Sunday, August 14, 2011

NPR's Top 100 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

NPR recently published its list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books, as nominated by fans, weeded through by experts, then voted on by fans. It's a great list, though I should note that they left off all young adult sci-fi and fantasy (no Harry Potter or Narnia). They promised a separate list for the young adult books in future summers.

I'm sorry to say that I have only read a handful of the books that made the list*. Here are the ones I've read (if I've read at least one complete book in a listed series, I count that), with the brief description from the NPR list and my commentary:

#1 The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien's seminal three-volume epic chronicles the War of the Ring, in which Frodo the hobbit and his companions set out to destroy the evil Ring of Power and restore peace to Middle-earth. The beloved trilogy still casts a long shadow, having established some of the most familiar and enduring tropes in fantasy literature.
I actually didn't read this book/trilogy until shortly before the movies started coming out, and I have only read them through the one time. It's the movies that I have watched over and over; while Tolkien created this marvelous world, Jackson et al. may have had more...narrative finesse. But I still consider myself a huge fan of the books. I can speak a bit of Quenya, after all.

#2 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
In the first, hilarious volume of Adams' Hitchhiker's series, reluctant galactic traveler Arthur Dent gets swept up in some literally Earth-shattering events involving aliens, sperm whales, a depressed robot, mice who are more than they seem, and some really, really bad poetry.
I finally got around to reading this one in college and found it absolutely delightful. The dolphins, the petunias, the galactic battle fleet swallowed by a small dog. It's a fun, fast read. The movie doesn't do it justice, but it does have some good bits (Alan Rickman is enjoyable, as always). The book is the first in a series, but the NPR list only credits this first one.

#5 A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin
Ummm, this description might count as spoilers (though ones you probably expected) if you've only read the first book/seen the first season. I'll let you highlight to read.
As the Seven Kingdoms face a generation-long winter, the royal Stark family confronts the poisonous plots of the rival Lannisters, the emergence of the Neverborn demons, the arrival of barbarian hordes, and other threats.
What is it about having two "R" initials in the middle of your name? (Martin has often been compared to Tolkien.) I read the first book in Martin's epic series, A Game of Thrones, a few years ago. Much darker than the fantasy I was used to, I liked it enough to buy the rest of the books, but at the time wasn't ready to dive into the second book. But this summer's excellent HBO show, Game of Thrones, brought me back to the series, giving me renewed appreciation for the world Martin created and strengthening my affection for his characters. As the first season of Game of Thrones conveniently covered the events of the first book, I'm now perfectly poised to start book 2, A Clash of Kings.

#7 Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed, but one of the book burners suddenly realizes their merit, in a chilling novel of a frightening near-future world.
Sadly, that summary is about all I remember of the book, beyond vague images of scenes and feelings I associate with it. I read this one in high school, and while I appreciated it for being a "great" book, I guess it didn't engross me enough to leave a lasting impression.

#9 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Huxley's classic prophetic novel describes the socialized horrors of a futuristic utopia devoid of individual freedom.
I read this one in high school as well, but somehow I felt far more engaged with the dystopian world it imagined and the characters who populated it than with Fahrenheit 451. "Ending is better than mending," "I'm so glad I'm a beta," horror at the idea of someone being a mother... I liked this one but it also disturbed me, which I think is why it has stuck with me so well.

#12 Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

At 13 volumes and counting, this sweeping — some would say sprawling – richly imagined epic chronicles the struggle between servants of the Dark One and those of the champion of light known as the Dragon Reborn.

I've talked about this series on this blog before (I chose one of its heroines as a Character I'd Like To Be), as it's easily the series for which I've read the greatest number of pages (each book is about 1000 pages in paperback form). My mom somewhat randomly gave me the first in the series, Eye of the World, before one of our trips to Hawaii when I was 15. By the end of our trip, I had finished the third book. While I've taken issue with some of the plot points, and I recognize how the series started dragging on...and on (I don't recall anything happening in book 10, except maybe Mat going shopping for silks--seriously), I still adore this series. I've been immersed in its world so long, seen the characters through so much, I can't help but feel attached. And Jordan did create a beautiful, complex story that is brilliant in its own way. Book 11 really picked up again, and now the end is in sight. Though Jordan passed away, he left enough notes for Brandon Sanderson to finish it up. I'll definitely see it through.

#13 Animal Farm, George Orwell

Farm animals overthrow their human owners and set up their own deeply (and familiarly) flawed government. Orwell's mordant satire of totalitarianism is still a mainstay of ninth-grade reading lists.

