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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works
Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.
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“They liked to have books filled with things they already knew
set out fair and square with no contradictions.”
– The Lord of the Rings
J. R. R. Tolkien
It is sometimes helpful and usually amusing to extract from ratings or rankings lists, such as those on the Author List page, various subsets. I have here collected a few such possibly helpful or amusing sub-lists derived from that page. But note that there are also separate pages of this site with lists of science-fiction and fantasy books that fall into categories:
The sub-lists on this page are all of authors of science-fiction and fantasy; those sub-lists, as listed and jump-linked in the grey box above, now follow.
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The Five-Star Masters
I perceive a dozen such writers, listed below. After each name I have noted what that writer is best remembered for, but where I name particular works that should not be taken to mean that that author did not write others equally fine: the named works are usually only the author's “signature” works.
One notable point about this list is that no two on it, arbitrarily paired, will be much alike in their works, and most such random pairings will show wild dissimilarities. Each of this dozen carved out a universe“or universes”of his own.
Another notable point: “heroic” fantasy is only lightly represented: Eddison and Tolkien, and—on one occasion only, with The King of Elfland’s Daughter—Dunsany.
And yet another point: two of these authors’ works are entirely “children’s books”; make of that what you will.
An oddment: seven of the twelve are remembered for specific works or collections of related works (as with Cabell’s eighteen-book—or more—“Biography of Manuel” cycle); the other five are remembered for no one work or cycle but simply the entire body of their work.
Baum, L. Frank – Oz
Borges, Jorge Luis – one thick volume’s worth of short stories (many not strictly “speculative” fiction, but all of subtle and complex genius)
Bramah, Ernest – Kai Lung
Cabell, Branch – the Biography
Calvino, Italo – a variety of delights, often comic in tone
Carroll, Lewis – Alice (twice)
Dunsany, Lord – the grand master, likely never to be equalled, with a host of works (mostly cameo short stories, but also novels, plays, poetry)
Eddison, E. R. – Ouroboros/Zimiamvia
Lafferty, R. A. – a true original, prolific, with deep method in his apparent madness
Peake, Mervyn – Gormenghast
Tolkien, J. R. R. – The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth in general
Vance, Jack – a prolific ironist of masterly style
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The Four-Star Greats
Of the five-star “masters” there are few or none whose ranking anyone would quibble about. More controversial will be this list, in two ways: some on it will be seen as five-star writers not being duly honored, others as not truly deserving even four stars.
That may be. The purpose of the stars is not to save God the trouble of deciding which wing of Heaven who will occupy; it is to give you some idea of who I think are the better writers in the field and some gross, not fine, idea of how good each is. I believe you would be rewarded by reading every writer I list on this site; at most, the stars might suggest an order in which to proceed to those with whom you are not familiar.
Note that in a few cases, not marked off here but discussed on that author’s individual page, the rating may derive from just a small subset of the author’s total oeuvre; I used to try to signify that with slashed star ratings (like ****/**), but have decided that that’s just a mess. As noted above, this is not, after all, that fine a slicing. These authors are four-star authors, and—as Dr. Sam’l Johnson famously used to say—there’s an end on’t.
- Aickman, Robert ****
- Aldiss, Brian W. ****
- Bauer, Steven # ****
- Beagle, Peter S. ****
- Bellairs, John ****
- Blaylock, James ****
- Carroll, Jonathan ****
- Chabon, Michael ****
- Chesterton, G. K. ****
- Davidson, Avram ****
- Finney, Charles G. ****
- Grahame, Kenneth ****
- Harrison, M. John ****
- Hoban, Russell ****
- Hodgson, William Hope ****
- Lee, Tanith ****
- Lightman, Alan # ****
- MacDonald, George ****
- Machen, Arthur # ****
- Millhauser, Steven ****
- Mills, Magnus ****
- Milne, A. A. ****
- Mirrlees, Hope ****
- Morris, William ****
- Pratchett, Terry ****
- Ruff, Matt ****
- Rushdie, Salman ****
- Smith, Cordwainer ****
- Thompson, Ruth Plumly ****
- Wangerin, Walter Jr. # ****
- Whittemore, Edward ****
- Wolfe, Gene ****
- Woolf, Virginia # ****
- Wright, Grahame # ****
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Speculative-Fiction Writers: Some Surprises
The next time some Philistine acquaintance berates you for reading—even liking—“that dreadful genre sludge”, drop a few of these names on them. Ask them which of these authors, in their opinion, wrote the worst “sludge”.
