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.

Reading Outside Myself

Of the many reasons to read, a top one for me is taking a break from my life and the particular voices in my head, to listen for a while to the voices in somebody else’s head. Even though I write, and therefore encourage loquaciousness in my personal voices, I get tired of them always nattering on about dark green forests and frog people and old ladies with no teeth. I get bored of them. After a while, I think they are all the same, and not only do they have nothing new to say, that there is nothing new to be said. By anyone. Ever.

A good cure for this is a book by somebody else. Particularly somebody not very much like me. For that reason, I make an effort to read books not written by living white U.S. of Americans. When I need a cure, the less I know about the place a writer’s coming from (geographically, linguistically, temporally, or metaphorically), the better.

Sadly, finding this medicine is an effort. I read book blogs, writers’ blogs, publisher’s emails, & my local library’s RSS feed, and as Tayari often points out, writers of color slip discreetly under the rug of the US publishing industry’s publicity machine. So do translations. (And let’s not even talk about all the great books from everywhere that never get translated. Gnash! Frustrate!)

Reading something totally alien (not just something written with the intent of “explaining” a different environment to your western middle-class self) is really invigorating. Good for your brain, just like eating fish. Don’t know where to get started? For translations try:

Whoo, that’s enough. I’m making myself dizzy, especially from Booktrust’s page with all those yummy covers.

Up next: Lesser-read voices within the U.S.