More than 5,000 of you nominated. More than 60,000 of you voted. And now the results are in. The winners of NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy survey are an intriguing mix of classic and contemporary titles. Over on NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See, you can find one fan's thoughts on how the list shaped up, get our experts' take, and have the chance to share your own.
A quick word about what's here, and what's not: Our panel of experts reviewed hundreds of the most popular nominations and tossed out those that didn't fit the survey's criteria (after — we assure you — much passionate, thoughtful, gleefully nerdy discussion). You'll notice there are no young adult or horror books on this list, but sit tight, dear reader, we're saving those genres for summers yet to come.
So, at last, here are your favorite science-fiction and fantasy novels. (And a printable version, to take with you to the bookstore.)
I am not overly fond of the word genre. Sometimes, of course, it is simply used to describe a type of book that makes use of certain conventions. However, for many people, the word has a pejorative taint — they see genre fiction as being somehow "less" than non-genre writing.
When these people find that they really like a particular work of genre fiction, they're inclined to use phrases like "transcends the genre." Though I am not a particularly violent person, hearing this always makes me want to throttle the speaker. Genre labeling not only ghettoizes particular books, but it narrows the world of literature for readers, rather than expanding it.
And speaking of genre, although I don't consider myself at all a science fiction/fantasy fanatic, I must say that selecting the books for this topic was harder than any of the others that I've done. There is simply so much excellent stuff out there — both new and old — that I know people would enjoy, that the list could have been at least four times as long. As it is, I know I've omitted some wonderful novels, like Ursula Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea, Dahlgren by Samuel Delany, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, Robert Heinlein's novels for young teens, like Between Planets and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Clifford Simak's Way Station, Dan Simmons' Hyperion and sequels, and on and on and on.
About Nancy PearlSince the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, paperback, 1,168 pagesBecause Neal Stephenson is probably best known for his classic science fiction cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (first published in 1992 and generally thought to be a major inspiration for the online virtual world, Second Life), he's thought of as a science fiction author, but that's a rather limiting (not to mention wrong) way of looking at his writing. Cryptonomicon is my favorite of his novels (and one of my top 10 favorite books of all time). I press it on friends and strangers alike who are looking for a book that's not only a page-turning adventure, but will offer them food for thought as well (randomness and cryptanalysis, among other nuggets, in this case). This wildly ambitious, brilliant novel is difficult to describe briefly because of its complexity and its large cast of characters. It's set in various times and places, including the Pacific Theater during World War II, Bletchley Park in England (where men and women worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes), and a fictitious country called Kinakuta, where a group of computer geeks are attempting to set up a data haven. Stephenson's main protagonists are invented, but they mix and mingle with historical characters like Admiral Isokuro Yamamoto, Douglas MacArthur, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Turing, among others. Stephenson deftly moves the action back and forth among time periods, locations, and into and out of the lives of his sundry characters, many of whom the reader develops a huge fondness for. Perhaps Stephenson's closest literary compatriot is David Foster Wallace, with whom he shares a wicked high intelligence, a well-developed sense of humor and a prodigious imagination. Don't miss this book.
'Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians'
'The Name of the Wind'
The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One by Patrick Rothfuss, hardcover, 662 pagesFans of the epic high fantasies of George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien will definitely want to check out Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One. When a traveling historian/writer, known as Chronicler, stumbles into the Waystone Inn, he sees through the proprietor's disguise and recognizes him as Kvothe (pronounced more or less like Quothe), the most talented, and infamous, magician of his day. At Chronicler's behest, Kvothe begins to relate the story of how he came to be at the Waystone Inn, which turns out to be a rags-to-riches-to-rags story of murder and a desperate search for truth and knowledge through study of the arcane arts. I don't want to give away too many details of the plot, since one of the great pleasures of this remarkable first novel is the meticulously detailed unfolding tale of Kvothe's life. This is a true page-turner, with an engrossingly complex hero (or is he an antihero?) and set in a particularly well-imagined world; it's set a high standard as fans will eagerly await the next two installments, Day Two and Day Three, due out, respectively, in 2008 and 2009.
