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The 50 Best SF/F books and/or Series

Sunday, August 14th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

night-watchAfter much discussion of NPR’s 100 greatest science fiction and fantasy works, I was moved to construct my own list of what I consider to be the top 50. As with all such lists, this is somewhat arbitrary, nevertheless it should be taken as complete, definitive, and the final word on the matter. I see no purpose in honoring innovation for innovation’s sake when others have subsequently done it better, for example, John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have both been long surpassed as examples of their type, whereas the same is not true for Tolkein’s oft-imitated The Lord of the Rings or Orwell’s Animal Farm. In some cases, I have chosen to highlight a single book, Dune, for example, whereas in others I have chosen to view a series as a whole. Night Watch is easily the best of Terry Pratchett’s books, but it cannot be judged fairly in isolation as one has to have a fuller understanding of Ankh-Morpork to fully appreciate the novel. I have paid zero attention to book sales or authorial reputation, I have read all of the books on the list, and I have tended to rate genuinely amusing books more highly than others might due to the additional degree of difficulty involved.

I further note that if you happen to disagree with the reverence shown to Mr. Ray Bradbury, you are clearly inhuman, possess no soul, and should consider returning to your home planet. If you have not read or heard of Tanith Lee, people should throw rocks at you on the street until you rectify the error. On the other hand, if you have not read Hesse, that is understandable since he’s not traditionally considered a genre author. But do yourself a favor and read the book anyhow. And yes, Edgar Allen Poe should by rights be on here somewhere near the top, but the metric is books and/or series, not authors and/or short stories.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Dune, Frank Herbert
3. Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
4. The Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis
5. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse
6. Watership Down, Richard Adams
7. The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
8. The Secret Books of Paradys, Tanith Lee
9. The Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson
10. The Cthulhu Mythos, HP Lovecraft

11. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, jr.
12. The Discworld Saga, Terry Pratchett
13. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
14. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
15. Conan the Barbarian Saga, Robert Howard
16.  Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detection Agency, Douglas Adams
17. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
18. The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury
19. The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke
20. The Ender Saga, Orson Scott Card
21. The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander
22. Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein
23. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
24. The Magic of Xanth, Piers Anthony
25. The Hyperion Cantos, Dan Simmons
26. The Harper Hall trilogy, Ann McCaffrey
27. The Snow Queen, Joan D. Vinge
28. The Hitchhiker’s trilogy, Douglas Adams
29. Cryptonomicon, Neil Stephenson
30. Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
31. Animal Farm, George Orwell
32. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
33. Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein
34. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen Donaldson
35. Saga of the Pliocene Exile, Julian May
36. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
37.  The Dragonflight trilogy, Ann McCaffrey
38. A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin
39. The Amber Chronicles, Roger Zelazny
40. The VALIS trilogy, Philip K. Dick
41. Sandman, Neil Gaiman
42. The Diamond Age, Neil Stephenson
43. The Black Company, Glen Cook
44. The Giant’s Novels, James P. Hogan
45. Dragonlance Legends, Margeret Weis and Tracy Hickman
46. The Culture Series, Iain Banks
47. The Belgariad, David Eddings
48. The Hound and the Falcon + Alamut, Judith Tarr
49. The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross
50. The Illuminatus Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson


  1. I voted in that poll, but as I noted on my Facebook page, I’m wary of voting on any list that doesn’t include Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, easily one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, but at least they’re list did include Sheri S. Tepper’s “Grass”, easily one of the best sci-fi novels.
    But she didn’t make the winning list, nor your list, so I don’t trust either of them. 😉 (And actually, her Marianne fantasy trilogy SHOULD be on there, but almost no one but extreme Tepper fans has even heard of it).

    Comment by awsnyde - August 14, 2011 10:29 am

  2. And, obviously, that should say “their list”, not “they’re list”.

    Note to self (once again), proofread BEFORE hitting “Submit Comment.”

    Comment by awsnyde - August 14, 2011 10:30 am

  3. Interesting that you put Dandelion Wine as your top Bradbury choice. Maybe I’m remembering wrongly, but I recall that being the least fantastical of his fantasies (and surely we’re clear that Bradbury writes fantasy not SF).

    Comment by Soyka - August 14, 2011 3:20 pm

  4. It is the least fantastical and yet the most magical. And yes, we’re quite clear on that. The range of life it explores, from youth to old age, is simply unmatched in the genre.

    Comment by Theo - August 14, 2011 3:29 pm

  5. Interesting list. How do you feel Frankenstein’s been surpassed?

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - August 14, 2011 7:04 pm

  6. No Fritz Leiber, Karl Edward Wagner, or Clark Ashton Smith? I’d expect that from the waste of tax dollars that is NPR but not from you Theo.

    Comment by Tyr - August 14, 2011 9:14 pm

  7. No children’s books. Hence, no Pullman.

    Comment by Mary - August 14, 2011 10:14 pm

  8. Great to see love for the Pliocene Exiles and Lloyd Alexander but sad to see any for Dragonlance. I can’t deny the impact they had but I can’y say it was a good one.

