8 Sci-Fi Authors That Belong on Everyone’s Bookshelf
There is nothing quite like the world of science fiction. It has the ability to instantly transport you to another world, leaving Earth behind. You also get to explore the capabilities of time travel, interact with androids, and consider artificial intelligence all while imagining what the future might be like.
In many ways, the worlds discussed in sci-fi novels encourage people to shoot for the stars, dream big, and model their futures after what we learn about in these sci-fi novels. So, who are some of the top science fiction writers of all time? Of course, this question is hotly debated and there are hundreds of brilliant minds that you could easily argue deserve a spot on this list. It’s nearly impossible to say whom a list of the top ten, twenty, or even 100 would include. So, rather than proclaiming my favorites, I’ll just say this. The following is a list of eight sci-fi authors that belong on everyone’s bookshelf.
Philip K. Dick
Starting with a bang! Philip K. Dick, sometimes known as PKD, also wrote under a couple of pen names, including Richard Phillipps and Jack Dowland. He started publishing science fiction in 1951 but it wasn’t until 1962 when he published the alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle that Dick earned acclaim, including a Hugo Award for Best Novel.
A variety of popular Hollywood films based on Dick’s works have been produced, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (adapted twice: in 1990 and in 2012), Minority Report (2002), A Scanner Darkly (2006), and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). Meanwhile, the novel The Man in the High Castle (1962) was made into a multi-season television series by Amazon, starting in 2015.
The movie Blade Runner (1982) is now a classic, and the novel that inspired it Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a thrilling one, published in 1968 in the middle of Dick’s heyday. It’s a prescient novel to read (or re-read) now, since it is set in 2021, when the World War killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back with lethal force. Philip K. Dick’s works are stunning and thought-provoking.
Robert A. Heinlein is another author who makes top 10 lists all over the internet, including top military sci-fi books and top sci-fi books of all time. The favorite around here is often Starship Troopers. Heinlein was an American science-fiction author, aeronautical engineer, and retired Naval officer. Sometimes called the “dean of science fiction writers,” he was among the first to emphasize scientific accuracy in his fiction and was thus a pioneer of the subgenre of hard science fiction. His published works, both fiction, and non-fiction express admiration for competence and emphasize the value of critical thinking. His work continues to have an influence on the science-fiction genre, and on modern culture more generally. And rightfully so!
Heinlein used his science fiction as a way to explore provocative social and political ideas, and to speculate how progress in science and engineering might shape the future of politics, race, religion, and sex. Within the framework of his science-fiction stories, Heinlein repeatedly addressed certain social themes: the importance of individual liberty and self-reliance, the nature of sexual relationships, the obligation individuals owe to their societies, the influence of organized religion on culture and government, and the tendency of society to repress nonconformist thought. He also speculated on the influence of space travel on human cultural practices.
Starship Troopers is the first-person narrative that follows Juan “Johnny” Rico, a young man of Filipino descent, through his military service in the Mobile Infantry. Rico progresses from recruit to officer against the backdrop of an interstellar war between humans and an alien species known as “Arachnids” or “Bugs”.
Frank Herbert held a number of other titles (ecological consultant, photographer, journalist, etc.) as well as being a famous science-fiction author. As with many other of these great authors, Herbert’s debut on the sci-fi scene was with a short story, “Looking for Something”, in 1952. Herbert was the first science fiction author to popularize ideas about ecology and systems thinking. He stressed the need for humans to think both systematically and long-term.
Herbert’s novel Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and the whole series is widely considered to be among the classics of the genre. The novel originated when he was supposed to do a magazine article on sand dunes in the Oregon Dunes near Florence, Oregon. He became too involved and ended up with far more raw material than needed for an article. The article was never written, but instead planted the seed that led to Dune.
The Dune series is a marvelous one, but he wrote several others, including some that were published posthumously.
Arthur C. Clarke
Sir Arthur C. Clarke was a British science fiction writer, science writer and futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host. He was made a Knight Bachelor “for services to literature” at a ceremony in Colombo.
Clarke was a lifelong proponent of space travel, and he is famous for being co-writer of the screenplay for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke was a science writer, who was both an avid popularizer of space travel and a futurist of uncanny ability. 2001: A Space Odyssey, was extended well beyond the 1968 movie as the Space Odyssey series. This allegory about humanity’s exploration of the universe, and the universe’s reaction to humanity, is a hallmark achievement in storytelling that follows the crew of the spacecraft Discovery as they embark on a mission to Saturn. Their vessel is controlled by HAL 9000, an artificially intelligent supercomputer capable of the highest level of cognitive functioning that rivals, and perhaps threatens, the human mind.
Set in the 2130s, Rendezvous with Rama is a story centered around a 50-by-20-kilometer cylindrical alien starship that enters the Solar System. The story is told from the point of view of a group of human explorers who intercept the ship in an attempt to unlock its mysteries.