'The Last Light of the Sun'
The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay, paperback, 400 pagesGuy Gavriel Kay has made a name for himself among readers who love historical fantasy (another term might be alternative histories), but even those who don't consider themselves fantasy readers should take a look at Kay's novels. To write these books (two of my other favorites are The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium), Kay first immerses himself in the study of an historical era. He then invents characters, throws in a bit of magic, and, voila! — a novel that is totally fictional but always true to the essence of the period. (And who knows, perhaps his version, magic and all, is the true one.) The Last Light of the Sun describes three groups of people living through a period of great upheaval. History buffs will recognize the action as taking place in the ninth century, when the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Celts fight (and die — often gruesomely: this is not always pleasant reading) for primacy in the land that would be later called England. The characters are all three-dimensional, and their choices and their fates will come to matter deeply to readers. For those who enjoy well-written, well-researched historical fiction, there are few who equal Kay's inspired recreations of the past.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, paperback, 304 pagesMegan Whalen Turner's The Thief is a supremely satisfying book for kids 10 and up (and a good choice for adult readers as well). It's the first in a trilogy, followed by Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia. The eponymous protagonist, Gen, who's been caught with the King of Sounis' gold ring, is imprisoned deep in the king's dungeon. His chance of freedom comes when the king's magus sets off on a dangerous journey that requires a thief's talents to succeed. Gen is being brought along to steal Hamiathes' Gift (a precious stone that gives its owner the right to rule over a country). If Gen succeeds, he'll be rewarded; if he fails, he'll die; and there's to be no escape from the magus, who promises to track him down wherever he might try to hide. There are many adventures and not a few surprises in store for both Gen and the reader, before the last page is turned. Gen is a terrific hero — a mixture of bravado and cunning. The well-evoked settings — three warring kingdoms, Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia — loosely resemble the city-states of ancient Greece, and some of the most interesting parts of the books are the myths and legends of the region's gods and goddesses.
'The Forever War'
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, paperback, 288 pagesWhen I think about terrific anti-war novels, there are three that come to mind: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Of the three, Haldeman's is the only one that's labeled science fiction, which means that a lot of people have probably missed it. Published in 1974, it won both of the major science fiction awards — the Nebula and the Hugo — one of the few books to achieve this honor. It's hard not to believe that Haldeman, who fought in the Vietnam War, drew on his own experiences of combat in this story of William Mandella. Mandella and other men and women with genius IQs are conscripted into an elite United Nations strike force whose mission is to track down and wipe out a group of aliens known as the Taurans from their presumed home planet as punishment for attacking ships carrying Earth's colonists in space. The action ranges from the 20th to the 34th century, as William and his fellow soldiers engage in a series of battles to the death with the enemy, about whom they know very little. Haldeman also makes good use of the time distortion that presumably occurs when you travel at near the speed of light. So that while subjectively Mandella feels only a few months have gone by, decades have actually passed on Earth, with all the attendant changes that time can bring to governments, customs, and beliefs. Haldeman makes clear that soldiers returning home from any war, after however long or short a time, inevitably find the world they come back to far different from the one they left.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl, paperback, 288 pagesGateway by Frederik Pohl is also part of the short list of books that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It's been one of my favorites since I first read it in 1978, the year of its publication. Robinette Broadhead relates the story of his life on (and off) the asteroid Gateway to his psychiatrist, a robot whom he's nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink. (I must say that I've often thought that the AI Sigfrid sets the gold standard for psychotherapists.) When Broadhead wins a lottery in his native Wyoming, he takes the first spaceship available and heads for Gateway to make his fortune prospecting. Gateway, now run by a huge multinational corporation, appears to have once been the home of aliens known to humans as Heechees. (What they called themselves is anyone's guess; Heechees is what we call them.) These aliens quite clearly left Gateway millennium before, but they left behind a large number of spacecraft, as well as other artifacts that continue to puzzle scientists as to their original function and/or use. Any prospector who comes to Gateway can choose to take out any of the available spacecraft. The only catch is that these ships are preprogrammed, and no one can figure out where they're supposed to go, how long the trip is going to be, or how to change destinations once you're underway. When you're in a Heechee craft, you're forced to put your faith in Heechee know-how. Which can infrequently lead to fame and fortune for these risk-taking prospectors, but more often can lead to tragedy. And nobody has ever been able to figure out a foolproof way to know whether the outcome will be either tragedy or triumph. What happens to Robinette turns out to be a mix of fame, fortune and tragedy, all of which involve Klara, his fellow prospector and the great love of Broadhead's life. (Hence the necessity for his visits to Sigfrid, many years after the events he's describing.) The novel also includes excerpts from Sigfrid's notes, classified ads from the local Gateway newspaper, and even sections of lectures on what's known about Heechee life and culture, all of which deepen our understanding of the situation Broadhead finds himself in. Interestingly, it's never been the characters in and of themselves that keeps me re-reading Gateway, though they're well-drawn and interesting, but rather wondering, down through all the years since I first discovered this novel, if I would ever have the nerve to take one of those Heechee spacecraft out into unknown, uncharted, and oh-so-dangerous territory. Probably not.
