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Top 15 Greatest Science Fiction Writers of All-Time
Mania Ranks the Best of the Best
By Tim Janson
January 30, 2009
Mania Presents The Top 15 Sci-Fi Writers of All Time(2009).
© Mania.com/Robert Trate
One of the things that makes science fiction so popular is that it means many things to many people. Some people will insist that they are not even reading science fiction when they read a Star Wars novel or a novel dealing with alternate history. That is what makes Sci-Fi so wonderful! It’s easy to love and difficult to define. What other genre has so many sub-genres? You have hard Sci-fi, often times written by people who actually were scientists. There’s Cyber Punk, adventurous Space Opera, Military Sci-Fi, Alternate History, Steam Punk, and even Space Westerns. Something for almost everybody!
In truth, speculative fiction dates back hundreds of years but modern Sci-Fi began to develop as we know it in the 19th century with writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. But it was in 1926 that Sci-fi really began to take off with the creation of the pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, the first publication devoted to science fiction. The magazine survived for nearly 80 years and helped to launch the careers of greats such as Roger Zelanzy, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack Williamson, and countless others.
Trying to pick the 15 greatest writers is no easy task. I’ve based my list on a number of factors including body of work, influence, awards won, and staying power. With that in mind my list does tend to weigh heavily towards older writers. Another factor was that I went with writers who are predominantly known for their science fiction. Many great fantasy writers have written exceptional Sci-Fi stories but I decided to go with only those known for their science fiction. Ultimately is was more of a challenge to decide who to keep off rather than who to keep on.
Oh, certainly you’ll have your ideas about who should be on the list and I agonized for quite some time over whom to include, and in what order. I started out with a list of almost fifty writers and then pared it down from there. So with that said, lets move on to the list!
15. Larry Niven –
Filling the 15th spot was harder to fill than the number one spot. Ultimately, this was the last writer to make the list and I agonized over this spot. Nearly every writer on my list is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Niven is one of the two who is not. Niven has been one of the leaders in “hard” science fiction for forty years. His “Known Space” setting has become a terrific shared universe for the Man-Kzin Wars series and the plateau for Niven’s most famous creation, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning “Ringworld”. 1974’s “The Mote in God’s Eye”, written with Jerry Pournelle, was one of the best hard Sci-Fi novels of the 1970s. It was nominated for a Hugo as Best Novel.
14. Philip Jose' Farmer –
At age 90, Philip Jose’ Farmer is still actively writing. He won the 1953 Hugo as Most Promising New Talent and later won two Hugos for best Novel and Best Novella. Farmer’s most famous creation is the Riverworld series consisting of five novels. Riverworld begins when all of humanity, from the time of the first homo sapiens through to the early 21st century, is simultaneously resurrected along the banks of the river. Everyone awakens in a body equivalent to that of their twenty-five year old selves, except in perfect health and free of any previous genetic or acquired defects. Lesser known, but by considered by some to be better than Riverworld is Farmer’s World of Tiers series.
13. Robert Silverberg –
Robert Silverberg has won and been nominated for numerous Hugo, Nebula, and Locas Awards in his fifty plus year career. He won the 1971 nebula for his novel, “A Time of Changes”, set in a culture where the first person singular is forbidden, and words such as I or me are treated as obscenities or social errors. His most famous series is the Majipoor series, a science fantasy work consisting of several novels and short stories. If you’ve never read the series it is one that is highly recommended.
12. Ursula K. Le Guin –
Le Guin is the only female writer to make the list but she definitely has the qualifications. She’s a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and SFWA Grand Master, and has won more Locus Awards than any other writer (18). While her Earthsea series is an acclaimed fantasy, her Science Fiction is equally celebrated. “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1970) is one of the great Sci-fi novels of the 1970s, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. This is part of her Hainish Cycle of novels and short stories. This cycle also garnered Le Guin Hugo wins for Best Novel in 1974 and again in 1976. “The Lathe of Heaven” a 1971 novel, has twice been adapted into TV movies, most recently in 2002 for the A&E Network.
