There are plenty of old masters of science fiction, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Le Guin, and so on. But let’s give some of the more recent writers some props.
David Wong (pen name for Jason Pargin) is one of the funniest writers out there, writing in any genre.
While working as a copy editor at a law firm, he would spend his days copy editing insurance claims and nights posting humor articles on PWOT (Pointless Waste of Time). Every Halloween on the site he wrote a new chapter of an online story that he published as a webserial. An estimated 70,000 people read the free online versions before they were removed in September 2008. Wong used the feedback from people reading each episode of the webserial to tweak what would eventually become the book, John Dies at the End.
The John Dies at the End series (more horror than science fiction) currently has three books, and a fourth is in development.
The near-future Zoey Ashe series is all science fiction:
In addition to writing science fiction, Cory Doctorow is a technology activist in favor of liberalizing copyright laws (he’s not a huge fan of Disney), and many of his stories focus on an underdog fighting an authoritarian behemoth. He’s also a prolific blogger and podcaster.
His best-known works include:
Unique among the authors in this list, Mary Robinette Kowal is also a professional puppeteer. She’s even done voice acting, having narrated audiobooks for authors like Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She has also, along with Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson and others, recorded many episodes for Writing Excuses, a short audio podcast with tons of information for aspiring writers (I found the episodes covering Elementary Genres particularly useful.)
Her best-known books are in the Lady Astronaut series:
Robinson’s work has been called “the gold-standard of realistic, and highly literary, science-fiction writing.” According to an article in The New Yorker, Robinson is “generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers.”
While I agree with most of this, and found his Mars books riveting, Robinson does have the occasional misstep (looking at you, Red Moon) and focuses more on technology than the humans affected by it.
Robert Charles Wilson is not as well-known as many of the authors on this list, but he’s one of my favorites. His ability to combine realistic characters with wild science fiction makes him an author with rare skill. Stephen King once called him “probably the finest science-fiction author now writing.”
Connie Willis has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards for particular works—more major SF awards than any other writer. Many of her stories involve time travel to the past, and are clearly exhaustively researched. Unexpectedly, they’re also hilarious (think comedy-of-manners as opposed to slapstick).
Jeff VanderMeer has been called “one of the most remarkable practitioners of the literary fantastic in America today,” with The New Yorker naming him the “King of Weird Fiction.” VanderMeer’s fiction is noted for eluding genre classifications even as his works bring in themes and elements from genres such as postmodernism, ecofiction, the New Weird, and post-apocalyptic fiction. He’s strange, but good-strange.
His appeal crossed over into the mainstream with his Southern Reach trilogy, the first book of which was adapted into a movie starring Natalie Portman.
Peter Watts writes some the tightest science fiction prose I’ve ever read. You cannot skim his books (especially Echopraxia) without missing something important.
In December 2009, Watts, a Canadian, was detained at the U.S. border, and was punched and pepper-sprayed by a border officer, and thrown in jail for the night. A jury later found Watts guilty of obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, and this felony conviction prevents him from entering the United States. Watts has said that because of how the law was written, his asking, “What is the problem?” was enough to convict him of non-compliance.
He’s also written a book of essays and revenge fantasies called Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor.
Margaret Atwood, yet another Canadian on this list, can’t stop. Since 1961, she has published 18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 books of non-fiction, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, two graphic novels, and a number of small press editions of both poetry and fiction. Atwood has won numerous awards and honors for her writing, including two Booker Prizes, and number of her works have been adapted for film and television.
While her work is often labeled as science fiction and feminist, she has resisted those labels, preferring to use the terms “speculative fiction” and “social realism.”
Neal Stephenson didn’t garner much critical or popular attention until his third novel, Snow Crash, a cyberpunk novel fusing memetics, computer viruses, and other high-tech themes with Sumerian mythology.
His novels tend to be long, highly technical, with serious character and plot complexity, but still fascinating. Holding up his large books will strengthen your wrists. It’s worth the effort.
In an age where authors are expected to constantly pump their “brand” via social media, Stephenson describes himself as a “socialmediapath,” someone who avoids social media in order to actually get work done.
Cormac McCarthy was born Charlie McCarthy but changed his name in order to avoid confusion, and comparison, with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy.
McCarthy is well known for his graphic depictions of violence and his unique writing style, recognizable by its lack of punctuation and attribution. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary American writers. His western novel Blood Meridian was tepidly received at first, but is now considered his magnum opus. It took twenty years of writing before one of his books, All the Pretty Horses, became a sensation and introduced him to a wide audience.
