The realm of science fiction is a tight-knit community. While other genres have a wide appeal, science fiction has been, until very recently, solely a fan-driven genre. Although movies and TV have brought sci-fi to a wider audience and Internet sites and blogs have replaced fanzines, science fiction novels and short stories are still the mainstay of cutting-edge science fiction. The following list contains essential writers old and new who are well respected in the genre but aren’t as universally known (at least yet) as perhaps, say, Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov in the science fiction universe.
10. Ian McDonald
One of the most notable writers to emerge in the post-cyberpunk era is Ian McDonald of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Perhaps it is his native backdrop that has served as the inspiration for such groundbreaking works as The Dervish House, Cyberabad Days, and the award-winning Desolation Road. McDonald paints an immersive future where the juggernaut of technology strains to keep pace with the sweltering mass of humanity, a real tour de force.
9. Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Rusch’s fans know of her indelible works across the genre; in addition to editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, she has won the Hugo Award for her novelette Millennium Babies, written several episodes and tales in both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, and constructed original series in the Diving and Fey universes of her own creation. Her short stories have also been fixtures on such flagship science fiction podcasts as Escape Pod, The Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. But even beyond these impressive efforts, Rusch has also been prolific in the fields of fantasy, romance, mystery and more, in addition to editorial duties. Only one other famous sci-fi name comes to mind that was as equally prolific across genres: Isaac Asimov.
8. S.M. Stirling
Canadian-born Stephen Michael Sterling is well known among his fans for his various alternate history universes and time travel pieces. Some of his best works include the Nantucket, Emberverse, Draka and Shadowspawn series. His militaristic themes are reminiscent of Robert Heinlein or Orson Scott Card, and he also (like Heinlein) pioneered the early use of a strong female lead, something that is now stock in modern science fiction. Stirling is still active, with several tales from the Emberverse forthcoming.
7. Edwin Abbott
Schoolmaster Edwin Abbott occupies a unique position in science fiction. Like George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jules Verne, he wrote in the genre before it even existed. Yet his name is lesser known, even among those who have heard of or have read his remarkable geometric odyssey Flatland. Written in 1884, Flatland was a metaphor for the Victorian strictures of the day and was the first novel that advanced a non-human and an alien universe in a convincing way. Flatland received poor reception when first published, but has undergone a revival of sorts in the last few decades, and has been adapted for several films. Abbott also foresaw the counterintuitive world of relativity and quantum physics that would usher in the 20th century.
6. John Brunner
One of the toughest things to pull off in science fiction is a convincing near-future dystopia. One author whose social commentary approaches that of George Orwell or Ray Bradbury is John Brunner, author of such award-winning works as The Jagged Orbit and Stand on Zanzibar with a career spanning more than 40 years. Stand on Zanzibar is his magnum opus, a tangled juggernaut of a book that stands up surprisingly well as we approach his tipping point of 7 billion souls on the planet Earth.
5. Paul McAuley
One of the new breed of post-cyber punk authors, McAuley weaves in persuasive hard science with convincing realities in a way not seen since 2001’s Arthur C. Clarke. Among his finest are the Quiet War duology of books and the Cowboy Angels, an alternate history tale of the Cold War era. McAuley has been the recipient of the Philip K. Dick Award, and is definitely a name to watch.
4. Leigh Brackett
Brackett’s career as a science fiction author spans the genre from its silver age of pulp magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction to a final career twist that she became most known for. Leigh Brackett pioneered the concept of the space opera in such works as The Black Amazon of Mars and The Enchantress of Venus and legitimized the tried and true Buck Rogers-type serialization technique in mainstream science fiction. It was perhaps because of this effort that she was called in by George Lucas to create what would be her final work, the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. Although the level of Brackett’s influence on the final product before dying of cancer in 1978 has been disputed, most acknowledge Empire as the definitive act of the Star Wars saga.
3. Joe Haldeman
With a career spanning from the mid-1970s onward, Joe Haldeman weaves his personal experience as a veteran of the Vietnam War into a unique form of military science fiction. His short story Tricentennial brought him notice in the genre, and his Worlds and Forever War series won him legions of fans. Haldeman is also prolific in the niche genre of science fiction poetry — yes, there is such a genre — having earned several awards for his efforts.
2. L. Sprague de Camp
Author of more than 100 books with a career spanning 60 years, L. Sprague de Camp also got his start in the pulps of the 1930s. Much like better-known names such as Heinlein and Asimov, he worked to define the styles that are considered stock today. For example, his landmark Lest Darkness Fall defined the concept of alternate history fiction. His The Virgin of Zesh is seen as the inspiration for the better-known Flowers for Algernon. His 1950 book Genus Homo may well have inspired the Planet of the Apes franchise. Few modern science fiction themes can’t be traced back in some way to the fertile mind of L. Sprague de Camp.
1. Ursula K. Le Guin
Up until the early 1960s, science fiction was populated largely with robots and rocketships, with modern man simply transposed against technology. Ursula K. Le Guin changed all of that, weaving complex social and anthropological themes into her convincing universes. Although the recipient of six Nebula and five Hugo awards for works such as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, her name isn’t as well known outside of science fiction circles as the “Big Guns” although her mark on the field has been no less profound.