The greatest alive?

Posted: 13th July 2008 by onyxhawke in Uncategorized
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So who is the greatest living science fiction and fantasy author? Is it Ray Bradbury who has done the rarest of all things for genre fiction and crossed over to being used in English classes from elementary school all the way to college and universities?  Does it go to Stephen King? He’s sold oodles of books and even managed to convince the mainstream he isn’t (usually) science fiction? Can we anoint Terry Pratchett? Despite his presence, and the legacy of Douglas Adams, People who Matter are still convinced humor doesn’t sell. Another reasonable choice is Lois Bujold who has more Hugo Awards for both science fiction and fantasy, and is a perennial nominee for the Locus, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards as well? A case can be made for J.K. Rowling as well, without much need to go into what she’s done. Robin Hobb certainly deserves a strong look as well. Mercedes Lackey has helped define SF/F for the last two decades and has written and sold across half a dozen of the subgenres. Another name some might throw out is China Meiville, for lush language and creativity?  R. A. Salvatore has sold well enough that he can make a legit claim to being the greatest too.


So is the greatest living SF/F writer one of these? Or is there someone I just don’t know?

  • I'm all for anointing Terry Pratchett. His books are more than "just" humor.

  • Pratchett by several lengths of the racetrack
    Pratchett, unquestionably, never mind what "people who matter" think. There is so much packed into his books that I get more out of them each time I read them. There is no other living author who does that and does it after ten or more re-reads, although I will say that our fine host's client Dave Freer is fast-approaching that level. Sarah Hoyt is another one who's heading for that level, fast – and both of them are grossly underappreciated by the "people who matter".

    • Re: Pratchett by several lengths of the racetrack
      I think if i can ever find some nice editor smart enough to buy Star Dogs, Dave's career will be set even if i drop dead two days after he gets paid. That is one _awesome_ piece of space opera.
      If it were me having to name the greatest today it would be a tie between Bujold and Bradbury.

  • Tough question . . . Bradbury definitely deserves a place. And Ursula Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany, too, both for academic as well as fiction contributions, and Delany for breaking a few genre barriers in the 60's and 70's.
    Or you could go back earlier, for Philip Jose Farmer, who's still alive and kicking and who was the first guy to put sex in SF in 1952, which changed the genre forever.

  • China's too new to be labeled greatest living writer. King & Rowling both outsell Salvatore, and have earned far more critical acclaim for their works and far more awards, so I think you can discount him as well. Also, a large chunk of Salvatore's work is set in Forgotten Realms, a world he didn't create–worldbuilding is huge factor in secondary fantasies. I like Robin Hobb's work a lot, but I would put George R. R. Martin before her in heartbeat.
    I'd probably award the "title" to Bradbury, with Stephen King in second. For the sake of argument, other names worth tossing out there are Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Robert Silverberg, and Daniel Keyes.

  • I have to agree with Kate. Pratchett would be my first choice. I've talked to more people, young and old alike, who have returned to reading the genre because of him. I also agree that Dave and Sarah are two writers who are under-appreciated and yet who have great talent and engaging voices.
    Of the others, I have to take my hat off to Rowling. She put forth a product that made kids — and adults — want to read. She brought a number of readers to the genre who had either never considered reading SF/F or who had left the genre and had no intention of ever returning. For that, kudos.

    • I've tried two of TP's books and while I don't hate them and was able to finish them for the sake of the writing, I didn't find them to be particularly magnetic. This is still several steps above some of the stuff I've seen get fawned over, and there's one author who sells obscenely well that would _never_ have made it past my slush pile. I won't name names, but they are not listed anywhere here.

  • I'd say the greatest active writer of sf/f would be Gene Wolfe or Ursula Le Guin. For "greatest living" I would divide the crown three ways and include Vance–maybe four ways, including Fred Pohl.
    I like the people on your list a lot, especially Mieville and Bujold, but I think some of them are too early in their careers to claim top honors.
    That's obviously not true of Pratchett and King. And I'm not knocking them: their place in the pantheon of genre fiction is secure. But their best work lies in a fairly narrow range (horror for King, humor for Pratchett). It seems to me that the greatest writer in the field should be less specialized.

