Through their painstaking labors, the greatest sci-fi authors have given readers countless hours of pleasure and fodder for debate.
Note: I first published this article on Futurism.
Readers of science fiction sometimes neglect to do our homework, don’t we? We fail, at intervals, to learn more about the creative geniuses slaving over their typewriters and keyboards to provide us with our daily amusement. That ain’t right! The greatest sci-fi authors have given us so very much, these authors; Through their painstaking labors, they’ve allowed us countless hours of reading pleasure as well as plenty of genre fodder to debate with our friends. Thus they deserve better. They deserve our respect, our affection, and for the intent of this article, a few moments of our attention as we rut around in their history to explore the factors and forces which forged them into the stars they became!
Are you ready? Then let us begin…
One of the most prolific authors to have ever existed, regardless of genre, Isaac Asimov is universally acknowledged as science fiction’s greatest contributor. In fact, he and fellow writers Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark came to be known as the “Big Three” of the greatest sci-fi authors.
A confessed workaholic, literally every free moment he had, Asimov spent writing, with several projects going at once. A mutton-chopped professor of biochemistry, Asimov proudly served as President of the American Humanist Association and, slightly less proudly, as VP of Mensa. His complex works have been called difficult to critique because he lays out everything so coherently, spelling it all out and leaving nothing to interpretation. Perhaps that is a reason why they’ve become timeless!
Best known for the sweeping Foundation Series (though he’s got several hundred other books and stories to choose from!)
See Isaac Asimov’s complete works here.
Philip K. Dick
A man uncomfortable in his own time, Dick became increasingly paranoid throughout his difficult life as one of the greatest science-fiction authors, a genre he felt his work fell outside the boundaries of. Largely unrecognized during his career, his unique style of fiction found wider wings after his death, with several stories and novels being opted for film.
It is a testament to his dedication to the craft that he continued writing meager-selling novels his whole troubled life, often living on the edge of the poverty line… but for Dick, writing wasn’t an option; it was an obsession, a means to channel his often erratic feelings and give form to his own elaborate system of beliefs. A West Coast deep-thinking philosopher and metaphysicist, Philip K. Dick’s works were nearly always influenced by his ever-evolving theories on the nature of reality, existence, and identity.
See Philip K. Dick’s complete works here.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin has spent her outspoken life as a champion for women’s rights and for the environment. She has created some of our most socially challenging works and influenced generations of future authors. Born Ursula Kroeber, she started writing as a young child… and as an adult, she was not put off by the rejection of her first five novels.
Like Philip K. Dick, Le Guin found science fiction the only viable genre which offered the flexibility she required to tell the stories she wanted to tell and to explore issues of psychology, sociology, sexuality, anthropology… she had lots of interests! While some have labeled her work “soft” sci-fi, that doesn’t mean she didn’t include science and tech in her works. It simply means she preferred the more humanistic touch—an venerable quality she shares with several of the writers in this list.
Best known for The Left Hand of Darkness.
See Ursula K. Le Guin’s complete works here.
Frank Herbert was a working man’s writer. Conservative and diligent in his work ethic, he began writing as a journalist before being diverted to spend a few months as a WWII photographer. Post-discharge, he returned to the newspaper and magazine writing that he loved. It was during the research phase for an article on Oregon sand dunes that Herbert realized he’d immersed himself too much and generated a vast surplus of material! Having grown up broke, he knew the value of leftovers, and so recycled the data into his first novel.
Dune was a dicey prospect at best, and 20 publishers took a pass. Worm-riding drug addicts and intergalactic feudal houses? From an unknown? But Chilton (famous maker of auto repair manuals) took the gamble and Dune has since become the greatest selling sci-fi novel of all time. Covering a wide range of topics, from ecology to the nature of leadership, religion, and even sanity, Herbert’s works go far beyond simple storytelling. And after his death, Herbert’s vast created universe left such a void that his son Brian, along with Kevin J. Anderson, took up the Dune mantle to create several original novels to continue the franchise. But there is, and always shall be, only one Dune!
Best known for the Dune series.
See Frank Herbert’s complete works here.
Arthur C. Clarke
Another of the “Big Three” of the greatest sci-fi authors, Arthur C. Clarke was born with his eyes on the stars. He was one of the youngest members of the British Interplanetary Society, of which he’d later become chairman. Lauded for “popularizing” science, Sir Clarke (he was knighted in 1998) had vast technical expertise which informed his novels. From his radar technician background with the Royal Air Force to his King’s College degrees in math and physics, his scientific concepts proved themselves when he proposed to utilize satellites for telecommunication purposes… an idea which led to the renaming of geostationary orbit as “Clarke Orbit.”
Living the latter parts of his life in Sri Lanka, Clarke opened a diving school and became a TV show host… all the while penning some of the world’s best science fiction, including the short story “The Sentinel,” which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In an unusual turn of events, Kubrick requested the short story be expanded into a novel (also titled 2001: A Space Odyssey) before moving on to writing a script. He even assisted Clarke in the final draft of the novel, though did not receive formal credit. Indeed, the two had a falling out and it is said Clarke left the film’s premiere in tears.
