Not long ago, a friend forwarded a rather nostalgia-inducing link to me: the Top 100 Sci-Fi Books list. Looking at that material brought me back to the days when we were all desperate for interesting things on the nascent World Wide Web—the site feels like a blast from the past, in the best kind of way.
As I was reading through the list, and making notes on anything intriguing, I started developing a slightly depressed feeling. Clearly these were all favorites of somebody somewhere, really excellent books, and the full list (which continues on for a second batch of 100 titles here and has a fantasy equivalent as well—see links below) is a goldmine for the potential reader, as well as a starting place for an excellent collection in, say, a library.
All that said, the less-than-perfect nature of the list still got me down, by which I mean that the vast majority of titles were not ones that struck me as worthy. Of course, a list that consists of 200 items is way too long to match any one person's taste. In the spirit of controversy-baiting list-makers everywhere, I present my top 12 list, divided evenly between science fiction and fantasy. These are the books that I point to as examples of how to do something—anything, everything—right.
I agree with the first two items on the list—Ender's Game and Dune—and then my agreement drops off pretty radically. I wouldn't put Ender's Game at the top—I've wimped out and put my entries in alphabetical order by author—and I wouldn't necessarily tell an unprepared person to take a stab at Dune. Of course, a list for readers new to science fiction or fantasy is another beast altogether (see SF Signal's list if you'd like something along those lines). Comments, and specific titles, follow.
Card, Orson Scott—Ender's Game
Ender's Game is a work constructed by Card with immaculate care and no small amount of emotional punch. When I revisited the Ender series for Strange Horizons, Ender's Game came out miles ahead, in my estimation at least, of any of the other Ender books, even the famous sequel, Speaker for the Dead. In particular, I now admire Ender's Game for the headlong pace and intense identification with a charismatic protagonist. That combination seems like it would be an easy formula to copy, but no one (including Card) has written anything quite like Ender's Game.
Interestingly, the top two SF books are clearly about superhuman beings. Ender is ruthless yet empathetic, incredibly smart yet socially perceptive, and so on down the line, while the protagonist of Dune is the product of thousands of years of genetic manipulation and can see the future, among other powers. On the fantasy side, there's a little bit less of this wish fulfillment of the superhero kind, with Tolkien and his humble hobbits topping the list—of course, they do get to change the world, but they are ordinary folk with some extra courage (and that was the exact complaint that Ebert leveled against the movies—that the hobbits were elbowed aside in favour of the more heroic characters; that is to say, the narrative became more conventional).
Dick, Philip K.—The Man in the High Castle
I'm a fan of Dick's work, and I was tempted to use Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? here instead, since it's Dick's most famous book, and differs radically from its even more famous movie version, Blade Runner, in that it is approachable and contemplative. Instead I'm going with The Man in the High Castle since it's a sentimental favourite of mine; also because I think this is a book that captures the essence of Dick-ness, yet remains more of a workable novel than much of his other output. What is a Philip K. Dick novel? He's most known for philosophical mindtrips, but The Man in the High Castle is probably his most grounded novel, resting almost entirely on characterization. Perhaps not a good sign at first glance? But I wouldn't say that Dick was careless with characters in his other books, more that he could commit himself rather recklessly to absurd premises that didn't allow for much in the way of a human footprint. In this book, he tethers almost all of his typical reality-destabilization and mind-bending to the internal thought life of the two main characters (I've written about this elsewhere). And he does so rather successfully.
Dune is a touchstone for me; it was the first major science fiction book I read as a kid, and you can hardly get a luckier choice. It's an absorbing read, filled with action side-by-side with philosophical speculation. Herbert's got ecological savvy here, he's got a galactic empire, he's got rebels, conspiracies, superhumans (as mentioned), rather bizarre faster-than-light travel that fits in like a puzzle piece with the theme of human evolution, and much, much more. Interestingly, Dune is a book that is done a favor by its sequels, if you are prepared to wade pretty deeply into the swamp (my look at the whole series is here). The first book in the series relies heavily on the idea of a charismatic hero who also functions as a charismatic protagonist—conceptually speaking, I don't think Herbert could stand that, so he spent a lot of effort in the sequels cutting his original messiah down to size. Making your protagonist less charismatic has a corresponding effect on the books themselves; I would say that the sequels are more difficult to read, after the rush of the first book, but they're still worthwhile.