Frederik Pohl had an illustrious career spanning nearly 75 years. He won four Hugo and three Nebula Awards among many other awards. He wrote under a number of pseudonyms including Charles Satterfield, Paul Flehr, Ernst Mason, Jordan Park (two collaborative novels with Kornbluth), and Edson McCann (one collaborative novel with Lester del Rey). One of his later works, The Last Theorem, he worked on with Arthur C. Clarke, another writer on this list!
It was The Space Merchants with which Pohl blasted onto the literary scene, writing it while he was fighting during World War II. As would become his future style, The Space Merchants demonstrates his uncanny trend-forecasting style for futurism and satire. An author within a genre that wasn’t really a genre for another decade or so.
The story is set In the not-too-distant future where the Cold War threatens to turn hot. The colonization of Mars seems to be mankind’s only hope of surviving certain Armageddon. To facilitate this, the US government begins a cyborg program to create a being capable of surviving the harsh Martian environment: Man Plus. The tale is told from the perspective of one such cyborg, Roger Torraway, who suffers damage slowly through mishaps and environmental hazards. This is an agonizing and beautiful slog through the character’s descent away from humanity and toward the cold.
Larry Niven has won Hugo, Locus, Ditmar, Nebula awards, among others. (You’re going to see a lot of award winners on this list!) He has written numerous novels and short stories, beginning with his 1964 story “The Coldest Place”. His other writing endeavors have included TV scripts and also writing for the DC Comics character Green Lantern!
One of his most famous books (which became a series) is Ringworld. The concept is based on his idea of a kind of Dyson sphere world, in this case, a Ringworld: a band of material, roughly a million miles wide, of approximately the same diameter as Earth’s orbit, rotating around a star. This influenced Iain M. Banks in his Culture series, which features about 1/100th ringworld–size megastructures.
Footfall is a 1985 science fiction novel by Larry Niven and frequent co-author Jerry Pournelle. The book depicts the arrival of members of an alien species called the Fithp that have traveled to the Solar System from Alpha Centauri in a large spacecraft driven by a Bussard ramjet. Their intent is the conquest of the planet Earth. This book is a bit of a blockbuster and suffers the typical pitfalls, but it is a wild ride and a ton of fun if you can overlook the occasional one-dimensional character.
Ray Bradbury worked in a number of genres, including fantasy, horror, and mystery fiction, but is perhaps best known for his science fiction. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including a Pulitzer citation, and had an impact crater on the Earth’s moon named Dandelion Crater by the Apollo 15 astronauts, in honor of his novel Dandelion Wine!
One of his most famous works is Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian science-fiction novel in which television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, since rather than putting fires out, firemen start them, and have burned almost all the books known to have existed. This kind of dystopic, societal critique is a common theme in Bradbury’s work, including in his many short stories.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is a science fiction short story by author Ray Bradbury written as a chronicle about a lone house that stands intact in a California city that has otherwise been obliterated by a nuclear bomb, and then is destroyed in a fire caused by a windstorm. First published in 1950 about future catastrophes in two different versions in two separate publications, a one-page short story in Collier’s magazine and a chapter of the fix-up novel The Martian Chronicles, the author regarded it as “the one story that represents the essence of Ray Bradbury”. It’s beautiful. It’s devastating. It’s quintessential Ray Bradbury.
Asimov was one the world’s most celebrated and prolific science fiction writers, having written or edited more than 500 books over his four-decade career. His Foundation Trilogy is recognized by sci-fi fans everywhere as one of the greatest books in the genre. In 1966, the Foundation Trilogy received the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating out the Lord of the Rings.
There isn’t really much to say other than that Isaac Asimov is to sci-fi what Edgar Allen Poe is to horror. He is the foundation of the genre. I’m about to recommend a book to you, but you should find a way to witness every result of his putting pen to paper. Do it.
Foundation is a science fiction novel first published in his Foundation Trilogy (later expanded into the Foundation series). Foundation is a cycle of five interrelated short stories, first published as a single book by Gnome Press in 1951. Collectively they tell the early story of the Foundation, an institute founded by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve the best of galactic civilization after the collapse of the Galactic Empire. Honestly? Read the whole damn series. You deserve it.
March 6, 2023 at 2:22 am
While this is a very good list (I would personally add a couple of names to it: Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem), I would suggest that potential readers not start with novels. Most of these writer wrote short stories as well, and readers would do well to start there. This is particularly true of PKD (over 200 short stories)and Robert Heinlein (try “6xH or The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”). For great short stories, also try Alfred Bester and A.E. Van Vogt.
March 8, 2023 at 9:50 pm
These are great points! Particularly your suggestion to begin with short stories. There is such a wealth of fantastic shorts stories in the sci-fi genre. Ursula Le Guin was absolutely in my short list. Ultimately, she didn’t quite make the list, but a sizable portion of a bookshelf behind me belongs to her.
March 10, 2023 at 9:21 am
Great list! If you haven’t read Pohl’s Gateway and subsequent novels you have a treasure waiting. Other favorite: The Mote in God’s Eye and Robert Foreword’s The Forever War