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“’The world is a vast array of emblems,’ he said, ’exactly as the old hermetic philosophers maintained. I state it for a fact.’”
– The Sunlight Dialogs,
About This List
The number of “100 Best” lists, even just within the speculative-fiction realm, is become legion. With a deal of reluctance and trepidation, I have joined the army of list-makers, with the results presented below—except that even I cannot bring myself to the arrogance of “100 Best Works” and so have titled the list “100 Great Works”, which is rather more descriptive. There can be considerable heat over whether this, or any like list, comprises all of “the best”, but I do not think anyone can plausibly argue with any of these as “great”. Even so, this list requires that you appreciate a number of important caveats, set forth farther below.
Where does this list come from? It derives from the main science-fiction & fantasy authors/books list that is the “sun”, the centrum, of this site. I simply extracted all the three-star to five-star authors and listed their books, then did some cherry-picking by, essentially, mystic laying on of hands, which is to say, eyeballing. If that seems a somewhat erratic and subjective process, so it was. But I repeat that I do not think that anyone can plausibly argue against any of these works as “great”. I may have missed something else great, but I deny feeding you any duds. But of course, as some or t’other once said, differences of opinion are why they race horses.
(OK, OK, I looked it up: it was Mark Twain. His exact words were:“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”)
The first and most obvious caveat is that even after over two-thirds of a century of intensely following the field, I can by no means claim to have sampled all the potentially worthy books, or even authors; that will be especially true of more recent books and authors, inasmuch as the numbers have multiplied wildly in recent years: a reader wanting to keep fully abreast of the field would need to read, if I recall aright, roughly three books a day every day of the year just to keep up with the publishers. Even allowing for reissues and some commonsense filtering of overt drek, it’s still clearly an impossible task: one can only pick at the possibilities, based on often-unreliable reports from elsewhere. So this list will, like all the lists on this site (or any similar site) surely omit some—possibly many—authors and books of merit, but—in this case—especially from recent years.
(In fact, after thinking about it, I decided to make this list of “100 Great” comprise only 95 items—“reserving” five slots for newer works as I discover them, so I am not obliged (not right away, anyhow) to bump things off this list to make room for newly found masterworks. [I have since added two more.]
The second point, which may or may not qualify as a caveat but which you should at least be aware of, is that this list pays no mind whatever to “historical significance”; books and authors appear on it based solely on one reader’s estimation (as explained at length elsewhere on this site) of their literary worth—I have not included any books simply because they or their authors were (or are) “famous”, or supposedly marked some development in the field. No book is “must-read” if it is in fact not a particularly good read (unless you are a literary historian, and thus deserving of our pity).
The third and the really big point: by some standards, I have cheated in the counting. By that, I mean that this is a list of “100 Great Works”, which is not the same as a list of “100 Great Books”: an omnibus volume of, say, four related novels will count here as one “work”. Worse, in some cases I have done what no publisher ever actually did (but that one or another could have and, in my opinion, should have), by counting in this list the books of a several-book set as one “volume” (that is, one “work”). Worst (to some), in a few cases I have done what no publisher could ever physically do in the way of combining, one egregious example being my counting of James Branch Cabell’s wildly diverse 18-volume Biography of Dom Manuel as one “work” (which its author always insisted that it is). That first sort of cheating needs little comment: a work that is essentially a unity but that some publisher spread out over several physical volumes can rightly be counted one work in any fair listing. The second sort, however, calls for some expanded explanation and justification.
The driving motive, of course, was to get as much as possible into a list of a fixed length. The question was whether a given set of books can reasonably be considered to be, no matter their count, a creative whole. The most straightforward cases, one novel cut into multiple volumes for mechanical or financial reasons, are, as I said above, no difficulty; indeed, most of them (but, regrettably, not all) have already been “omnibused”. Only a little less unarguable are the components of an ensemble; for example, Brian Stableford’s “Dies Irae” triptych is essentially one single work, almost as much so as Lord of the Rings; another example is John Crowley’s “Aegypt” quartet. Almost as integral are Lewis Carroll’s two “Alice” books, which, though telling different and arguably independent tales, seem—at least to me—an integral creation. Further away from manifest unity are books with some things in common, but which seem at first to be separate tales: Jonathan Carroll’s “Rondua” books, or R. A. Lafferty’s “Argo Mythos”. Those are simply judgement calls: the list-maker must decide if they are an artistic unity, and the chief criterion, I would say, is the extent to which a reading of one of the set will alter or augment one’s understanding and appreciation of the others of the set; the extent to which cross-influences exist measures the extent to which the tales are an artistic unity. That, I repeat, is a judgement call, and the list below reflects my judgements.