11. Harry Harrison –
Harrison has had a long and diverse career. He was actually an artist at EC Comics in the 1950’s, illustrating under the pen name 'Wade Kaempfert'. In the 50s and 60s he wrote the Flash Gordon syndicated newspaper strip. His novel “Make Room! Make Room!” was the basis for the 1973 classic Sci-Fi film, Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison is a master of humorous Sci-Fi. His most famous creation is James Bolivar diGriz, AKA The Stainless Steel Rat. Thief and con-man, The Stainless Steel rat has appeared in eleven novels. Similar in vein is Harrison’s satirical “Bill, the Galactic Hero” series. Harrison is the perfect writer for those who like their Sci-Fi fun and adventurous. He’s a member of the Sci-Fi Hall of Fame and a SFWA Grand Master.
10. Frederick Pohl –
If there is a living legend among Sci-fi writers it is Frederick Pohl. At age 89 Pohl is still active, recently completing a novel in 2008 (The Last Theorem), co-written with the late Arthur C. Clarke. Pohl was editor of the Sci-Fi Pulps Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories from 1939 – 1943. He served as editor of Galaxy magazine from the 1950s until 1969. Pohl won consecutive best Novel Nebulas in 1976 (Man Plus) and 1977 (Gateway). Gateway also captured the 1978 Hugo. His collaboration with Jack Williamson on the Undersea Trilogy is a classic. Member of the Sci-Fi Fall of Fame and a SFWA Grand Master.
9. Frank Herbert –
If Frank Herbert had only written the Dune series it would be enough for him to be considered one of the best ever. Dune ushered in a different era of Sci-fi with less of an emphasis on the science part and more care paid to characters, social structure, and philosophy. Never before had a world been so broadly detailed as in Dune. Dune is as epic a scale as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “The Jesus Incident” written with Bill Ransom, is an overlooked classic. Herbert did not win as many awards as others on the list, bet he created a series that will be in print forever with Dune.
8. Harlan Ellison –
Harlan Ellison is the other writer on the list NOT in the Sci-fi Hall of Fame which is as likely his choice as anyone else’s. Ellison has always detested being labeled a Sci-Fi writer. However the controversial, outspoken, and argumentative Ellison is among the most awarded writers in the genre. He’s won 8 Hugos, 3 Nebulas and a whopping 15 Locus Awards (second to only Ursula Le Guin). He wrote one of the most memorable episodes of Star Trek ever, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The film The Terminator was based on two stories that Ellison wrote for the Outer Limits TV series. His short story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is one of the finest examples of the Man Vs. Machine plot. His Nebula winning novella, “A Boy and his Dog” was developed into a film of the same name in 1974.
7. Jack Williamson –
You know if you want to find a profession that leads to a long life, you probably could not do better than becoming a Sci-Fi writer. Many writers are still going strong into their 80s and 90s. Jack Williamson was 98 when he passed away in 2006. Williams is one of the great old-timers of Sci-Fi who managed to stay relevant right up until his last novel, published in 2005. In fact, Jack won the Hugo and Nebula for best Novella in 2001 for “The Ultimate Earth”, at the ripe old age of 93. Williamson’s first story saw print back in 1928 in the pages of Amazing Stories, giving him a writing career that lasted nearly 80 years. Williamson’s best known works are his Legion of Space series (a prime example of Space Opera) and his collaborations with Frederick Pohl on the Undersea Trilogy and the Starchild Trilogy.
6. E. E. “Doc” Smith –
Doc Smith is probably the least known writer on the list, owing to the fact that Smith passed away back in 1965, but Smith is considered the Godfather of Space Opera science fiction. Smith is as important to this sub-genre as Robert E. Howard is to Swords & Sorcery. His landmark works are the Lensmen and Skylark series. The Lensman was runner up for the Hugo Award to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as the all-time greatest Sci-Fi series. The Lensman series was originally published during the 1930s and 40s and is still influencing popular culture today. The Galactic Patrol (space cops) were the basis for the creation of DC Comics’ Green Lantern Corps. George Lucas acknowledges that Smith’s books were a major influence on the creation of Star Wars. In 2008 Director Ron Howard’s production company acquired the rights to the Lensman series with J. Michael Straczynski confirming he is working on the project.
