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The greatest sf authors?

By / August 14, 2017 / no comments

There’s a post I’ve just come across (it seems to be a year old, but you know how these things disappear and resurface on the web) that claims to list “The Greatest Sci-Fi Authors of All Time“.

It’s an interesting, if largely predictable list: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Jules Verne, Tanith Lee, Robert Heinlein, Iain Banks, Octavia E. Butler, Alfred Bester, Dan Simmons, Peter Watts, Gene Wolfe.

I’m not going to argue with that. Well, I could: Orwell makes the list for just one novel, Lee was probably better at fantasy than sf, Simmons drifted more into horror, and Iain Banks wrote mainstream fiction it was Iain M. Banks who wrote sf (just being pedantic there). But really, it’s a halfway decent list, if you accept that the high water mark of sf was sometime between the 1940s and 1960s (the era of Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Clarke, Bradbury, Orwell, Heinlein, Bester – half the list). But there are at least as many names as good if not better missing from this list.

So here we go, here’s a list of the greatest sf writers who didn’t make the list but should have.

H.G. Wells

The Time Machine (Norton Critical Editions)Oh come on, how can you include Verne but miss Wells? He was probably the single most influential writer in the entire history of sf. He virtually created the whole sub-genre of time travel stories with The Time Machine; then he created the alien invasion story with The War of the Worlds; and that’s not to mention The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The Sleeper Wakes, The First Men in the Moon, A Modern Utopia, The War in the Air, and so on and so on, right up to writing the script for one of the great early science fiction films, Things To Come, which was based on his own novel, The Shape of Things to Come. Honestly, the science fiction we know and love today simply wouldn’t exist without Wells.

Mary Shelley

FrankensteinIf Wells gave us the shape of modern science fiction, there are some would argue that it was Mary Shelley who created the genre. Of course, it’s not really as simple as that, but it is hard to deny that Frankenstein is one of the founding texts of science fiction. There aren’t that many words from science fiction that have entered the language, but “Frankenstein” is certainly one of them. It’s a book that continues to haunt our imaginations to this day, even those who’ve never actually read it. And it wasn’t her only contribution to science fiction, she later went on to write The Last Man, which helped to establish the strand of catastrophe story that we still see today.

Samuel R. Delany

DhalgrenIt’s great to see Octavia Butler on the list, but no Delany? He wasn’t the first black sf writer, but he was the first widely popular and successful black sf writer and as such paved the way for many who followed, including Butler. Throughout the sixties he wrote a series of increasingly complex, myth-infused novels including Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection (both of which won the Nebula Award) and Novaculminating in his masterpiece, Dhalgren, a rich, challenging novel of a post-disaster American city where new social orders and patterns are being forged. Along with further novels, such as Trouble on Triton and Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, he has written a series of non-fiction books such as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and The American Shore, that have made an incomparable contribution to the study of science fiction.

Joanna Russ

The Female Man (Bluestreak)If any author deserves to be up there alongside Ursula K. Le Guin in that original list, it is Joanna Russ. She was controversial, she was difficult, and although she was a champion of feminist science fiction her criticism was likely to attack other women writers more harshly than anyone. And yet she wrote one inescapable masterpiece, The Female Man, which stands alongside Dhalgren and Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as one of the essential science fiction novels of the 1970s. Her other novels include And Chaos DiedWe Who Are About to … and The Two of Them. Alongside the fiction, her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing is one of the founding texts of feminist criticism.

J.G. Ballard

The Atrocity Exhibition (Flamingo Modern Classics)One of the most blatant omissions from that greatest authors is any representative of the new wave. Yet, over a period of ten years from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, the new wave was the most important movement in science fiction, and its influence lasts right up to the present day. In America, the new wave brought sex and politics and iconoclasm into science fiction, up to then a rather narrow, uptight, hidebound literature. In Britain, it brought psychology, alienation, literary experimentation, and the various techniques of literary modernism. And no-one was more daring and more influential in that score than J.G. Ballard. From his distortions of the traditional catastrophe story in novels like The Crystal World to the psychological distortions of the “condensed novels” that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, to the challenging psychosexual explorations of modern urban life in Crash, High-Rise and The Concrete Island, Ballard probably did more to change the nature of science fiction than any other writer in the last half century or so.

James Tiptree, Jr.

