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.

“Beautiful White Bodies,” by Alice Sola Kim

Fashion model in dolphin tank
Fashion model underwater in dolphin tank, Marineland, Florida (Library of Congress)

I stumbled on this story via the website for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. I meant to read it after lunch, but once I had the page up in my browser, I read the first line. And then I read the first paragraph, and then…you get the idea. It did what a story is supposed to do – sucked me in and made me keep reading.

So what’s it all about, besides Busby Berkeley? Well, Justine’s a ‘boomerang’ twenty-something, living with her Mom and working at a coffee shop in her hometown when she notices that the local high school girls are coming down with an epidemic of preternatural anime-style beauty. Epidemic turns out to be the right word. Cue officials in face masks, and white isolation tents.

I especially liked four-eyed, snub-nosed, vintage-wearing, theater-kid Pearl. She was just the right mixture of attitude and self-pity. I liked the little interlude in Justine’s self-reflection when she talks about the “Different people marooned on different islands inside of you.” I liked the CDC guy’s line about “the beauty sickness no longer [being] co-morbid with popularity. I liked that I didn’t quite know what the end result of this epidemic actually was – just that it was a change, and a change with teeth (real or metaphorical, take your pick.)

Review of Jumped, by Rita Williams-Garcia

I’m going to try to do this without spoilers…

Jumped, by Rita Williams-Garcia
Jumped, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Early one morning in zero period before regular classes begin, Leticia overhears Dominique, a big basketball-playing “boy girl” say she’s going to “get” Trina that day at 2:45.

On the surface the story is about Leticia’s moral decision: should she “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” like the James Brown song played on the school loudspeakers? Should she warn Trina, who has no idea that she’s going to get pounded? Or maybe she should just stay out of it?

Chapters alternate, with each girl narrating the rest of the school-day in her own words. As they talk about themselves, the reader begins to see gaps between how each girl thinks of herself and how others see her. Basically, Trina and Dominique are both telling themselves stories about who they are and what their place is in the school/world. Dominique, especially, is constrained by her story. To others, her actions seem extreme and arbitrary. But to her, her actions are inevitable: she has no indecision, and she has no regret, because her self-story doesn’t allow any other possible outcome.

Letting each girl have her own say on the page helped me to make my own judgments about their actions. Characters I liked the first time they appeared, I liked less by the end. Characters I didn’t like, at least I understood. The ending was different than I was expecting (sitting on my hands now – I promised no spoilers!) but, I think, satisfying.

Williams-Garcia was a new author to me, but I think now I am going to check out her Like Sisters on the Homefront or No Laughter Here. Thanks to Doret & Carleen for hooking me up with a new author. As per the terms of the bargain, I have now passed my copy to another reader.

Non-fiction Streak

Reading means one thing to me: Fiction.

Which means it’s a huge problem when I get tired of it, since I cannot wait in line for 30 seconds, eat dinner, or fall asleep without a book in my hand. I’ve heard that Twyla Tharp submits to self-imposed ‘creativity blackouts’ where she doesn’t read anything for a few weeks – not a magazine, not the mail, not the back of a cereal box. I’m tempted by the potential power of this, but I also hear the call of the loony bin.

My solution? All those non-fiction books that look so interesting when I fondle the covers and read the jacket copy, but just can’t bring myself to crack the cover when there’s still another alien-faerie-murdering-victorian-classic-YA-suspense-thingy clamoring for my attention.

Last week’s cleansing diet:

thrumptonThrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House
by Miranda Seymour
What: Woman writes of her father’s obsession with inheriting, preserving & coddling a Stately Home.
Why: As I was saying, it’s good to read about people whose lives are very different from yours.
Verdict: Powered by daughter’s (understandable) hostility to her father. Lightweight events recounted would have failed in the hands of a less-experienced biographer.
Bonus: Have your wedding at Thrumpton!

egyptMurder in Little Egypt, by Darcy O’Brien
What: Classic case of the murdering doctor, hailed as a hero by his rural community.
Why: It’s been on by bookshelf since 2003…and it’s a library book.
Verdict: Engrossing psychology.

motherLeaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World
by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu
What: Young girl leaves her tribal home in the ‘Land of Daughters’ for the wider world.
Why: Saw it on a ‘Best Books’ list.
Verdict: Enjoyed learning about traders and yak herders at the China/Tibet border. Appreciated Namu’s character: she resists her handsome lover by imagining children clinging to her skirts, and greets her pen pal with ‘How dare you be so ugly!”
Bonus: In China, Namu is a “crass celebrity“.

parsonThe Diary of a Country Parson (1758-1802)
by James Woodforde
What: Woodforde spends 20-some years as parson in Nofolk, writing down what happens, what he eats, and what he spends.
Why: Jigg the greyhound snuck in the cellar and ate the special pudding along with some cold tongue–recounted in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, in the segment on ‘Apricots’.
Verdict: Sometimes quotidian, sometimes droll, sometimes surprising. Unfailingly illuminating.

