Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Twelve Greatest Living Science Fiction Writers

This is a risky list to make, since it is invariably influenced by personal preference, although I have tried as much as possible to avoid that. My criteria for selection on the list are (1) overall high level of writing; (2) several true masterworks; (3) importance to the sf field; and (4) longevity. Anybody who disagrees is free to send me the name of their own great living writer whom you feel that I overlooked.

The authors are listed in roughly chronological order, not in order of preference:

1. Frederik Pohl is probably the senior living writer of science fiction, a major figure during two different eras. In the 1950s he co-authored a series of major satirical sf novels with Cyril M. Kornbluth, titles such as The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law. After spending a decade as editor of Galaxy and Worlds of IF, he returned to full-time writing with such important works as “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” and the Heechee series, notably Gateway.

2. The publication of The Martian Chronicles alone make Ray Bradbury a worthy addition to this list, although other titles such as Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes and collections The Illustrated Man and The Golden Apples of the Sun contained wonderful pieces of science fiction which emphasized ambiance and characterization over science and technology.

3. Has there ever been a better master of sense of wonder and creativity than the wonderful Jack Vance? I cannot recall any sf more fun to read than the Demon Prince or Dying Earth series. But Vance can be serious as well in novels such as The Languages of Pao or The Grey Prince and in short fiction “The Last Castle” or “The Moon Moths.”

4. Whenever I am looking for a good, solid read which combines future speculation, outstanding storytelling, and an emphasis on historical development, I seek out either Poul Anderson or Robert Silverberg. Any of “Nightwings” or Dying Inside, The Book of Skulls or “Born With the Dead” could have been the capstones of entire careers, but they were merely a few of the many gems written by perhaps the finest single living sf writer.

5. Brian W. Aldiss is a chameleon, able to flit between core science fiction and purely literary fiction, often incorporating elements of both in the same stories. The Hothouse series was superb far-future speculation, and such works as the Helliconia series and Graybeard rank among the pantheon of all sf of the past half-century.

6. Ursula K Le Guin is probably the most renowned writer on this list, and deservedly so. Her seminal works such as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are reason enough for her great reputation, but other works such as her Earthsea novels and Hainish series (the latter including the above-mentioned novels) are also outstanding works by a truly great writer.

7. If there is one writer whose absence in recent decades saddens me, it is the wondrous Samuel R. Delany, whose fiction excites as much as they infuriate, since they often require multiple readings to fully understand everything which is taking place in them. He created the foundation for cyberpunk fifteen years before it became popular in the 1980s. Works such as Babel-17, Nova, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, “The Star-Pit,” “Empire Star,” and “We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move in a Rigorous Line,” were truly the mark of a genius (a word which I do not throw around loosely).

8. Gene Wolfe is in some ways the descendent of Jack Vance, since Vance’s Dying Earth series certainly influenced Wolfe’s New Sun / Long Sun / Short Sun series, although the latter are much more in-depth explorations of a far-future milieu rather than the former’s fast-paced romps. Like Delany, Wolfe’s fiction often demands multiple readings, whether in his detailed series mentioned above, or shorter works such as The Wizard Knight or short fiction such as “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” or “The Death of Doctor Island.”

9. Another great writer missing-in-action the past two decades is Michael Bishop who combines serious literary analysis with a strong sense of humor. Consider his series of novellas about a modern woman’s affair with a primitive human in racially-charged Georgia (Ancient of Days) or his sequel to Frankenstein in which the monster becomes a minor league first baseman (Brittle Innings).

10. One prime aspects of great science fiction is the ability to think creatively and write serious stories based on fantastic premises. John Varley possesses that talent, as well as being an outstanding storyteller. His seminal short fiction such as “The Persistence of Vision,” “Blue Champagne” and “The Pusher” continue to astound, and his novels such as Titan and Steel Beach are both entertaining and rich with thought-provoking ideas.

11. One of science fiction’s major aspects is creating and exploring distant worlds and alien races, the specialty of C.J. Cherryh who is also a master storyteller in works such as Downbelow Station, The Faded Sun and the Chanur and Foreignor series. Any reader with an interest in anthropology should find Cherry’s aliens truly wondrous reading.

12. A relative child of less than 60 years old compared to the other writers on this list, Kim Stanley Robinson combines the best elements of literary merits, detailed future history, thought-provoking ideas and storytelling. Novels such as The Wild Shore, the Mars series and The Years of Salt and Rice would each be a highlight in another author’s career. If any writer can equal Silverberg in my personal pantheon, it is Robinson.


