Because I’m spending this month reading science fiction and fantasy, I thought it would be fun to look back on some of my favorite SFF genres. But as I started to assemble a list, I came upon that whole sticky question of what counts as science fiction and fantasy. Some books (The Lord of the Rings or Ender’s Game) obviously count as SFF. And there are books often classed as “literary” whose subject matter clearly makes them also SFF books (The Sparrow or Oryx and Crake) even if their authors claim not to be writing in those genres or if they aren’t shelved in the SFF section of the bookstore. Those books are easy.
But what about paranormal novels, like The Little Stranger or any number of vampire novels? Or works of magical realism, where the paranormal elements are worked seamlessly into our world without being remarked upon? Or books like Watership Down, set in a subset of our world but constructed like fantasy? Or dystopian novels like 1984, which are set in the future but are more about politics than science? Or time travel books like To Say Nothing of the Dog or The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the time travel is mostly a vehicle for telling a story of history or human relationships and not a major part of the plot.
It’s clear that even for someone like me, who tends to define genre nonjudgmentally by subject matter rather than by style or quality, determining a book’s genre is maddening! Define it too broadly and everything qualifies. Define it too tightly, and you leave important works out. Most of the time, I just don’t care what genre a book belongs in—I only care that it’s good. But for the purposes of this self-imposed exercise, I suppose some parameters are needed.
In the end, I’ve decided to just embrace the subjectivity and name some novels that I love that feel like SFF to me. In general, these are books where other worlds or encounters between worlds (including our own future and past) are significant to the plot, but it’s not a strict definition in my mind. I’m just going with my gut here. So with that definition semi-established, these are my top 10 science fiction and fantasy novels:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Four English children step through a wardrobe to the magical land of Narnia. Later adventures involve different children who visit Narnia at other periods.
- The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. A group of ordinary children get drawn into the battle between the Old Ones and the Lords of the Dark.
- The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. The story of Roland, the last gunslinger of Gilead, and the journey he and his friends from our world take to the Dark Tower that is the center of all the universes.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. The gifted Ender Wiggin is sent to a special school in space where he is trained to battle the buggers that made war on Earth.
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The history of two magicians who were integral to bringing magic back to England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. A hobbit named Frodo Baggins and his friends go on a quest to destroy the one ring that could give the evil Sauron power over all Middle-Earth.
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster. A bored little boy named Milo receives a tollbooth in the mail that takes him to a magical land of hilarious wordplay.
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The lone survivor of a Jesuit mission to outer space struggles to tell the story of his time among the aliens.
- Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of one of Psyche’s sisters.
- To Say Nothing of the Dogby Connie Willis. A group of time-traveling historians have comic adventures when they travel to Victorian England to protect the present as they know it.
These are just the books that come to mind when I think of the SFF books I most love. There are lots of others that I admire and enjoy almost as much, but these are the ones I’ve read (or most want to read) again and again. At this point, I’ve read all but The Dark Is Rising, The Phantom Tollbooth, and To Say Nothing of the Dog at least twice. (I’m actually just now reading The Sparrow for the second time.)
What are some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy novels? How do you define science fiction and fantasy?
In Other News
Andi of Estella’s Revenge and Heather of Capricious Reader have started up a blog by and for book bloggers called the Estella Society. Right now, they’re looking for contributions on books, blogging, and the reading life, so do check it out if you’re interested. I have a few posts in mind about what I’ve learned in my past four years as a book blogger that I plan to send in.
The Classics Club, which Jillian started earlier this year, now has its own site. I’ve not officially joined the club myself, although I’ve thought about it. The truth is, even if I make a list of classics I’d like to read, I’ll probably still end up reading what I feel like reading when I feel like reading it. I understand the list isn’t a commitment, but I’d end up ignoring the list altogether, which seems to defeat the purpose. Still, I like the idea of a gathering place for bloggers who enjoy reading classics (which I define simply as old books), and I may make a list just as an exercise and officially join up sometime.