  • What about Frank Herbert? The Dune books are in the realms of creative art. Then there is Tolkein and his hobbits. LOTR brought a new dimension to fantasy as well as marking Tolkein the only writer who really ever managed to get away with successfully writing in omni.
    John Wyndham wrote a goodly many that became films and then there are Huxley and Orwell, both of whom had books used in curriculi.
    I guess the guy who started it all was H.G.Wells. He surely deserves a mention.
    I don't see the great ladies mentioned. The first great lady coming to mind is Andre Norton. Then what about Marian Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey?

    • Both Andre Norton and Marian Zimmer Bradley are deceased. If she weren't, Andre Norton would definitely be on my list. She's the first person who inspired me to write. I wanted to write stories that she could read and enjoy as much as I enjoyed hers. Alas… But there are many others I can write for, so I keep plugging on ahead.
      Most of the rest you've listed are also deceased, and the question was the greatest alive. 🙂

  • I agree with Bradbury. Then there's John Steakley (okay, not the most prolific writer), or one of my favorites, C. J. Cherryh (very prolific but not everyone's cup of tea). I personally don't think any single person can or should claim that crown. Everyone is going to pick authors whose work appeals to them personally and each author has their merits, each their own contributions and so to name one, to me, lessens everyone else's contribution to the genre.

    • I was waiting for those two names to pop up. I expected one of them to come from a person I IM'd a link too.
      One of the reasons I picked Bradbury is he's passed the "relevant X years later" test. FAHRENHEIT 451 was first released in 1953, the book is older than 2/3's of the people on flist, and still both readable _and_ relevant.
      And I freely admit that I worship the ground Lois hovers just above.

      • Steakley and Cherryh are opposite ends of the spectrum, living proof you can write one incredibly exceptional book and be perfectly satisfied with that huge accomplishment (and not be tempted by money to write endless sequels), or you can write and write and write and never lower your standards. Both are amazing and are spot on in their ability to peek into the minds of people who are not exactly…well, normal.

  • I wouldn't want to take any names off the list in progress, but I feel I need to add one name and a tip of the hat to a late great who continues to influence the genre in ways people don't even realize.
    Among the living, Diana Wynne Jones body never fails to satisfy. She's often overlooked because she focuses so much on women an their issues, but nobody–not even Norton–better capture women's secret fears and hopes. For that matter, I can't think of a mainstream writer who does it better either.
    As for my tip of the hat, that goes to Fritz Leiber, who established the structure and tropes Salvatore and others rely on. Not only that, TSR licensed his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series to build their game structure. Who knows how many writers and readers have been influenced by the resulting games and their derivatives?
    Jean Marie

    • DWJ is another name I adore. I like her, and recommend her books as what to aim for in writers who need to polish their stuff a bit.

      • I love her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, plus The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. 🙂

        • Have you read "Deep Secret"?
          And i think too many writers take "Tough Guide" as a "How To" book and include all of it…

          • Here's a rant of mine spawned many moons ago about something out of the "Tough Guide", and one of the main reasons DWJ isn't anywhere near the top of my list of even authors I would pick up off the shelf. Of course, the other reason is that the few I've read have failed to capture my interest. They just didn't have the depth.
            Anyway, on to the rant:

          • Ack! Deep Secret, my favorite of all her books (and there are many, because she's so prolific)!
            So my vote is DWJ and possibly Bujold, but just because I really like The Sharing Knife sequence.
            And totally agree with you about Pratchett – it must be a character flaw on my part, but apart from Good Omens, I don't get the love. ::shrug::

            • *has a coughing fit*
              The Sharing Knife is probably the weakest of all the books Bujold has ever put out. It really lacks the depth of books like Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls. I have to wonder if she dug TSK out from under the bed while she works on something else. Compared to her other works, TSK is light frothy fun read. If she were anyone else but Bujold, I'd be placing her in the candy category, but Bujold has shown that she's so much more, and I hold her up to the standards she set for herself.

