what’s missing from npr’s top 100 sf picks

Here’s the list. It’s old; I think I commented on it (not here) when it came out last year and then noticed it again when a Facebook friend, who’d just seen it for the first time, reposted it. Anyway, here’s my categories of things I’d add.

A touch of melanin. Here’s something a little unbelievable: The commentary “parsing the results” freely acknowledges that old people, Brits, and men have an advantage, but totally glosses over the absence of people of color. I know the damned thing is based on reader votes, so I suppose NPR isn’t responsible for the wall of whiteness, but I’m surprised that Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler didn’t make the list. Delany is hugely influential; Butler won a MacArthur fellowship. This is not to say that other sf writers of color don’t deserve to make the list, especially relative to what’s now there — I may not have adored THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, but it beats hell out of Sanderson, Eddings, Goodkind, and Bujold, just to name the obvious. But Delany and Butler are such huge figures that I can’t quite get my head around their absence. (Other well-regarded sf writers of color, some of whom I have not read: Dexter Palmer, N. K. Jemisin, David Anthony Durham, Saladin Ahmed, Yoon Ha Lee, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson.)

Actually, the other writer who I keep forgetting belongs on this list: Haruki Murakami. Ye gods, guys.



A sense of history. Fritz Leiber invented sword and sorcery, or nearly. (Delany’s Nevèrÿon books are a great riff on it, but we’ve already talked about Delany.) Poul Anderson was messing around with Nordic myth at the same time Tolkien was, and better in a lot of ways. Moorcock’s footprint is so much bigger than Elric; Harlan Ellison is probably the most-lauded writer in the genre; the Strugatsky brothers, Bulgakov, Lem, Peake, Vance, Harrison (M. John, not so much Harry)… anyway, I’ll try to keep my “read” recommendations to a reasonable level, but if you like this stuff, Google these names, all right?


Skip: The Belgariad, the Vorkosigan saga, the Thrawn trilogy. (No, I haven’t read the Thrawn trilogy. I defy you to quote me a paragraph from it that a randomly selected sentence from Bulgakov wouldn’t shiver apart like a rotten outhouse in a tornado. I know it’s a bit rich for an sf geek to engage in this sort of literary profiling. I’m doing it anyway, and you know I’m right.)

A shock of the new. Genre is raising its game these days. Scott Lynch’s THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA has its problems, but there’s a lot it does well. K. J. Bishop’s THE ETCHED CITY and Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books occupy niches close to PERDIDO STREET STATION, with their own endearing violence to realism and without Miéville’s linguistic and political tics — and Miéville arguably has more deserving entries; I’d defend THE SCAR, THE CITY & THE CITY, and EMBASSYTOWN over PSS. Lauren Beukes’ ZOO CITY. Charlie Stross’ ACCELERANDO (OK, not that new). Steven Brust has been kicking ass since 1980 and no one seems to notice that he puts out an awesome new Vlad Taltos book every couple of years. Dexter Palmer’s THE DREAM OF PERPETUAL MOTION. I actually don’t read a whole lot of new sf, but there are definitely new voices that can go toe to toe with some of these fogeys, easily.


Skip: Drizzt, Mistborn, DRAGONFLIGHT… and now I have to start making hard choices, since I think I only get to pull the “dumping on a series sight unread” card once. So, despite serious misgivings about Brooks, Butcher, Gabaldon, and Hobb, I’m going to say skip the Wheel of Time. That’s harder for me to say than it should be. I’ve developed an affection for those books — something about their sheer mass of detail, maybe combined with the fact that I started reading them when I was young, just gives the setting a feeling of solidity and depth that is honestly almost unmatched in the genre. Tolkien, Martin, Rothfuss, and Julian May are contenders. I’m not sure anyone else is. But, fundamentally, the Wheel of Time is not especially good fiction, especially relative to its incredible size.

Mayday! This is the category for Julian May, because I don’t have an overall category for her. (Not that “women” would be such a bad category.) I would go in publication order — the Saga of Pliocene Exile, then Intervention, then the Galactic Milieu trilogy. There is a certain amount of tiresome preoccupation with the foibles of the various European ethnicities, but I maintain that the books are basically great. They’re all out of print. Persevere.

Read: Like said above, but Intervention is technically kind of part of the Galactic Milieu trilogy, so I’m going to say that May counts for two.

Skip: Thomas Covenant, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN. Go ahead, tell me all about it. (But note that there are two other Bradbury books on the list.)