Unef's first starships had been possessed of a kind of spidery, delicate beauty. But with various technological improvements, structural strength became more important than conserving mass (one of the old ships would have folded up like an accordion if you'd tried a twenty-five-gee maneuver), and that was reflected in the design: stolid, heavy, functional-looking. The only decoration was the name MASARYK II, stenciled in dull blue letters across the obsidian hull.
Our shuttle drifted over the name on its way to the loading bay, and there was a crew of tiny men and women doing maintenance on the hull. With them as a reference, we could see that the letters were a good hundred meters tall. The ship was over a kilometer long (1036.5 meters, my latent memory said), and about a third that wide (319.4 meters).
That didn't mean there was going to be plenty of elbow-room. In its belly, the ship held six large tachyondrive fighters and fifty robot drones. The infantry was tucked off in a corner. War is the province of friction, Chuck von Clausewitz said; I had a feeling we were going to put him to the test.
We had about six hours before going into the acceleration tank. I dropped my kit in the tiny billet that would be my home for the next twenty months and went off to explore.
Charlie had beaten me to the lounge and to the privilege of being first to evaluate the quality of Masaryk II's coffee.
"Rhinoceros bile," he said.
"At least it isn't soya," I said, taking a first cautious sip. Decided I might be longing for soya in a week.
The officers' lounge was a cubicle about three meters by four, metal floor and walls, with a coffee machine and a library readout.
Six hard chairs and a table with a typer on it.
"Jolly place, isn't it?" He idly punched up a general index on the library machine. "Lots of military theory." "That's good. Refresh our memories." "Sign up for officer training?" "Me? No. Orders." "At least you have an excuse." He slapped the on-off button and watched the green spot dwindle. "I signed up. They didn't tell me it'd feel like this." "Yeah." He wasn't talking about any subtle problem: burden of responsibility or anything. "They say it wears off, a little at a time." All of that information they force into you; a constant silent whispering.
"Ah, there you are." Hilleboe came through the door and exchanged greetings with us. She gave the room a quick survey, and it was obvious that the Spartan arrangements met with her approval. "Will you be wanting to address the company before we go into the acceleration tanks?" "No, I don't see why that would be . . . necessary." I almost said "desirable." The art of chastising subordinates is a delicate art. I could see that I'd have to keep reminding Hilleboe that she wasn't in charge.
Or I could just switch insignia with her. Let her experience the joys of command.
"You could, please, round up all platoon leaders and go over the immersion sequence with them. Eventually we'll be doing speed drills. But for now, I think the troops could use a few hours' rest." If they were as hungover as their commander.
"Yes, sir." She turned and left. A little miffed, because what I'd asked her to do should properly have been a job for Riland or Rusk.
Charlie eased his pudgy self into one of the hard chairs and sighed. "Twenty months on this greasy machine. With her. Shit." "Well, if you're nice to me, I won't billet the two of you together." "All right. I'm your slave forever. Starting, oh, next Friday." He peered into his cup and decided against drinking the dregs. "Seriously, she's going to be a problem. What are you going to do with her?" "I don't know." Charlie was being insubordinate, too, of course.
But he was my XO and out of the chain of command. Besides, I had to have one friend. "Maybe she'll mellow, once we're under weigh." "Sure." Technically, we were already under weigh, crawling toward the Stargate collapsar at one gee. But that was only for the convenience of the crew; it's hard to batten down the hatches in free fall. The trip wouldn't really start until we were in the tanks.
The lounge was too depressing, so Charlie and I used the remaining hours of mobility to explore the ship.
The bridge looked like any other computer facility; they had dispensed with the luxury of viewscreens. We stood at a respectful distance while Antopol and her officers went through a last series of checks before climbing into the tanks and leaving our destiny to the machines.
Actually, there was a porthole, a thick plastic bubble, in the navigation room forward. Lieutenant Williams wasn't busy, the preinsertion part of his job being fully automated, so he was glad to show us around.
He tapped the porthole with a fingernail. "Hope we don't have to use this, this, trip."
The Forever War copyright (c) 1974, 1975, 1997 by Joe W. Haldeman. Available from Eos, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights Reserved.