The best science fiction writers as a group include some very fine writers who, like George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, stand as being among some of the best fiction writers of any type, including literary fiction.
Science fiction is a genre that goes back, perhaps surprisingly, to sixteenth-century writers like Thomas More and Francis Godwin, who were fascinated with the idea of time and space travel, with their fictional “novels” Utopia and The Man in the Moone respectively. Even before that, stories by those like the second-century writer Lucian of Samosata with his tales of interplanetary war, the second-century Arabian Nights which includes quite a few proto-science fiction tales, and Theologus Autodidactus, a prototypical novel by the tenth century Arab theologian, Ibn al-Nafis, in which he predicts a world war. I
n more recent times the genre has gone through various stages, keeping pace with the general development of fiction, even including the postmodern era. The ten best science fiction writers selected here have given the world some of the very best science fiction available to read today:
Mary Shelley 1797–1851
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is famous as the author of Frankenstein or, its proper title, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, a gothic novel about a scientist who builds a human being out of human parts. Although that hasn’t yet been done in real life, the premise has associations with such things as cloning and, more recently, Artificial Intelligence devices that imitate human beings. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the political philosopher, William Godwin and the early femininst writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. She married Percy Bysshe Shelley, the prominent philosopher and Romantic poet. After his death she edited and promoted his work.
Jules Verne 1828–1905
Jules Verne is generally seen as one of France’s best-loved and important French writers. Known primarily for his iconic, enduring adventure novels which always addressed state-of-the-art technology that pointed to future developments, thereby making him appear as something of a prophet, with such things as submarines and time machines. His novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days are among the most read novels of the nineteenth century. . His works included much more than the well-known science fiction classics, however. He wrote poetry, science papers, art and literary criticism, plays, poems and songs. He was the consummate writer. His stories have been adapted for film and television more times than those of any other writer. He is the second-most translated writer in history, beaten only by Agatha Christie.
G. Wells, 1866–1946
Herbert George Wells was one of the most prolific English writers, with more than fifty novels, and scores of short stories. Although he is probably the most famous English writer of science fiction and is usually called “the father of science fiction,” he wrote in several genres, which included literary novels and short stories. He was also a prolific writer of non-fiction, which included works regarding politics, history, popular science, biography, satire, social commentary, and also an autobiography. He was also a political activist, where he used his writing skills to produce a large amount of left-wing journalism. His science fiction is nothing less than prophetic and the titles of his numerous masterpieces indicate his predictions, for example, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The War in the Air .
George Orwell, 1903–1950
Like many of the authors of the most iconic science fiction novels, Eric Blair (George Orwell) wrote everything from short stories and novels to journalism and literary criticism and some of the best modern essays on a wide range of topics, but he also penned one of the greatest science fiction classics of the twentieth century – the dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. When we hear the name “George Orwell” the immediate thought is “Nineteen Eighty-four” (and also Animal Farm), but during his lifetime he was known for his journalism, reviews, essays, newspaper and magazine opinion columns, as well as the books in which he explored the condition of England’s class system. He has had an enormous influence on other writers and his novels, particularly Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm have actually added new words, phrases and idioms to the English language, with such expressions as “thoughtcrime,” “newspeak,” “doublespeak,” “big brother,” “room 101.”
Arthur C. Clarke, 1917–2008
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke was an English popular science writer, renowned futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and well-known as a television presenter. He was best known as a science fiction author, however, where he was one of the most successful of the twentieth century. He adapted 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of his own novels, for the screen in 1968, which is regarded as one of the most influential films of all time. He is also famous for his predictions, for example, his prediction that in the future instant communications around the world will be available through a network of three geostationary satellites. Clarke predicted that one day, worldwide communications would be possible via a network of three geostationary satellites spaced at equal intervals around the equator. He predicted other things that we take for granted now but were flights of fancy in the 50s and 60s such as a global library, hundreds of television channels that would be available to all countries, and he even predicted the internet.
Ray Bradbury, 1920–2012
If Ray Bradbury had written only Fahrenheit 451 he would still have been one of America’s best-known writers of the twentieth century. However, he wrote many more novels and short stories, including the short story collections, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustated Man. He also wrote film and television screenplays, as well as speculative fiction like the coming-of-age novel, Dandelion Wine, and several fantasy, horror and mystery novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes. The New York Times commented that Bradbury was “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream”.
Isaac Asimov, 1920–1992
Isaac Asimov was a fiction writer whose day job was professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He is most famous as a writer of science fiction but he also wrote mysteries, fantasies and non fiction books, publishing more than five hundred books during his career. His works are probably more famous than those of other science fiction writers, the most famous being the Foundation series, followed by the Galactic Empire series and, most enduring and influential, the Robot series in which he lay down the rules for the conduct of robots: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. He wrote about four hundred short stories: in 1964 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted the story, Nightfall, the best science fiction story of all time.
Kurt Vonnegut, 1922–2007
It is ironic that a writer who resisted and rejected the description of him as a science fiction writer should be on lists of the ten best science fiction writers. Moreover, his best-known novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, an account of the bombing of Dresden by British and American forces at the end of World War II, and is generally regarded as an anti-war novel. What makes him a science fiction writer is that his novels, although all literary, are filled with science fiction ideas like space and time travel, using those ideas to explore the human condition, for example, the effect on individuals’ ability to exercise free will.
Margaret Atwood , 1939
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most celebrated fiction writers. Her position is similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s – a great speculative writer who frequently sets her novels in areas that we would normally associate with science fiction novels, for example, The Heart Goes Last, a futuristic novel where the lawful are imprisoned and the lawless allowed to go where they like. Oryx and Crake predicts where humanity may go in the future. Her most famous novel with one of the most famous miniseries adaptations is The Handmaid’s Tale. Like Kurt Vonnegut Atwell resists the appellation “science fiction writer.” Her statement on that is “I am not a prophet”.
Douglas Adams, 1952–2001
Describing Douglas Adams as a science fiction writer is problematic because he was not, strictly speaking, a science fiction writer: his novels look like science fiction because they are full of science fiction effects and ideas, but they are satirical novels in that they mock science fiction writing. His satire is aimed at contemporary life. His protagonists flounder around, trying to deal with a society that makes no sense, and battle against processes that are beyond their control. That is more Kafka than science fiction. His most famous novel is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.