Her Smoke Rose Up ForeverThere can’t be many sf writers who made such a big splash so quickly. Her first stories appeared in 1968, and she committed suicide less than 20 years later, yet in that brief career she won two Hugo Awards (for “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”), three Nebula Awards (for “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” and “The Screwfly Solution”, written under her other pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon), plus a bunch of other awards. And if there had been any justice, she would have won plenty more, it remains inconceivable, for instance, that “The Women Men Don’t See” or “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” or “A Momentary Taste of Being” or any of a dozen other stories won nothing. She was primarily a short story writer; the two novels published late in her career, Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air, really didn’t match up to the best of her short fiction. But those stories, most of them collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, had a profound effect on the science fiction of her day.

Christopher Priest

The IslandersOne of the lasting effects of the new wave, particularly that version of the new wave which emerged in Britain, was a renewed interest in literary quality. One of the writers who epitomize the stylistic richness that followed the new wave is Christopher Priest. Although his work consistently exploits some of the boldest of science fictional ideas – the extraordinary hyperboloid world in Inverted World, invisibility in The Glamour, virtual reality in The Extremes, alternate history in The Separation, time travel in The Gradual – he wraps the ideas up in a careful, measured prose that makes everything seem strangely new. At his best, for instance in some of the Dream Archipelago novels such as The Affirmation or The Islanders, he can consistently pull the rug out from under the reader until we lose all sense of what is or even can be real.

C.J. Cherryh

CyteenIn the late 70s, the phenomenal success of Star Wars and its sequels gave birth to a new burst of romantic, colourful, space-operatic adventure stories. But there were still writers working to produce detailed and realistic accounts of what a future in space might entail. Prominent among these were the Alliance-Union stories of C.J. Cherryh, who uses her studies in archaeology, history and language to develop an intensely realistic account of the political and economic character of life among the stars. As a writer she is prolific, to date she has published well over 60 novels and collections, but without compromising the solidity of the world she is creating. The quality of her work is recognised in the Hugo Awards she has won for both Downbelow Station and Cyteen.

William Gibson

NeuromancerIf you want another name whose absence from the original list is inexplicable, it has to be William Gibson. No other recent science fiction writer has had such a profound influence on the genre. His first novel, Neuromancer, which won a raft of awards including the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick, and its two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, pretty well defined cyberpunk. Although it was the glitzy cybertech intensity of the novels that attracted most attention at the time, what has really lasted about the books was the portrait of an underclass struggling to survive in a vividly realised near-future urban sprawl. And it is that urban future that features so dramatically in his later novels, such as the Bridge trilogy beginning with Virtual Light and the Hubertus Bigend trilogy beginning with Pattern Recognition.

Pat Cadigan

Synners (SF Masterworks)And when you think of Gibson and cyberpunk, the other name that springs automatically to mind is Pat Cadigan. In a way, Cadigan humanised cyberpunk by interconnecting technology and the human mind, so that the mind itself is explorable the way that Gibson’s hacker’s explore the world inside the computer. The interface between mind and machine is there from Cadigan’s first novel, Mindplayers, but it reached its apotheosis with her next two novels, Synners and Fools, which together made Cadigan the first writer to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award twice. Her more recent novels, Tea from an Empty Cup and Dervish is Digital, continue this theme by setting a crime story in a future where Artificial Reality has become preferable to dreary, overcrowded reality.

Greg Egan

DichronautsBoth of these lists have been predominantly Anglo-American, but we should never forget that science fiction is an international literature. Even if the English language dominates, you’ll find science fiction coming from nearly every continent, nearly every country. Even if we restrict our perspective to sf that originates in English, we have so far missed out on a thriving sf literature from Australia. And of all the Australian sf writers, the one who has made perhaps the greatest impact is Greg Egan. He writes hard sf with a technological rigor that can be both invigorating and unsettling. Yet within the limits of hard sf, his work has an extraordinary variety, often exploring social and cultural issues alongside the science, as in Permutation City, Distress, Diaspora, Schild’s Ladder, Zendegi and, most recently, Dichronauts.

And that’s it!

Well, no, obviously it isn’t. Combine my list and the original one and you still only have a partial list of the sf greats. Any fan is likely to come up with a completely different list. And I can think of lots of names that I’ve missed out that probably belong here: Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Connie Willis, Brian Aldiss, and on and on. Who would you add to the list?

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Paul

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