              • LMB, from this interview:
                sfd: Well that’s great news. Everyone will be happy about that. Do you find that you have readers of Vorkosigan who haven’t really gone with your fantasy offerings?
                LMB: You can’t argue tastes. There’s a variety of people who have a variety of opinions. Some of the Vorkosigan readers haven’t enjoyed the fantasy as much, some of them have enjoyed them more. Some people who have never tried the Vorkosigan books, have tried the fantasies. It’s a hazard for any writer who chooses not to write the same thing all the time. You will invariably please some of the people some of the time, but very seldom all the people all of the time. The thing about it is that liking books isn’t like getting married. You don’t have to just love one. You’re allowed to love, like, more than one. You can have more than one favorite. Trying to convince people that literary monogamy is not required can be a bit of a stretch.

          • No, I haven't read "Deep Secret" — I'll make a point of looking for it now.

  • Greatest Living SF writer
    Nobody's mentioned Mike Resnick, who's won more awards than anybody now living.
    I think mention should be made of Eric Flint, who is not only a creative novelist but has also defined the debate about DRM and electronic books for the profession, as well as being as prolific an editor as he is a novelist.

    • Re: Greatest Living SF writer
      Resnick seems to be an excellent packager/editor, but the sum of his writing I can recall is one short story. And I'm not sure how much value awards have anyway.
      Flint is definitely competent, although I personally can't stand his work. But again, his achievements with DRM, ebooks and editing – with all due respect for their significance – don't count as "writing".

      • Re: Greatest Living SF writer
        The one full-length novel of Resnick's that I've read is Santiago, hailed as a classic almost as soon as it was out.

      • Re: Greatest Living SF writer
        Awards have some value. If you win one award, okay. But if you have won more Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards than anybody else now alive, that says something important about your work. You might try reading some of Resnick's stuff.
        And it's okay that you don't like Flint. He feels that he'll never win awards. He is, in my humble opinion, a throwback to the days of RAH where authors wrote stories, not littrachur, and he's created the most popular current shared world in the genre: 1632.

        • Re: Greatest Living SF writer
          Like I said, I wasn't aware that Resnick *was* a writer, or rather that his writing consisted of any more than a bit of dabbling before (like Jim Baen) he decided that another part of the industry was more fitting to his strengths.
          I tend to hate award-winning stuff. Hugo and especially Nebula voters seem to consider Big Themes And Concepts the vital thing, and the presence of a good story somewhere between "tertiary" and "irrelevant"
          Still, I've interacted with him on the Bar a couple of times. Seems like a nice guy, and definitely smart. I'll look him up.

  • I'll toss a couple more names into the pot for consideration, though I think Bradbury is the strongest contender so far. I've read some Pratchett and while it entertained me, and while I liked the adaptation of The Hogfather, I'm not as bowled over by him as some folks are.
    While he's young compared to other names on the list, what about Neil Gaiman?

  • I'm surprised Neal Stephenson hasn't come up. Without a doubt, he's the man I'd name. He's writing SF about stuff that is actually relevant to the technological advances we're seeing these days – i.e. information technology, as opposed to space travel or whatever.
    And he does *cool* very well, also. 😉

  • Give Charlie Stross a couple more years and a pile of books, and you might have him in the running.
    Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series needs to be in there somewhere as well.
    Elizabeth Bear is starting to climb up the ranks. Her writing possesses depth that often needs a second read.

    • EB possess much awesome, and is prolific, but I think if i named someone who is IIRC under 35 I'd be lynched…

  • OK, a few more. What about Charles De Lint? He pretty much invented urban fantasy with Moonheart and his Newford books.
    Or Guy Gavriel Kay? His Fionavar Tapestry stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Lord of the Rings as one of the best fantasy trilogies ever, IMO.