Many of his works portray individuals in conflict with society, acting on instinct rather than on emotion or thought. They also often depict explicit violence, as well as the ineptitude or inhumanity of those in authority, particularly in law enforcement.
Dennis E. Taylor is a Canadian novelist (another Canuk for the list!) and former computer programmer known for his hard science fiction stories exploring the interaction between artificial intelligence and the human condition, but in a light-hearted and often hilarious way.
Taylor couldn’t get his first novel published, so he published it himself. It was not a success. He wrote another book, got an agent, and no one was interested in that book either. Using the agent’s own in-house publishing arm, he managed to get it recorded as an audiobook and made a deal with Audible. Once recorded, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) became one of the most popular audiobooks on the service and was awarded Best Science Fiction Audiobook of the year.
Audiobooks have continued to be successful: his 2018 novel The Singularity Trap as well as his 2020 novel Heaven’s River debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List for Fiction Audiobooks.
James S. A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The first and last names are taken from Abraham’s and Franck’s middle names, respectively, and S. A. are the initials of Abraham’s daughter.
Fantasy author Daniel Abraham began to collaborate with Ty Franck (who had worked as a personal assistant to George R. R. Martin) in 2011.
The prolific Abraham is best known as the author of The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin fantasy series. Under the pseudonym M. L. N. Hanover, he’s also the author of the Black Sun’s Daughter urban fantasy series.
Ty Franck served as personal assistant to George R. R. Martin and wrote for Martin’s Wild Cards universe. He began developing the world of The Expanse initially as the setting for a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) and, after a number of years, for a tabletop roleplaying game. Daniel Abraham, already a prolific author, suggested, given the depth of the setting, that it could serve as the basis for a series of novels, noting: “People who write books don’t do this much research.”
Their breakout science fiction series The Expanse (which I’m a big fan of) will supposedly end with the ninth book, Leviathan Falls, in November 2021.
Having grown up as a science fiction fan in St. Louis, Missouri, Leckie’s attempts in her youth to get her science fiction works published were unsuccessful. One of her few publications from that time was an unattributed bodice-ripper in True Confessions.
After giving birth to her children in 1996 and 2000, boredom as a stay-at-home mother motivated her to sketch a first draft of what would become Ancillary Justice for National Novel Writing Month 2002. In 2005, Leckie attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, where she studied under Octavia Butler. After that, she wrote Ancillary Justice over a period of six years; it was picked up by the publisher Orbit in 2012 and published the following year. It went on to win every single major English-speaking science fiction award.
Despite writing hard science fiction, Peter F. Hamilton did not attend university. He said in an interview, “I did science at school up to age eighteen, I stopped doing English, English literature, writing at sixteen, I just wasn’t interested in those days.”
He sold his first short story to Fear magazine in 1988, and has been pumping out series after series of space opera, selling millions of copies.
Alastair Reynolds comes with serious bona fides: he earned his PhD in astrophysics and worked for the European Space Agency until 2004, when he left to pursue writing full-time.
Reynolds has said he prefers to keep the science in his books to what he personally believes will be possible, and he does not believe faster-than-light travel will ever happen, but he adopts science he believes will be impossible when it is necessary for the story. His short stories “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquila Rift” have been adapted as part of Netflix’s animated anthology Love, Death & Robots.
According to his blog, it’s fine if you call him Al.
One of three children to a single mother, Scalzi grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs in poverty, an experience that inspired him to write his most famous essay, “Being Poor.” I recommend you give it a read.
“When I decided to start writing novels, I wanted to write in a genre I already knew and loved as a reader. So, it was either going to be science fiction or mystery. I decided to flip a coin. Heads was science fiction. Tails was mystery. The coin came up heads.”
Scalzi’s first novel, Agent to the Stars, was written in 1997 and published free to read on his website in 1999. He asked readers to donate money to him if they enjoyed the novel, and earned around $4,000 over a period of five years.
Scalzi’s first traditionally-published novel was Old Man’s War, a military science fiction novel about a 75-year-old man who is recruited to fight a centuries-long war for human colonization of space. Scalzi intended to sell the book commercially, so he chose the genre of military science fiction because he felt it would be the most marketable. It was a hit, as well as being much funnier than most military science fiction.
It’s not a surprise that Andy Weir writes science fiction. His father was a physicist and his mother was an electrical engineer. At the age of 15, Weir began working as a computer programmer for Sandia National Laboratories.