- Peter Ackroyd
- Kingsley Amis
- Martin Amis
- Paul Auster
- J. M. Barrie
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Mikhail Bulgakov
- A. S. Byatt
- Italo Calvino
- Lewis Carroll
- Michael Chabon
- G. K. Chesterton
- John Collier
- F. Marion Crawford
- Roald Dahl
- Robertson Davies
- Kathryn Davis
- Louis de Bernières
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Rick Demarinis
- Rikki Ducornet
- John Gardner
- Alasdair Gray
- Russell Hoban
- Nikolai Gogol
- E. T. A. Hoffmann
- Samantha Hunt
- Shirley Jackson
- Douglas Jerrold
- Graham Joyce
- George MacDonald
- Steven Millhauser
- Magnus Mills
- Christopher Morley
- H. H. Munro (“Saki”)
- Alan Lightman
- Penelope Lively
- Robert Nathan
- Flann O’Brien [Brian O’Nolan]
- Cynthia Ozick
- Herbert Read
- Salman Rushdie
- Paul Theroux
- James Thurber
- Peter Tinniswood
- Sylvia Townsend Warner
- Franz Werfel
- Colson Whitehead
- Oscar Wilde
- Charles Williams
- Virginia Woolf
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Notable Writers of Limited Science-Fiction or Fantasy Output
Some of these writers are dead, so we know we will never have more from them than the little we do. Others, though still writing today, are doing so in other fields and show no inclination to return to ours—though we may yet hope. A few are still active in our fields and I await their next books (publication of which which will usually take them off this list).
For those listed here whom I know definitely to be deceased I have added that notation in [brackets] after the name; for the others, I have [bracketed] whatever I do know. Considering the quality of these writers, it is maddening to find how obscure most seem today: for many, it is hard to find information; for some, it is almost impossible—even merely whether they are still living.
Not a few of these authors have written some other books that might make these lists as I get time to look at them; be sure to cross-check the “Possibles” list page.
- Barrie, J. M. [deceased] **
Barrie and Peter Pan need little comment, save to note that the original was a play and only later was the tale novelized; regrettably, much-abridged versions of the novelization are often marketed with no warning of their being an abridgement.
- Bauer, Steven [alive and well and writing, but not currently our stuff] ****
- Bell, Douglas [presumably alive, but apparently no longer writing] *** (maybe ****)
Mojo and the Pickle Jar
Can we hope for more from this still-young author? After so long a gap, though, it seems sadly unlikely.
- Benary-Isbert, Margot [deceased] **
The Wicked Enchantment
Benary-Isbert, a German who later moved to the U.S., wrote many books, mainly but not entirely children’s books; this is her only fantasy.
- Carlyon, Richard [searches drew blanks] *
The Dark Lord of Pengersick (considered a “juvenile”)
Carylon is best known for his non-fiction Guide to the Gods: An Essential Guide to World Mythology, a compendious work of scholarship.
- Carr, Terry [deceased] **
This science-fiction novel was the only significant fiction from this prodigiously successful editor.
- Chabon, Michael [alive and well and writing] ****
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Summerland
- DeMarinis, Rick [alive and well and writing: see the “Possibles” lists.] **
- Hanratty, Peter [another set of blanks drawn] **
The Last Knight of Albion, then The Book of Mordred; with those, a projected series ended.
- Helprin, Mark [alive and well, writing mainstream fiction] ***
Winter’s Tale and the “Swan Lake” trilogy.
Some of his mainstream work borders on fantasy (like much of Chesterton’s.)
- Hickman, Stephen [alive and well, but apparently too busy illustrating to write more.] ***
The Lemurian Stone
Hickman is justly famed as an illustrator; this is his one book, and that’s a darned shame. He told me some years ago that he was thinking about doing another novel, but that has not happened.
- Houarner, Gerard Daniel [alive and well and writing—see the “Possibles” lists] **
The Bard of Sorcery
- Jacob, Max [deceased] **
King Kabul the First and Gawain the Kitchen Boy
Jacob was chiefly noted as poet, painter, and critic; this whimsical little gem is his only fantasy (that I know of).