Niffenegger, Audrey—The Time Traveler's Wife
I'm prepared to stand behind this one as the hardest of hardcore time travel stories; the genius of the book is that it weds hardcore SF with romance, of all things, and then fools everyone into thinking it's a respectable mainstream work. See my extensive comments about the book in an earlier Strange Horizons piece. Compulsively readable and highly tragic.
The Time Traveler's Wife was published in 2003 and is the most recent book on my science fiction list, by a rather wide margin. I'll speak more about this in my comments about fantasy below, since the fantasy list has 3 of 6 items that are as new as Niffenegger or newer.
The just-released movie version of The Time Traveler's Wife doesn't hold up as well. The cast is just a little bit off, the dialogue is slightly clunky, the special effects passable, and so forth. The spine of Niffenegger's story still holds up, but it's a really long haul to get to the ending. And in its barebones version, the story is just not that appealing—the richness of the narrative and the characterization work hand in hand with the bleak storyline, so in the absence of one, the other falls apart.
Robinson, Kim Stanley—The Three Californias
I'm cheating a little bit by including three books here, but at least this is the only case on the science fiction side! Taken together, The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge form a trilogy that looks at one area of California through three possible futures. The conceptual links are intriguing enough that what are essentially three separate novels—a post-collapse yet still friendly dystopia, a near-future hyper-urban dystopia, and a mildly improbable utopia—fit together cleverly and satisfyingly.
I use The Three Californias whenever I'm recommending books to people who have a warped or dismissive view of the genre—these books are clearly science fiction, down to every element of their structural and conceptual DNA, yet they are still successful on all the levels that people outside the genre seem to care about. Did that make any sense? I'm not sure I can fully explain my sense of this, but the trilogy definitely works on a practical level as a recommendation I've made successfully in the past. Gateway drug? Perhaps. Longtime fans of SF will enjoy them just as much as anyone else.
Willis, Connie—To Say Nothing of the Dog
Two things about this book led me to add it to the list: it's rather funny in its own right and I tracked down Three Men and a Dog, a splendidly funny book, because of it; secondly, I've become rather critical of endings lately, and Willis's conclusion in this book is an example I use of how to do a good job with an ending (see speculating about the ending of Lost, for example my recent piece).
The book is probably a bit too long—the premise and tone of the book are light and playful, and stretching this kind of thing out over hundreds of pages is a challenge to even a writer of Willis's powers. For this reason, I'm not as motivated to re-read To Say Nothing of the Dog, especially in comparison to the other titles on this list. In Willis's defense, the length of the book is a major contributing factor to the success of the ending, which pulls a switcheroo that gains impact in direct proportion to the length and complicatedness of the story that came before. I dunno . . . maybe I forgive too much for a good ending. Good endings are rare though, way too rare.
Again, I would stand behind the top 2 on the list—Tolkien and Rowling—but then my agreement fades just as rapidly as on the SF side. Interestingly, my picks for SF are a few years old now, yet my fantasy picks are (mostly) much newer, with two significant works not on the Top 100 list. Lots of reasons have been advanced for the publishing truism that fantasy outsells science fiction by a large margin; sure, some of the titles on the fantasy bookshelf are by hacks following the money, as has been true for every generation of Tolkien clones, but I'm seeing stronger and more interesting works on the fantasy side recently. All the same, a giant like Le Guin follows her muse, whether that leads to science fiction or fantasy or what have you, and while Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series is marketed as YA fantasy, that label seems almost incidental to the way that she took so many years to perfect the prose and narrative in each of her books. Specific comments follow.
Hughart, Barry—Bridge of Birds
If this were a list for newbies, I would mention Bridge of Birds and then wait until everyone had read it—this is a book that I have recommended with a near-perfect success rate (see this piece). Bridge of Birds is a cross-cultural fantasy that doesn't get bogged down in the seriousness of its apparent mission to expose readers to another culture; it's gross, it's funny, it's wildly ultraviolent, and despite all that (because of that?), it's charming and satisfying. I could read these pseudo-detective stories set in an ancient, mythical China all day and all night; it's one of the great shames in publishing that Hughart only got the chance to write three books in the series.
Le Guin, Ursula K.—Lavinia
I've written about Lavinia before on Strange Horizons. Lavinia's not on that internet Top 100 list—yet! I think it might be Le Guin's best book. Le Guin goes back to capture the narrative voice of a female character shunted to the sidelines of an ancient epic poem, and returns with a work of startling power. I might have expected something like this book from Le Guin, but, frankly, I never expected to like it. It has all the signs of a project undertaken for an ideological or conceptual purpose, which ordinarily translates to a narrative disaster. Not in this case.