Weir began writing science fiction in his twenties and published work on his website for years. He also authored a humor web comic called Casey and Andy featuring fictionalized “mad scientist” versions of himself and his friends from 2001 to 2008. He also briefly worked on another comic called Cheshire Crossing bridging the worlds of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Mary Poppins. The attention these gained him has been attributed as later helping launch his writing career, following the failure to publish his first novel attempt called Theft of Pride.
He wrote his first published novel, The Martian, to be as scientifically accurate as possible, doing extensive research into orbital mechanics, conditions on the planet Mars, the history of human spaceflight, and botany. Originally published as a free serial on his website, some readers requested he make it available on Amazon Kindle. First sold for 99 cents, the novel made it to the Kindle bestsellers list. Weir was then approached by a literary agent and sold the rights to Crown Publishing Group. The print version (slightly edited from the original) of the novel debuted at #12 on The New York Times bestseller list.
Charles Stross was born in Leeds, England, and wrote his first science fiction story at age 12. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy in 1986 and qualified as a pharmacist in 1987. In 1989, he enrolled at Bradford University for a post-graduate degree in computer science. In 1990, he went to work as a technical author and programmer. In 2000, he began working as a writer full-time, as a technical writer at first, but then became successful as a fiction writer.
Best known for Accelerando (which I loved) and the Laundry Files Universe books, Stross is also writing a long fantasy series called The Merchant Princes. According to him, writing fantasy allows him to write multiple books a year without competing against himself.
Martha Wells has published a number of fantasy novels, young adult novels, media tie-ins (Star wars and Stargate universes), short stories, and nonfiction essays on fantasy and science fiction subjects, getting her two Nebula Awards, three Locus Awards, and two Hugo Awards.
It’s Wells’s Murderbot novellas that get her on this list, though. Thoughtful and funny while keeping the science hard, these shorter stories are really excellent.
Octavia E. Butler is the multiple recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.”
Butler was raised by her widowed mother. Extremely shy as a child, Butler found an outlet at the library reading fantasy, and in writing. She began writing science fiction as a teenager.
At the age of 10, Butler begged her mother to buy her a Remington typewriter, on which she “pecked [her] stories two fingered.” At 12, she watched the telefilm Devil Girl from Mars (1954) and concluded that she could write a better story. She drafted what would later become the basis for her Patternist novels. Happily ignorant of the obstacles that a black female writer could encounter, she became unsure of herself for the first time at the age of 13, when her well-intentioned aunt Hazel said: “Honey … Negroes can’t be writers.” Fortunately, Butler persevered.
Although Butler’s mother wanted her to become a secretary in order to have a steady income, Butler continued to work at a series of temporary jobs. She preferred less demanding work that would allow her to get up at two or three in the morning to write. Success continued to elude her for years, but by the late 1970s, she was able to pursue writing full-time. Her books and short stories drew the favorable attention of the public and awards soon followed.
Cixin Liu is a nine-time winner of China’s prestigious Galaxy Award. His parents worked in a mine in Shanxi, but he graduated from the North China University of Water Conservancy and Electric Power. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he continues to work as a senior engineer for the China Power Investment Corporation, at the Niangziguan power plant, despite his status as a prominent science fiction author.
He was labeled the first cyberpunk Chinese author after his novel, China 2185, was published in 1989. His breakout book in the United States was The Three-Body Problem, which concerned itself with a First Contact gone very wrong.
Iain M. Banks, born to a mother who was a professional ice skater and a father who was an officer in the Admiralty, was the Scottish author of the remarkable far-future Culture novels.
When someone introduced him to science fiction by giving him Kemlo and the Zones of Silence, he continued reading the series, which encouraged him to write science fiction himself. He wrote his first novel at age 16, but didn’t find success until The Wasp Factory, written when he was thirty. After that, he began to write full time.
Banks wrote in various categories, but enjoyed science fiction most. In April 2012, Banks became the “Acting Honorary Non-Executive Figurehead President Elect pro tem (trainee)” of the Science Fiction Book Club based in London. The title was his creation.
SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk named two of the firm’s autonomous spaceport drone ships Just Read The Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, after ships in Banks’s novel The Player of Games.
He was an evangelical atheist and lover of whisky who scorned social media and enjoyed writing music. Most importantly of all, he was an extra in Monty Python & The Holy Grail.
In 2013, after discovering he had terminal gallbladder cancer, he asked his long-time girl to marry him and “do me the honour of becoming my widow.” She accepted and he died later that year.
The asteroid 5099 Iainbanks was named after him shortly after his death. It’s in the main asteroid belt and is just under four miles in diameter.