Friday, August 12, 2011

Thoughts on NPR's 100 Best SF/Fantasy Books

Well, NPR just released their list of the 100 greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy books.  Since I’m a fan of both NPR and Science Fiction/Fantasy, I thought I’d make a few comments on the list.  Like anyone who encounters this list, there are some things I’m happy about, and some that I’m not.  Overall, I think it captured most of the classics, but snubbed a few, and it left something to be desired in its exclusion of some deserving contemporary authors. 

I was happy to see that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings came in first on the list.  I feel it is the seminal work of speculative fiction of the twentieth century and thus deserves this lofty station.  Yes, I’m a bit biased in my love of this book, but I think most would agree that Tolkien had a powerful impact on the genre that fantasy was to become.   I also cannot think of a single other work of fantasy (or science fiction) that has had as great an impact, so I couldn’t really see anyone else on top of the list. 

This leads me to another thing I like about the list.  I’m glad they excluded young adult and horror from the list.  While there are certainly some worthy titles in both of those categories, I think first that SF and Fantasy deserve to be represented alone (both could have probably had their own 100 greatest list) and second, since this list is voted on by readers, and thus basically a popularity contest, they could have ended up with something like the Harry Potter books, or worse yet, something like Eregon topping the list.   Not to slight J. K. Rowling, her HP books are highly entertaining, but despite their great sales numbers, they are not the best of the best when it comes to the classics of speculative fiction. 

This brings to mind the fact that Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came in second.  While I like the book, I find it an odd second place in the entire canon of SF/Fantasy.  It would seem more appropriate to me for something by Heinlein or Clarke to hold this place on the list.  But at least those two are represented somewhere further down the list.  I was saddened to find that Alfred Bester didn’t appear on the list.  His two novels, The Demolished Man, and The Stars My Destination are integral SF works that should be on anyone’s speculative fiction reading list. 

As to what was included, I was not thrilled to see graphic novels included in the mix.  While I love Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and the Sandman series, I don’t think of them in the same mix with straight up novels and story collections.  They are a different art form, no pun intended.  Leaving them out could have opened up space for writers like John Crowley, whose novel Little, Big practically redefined Fantasy in the early eighties.  Or Tim Powers, whose exclusion from the list is practically a travesty. 

I was also disappointed to see a commercial movie tie-in like Tim Zahn’s  Star Wars inspired Thrawn Trilogy on the list.  Nothing against movie tie-ins, they are often entertaining and well written, and they generate some well–deserved revenue for SF authors, but I just don’t think derivative works like this belong on a 100 best list.  Especially when so many well known authors of original fiction, like Lucius Shepard, Michael Swanwick, Frederick Pohl, Tad Williams and others didn’t make the list. 

I also found it interesting that authors with series books had the whole series listed, rather than just one book.  The main reason that I prefer this is the fact that it opened up more space on the list for other authors, even though in some series, the later books might not hold up as well as the first ones—Frank Herbert’s Dune books being a good example.

I also found that I disliked the fact that Neal Stephenson had four books on the list.  Not to slight his books—he is a brilliant author, but to have a list with four of his books and not one by Samuel R. Delany, or Octavia Butler, or worse yet, Fritz Leiber, is to me unthinkable.  Leiber, perhaps almost as much as Tolkien, helped define modern day genre fantasy with his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser works.  It is inexcusable that the list excludes Leiber. 

So that’s my two cents on the list, which all in all isn’t too bad.  I like when entities like NPR or other places do these sort of things, as it helps promote authors’ books, and gets people talking about books, just like I’m doing right now.  I’m sure I’ll take some flak for some of my opinions, but hey, that’s the way it goes. 

In reviewing the list, I find that out of the hundred, I’ve read forty-nine books on the list, including seven out of the top ten.  There are several more on there that I’d like to read, so thanks, NPR, for bringing them to my attention. 


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