A certain amount of… nothing. There’s obviously a lot I don’t like about the list, but there are some things I’m surprised and happy made it. I’m glad that comics like SANDMAN and WATCHMEN made it (though PREACHER and TRANSMETROPOLITAN should have). I’m glad that classics that haven’t enjoyed much recent commercial success have made it — the Elric books and the Book of the New Sun specifically, although from Moorcock I might sooner have seen the Second Ether series or at least BLOOD. I’m glad WORLD WAR Z made it, and that mediocre and crappy zombie books didn’t. I’m glad the Malazan Book of the Fallen made it, and JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL, and PERDIDO STREET STATION, and two Le Guin books, and THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and THE DIAMOND AGE (probably my favorite Stephenson, maybe tied with CRYPTONOMICON). And there are books whose presence I’m happy about even though it was assured, notably the Kingkiller Chronicle and A Song of Ice and Fire, because I love them and they make me happy. So, these genre readers. They like the Thrawn trilogy, which is hard for me to accept, but they do do a thing or two right.

Read: All of the above.

Skip: None — all of the above are on the list! (OK, except for PREACHER and TRANSMET. Fine, skip DOOMSDAY BOOK and RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. I feel bad about throwing DOOMSDAY BOOK under the bus, but it really isn’t the best Connie Willis, in my view.)

All right. If I’ve done my job here, you should now have a corrected list that still has 100 sf and fantasy books and series on it, but should furnish a substantially higher likelihood of deriving pleasure and enjoyment from them. I feel as though I’ve done a public service. To bed.

5 thoughts on “what’s missing from npr’s top 100 sf picks

  1. Hey, Matt — I agree with a lot of that, especially your first point — there is simply no excuse for omitting Delany and Butler. But also, where the hell is PKD? And one of my all-time favorites that often makes these kinds of lists is missing — Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Best thing he ever wrote, including his short fiction (most of which I think was better than the rest of his novels, Amber included). On the other hand, unlike you, I’d keep Rendezvous with Rama and Hobb’s Assassin books, both of which I think compare pretty favorably to a lot of the other older SF and recent fantasy series, respectively.

    • Joel, great to hear from you! I love it when I manage to flush a colleague from the weeds of academia into the open air of serious geektalk.

      I haven’t read LORD OF LIGHT or much PKD, although PALMER ELDRITCH or A SCANNER DARKLY would clearly punk much of the NPR list — so, yeah, big omission, on my part and theirs. And puzzling, given his profile.

      I’m glad to hear Amber isn’t Zelazny’s strongest work; other than DONNERJACK and PSYCHOSHOP, both of which I did like, that’s all of him I’ve read. But both of those books are co-written.

      I haven’t read RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA in a long time or Hobb at all, so I could be educated on those.

  2. Actually, Zelazny was pretty prolific and I really like most of his early non-Amber stuff (60s through about the mid to late 70s). I wouldn’t say the Amber books are bad — they’re serviceable — but I don’t really understand why they’re so well-thought-of compared to his (typically better) stand-alone novels and short fiction of the same era. All of his short fiction is in print now, as of a couple years ago, in a very nice 6-volume collection, but most of the early novels are out of print (except for, I think, Lord of Light, and Creatures of Light and Darkness, both of which are totally worth reading and beat the pants off Amber).

    I was actually going to suggest Hobb’s Assassin, Liveships, or Fool trilogies for your she-read, all of which I liked quite a bit (though the Liveships took a while to get interesting)…they can be read separately, but they’re all part of the same general story arc.

    Funny you should mention Julian May — I happen to have an old copy of Many-Colored Land on my shelf I picked up at a used bookstore awhile back but haven’t gotten around to reading.

    I really don’t know what to think about Rothfuss, though. Everyone and their dog recommended Name of the Wind to me, but I didn’t see anything special about it at all — what am I missing?

    • I don’t quite know how to explain the appeal of Rothfuss. He doesn’t do a very good job of explaining it himself — he says what all fantasy writers say, namely that he wanted to do something different, but what I always come away from TNOTW with is the feeling that he has actually done the same old thing, only incredibly well.

      One of the things I occasionally feel as though I’ve learned about myself in writing unseriously about this stuff is how much of a sucker I am for a world that feels solid. Rothfuss has geeked out on his worldbuilding to a degree that you would pretty much have to live on ramen in Wisconsin for 14 years to do, and it fits together and feels smooth and organic and all the loose ends seem like they’re going somewhere, all the shadows seem to be cast by solid things. I like the plot and characters well enough, and I think he uses language a lot better than average for fantasy, but I think the world and the sense of history are the main thing. One of the things that disappointed me about the second book is the downtick in that smoothness and solidity, in some spots because you know he wrote some big sequence (“here’s how I got shipwrecked and lost all my stuff!”) and couldn’t figure out how to get it in given whatever time or space restrictions he was working with. And thinking those sorts of thoughts leads inevitably to, “How the hell does he do the rest of this in one more book?”

  3. Pingback: “why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?” « the pulchrifex papers

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