practically his entire bibliography made the cut.

  5. And I was thinking that there were a lot of titles by Neil Gaiman and I've never read anything of his. Maybe I should.

  6. Josie,

    "Hated The Time Traveler's Wife."

    Love to know why.

  7. Oops. Not Josie. I meant Billie!

  8. Anonymous asked why I hated The Time Traveler's Wife It's been years since I read it and the details aren't fresh in my head, but I remember getting more and more ticked off as I read it and going into a feminist rant after I finished it. I'm sure it's a very good book or it wouldn't have made the top 100, and I apologize for trashing it if it's a fave of yours. As I've said way too often, everyone's mileage varies. We all have our faves.

  9. I'm just going to be honest, even though I know my comment will horrify many people:

    I don't like Neil Gaiman. I've only read American Gods (although I've read it three times) and a bit of the Sandman comics, but I have a strong, strong aversion to his style and his ideas.

    Many people that I know and love really like Gaiman. That doesn't make me love those people any less, but it doesn't make me like Gaiman more. He is just not for me.

    Has anyone here read Perdido Street Station? I read about 30 pages--it was so close to being wonderful, but then I lost interest in his trenchant examination of the question of "hybridity."

    Lucifer's Hammer sounds neat.

    World War Z is wonderful, by the way. It made me laugh, cry, and shout. Sometimes all at once.

  10. Though I've always found Tolkien's "I'm going to describe everything in excruciating detail so we all see the exact same thing in our mind's eye" approach to prose incredibly taxing, I'm not surprised to see it take the number one spot. But 12 spots above Animal Farm?! Travesty!

    I'm disappointed Margaret Atwood's a Handmaid's Tale isn't on there instead of Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness.

    Truth be told, I tend to avoid sci-fi and fantasy books like the plague because I abhor lengthy exposition. The first page of Hyperion alone convinced me to donate the entire set. Everybody tells me I really missed out.

    Still, I've read about a sixth of this list. It would have been more, but I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy instead of his Triology. Now, I know for a fact I'm not well-read in the genre. I suspect what this list proves first and foremost is how mainstream the sci-fi genre actually is.

    Speaking of which, no Harry Potter? I find that hard to believe.

  11. Awesome that ender's game got some recognition. Still my favourite book of all time. Also the first and third Dune books were awesome, it's true that the rest all were lesser, but at least the worlds and politics were still all interesting in every book.

  12. Dimitri, Atwood's Handmaid's Tale is there. It's number 22.

  13. I really need to start reading. The only book on that list I've read is American Gods and that's only because I loved Coraline and wanted to read more from him.

    Dimitri, I thought the same about The Chronicles of Narnia, but they excluded young adult novels so no Harry Potter.

    It would be nice to see a top list from the reviewers here. Billie has already convinced me to get Ender's Game the next time I'm in the bookstore.

  14. Oh, thank you, Billie. I can now say I've read more than a sixth of the list. However, if they made a list of lists one's read carefully, I wouldn't be able to count this one... Okay, yeah, that joke sucked.

    Felipe, thanks for the explanation. That seems like such an arbitrary exclusion, doesn't it? I mean, they've got Watership Down in there.

    I loved Coraline too. I think it's Gaiman's best book.

  15. Dimitri, do you know the Borges short story that talks about an encyclopedia in which "animals are divided into: a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) suckling pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, L) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies"?

    In other words, I liked your set-theory joke.

  16. Michael Moorcock is there,so far so good. No love for Philip José Farmer? Why not more Heinlein like you said?
    Why on earth is Jaqueline Carey there?
    So many questions..

  17. Josie, I had the same problem with China Miéville's last book, Kraken. Started well but quickly lost interest and gave up.

    Dimitri, I'm ashamed to admit that, despite owning it and loving the film, I haven't read Coraline yet. I should really do something about that as soon as possible.

  18. It's a shame they drew the arbitrary distinction of no young adult novels - where do you draw that line? For me, Watership Down will always be a children's book, albeit a brilliant one. No Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix, no His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, hell even Harry Potter should be on there in the lower half of the list.

    I am completely, utterly gutted that The Culture series by Iain M. Banks isn't much much higher on the list. The best books, Player of Games and especially Excession completely changed the scope of science fiction for me.

    This is a great introduction/summary/taster to the novels if you're interested:


  19. I'm with Josie, just not a fan of Neil Gaiman. He does a great job pimping his books, though. And like Dimitri, I find Tolkien incredibly dull. I appreciate the detailed world he built, but the man was not a great writer.

