Saturday, September 3, 2011

'Top 100' speculative fiction books

NPR used a poll to come up with a list of the "Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books". My friend went down the list and commented on the books she read.

Since I have a habit of commenting on books, and there are several on here that I have read but not talked about, I will got down the list too. If I have not read the book but have read other things by the author, I will comment on the author.

1) The Lord Of The Rings
I used to be a huge fan of this. But whenever I have tried to reread it in recent years, I never seem to want to finish. There is just too much excess prose. Also, as time goes by, it is becoming increasingly clear that Tolkien came from a world that is sharply at odds with modern sensibilities. The glorification of royalty is particularly galling.

Honestly, I now think the movies are better than the books. You get most of the good stuff in a more condensed form. My only real complaint is the absence of Bombadil; I think his existence and character added an important depth to the story.

2) The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
I read all of the books in the series. They go downhill after a while, but the first two books are full of memorable and imaginiative things.
3) Ender's Game
I never read it and don't want to. I get the impression that this book is only popular because people read it as children and want to see themselves in the genius protagonist.
4) The Dune Chronicles
See my earlier review. The summary is:
It is possible that this book is a Watchmen-style deconstruction of the epic hero genre.  If so, it is a good one.  But it is also possible that the book is a confused mess that straddles the fence between genius and madness.  I am inclined to think the latter, because there are so many things that simply don't make sense.  The plot and setting of Dune are like soap bubbles: if you poke them or just look at them too long, they disintegrate.
5) A Song Of Ice And Fire Series
Another thing I do not want to read. I simply refuse to make the time commitment to a massive doorstopper series that dwells endlessly on political intrigue.
6) 1984
Worth reading, even though the protagonist is a complete nobody with no heroic or redeeming qualities. The depiction of the world, and the comments on the use of language, are excellent.
7) Fahrenheit 451
I never read it, but I saw the movie. This is somewhat ironic given the premise of the book. I should probably read it sometime.
8) The Foundation Trilogy
I read it but would not recommend it. Like much science fiction from the '40's and '50's, it has not aged well. Its world is so far removed from our reality or any realistic future that it should be called 'fantasy'. It has interstellar travel and psychic powers, but no computers.

It is also clear that Asimov knew very little about economics; a small colony of scientists is somehow able to produce more technological advancement than an entire civilization of billions of people. I dislike any book that claims you can build a utopia by isolating a few of the smartest people, and the Foundation books are remarkably similar to Atlas Shrugged in this conceit.

9) Brave New World
I was not impressed. I thought it was vastly inferior to Orwell's work. The thing is simply not believable.
10) American Gods
I have read several Gaiman works, but not this one. Gaiman seems interesting and impressive at first, but I quickly started to dislike his writing while reading Fragile Things. His strength is that he knows old mysticism very well and can make it seem real and powerful, but this is also what made me dislike his stuff. It is a never-ending parade of terror, misery, and superstition.

11) The Princess Bride
I started reading it but cannot remember if I finished it. I remember that it was good, but not really any better than the movie.
12) The Wheel Of Time Series
I read the first three and decided that there was no point in reading any more. The main character gains the ability to destroy any opponent, even demon lords, with a single magic spell, which means that there can be no interesting adventure and any future books must be based on politics. It was fairly well-written, but there were too many things that just seemed wrong or senseless.

13) Animal Farm
It is an excellent book and everyone should read it. It is also fairly short and easy to read, so the cost of reading it is low. Too few reviewers take this kind of cost-benefit analysis into consideration when making recommendations.

14) Neuromancer
I have never read it, but I have read other Gibson works.  They are memorable and imaginative. But I think that once you have read a couple, there is not much point in reading others.
15) Watchmen
I read it and liked it. Like Animal Farm, it is a fun easy read packed with ideas. Although it is definitely not for children.
16) I, Robot
I have read most of Asimov's robot stories. They are much better than the Foundation series, but I would still not recommend them. They often feel like some kind of strange philosophical thought experiment in a world that has very little relation to our own.