  • Anne McCaffery definitely needs to be on this list, probably well above Mercedes Lackey.
    I guess it depends on what you mean by greatest. Quite frankly, while I admire their longevity, I can't stand either Harlen Ellison or Ray Bradbury. Stephen King may excite readers, but his books aren't exactly what I would call deep. Same with Pratchett. I'm not knocking their writing. They're obviously popular, but I'm not sure popular makes them one of the greatest writers ever.
    Honestly, I tend to think of Bujold or Ursula K. Le Guin when I think of great writers. Michael Moorcock would be another one who I'd seriously consider a candidate. He was definitely one of my influences.
    In the end, though, I'd have to go more with Bujold. She just has a richness of prose that most of the rest can't match or beat, and she tends to write very deep, even when she's writing lighter stories.
    J.K. Rowling, imo, needs to come in very near the top, though. That's not just because she single-handedly introduced reading to whole generations, uniting adults and kids into one big readership. The Harry Potter series has a depth that a lot of people want to overlook just because it's a kid series. I don't think it can be.
    *looks longingly at her list of favorite writers who are dead, sighs, and moves on*

    • Why is "deep" necessarily a good thing?
      I tend to associate that with the overwritten, massively over-analyzed crap that we all had shoved down our throats in high school English classes.
      The sort of thing that turns a lot of people away from ever voluntarily reading anything afterwards.

      • Perhaps another word would be better as a descriptor. Rich, full-bodied, well-rounded. Layered, I guess would come closest to another way to describe depth without evoking the dreaded high school classes.
        I think anyone who gets the nod for greatest living writer needs to write more than the reading equivalent of cotton candy. Don't get me wrong–I like candy stories, too. But to earn the title of greatest living writer, the authors need to be writing things closer to steak or lasagna, something that sticks to the mental ribs, draws the reader back in to experience the story again and again, fills them up without the sugar rush that candy stories leave.

  • I agree with CJ Cherryh, Misty Lackey, Lois Bujold, and Ken McLeod; I like Flint, but he's a better editor than a writer.
    Chip Delaney. Nova. "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones".
    And Steven Brust. Freedom And Necessity.
    And dammit John M. Ford should still be alive; and if you'd posted this two weeks ago you know I'd have put in for Tom Disch.

    • Freedom and Necessity was Emma Bull too, don't forget. 🙂

      • Truth. And her single stuff is good. But the subject is greatness … and they're a great collaboration.
        Michael, great collabs? Niven & Pournelle & Barnes and Flint & Freer & Lackey come to mind … and Brust & Bull.

  • I think it's Richard Matheson.

    • I'm surprised no one's mentioned Tim Powers yet. When he's good, he's great, like Last Call or On Stranger Tides, and he's still got a lot of good books in him. Strange, engaging, adventurous, wildly inventive, that's Powers. And he plots better than Stephenson or Mieville, who tend to meander. Lord, how I hate meandering. Ruins a good book for me, it does.

  • I think for greatest you need works that work at many levels and which are read by as wide an audience as poss. It also helps if the writer has more than one book that people rave about.
    Bradbury – I read F451 and enjoyed it (and it stuck in my mind) but although I've read other Bradbury I don't remember them without recourse to google/wikipedia. Therefore I consider Bradbury to be almost a 1 trick wonder.
    I also think it helps if something the author has written has entered into wider popular culture. Pratchett gets a nod here as does Bujold since both have produced quotes that one sees in odd places.
    Another possibility is Orson Scott Card. Enders Game and Speaker to the Dead work on multiple levels, are popular as introductory works and have some memes that have entered culture (Speaker to X is one).
    Larry Niven isn't dead yet. Lots of stuff there that is well known (on the gripping hand…). I think Niven is more influential that Pournelle in literary terms although in political terms it's the other way around. Niven's non collaborative work is stronger too and better known even though I prefer Pournelle personally as someone to read.
    I think JK Rowling needs to write something other than HP and see it also be successful to count otherwise she drops into the one-hit-wonder category.