My claim that this book is a fantasy is a little tenuous, and perhaps even offensive to the people who lived in the time period that this novel describes. That is to say, I'm working under the assumption that a writer who takes at face value the slightly supernatural claims of a seriously religious society is, essentially, writing a fantasy. I've read Le Guin's other books that are insistently fantastical, and I see some of the same infrastructure of the fantastic in Lavinia—the way the people move through the world and the way the world is described have that familiar feel.
Rowling, J. K.—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
I came late to Harry Potter and I already knew the surprise ending of the sixth book (thanks Internet!). I also dragged my feet on the whole "this series is growing up" aspect. I'm a big fan of Harry Potter 6 because I think that Rowling got it right with this one: it has all of the best bits of the grown-up side, with a nice leavening of the humour from the beginning of the series that had faded in numbers 4 and 5. This book is where critics who complained about the out-of-control page counts of Rowling's enfant terrible status don't have a leg to stand on. (My argument falls apart only one book later—don't talk to me about #7, or worse, the movie version, which is apparently split in two—good grief, horrible camping tedium, followed by incomprehensible wand lore! With a movie dedicated to each . . . I shudder just thinking of it.)
Summer of 2009 featured the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It's a decent adaptation but it fell a little flat for me. I had high hopes for the movie, higher hopes than perhaps the earlier installments since this round was a particular favorite of mine. The fact that the child actors in a series are growing up actually works in the movie's favor for once, since that's such a huge aspect of Rowling's later books.
Tolkien, J. R. R.—The Lord of the Rings
I could hardly leave this one off the list, considering how many times I read the trilogy when I was a kid. And love it or hate it, you can't dispute the absolutely vast influence of Tolkien's work on fantasy in the decades since his trilogy was written. I probably haven't re-read The Lord of the Rings in ten or fifteen years, and I think I might soon—I re-read The Hobbit recently and came away thoroughly unimpressed, but looking back, I mistrust the vehemence of my response (all of two years ago). I liked Peter Jackson's movie versions quite a lot; the first one more so than the following two, since the first movie is less action-movie and more Tolkien-style travelogue.
I find it instructive to compare Rowling and Tolkien, at least in critical reception. Tolkien's work took a long time to gain momentum, while Rowling had the opposite case where reception of her books affected the writing of the later works, in an insistent and mostly unpleasant way. I see a lot of claims that Harry Potter will fade out of popularity quickly; I would have said the same thing until I read the series myself—now I'm not so sure. I think that Rowling's series will have the same longevity as Tolkien's, but then again, what do I know? Publishing and popularity are funny things. Rowling was not the progenitor of an entirely new category, as was the case with Tolkien.
Turner, Megan Whelan—Attolia series
Turner's Attolia series is another item not on the Top 100 list, and it's another one I'm prepared to back to the hilt. The series is made up of The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia, and the books were published in 1996, 2000, and 2006 respectively (now released in a beautiful matching set of course). The gap of years between the volumes explains the beautiful, smooth writing style—Turner took the time to do it right—and also the way that the sequels are not just "the continuing adventures of" but rather bring something new and interesting to the reader. In my experience, the books are pitched a little older than the typical YA fantasy material. That might be because Turner sticks closely to the feel of the historical analogs of the Attolia society, chiefly Greek, pushing the setting miles away from, say, Rowling's boarding school setup; what's more, the characters change and develop, but are definitely not adolescents.
Zelazny, Roger—Amber series (first set of five)
Yet another item on the fantasy side that shoehorns multiple books into one entry—that's just the nature of the beast! I looked at the Amber series a little while ago here on Strange Horizons (scroll down to "I've also revisited the Amber series . . ."). I like Amber (series one at least) because Zelazny took his undeniably literary bent and applied it to a short, sharp fantasy adventure. There's no slack at any point in the series; if you're looking for an antidote to the sprawl of the later Harry Potter books, this is the series for you. Each book presents a highly varnished slice of a fantasy world complete with a few character twists, then takes a bow and exits stage left. At most, they clock in at 200-250 pages. I know why big fat fantasy novels exist and I crave that endless read often enough myself; Zelazny's Amber satisfies the appetite for an extended fantastical setting, but crammed into miniature format. If you want to see how to write a fantasy without getting bogged down in thousands of epic pages, this series is like an instruction manual. That it's fun to read is of course a bonus!
So that's my desert island top 12. Like any list of this nature, the fun begins when the listing is done and the discussion begins. Please share in the forum any titles that you think should be on a list of books that get it right.
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