17) Stranger In A Strange Land
have read a lot of Heinlein books, but not this one. It seems to be one of his social/mystical stories, and in my opinion those are the worst. I probably will not bother.

18) The Kingkiller Chronicles
I have heard good things about these and plan to read them all when the whole trilogy is finished.
19) Slaughterhouse-Five
I have read this, and a lot of Vonnegut short stories. Vonnegut is interesting and strange, a relic of a very different world. His works are a bit too bleak and cynical for my taste, but I am glad I read them. Only recommended if you like trippy mind-bending things that are more focused on philosophical musings than storytelling.

20) Frankenstein
I have read it and I am glad I did, even though I did not enjoy it that much. Much of the novel seems to be pointless filler, but the good parts are very good.
21) Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
I have read a lot of Philip K. Dick short stories and generally enjoy them. I get the impression that I would not enjoy this novel as mich, though. See my comments on Blade Runner.

22) The Handmaid's Tale
I read Atwood's 'The Penelopiad' and liked it. Maybe one day I will get around to reading this.
23) The Dark Tower Series
I read part of a comic adaptation of this and thought it was fairly dumb. I have not been impressed with the Steven King works I have read. He knows how to write powerful and memorable things, but I do not like what he does with this ability. He is a lot like Gaiman. When I read things by either author, it is like witnessing a work of destruction rather than creation. They both seem like literary vandals, making a scene by smashing up sacred things and making the viewer nervous and uncomfortable.

24) 2001: A Space Odyssey
At first I could not remember if I had read this, or just watched the movie. Then I looked up the plot and differences between the movie and remembered that I had read it.
Overall I am not a fan of Clarke. Some of his short stories are quite good, but his books do not entertain me, and I see little value in speculating about super-advanced aliens and how they did or might affect mankind.

25) The Stand
Finally I get to something I have never heard of. Since I have already talked about Steven King, I have nothing to say. From this point I will start skipping things I have not read, unless it is an author I am familiar with but have not talked about before.

29) The Sandman Series
I started reading it, and liked it at first, but it got old very quickly. I would recommend starting it to see what you think.
31) Starship Troopers
I liked it a lot. Definitely recommended. You should read at least one Heinlein book, and it should probably be this one. It has at least as much social value as 1984, and is a lot more fun to read.
32) Watership Down
Started it, could not get further than a few pages in.
33) Dragonflight
I have read a few Anne McCaffrey books. She really loves the 'Special people who are superior' theme. It it is clearly an attempt to flatter the intended audience and provide a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and this rapidly gets tiresome. I started reading this one and did not get past the first few pages.

34) The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
I liked it, even though it rests on the amazingly stupid idea that a moon colony would export food to the Earth. It is also quite bothersome that Heinlein says that a superior society will form after people have the freedom to kill each other off at will with no penalty.

35) A Canticle For Leibowitz
This one is really good, and underappreciated. The world is well-developed, the characters are good, and it explores interesting themes. But as I reread my earlier review, I see that my earlier reaction was more mixed than the long-term memories I formed. I guess it is like a vacation where you only remember the good parts.

36) The Time Machine
This definitely deserves its place as a classic. Interestingly enough it has aged much better than a lot of more modern works. I recommend it.
37) 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
I did not like this book much. I was never really impressed with Verne, I see him as inferior to Wells.
38) Flowers For Algernon
Middle school reading assignment. I remember not hating it, and not being impressed either.
39) The War Of The Worlds
Another classic, but I agree that it is not as good as The Time Machine. It is still a lot better than a lot of things above it on this list.
40) The Amber Chronicles
I have never read it, but I have seen credible sources saying that it is really dumb, with the main character having far too many powers for the book to be interesting.
42) The Mists Of Avalon
I should probably read this one day. I tend to like reading female authors of sci-fi and fantasy, and I saw and liked the television adaptation.
43) Ringworld
I liked it, and I like most Niven books. Niven is perhaps the best example of good 'hard' science fiction that doers its best to take the laws of science seriously rather than just use technology or aliens as an excuse to make crazy things happen. In my opinion, his best work I have read is 'The Integral Trees' but Ringworld is also good.

