My elder sister has requested that I write a blog post about this.
One ought to always show respect to one’s elders, so here it goes. This is long, and it doesn’t break up well for the front page, so you’ll have to go below the fold…
First thought: I like it when people make top lists, because their top lists tell you something about the way that they think, right now today. Surveys that turn into top lists have a tendency to reflect mob behavior. Case in point, I like Neil Gaiman quite a bit but no one single author deserves four entries in the top 52 of a science fiction/fantasy list, not even one of the gods of the golden age of science fiction, one of which, of course, Neil ain’t. Heck, no one author deserves 4 entries in the top 52 of any top 100 list for any genre unless his initials are W.S. So in that sense this list interests me less than, say, William Shatner’s list of top 10 novels (no, he’s not the W.S. I was thinking of – madeyathink!)
Shatner probably hasn’t written such a list, but if he did… I bet he’d have his own book in there somewhere. Which, of course, tells you something about Shatner, which is why the list would be interesting – or at least entertaining – in the first place.
Second thought: it’s very difficult to fairly lump multiple-volume stories in with single novels, just like it would be to lump novels with short stories or novellas. “I Am Legend” is a good story, but let’s be honest, it’s obviously only on this list because it was recently made into a movie. There’s plenty of incredibly badass short stories and novellas in the science fiction genre – just check out the yearly returns for those categories in the Hugos and Nebulas for candidates – and it would be hard to put “I Am Legend” in the top 50 of a list of novellas, alone. There is no Harlan Ellison on this list (okay, he’s a self-admitted a-hole, so I can see that as a normal consequence of a popularity contest), but “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” blows “I Am Legend” away, leaving nothing but a small eddy of fine dust in the air.
Second and-a-half thought: If you’re going to make a list of epic stories (series), make that its own list (again, barring consistent criteria). Make novels their own list. Dune belongs on one, the Dune Chronicles belongs on the other. The Song of Fire and Ice might make it on the one list, but none of those books stands alone the way Dune did and that’s all there is to say about that. Come to think of it, none of the other Dune Chronicles stood alone the way Dune did. Martin’s not writing a series of stand-alone novels. Of course if you’re going to have pretty strict criteria (mine’s below, but you can’t have that on a democratically composed list), you can mash ’em up.
(edited to add/clarify) Second and-three-quarters thought: In the SF genre – in my opinion – a serious chunk of the best work is in the novella and short story format. If I was doing a top 100 SF list alone, I’d expect even before I got into the rating process that over half of my entries would be non-novels. Really, next to horror fiction, SF lends itself very, very well to those two formats. This is almost totally the reverse case for fantasy. So if I was putting together a hybrid list like this one, I’d come out the other end with something that looks totally different.
Third thought: really, George R.R. makes number 5? Seriously, people, you need to read more of these genres if you’re going to cast votes in something like this. I like Mr. Martin’s current opus, mind you. It might even make my top 100 list but it’s nowhere near the top half, let alone the top 10.
Fourth thought: I really like fantasy literature. I really like science fiction literature. I lump them both in the category “speculative fiction”, which includes a lot of other sub-genres like historical fantasy and horror lit, but they aren’t the same breed of cat. This has been pointed out by the NPR folks themselves. I think we just have to accept that these two genres are going to be stuck together for another twenty years or so. I blame brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Fifth thought: I haven’t read all these. One really nice thing about any lists like this is that it gives us an idea of stuff out there that deserves checking out. For that, thanks to everybody that nominated and voted for this stuff I haven’t read!
Okay, final thoughts on this particular list, for now:
The top twenty is not bad, slightly adjusted. Getting past the quibbles already mentioned, the top two are certainly credible contenders for their respective spots. While The Lord of the Rings is hardly the best written book ever, if you’re looking at my rating system below you can see how it would net a very high (if not the highest) score. While I think less of Hitchhiker’s Guide than most SF fans, it rates pretty high on the list – it probably doesn’t make my personal top 10, but it’s close. A Song of Fire and Ice doesn’t cut the mustard for a top 20 list, neither does The Wheel of Time series or The Princess Bride. I haven’t read American Gods or The Kingkiller Chronicles, so I can’t pass judgement on that score. If you take out the three mentioned , you bump in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which is the only P.K. Dick book that deserves to be on the top 100 lists and is a candidate for a top 20. I haven’t read “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “The Dark Tower” series, but based upon the rest of his work, I’m okay with saying no Stephen King belongs here. Sorry, Mr. King, you’re eminently readable but largely fluffy in substance at novel length – stick to the short stories. Probably surprising to some, I would leave The Watchmen on the list of 100. Both Jules Verne and H.G. deserve to be much higher than they’re ranked on this list, I’d probably push both The Time Machine and 20,000 into these spots.
