Skiffy and Fanty Question of the Week: Who do you think are the five greatest science fiction writers of all time?
First off, I’m going to have to preface this by saying that no science fiction writer worth their salt is going to put their name behind a list “of all time” unless they have access to the TARDIS and can actually read all science fiction of all time (and possibly all planets), and that doesn’t even touch on alternate timestreams and parallel universes. Therefore, I need to strike out that part of the question:
Who do you think are the five greatest science fiction writers
of all time?
Next, I want to add that this list has to be subjective. Look at the key words “you think” in the question. So MY list will differ from YOUR list.
I also have to wonder what makes a writer great, because this isn’t which five writers have influenced me the most, or which are my five favorite, it’s the five greatest. Does that indicate book sales? Movie deals? Reach of the genre across generations or areas of society? What determines greatness? In my life, I tend to confer greatness upon the pioneers, the ground-breakers. I tend to consider people “great” when they have to overcome assumptions and expectations.
Why do all of the lists I find only list men’s names? Yes, Philip K Dick, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein were influential science fiction writers, they were great, even. But what did they have standing in their ways? What were the obstacles they overcame to achieve the level of renown that they enjoy?
As a woman with a tendency to write more science fiction than fantasy, I’m thinking about this article, and I’m thinking about women in the field of writing Sci-fi, specifically.
It seems that because we’re comfortable with little girls dreaming of princesses, mermaids and unicorns, that we’re equally comfortable with a woman writing a fantasy novel. (Unless the protagonist is a boy, then even J.K. Rowling had better hide her gender from boys who might turn away from Harry Potter because it was written by a woman.)
Studies have proven that women’s brains do not have any harder time with science, or math or computer programming. The expectations of teachers and the sociological groundwork that is put into place to undermine women in technical fields was never intentional, but it’s pervasive. Even in the world of fiction.
The greatest Science fiction writers? By my standard and measure? The women. (Listed here in chronological order based on the date of their first books’ publication.)
- Mary Shelley – Published in 1818, Frankenstein’s monster is Gothic Horror, but it’s also Science Fiction. (Harnessing lightening to zap life into a patchworked corpse? It’s an early AED and organ replacement scenario.)
- Andre Norton published her first novel in 1934, and she couldn’t go by Alice Mary and publish science fiction, now could she?
- Madeline L’Engle – Raise your hand if one of the first five sci-fi books you ever read was A Wind in the Door (first published in 1962). Keep your hand up if you still own your copy. Did you relate to Charles Wallace or the Twins? To Meg? Did you know what mitochondria were years before cellular bio classes? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
- Margaret Atwood – The Edible Woman was published in 1969, and rests firmly with A Handmaid’s Tale on my personal list of books that changed the way I think about books. Ms. Atwood is the only one of these authors still alive and still writing.
- Octavia Butler – if you haven’t read Parable of the Sower yet, I will send you a copy. I’m still going through Ms. Butler’s body of work, and every time I’m drawn by the depth, the heart and the amazing dystopia that she created. Her first book was published in 1971.
We rest on the shoulders of greats. Before Suzanne Collins wrote the Hunger Games, a woman’s glimpse at dystopia had been created by Atwood, Butler and Sheri S. Tepper.
I consider what S.L. Veihl’s amazing Stardoc series or Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series would look like if McCaffrey hadn’t written The Crystal Singer or The Ship Who Sang.
I think of other Speculative fiction authors who are known more for Fantasy than Science Fiction – Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne Rice. All of them deserve credit.