(The cases that I found particularly hard calls were these: “The Argo Mythos”—The Devil is Dead is manifestly one work, as is Coscuin, but whether those plus Dotty make one larger “work” took me a while to decide; also “Aspects of Power”; “Discworld”; and “Rondua”.)
First, the list is simply alphabetical; just making such a list is a trial—to try to exactly rank its individual members is beyond reason, and lists of this sort that begin with some ranked #1 all-time greatest book strike me as ill-considered, to put it as gently as I can.
Second, works that comprise multiple individual volumes, as discussed above, have breakdowns showing the separate titles making up the unitary work. When those individual titles really have already been collected into a single physical omnibus volume, I have used the title of that omnibus; where the individual volumes remain distinct, I have given the nominally unified work a title that is shown underlined. For those works—the ones “omnibused” only in my mind—I have used a => sign to mark out one good individual member of the agglomerated set; that is for those who don’t agree with the concept of agglomerated voumes being considered “one work”, so we can keep to 100 “books”—but that outlook arbitrarily cuts out a very great deal of wonderful tales.
Third, each link below takes you to a page at AbeBooks (if you don’t know who they are, click the link) from which you can buy a copy of that work, used or—if it is still available—new.
(In a few cases of now-rare titles—notably some Lafferty works—a search may not turn up any copies.)
And, as always on this site, a trailing * asterisk signifies a story collection, while a leading # signifies a book yet unread here but accepted on reputation and my other experiences of the author (there are few such here).
Before you dash off an outraged email asking how I could have omitted [fill in the blank with your personal favorites], ask yourself what work or works on this list are, in your opinion, clearly inferior to whatever omission is disturbing you—not “less good than”, but clearly inferior. (Also please first check the two pages of “candidate” works linked above to be sure your darling is not just something I simply haven’t got to yet.) Reasonable people can disagree on the relative values of particular works of merit; it is only when one perceives this to be clearly and substantially superior to that that critical comment is justified.
Finally, I remind you again that making lists like this is a tomfool thing to do, and in some ways I’m sorry I tried it; this whole site is about authors and books that are eminently worth reading, and to extract an arbitrarily sized subset hasn’t much point. Please, then, treat this list as just an entertainment, and rely on the complete lists here for reading suggestions.
The Argo Mythos
by R. A. Lafferty
(a complex work with several subsets—but even so, I still think, "one work")
The Argo Mythos cycle also includes a few scattered short stories, not listed below.
Note that many of Lafferty’s books are very hard to find, few copies of them having been printed.
The Biography of Manuel
by James Branch Cabell
(the link is to sets of the definitive “Storisende” edition)
Because the full set is quite expensive (I got mine as a bargain for only $600 years ago),
I have provided links for each of the component volumes.
The Briah Cycle by Gene Wolfe (a work with three major subdivisions)
Book of the New SunakaSeverian of the Guild (The links above are to the two 4-book omnibuses; both are now scarce and expensive, so I also link below to the two 2-book omnibuses that the big ones comprise.)
The Dying Earth *
by Jack Vance » The omnibus of this name contains three novels of lesser merit than the original like-named story collection.
» Note that this, like any Vance work not from the Vance Integral Edition set (or using their text), must be considered potentially corrupt, as editors often mangled Vance's work to greater or lesser degrees.
» The alternative titles shown in [brackets] are Vance’s preferred versions.
by Ernest Bramah
» It is difficult in a few cases to sort “novel” from “stories”, in that there is a framing background story enabling many otherwise-unconnected tales.
» The book titled variously The Moon of Much Gladness as told by Kai Lung and The Return of Kai Lung is not a true Kai Lung work: that name was added in as a marketing ploy.
by J. R. R. Tolkien (The main divide over the many editions is the illustrations: some are by Tolkien himself, others use Nasmith’s. The latter is fuller and richer, but not a few prefer the author’s own. Here are several choices for you:)
The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame (Even discarding any edition that is at all abridged, one is still faced with a tsunami of editions that differ significantly only in their illustrator. The original was E. H. Shepard, and many still think him the best; but there are Arthur Rackham, Michael Hague, Nancy Barnhart, Charles Van Sandwyk, and virtually countless others. Also, since there is in general very little difference in price between softcover and hardcover editions, the latter would be the clear choice. There are still numerous candidates even after all that filtering, but after hours of search, I opted for the “preferred edition” linked above.
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