Science fiction contains more masterpieces of the imagination than anyone could read in a single lifetime. And your local used book store or science fiction bookshop is teeming with great adventures you've never discovered. Here are 12 great science fiction authors who deserve more props.
Top image: Clifford Simak book cover by Chris Moore
Note: We're not saying that any of these authors is obscure, or that nobody's ever sung their praises — we know that they've all had their praises sung, many of them on io9 in the past. But these are terrific science fiction scribes, whose work deserves more love and appreciation.
Right away, we're treading on potentially dangerous ground here — after all, Brunner is legendary for novels like Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider. He helped pioneer cyberpunk. But we just don't hear enough people mentioning Brunner's influence nowadays, and he doesn't pop up on recommended-reading lists nearly often enough. And people don't delve into the breadth of Brunner's oeuvre, including his thrilling early space operas, and the full range of his later dystopias. Brunner's satirical eye and his focus on ethical questions remain unmatched. Here's a great essay about Brunner, which notes that Brunner "got critical respect as a writer of science fiction, but he never gained the overwhelming fame or fortune that the top few writers enjoy."
She's written tons of novels about aliens and post-apocalyptic Earths and strange journeys beyond our experience. Her work often has a weird sense of humor, and a somewhat "random plot generator" sort of plotting, that becomes mind-blowing after a while. Just read this description of the fantastically entertaining, insane Star Rider, about a teenage girl named Jade who rides around the galaxy on a mutant dog until she gets stuck on post-apocalyptic Earth. As Dani Zweig explains, "Her typical protagonist is a highly (or super-) capable teenaged girl with a bad attitude, or at least what people around her consider to be a bad attitude. Her typical setting is squalid, surreal, sometimes both." It's hard to convey the flavor of reading a Piserchia book, but her work is wild and trippy and yet also like the best adventure anime ever. As Zach on Goodreads says, "Piserchia deserves to be as well-known as Philip Dick, given that she is as inventive as he is."
We were huge fans of Castro's many fantastic short stories for years, before we discovered his science fiction detective series starring Andrea Cort, in a future interstellar civilization. And then we were totally hooked. The Cort novels feature a tough-as-nails detective in a universe with strange deadly habitats, space elevators, super-weapons and mysterious manipulative artificial intelligences. And the supporting cast includes the Porrinyards, a single consciousness with two bodies, which becomes Andrea's lover. Amazing stuff, which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Castro's also been an immensely prolific and multi-award-nominated author of other books, including a number of media tie-ins. And more recently, he's been publishing the very Tim Burton-esque middle-grade series starring Gustav Gloom, which are well worth getting for that weird kid in your life. (Or yourself.) He's just published a fantastic new story collection, Her Husband's Hands.
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Goonan was writing about nanotechnology before most other authors had caught on to it, and her first novel, Queen City Jazz, forms part of a "Nanotech Quartet," set in a future when nanotechnology has gone wild and brought cities to life, trapping people into reenacting historical events. Along with Linda Nagata, who just scored another Nebula nomination, Goonan helped pioneer the subgenre of "nanopunk," in which nanotech is as much about art and psychology as technology. When we interviewed her in 2008, she told us that "for me, nanotech has been a metaphor for the power of thought, and for the power of language. This may sound odd, but it seems that the more we understand matter and the more we are able to manipulate it and to make decisions about how and why to do so, the better we understand ourselves."
Sheckley has some high-profile fans — including Neil Gaiman — but his witty, satirical storytelling doesn't get nearly enough widespread acclaim. As DarkRoastedBlend notes, "Robert Sheckley seems to be under-appreciated today and deserves much larger readership - after all, his short fiction can be just as hilarious as the work of Douglas Adams." Gaiman put out an audiobook of Sheckley's A Dimension of Miracles, read by John Hodgman, to try and introduce Sheckley's hilarious, anarchic fiction to a new audience.
