alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books


Hand-colored lithograph, Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 / A. Robida.

Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 / A. Robida. c. 1882

Inspired by Apogee Dwell’s confession that he has only read 31 titles from NPR’s reader-nominated list of the Top 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy books, I decided to post on the same topic. Because who doesn’t like quantifying their entertainment choices, intellectual credibility, and ultimate worth?

Disregarding the fact that some of the “books” on the list are entire series (R.A. Salvatore, I’m looking at you), I’ve read 45 out of 100. A careless survey suggests that I’ve covered most of the classics (Wells, Verne, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Miller), most of the stuff that’s considered literature (Orwell, Atwood, Huxley, Burgess, Bradbury, Vonnegut), and highlights from the 90s to the present (Gibson, Stephenson, Gaiman, Moore).

So what am I missing? Basically the bulk of popular science fiction from the 1960s right up until about the mid-90s. During the formative fanboy years (i.e. age 12) I was busy reading about gothic castles, brooding noblemen on horseback, and plucky governesses (*blush*), not spaceships and monsters at the end of the world. No wonder there were so many times this summer when I felt like I wasn’t sci-fi enough to be at Clarion West.

But that’s my problem. Let’s take a little look now a more important problem with the list -and one that is not unique to SFF publishing:

Women writers on the list? 13 out of 100 (Ursula LeGuin is the only woman with 2 books on the list: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.)

Writers of color on the list? 0 out of 100 (At least, as far as I know. Please correct me in the comments if I’ve overlooked someone.)

Seems that old trope about white men in Hawaiian shirts might just have some truth in it. Does this mean that the books on the current list aren’t any good? Not necessarily. What it might mean is that readers (and publishers) might want to try to actively broaden the canon. After all, the SFF experience is about people and places that are unfamiliar and, as a consequence, the genre should be doing better than mainstream publishing when it comes to diversity, not worse.

Off the top of my head, here are a few books I would have liked to see on the list:

  • The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
  • The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
  • The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
  • Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress
  • Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
  • The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
  • The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
  • Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

Sadly, classic science fiction doesn’t have a lot to offer by writers of color, so I’m going to suggest checking out some potential future classics by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Hiromi Goto, Helen Oyeyemi, Minister Faust, Ted ChiangColson Whitehead, or Mat Johnson.

Let’s remember, folks – the future is for everyone.

Author: Alisa Alering

I write stories. I read stories.

9 thoughts on “NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books

  1. Glad you mentioned the semi dearth of women and total dearth of POC on the list. It is pretty astonishing.

  2. I’d have lots of favorites to add. “Brown Girl in the Ring” by Nalo Hopkinson for sure. “The Secret Country” by Pamela Dean, the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner, “Ancient Light” by Mary Gentle.

    I see that the list was based on ballots cast: not the “best” 100 books but the “top” 100 books. I guess I wish more people were reading more widely.

    • Your recs are mostly new to me (a good thing! more books to read = happy dance), though a little research turned up that I have actually read, and enjoyed, ‘The Queen of Attolia’ – which reminds me to go back to that series – thanks! Many people at CW this summer talked positively about Mary Gentle, but I had never heard of her. You’ve just nudged me another step in her direction.

      I’ve been wondering a lot about the skew of the list – maybe it’s because {NPR listeners} + {science fiction & fantasy readers} aren’t a natural mix?

  3. Actually, you have a good point re: NPR listeners and SF readers. I think those Venn diagrams don’t overlap all that much, and the exposure there is going to be on the broader spectrum.

    Still, it is painful to see Butler and Kress ignored. To arms! Let us proliferate SF knowledge to the masses!

  4. in the hert of the valley of love by Cynthia Kyohada
    ridley walker by Russel Hoban

    are two very much deserving books, too.

    • Riddley Walker definitely has the stature to deserve a spot on the list. I never hear SF people talk of it, though. I wonder if it is one of those books that is perceived so much as literature that its hardcore SF cred is ignored. I, of course, continue to have my own war of wills with RW, recently intensified by receiving a copy as a gift. One day…

      Interesting article (from NPR no less) on Riddley Walker:

  5. I talked about it (Riddley Walker)! I think you must not have been in the room. I forced myself to finish it. I liked it bunches, but it was a serious challenge. I’d say it definitely deserves at least a mention, far over that of four Neil Gaiman books. 20 years from now Gaiman will be luck if he has one up there.

    • Yeah, I missed that. My friend and I have had this ongoing Topic for almost 20 years now: He swears Riddley Walker is fantastic and I roll my eyes and disagree without actually reading it. By now, I’m pretty invested in my POV. I’m sure that one day in the AM-WEB retirement home, I will read it, and learn to love the taste of humble pie.

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