Sunday Salon: Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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35 Responses to Sunday Salon: Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

  1. Pingback: Vampire novels and one version of the Top 10 novels of the past twenty years « clearskies, bluewater

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve struggled with the definitions as well. What about alt-history, like Jo Walton’s books, or Naomi Novik’s, about the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons? I’ve mentioned Lois Bujold’s books before – I think her Vorkosigan books fall more in the SF genre, and the Chalion books are definitely more fantasy. Connie Willis seems to write across the spectrum, from time-travel to paranormal to what I’d think of as more classic sci-fi.

    My list would also include Terry Pratchett (The Truth, Going Postal, the Tiffany Aching series) and Ursula Le Guin (the Earthsea books and Tehanu above all).

    • Teresa says:

      Oh yeah. Alt-history is another area I wonder about. Something like JS&MrN is alt-history but with magic, and I consider them fantasy, so I’d say the same about Novik, I think. But if Walton is SFF, what about Roth’s Plot Against America?

      I have yet to read any Pratchett! I’ve been meaning to for ages and ages, but you know how that goes. I remember that I liked the Earthsea books a lot, but I don’t remember anything else about them.

  3. Delighted to see Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on this list, it is absolutely one of my favourite books, I love how seamless the mythology is and how plausible it all sounds. Have you read The Ladies of Grace Adieu, the short story collection?

    I have mixed feelings about Narnia – I quite liked them as a child but when I reread the series as an adult the religious messages were too heavy handed for me. The Sparrow sounds interesting, will have to try that one out at some point.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve not read Grace Adieu, but it’s on my list. I’ve been slow to get around to it partly because when it came out I wasn’t reading short stories much.

      I only read the first book as a child and came to the rest as an adult, and I find the world and the characters too magical to resist. I know a lot of people feel as you do about Narnia, and it’s a fair point, although I don’t generally find the heavy-handedness bothersome.

      I’ll have a review of The Sparrow up at some point this month. It’s an amazing book.

  4. Alex says:

    This is why I have trouble with libraries that organise their stock by genre because I can never find what I want. Somehow we never seem to agree about what genre a book belongs to.

    Thanks for the list though. I’ve only read about half of them so the TBR list is growing yet again.

    • Teresa says:

      I have mixed feelings about the genre organization in libraries. On the one hand, when I’m in the mood for crime or SFF but don’t have a specific book in mind, it’s nice to have an area to browse in. But when I’m looking for a specific author, it can be annoying.

  5. Jenny says:

    Of course all these are top favorites of mine, too! I would add Little, Big by John Crowley, and perhaps Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein, and maybe Fledgling by Octavia Butler.

    • Teresa says:

      Octavia Butler was just barely squeezed out. I pondered giving up one of Lewis’s two slots to make room for her or Jonathan Stroud or Watership Down but then I couldn’t decide which to choose! And I love the two Lewis selections in such different ways.

      Have Spacesuit Will Travel is another one I read, liked, and promptly forgot about, and as you know, I liked Little Big a lot but feel like I need another reading of it to really get it.

  6. This is exactly why I actually kind of prefer the term speculative fiction as a catchall for sf—it covers science fiction (which I define as a novel set in our world but in the future or with significant technological advancements we don’t have), fantasy (which I define as being set in a secondary world, regardless of magic use or not), and supernatural fiction (which I define as being set in our world with fantastical elements). That usually catches everything, and doesn’t let too much through the cracks.

    Personally, The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite novels hands-down, followed by The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey, which is actually a deconstruction of it.

    • Teresa says:

      We use spec fic as one of our category markers, and I agree that it’s a great catch-all. I know some people don’t like the term because it’s been used to dismiss SFF, but I find it useful.
      I looked at some of Carey’s books at the library last time I was there because I remembered how much you like her. The only ones they had were sequels to earlier books, so I didn’t get any of them. I’ll keep my eyes out for The Sundering.