There's a really great profile of Moore by io9 contributor Andrew Liptak, over in Kirkus Reviews. When her first ever story arrived at the offices of Weird Tales, they were so blown away they closed their office for the day in celebration. Moore's early work won the admiration of H.P. Lovecraft. And both her early solo stories and her later collaborations with husband Henry Kuttner were instrumental in helping to shape the face of early science fiction from the 1930s onwards. The Best of C.L. Moore is out of print but easy to get in paperback, and it includes pioneering stories about femme fatales seeking revenge, time travel, and cyborgs. As one Amazon reviewer notes, "The classic early SF/fantasy tales by Catherine Moore were so far ahead of their time that the extent of her influence is mind-boggling. In fact, many modern authors may consider themselves heavily influenced by other authors who were themselves heavily influenced by Moore."
I wrote a big feature about William Barton's fantastic novels back in 2008, and I'm just going to quote from it: "Barton, with occasional co-author Michael Capobianco, put out a dozen books that show how oppression and exploitation aren't crimes that bad people commit — they're part of the fabric of civilization... In William Barton's books, the strong exploit the weak — until someone stronger comes along, and exploits them in turn. And the universe rattles on, uncaring." Barton's novels are often kind of a tough pill to swallow — his characters do terrible things and find ways to justify them, and his stories offer very little hope of a just and benign universe, in which the virtuous are rewarded. At his best, Barton is mindblowing in his ruthless exploration of weirdness and insanity in an amoral cosmos.
Baker is another author, like several others on this list, who has won plenty of praise for her writing — but she just deserves more exposure and more appreciation. Her series of novels about the Company, a group of time-traveling cyborgs from the future that protect the timeline from meddling, is so fantastic that it should be mentioned whenever great time-travel stories are brought up. As Jeff VanderMeer wrote in Clarkesworld in 2008, " to my mind she's not received nearly the critical attention she deserves." We praised her novel Sky Coyote for Baker's "penchant for mixing savvy historical and political details with flat-out Monty Python goofiness." Baker was a historical reenactor and a Rennfaire devotee, whose unmatched historical knowledge informed her time travel stories and also gave her a clever eye for political scenarios. Everybody who loves the work of Connie Willis should check out Baker as well.
Paul Di Filippo
Some of the most enjoyable science fiction writing is also jarringly strange — and few writers are weirder than Di Filippo, who first caught my attention with a steampunk story in the 1990s about Queen Victoria being replaced with a genetically engineered newt. Since then, Di Filippo has kept up a sustained commitment to weirdness, including pioneering the Ribofunk movement, which takes biopunk to its furthest limit of exploring cell biology as a kind of computing to be hacked. Di Filippo's work reminds me of his frequent collaborator Rudy Rucker, but if anything is even sillier and more far-ranging.
She's won two Nebula Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award and a World Fantasy lifetime achievement award, plus effusive praise from Ursula K. Le Guin and others — but we'll consider Carol Emshwiller unsung until everybody with even a passing interest in science fiction and the fantastical has read her work. We praised her novel The Mount before, for its jarring portrayal of a future Earth where humans are bred to be mounts for aliens called the Hoots — and this is typical of the strange biology and unnerving scenarios that Emshwiller regularly comes up with. On her website, she writes, "a lot of people don't seem to understand how planned and plotted even the most experimental of my stories are. I'm not interested in stories where anything can happen at any time. I set up clues to foreshadow what will happen and what is foreshadowed does happen."
Clifford D. Simak
He won the Hugo Award for his novel Way Station, but we adore some of his other, weirder books, like They Walked Like Men, the novel about sentient bowling balls that come to Earth to buy the place up. His work has a very 1950s pulpy feel to it, but some of the scenarios he comes up with for the destruction of industrial civilization are inventive and alarming. And his short stories, like those of Philip K. Dick, are like pure jolts of cleverness, with unexpected twist endings and tons of neat ideas. If you haven't picked up Simak's work before, his short story collection would be a great place to start.
These days, everyone is obsessed with the movie Her, about an artificial intelligence that comes into her own — but 20 years earlier, Amy Thomson told a brilliant story about A.I. breaking free and navigating the physical world, in Virtual Girl, which won the John W. Campbell Award. Her other novels include a ton of alien worlds, including a highly praised first-contact novel and an exploration of a complex and strange alien ecology. She hasn't published a novel in a decade, but you can still easily track down her earlier books, and they still feel as fresh and prescient today as they did when they were first published.
Who did we leave out? Please share your favorite authors who don't get enough props!
Thanks to Liz, Nisha and Genevieve for the feedback!