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It’s Not NPR’s Fault (No, Really)

Friday, October 7th, 2011 | Posted by Bud Webster

childhoods-end1By now, any and all who are interested have long since examined NPR’s list of the 100 greatest science fiction/fantasy books, fumed over the titles left out (and/or the ones included), grumbled about it in blogs and social network sites, and by now almost certainly forgotten it.

So now it’s history, and that makes it my turn to bloviate. Pay attention, now, there’ll be a pop quiz.

A lot of my friends were looking to me to pontificate about the list, pedant that I am, eagerly expecting me to tear it a new one and castigate the whole idea of leaving such an important poll to, y’know, readers instead of the Experts. Like me.

Am I disappointed that I wasn’t consulted? After all, I talk back to my local NPR all the time when I’m driving to the grocery store or the park to feed the crows Cheesy-Poofs, don’t I? Don’t I promise myself twice a year to pledge at least a fin so that my local affiliate can continue to play the same tired old Puccini and Wagner operas? By now, they have to know who I am and have researched me the way they do all public figures, so they certainly have my e-mail and cell number, right?

But noooooooo. They haven’t called, haven’t pinged me, they haven’t even written on my Wall, the uncaring bastards. It’s okay, though. I’m not bitter or anything.

Ahem. Sorry. The cold reality is that in order for any such poll to have validity, it can’t come from experts (whoever they may be) but from the very people the poll is supposed to actually represent: causal readers, not fans or geeks like me.

Greatness cannot be determined by academics, or pundits, or “experts” but by the people who, in point of fact, keep the subject of that poll alive in their hearts and minds, passing their love and appreciation for it down through the generations.

caves-of-steelThat is what determines greatness, not the dogmatic opinions of Authorities, Analysts or nostril-flaring Critics.

What this means is that any poll of the Greatest Blank is going to make those of us who are intimately involved with it on an other-than-casual level grind our teeth in frustration at least once or twice. Or thrice.

Know what? That’s just fine with me.

First, let’s look at some numbers, and bear with me if others have done this elsewhere – I’ve deliberately stayed away from this discussion to avoid undue influences.

Of the 100 titles listed, almost a third are series rather than one-off novels; of those, a baker’s dozen are in the first half.

How do I feel about that? Well, that’s certainly within the parameters NPR set forth for the poll, so I can’t and won’t complain. After all, you wouldn’t get a lot of variety if half your list was individual titles from five-or-more-book series, would you?

My preference – and that’s all it is – would be to exclude series as entries but not the individual books that make them up, or at least limit the listings to the first book in each sequence.

What then, though, of the Tolkien? Reduce that magnificent tale to merely The Fellowship of the Ring? Or divide it further into the two books each of the three volumes contains?

Nope, that warg don’t hunt. The way NPR did it is the best way. Damnit.

More numerology is in order, and with your indulgence, I’m going to break this list down by decades:

  • Pre-1900: 5 (4 in top 50)
  • 1930s: 2 (1 in top 50)
  • 1940s: 2 (both in top 50)
  • 1950s: 13 (9 in top 50)
  • 1960s: 13 (11 in top 50)
  • 1970s: 18 (8 in top 50)
  • 1980s: 13 (8 in top 50)
  • 1990s: 18 (4 in top 50)
  • 2000s: 16 (3 in top 50)

princess-brideOn the whole, that’s a pretty well-balanced division. However, I have serious questions about the inclusion of works from the past twenty years.

Yeah, I know, I know; I’m yelling at those damn kids to get off my lawn again. There is a legitimate objection here, though, and I’m not the only one to make it.

It takes significantly longer than twenty years for a book (or film or play or painting, etc.) to prove itself, to pass from the confines of mere popular culture into the wider arena of Classic Literature. This is as it should be; to take an example from outside the genre, Madonna has long since proven her staying power. Has Lady Gaga?

The latter certainly has skills, but will her output survive the vagaries of a constantly-shifting (some would say capricious) audience? Time, and only time, will tell.

Nor should contemporary popularity, no matter how fervent, be seen as an indicator of future longevity. Who here remembers (actually remembers, no fair Googling) Grace Metalious and the best-selling novel she wrote more than half a century ago?i

Yet Childhood’s End (#49) and Caves of Steel (#94) were published at roughly the same time, and they live as large now as they did then.

So, were it up to me, I would have rejected at least 34 of the 100 out of hand as popular enough, but not Great. This is not, I hasten to say, a value judgment about the quality of the writing or a personal comment about the authors, only three of whom I have actually met, and only one of whom I suspect actually knows my name.

left-hand-darknessIn another ten or twenty years? Maybe, but not here and now.

There’s also the complication that, in my opinion, there are at least a half-dozen entries which were heavily influenced by the fact that they were successful films; I can’t argue with the placement of the Tolkien, but The Princess Bride was not a best seller, and I suspect more than three-quarters of those who voted for it voted for the movie and not the book.

