Over at his blog, Enter the Octopus, Matt Staggs asks an interesting question:

I know that there’s been a good many attempts to quantify a “canon” of fantastic literature, but why should we let that stop us now? When I say “quality” fantasy literature, what comes to mind, and why? Let’s say you give me five good examples. After a while, I’ll wade in and give you mine.

I thought it would be fun to ask my readers the same thing.

What are the five most essential Science Fiction and Fantasy novels?

  • TK42ONE August 15, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Five? That’s hard. There’s Sci-Fi, then there’s Fantasy. There’s new, then there’s old. So, let me scratch my head for a second and say…

    – The Earth Lords by Gordon R. Dickson
    – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
    – Vector Prime by R. A. Salvatore
    – Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

    And I’m not sure what to put as the last one. Maybe The Crystal Shard by Salvatore, maybe The Blade Itself by Abercrombie, maybe something else I’ve read. But these would have to be my essentials.

  • gav (nextread) August 15, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    I’m taking essential to be books that have stayed with me long after reading them:

    Stone by Adam Roberts. Just an amazing idea and execution.

    The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton. It’s a dense book that never felt complicated or confusing.

    The High House by James Stoddard. Very underrated. An amazing idea a world within the rooms of a house.

    World’s End by Mark Chadbourn which started a series that has constantly entertained, educated and enlightened me for 9 years.

    Sorcery by Terry Pratchett for being my most reread book ever. A bit nostalgic maybe but none the less essential.

  • Frame Pharoh August 15, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    While I enjoyed THE NAME OF THE WIND, I think there were a bit too many plot holes in there for it to be an “essential,” but that’s another discussion. Here’s my top five (only stand alones or book ones):

    5) ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, by Robin Hobb
    4) THE LAST UNICORN, by Peter Beagle
    3) THE GUNSLINGER, by Stephen King
    2) GARDENS OF THE MOON, by Steven Erickson
    1) A GAME OF THRONES, by George R.R. Martin

    It’s harder than I thought. I think it’s impossible to make a “five” list, and that A GAME OF THRONES should be on everybody’s. ;)

  • Dark Wolf August 15, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Well indeed it is hard to choose:

    “The Lord of the Rings” – J.R.R. Tolkien
    “The Left Hand of Darkness” – Ursula K. LeGuin
    “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” – Philip K. Dick
    “The Talisman” – Stephen King & Peter Straub
    “Wheel of Time” – Robert Jordan

  • Kevin August 16, 2008 at 6:09 am

    I would agree with most everyone here, this is not easy with so many great books out there, new and old.

    In no particular order:
    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
    Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson
    Hyperion by Dan Simmons
    A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
    Conan by Robert E Howard

  • William August 16, 2008 at 6:49 am

    Ooh, just five? To me, ‘essential’ means foundational/influential/important. Thus, my list leans heavily on the classics:

    The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
    A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
    Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
    The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
    Dune – Frank Herbert

    But here are two that it really hurts me to leave off:
    Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
    A Game of Thrones – G. R. R. Martin

  • Mark August 16, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Difficult to condense into five, but:

    The Scar—China Miéville (I prefer this to Perdido Street Station…)
    Light—M John Harrison
    The Shadow of the Torturer—Gene Wolfe
    Lord of the Rings—J R R Tolkien
    Viriconium—M John Harrison (yes, he gets two on the list!)

  • […] Five most essential fantasy/SF novels […]

  • frumiousb August 16, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    That’s a hard one. (I surfed over from Enter the Octopus, by the way.)

    I’d say:

    Valis, Philip K. Dick (and the subsequent series)
    Lord of the Rings, Tolkien (I hate to waste the list space, but you can’t leave it out.)
    Last Call, Tim Powers (more I think that it should be essential, I’ll admit)
    Way Station, Clifford D. Simak
    The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson

    I’m conscious of the fact that I’m leaving off Le Guin and some other biggies. Stephenson is notably missing.

  • acrisalves August 17, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Only five…
    – House of Leaves – Danielewsky, Mark Z.
    – A Game of Thrones – Martin, George R R
    – Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World – Murakami, Haruki
    – The New Universal History of Infamy – Hughes, Rhys
    – 1984 – Orwell, George

  • Tom Lloyd August 18, 2008 at 2:28 am

    Ah man, I really should be working and not thinking about this! ;0) Five essential books for me (which is all anyone can put I think) are:

    Excession – Iain M Banks, the book that encapsulated everything I like about Banks and SF
    The Hobbit – J R R Tolkien, the book that defined much of my tastes and career
    Deadhouse Gates – Steven Erikson, the book that really kicked off the series and showed how complex, absorbing and emotionally involving it was possible to make a fantasy novel
    Dune – Frank Herbert, just a brilliant story and a defining SF novel
    Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock, not the greatest fan of his writing style, but the character of Elric fascinated me and has had quite an effect I reckon.

  • Aura August 18, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick
    2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
    3. Dune by Frank Herbert
    4. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
    5. Foundation by Isaac Asimov

    I guess when I think “classic,” I think mostly of science fiction. If I could add one more, I would add The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.