    • neal says:

      I like “speculative fiction” for the same reason. I’m one who feels that there’s a little fantasy, a little fairytale, a little future-thought in pretty much everything, and that narrow labels are just for marketing purposes. I’ll argue enthusiastically that Moby-Dick is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written, and that Paradise Lost gets at a rich mythological psyche the same way that Beowulf and Le Morte D’Arthur do. Whenever I think “Fantasy,” I think pretty broadly – and Science Fiction a little less broad, but still including a lot more than most people are inclined to include (The Road and Never Let Me Go are light on what most people use to define “Science Fiction,” but I think they are some of the best examples of what the genre is capable of).

      • Teresa says:

        I like your notion that there’s a little “speculative fiction” in just about everything. Certainly all novels are to some degree the product of the author’s speculations, even if some are grounded more in reality than others.

        And yes, the narrow labels are mostly about marketing. I find them helpful if I’m in the mood for a specific kind of book, but most of the time, I just want a book to be good, and the genre doesn’t matter that much.

  7. Love love love your list. I’ve read some of these and others are high on my “want” list. Also, thanks for the Estella Society shout out!!! :D Looking forward to your contributions.

  8. Danielle says:

    I always think I don’t read SFF books, but as you define it broadly (and I think I would, too, if I was working out a list), I actually do occasionally read books in that genre. I’d liked to read more–definitely the other books by Susan Cooper (I read the first one several years ago) and Jonathan Strange. Maybe some of the classics of the genre–like Ursual Le Guin’s books, and Margaret Atwood’s more dystopian novels (though I know she doesn’t like the label!). I was also checking out Jillian’s new blog and toyed with the idea of making a list myself, but like you, the moment I make it I’m sure I’ll just go and read something else. I love the idea, but I am always all over the place with reading projects of my own, so I might just watch from the sidelines and perhaps be inspired to read more classics. Thanks for the link for the Estella Society–I’ll have to check that out as well!

    • Teresa says:

      I feel sure you would love JS & Mr N. It’s long, but engrossing! And I like Atwood sci-fi books, although it’s her other books that I love.

      So far, I’m just enjoying watching the Classics Club from the sidelines, and it is reminding me of some books I’ve been meaning to get to. I may still make a list as an exercise and a reminder to myself, but I’m committing myself to nothing :)

  9. pburt says:

    I have read many on your list – what great choices. I have to admit, The Sparrow is the only book of Russell’s that I have really liked. And the Phantom Tollbooth is a classic not matter how it is classified. My husband tends to like Hard Sci Fi (which has a real science base to it) as well as the classics. I would say Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke (either Childhood’s End or Rendezvous with Rama) and my hussband would lecture me if I didn’t include Asimov’s Foundation Series (even if I didn’t like it at all – he would rate it at the top). Each year my husband gets a compilation of the best sci-fi stories for Christmas which is how we both find new authors. It is how I found out about The Wind-Up girl which is another great read.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read any of Russell’s other books, but you’re not alone in that opinion. I have a copy of Doc, and I have heard great things about that.

      I’ve read very little hard sci fi, although I did read the Foundation trilogy several years ago, and from what I remember I liked the first book but then lost interest as the series went on.

  10. Jennifer says:

    You’ve made me rethink my position on SFF completely. If someone would ask me if I ever read books in that genre I would have said no. But duh, I do! The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are on my top books ever. It is great to see Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on your list, that was such a great book and it reminds me I should read it again. For some reason when I think of SFF books I think of futuristic robots and such…I don’t know why but I’m realizing that I am wrong in that assessment! Great post, thanks!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s interesting how we get ideas in our heads about what different genres include. I know my own reading leans more toward the fantasy end of SFF, which is where I’d place Tolkein and Clarke, but when I start adding in dystopian fiction, I realize that I may read more science fiction than I thought.

  11. Jeanne says:

    I tend to define SF/Fantasy kind of generally as books that are about ideas, rather than merely plot or character. Some of my favorites are Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting. I tend to see science fiction as more ideas oriented and fantasy as more plot and character oriented, although it depends on the book.

      Hitchhiker’s Guide is the only one of the books you mention that I’ve read, and I liked it, but not as much as I expected to. I think I read it too late, after I’d been hearing the jokes from it for years.