- Jerrold, Douglas [deceased] **
Whimsical Tales of Douglas Jerrold
Jerrold was a noted humorous (and sometimes political) essayist, in his time ranked with Dickens, a few of whose works were fantastic; see also the “Possibles” lists.
- Kathryns, G. A. [alive and well and writing under other names; whether more of this sort, only time will tell] (= Gael Baudino) ***
The Borders of Life and Snow City
Only these two books to date under this pseudonym, but the author has many other published works in this field; my approach is to judge works by listed name, on the belief that authors adopt differing pen names for differing approaches to writing. (Her Baudino stuff—well, let’s just say it’s not listed here.)
- Lieberman, Herbert [apparently alive and well and writing, but not currently our stuff] *
Lieberman writes mainly mainstream and crime/suspense fiction—his sole science-fiction novel is itself also a sort of detective novel.
- Lightman, Alan [alive and well and teaching physics at MIT] ****
Einstein’s Dreams (fantasy, not science fiction)
Lightman, a physics instructor, is also, it turns out, a lyrical writer; this is not his only book, but there are a couple others that might be in our fields—see the “Possibles” lists.
- MacNamara, Desmond [deceased] ****
The Book of Intrusions
MacNamara had a diverse and interesting career, but only produced this one work of fiction..
- Mirrlees, Hope [deceased] ****
Mirrlees had a promising career going, but inherited money and gave up writing.
- Mujica Lainez, Manuel [deceased] ***
The Wandering Unicorn
The only novel on our turf of this world-class Argentine writer.
- Ozick, Cynthia [alive and well and writing, but mainstream] ***
The Puttermesser Papers
Ozick is considered a first-class writer, but this peculiar modern-world gem is her only venture into the (somewhat) fantastic, save possibly a couple of short-story collections—see the “Possibles” lists.
- Read, Herbert [deceased] ***
The Green Child
This utopian fantasy is widely considered a high classic of general literature and shows up on numerous “canonical” lists of the “hundred greatest” sort; it is Read’s only fantasy
- Silas, A. E. [presumed living, but nothing to be found] ***
The Panorama Egg
I can find no information about this author, which is strange; the book is not especially distinctive in any one way, but it is in all ways done better than such things usually are. I have also read one short story—The Mistaken Oracle—by Silas, but the anthology it appeared in gave no useful information. (Her full name is Ann Elizabeth Silas).
- Tinniswood, Peter [deceased] **
The Stirk of Stirk
Tinniswood was a prolific writer of wildly comic British radio programmes. This book, quite different from his usual output, is his only work of speculative fiction.
- Tarn, W. W. [deceased] ***
The Treasure of the Isle of Mist
Tarn was an eminent classical scholar (specializing in the life of Alexander the Great); he wrote this one beautiful little gem, his only fiction of any sort, for his
- Wangerin, Walter Jr. [alive but unlikely to repeat his unique success] ****
The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows
Wangerin is a stunningly prolific writer of Christian books; but of works eligible for consideration here, he seems to have had only the one or two good books in him (the second book, The Book of Sorrows, awaiting reading here, is a sequel to the first; critical opinion of it elsewhere seems decidedly mixed.)
- Warner, Sylvia Townsend [deceased] **
Lolly Willowes and Kingdoms of Elfin
Warner, like her contemporary Virginia Woolf, was an ardent early feminist and well-known mainstream writer.
- Werfel, Franz [deceased] **
Star of the Unborn
Werfel is best known for The Song of Bernadette; this work, though, is his sole fantasy; Wrrfel was much occupied with religious and ethical issues.
- Wilde, Oscar [deceased] **
The Fairy tales and Poems in Prose
Wilde is, of course, famous in mainstream literature, but wrote when the fantastic was a perfectly acceptable part of such literature; his other fantastic work, notably The Picture of Dorian Gray, is less satisfactory.
- Woolf, Virginia [deceased] ****
Woolf too is famous in mainstream literature. This fantastic, delightful book was her sole venture onto our fields.
- Wright, Austin Tappan [deceased] **
Only one book because it was the work of a lifetime. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Islandia is realized in the author’s mind (and copious appendices not usually printed with the book) as fully as any land ever to enter an atlas.