Much as I like and respect “Railroad” Martin, the extreme popularity of the HBO series based on A Game of Thrones inevitably influenced its position on the list. Will it stand the test of time? In my opinion, absolutely, but for now, I have to say that there are equally worthy titles and authors who could better use the (admittedly low-key) publicity of appearing in NPR’s survey.

And what of #30, A Clockwork Orange? It was taken from the American version of the book, which excised the last chapter from the UK first edition, so which one belongs on the list? How many of those who voted for it have actually read either edition?

If this seems unduly persnickety to you, remember that the purpose of the poll was to find the 100 greatest books. One would assume that a necessary prerequisite for any readers’ poll would be that the readers have actually, y’know, read what they’ve voted on.

adventures_in_time_and_spaceAs a further example of this, and probably against all your expectations, I object to the inclusion of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The reason is simple: it is a novelization of a script written by Clarke and Kubrick, not the source from which the film was taken.

The original story, “The Sentinel,” is brilliant but it ain’t a book. As much respect and reverence as I have for Sir Arthur, he is far better represented here by Childhood’s End.

Okay, more numbers. Of the 100 titles, 44 were published prior to 1975. That’s an arbitrary date, I’ll grant you, but I gotta cut it off somewhere.

That’s pretty good, frankly, better than I’d hoped, and if you look back up at the breakdown, you’ll see that five of those came from the 19th Century and four of those five reside quite happily in the top 50. It’s a bit disconcerting not to see Dracula on the list, but we can at least be grateful that Varney the Vampire; or the Feast of Blood didn’t make it, either.

Fifteen of the 100 are by women, including a pair of le Guin’s best, The Left Hand of Darkness (#45) and The Dispossessed (#78) as well as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ubiquitous Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus.

treasury-of-sfThere have always been female writers, of course, right back to the old pulp days, but they’ve always been in the minority. Is that reflected here in the numbers, or is it just that most of those voting were of the masculine persuasion?

So much for the inclusive complaints, let’s move on to my mutterings anent those titles/authors left out.

When I voted in the preliminary poll, I knew up front that the vast majority of those taking time to do the same would nominate the long form, and since one of my primary interests is in short fiction and the various kinds of collections they’re found in, I nominated several anthologies: first and foremost, I recommended the giant Healy & McComas Adventures in Time and Space (Random House, 1946).

The importance of this single volume is unassailable; for decades, it was one of the primary repositories of classic short science fiction and was an intrinsic part of every municipal library.

I was far from the first kid who discovered Wonder in its pages, and it is still an enduring and venerable source of damned good reading today.

Next, I submitted Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction (Crown, 1946). A very fit companion to the above, reading one after the other would present anyone unfamiliar with sf with best evidence of how timeless and memorable the finest sf can be.

i_robotThird, but certainly not least, I suggested the too-large-for-one-book, two-volume Treasury of Great Science Fiction edited by Anthony Boucher and published by Doubleday in 1959.

There would be other paired anthologies in the future (including the magnificent Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A&B, edited by Ben Bova and issued by Doubleday in 1973).

Boucher’s taste in fiction was significantly more refined than that of Healy & McComas and even the widely-read Conklin, having been one of the founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949, and this book shows a wit and erudition few other compilations of the time did.

None of the above appeared on the final ballot.

I was disappointed, of course, but not surprised; face it, those books are decades out of general circulation and these days most readers want 800+-page novels, not short stories.

There are three single author collections, however: Asimov’s I, Robot (from 1950, although the stories comprising it date from as early as 1940) at #16, and Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951) at #27 and 91 respectively. Absolutely necessary, although I would have placed that last book much higher.

the-martian-chronicles-1958Who would I have expected to see, considering their importance to the field?

Harlan Ellison. James Tiptree, Jr. Stanley Weinbaum. Barry Malzberg. Samuel R. Delany. Robert Silverberg. Jack Williamson, Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford Simak, Philip Jose Farmer, C. J. Cherryh, H. P. Lovecraft, Alfred Bester.

Alfred Bester! Why are The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination not on the list? It would be difficult to find two finer, more significant and influential novels in this or any genre.

They weren’t just cutting edge; they helped to hone that edge to razor sharpness. They read as brilliantly today as they did when they first sprang full-blown on their audience in 1952 and ’56, respectively.

Alice Sheldon (who wrote primarily as James Tiptree, Jr.) only wrote two novels – Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air – but her short fiction was luminous, dazzling.

Hell, the titles alone sing like magical angels. Like Cordwainer Smith and R. A. Lafferty (and why aren’t those Masters listed?), she was a creator of dreams and myth that both transcended and illuminated more traditional tropes, and like few others, her work rings with beauty and heartbreak.

demolished-manWhat other titles are missing?