  • Hard to believe you could leave Orson Scott Card off the list. Ender's Game is on both almost everyone's top five for both when it was just a short story and when he expanded it to a novel.... Okay list, otherwise.

    By Blogger nandor, At 8:36 PM  

  • The best science fiction writer actively working today is Robert J. Sawyer. He needs to be included on the list. I will second Orson Scott Card, and add an honorable mention for Alstair Reynolds.

    By Blogger Steve, At 6:04 AM  

  • A very interesting list. I am going to have to think about this one for awhile before I throw in my 2 cents.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 1:16 PM  

  • No Orson Scott Card? Greg Bear? Robert J Sawyer? Neal Stephenson? William Gibson? I do like your list, it just needs expanding.

    By Blogger jjwriter, At 11:18 AM  

  • Very fun list, filled with authors that I've read and enjoyed and an equal number that I have yet to spend time with...but they are on my list.

    By Blogger Carl V., At 3:58 PM  

  • Interesting to scrutinize the criteria used here.

    Are these the "greatest" because they are best selling and widely read? (It is a list I could readily agree with as being 10 of the Most Significant writers.)

    Or are these the "Greatest" because of their innovative contributions to futurology, writing style, story structure, Literary Merit, or some other criterion?

    What happened to Barry Malzberg? I suppose you'd class Katherine Kurtz as a Fantasy writer, but I might be able to dispute that (though nobody else would).

    And how do we know some of the new, younger writers who are still alive aren't actually "Greatest" enough to be on this List and bump off one of the older ones?

    I'm just not sure "10 Greatest" is the way to parse the field. The list looks more to me like a "My 10 Favorite" than "10 Greatest." Which is not to take away from the achievements of these 10.

    Also if you read those books and talk to those writers, they'll all point to several agents and editors as being the key ingredients in their success, in polishing novels, in inserting those novels into the right publishing slot, etc. I suspect few of them would, themselves, claim to be "Great" never mind "Greatest."

    This is a fabulously interesting exercise though. Maybe comments will bring together an actual 10 Greatest?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

    By Blogger Jacqueline Lichtenberg, At 8:06 AM  

  • Have you read the genre in the past 20 years?

    Where's Card? Where's Bujold? Where's Asimov? Okay, I'll give you the last one, this is a list of living writers.

    And Adams is dead too, but still. There are sci-fi authors born after 1960. You might consider reading them.

    By Blogger Liana Brooks, At 8:45 AM  

  • Liana: If you read the criteria, longevity is one of the requirements to be on the list. If you have read any of my blog previously, you will realize that I mostly review current books and recent authors, so your sarcastic comment about my reading habits is groundless.

    Jacqueline: the criteria listed has nothing to do with popularity, but writers who have had the greatest impact on sf and achieved the highest overall quality during their career. I agree that Barry Malzberg is an outstanding writer, but many others outstanding writers were left off the list for sake of brevity. (And I believe Katherine Kurtz is a fantasist).

    Steve and nandor: Sawyer and Card are both excellent writers but, like Malzberg, too many names to fit on too short a list. As for Alastair Reynolds, longevity is against him, although eventually he (and Stephen Baxter) will be prime candidates for such a ranking.

    jjwriter: perhaps the list should be expanded sometime, but not right now. Still, I'll think about it.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 1:46 PM  

  • Add to the list Mr Michael Moorcock, if you will.

    By Blogger Hal W. Hall, At 12:30 PM  

  • John Barnes, Vernor Vinge, Rudy Rucker, Paul Di Filippo

    By Blogger Greg Deocampo, At 9:24 AM  

  • Making a list like this is Top-Trump Train Spotting. Still, if I had a life I guess I'd be doing something else, so here's my card in the game

    Harry Bloomin' Harrison

    Death World, Bill the Galactic Hero, new Stainless Steel Rat book this year, Technicolor Time Machine.Editor of innumerable collections. Range, depth and sales

    49 novels written,31 still in print.

    and an all round gent. I reckon he needs a place with the greats

    By Blogger Garkbit the Irascible, At 9:21 AM  

  • Harlan Ellison ffs.

    By Blogger Henrik, At 2:29 AM  

  • Harlan Ellison ffs!

    By Blogger Henrik, At 2:30 AM  

  • Kinda amazed I'm the first to suggest Iain M Banks. He blows me away every time- so many of his are classics.

    By Blogger Kevin Reynolds, At 5:21 AM  

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