Books

NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction And Fantasy Novels: Parsing The Results

You nominated. And then you voted. And now the results are in.

As you review the list in search of your favorite book or series, it may help to keep in mind that, despite its rather grandiose name, the Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Novels of All Time Summer Readers' Survey isn't, of course, a measure of literary quality, or boldness of ideas, or richness of detail — it's a popularity contest.

(It'll also help to keep in mind that Young Adult books were kept out of the running, which explains the absence of Rowling, Pullman, Narnia, Earthsea, and many more. We'll see them in next year's Top 100 YA Novels of All Time Summer Readers' Survey.)

Given the overwhelming response — over 60,000 votes — the truly popular titles would have been very difficult to unseat: For your favorite book to qualify for #1, it would have to have garnered more than the 29,701(!) votes received by The Lord of the Rings. Yeah, good luck with that.

Take, for example, the book comin' in at #2, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which clocked an astonishing 20,069 votes. That's a big step down, but still places it head and shoulders above #3, Ender's Game, at 16,141 votes.

To give you a sense of how the votes spread out, consider that even the series sitting at the very bottom of the Top 100 list — C.S. Lewis' Space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) — received an impressive 1,452 votes.

Your personal list of the "best" science-fiction and fantasy books may look nothing like this one. But the next time you're thinking about a book or series to try out, consider the fact that even those titles languishing in the lower quarter of the list were voted the best by over 1,000 of your fellow readers.

Now let's take a look at how the list shook out.

You say you've written a science fiction/fantasy novel or series and want to make sure it gets into the Top 10? Just follow these simple rules:

1. Write it a long time ago.

In a poll of popularity/familiarity, those books and series that have been around for a long time have had more of an opportunity to generate a fan base. The first book of The Lord of the Rings, for example, was published back in 1954.

In contrast, only four titles in the top 20 have been published in the past ten years: George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series at #5; Neil Gaiman's American Gods at #10; the last few volumes of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series at #12; and Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle series at #18.

2. Multi-platform that noise.

Quoth expert panel member Gary K. Wolfe: "It's no surprise at all that works which have had a lot of exposure in other media (Tolkien, Adams, Martin, Herbert) should dominate the top 5."

It's likely that Tolkien would have taken the top spot even if Peter Jackson had never made the films, but we can't know for certain. If the much-buzzed about HBO treatment of Game of Thrones has attracted new readers to the Song of Ice and Fire books, might it not have been responsible, both directly and indirectly, for a few hundred votes?

Expert panel member John Clute suspects that if Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? had been listed by its film title, Blade Runner, "we'd have seen it place higher in the rankings." And would William Goldman's metafictional gem The Princess Bride have been able to garner the 7,000-plus votes necessary to take the #11 slot were it not for Rob Reiner's charming 1987 film?

InconTHIEVable.

3. Be a dude.

Gary K. Wolfe, again: "It surprises me a bit that you have to get down to #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."

Certainly the science fiction and fantasy genres boast a notably deep bench of female writers. The Harry Potter and Earthsea books fell prey to the YA exception, else they, and their authors, would have taken up slots at or near the top.

(A final note on our no-YA titles rule: Our experts remain conflicted about it. Farah Mendlesohn noted that because of it, the poll "probably doesn't reflect the tendency of genre readers to keep YA fantasy in their reading lists." But John Clute reluctantly allowed that "The exclusion of YA titles did let a few adult books in that might have been swamped otherwise."

4. Be British.

Half of the top 10 authors are from the UK. Once you get past slot #10, however, the playing field opens up considerably, and the Yank titles start to outnumber those from Ol' Blighty.

5. If you're writing Fantasy, stick to the classic conflicts.

Don't overthink, go with the Manichean: Good versus Evil, Light versus Dark, Order versus Chaos. There's a reason those same battle lines keep getting drawn and redrawn in fantasy epics again and again: They carry a pure, unambiguous power that appeals to the parts of us that love fairy tales and myths. For every Robert Jordan and Michael Moorcock, who toss in a Zen-like notion of balance, or George R. R. Martin, whose characters live out their short, brutal existences in a fog of gray morality, there are fantasy writers who prefer to stick to the starkest, clearest dichotomies.

6. If you're writing Science Fiction, reflect the zeitgeist.

In the '60s and '70s, books like Robert A. Heinlen's Stranger in a Strange Land (#17) tackled sexual revolution and drug use. In the '80s, the rise of digital culture spawned William Gibson's Neuromancer (#14) and the cyberpunk movement. Today, books like Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep (#93) explore the limits — or lack of same — of artificial intelligence, while Max Brooks' World War Z (#54) plays into our everyday anxiety over global pandemic to craft a gory, chillingly believable account of the coming zombie apocalypse.

Druthers, If I Had My

Who among us can read a list like this one and not, on some level, chafe against it? But that's okay. Lists like this one are not meant to be definitive, but to spark discussion and debate. Your humble blogger is not immune.

So here's some of my grouses. Please hie thee to the comments to share your own.

1. In a perfect world, we'd have done a science fiction poll, and a fantasy poll. They're two separate genres, and whenever I see them treated as one — witness the list miscegenation — it rankles.

2. I — like you — would loved to have seen my personal favorites higher on the list.

Mists of Avalon way down at #42? Seriously? Haven't you people read it? And I'd place Zelazny's funny, smart Amber Chronicles in my personal Top 10, instead of letting it languish down at #40.

Surprised/dismayed to see that Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle — a hugely entertaining book that (bonus!) taught me how to juggle — didn't make it into the Top 100, earning only 479 votes to place it #188.

But at least I know there are at least 479 other people who feel my pain.

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