Saturday, August 13, 2011

NPR's Top 100 SF and Fantasy Novels

Over 60,000 votes were tallied in NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy survey, a popular vote open to anyone with an internet connection. As a popular vote, it correlates closely with book sales figures and with adaptation across multiple media. What it does not correlate with, sadly, is quality or diversity.

NPR revealed some of the actual counts: Number 1, The Lord of the Rings, 29,701 votes; Number 2, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 20,069 votes; Number 3, Ender's Game, 16,141 votes. Pulling up the rear, Number 100, C.S. Lewis' Space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), 1,452 votes.

NPR’s Top 10
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Inevitably, this tops the list. They got the title wrong -- it is not a “Trilogy,” rather a single novel split over three volumes for convenience. It is, I believe, a worthy title, although some would disagree. In terms of influence, it’s hard to argue with Tolkien's prominence in modern fantasy. It's easy to criticize, for relegating women to small token roles, when they are mentioned at all, for a big bad guy who is a nonentity, and for an uncomplicatedly binary view of good and evil.

2. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This began its existence as a BBC radio play and the novel version doesn’t outgrow that episodic comedy format. I prefer Adams’ Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which is better written and more satisfying as an actual novel.

3. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
The NPR folks expressly stated that Young Adult novels would be excluded (they specifically cite exclusion of Rowling, Pullman, Lewis’ Narnia, and Le Guin’s Earthsea), yet this is clearly a YA novel. Very popular; not very good. After you’ve read a few of Card’s novels about children, all of whom have either super intelligence or super powers, they become tiresome. To quote Ben Peek: “I mean, seriously, half the books on this list are just old peoples YA books. But such is the way such lists work.”

4. The Dune Chronicles by Frank Herbert
I’m guessing this title refers to the six Dune books that Frank Herbert wrote, although I think it’s likely that calling it The Dune Chronicles is a posthumous construction. Herbert said he originally conceived of the books as a trilogy. I’ve read the first three and they vary widely in quality. The disappointing third book was enough to discourage me from reading further. This is a case where they should have listed the first book, Dune, and left off the series. Even it were just the first book, it probably wouldn’t make my top ten list.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin
Like The Lord of the Rings, this is a long novel published in serial form, rather than a series of related novels. I think the books are quite good so far, if overly long. Still, this is the first title where I was glad I wasn’t drinking a refreshing beverage when I read the list or I would have spit all over my keyboard. This is an unfinished series. No-one can vote for a series that isn’t finished yet, can they? It’s like reading part of a book and then voting for it as the best book you’ve ever read. Seriously?

6. 1984 by George Orwell
No argument with this choice.

7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This is the first title on the list that I haven’t read. I’ve seen the movie (see above, the advantages of novels adapted across multiple media), which was pretty good. I like a lot of Bradbury’s work, especially The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Is this one better? I don’t know.

8. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
This one hasn’t aged well and the quality diminishes as the series continues.

9. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Another solid choice.

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I didn’t get along with this novel when I read it the year it came out. It’s too episodic and doesn’t cohere enough to become a novel. It’s being made into a television series for HBO.

To sum up, three of these titles (Tolkien, Orwell, and Huxley) are strong, all the rest are weak or have significant problems, with one abstention for the Bradbury. Not a very good start and the rest of the NPR Top 100 list have similar problems. Notice the lack of women authors, or cultural or racial diversity.

Again, to quote Ben Peek: “I must say, I hate a lot of the books on this list. A Canticle for Leibowitz is at the top, a book that has always surprised me by its venerated status in the field, and one that I think is simply awful. William Gibson's Neuromancer was likewise a book I thought terribly written (though I loved Pattern Recognition, which Gibson wrote years later). And, outside the books I hated, there's some embarrassing inclusions: Salvatore's Drizzt series, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga, Terry Brooks' Shannara trilogy, Raymond Fiest's Riftwar Saga. Weird choices. I read those things when I was a kid, but even the memory doesn't love them that much. It's also, lets be fair, a white list, pretty male, and divided between the British and the Americans. But, that probably reflects more of the people who voted than anything else.”

I disagree with Peek on one point: I liked A Canticle for Leibowitz (Number 35 on the NPR list) quite a bit when I read it as a teenager. Otherwise, I would echo his points.