    I was surprised at how... old this list was. How many of those 100 were published in the last 10 or 20 years? No mention of modern bestsellers like David Weber, John Ringo, or S.M. Stirling (or any Baen authors, really.) And more people really should be reading Joe Abercrombie.

  20. Interesting list. I was surprised to discover I've actually read a fair number of those books, too. Especially on the upper part of the list.

    I'm really surprised the Harry Potter series was somehow disqualified. How can you have Ender's Game and Watership Down but no Harry Potter? They are just as "young adult" friendly. I first read both as a young adult.

    It's too bad the subsequent Ender novels weren't as good as that first one.

    I thought The Time Traveler's Wife was fascinating for the bulk of the book, but ultimately found it really depressing. And I did not care for the very end. It made me quite angry, actually. I also didn't much care for the movie version of the book. The end was a bit better, but they changed the motivations behind a key event in the middle and it really bothered me.

  21. Hmm... I love LeGuin, but I haven't read "The Left Hand of Darkness" yet. I was thinking of the "Lathe of Heaven" and the Earthsea series. (Harry Potter is fun, but I prefer this style of magic better.)

    I was impressed with "The Dispossessed", largely because it found a way to show the characters being scientific geniuses, but did *not* resort to technobabble. (If only more sci-fi writers knew how to write like this...)

    I'm guessing there is not more Heinlein, because it would have been tough to pick *only* one or two more. After the ones listed, there are a pack of novels about the same in quality.

  22. Mark, I think you're right.

    I just skimmed the original nomination page and then the voting page at the NPR site. They don't say anything about what language the novels ought to be in.

    Obviously, NPR is an American company, and Americans notoriously don't like to read things that have been translated from anything other than British English, but I'm starting to wonder if anyone could recommend some non-Anglophone SF and Fantasy novels.

    Or, if there's some novel on here that wasn't originally written in English, point it out to me so I can feel dumb.)

    I'm going to go out on a limb and nominate Eco's The Island of the Day Before.

  23. "Obviously, NPR is an American company, and Americans notoriously don't like to read things that have been translated from anything other than British English, but I'm starting to wonder if anyone could recommend some non-Anglophone SF and Fantasy novels."

    I'm not sure I can agree with the above sentiment, Josie. If a book has been translated into American English, I think most American readers could care less about what language it was originally written in (Stieg Larsson's trilogy, anyone?). I think you're doing American readers a disservice by assuming that the lack of translated fiction is a result of apathy or American laziness.

    In fact, I would say that the problem is a market one. The American publishing industry is mature and diverse. It can be very difficult for an American-born English speaker to be published. How difficult must it be then for a foreign author who doesn't even speak English to breach the market?

    Translation is expensive. My impression is that American publishers are much less likely to take a risk on publishing and marketing a foreign author when translation and other extra costs are taken into account. That may well be a problem of its own, but chalking up that market calculation to "notorious American indifference" is likely unfair.

    The fact remains that few foreign authors reach American bestseller lists. But let's attribute that symptom to its cause - logistical and financial concerns - and not perpetuate the stereotype of American cultural ignorance.

    For more on this subject, I'd recommend:

    And for great foreign literature, check out:

  24. HappyElk, thanks for the links.

    I was thinking of this article and the book it discusses: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/books/review/Howard-t.html

    "The occasion to which Grossman now speaks, once she blows the froth of professional courtesy off her brew, is the drastic inadequacy of the treatment generally offered to translated literature in this country."

    Towards the end of that article, the reviewer lists many recent translations into English. Nearly all of them are "classics" from other cultures, whereas (as your first link clearly pointed out), one can easily find Stephen King in a variety of languages.

    Should Americans really pat themselves on the back for generating numerous Dante translations? Especially if one of the most praised, by Pinsky, is inaccurate?

    I understand the perspective of the publisher's article, but I'm not sure we can divorce "market" from "readers." If there was a great demand for Croatian locked-room mysteries to be translated, the market would react to the readers' demands--because the readers are the market. Publishing companies seem to have no problem finding innumerable Swedish noirs to translate as they become more popular.

    And doesn't this list of Anglophone novels rather prove my argument? That is, if we were willing to read many translated books, why aren't there more on there?

    Above all, I should make clear that I'm not separating myself from the "American reader." I am an American reader.

  25. Me again.

    That above comment sounds angrier than it should. I received some annoying, frustrating news (unrelated to books or translation) just before I wrote it, and a lot of that emotion spilled into the post.

