NPR has compiled a list of the top 100 most popular sci-fi/fantasy books based on the input of 60k people. It’s an impressive list, and I’ve read a number of the works on the list and have a good number of others on my to-read-list. If you want a guide for which ones you should prioritize, see the following prodigious flowchart. I’m scared to guess how long that took to put together.
I have a few thoughts on the top 10:
- Lord of the Rings – Wow. Massively overrated piece of shit. It took me three tries to finish the series and the only reason I managed to finish it was because of the movies. There were long stretches in this series that put me to sleep or just had me bored out of my mind. I understand that modern fantasy pretty much owe’s it’s existence to this series, but that doesn’t mean that it ages well after reading more recent fantasy authors. The movies define this narrative for me, not the books. It separated the wheat from the chaff.
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Hilarious book, but #2? Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly different from your average science-fiction book in that it’s funny, but I certainly didn’t get anything more out of it. Again, this work has been highly overrated. Science-fiction can be a means of exploring the extremes of tech, philosophy, ethics, biology or what alien encounters might be like, but the only thing I remeber about this book is that it was funny. Good stuff, but not deserving of a spot on the top 10.
- Ender’s Game – Finally, a book that deserves it’s spot. The book was written as sort of a response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Reading this in high school changed my entire world view at the time. For a time, I optimistically believed that even the worst blood feuds could be worked out given enough empathy and the right (smart) leaders.
- The Dune Chronicles – Another well deserving series on the top 10. Dune may be the first work to incorporate environmentalism into the core of a sci-fi narrative’s internal structure/rule-set. Herbert didn’t stop there – he spanned all sorts of topics including politics, war, philosophy, religion, economics, and various human breeding programs. Truly a novel of vast scope.
- A Song of Ice and Fire series – The first three books are my favorite fantasy books bar NONE. The 4th and 5th leave something to be desired, but they were always meant as bridge books because the tale grew in the telling. The audacity of the author killing off characters that the reader has emotionally invested in hasn’t been seen anywhere else in any series I can think of previous to its publishing. The political machinations were an absolute joy to read and I felt like my understanding of human nature leveled up as I progressed through the series. Please god, don’t let Martin die before he finishes the series!
- 1984 – Classic. I don’t know that I’d put it in the top 10, but the book certainly had cultural influence over several generations of high schoolers who had to read the book.
- Fahrenheit 451 – Classic. I’ve only read part of the book, so I can’t really comment more.
- The Foundation Trilogy – I just recently finished the original trilogy and unfortunately this work doesn’t age very well. The central conceit is that in the far future, one man foresees (mathematically) the fall of the entire galactic empire and endevours to shorten the “dark ages” with the formation of a foundation to guide the rest of the galaxy out of said dark ages. The books were a good read but since this was written in the 40s when computers didn’t exist, the far future described sounds … like a 1950s sci-fi TV show. What’s interesting is that psychohistory may be near in the realworld.
- Brave New World – Classic. It’s on my Kindle in my to-read-list.
- American Gods – For the life of me I don’t understand where the love for this book or Neil Gaiman comes from. The book won both the Hugo and Nebula, and I’ve found that books that have won both are really among the best works of sci-fi. But I found nothing memorable about the book, nor have I in any of Gaiman’s work. It just ends up being a bunch of half-formed ideas - prettily described mish-mash. There were no “Wow!” big ideas, no page turning suspense or action, no genius strategems, not even the comedy that Hitchhiker’s Guide had to recommend it. At least Tolkein had the excuse of being a pioneer for his awful work. This was straight up terrible. Avoid wasting your time with this.
Lots of other great (and not-so-great) books on the list. It definitely gave me a few more books to put in my reading list.