12 August 2011

NPR's top 100 science fiction books

NPR recently organized a poll of the top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. The top items on the list are no real surprise (Lord of the Rings, Hitchhiker, Ender's Game, Dune), but some of the later items really surprised me. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, for example, rates as science fiction by many scales, but Atwood is not typically considered a science fiction author. Other entries fall square into the "popular fiction" category, such as The Dark Tower and The Stand. Very few of the top entries are recent novels (with the notable exception of The Song of Ice and Fire). Anyways, the blogosphere has already ranted and raved about the list. I thought it may be more interesting to write about the novels on the list that I particularly enjoyed, but haven't seen much discussed elsewhere.

First off, The Vorkosigan Saga. Although it rated only #59 on the list of 100 novels, this series ranks at or near the top of my own personal list of science fiction novels -- or novels in general, for that matter. The characters are brilliantly written and deep, the plots are intricate, and, most importantly, you grow to love the characters and care about what happens to them. The series follows a highly disabled, but brilliant, aristocrat from a military society as he grows to overcome his disabilities and make a name for himself.

Although the series doesn't sound terribly exciting, the sheer force of the protagonist's personality drips from every page. The situations in which he finds himself border on the ridiculous, but this only serves to heighten the excitement. The series is made even stronger by the fact that Bujold frequently reinvents where the series is going. Memory, for example, abruptly takes a military science fiction story and redirects it towards a mystery novel. A Civil Campaign is a regency romance, while Mirror Dance is a tragedy. The mixture of genres may sound confusing, but it allows the characters room to grow and makes them much more interesting. In particular, the three novel sequence, Memory, Komarr, and A Civil Campaign rate among the top three novels I have ever read.

Next, at number 77 on NPR's list, is Kushiel's Legacy. Before I attempt to describe the novel, I'd like to mention the one-liner on NPR's website: Sold into indentured servitude at the exotic Night Court as a child, Phedre faces a difficult choice between honor and duty as she deals with a world of glittering luxury, conspiracy, sacrifice, and betrayal.

One of the comments on the list of top 100 notes that this novel sounds like a Harlequin Romance novel, not a fantasy story. There's a reason for that -- Kushiel's Legacy is a romance story at its core, and is heavily inspired by the romance genre. However, Kushiel's Legacy -- particularly the first three novels in the series -- is not just a romance novel. The story follows Phedre from a young age, when she is sold into servitude and discovers that she has a unique gift for espionage.

The strength of Kushiel's Dart lies in its incredible prose. The world of Terre d'Ange comes alive through the narrator's incredible voice. This is the kind of novel that gets under your skin and makes you feel that you're reading an autobiography. Another strong point is the sheer immensity of the plot. Kushiel's dart starts out with the character being sold into servitude, being trained as a spy, uncovering a plot against the crown, and being betrayed, finally being sold into slavery. In most novels, that's where the first book would stop and the next begins -- not so in Kushiel's Legacy. The story continues for another two thirds of the book.

Kushiel's Dart, however, is not for everyone. The series plays true to its roots as a romance novel, with detailed and elaborate sex scenes. The sex scenes are rarely gratuitous, however, and frequently are quite important to the plot. In some of the later novels, however, they do become disturbing.

There are lots of great books on this list, but these two series I thought were thoroughly excellent books. Kushiel's Dart was a particular surprise to me. I initially picked up the novel on sale via Amazon, and was astonished at the narrative and plotline. I was more amazed when I found myself dying to find out what happened in the remaining five books in the series. The Vorkosigan Saga is more my typical reading material, but I had a similar experience where I had purchased it on a whim and found myself drawn so strongly to the series that I lost sleep reading it.

One thing that I find these series have in common is that neither is for everyone. I know that my wife, for example, would absolutely love A Civil Campaign -- if she could get the context from the previous 9 Vorkosigan novels. However, I wouldn't dream of recommending Kushiel's Dart. Both of these are meticulously plotted series with a lot to offer, but you have to be willing to be drawn into the series.

In short, it's worth while not just to read the heavy hitters on NPR's list, but also the series towards the bottom. I think the next book I read will come from the bottom as well.