NPR’s Top 100 SFF
First of all, click here to check out the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, according to a poll conducted by NPR. I looked at it today and had some strong reactions. First of all, the big caveat is that NPR didn’t make the selections, they merely accepted nominations and conducted the voting. Nobody claims that these are the “best,” “most influential,” or have “literary merit.” These are just whatever people tossed out there, which for many no doubt means, “whatever NYT best-selling fantasy doorstop was last in my bathroom.” All I can say is, at least Twilight was excluded.
NPR’s blog does their own analysis of the list, so I won’t belabor the points made there. After all, those people are much more well-read than I am, and probably real live literary scholars or something. Instead, I’ll just give my reactions to the list: things I liked, things that caused me to spray my Talking Rain fizzy water on my screen, and things I think were unfairly left out. As an overall reflection, I get the feeling that SF voters tended towards lifetime achievement medals and an appreciation for their forbears, while Fantasy voters went with The Tome of the Month and gave little thought to what came before and what may follow. More on these as my rant goes on.
Let’s begin with the Yes, Yes, a Thousand Times Yes Division. That has to start with #1, a very deserving J.R.R. Tolkien. According to NPR, LOTR didn’t just take first place, it crushed all comers. I think any way we look at it, nobody can deny Frodo & Co. their place at the head of the line. Dune is also well deserving of its place, though I would have it even higher. I think it is admirable that Orwell, Bradbury, Verne, Shelley, Wells and Huxley are all present, though I wonder if these authors are mentioned because the books are genuine favorites, or because well-informed SF readers know what a debt we owe to the writers. Likewise with the Big Three (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) and other prominent writers (Niven, etc.). Some of the selections may have got in based on name recognition rather than quality. For example, Ringworld is Niven’s best known work, but possibly not his best. I need to reread Foundation (among others) to see if it is really the 8th best series ever. Stranger in a Strange Land gets the nod of course, even though I prefer others from Heinlein. I’m glad that people remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Forever War, and Hyperion, though again, Dan Simmons should be in at least the top 20. Finally, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a worthy addition. Readers of Two Dudes will know how I feel about those books.
Now for the AAAUGH Fer Ignert! Division, which is more fun. My first thought when reading this list was, “When did Neil Gaiman take over the world?” I’ve read one of his books, and it was alright, but the man is holding even with legends like Asimov, Niven, and Vonnegut. I guess I should pick up American Gods so I too can fall in line. My next thought was, “Fantasy types, I know you are weird, but this is too much, even for you.” I will say nothing of George R.R. Martin, since I didn’t finish Game of Thrones and probably never will. But Patrick Rothfuss in the Top 20? Ahead of Malazan, Phillip K. Dick, Zelazny, and LeGuin? Good heck, people. And who is this Brandon Sanderson, and why is he out-polling The Book of the New Sun? There is no accounting for taste. (To be fair, I haven’t read Sanderson, and he may be amazing. But I doubt he’s Gene Wolfe amazing.) Oh, and did I mention Robert Jordan? At #12? Aaaaarrrrghghghgh. I’m not going to comment on Xanth or Shannara, but I will mention in passing that any list where Drizzt books top Rendevous with Rama and Iain M. Banks is not one to take to the bank.
In a category all itself, what to do with #2? I love Douglas Adams books. Zaphod and Marvin have been heroes to me for decades. But I suspect that Adams himself would be puzzled to find himself the second best SFF (and first best SF) writer of all time.
And now for those left home, alone, on Prom Night. I’m not going to create my own Top 100, because it would take a long time and accomplish nothing, but there are several authors that I think should be on there. They should be far ahead of anything mentioned in the last paragraph, though I suppose I risk the wrath of Wheel of Time disciples everywhere. (We live on the edge here at Two Dudes in an Attic!) In (mostly) alphabetical order, here are some Better Than Terry Goodkind Winners. How about Poul Anderson? I’m less a fan than in the past, but surely he’s worth a mention? Or Greg Bear! Blood Music and The Forge of God are pretty good. Alfred Bester anyone? He won the first Hugo. I seriously can’t believe that Brin’s Uplift isn’t on there. Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls and Cook’s Black Company are better than most of the fantasy on the list. CJ Cherryh? David Drake might deserve a spot, though he may be more divisive. I wonder if Andre Norton was relegated to the YA list. Speaking of fantasy, Patricia McKillup (especially The Riddle Master books) and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast are better than The Sword of Truth. Frederick Pohl! They passed up Pohl for Terry Pratchett? Alastair Reynolds may only be my favorite, but surely Tad Williams deserves to have a doorstop on the list? I’m starting to froth.
To sum up, this is a puzzling list. I alternately nod my head in wise agreement, then frantically try to prevent that same head from exploding. The contrast between SF, where Jules Verne and H.G. Wells hold prominent positions at the expense of younger writers, and Fantasy, where pioneers like Fritz Leiber and Fred Saberhagen are tossed off a cliff in favor of (teeth gnashing) Robert Jordan, is telling. Are fantasy readers that ignorant or apathetic about their heritage? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser will abide long after The (Weapon) of (Noble Quality) has passed into obscurity. Oh well. I will now invoke several spells of protection around the house, lest it be burned to the ground by furious Wheel of Time acolytes.
Rating: Wayne Rooney. There’s some great stuff going on, but R.A. Salvatore’s books and a string of World Cup red card inducing frothy outbursts go hand in hand.