  12. gaskella says:

    I’m with you Teresa – if it feels SF&F, let it be SF&F. You have a great list – full of classics of the genre (!) but with some I haven’t read too. I’m going to have to re-read The Sparrow, which was so good first time round, but I think has a lot more to give on a second reading. I hope to fit in vol 6 of the Dark Tower soon too…

    My choices would include Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sheriff, and Donovan’s Brain by Kurt Siodmak..

    • Teresa says:

      The Sparrow is proving to be tremendously rewarding on a second read. And I so look forward to seeing your thoughts on the rest of the Dark Tower books. Book 6 is the weakest, IMO, but it has some good moments.

      I’ve not read any of the books you mention, but the Keyes and Sheriff are both on my list, and now enough people have mentioned The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress that I think I need to look into that.

      • gaskella says:

        Just to give you more of a flavour of my faves above … I discovered the Keyes a few years ago and it’s brilliant it’s all about IQ vs EQ – you’ll need a hanky though. The Sheriff book is a 1939 classic picture of little England when the moon crashes onto Earth. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is my favourite Heinlein – I read it about three times when younger, but haven’t picked it up for years now. Siodmak is both pulp and deep noir at the same time and just a brilliant 1940s horror SF story.

  13. Stefanie says:

    Very nice list. I haven’t read the Dark is Rising books. I should look into them. On my list would be the Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler and the Phoenix Legacy Trilogy by M.K. Wren.

    • Teresa says:

      The Dark Is Rising series is wonderful, magical children’s fiction. I first read them as an adult and loved them.

      I must get around to more Octavia Butler.

  14. Scott W. says:

    I’ve hesitated to comment on this post because a) I’ve read only a few of those in your top 10, and b) I’m generally not inclined towards science fiction/fantasy. The latter should probably disqualify me from commenting, but I can’t resist a list. So here I’ll add some of those few science fiction/fantasy works that have pulled me out of my usual lack of enthusiasm:
    Roadside Picnic, by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (a mysterious zone holds perils as well as, perhaps, the capacity for granting one’s deepest desire, if only one could figure out what it is); I Am Thinking of My Darling, by Vincent McHugh (a virus attacks New York, rendering everyone deliriously happy); Solaris, by Stanislas Lem (a mysterious planet seems to make manifest one’s thoughts – a great book about the persistence of memory); and Ice by Anna Kavan (a particularly intense, dreamlike and druggy story of paranoia set in a new ice age, in the protagonist’s mind, or in both). Also, no one has yet mentioned Philip Pullman’s young adult trilogy, His Dark Materials, inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and a sort of philosophical riposte to the Narnia books.

    • Teresa says:

      I started reading Roadside Picnic a while back, but the e-galley that I had wasn’t playing nice with my e-reader, so I only got a few pages in before I gave up. But you’re now the second person to recommend it in the last couple of weeks, so I’ll be looking for a paper copy. And I liked (or I should say admired) the film of Solaris (the Russian version; haven’t seen the American), so I should look for the book.

      Good call on His Dark Materials! I’m surprised no one has mentioned it, although it wasn’t particularly a contender for my own list. I loved the first book and liked the second pretty well, but I felt that the final book got so didactic that the magic was lost.

      • Scott W. says:

        Teresa – Roadside Picnic has just been republished by Chicago Press in a new translation. The film version – Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky (also responsible for the Solaris adaptation you saw) is great. I agree about the third volume of His Dark Materials turning a bit didactic.

  15. For a great “genre and gender bending” triple-decker (recently revised into an omnibus edition), why not try Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Way of Thorn and Thunder: The Kynship Chronicles”? I’m now 4 or 5 chapters into it, and I’m lost in admiration already. A la Tolkien, there are maps and characters and character/story indexes galore, all you need to visualize an entire world, but unlike Tolkien, Justice isn’t ethnocentric or even slightly sexist in the Tolkien put-women-on-a-pedestal way. If you loved “The Lord of the Rings” as a world to live in, try this new style world. It’s (in my opinion) even better. (And for Justice’s views on “Avatar,” check Google.)

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