45) The Left Hand Of Darkness
I have read several Le Guin books, but not this one. I liked them, so I probably should read this.
46) The Silmarillion
I tried to read it a few times and failed each time. I like Tolkien's random short stories, but the things in The Silmarillion always bore me.
47) Contact
I liked this, it had good characters and a decent plot, it handled the 'alien contact' theme better than Clarke. Although the claim that aliens made the universe and hid a message in the digits of pi is really dumb. Pi is not something like the gravitational constant that can be changed when you make the universe, it is a fact of math that cannot be altered. Still, that is a minor point in the book and the rest is quite good.

52) Stardust
I liked the movie.
53) Small Gods
There are better Discworld books than this, but it is still very good.  I recommend almost every Pratchett book; he deserves a much higher spot on the list.
58) The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever
I read about 20 pages of this, and decided that it was very bad. I wanted nothing to do with the main character or the book or the writer.
60) Going Postal
An excellent book. Highly recommended. This is one of Pratchett's most recent books, but it is still a good starting point.
61) The Mote In God's Eye
I like both Niven and Pournelle, so I should probably read this one.
64) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
An excellent book, highly recommended, which deserves a higher place. I have discussed it here, and also see my comments on The History of Magic.

67) The Sword Of Shannara Trilogy
I read a few chapters, and then decided that it is utter trash, just a cheap cargo-cult copy of The Lord of the Rings.
68) The Conan The Barbarian Series
I should not like these as much as I do. The morality of the main character, and the author, is wrong and dangerous. And yet I really enjoy reading them. It is a guilty pleasure.
72) Journey To The Center Of The Earth
This one is one of the better Verne books, more fun and interesting than most. This is probably because I can see it as a fantasy adventure with no connection to science or our history.
73) The Legend Of Drizzt Series
This is decent genre fiction, with good characters and plots in a well-developed world, with nothing that was annoying or ovbiously derivative. If you want pure fantasy entertainment, Salvatore is a good choice.
74) Old Man's War
Good and fun. A well-developed military sci-fi story.
76) Rendezvous With Rama
One of Clarke's better books. It ended up being a bit of light fun entertainment rather than anything deep, which was probably not the plan, but I liked it.

78) The Dispossessed
This is a good exploration of social systems and people's relationship to them, but only really worth reading if you are a philosopher or social scientist.
82) The Eyre Affair
Wacky fun for people who either like british humor or know and love literature. I have reviewed it before.
86) The Codex Alera Series
I like Butcher's Dresden books but I have no desire to read these. I cannot understand why he would give up an interesting and original character and world to write yet another generic fantasy novel series. I also cannot understand why people would vote that series up above the Dresden books.

88) The Thrawn Trilogy
Zahn is one of my all-time favorite authors. This should be much higher. I highly recommend it, as well as everything else he writes. He tells good stories with good characters in good, well-developed worlds.
99) The Xanth Series
I should probably try these; I have read several other Piers Anthony books and liked them.
Now, we get to people who should be on the list but are not:
HP Lovecraft. This guy is as much of a classic as Wells or Verne. He definitely deserves a spot above a lot of things here.
Michael Crichton: There should be something by him on here, probably The Andromeda Strain. That is one of the better science fiction books I have read.
Lord Dunsany: This guy is to fantasy what Wells is to science fiction. His works are classics and I recommend reading a few of them at least. They are surprisingly deep, original, and well written. Think of a cross between Hemingway and old fairy tales.
L. Sprauge de Camp deserves a place here. He is a classic writer of both science fiction and fantasy and his stories are good.

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