Top Ten SF and Fantasy Books

NPR has posted up the shortlist for their 100 Best SF and Fantasy Titles and put them to a vote by the public. After some careful consideration I voted on my top ten. The list I’ve ended up with is a combination of books that I read as a teenager that defined the genre for me, and which I think are classics, and recent books that I think have made contributions that have pushed the boundaries of the genre. So not necessarily a list of my absolute favorites in terms of reading pleasure, but a list of books I think are important. Arranged in chronological order of reading, they’re also a nice nostalgia trip back over my development into a fully fledged fangirl.

1.) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – I think I read this for the first time in sixth grade. I was fortunate growing up to have three older siblings who were, and remain, huge sf and fantasy fans. After cutting my teeth on various YA novels, I started raiding their bookshelves for new reading material. Hilarious and bitingly satirical. I stayed sane when I moved to the US four years ago and had to deal US Dept of Immigration by reminding myself that at least they weren’t reading Vogon poetry to me. And I never, ever travel anywhere without my towel.

2.) I, Robot – No list would be complete without Asimov, the grandfather of science fiction. I read this collection of stories around the same time as Hitchhiker’s and it was this book that made me a life-long fan of the genre, which is why I selected it over the Foundation Series. I loved the Foundation series as well, but this one holds particular significance for me. Incidentally, when old school fans bemoan the lack of hard science in current science fiction and the preoccupation with social commentary and feeeeelings I wonder whether they’ve ever actually read Asimov. Masterful interweaving of hard science and acute social commentary.

3.) 1984 – Set as a text for an English Literature class in early high school. I’d been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA fiction around the same time. Children of the Dust, Z for Zachariah etc. (I wonder how this affected the outlook of Gen Xers, raised as we were on a literary diet of Cold War inspired nuclear apocalypse stories) Its hard to say anything new about what is a classic of literature in general as well as science fiction…

4.) And then, my school set The Handmaid’s Tale.  Because, clearly, we weren’t sufficiently angst ridden and depressed. Interestingly, I hated this book with a passion when I first read it. This may have been a result of the well known “destroyed by having to write poor quality five paragraph essays on it” effect. A game-changer in terms of exploring issues of gender through speculative fiction. Young and naive, I had trouble accepting the premise that a society like the one depicted by Atwood could establish itself. Now, I read the news and worry that we’re already half-way there. Prescient.

5.) Tigana – From this list, one would suspect that I had been reading only science fiction and no fantasy up until this point. Untrue! I was reading science fiction and really terrible fantasy fiction. Well, that’s not accurate, plenty of great YA fantasy, but those books weren’t eligible for this list. I think they’re doing a best of YA next time around. Lots of Sword and Sorcery, Tolkien-derivative schlock. And David Eddings. Oh, David Eddings. I read The Belgariad and The Mallorean at least three times per year every year from sixth grade onward. Tigana stands out against the other fantasy fiction I had been reading because it was the first time I’d read anything that didn’t have two opposing principles of good and evil, but instead explored characters with complex motivations who operated in moral grey zones. I also love The Sarantine Mosaic, Lions of Al’Rassan and A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, especially as a medieval historian. Incredible evocations of Byzantium, Al-Andalus and the troubadours.

6.) Snowcrash – Ooof. First cyberpunk novel. Incredible. Main character called Hiro Protagonist. Probably responsible for me dating computer programmers pretty much exclusively.  I think most people would choose Cryptonomicon from Neal Stephenson’s oeuvre, but I never managed to get through it. I will hand in my fan card on my way out.

7.) Sandman  – Ahhhh, now we are into my uni days and my goth period. I went back on forth on the Neil Gaiman books on the list, Gaiman being my all-time most absolute favorite author ever in the history of everything. But I think the Sandman comics are hands down his most important contribution (in a list of many, many important contributions) to fantasy fiction and to comic books. Also responsible for me dating scruffy, pale men in leather jackets for much of my early to mid-twenties. Although, I’m going to say it here because its been bugging me for a while; DC Comics, just because you have access to every pantone colour in the world doesn’t mean you have to use every single one on every single page. OK. I’m done with that now. Phew.

8.) Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin’s exploration of Winter, a world were people are neither female nor male, who express a gender identity once per month during their Kenner. Written in 1969, to give you an idea of just how revolutionary this book was when it was published. Fascinating sociological and political speculation combined with a poetic writing style that is rarely found in science fiction and fantasy.

9.) Ender’s Game – I know! I can’t believe I didn’t find out about the Ender series until last year either. I ran out of steam on the later books, but Orson Scott Card’s world building deserves a place on the list.

10.) The Magicians – Both a brilliant subversion of fantasy fiction tropes, and a brilliant fantasy fiction work in its own right. Its appropriate that Lev Grossman’s book is the final on this list/reading autobiography. Quentin Coldwater’s obsession with a series of fantasy fiction books set in a world called Fillory is immediately familiar to anyone for whom fantasy fiction represented an escape from whatever misery high school presented to them. And then, when his daydreams of living in Fillory come true, well, things don’t go quite so well. Dark, with perfectly realized characters. Cannot wait for the next book in the series to arrive on my doorstep next week!

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~ by medievalness on August 3, 2011.

3 Responses to “Top Ten SF and Fantasy Books”

  1. I’ve a long list of “to-read” books which include some seminal sci-fi and cyber/steam-punk novels. I admit I’ve never read either of those genres (except for Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is a comedy masterpiece [not saying it’s perfect, but few books are]), but fantasy? Fantasy is my bread and butter. I read and reviewed Tigana last year; it is pretty excellent, although containing a few huge flaws in my opinion.

    Gaiman is the favorite author of one of my friends, but I’ve only read two short stories from him. Ender’s Game is on my list–looking forward to reading it.

    • Thanks for dropping by! Interesting perspective on Tigana. I haven’t read it in a long time and had forgotten some parts of it. I think GGK really found his voice when he moved to fantasy fiction more grounded in historical research, but I do like what he did with high fantasy, in terms of introducing complex character motivations, in Tigana, though I take your point about the more disturbing material in it.

      As for Gaimain, I think a lot of his best work is found in his short story collections – which stories did you read? I also love Coraline and Neverwhere (although I know people either love or hate Neverwhere).

      Hope you enjoy making your way through your sci fi/cyber/steam-punk “to read list”!

      • Let’s see…I guess I’ve actually read a little more of Gaiman than that. From his website: “Cinnamon” and “I, Cthulhu.” From a magazine, “Orange.” So that makes three stories.

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