5. Philip K. Dick –
Dick has been gone for 27 years now, passing away at a far too young 53. But Dick continues to be one of the most influential Sci-Fi writers ever. A number of his stories have been turned into Hollywood blockbuster films including Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (We can Remember it for you Wholesale), Screamers (Second Variety), Next (The Golden Man), Minority Report, Paycheck, and A Scanner Darkly (all based on the stories of the same name). His 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle is a fantastic alternate history tale and won the Hugo for best novel. The Philip K. Dick award was established in 1982 and has been awarded each year for the best, original Sci-Fi novel.
4. Ray Bradbury –
Ray Bradbury has written in many genres including fantasy, poetry, horror, mystery…but his science fiction works are second to none. The Martian Chronicles (1950) is a superb tale about Human colonists on Mars. The book was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1979. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is one of the great works of fiction ever written, Sci-Fi or not. This look at a not so utopian future where free thought and dissenting views are outlawed should be required reading in schools. Bradbury’s stories have been the basis of many films and TV shows. It Came from Outer Space was based on “The Meteor”; The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was adapted from “The Fog Horn”; Fahrenheit 451, A Sound of Thunder, and The Illustrated Man were both turned into films.
3. Robert A. Heinlein –
Heinlein’s 1961 novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” may be the most important Sci-Fi novel ever written. This novel lured many readers to the genre who normally would not have read Sci-Fi. It’s mature and often controversial themes won praise from critics and fans alike. The tale of a boy raised on Mars and returned to Earth twenty years later still resounds today. The book won the 1962 Hugo, one of four he received for Best Novel. “Starship Troopers” also won for best novel in 1960. The recent films do little justice to Heinlein’s original story as they are straight action films and don’t attempt to examine the political and social concepts that are in the book. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” won the Hugo in 1967. Heinlein gave readers a different kind of science fiction. It was hard science fiction but had a literary quality rarely seen in the genre.
2. Isaac Asimov –
The Russian-born Asimov was not only a science fiction writer but also a well-regarded scientist. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University. Asimov was noted nearly as much for his non-fiction as his fiction. His “Foundation” trilogy in the 1950s is regarded by many as the greatest science fiction series ever written. The series influenced everything from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to Star Wars, The Warhammer 40,000 universe, even to the animated TV Show, Futurama. Warner Bros. is currently developing the series for film. “I, Robot”, actually a collection of stories rather than a novel, introduced Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. Asimov won seven Hugo awards including Best novel for “The Gods Themselves” and Best Novelette for “The Bicentennial Man”. He also won three Nebula awards.
1. Arthur C. Clarke –
Like Asimov, Clarke was a true master of hard science fiction. He received degrees in both mathematics and physics from King’s College in London. His first professional sale was in 1946 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Clarke’s first great work was 1953’s “Childhood’s End” but he took the Sci-Fi world by storm with 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Spanning eons, the film was built on themes of human evolution, space travel, and the perils of artificial intelligence. 1972’s “Rendezvous with Rama” was the only science fiction novel I was ever assigned to read in my High School AP English class. It is the story of massive alien spaceship that enter Earth’s solar system and the eventual exploration of the ship. The book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel as did 1979’s “The Fountains of Paradise”. Clarke would go on to write three sequels to Odyssey and three sequels to Rama. It’s difficult to assign just how much influence Clarke had. You can trace almost any disastrous encounter with artificial intelligence and first contact with aliens, back to his works. In 1987, the Arthur C. Clarke Award was established for the Best Science Fiction novel first published in the UK. In 2005, the Sir Arthur C. Clarke Award was established for notable contributions in space exploration.
Orson Scott Card
Gordon R. Dickson
Near Exclusions - These people are all great writers but I ended up excluding them for various reasons:
Roger Zelanzy – I love Zelanzy but his best and most famous works fall into the realm of fantasy, notably the Chronicles of Amber series.
William Gibson – Gibson’s “Neuromancer” is one of the most important Sci-Fi novels of the last twenty-five years but ultimately I didn’t think he had an overall large enough body of work to be included.
Harry Turtledove – Turtledove has been called the master of the “Alternate History” genre. But is it Sci-Fi? Is it Fantasy? Or is it all its own category?