My friends in the various book forums I frequent already know this, but I thought of sharing this for those who may need some inspiration on what to read for their next fantasy or science fiction fix.
Behold! The Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List, as voted by the general public! That link is a Google cache link, as the original doesn’t seem to work anymore. You can also explore an extended list, and the landing page as it appeared here.
It has not been updated since 2003 (2002 if you look at the extended list), and the ‘general public’ is about a few thousand users with internet access back in the day, and who bothered to take the time to type out their nominations on email, and send it out. So no, it’s not what you’d call a very broad sampling.
Still, I’m immensely indebted to this ancient list primarily because it introduced Guy Gavriel Kay, George RR Martin and Lois McMaster Bujold to me, and they since became some of my most favoured writers. Beyond that, as it also introduced singular works that I’ve not heard of at that time, such as Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller Jr (two of the best scifi books I have ever read).
When I first read it, Malaysia did not stock many of the books, what with the general supply coming from big bookstore chains that tend stick only the safe and proven sellers. Things gradually changed with the appearance of used books sales at first, with a selection of books that cannot be found in any of the normal bookstores. Fast forward to today, and you’d have trouble stemming the tide of titles flooding the market. Good thing, to a point, as now it becomes very important to separate the wheat from the chaff. But I digress.
Now there are those who detest popular lists, saying that it isn’t a balanced view of what’s really good out there. It’s easy to see their point of view when you see Most Popular Titles lists dominated by the ‘it’ author of the day (read: Dan Brown). I’m not suggesting that Dan Brown is crap, but merely saying that sometimes it obscures other interesting (some say more deserving) works.
I agree with that sentiment to a point. It all depends on what you want to get out of these lists. The way I see is there are always two ways to look at them:

  1. I want to know what is the best or the most popular out there.
  2. I want to know what others are reading.

They are two similar but incredibly distinct statements, with a very important difference.
The first statement suggests that people read these lists as a barometer of what’s the best or most popular at that time. I want to know what is the best or the most popular out there. It’s a snapshot. Some of these lists simply pronounce the best of all time, and if you’re not reading any in these lists, then you’re simply not reading the best.
Therein lies the rub. There are literally millions of works out there, each enjoyed by a wide cross section of the reading public. There are no lists in this world that can cover something so subjective as reading tastes in any definite way. So invariably any list will have their detractors.

  • “What kinds of a list is this, to have Philip K Dick sitting down at No 31? He’s a master!”
  • “Any list that has JK Rowling up in the Top Ten of anything cannot be taken seriously. What a joke!”
  • [Bad_Russion_Accent] “Bah! It’s stoopid. Sergei Lukyanenko eez the bezz now!” [/ Bad_Russion_Accent]

(Trust me, I’ve heard all kinds. Except the last one.)
The fact is a lot of people seem to liken these lists to something carved in stone. Some people seem convinced these lists have the power to influence others on what they should read, and seeing that no list is perfect, it perpetuates poor pieces of work unfairly. And there are two reactions to this sentiment:

  1. Those who take pride that the books they read do not appear on such lists.
  2. Those who look down on others who read authors who appear on these lists. These authors are ‘commercial’ in nature, or appealing only to the lowest common denominator. Thus their work is shallow, and the books are fit only to be used as doorstops or dead weights.

Both these reactions can be true, if somewhat of a generalization. But definitely not always.
When you see votes tipping the scales in thousands supporting all seven Harry Potter books, and a few hundred going for Lord of the Rings or Stars My Destination or Foundation or whatever, does that mean than the 7 of the absolute bestest books in the world are the Harry Potters? Really? I mean, even if you’re an extremely rabid a fan (and over 12 years old), surely you’d pause before trumpeting that claim in parties?
At the same time, are Harry Potter books to be derided because they appear on these lists? What, now commercial success means the book must be bad?
Therefore, as with any kind of generalization, there are always exceptions.
Personally, though, I always look at these lists with the second statement in mind. I want to know what others are reading. I know what I love, and I love what I know. But I’m curious – what else is out there? Surely there are works that can potentially excite me, prod me, enlighten me, entertain me? So I devour lists to look for something I might enjoy – to see what others enjoy.
You may find that it’s a treasure chest of inspiration, like I did with the Internet Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantast List.
p.s. For the record, I enjoyed the hell out of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code (geddit? ‘Hell out of’ Angels and Demons?) [hysterical laughter]