The editor and writer Ben Bova once defined the difference between fantasy and science fiction this way, “Fantasy has trees, science fiction has rivets.” That’s a broad oversimplification but an essentially workable line in the sand to use as a definition. I point this out because as Merran and I went through NPR’s list she was adamant that the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon should not be included. This is a series, mind you, that she has enjoyed immensely and re-read several times. In her estimation it qualifies as neither fantasy nor science fiction even though time travel is used as a conceit to open and close the books.
The NPR list has an interesting mix of titles, from all-time classics like Dune and Lord of the Rings to mainstream crossovers like The Time Traveler’s Wife to romance like the Outlander series. In my opinion Neal Stephenson is too heavily represented at the cost of other worthy authors and some of the book choices are lacking in historical significance or specific quality. As a caveat I’m going to have problems with books where the main character is a wizard, musician, thief, and assassin. It borders on literary onanism and I don’t really have time for it.
As with the Backseat Bookclub Top 100 I felt that one hundred titles was too unwieldy and thought I would provide the top ten titles I would recommend for younger readers, primarily 8-12 and up. And in order to play fair with both fantasy and science fiction I’m going to divide the list evenly even though my tastes have always run more toward science fiction. I’ve intentionally skipped some of my favorite science fiction like Dune, Ender’s Game, and Fahrenheit 451 because I’ve already written about them and I wanted to provide space for other good books.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Certainly not the first fantasy series ever written but unassailably the standard by which all fantasy is measured. Even if you’ve never read it you will claim to have read it because it feels silly not to, it’s everywhere! Watching the movies is an acceptable substitute for parents who need to discuss it with their children.
Discworld by Terry Pratchett
I’ve only read a few of the 40 books (and counting) that make up the Discworld series. I’ve written about the Wee Free Men series that was targeted specifically at young adult readers but frankly I think any of these books are worthy of an afternoon (or 40). In my opinion nobody combines humor and insight as gracefully and hilariously as Terry Pratchett.
Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard
This is a purely boy selection as you might guess. I suspect most people know the character from the film of the same name that helped to launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as an action super star. The books in the series were originally written as short stories for pulp magazines in the 1930s and have since been expanded by other writers. They’re not really to my son’s taste but their adventurous appeal has entertained many boys over the years.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Unicorns eat sunshine and poop rainbows, or so I’ve heard. But apparently not in this book which is a fantasy classic and as near as I can figure the polar opposite of Conan. Something for everyone.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
The Dragonriders of Pern series has been delighting readers for decades and it would appear to have all the elements necessary to please our daughter who is looking desperately for series featuring animals. The combination of dragons and dragonriders in this fantasy should be a winner.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This is the first real science fiction comedy. Science fiction has managed to be funny in small doses before and certainly after the Hitchhiker’s Guide but it is a genre that takes itself way too seriously. This series does not.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
I don’t like it when authors make their protagonists good at everything and I don’t like it when they don’t have the courage to let a character die of natural causes even though 200 years have passed – I’m looking at you Kim Stanley Robinson. The Foundation Trilogy (we’ll ignore the other books in the series for now – and forever) doesn’t suffer from that miserable fate. Characters come into the story, do something important, and then are left in their place in history in this sweeping millennial epic about the fall and rise of a galactic empire. It’s perfect golden age science fiction.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
You may have heard the term cyberspace, William Gibson coined it and Neuromancer, his most famous novel, explained it to us with thrilling 1980’s cool. After all, who wouldn’t want to have mirror shades surgically implanted over their eye sockets? I wear my sunglasses at night, in bed, and during the day, 24 hours really. It’s totally Rad! But seriously, the book is very good.
Ringworld by Larry Niven
I still occasionally find myself thinking about the ringworld even though I read about it 30 years ago and when I think about it I can call up scenes from the book as if I had read them just last week.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
If you’re interested in teaching your kids about Einstein’s special theory of relativity this is the book for you. Not only does Vietnam vet Haldeman tell a powerful story of the stupidity and pointlessness of war but he dresses it up in one of the best time travel stories of all time.
That’s a start for my examination of this list but I can already see I’m going to have to dig into it more in the future. There are some compelling classics and some truly bizarre choices and seriously, I’m cutting them off at only one Neal Stephenson, it’s embarrassing.