Nalo Hopkinson is a genius!

Okay, I’ve always suspected it, after reading her truly unique SF novels like Brown Girl in the Ring (my favorite, I think), Midnight Robber, and The Salt Roads (and looking forward to her latest The New Moon’s Arms).

I was on her site, researching for the last post, and got all sidetracked reading her blog, when I found something that took my breath away with the common-sense obviousness of it. She says, “As of last night, Blackheart Man is at 79,926 words.  People sometimes ask me whether I find it difficult to work on two stories simultaneously.  Not so much. Each one is a very different world.”

Two. Novels. At. One. Time.

After all the dithering I’ve been doing about the ‘This One’ or ‘That One’. Could it really be so simple?

I won’t find out until after all this holiday nonsense is over and I am hard at work in the new year, but just contemplating it is like a cool breeze. I feel some posts about writing methods coming up.

Free goose bumps

As a Halloween treat, Juno Books is offering a free download of five ghost stories by women.

  • Let Loose, by Mary Cholmondeley (1890)
  • The Striding-Place, by Gertrude Atherton (1896)
  • The Lost Ghost, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1903)
  • Kerfol, by Edith Wharton (1916)
  • Spunk, by Zora Neale Hurston (1925)

I admit that I haven’t heard of the first three authors, but am completely convinced that Edith Wharton would write a killer ghost story, and I’m very interested to see Hurston’s. Happy reading!

One more for funny women

I just started reading Miriam Toews’ ‘The Flying Troutmans.’

Marc…was heading off to an ashram in India anyway and said we could communicate telepathically. I tried it a couple of days before he left. I love you, don’t go, I said silently, without moving my lips. He was standing next to me, trying to photograph a gargoyle. You’re a little in my way, he said. Can you move?

How is that not funny?

A Complicated Kindness is also good.

Adrian and I are in love! It is official!

Re: September 17th’s post on unfunny women–How could I possibly have forgotten?

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend.

I found this in the adult fiction section of the Adams County Public Library when I was about 13 3/4 myself. I read it and then I read it again. I must have checked it out 25 times. I also read all of the books Adrian mentions that he reads. I was at that age when it took me a while to realize that Adrian wasn’t supposed to be a picture of coolness. Not only is Adrian the prototype for a current crop of YA confessional novels (Angus, Thongs & Full-Frontal Snogging, anyone?) it is also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And not in the gentle social commentary way. In the snorging your milk out your nose kind of way.

As funny as a….woman?

Just read Tayari’s link to the Jezebel post about the NYT article. Women writers aren’t funny! Just off the top of my head:

  • Florence King. Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. Made me laugh until I was stupid.
  • Dodie Smith. I Capture the Castle. A gentler humor, but seriously funny.
  • I’d even argue that a lot of The Country Girls trilogy by Edan O’Brien is comedy.
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1925 Anita Loos novel, not the 1953 Marilyn Monroe vehicle.
  • The Egg and I, by Betty MacDonald. OK, so it’s a memoir, not a novel. Still.
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary. Chick-lit? Sure. Spawner of a thousand pink-covered saccharine imitations and responsible for the current plague of clumsy heroines? Guilty. Funny? Definitely.

And I don’t even have my bookshelf in front of me.

Of course, Tayari asked for funny women of color, and that’s, sadly, a lot harder.

Who like boys to be girls, Who do boys like they’re girls…

JL was talking about the weird gender ghetto of women’s books, and how some people only read books by girls, and some people only read books by boys. Not that I’m going to say there’s anything wrong with that, but if you only ever read books by persons of your own gender how are you ever going to FIND OUT HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES (thinks), and PLOT YOUR TAKEOVER!?

So, I looked at my last, um, 92 books I’ve read and was sort of surprised that I came out with more books by female writers (or female pseudonyms). The final count was Boys: 41, Girls: 51. I thought it would be close to equal, but I really thought the gentlemen would have a slight edge. I love old books, and they are almost always written by the manly. But nearly all the modern books, particularly the SF/F, were by women. These books tend to be smaller, and faster reads, so maybe that explains the higher count.

Does this mean that I turn to men for substance, and women for light entertainment? If so, I’m horrified. Some women writers are definitely a balanced breakfast: Iris Murdoch comes to mind.

And now, some 90’s nostalgia.