    I stand by my claim, though. Just with a happy face rather than a frown. :-)

  26. Hi Josie,

    I wish you happy news to balance out your frustrating news.

    On another note, "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" by Jules Verne are both French novels.

  27. Oh, I almost forgot: Pierre Boulle is not on the list, but he, of course, wrote "La Planète des Singes" a.k.a. "Planet of the Apes". I think the movie is better, but it's not bad as pulp sci-fi goes.

  28. Since the category includes fantasy, we could throw in a lot of mythology. (I'm sure that would have introduced controversy, if someone tried to add "The Bible".)

    "The Illiad/Odyssey" by Homer (doh!)
    "The Ramayana" by R K Narayan
    Tales From the Thousand and One Nights
    Monkey (the copy I have from college is by Wu Ch'Eng-En, translated by Arthur Waley)
    Ovid's "Metamorphoses"

    Some more modern stuff on my bookshelf:
    Alexander Lloyd's Prydain series ("Book of Three")
    Harry Harrison: Stainless Steel Rat, and Deathworld
    Robert Lynn Asprin: Myth series

    H.P. Lovecraft - absent from the list, but a huge influence on others

  29. Good point, Mark. I'd nominate all those medieval stories about otherworlds, and all the collections of fairy tales. Of course, that might be extending the definition of "novels" beyond the breaking point.

    But I love a good novel-breaking on a Monday evening.

  30. Between printing the original NPR list, and all of your comments...and the original "What are you reading in 2011" thread...I have enough reading to keep me busy until...well...a LONG time.
    I am more of a fantasy fan than strict scifi - but I think the reason I have read so few books on that list is because I have read so few of the classics! Wow. Sad, really. Plus, I read books over and over again (Lord of The Rings, at least 4 times now). Not to mention all the TV I now watch, thanks to being able to watch old shows via Netflix.
    Excuses, excuses. I better get cracking.
    So, since that list of 100 is both scifi and fantasy (and they are not labeled or segregated) - anyone willing to give me their top picks for the fantasy books on the list? Gotta cut down my list somehow!

  31. Oh, and Harry, thanks for pointing out the "no young adult" books on the list - since I have read quite a bit of those (having teenage daughters), like the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix, which is one of my fav's mentioned in my "What are you reading in 2011" posts. So, if they had ony of those on the list I may have read more...but no matter...the point is there is more than enough great stuff out there to keep me busy.

  32. Jumping in terribly late.

    I am always struck that the best way of doing these things is to take the raw ranking and then give a bonus for every year in print. Put another way, things published in the last few years are simply too new to be accurately placed in a list like this. Take for example "Stranger in a Strange Land". If you looked at this in 1971 (ten year s after publication) it is entirely unclear if it was just part of the 1960's inspired navel gazing proto-new age bilge or a truly monumental work that represented Sci-fi growing up at last. After 50 years in print, its impossible to miss its greatness. Same goes for HG Wells who with Verne invented the genre. The "greatness" of a work needs a certain aging.

    I think we'll see Gaiman's work largely absent when they do a similar poll in 20 years. Not because the writing isn't interesting, but because in the final analysis there isn't really much there there. Fun beach read but that's it. Right now though he looks like a giant in the field. Its the newness

  33. Interesting comment, Purple Duck.

    So, I will start with the "classics" that I have not yet read.

  34. Like Dimitri, "Truth be told, I tend to avoid sci-fi and fantasy books like the plague because I abhor lengthy exposition."

    I was surprised by how many titles on this list I had actually read. Some of them I have never heard of and sound pretty good.

    Dimitri also said, "Though I've always found Tolkien's "I'm going to describe everything in excruciating detail so we all see the exact same thing in our mind's eye" approach to prose incredibly taxing, I'm not surprised to see it take the number one spot." I'm quoting because I could not say it better myself. I had to read The Hobbit in school and loathed it. I have tried Lord of the Rings on three separate occasions, never getting further than about page 50.

    Loved The Handmaid's Tale and loved Time Traveller's Wife. The latter I liked so much that I read it again as soon as I had finished it.

    The others on the list that I recommend are the Outlander series. A woman I met while I was traveling through Scotland told me that they were the best books she had ever read. In fact, she was in Scotland as a direct result of the books. Intrigued, I picked up the first one and was hooked. The first three or four are wonderful, but then they slow down a bit.

    I have to say it again. I just love a site that discusses books as well as television. Don't care what the pundits say -- reading is alive and well.


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