- Wright, Grahame [deceased] ****
This utterly striking book was the only thing of his ever published, owing to his sad death at age 29—what a loss.
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Writers of Science-Fiction or Fantasy Only Available in Translation>
The appreciation, by an English speaker, of the work of an author who wrote in another language necessarily depends heavily on the skills of the translator, as to both fidelity to the sense of the original and to the “flavor”, or prose quality, of the original. Some authors (notably Stanislaw Lem) have been very poorly served by most of their translators; others (notably Italo Calvino) have been very well served. The notes below may be helpful.
- Ajvaz, Michal **
The Dalkey Archive Press has used a different translator for each of the two Ajvaz books it has released to date: Gerald Turner and Andrew Oakland are the men. Ajvaz’s style is probably difficult to render, but there is no shrieking difference (to me) between the two renderings.
- Benary-Isbert, Margot # **
Her one book here, The Wicked Enchantment, is translated by Richard and Clara Winston; if there are other translations, I do not know of them. The Winstons were, for decades, famed and prize-winning translators of numerous German works.
- Borges, Jorge Luis *****
Andrew Hurley’s one-volume collection has been both praised and damned, but remains the only uniform verson of the complete works. A lengthy and sane appraisal of Borges translation issues can be found at “Borges under Review” at The Complete Review site.
- Bulgakov, Mikhail **
The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s best-known work, has had many translations, which are (in part) discussed by Wikipedia. There is also a somewhat dated discussion at this Master and Margarita site. There are also some notes, with follow-on links, at the About Last Night blog [archive link]. In short, there seems no universal agreement, or anything approaching it. (As to Bulgakov’s other works, I have no idea.)
- Calvino, Italo *****
William Weaver has won awards for his exemplary translations of Calvino; a useful insight can be found in "Path to the Nest of Translation" (by Giulia Guarnieri). Curiously, one Calvino book—Italian Folk Tales—was translated instead by George Martin, who also seems to have served Calvino well.
- Collodi, Carlo (pen name of Carlo Lorenzini) *
Poor Collodi! To have one’s work Disney-ized, as his classic Pinocchio was, is a fate few writers would tolerate did they live to see it. Fortunately, there are several good, honest, unabridged translations—Murray, Sweet, Harden, Teahen, Lucas, Canepa, Rosenthal, Perella, probably more—each with its partisans. What looks best from here is the 1989 MacMillan edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio, translated by Carol della Chiesa.
(Those who would like to explore the full scope of translations and mis-translations of a “classic“ will find interesting Wunderlich and Morrissey’s book-length study Pinocchio Goes Postmodern: Perils of a Puppet in the United States.)
- Eco, Umberto **
William Weaver, whose yeoman services have so aided Italo Calvino’s popularity, also did Eco’s work till he decided to drop out; now, starting with Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Geoffrey Brock has taken up the role, and seems, from reviews, to have done well.
- Gogol, Nikolai **
The team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky seem, by general critical acclaim, to have done not only the best but the first really good job of translating Gogol’s prose, so often praised (“lyrical”) by those who can read the Russian originals. Their translation of the collected Tales first appeared in 1999, but was to some extent “updated” in 2003; the two amended editions (2003 and 2008) would be the wanted ones. There are, of course, other translations out there, but this seems the reigning champion.
- Hansen, Erik Fosnes # ***
Hansen is represented in English by only two translated works, and only one version for each title. Tales of Protection was translated by Nadia Christensen (who did not do his other—and non-speculative—book). I can find no evaluation of the quality of the translation, but that’s immaterial, as it’s Hobson’s Choice anyway.
- Hoffmann, E. T. A. ***
Shockingly, these has never been a uniform translation of Hoffmann into English. Indeed, it is astonishingly hard merely to compile a list of his works, inasmuch as they appear in English in numerous collections with much overlap, and widely varying translations of the titles; yet, despite the flood of collections, many of his works seem (I cannot be sure) not to appear in English at all, the anthologizers (as usual) going for just the best-known. (You can see an extensive set of cross-listings of Hoffmann’s works on his page here: click on his name at the head of this entry.) Some idea of the relative merits and demerits (often substantial) of at least some of the many translations appear at Petra Bauer’s page Introduction to E. T. A. Hoffmann [archived]; and there is an extensive dissertation, "Little Ernest, Great Ernst: The Trials and Tribulations of E.T.A. Hoffmann in English" that is illuminating.