Best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
See Arthur C. Clarke’s complete works here.
Asimov may’ve written the most, and Clarke may’ve made science more accessible, but Ray Bradbury is the one credited with truly hauling science fiction into the mainstream. Influenced by the masters—H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe—Bradbury took up a sort of internship with Laraine Day’s Wilshire Players Guild and began during this period to finally start getting paid for his stories. But fate always has a part to play in the discovery of greatness.
Bradbury stumbled across renowned critic Christopher Isherwood and turned over a copy of his now-famous The Martian Chronicles. This proved to be a pivotal point in Bradbury’s career. Like most other highly successful authors, Bradbury worked on his craft every single day. In fact, he once gave this advice: “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.” He was also an avid reader, and liked to state he was a graduate of “the library.”
Best known for Fahrenheit 451.
See Ray Bradbury’s complete works here.
Few surnames are bandied about as much as George Orwell’s, especially in these Orwellian days of the omniscient surveillance state. But Orwell was born in 1903… so how was his vision of the future so startlingly clear? Perhaps because he tended more towards political essays and criticisms, he was better able to accurately forecast the coming ages of authoritarianism than many of the other greatest sci-fi authors who preferred to wear rose-colored goggles when painting their literary portraits of tomorrow. Working as a cop while his peers ran off to university, Orwell didn’t fit the mold for a typical author… but then, he wasn’t a typical author, and certainly not a typical science fiction one.
After stints teaching and selling books, he decided to immerse himself in the squalor of northern English slums, collecting raw data about the living conditions and daily hardships faced by the citizenry. He began attending political rallies, listening with interest at the harried cries of speakers who held total sway over their impoverished audiences. But his seemingly passive doings attracted the attention of the State, and soon the Special Branch fixed an eye on him, which they kept there for twelve years! Truly he lived under the watch of “Big Brother,” before he’d yet invented the phrase. Meanwhile, during WWII, his spouse took on work with the Censorship Department at London’s Ministry of Information…yet another event in an endless chain that led inexorably to his writing of the dystopian tour de force 1984.
Best known for 1984.
See George Orwell’s complete works here.
Jules Verne’s dad, a lawyer, likely didn’t approve of his boy not following him into the legal profession. But take a wild detour, the younger Verne did—and for that, the world’s a better place. Considered the “Father of Science Fiction,” Verne’s literary achievements were commercially popular yet critically dismissed by his miserly contemporaries, who felt he was merely a genre writer whose works weren’t worth serious contemplation. Nobody remembers the names of those critics. But Verne’s work and influence have endured, igniting the imaginations of countless readers of all ages and genres.
Exhibiting humility at the assertion that he was adept at predicting the future, Verne dismissed all such claims as “coincidence” or as a natural byproduct of his extensive research into the topics he was writing about. Often suffering from poor or intentionally deviated translations, Verne’s impressive catalog of works continues to be studied and appreciated now more than ever.
Best known for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
See Jules Verne’s complete works here.
Unlike many of the prior-listed greatest sci-fi authors, Tanith Lee took a far more darkly poetic approach to her work, which fit well with her more fantastical choices of themes. Fairy tales and myths were common topics. She was less interested in robots, starships, or future apocalyptic wastelands than most other sci-fi authors. Nonetheless, her place within the genre is firmly secured because of her penchant for crafting beautiful off-world stories (despite said stories featuring many elements of gothic horror and, as mentioned, fantasy).
Basically, it has always been hard to slap a label on writers as exotic and diverse as Lee, and for that reason, they’re sometimes lumped together under the “speculative fiction” heading, but the fact remains Tanith Lee’s quixotic characters will never allow themselves to be pigeonholed for long.
Best known (debatably) for Death’s Master, which garnered her The British Fantasy Award… the first time a woman had ever won it!
See Tanith Lee’s complete works here.
The third of the “Big Three” greatest sci-fi authors, Robert Heinlein’s considered the “Dean of Science Fiction” for his in-numerous contribution to the field. In fact, his works were deemed so important that he was granted awards retroactively! A general in the National Guard, the libertarian Heinlein worked several jobs before settling down at last to be a full-time writer.
Due to various health issues of his and his wife’s, Heinlein and his spouse, both engineers, also worked in their spare time to redesign their home in order to “make life easier.” Their innovations were featured in Popular Mechanics. But it was the application of his scientific knowledge to literature, combined with his strong desire to comment on many controversial social issues, which impacted his groundbreaking novels. Asimov himself declared Heinlein to be the “best science fiction writer in existence.”
Never shy of asking the big questions about life, politics, race, and sex, Heinlein practically reinvented the sub-genre of “social science fiction,” within which reside such other masterpieces as 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine, and Gulliver’s Travels.
Best known for Stranger in a Strange Land.
See Robert Heinlein’s complete works here.