  • Brad August 19, 2008 at 5:28 am

    1. Dune – Frank Herbert
    2. Enders Game – Orson Scott Card
    3. Stephen Baxter – Manifold Time
    4. R Scott Bakker – The Darkness That Comes Before
    5. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

  • aidan August 19, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Man, just reading these lists shows me how much reading I have to do before I could even consdier myself to be well read. Thanks for all the input, guys.

    As for my list:

    The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
    The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
    A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
    The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
    American Gods by Neil Gaiman

    That being said, if you asked me again tomorrow I’m sure it would be different!

  • Dave August 24, 2008 at 12:15 am

    Well, to everyone who put Tolkien, Martin, and Herbert, I second those.

    And now, five others (sorry for the long post, got a bit carried away with the “whys”):

    The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant- Stephen Donaldson. Stephen Donaldson deserves to be far more popular than he is. Well, maybe popular isn’t the right word, since his Covenant books sell pretty well. Rather, Stephen Donaldson deserves to be talked about far more than he is. The Covenant books possess incredible depth, and they ought to be pondered, dissected, and discussed, but this doesn’t seem to really be happening anywhere (with the exception of Kevin’s Watch I suppose), which is a shame, because Donaldson has a lot of interesting things to say about ethics, guilt, personal responsibility, and self agency. And even though he doesn’t make it easy on the reader, the books are optimistic at heart, but the optimism seems genuine rather than cloying because it’s pragmatic and hard won.

    The Prince of Nothing- Scott Bakker. Another though provoking epic fantasy. Interesting plot, complex characters, neat battle scenes and some of the most interesting secondary world metaphysics that I’ve come across. But what really makes these novels stick and what kept me thinking about them long after I’ve finished them is the way Bakker delves into the nature of belief. The books examine in rather frightening detail the shaky assumptions that underlie our world views and how we are shaped by cultural, religious, and historical forces that we are largely unaware of.

    City of Saints and Madmen- Jeff Vandermeer. It was a tough decision between this and Shriek: An Afterword, and while at times I think that Shriek might be the stronger work, City is more varied and I think must be read first in order to fully appreciate Shriek. Ambergris (the titular city) feels truly alien. It is like no place on earth, but even so as you read the book, it really seems to be alive and I think it may actually be the best developed character in the novel and the novel’s real protagonist. Perhaps this is because the book is actually a mosaic novel and the city is the only “character” present in every story. When I thought of the novel as I was writing this, the phrase that immediately came to my mind was “wonderful nightmare,” a phrase originally used by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises to describe the Festival of San Fermin and one which I think aptly describes City as well. It is a novel (and a city) that is at turns hilarious and horrific, and occasionally both at the same time. It is also a novel that contains some wonderful satire of institutions, be they governmental, religious, corporate, or academic. At its core though, there is something very unnerving and unsettling about Ambergris, a feeling that all is not quite right and maybe even terribly wrong, but while City of Saints and Madmen is never comfortable, it is always excellent.

    Watchmen- Alan Moore. I’ve decided that SF comics count, because…because I said so. So there. Anyway while I am relatively new to comics, Watchmen is hands down the best superhero comic I’ve read, and easily one of the best if not the best comic I’ve read period. It is a work that uses its medium to the greatest advantage, in such a way that Watchmen could not be anything other than a graphic novel; its form is inseparable from its contents. It is a story about superheroes (although with one exception, none have superpowers), but its most exciting action (actually most of its action) is psychological. Watchmen spends a lot of time asking just what it could be that would drive people to dress up in tights and fight crime (which, let’s face it, is an absolutely crazy idea to begin with). The answers it arrives at are disturbing to say the least and certainly undermine any faith that one might be tempted to place in heroic ideals and messianic figures. Most of the “heroes” in Watchmen are not driven what are, I think, the most common motives of superheroes, either an idealistic desire to do good, or a desire for revenge, to get back at the criminal world. The characters are more ideologues than idealists and tend to represent various social extremes, which often border on neuroses (which makes sense, considering the sort of drastic action they’re taking by becoming costumed heroes in the first place). Or maybe they are idealists, but their idealism come across either as hopelessly naive, arrogant, or they espouse ideals that are extreme beyond all reason. They may be narcissists, egomaniacs, fascists, misogynists, thrill seekers, or publicity hounds, but they are certainly not normal. And of course, Watchmen is also a very political comic filled with Cold War anxieties and containing throughout a sense of foreboding and dread at the (very real at the time) threat of nuclear annihilation.

    A Wizard of Earthsea- Ursula K. Le Guin. This one’s short, because I’m getting tired. Ostensibly, this is a YA novel, but it can and should be enjoyed by adults as well. It is a coming of age story and story of unintended consequences and although Le Guin tells the reader the ending on the first page, what matters is all the stuff that happens in between that first page and the ending that we already know. It is interesting to watch Ged as he morphs from an arrogant, boastful, and headstrong boy into a much wiser and circumspect man. And on top of that, Le Guin is a fine writer, who picks her details carefully, so that she paints a vibrant, vast world in a compact space, without it ever feeling like she’s leaving anything out.

    #6 The Orphan’s Tales- Cathrynne Valente. I thought of this one too late and since this said five books, I won’t expound at length on this one other than to say that it is just as good as the other books on this list (perhaps even better than some). It is a story cycle akin to Arabian Nights and it is absolutely sublime. Buy both books now and thank me later.