Way back in the dawn of time — by which I mean 2011 — we ran our original science fiction and fantasy poll and came up with a list of 100 favorite science fiction and fantasy books. The process was broadly similar to the way we do it today: Readers voted, and a panel of judges argued about which books did and didn't meet the critera they'd laid out.
There are a lot of hard-to-argue-with classics on that list: Tolkien, Gaiman, Orwell, Bradbury, Adams, Atwood, Le Guin and many more. But there are just as many now-shocking omissions. No Octavia Butler? No writers of color at all? Only a handful of women?
You can see the brand-sparkly-new poll, celebrating all the supernova-amazing changes in SF/F since 2011, here — but we also thought it would be worth pulling together a few of the books that, with our 2021 hindsight, seem like they should have been on that original list.
Parable series, Octavia Butler
How, how, did we leave Octavia Butler off the list? Possibly because her ecological-dystopian Parable series wasn't quite as terrifyingly relevant 10 years ago. Whatever the reason, first you should listen to this marvelous episode of our Throughline podcast dedicated to Butler, and then go track down any of her groundbreaking books. We'd suggest you start with Parable of the Sower, but Kindred is a great choice too.
'Dhalgren,' Samuel R. Delany
The mythical wanderings of a character known only as "The Kid" in a trippy, ruined city called Bellona, this is part Pynchon, part post-apocalypse and part Purple Rain. "After reading it you feel you have simply lived more, experienced more of reality itself," wrote Kim Stanley Robinson. "It's one of the great American novels."
'The Sparrow,' Mary Doria Russell
Mary Doria Russell takes the old, tragic tale of the missionary sent to evangelize a new people and catapults it into space in this classic story. "Russell takes full advantage of the permission science fiction gives the brave writer (and reader) to cast aside the rules of physics and biology," wrote our critic Ellah Allfrey. "She weaves a tale of first contact that is relentlessly questioning, harrowing and unforgettable."
'Grass,' Sheri S. Tepper
Grass is one of those books that stays with you, upsets you, in flashes of images and ideas that stick deep in your mind and return, even years later. It opens with what could be, if you looked at it out of the corner of your eye, a jolly rural hunting scene. But Sherri S. Tepper demands that you look closer, and like many of her books, Grass doesn't shy away from the monstrous, from plagues both social and medical, from the repression of women, and how aliens might respond when humans are the invaders.
The Last Herald-Mage series, Mercedes Lackey
OK, it's not perfect. But come on. Who else, in 1989, was writing about an insanely talented, smokin'-hot magician whose destiny it was to Save the World, and who, by the way, was very, very gay? And who lived in a world that mostly, eventually accepted his sexuality? No one except Mercedes Lackey, that's who. For that alone, Vanyel Ashkevron is one of the most important characters in fantasy — the fact that his books are also incredibly fun to read (That Scene aside, you know which one I mean) is just candy.
'We,' Yevgeny Zamyatin
Published in English in 1924, We is the granddaddy of dystopian novels, one of the first to lay out the kind of totalitarian vision of uniformity that writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell ran with years later (though Huxley apparently denied any influence). Yevgeny Zamyatin's world of number-named drones living in constantly surveilled glass houses seems hideously grim, but in the end it proves more hopeful than Huxley and Orwell.
Foreigner series, C.J. Cherryh
When I suggested including this series, poll judge Ann Leckie responded "FOREIGNER! FOREIGNER!" so that was all the encouragement I needed. C.J. Cherryh's long-running series (over 20 books at this point) centers on descendants of a spaceship damaged in transit who have to make a new life on the alien planet where they find themselves. If you love fascinatingly thought-out alien cultures, 20 books might not actually be enough.