- There is no H. Beam Piper on this list, which is criminal.
- There is no Howard Waldrop on this list, which calls into question the sanity of the process.
- There is no Esther Fiesner or Karen Joy Fowler on this list (not to mention scads of other eminent female SF writers), which goes to show that popular lists are tools of the patriarchy. Women authors are represented pretty well in, say, Nebula categories.
- The absence of a certain drab mouse and his brawny companion pains.
- The absence of a certain shiny rat also pains.
- Haldeman’s Forever War is ranked *way* too low.
- I’m surprised that Farmer’s Riverworld series didn’t make the list. I don’t know if this is genuine surprise or not.
- I like Alan Dean Foster’s “For Love of Mother-Not” enough that it makes the list even though one can criticize Foster as writing too fast and not deeply enough, just like Stephen King. It’s my list. Nyah.
- James White belongs on here for Star Healer. The Sector General series isn’t overall gold, but Star Healer has all of the best bits of the whole series, and the best bits of the series are gold when assembled thus.
- You can’t stretch the horror genre into consideration far enough to include Frankenstein (which belongs) and exclude The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for crying out loud, which *is* one of the classic archtypes in science fiction. The scientist who experiments on themselves to bad end? Sheesh.
- Thank god Battlefield Earth didn’t make the cut.
- Cryptonomicon barely makes my list. Stephenson can’t end a book to save his life, and this always kills me when I read him. Painfully.
Here’s how *I* would rate candidates if I were making my own list.
Personal Opinion: did I actually enjoy reading the thing? Or, more accurately, did I feel particularly impacted by the work? Example: I didn’t really enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, but I’m very glad I read it. (1-40 points)
Impact: how big of an impact did it make in the genre itself? Tolkein gets huge points for this. (1-20 points)
Narrative: how well does the narrative thread of the book play out? Tolkein loses points for this, LOTR is not great on this ranking. (1-20 points)
Characters: how well developed are the characters? Tolkein’s characters aren’t terribly interesting; the two best characters, Frodo and Sam, get very little actual explication except through Sam. Gandalf, for another example, is close to the same character as Allanon from the Brooks Shannara series, and Allanon is better written by half. However… important side note… if you invent an archetype in your novel, you get huge bonus points even if I don’t like the particular character development, in a literary sense. Tolkein gets huge points for this. (1-20 points plus arbitrary bonus if applicable)
The MacGuffin/Gadget/Sidekick: if there is one, is it cool? Tolkein yes (the Ring) on both counts. Bonus points if your MacGuffin is itself an archtype – H.G. Wells gets points for his time machine that no other time traveler story gets. First counts! (1-10 points plus arbitrary bonus if applicable)
Meta: Everything else. Sorry, this is lazy naming, I don’t have forever to get this post up. Does the book contain social commentary that’s particularly cogent, pithy, or deep? Does the book bring up questions of existence or the human condition that are interesting? In the SF genre, is the particular bit of technology that makes the book an SF book in the first place treated in a way that seems plausible, in terms of how it has integrated with or driven human society? (1-20 points)
I might get around to making my own list(s), but to do it properly will take about 50 times as much time as I have to spend right now…
(edited to add)
Erik defends Game of Thrones in the comments. I feel the need to clarify. If you’re trying to make one big list, and you’re putting novels, novellas, short stories, and epic series all in the same giant mixer – as is the case with this list – then Game of Thrones cracks pretty high on the list of epic series but that only gets it somewhere around number 65. Novels, novellas and short stories would dominate the top 50, and only one novella even gets play here. And while I’d consider “Dune” to be really high on the list of *novels* and really high on a hybrid list, “The Dune Chronicles”, as a series, would rank *lower* than Game of Thrones on a series list, or on a hybrid list. Come to think of it, “The Dune Chronicles” probably wouldn’t even make my top 100 hybrid list.