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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:
I perceive a baker’s dozen of 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 thirteen 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.
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.
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”.
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 ** Czech 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 # ** German 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 ***** Spanish 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 ** Russian The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s best-known work, has had at least seven translations into English:
Mirra Ginsburg (1967)
Michael Glenny (1967)
Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (1993)
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997)
Michael Karpelson (2006)
Hugh Aplin (2008) [ebook only]
John Dougherty (2017)
There is much argumentation over which is “best”; see these discussions:
To the extent that there is anything approaching a consensus, it seems to be the 1993 Burgin and O’Connor version—but read the articles above if you care.
Calvino, Italo *****
Italian 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) * Italian 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.
Eco, Umberto ** Italian 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 ** Russian 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 # *** Norwegian 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. *** German 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 not to appear in English at all, the anthologizers (as usual) going for just the best-known. (You can see an extensive sets of cross-listings of Hoffmann’s works on his page here.) 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 copy]; 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 # * French 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.
Krohn, Leena *** Finish The recommended Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction has the work products of quite a number of different translators: Hildi Hawkins, Anna Volmari, J. Robert Tupasela, Bethany Fox, Viivi Hyvonen, Viivi Hyvonen, Anselm Hollo, Leena Likitalo, and Eva Buckwald. Judging by the glowing reviews of the book, one has to presume that they all did their jobs well.
Moers, Walter * German Overlook Press has had John Brownjohn doing the lot, and so far as one can tell, most satisfactorily.
Mujica Láinez, Manuel # *** Spanish 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.
Potocki, Jan # ** French, then Polish The history of the document that came to be known as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a long and complex one; rather than try to summarize it, I’ll just point you at the appropriate Wikipedia text. Today, probably the most useful rendition is the 1995 edition translated by Ian Maclean, which, fortunately, is widely available at reasonable prices.
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 ** French 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 # ** German 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.
(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 113 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 113 here comes because that is right at the cut between my 3-star and 2-star writers.) Alphabetically, they are:
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 the ISFDB [Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase] page for that author. The individual links under a given author 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.
(Because he has several series, each of many books, I here provide links to those individual series—which are still by no means all of his work.)
Howard, Robert E.: Conan! Need one say more? But more there is:
(Because he has several series, each of many books, I here provide links to those individual series—which are still by no means all of his work.)
Mundy, Talbot: Another “ripping yarns” author; his “Tros of Samothrace” series is a good read and perhaps his best (though his long “Jimgrim” series is better known…relatively).
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 (though not the complete cycle), 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. Robert Silverberg has remarked that a Van Vogt tale (he was speaking of a particular one, but I think he would apply it to all) was “a goofy masterpiece with no internal logic of plot or character, a kind of hallucinatory fever-dream that carries the reader along on a pleasant tide of bafflement…” That’ll probably do. (Perhaps try The World of Null-A or The Voyage of the Space Beagle.)
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