- Jacob, Max # *
So far as I know, the University of Nebraska Press edition of Jacob’s little charmer The Story of King Kabul the First and Gawain the Kitchen-Boy, with translation by Moishe Black and Marcia Green, is the only English-language version available; fortunately, it seems to be quite good.
- Moers, Walter *
Overlook Press has had John Brownjohn doing the lot, and so far as one can tell, most satisfactorily.
- Mujica Láinez, Manuel # ***
So fas as I can see, the only extant English translation is the one by Mary Fitton, about the quality of which I can find no clue.
- Saint Exupéry, Antoine de # **
There exist at least eight translations of The Little Prince:
- Katherine Woods, 1943
- Irene Testot-Ferry, 1995
- T.V.F. Cuffe, 1995
- Alan Wakeman, 1995
- Richard Howard, 2000
- Ros and Chloe Schwartz, 2010
- David Wilkinson, (bilingual English-French student edition) 2011
- Michael Morpurgo, 2018
- Guillain Méjane (translated via the PoesIA project, a convolutional neural network), 2020
Woods’s was long considered the “classic“, and many readers familiar with both tongues still much prefer her version, despite the presence in it of some errors. Available on line is an illuminating cross-comparison of how indicative each translator’s treatment of a single sentence from five of the translations can be. All taken in all, Howard’s may be the best choice.
- Tournier, Michel **
He seems to have no one “designated” English translator; so fas as I can see, for The Four Wise Men Hobson’s Choice is Ralph Manheim, the quality of whose work is unknown to me.
- Werfel, Franz # **
Werfel wrote Star of the Unborn as he was dying, and his friend Gustave O. Arlt translated it almost literally as it was being written (with the closing two chapters done right after Werfel’s death). If there is any other translation, I do not know of it. One would assume that a friend working “real time” with the author should have done well, but I cannot, of course, say for sure.
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The Top 100 (Or Thereabouts)
(That “100” is just because “Top 100” makes a catchy phrase; it is only coincidence that the list below is close to 100 in length.)
These are, in my opinion, the 109 best science-fiction and fantasy authors of those I have read; for unread authors well recommended by others, see the page here of List Candidates. (The 110 here comes because that is right at the cut between my 3-star and 2-star writers.) Alphabetically, they are:
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The Campy Stuff
I have tried to limit this sub-list—which could easily have gotten out of hand—to just those works that can bear adult re-reading. I do not claim to have included all writers in our fields who are “so bad they’re good”, but I think I have included enough to point any curious readers toward the better samples of the type.
The “so bad” part may deceive: given the right spirit—or spirits—in one’s approach, this lot can be quite entertaining. They are, one might say, beers to the wines I have attempted to list on this site. But I, at least, like beer, too.
(Note that there is a whole separate page on this site listing what I term “Guilty Pleasures”; it overlaps this list, but is by no means identical to it.)
(None of these authors have pages on this site: the link each name represents will take you to an ABEbooks list of used books by that author.)
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: Tarzan, John Carter, Pellucidar, and more; some of his books are more literate than you might expect.
Haggard, H. Rider: a writer of the “Ripping Yarns” school, best known for his tales of "She Who Must Be Obeyed" and Alan Quatermain (King Solomon’s Mines is by Haggard).
Howard, Robert E.: Conan! Need one say more?
Lovecraft, H. P.: Horror author renowned for creating the “Cthulu mythos”.
Mundy, Talbott: Another “ripping yarns” author; his “Tros of Samothrace” series is a good read and perhaps his best.
Quinn, Seabury: his Jules de Grandin, a sort of Hercule Poirot of the occult, was a pulp staple for years; the stories, long in paperback, are jolly good fun.
Smith, E. E. (“Doc”): archetypal “space opera” (in the old, established sense of the term) science-fiction writer; today only his Lensman series (and only four of the seven total books of that) can be read even for camp fun. His greatest redeeming virtue, which shines through that series, is that he didn’t take himself seriously, amusing himself at one point by creating the minor character of hack science-fiction writer Sybly White, with a purple tale to match.
Van Vogt, A. E.: if you haven’t tried him, you must; he’s not indescribable—nothing is truly “indescribable”—but comprehensible description of his bizarre science fiction is difficult.
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