This is another one I read in high school that I barely remember. It's not that I didn't like it, I just didn't love it enough for it to stick. Sort of sad realizing how much of my education I've lost. I can't even remember which year I read this one...

#15 Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

As former members of a disbanded group of superheroes called the Crimebusters start turning up dead, the remaining members of the group try to discover the identity of the murderer before they, too, are killed. A graphic novel.

I'm a geek, I used to watch loads of cartoons based on comics (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four), and I love comics-based movies, but I'm not actually a comics reader. One week, my Entertainment Weekly had on its cover a collection of people who were clearly superheroes...but I didn't have a clue who they were. Nerd shame! Well, I quickly ordered Watchmen off Amazon and got caught up. This is the one graphic novel I've read, but it's a really, really great one. The movie doesn't do it justice at all. You just have to read it.

#32 Watership Down, Richard Adams

An allegorical tale of survival about a band of wild rabbits who leave their ancestral home to build a more humane society chronicles their adventures as they search for a safe place to establish a new warren where they can live in peace.

My dad regrets not reading Lord of the Rings to me as he did to my brothers when they were young, but he did at least read me Watership Down as a bedtime story. I was seven at the time, and it was the longest book I'd ever encountered. But I loved it: the rabbits, their world--especially the exciting section about Efrafa. Perhaps foreshadowing my future Quenya studies, I pored over the Lapine glossary at the back of the book--hardly a developed language, but fun nonetheless. It was my love of Watership Down that attracted me to the Redwall books three years later, and these were the books that really sucked me into the fantasy genre. So, even if my dad didn't read me LotR, he guided me in the right direction.

#66 The Riftwar Saga, Raymond E. Feist

Evil entities have opened a rift in the fabric of space-time, plunging the world of Medkemia into peril. As the battle between Order and Chaos threatens to engulf everything, reluctant wizard Pug is the only hope of a thousand worlds.

My sophomore year in high school, one of my older brother's friends (a senior, like him) founded a school club he called the Fantasy Reader's Guild. We didn't actually read anything together, it was just an excuse for students to get together and geek out. After they graduated I became the "president" of the club, and following the suggestion of our club's faculty advisor, everyone in the club read Magician (in two parts: Apprentice and Master). In case anyone out there was doubting whether women ever read fantasy books willingly in their book clubs, I'm living proof the answer is yes.

#67 Sword of Shannara Trilogy, Terry Brooks

Over the course of three novels, several generations of the Ohmsford family find themselves retrieving magical artifacts in the desperate hope to fight evil.

This was the next fantasy series I tackled after Redwall, when Sword of Shannara was on my summer reading list going into 9th grade. Sword (the first book in the trilogy) is a blatant ripoff of Lord of the Rings, but Brooks does manage to one-up Tolkien in one way: Sword of Shannara has even fewer women than Lord of the Rings! That said, at the time I was blissfully unaware of the many, many parallels between LotR and Sword (I hadn't read LotR yet) and didn't care about the lack of women. I was just sucked into this exciting, complex world of magic and battles. The second in the trilogy, Elfstones of Shannara, was much more original and--what'd'ya know--featured several important female characters (one of whom went on my list of Characters I'd Like To Be). I am very fond of that book. The third in the trilogy, Wishsong of Shannara, was also good, and different, but Elfstones remains my favorite in the series.

I'd like to note that I've also read parts of two more books on the list:
#46 The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
I wrote a paper in college on the story of Beren and LĂșthien.

#47 The Once and Future King, T. H. White
I read The Sword in the Stone in seventh grade.

Looking at the NPR list, I realize how much reading I have to do. The Mists of Avalon (#42, Marion Zimmer Bradley) sits on my bookshelf, as does the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series. I've wanted to read Neil Gaimon and Terry Prachett for years, now. And some day I'll read all of The Silmarillion, I promise!

If you're looking for something to read, this list is a great reference (at least, if you're looking for something sci-fi or fantasy--if you're not, then I doubt you'll have read down to this point in the post ;). And if there's anything else that I should add to my list, let me know!

* To be fair, while I've only read entire books from 11 of the 100 publications listed, by some counts that would come to 28 books encompassed by the list. Not too shabby.


Out of Sync said...

The Riftwar Saga, Raymond E. Feist.

An awesome read =D

Out of Sync said...

Oh! And the series 'The Nightangel Trilogy by Brent Weeks' is one of my all time favourite series ever. I highly recommend =)

Eleni said...

Unfortunately I never read any of the Riftwar Saga other than Magician. Our book club wasn't that academically ambitious, I guess. I'm not sure how well I remember that first book, but maybe I could get back into it.

I've never heard of the Nightangel Trilogy. I'll have to look for that :)