The Most Stellar Sci-Fi Authors of All Time
Many outstanding science fiction writers have a strong body of work worth listening to. Here are some of our favorite sci-fi authors and their best books.
July 14, 2020
Science fiction is a genre as diverse as you can imagine. There are stories that take place in deep space, often depicting teams exploring or running away from something; stories that focus on life at the most cellular level, such as a pandemic tale; and stories that take place in times that feel similar to our own, or not too far into the future. Depicting themes of existentialism, philosophy, hubris, and personal and historical trauma, sci-fi has a cadre of topics and moods to satisfy the palette of most any listener.
With so many stories, styles, and series to choose from, there’s an inclination to wonder, “Who is the best sci-fi writer?” Of course, that's highly subjective, and there are far too many talented writers to list in one place. We’ve put our all into picking just 14 of the best sci-fi authors of all time—a diverse range of writers who represent a few of our favorites.
John Scalzi has a delightful web presence through his Twitter account and blog, and luckily for fans, his sci-fi stories reflect the same passion and talent for crafting captivating narratives. It doesn’t hurt that his audiobooks are narrated by some of the best performers in the business either, making Scalzi's work a particular joy to experience in audio. Among his most beloved is the Old Man's War series, a six-part saga depicting the various wars waged for control of the few planets in a universe that can sustain life. The series maintains an engaging sense of humor throughout—for instance, there’s his nickname for a group of geriatric recruits for space defense duty: the “Old Farts." If you're looking for an approachable and always-entertaining way to dive into the sci-fi greats, John Scalzi is an excellent place to start.
With both sci-fi and fantasy series to her name, N. K. Jemisin is perhaps best known so far for the Broken Earth trilogy, which won three Best Novel Hugo Awards in a row. Taking place on a future Earth long-ravaged by intense, climate change-induced weather, the series is a seamless blend of science fiction and fantasy, containing equal parts enchantment and science in its depiction of the magic system’s geological foundation. The author continues to take the genre in new directions with the arrival of The City We Became, the first in a new trilogy that blends sci-fi with urban fantasy.
Although Bradbury is known for books that vary in genre, his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is so significant to sci-fi, and speculative fiction as a whole, that we'd be remiss not to include him on this list. This classic work, a mainstay of high school curriculum in the United States, explores the moral implications of humanity's technological advancements by depicting a society in which books are outlawed and burned on sight. Bradbury was also the author of The Martian Chronicles, a sci-fi novel constructed of thematically connected short stories. When thinking of the literary possibilities of science fiction, Bradbury is a must-hear writer.
With a surprising sense of humor (beginning right from its opening line), The Martian was a major sci-fi hit a few years back, introducing listeners to Andy Weir, who had worked as a software engineer before the novel's success. After finding himself trapped and alone on Mars, Mark Watney begins his attempts to use his knowledge and skills to do the impossible: survive long enough to somehow signal to Earth that he is still alive. With his second novel, Artemis, Weir confirmed his status as a true sci-fi talent—a voice to keep watching for and listening to in the coming years.
Dune is a work synonymous with science fiction. It was one of the most successful novels of its genre at the time of its original publication, and it went on to become a beloved and influential classic series. As if that wasn't enough, author Frank Herbert kept himself busy throughout the following 21 years of his life with several other series, standalone novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction. He was also a lecturer, journalist, photographer, and book critic. His passion for words and storytelling is evident in his body of work.
Retired computer programmer Dennis E. Taylor made his debut as an author in 2016 with We Are Legion (We Are Bob), and quickly became one of the most exciting voices in modern sci-fi. We Are Legion is the first in Taylor's Bobiverse series, a harmonious mix of hard sci-fi with humor, featuring an incredibly likable central character. Since his initial success, Taylor has released several standalone audiobooks, including Outland and The Singularity Trap.
Ursula K. LeGuin is among the rare authors who excelled at both fantasy and sci-fi to great acclaim. While Earthsea is her monumental work on the fantasy side, it is the Hainish Cycle that stands tallest among her science fiction work. Including perhaps her best-known novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, this collection of stories that take place in the same universe exemplifies LeGuin's prowess for spinning elaborate and satisfying plots set in wholly imagined worlds. LeGuin continued publishing poems and articles until her death in 2018, solidifying her place as not only a great sci-fi writer, but an incredibly gifted and adored literary force.
Although Cixin Liu became a widely known sci-fi author with the success of The Three-Body Problem, the debut volume in his Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, he had published four previous novels as well as numerous works of short fiction. Liu writes hard science fiction with threads of conspiracy and existential pondering. Residing in the Shanxi Province of China, Liu is a notable figure in Chinese science fiction, as well as a highly successful author recognized globally for his translated works.
When we talk about "hard science fiction," it refers to a subgenre that strictly adheres to scientific fact and reasoning when crafting the imagined worlds of far-flung space missions and alien planets. Robert A. Heinlein was among the earliest pioneers of the subgenre, with works like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, setting the standard for countless future works.
Either the Earthseed series or the Xenogenesis series alone would be enough to cement any sci-fi author’s place in the annals of all-time greats. The fact that Octavia Butler wrote both—in addition to a litany of standalone novels, adaptations, and short fiction, plus another series—is an undeniable testament to why she ought to be considered as one of the best sci-fi authors ever. With a startling knack for capturing human flaws and emotions in high-concept settings, Butler's work is at once speculative and literary.
When considering the legacy and impact of Philip K. Dick, one can make the case for his inclusion on this list solely from the number of successful films based on his novels. For every great movie made from Dick's oeuvre, the work itself shines even brighter, and standout narration makes it even more exciting to experience in audio. Ubik and A Scanner Darkly are just two examples of great writing and storytelling in a bibliography including more than 40 novels.
Martha Wells is another author well known for working in both fantasy and science fiction. The Murderbot Diaries is an intense series of sci-fi novellas about the morality of artificial intelligence. With six books in the series so far, each installment is an exciting story that shows off Wells's talents with language and plot. With both Nebula and Hugo awards to her name, Wells continues to live up to her reputation with each new release.
In the early half of the 20th century, the Golden Age of Science Fiction introduced sci-fi to a wider audience than it had ever enjoyed. Isaac Asimov was a cornerstone of the movement, having introduced the concept of the Three Laws of Robotics in his seminal novel, I, Robot. These three rules, which detail the expected behaviors of robots in science fiction, became fixtures of the genre during this age—and Asimov remains a towering and prolific figure who authored more than 500 books (!).
Kurt Vonnegut is not generally considered a science fiction author. Yet, many of his earliest novels and short stories were important contributions to the genre during the New Wave science fiction movement in the 60s and 70s. Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan are vital sci-fi novels and contain traces of the sardonic humor and keen insights on humanity that would mark Vonnegut's later work. Almost all of Vonnegut's short stories have been committed to story collections, like Welcome to the Monkey House, so there is no shortage of material from this great literary mind to work your way through.
D.R. Baker is a writer and musician based in New York City. Their work has appeared at Book Riot, Submittable, HowlRound, and others.