Like many folks here, Iain Banks got the bug to write when he was only a lad. His main desire was to write science fiction but due to a lack of success in that arena he was forced to dip his literary toes into the mainstream… at least until he got a foothold into the market. Writing a book a year, he was finally able to introduce the world to his sci-fi only after putting out a handful of mainstream novels.
Consider Phlebas kicked off his famous nine-novel Culture series, which tackles the inherent problems a society might face upon achieving hyper-intelligence, extended life spans, and fully automated production processes. Well known and beloved for his deep bag of literary tricks, Banks created a somewhat anarchist, AI-infused universe populated by mercenaries and spies playing within the sandbox of a seeming utopia.
Best known for the Culture series.
See Iain Banks’ complete works here.
Octavia E. Butler
The daughter of a Pasadena maid and a shoe shiner, Octavia E. Butler was a shy and dyslexic child of color who suffered the taunts of bullies for much of her young life. As a result, she sought refuge in her hometown library, and eventually began crafting tales of her own to rival those she was reading. It was the 1950s; writing was not generally recognized as a viable career path for most young African Americans, or so she was told by her own family.
But Butler ignored this bit of sagacity, acquired a typewriter, won a story contest, and off to college she went. Eschewing the normal job route, she instead took easier temp jobs in order to focus on her craft… a risk that paid off when her work was noticed by none other than Harlan Ellison, who bought two of her stories then helped her pack off to Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop. Thus boosted, Butler soared. Awards and fellowships chased after her.
Best known for Kindred.
See Octavia E. Butler’s complete works here.
After finishing up at the University of Pennsylvania, Alfred Bester began entering writing contests in order to garner attention for his budding career. Catching a lucky break, he was asked to work with DC Comics, where he sharpened his sci-fi talents on Superman and Green Lantern titles (he created the modern Green Lantern Corps oath).
Shifting over to radio and television, the New York son soon began rubbing leather-patched elbows with the elite of the genre, by way of the Hydra Club (no connection to the Marvel Comics villainous organization). His pre-cyberpunk ideas have been widely hailed for their influence, as have his writings on “psionics” and teleportation… notions which just weren’t heard of much in the mid-1950s.
Paying homage to Bester seems to be a pastime of other writers, especially Hollywood ones. His name and concepts are brought up, sometimes explicitly, in many areas related to science fiction. The popular show Babylon 5 even featured a character named Alfred Bester!
Best known for The Stars My Destination.
See Alfred Bester’s complete works here.
Another author bolstered by Harlan Ellison, Dan Simmons kicked off his career as one of the greatest sci-fi authors with horror aka Stephen King. Even his best-known sci-fi features horrific elements, though these are served up on a bed of historical latticework. Simmons, a classic literature buff, borrowed heavily from the story structures of classic works… a system that reaped him countless awards throughout his lifetime.
Indeed he’s won nearly as many awards as he’s written books—and he’s written a lot of books! His chief contribution to the genre has been the Hyperion Cantos, a series of books featuring pilgrims on a journey to save mankind. Set on a world at the end of the universe, the story focuses on the search for an enigmatic time traveling cyborg referred to only as the Shrike. Anyone who’s seen the cover of the first book might draw a visual parallel to the Star Wars assassin droid IG-88, but with knives covering his body. And this was Simmons’ version of a “good guy” (I think; it’s hard to tell with all the blood-soaked murders).
Best known for Hyperion.
See Dan Simmons’ complete works here.
Peter Watts has a knack for describing the darkly profound. He’s also pretty keen on marketing, having made the risky move to give away his work for free under Creative Commons rather than see it wither unsold. This bold move gained him an invigorating dose of much-needed exposure which kept him going, and soon he was able apply those PhD smarts of his to even greater literary achievements.
Writing of the deep sea and its inhabitants with the expertise of a marine mammal biologist (which he is), Watts was able to deftly submerge (some might say “drown”) his readers in a totally immersive and, at times, claustrophobic experience. Sometimes jestingly castigated for his bleak tone of prose, one thing Watts never gets criticized for is lack of imagination…or attention to spellbinding detail.
Best known for the Rifters trilogy.
See Peter Watts’ complete works here.
“Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer alive.” Those aren’t my words; it is a phrase repeatedly proclaimed by literary critics, and not just sci-fi ones. So why isn’t he a best seller? Alas, there is a question many authors ask (about themselves)! But Wolfe’s prodigious output has so often been overlooked by the market as to be a criminal offense. A Catholic engineer and Korean War vet, Wolfe loves to have fun with his small legion of readers, by incorporating unreliable narrators and numerous Easter eggs.
A pen pal of J. R. R. Tolkien’s, he also imbues his novels with elements of fantasy… and plenty of swords to boot! His works are often ascribed to the “Dying Earth” sci-fi subgenre, meaning they take place not so much in a post-apocalyptic world as in a world literally on the edge of oblivion. A rather gloomy setting, but then wait until you get a load of his “heroes.”
Best known for The Book of the New Sun.
See Gene Wolfe’s complete works here.