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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Top 50 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

The Science Fiction book club has published a list of the "Top 50 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books." The list covers 1953 - 2002.

I have a few comments:

No such list can be without controversy.

I recall reading about half of these, some more clearly than others. I have read a few of them several times.

My own list would have included some different items, including The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis; something by Jack Vance, I guess The Dying Earth, although The Dragon Masters or The Last Castle would also be good candidates; The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Watership Down, by Richard Adams. C. S. Lewis isn't on the list, but I guess he shouldn't be, as most of his Narnia books were published before the period indicated, and, much as I like his space trilogy and Till We Have Faces, I can see that they haven't influenced others who write in the field, or the fantastic reading public, as much as, say, the books of Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke.

In my opinion, Tolkien and Le Guin are the most important authors of fantastic literature in English, the former early in the period covered, Le Guin for the last 35 years, to the present. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is number 1 (His The Silmarillion is number 41) Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea is number 5 on the list (There are other Earthsea books, and some short stories, in addition.).

Many of these books have strong ethical, religious or moral implications. Tolkien was a Christian. Willis (who didn't make the list) may be. There is a Catholic priest in her The Doomsday Book who is a very sympathetic character, and most of her books include references to going to church. Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz is about the morals of nuclear war. Cordwainer Smith and Gene Wolfe include Christian symbolism in their works. Le Guin is a Taoist, and there are Taoist implications in her works. Ender's Game (by a Latter-Day Saint, Orson Scott Card) and The Forever War deal, in part, with the morality of war. (There are, I'm sure, other Christian writers represented, as well as those of writers of other faiths, and atheists and agnostics. For more on the religious affiliations of 70 of the most important authors in fantastic literature, see here.)

A person who wants to read the most important fantastic literature in English could do a lot worse than read this list. Everyone should read Tolkien. For someone who wants to taste the rich world of fantastic literature, I'd say that these five are the best: Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, Cordwainer Smith's Rediscovery of Man, and Larry Niven's Ringworld. Of these, Ringworld is the "hardest" science fiction, with science being critical to the plot and setting, and character less so (although not absent) and Rediscovery perhaps the most fantastic -- Smith is presenting visions in these short stories, not real possibilities. Once more, although I agree that the Earthsea books are great, in my opinion, Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness, which should have been on the list, is the more profound book. It is written intelligently, in structure and theme. The characters, almost all of them humanoid aliens, are multi-dimensional. The book deals with the themes of communication and fellowship, and of sexual identity, in a way that has seldom been matched in literature of any genre. (It isn't pornographic, in case anyone wonders. It just questions the whole question of sexual identity, in a way that can only be done in fantastic literature.) It's also about a cold planet, and it's a nice book to read if you are reading in a warm place, if the weather is cold. (Here's the Wikipedia article on the book. Here's a helpful study guide, although it doesn't spell the name of Le Guin's planet correctly. Sci-Fi Weekly gave the book an A+ review, and describes it a "a good story well told." Here's a lengthy analysis and discussion of the book, and its sexual implications, including an interview with Le Guin. Some reviewers disagree about the book's excellence, of course.)

I posted a series, some time ago, on features of Watership Down, Le Guin's Earthsea books, which are represented on the list, and on Tolkien. Those posts are here, here, here and here. Under Some of the feeds I subscribe to, on the right, you will see two group blogs devoted to Christian fantastic fiction, namely Speculative Faith and The Lost Genre Guild, and a personal blog, Claw of the Conciliator, which occasionally deals with that topic. So do I.

Thanks for reading.


Elliot said...

Last I heard, Connie Willis was a member of the United Church of Christ. Recent books like To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage both have Christian ideas in them, but I haven't read her latest recent novella.

An interesting post! I agree that 'top 50' lists are pretty arbitrary. Though I guess I'm guilty of that myself sometimes - yesterday I compiled this and some people would likely take issue with some of my picks:

I wish I posted about Christian speculative fiction a bit more than 'occasionally' but that's life, I suppose. I'll likely get caught up on my book reviews this December when I'm on Christmas break.

The Ripper said...

Have you heard of the Jedi Knight group? I suggest you check them out...

David B. Ellis said...

Have you read any of John C. Wright's work? He's a fairly new writer who does both fantasy and science fiction. The only thing I have read by him so far is his science fiction work THE GOLDEN AGE TRILOGY. Its one of the best SF novels I've read in recent years. I think you would probably like it since it shows a strong Jack Vance flavor (at least to me, Vance being one of my favorite authors, so its a compliment in my view). On a more personal note, Wright converted from atheism to christianity following a heart attack which occurred shortly after the publication of the Golden Age Trilogy. Being more of a skeptic/humanist bent myself I found his discussion of this conversion experience interesting (though I found his reasons for thinking his visions were not simply hallucinations unpersuasive).

I have a recently started art blog where I post (among other subjects) my astronomical art. Its at
and I would love to trade links if you're interested.