Gary K. Wolfe, on the shortage of women authors on the list: "It surprises me a bit that you have to get down to Number 20 (Frankenstein) before you come to the first work by a woman, or that there are only 5 women authors in the top 50. I wonder if that might be a reflection of who voted in the poll."

Ursula K. Le Guin would make my Top Ten list (Number 45 and 78 on the NPR list). As would Joanna Russ (nowhere on the NPR list). Just a few of the women authors that would appear on my Top 100 list: Gwyneth Jones, Karen Joy Fowler, Eleanor Arnason, Octavia Butler, Nicola Griffith, Kate Wilhelm, Mary Gentle, Maureen F. McHugh, R.A. MacAvoy, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Angela Carter, Justina Robson, Nalo Hopkinson, and Lisa Goldstein. All ignored by the NPR list.

 The voters had their international blinders on: Stanislaw Lem, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Angelica Gorodischer, Jose Saramago, and Haruki Murakami. All ignored by the NPR list. I think Jules Verne is the only author on the list who is neither British nor American.

Some of the great British authors of science fiction: J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and M. John Harrison. All ignored. American authors Samuel R. Delany, Alfred Bester, Edgar Pangborn, Jack Vance, and Clifford Simak. You get the idea.

The issue of series fiction is badly mishandled throughout this list. It appears random whether a single book in a series is chosen, or an entire series. Or, in the case of Martin, Jordan, Rothfuss, and Sanderson, an unfinished series. The Brandon Sanderson (Number 71 on the NPR list) is the first of a projected 10-volume series of which only the first book has been published. Surely, this is madness? And, don’t get me started on the absurdity of voting for an unfinished series (The Wheel of Time, Number 12 on the NPR list) that was started by one author, Robert Jordan, now deceased, and is being finished by another author, Sanderson. My hat is off to Adam Roberts who has immersed himself in the “stupefyingly bad” Wheel of Time so that the rest of us will be spared.

Related links:
NPR Top 100 SF and Fantasy novels survey
Ben Peek: Magicland and Magic Books
Glen Weldon: NPR's Top 100 SF and Fantasy, parsing the results 
(includes Gary K. Wolfe quotes)

Edited to add:
I keep thinking of more major authors who were left off the list: John Crowley, Ian McDonald, Guy Gavriel Kay, and I could go on and on. Or, top authors who don't appear until nearly the end of the list: Gene Wolfe at Number 87, Kim Stanley Robinson at Number 95, and China Mieville at Number 98. Or authors represented by work that is far from their best. For instance: Roger Zelazny's only title on the list is the Amber series. Popular? Yes. His best work? Nowhere near it. Based on the results, this list was voted on mostly by 13-year-old white males in the U.S. with little knowledge of the depth and breadth of the genre.


  1. re: #1 Liked your comments about the Tolkien minority!

  2. It is quite characteristic of genre fiction that a large majority of fans are not very discriminating, and it is a shame that NPR failed to tap a more sophisticated audience. I never would have guessed that their listenership was dominated by 13-year-old white males, but this is what you have to expect from a poll on the interestnet.

  3. Anonymoose: I sometimes find more to criticize than praise in Tolkien, and after that I switch back to praise again. A sign of an author who provides a lot to think about.

    Grano Salis: Agreed, many readers read the way they eat, seeking repetitious comfort food. Those readers have little interest in fiction that offers something different or that challenges them. Some critics point to Tolkien’s influence, calling his work consolatory fantasy. I think Tolkien is not particularly to blame, rather that some of the authors who have followed in his path have taken that aspect too far.

    It would have been interesting if the NPR poll had asked some demographic questions. My remark about 13-year-old white males was mostly me being snide and unhappy about the results.

  4. Re. reading the way one eats:
    "Often on the highway, weary and wary, we spurn the unknown and cheerfully drive on for the promise of a Howard Johnson's and its familiar déjà vu." — Gael Greene, "Indigestion on the turnpike", Life, Vol. 69 No. 9 (28 August 1970), p. 12

  5. Grano Salis: That quote takes me back. Young kids today, who should consider getting off of my lawn, wouldn't know what a Howard Johnson's was unless they looked it up on Wikipedia.

    I suppose my food analogy fails to the extent that I don't always want to be challenged by my food. Yet, if I'm not being challenged by what I'm reading I'll lose interest fast.