    Comment by the wasp - August 15, 2011 6:19 am

  9. “No children’s books. Hence, no Pullman.”

    Erm, Theo included The Chronicles of Narnia.

    Comment by Jake - August 15, 2011 10:12 pm

  10. Greatest objection — NO JACK VANCE.

    The Dying Earth books (Dying Earth, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga) should be at least at number two on the list. Those are three of my five “desert island” books right there. And there are still his other brilliant series — Lyonesse and The Demon Princes — that far exceed the majority of what I see on this list of 50.

    If “genuinely amusing” is a criterion… Jack Vance is more genuinely amusing than ANY other author on this list, bar none.

    Comment by Lugo - August 16, 2011 6:39 am

  11. Re: the lack of Pullman. I think you could make a better case for including the Dark Materials in a non-YA list than you could for Narnia which I think is clearly aimed at children, while the Pullman skews a bit older. But, whatever. I know I’m harping on Theo’s favorite, and, of course, it’s his list, not ours.

    More egregiously, I’d take issue with the notion that Frankenstein has been done better. Even if it has, come on, this is the birthing novel in more ways than the intended pun. It’s like leaving Moby Dick off a list of great American novels.

    Comment by Soyka - August 16, 2011 9:03 am

  12. I think we have less room to whine about Theos’ list than NPRs.

    This is a personal list. It’s not your list it’s not my list it’s not her list it’s not his list. This is Theos list.

    Let him fucking have it.

    This is probably the only list that will have Hesse, Tolkien, Lovecraft, Lee + Bradbury, in a top ten.

    This also includes Howard, Cook, + Rice.

    The inclusion for Dick is VALIS. Seriously. Full of win.

    Probably also the only list that doesn’t include King.

    Just to be clear this really doesn’t look like ‘my list’ would, but that’s kind of the point…Let it be…

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - August 16, 2011 12:50 pm

  13. Glad to see Douglas Adams on your list. While most fans seemed to dislike his Dirk Gently series, since it wasn’t H2G2, I quite enjoyed them along with the rest of his other writings.

    As for the “greats,” we need to move on, just as writing has. The great books of the past are classics. If every list had to be filled up with the “greats,” there would be little point in bothering with lists or even reading anything new. Just as each generation has it’s actors portray the same stories over and over, each generation needs to have it’s great writers as well.

    Comment by corbain - August 16, 2011 5:01 pm

  14. True, it’s purely subjective, but “let him have his list” takes all the fun out of commenting. My gripes are as follows — no David Brin, two-time Hugo award winner? No Saberhagen? No “Riverworld?” No Heechee Saga? And why is Anne Rice on this list, or even within shouting distance? Pullman should be on there — miles ahead of Narnia, as is Garth Nix’s Sabriel series. Gotta love Tolkien, but Martin’s the best there ever was, and Amber must be higher.

    Comment by mudslinger - August 17, 2011 5:14 pm

  15. I further note that if you happen to disagree with the reverence shown to Mr. Ray Bradbury, you are clearly inhuman, possess no soul, and should consider returning to your home planet. If you have not read or heard of Tanith Lee, people should throw rocks at you on the street until you rectify the error.

    Your introduction to the list is even more fun than the list itself. You are now officially a person I’d want to have coffee with at a convention.

    I share the curiosity of several commenters above: Whose take on Frankenstein beats Shelley’s, in your view? The question may be which “it” is the one you’re thinking of in “done it better,” because Shelley’s doing a lot of things in that book.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - August 17, 2011 9:56 pm

  16. mudslinger –

    Awards are just as subjective as Theos’ or any persons or entities list(s).

    Think about it.

    Plenty of admirable writers come from the ‘awards epoch’, and have won few if any such idols of dark glass.

    Some admirable writers rarely even get a nomination.

    I hope you have read the stuff on Theos list, before you complain however…

    If you are entirely serious and ‘Martin is the best ever’ and you are taken aback that Rice is ‘even within an ear shot.’

    Cool. Seriously.

    There is subtext in your comment that SF presence is underwhelming. I’m not sure if you intended this or not, but it is pretty close to the ‘surface’ of your comment, and it’s a interesting shade of grey to add.

    I’m not one for subjectivity wars. So I’ll probably leave it here.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - August 18, 2011 12:15 am

  17. Radiant Abyss – I concede the point about awards, but I would still include the Uplift Wars.

    I have not read every book on Theo’s list, but there are several that I have read that I would place well behind my nominees, including Ms. Rice, and yes, I was serious. If vampires must be included, I thought Saberhagen’s Dracula Tape and its progeny were far more entertaining (and I would include Empire of the East/Books of Swords as well).

    Though your comment should be left alone, since it makes me sound deeper than I am, I did not intend to suggest the lack of quality SF books on the list. SF dominated my youth, and fantasy swooped ahead in my teens and has remained firmly in first. I simply tried to recall which fantasy or science fiction works still resonate in my memory. I should have included John Varley, by the way, and maybe David Feintuch (both SF, I know). There should probably be separate lists in order to: (1) reduce skewing; and (2) give us twice as much to argue about.

    Comment by mudslinger - August 18, 2011 3:01 pm

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