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NPR’s sci-fi/fantasy poll, while not perfect, is less dumb than you might expect.

September 27, 2011

"Is Dad drinking again?" John Wyndham's twice-filmed classic failed to make the list.

Apart from a few glaring omissions, an NPR reader poll to find the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books is surprisingly astute — proof that geeks are smarter than readers of literary fiction.

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Yeah, I said it: Sci-fi and fantasy geeks are smarter and have better taste and are less likely to behave like sheep than readers of literary fiction. Duh! You wanna makes something of it? Please?

Ah, what’s a list like this for if it can’t stoke some good old-fashioned arguments? Fisticuffs are probably out of the question for this crowd, but some slappy-fights might be possible. Ow! You poke me with your pocket protector!

To arrive at its list of 100, NPR received nominations from 5,000 readers/listeners. In the final tally, an impressive 60,000 voted.

The results are far from perfect. I would have separated science fiction and fantasy into different categories, to begin with. While sci-fi started out as a mutant offspring of fantasy, it’s long since gone it’s own way. Also, sci-fi aficionados hate the loosey-goosey plotting made possible by the presence of magic in fantasy.

Plus, 100 justifiably great books could easily be found for science fiction and fantasy.

First the omissions: Most glaring is the absence of any book by that ur-triumvirate of writers without whom we would have no modern fantasy. I’m speaking, of course, of Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsany, and H.P. Lovecraft.

I’m also baffled by the non-appearance of primordial science fiction writers Karel Capek or Olaf Stapledon, not to mention seminal literary works like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

And what? No Dracula? No Narnia, or Harry Potter? No Bruce Sterling? No William Burroughs? No Doris Lessing?!?

How could a list like this omit China Mieville’s The City and the City, the best novel of any category I read in 2009, or Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, the best book I read in 2010?

I’m sure you have favorites that didn’t make the list, too, and I hope you’ll use the comments section below to make your argument. Check out NPR’s list and report back. If we hear no word by tomorrow, we’ll assume the orcs ate you.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I do have to say the list is full of surprises — most, if not all, good ones. Speaking of orcs, the number spot is held down by The Lord of the Rings, which, come to think of it, is no surprise at all.

But to my astonishment Stephen King, who’s proven his mettle in both categories, doesn’t show up until No. 23, with The Dark Tower series, yet lit-crit bad boys George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley all make the top 10. (Yes, I will defend to the death Bradbury’s literary bona fides).

Golden Ager Robert Heinlein makes the first of several appearances at No. 17 with his weird and uncharacteristic counter-culture masterpiece, Stranger in a Strange Land. Kurt Vonnegut shows up at 19 (with Slaughterhouse Five), Philip K. Dick at 21 (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Margaret Atwood at 22 (The Handmaid’s Tale).

Genuine surprises: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at No. 2 (!), The Princess Bride at No. 11, or Richard Adams’ rabbit revolution fantasy Watership Down at No. 32.

Of course, there’s some mediocre pop stuff ranked higher than it deserves: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game at No. 3? Robert Jordon’s Tolkien knock-off, The Wheel of Time series, at No. 13?

I could go on — Michael Moorcock doesn’t show up until No. 90? And where’s Brian Aldiss? Stanislaw Lem? J.G. Ballard? Philip Pullman?!?  But I yield the floor.

Please, tell us what books should have been added to the list, or subtracted, or — please, please, please — explain how full of crap I am. And if anyone is foolhardy enough to defend the superiority of literary fiction, by all means: Be my guest.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 28, 2011 10:45 am

    I woke up this morning riven with remorse and guilt for having left Clive Barker out of this little essayette. Barker deserves inclusion for any number of reasons, but here are my top two: His 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart is among the most original horror fiction published since Lovecraft died. And Imajica is the best dark fantasy (sexiest, too) I personally have ever read.

    So Clive, wherever you are, forgive me the oversight.

  2. Alexis Strand permalink
    September 28, 2011 1:36 pm

    I put The City and The City and Spuer Secret Sad True Love Story up there with my favorite books of all time. Not just Sci-fi. So, I am very sad they were not on the list.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 29, 2011 12:05 pm

      Alexis: I could not agree more strongly.

  3. Adam Lucas permalink
    September 30, 2011 5:24 pm

    This list should fail from top to bottom.

    First, they tried to exclude YA, but The Princess Bride is on the list. You don’t have to actually read The Princess Bride to know that it fits well within the YA category. The fantasy rises only slightly above that of books that clearly don’t belong on this list (e.g. Jane Austen), is used as a satirical device rather than as a legitimate component of the story, and the whole book is included at the expense of some classic literature and fantasy books that fall on the adult side of the YA genre (Lewis Carroll, Madelein L’Engle, L. Frank Baum). There are several others that straddle the YA line, but this one straddles it in more ways than one and is No. 11. If they had included E.A. Abbott’s ‘Flatland’, a book that a child could understand but not fully comprehend or appreciate, I would understand, but the ‘The Princess Bride’ has zero depth or gravitas outside the YA genre.

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to notice missing forefathers; for omission of Poe, Capek, Stapledon, and Lovecraft alone this list should fail. Leaving off one or two or having Stapledon on twice and none of the others I could understand, but leaving them all off is a failure. I’d say it’s like making a list of ‘must drive’ cars and leaving every motor vehicle made before 1930 off the list or listing heroes in American History and leaving out John Adams, Washington, Jackson, AND Patrick Henry.

    A personal diatribe of mine; I also wish they would’ve made some room for speculative science or SCIENCE-fiction. IMO, Sci-Fi sacrifices legitimacy and detriments it’s readers by not gobbling up speculative fiction, futurism, and historical social commentary from or about real scientists. IMO, it’s sad that people will rail against the grouping of Asimov and Tolkien together but are completely okay ignoring commentary or speculation from someone who might’ve actually had a Nobel around their neck because they consider it to be ‘history’, ‘theory’, or ‘philosophy’ and those things are, unerringly, non-fiction. I’m talking specifically about about The Atom and the Archetype: The Jung/Pauli Letters, but it could be expanded to Feynman’s addresses and lectures even including things like Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

    Lastly, including Stephen King, twice, but no Clancy (or other ‘not exactly sci-fi/fantasy’ novel-a-minute author) is a huge mistake. Don’t get me wrong, King writes good horror, but the only reason he should make a sci-fi/fantasy list is because of the volume of his work can’t be confined to one genre, and if the volume of work is what allows the author to spill into a sci-fi/fantasy author list, there are several other authors in several neighboring genres that deserve a place rather than King getting two. Works from both Clancy and Grisham that are described as ‘techno thriller’ come to mind. Who is astoundingly absent from the list and could probably be considered Sci-Fi’s pop-culture literary meat-grinder is Michael Crichton. Putting King and Gaiman together, for six books on the list, but not including (again) a single Michael Crichton book, makes me wonder why this list is so bad and consider things in the larger context;

    IMO, the list is pretty much what you would expect to get from asking the internet what good/classic sci-fi/fantasy reading is. To me, it’s pretty clear that the average NPR listener looked around their immediate space, possibly their friends Facebook pages, and voted for whatever they saw. Every one of them has Stephen King on their shelves, most pretty clearly recognize “The Princess Bride” as important Sci-Fi/Fantasy literature rather than YA, few, if any, have Poe, the same few, if any, have read an actual biography of an actual scientist, the few that have the attention span to remember Michael Crichton get distracted voting for Tolkien (and not because they’ve read the books). The list is a lens for looking at internet users with an ‘NPR listener’ filter applied rather than and actual list having anything to do with Sci-Fi/Fantasy literature.

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