The Best and Worst of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

NPR just released its list of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of all time. With more than 5,000 people submitting nominations and 60,000 people voting, it presents an interesting cross-section of what people like in the genre. (Note: You won’t find any young adult books on the list because they’re reserving those for a separate list. So, no Lewis, Pullman, or Rowling. Although, on that note, why is the Sword of Shannara trilogy on the list? How is that more “adult” than the Hunger Games trilogy?)

Since I’m a fan of the genre, I just couldn’t resist making some comments. But, before I do, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list based on literary merit, historical significance, or anthropological insight. People voted. So, it’s a popularity contest. But, it was an interesting one.

So, check out the list for yourself, but here’s what I think:

  • Most Surprising: Patrick Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t surprising because the two books in this series so far are bad books. Far from it. The Name of the Wind is unquestionably my favorite debut SciFi novel. What’s surprising here is that Rothfuss has only written two books in the series and the first just came out in 2009. That’s amazing in a list dominated by established authors who published most of their books decades ago! (Runner Up: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Same thing here: an excellent book that I just didn’t expect to see rated this highly by popular vote. Apparently I don’t give people enough credit.)
  • Least Surprising: J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. #1. No surprise. (Runner Up: George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. Best-selling books, popular HBO series, sex, death, destruction, and a midget. What else do you need?)
  • Most Overrated: Frank Herbert, The Dune Chronicles. Lots of people will disagree with me here, but I’ve never been able to get into these books. I’m probably tainted by the fact that I watched David Lynch’s Dune as a child and just didn’t understand. What’s up with the giant worms? I didn’t get it.  (Runner Up: The Princess Bride. (#11!? Seriously? Am I missing something?)
  • Most Underrated: Terry Pratchet, The Discworld Series. Without a doubt, this was the hardest category because so many great books seemed too far down the list. But, in the end, I had to go with the Discworld books. The problem here seems to be that they were listed as individual books (e.g. Small Gods, Going Postal), though others were listed by series (e.g. Lord of the Rings, World of Time). That’s unfortunate because the Discworld books definitely deserved better. (Runner Up: Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy. Too many to pick from here (Neverwhere, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Malazan Book of the Fallen), but Robin Hobb’s books are so creative and engaging, despite the fact that her main characters sometimes border on being unloveable idiots. Great reading.)
  • Best Movie Version: Fellowship of the Ring. I’m a Tolkien fan. What can I say? And I know lots of people like Return of the King better, but Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite.. (Runner Up: Princess Bride. Okay, so it really wasn’t a great movie. But too many fond youth ministry memories make it seem like an Academy Award Winner.)
  • Worst Movie Version: Starship Troopers. This was a tough call since so many bad movies have ruined perfectly good SciFi books. But, Starship Troopers has to be the worst offender. I’m still doing penance for having actually watched that drek. (Runner Up: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From what I hear, Watchmen is a worthy candidate here, but I was warned in advance. So, of the movies I’ve actually seen, this is definitely the second worst.)
  • Movie I Wish Would Get Made: American Gods. No question. That would be too awesome. (Runner Up: The Kingkiller Chronicles. Granted, they’d have to wait until he’s finished writing them. But still….)
  • One I’d Like to Read:  Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. A classic that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. (Runner Up: Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Series. The only Gaiman works I haven’t read yet.)
  • One I Wished I Hadn’t Read: Neil Stephenson, Anathem. Stephenson is probably a genius. But, his books put me to sleep. (Runner Up: J.R.R. Tolkein, Silmarillion. I just don’t need to know that much back story of a novel. Any novel.)

For some other good thoughts, check out Glen Weldon’s NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels: Parsing the Results.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 15, 2011, in Books & Literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Wow Marc, never knew you were such a sci-fi/fantasy nerd, but I guess the obsession with zombies should have tipped me off. I totally agree with your most underrated, both Pratchett and Hobb should have scored better. I think the Kingkiller Chronicles scored so high because they are such hot stuff right now. In regards to Terry Brooks, that one baffles me but I think it comes down to marketing. Brooks’ books are marketed as adult fiction, even though they seem to be clearly YA to me, whereas books like Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Prydain are marketed as YA.

    • I have to let the inner geek out every now and then, though my wife tries to make sure it doesn’t happen too often.

      You’re probably right about the marketing issue, though. But, I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that the Shannara books are somehow more adult than the Hunger Games books. I’d have my 9-year-old read the former in a heartbeat, but don’t think she’s ready for the latter.

  2. Sarah Atkinson

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Marc. I just finished the first Rothfuss book (thanks for the recommendation back in April) and have #2 on deck now.

    And I persist in loving Hobb’s Farseer characters even when they are being idiots!

    • I’m glad Rothfuss worked out for you! I didn’t like the second one quite as much as the first, but it was still good.

      BTW – Robin Hobb has a new series called the Dragon Wilds Chronicles. It was a pretty slow start, but I think that’s because I gave up on the Liveship books. I decided to stick with it, though, and I’m enjoying them now.

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