I’m sorely disappointed that Dangerous Visions, that most risky of anthologies, is absent.

Harlan Ellison, the mad fantasist who compiled this landmark assemblage of stories considered unpublishable by even their own authors, isn’t represented at all, for reasons I can’t fathom; but even if his highly-regarded collections are missing, this milestone shouldn’t be.

In the series department, Doc Smith’s Lensman books deserve their place on the list, even as dated as they are.  They were the first real series, followed avidly in the pulps and later in paperbacks by a readership that numbered in the millions.

First appearing in the 1930s, the last books appeared after Smith’s death in ’65.

If three and a half decades of work doesn’t earn him a place here, I don’t know what else he’d have had to do.

It’s all too easy, in hindsight, to nit-pick and kvetch about what’s wrong with NPR’s 100 Greatest Science Fiction Books. I just spent a good 2200 words doing so, and I’m hardly the only one (although I may be the tardiest).

The Lensman Series

The Lensman Series

What does it mean in the greater scheme, though?

It means no more, and no less, than any other 100 Greatest Whatever poll collected by any other major media outlet.

True, I would like to know more about the process used by the panelistsii to weed through the raw data and produce a workable listing, but I know their reputations and I trust them not to play favorites or juggle the numbers so that they like the taste.

As I said at the top, there are plenty of “sins” to be found, both of commission and omission, unless you’re either perfectly objective or simply apathetic about the subject.

I am neither of those things, but I cannot carp but just so much because, even as passionate as I am about science fiction and fantasy, I must admit that I find NPR’s list to be more balanced and fair than I had honestly expected.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m planning to start my own business shoveling sidewalks in Hell.


i Peyton Place, which stayed on the NY Times best-seller list for more than a year, sold more than thirty million copies in hardcover and paperback and spawned a sequel, a movie and along-running television series. You never heard of it? It was in all the papers.

iiCritic Gary K. Wolfe of Locus, teacher Farah Mendlesohn of Middlesex University, and historian John Clute, co-compiler of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, to be precise. As a panel of experts goes, it’s eminently acceptable, even if I’m not on it.

5 Comments »

  1. The list is obviously influenced by the demographics of those who listen to NPR. I’m not saying anything negative or positive about that demographic, just saying that’s how these things go. I thought some of the books were highly odd choices, including some books that I really like.

    As long as it encourages some people to check out some different scifi and fantasy books, it’s cool to me.

    Comment by dahayden - October 7, 2011 3:49 pm

  2. First of all, thanks for the blog. Very good stuff, possibly on the top 100 blogs. Interesting point about shelf life (although I’m not sure Madonna is the best example of works that have stood the test of time, since I viewed her songs as horrible from the get go). While I see your point, I can’t imagine the list without Martin, or “The Road,” for example. From my standpoint, the greatness of those books is immediately evident (yes, I watched the HBO series, but A Song of Fire and Ice would top my list with or without the series). You’re probably right about the Princess Bride, though the book was far superior and would be on my list. Interesting that Neil Gaiman grabbed three spots, and my least favorite, American Gods, was the highest rated, proving dahayden’s point that the NPR crowd screwed it up royally.

    Comment by mudslinger - October 7, 2011 9:18 pm

  3. Great post! I agree with you about some books being there based on their movies. I have to admit, however, I’m glad more people are reading LotR since the films came out. On the whole though, this is a great list for the casual reader. You could spend a lifetime reading it. At around 200+ books and growing, it’s a hefty amount of reading. It may be more than that, I think I grossly under-counted the Xanth series.

    Comment by darangrissom - October 8, 2011 3:36 am

  4. First – I commend your selection of anthologies. Healy&McComas, Conklin and Boucher (all three together) managed to collect between them a really good snapshot of the field from the 30s up till the year of their publication. I’d throw the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (Silverberg) in there to round things out (he delves a little deeper into history). For later works, you can’t beat Wollheim & Carr’s annual Worlds Best SF, the same from Judy Merrill and, of course, DV & A,DV. After that, there’s just too much to even try and compile. The best one can do is pick a theme and hope to gather a good collection of stories under it.
    Regarding your arbitrary date of 1974: for quite some time I’ve been using the generally accepted ‘standard’ of 25 years (one generation) for the same purpose. Anything a quarter century old or older is CLASSIC merely by dint of aging. Whether it is a good classic or not is still up to the individual.

    Comment by crotchetyoldfan - October 8, 2011 7:10 am

  5. A splendid post, Bud. And you know anthologies never get any love.

    But it’s a brilliant idea. For my money, I would have included THE HUGO WINNERS, Volume 1 and 2, edited by Isaac Asimov, and BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE, also edited by Asimov.

    Comment by John ONeill - October 8, 2011 11:38 am


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