Science fiction writers are a dime a dozen, but certain members of their guild have the power to shape our dreams, and spin us into unimagined worlds of wonder and intrigue. Trying to whittle down a list of thousands of authors to the absolute best was a damned hard task. I had to set one hard rule â€” the authors had to admit they were writing science fiction. Sorry Atwood and Vonnegut, you’re out. There were so many amazing authors that didn’t make the final cut â€” Pohl, Farmer, Gibson. But, in the end, these 16 are the true greats of the field.
16. Ian M. Banks
Banks’ work is divided into two areas â€” science fiction and literature. The former have his name with middle initial, the latter without. When I picked up The Wasp Factory, I didn’t realize this, and spent a few days with a rather perplexed look on my face. Banks’ genre work tends to show off his strong anarchosocialist ideals â€” or at least anti-capitalist views. Perhaps best known for his Culture novels, his split of writing literature and sci fi under different names has felt increasingly unnecessary as his career has progressed, as his SF work has become ever more acknowledged for its literary strength.
15. E.E. “Doc” Smith
One of the kings of pulp, Doc Smith was known as the father of Space Opera. Far out technologies, sweeping battles of good and evil, twisted aliens â€” he knew how to do things right. A food engineer during the day, at nights he penned his galactic tales. Most remember for the Skylark and Lensman series, Smith’s works influenced a generation of writers. Without him, there would have been no Star Wars, no Green Lantern, and no Babylon 5. He invented the space cop, and perfected the evil empire. That’s an impressive freaking legacy.
14. Robert Silverberg
There’s prolific, then there’s Silverberg prolific. By his own count, Silverberg wrote about a million words a year, in any genre. While science fiction short stories were his forte, he also wrote biographies, non-fiction, and, when times were tough, softcore porn. He has won five Nebula awards, three Hugos, and named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. That’s a hell of a lot of phallic looking trophies. That said, if I spent 55 years publishing just about annually, I’d want some freaking credit, too!
13. Damon Knight
In addition to having one of the most fucking metal names of all time, Knight essentially shaped the world of science fiction short stories in the latter half of the 20th century. Prolific, intelligent, and so skilled the Science Fiction Writers Of America named their lifetime achievement award after him, Knight’s work is always worth checking out. For people who aren’t familiar with his writing, he’s best known for the “To Serve Man” episode of the Twilight Zone. If you have the time or inclination, reading across a large timespan of his work creates a portrait of an artist evolving. His latter stories became much like Philip K. Dick, filled with post-modern twists, paranoia and occasional batshit weirdness. Seriously, check out his last novel Humpty Dumpty: An Oval â€” it’s balls to the wall crazy.
12. Neal Stephenson
Stephenson really came to prominence with Snow Crash in 1992, picking up mantle of cyberpunk, and injecting a mammoth dose of linguistics, big ideas, mathematics and philosophy. These days you can spot Stephenson’s books from across the store just from their sheer size, as he produces some of the most intellectually challenging, well researched and theoretically dense writing imaginable. Like a bunch of you, I have a bad habit of reading into the early hours of the morning if I get hooked on a book. I tried that with Stephenson, and after about midnight, my brains ability to comprehend what he was talking about just shut down, leaving me staring at a page of words without the faculties to make sense of them. While reading his stuff can seem like work at times, it’s always mammothly rewarding to do so.
11. H.G. Wells
One of the two “fathers of science fiction”, Wells’ novels are a key part of even the most basic of science fiction libraries. The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, he also wrote what is considered to be the world’s first dystopian novel â€” When The Sleeper Wakes. Staunchly socialist, and a pacifist, it’s a touch ironic that Wells invented modern tabletop wargaming too. All you Warhammer players have this guy to thank for that.
10. Jules Verne
The other of science fiction’s two daddies, Verne’s work was often more grounded in real science than Wells, but not always by a huge margin. He penned classics like A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days and The Mysterious Island. He’s the world’s second most translated author, with more than 4000 translations enacted on his work. He predicted air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, and electricity. His novel From the Earth to the Moon mirrored the American space program closely, and sent three astronauts to the moon, from a launch site in Florida, with a water landing on re-entry. Of course, he imagined shooting them out of the barrel of a gun, but there you go.
9. Ray Bradbury
Another king of short stories, Bradbury excelled in horror and scifi, but also dabbled in fantasy and mystery. For novels, he’s most recognized for Fahrenheit 451, and his works have frequently been adapted for the screen â€” both television and film. They even gave him is own TV show, The Ray Bradbury Theater, which adapted some 65 of his stories. By some counts, he has written more than 400 novelettes and short stories, earning him the National Medal of the Arts, the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a star on the Hollywood walk of fame and an award named after him for screenwriting. Even though he wrote a considerable amount for television, his most famous novel â€” Fahrenheit 451 â€” was an allegory of the mediums ability to dumb down the populace. An interesting sentiment from someone who derived so much success from the box.
8. Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams didn’t write nearly as many works as most of the other entries on this list, mostly due to his focusing more on television and radio screenplays then novels. However, the ones he did write ended up having a massive impact on geek culture. Sure, Dirk Gently was funny, and Starship Titanic was a genius game â€” but it all came down to Hitchhiker’s. Originally a radio play that turned into novels, TV shows, comics and an ill-fated movie. Some argue the radio versions are the most important, others the novels. While both forms tell the same story, there are tidbits scattered throughout that only occur in each medium, rewarding the diligent fan. H2G2, as the series is affectionately known, has become such an essential part of geek culture, that people will reference 42 and babelfish without any understanding of where the concepts come from. Those people are to be smacked resoundingly around the upside of the head, and pointed to the nearest library.
7. Michael Moorcock
Bearded bastard father of British science fiction, by the age of 16 he was a magazine editor, and brought about the New Wave scifi movement in the mid-60s. Rebelling against the space operas and technology focussed work of their pulp forbearers, New Wave instead embraced a more individualistic, society focused, and literary view on science fiction. They broke off from much of their past, and attempted to revive a genre of big dumb objects into a legitimate literary field, with experimental approaches to narrative, and a rebellion against the American conservative focus of scifi up to that point. And they made a big splash. While it would be a bit much to place all of the kudos for New Wave on Moorcock, his work as an editor and writer were seminal in the movement. For his written work, he’s best remember for his multiverse/multinarrative metanalysis of Campbellian archtypes known as the “Eternal Champion”.
6. Harlan Ellison
Mean-spirited, notoriously litigious, and a hater of computers, Ellison is one of the most prolific, awarded and well-respected writes of the 20th century. He still apparently refuses to write on a computer, composing his legendary prose on a manual Olympia typewriter. He’s won four Nebulas, 11 Hugos and six Stokers. He’s also created the most perfect literary example of Hell in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, which is quite honestly one of the most horrific stories ever crafted by man. He’s responsible for the classic Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” for the outer limits. With over 1000 titles to his name (and five wives), it would be far too easy to spend this list just discussing his immense body of work. While doubtless a curmudgeon, he’s also a a classic author.
5. Philip K. Dick
According to rumors, Philip K. Dick believed that many of his ideas were being beamed into his brain by a space computer god called VALIS. He also knew this was insane, but he got good stories from it, so he didn’t do anything to stop it. Staunchly anti-authority, Dick spent much of his adult life battling drug addiction and mental health issues, while at the same time crafting twisted, paranoid and brilliant fiction. For some reason Dick’s work is loved by Hollywood, if only so they can make films that have almost nothing to do with the original story. Sure Minority Report and Total Recall were pretty good, but they were nothing like the original stories. Luckily, they got at least two right: Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly. After his death, fans made an android version of PKD for the San Diego Comic Con, but the head was mysteriously lost by an airline employee.
4. Robert Heinlein
Oh boy, Heinlein. A divisive author if ever there was one. He just about started a religion with Stranger In A Strange Land, and introduced the world to the saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Starship Troopers has been read by some as pro-Fascist, his other works were fiercely libertarian in bent, with a fair amount of polyamory and group sex thrown in for good measure (though he refuses to write the word “tit”, always using “teat”). Heinlein’s later work became increasingly dense and self-indulgent, with novels like The Number Of The Beast bordering on unreadable wank. However, his early and middle stuff? Pure gold. World changing gold. As much as some people can argue against his views, you cannot deny the mammoth impact he had on the literary corpus of SF.
3. Frank Herbert
Herbert’s an interesting case. The (much deserved) success of the Dune novels has dwarfed Herbert’s other work. All of his stories show an appreciation for ecology and the intricate network of life that seems incredibly forward thinking given when he wrote them. Dune is considered the most popular science fiction book ever written, and viewed as a landmark in “soft science fiction” â€” SF that pays attention to people rather than science. He was also intrigued with the working of society and the mind, and his novels tended to be deftly multi-layered, with extra depth revealing itself on each read through. While his legacy may have been bastardized by his son’s work, the original novels still stand the test of time as immensely cerebral and soulful looks at humanity.
2. Isaac Asimov
Deserving of this honor due to his immense mutton-chops, if nothing else, Asimov was a God of SF. Not limiting himself to the stars, Asimov was published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System â€” missing only Philosopy in the 100s. He wrote about science, Shakespeare, mysteries, biographies, astronomy, the Bible and others. And lots, and lots of science fiction. I’ve often hear that his Foundation series were his most popular, but I get the feeling his Robot series rival it, and the two corpora were linked by Asimov later in his life. A life long humanist, feminist, atheist and scientist, Asimov was awarded an astonishing 14 honorary doctorates from various universities. With more than 400 published books to his name, Asimov was a powerhouse, and thanks to him we have an amazing body of literature, and a moral code for robots to prevent their inevitable attempts at uprising.
1. Arthur C. Clarke
I debated long and hard over if Clarke or Asimov should take the top spot, and eventually, it just had to be Clarke. His work is so good, and so damned prescient, that it transcends belief. The guy freaking came up with the concept for geostationary communication satellites! An accomplished mathematician, his science fiction work often had a solid core of logic and fact to back up the supposition. Space Odyssey, Childhood’s End, Rama, The Light Of Other Days, Clarke’s novels were amazing and eerily predictive, foreseeing satellite communications, space elevators, the internet, email and teleconferencing. While his writing style was sparse (as was Asimov’s), the ideas painted therein were so vivid and well crafted, that Clarke is appropriately known as the greatest science fiction writer of all time.