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Science fiction is a massively popular genre these days, and while some authors have achieved mainstream recognition, there are gems to be discovered amongst the most underrated sci-fi authors. Casual readers of sci-fi will have heard of writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut. And film directors have snapped up the rights to works by authors such as Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein to ensure their enduring fame. But other writers have created masterpieces of imagination and storytelling in sci-fi, and yet not become household names like their contemporaries. Beyond the established sci-fi bestsellers, who are the most underrated sci-fi authors awaiting your discovery?
Octavia Butler was a science fiction writer unlike any other. Her work was both compelling and disturbing, with richly imagined characters and topics that defied the conventions of the genre. Her 1979 novel Kindred was a genre-busting mash-up of slave memoir, fantasy, and time travel. In contrast, her 2005 novel Fledgling was a creepy and unsettling meditation on vampirism, genetic modification, race and class. Although she achieved success in her lifetime, Butler’s contribution to the genre, including writing award-winning sci-fi novels that tackled issues such as gender and black history, deserves far wider recognition and reading.
Books to read by Octavia Butler:
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
The Russian writers Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky were brothers and science fiction collaborators. Their books were the inspiration of several notable science fiction films by master directors. In particular, their novel Roadside Picnic concerns the phenomena of visitation zones on Earth containing objects showing supernatural properties which were left behind by unseen aliens. This perspective gives the story a menacing perspective through their absence which inspired Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky when he adapted the novel into Stalker (1979). Alongside this, the Strugatsky brothers together created The Noon Universe setting, a Utopian meritocracy in which they based more than ten works of fiction. The Noon Universe was an inspiration for James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar movie. Falling into the category of “most underrated sci-fi authors who inspired other writers”, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s many novels are deserving of wider reading in their own right.
Books to read by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:
Joe Haldeman’s masterwork is his 1974 novel The Forever War, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Haldeman had served as a US soldier during the Vietnam war, and he drew on his experiences for this tale of an intergalactic war between humans and an alien race. The Forever War is also fascinating for its treatment of the idea of time dilation, meaning the soldiers fighting the war experience time passing differently from those that they have left back on Earth. This narrative device is powerful and moving in its own right, but it has been a direct influence on such better-known works like the 2014 film Interstellar directed by Christopher Nolan. The Forever War is currently in development as a film by Warner Bros.
Books to read by Joe Haldeman:
Leigh Brackett was an American writer who progressed from writing mystery novels to noir to science fiction. Her most enduring contribution to sci-fi is as one of the writers of the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back, which she finished shortly before her death. As a novelist, Brackett was one of the first writers to create a “shared universe” of space opera novels in a widely influential series known officially as the Leigh Brackett Solar System. If you enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back, it’s definitely worth checking out Brackett’s epic vision in her sweeping space opera novels, and rediscovering her as one of the most underrated sci-fi authors.
Books to read by Leigh Brackett:
Edwin Abbott Abbott
Edwin Abbott Abbott deserves inclusion on any list of most underrated sci-fi authors thanks to his 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Described as “mathematical fiction”, it is science fiction in the truest sense that it uses scientific concepts as a jumping-off point for an engaging work of fiction. Flatland is set in a two-dimensional world occupied by geometric figures, and is narrated by A Square who describes his flat world to the readers. The novella then goes on to introduce flat Square to three-dimensional Sphere, and the books explores the idea of multiple dimensions existing around us. This playful but mind-bending concept of multiple dimensions led to Flatland’s popularity with creators of science fiction, cyberpunk, and even video games. Thanks to its wide impact on sci-fi creators, this quirky slim Victorian novel is still worth reading more than a century after its publication.
Books to read by Edwin Abbott Abbott:
Polish author Stanislaw Lem is best known for his 1961 masterwork Solaris, which has been adapted into three highly successful films (in 1968, in 1972, and in 2002 by Steven Soderberg starring George Clooney). Like many of Lem’s works, Solaris explores philosophical themes around technological developments. Solaris is not the only one of Lem’s works to be adapted for cinema in English: director Ari Folman was inspired by Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress in making his film The Congress, in which an actress’ consciousness is split between delusional and real mental realms. Lem’s novels have been translated from Polish into more than 40 languages, and he is one of the most successful authors of all time in his native country. But despite homeland success and the high-profile adaptations, few science fiction fans today have heard Lem’s name or read any of his books, earning him a place as another of the most underrated sci-fi authors.
Books to read by Stanislaw Lem:
John Brunner was a British author who wrote his first novel, Galactic Storm, at 17. However, despite his long career, Brunner had an uneasy relationship with British new wave writers, who often considered him too American in his settings and themes. He attempted to shift to a more mainstream readership in the early 1980s, without success, and by the time of his death in 1995, many of his books were out of print. Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, a prescient depiction of an overpopulated Earth, won both the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel and the BSFA award.
With a multitude of voices, and very short chapters condensing snatches of conversations, newspapers and slogans, the style of Stand On Zanzibar was innovative in the genre and expertly captured the sense of an increasing flow of information and trends, and the impacts of overpopulation in a dystopian future. Other groundbreaking novels include The Jagged Orbit (1969) set in a United States dominated by weapons proliferation and interracial violence, and its unusual structure had 100 numbered chapters varying in length from a single syllable to several pages in length. Ahead of his time in many ways, Brunner is credited with coining the term "worm" to describe software which reproduces itself across a computer network (1975’s The Shockwave Rider) and predicting the emergence of computer viruses.
Books to read by John Brunner:
Robert Silverberg was born in 1935, and has been a published science fiction author since 1955. He won his first Hugo award (for best new writer) the following year in 1956. Throughout the 50s, he wrote many science fiction short stories for pulp magazines, often under pseudonyms due to his sheer productivity. After taking a break from science fiction writing in the 60s, Silverberg returned to writing sci-fi novels in the 70s at the encouragement of fellow author Frederik Pohl. It was during this period that Silverberg developed a unique style of dark and inward-looking science fiction, focussing on the internal conflicts of the characters and their quest for transcendence.
Downward to the Earth (1970) is a classic example of this period, set on a colonized planet known as Holman's World and featuring a returning character who has been haunted by the jungle planet. Downward to the Earth has many intentional parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and even features a character named Kurtz. Despite the success, of this and other novels, and his multiple awards, Silverberg’s name is not as well-known as his friends such as Harlan Ellison and Frederick Pohl, and he is currently one of the most underrated sci-fi authors from the 50s still writing.
Books to read by Robert Silverberg:
British novelist and philosopher Olaf Stapledon was a fascinating intellectual figure. A conscientious objector in World War I who drove an ambulance on the front lines, Stapledon earned a PhD in philosophy and his first published work was the nonfiction A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929). The following year saw the publication of his science fiction novel Last and First Men (1930). A "future history" of 18 successive species of humanity, including early descriptions of genetic engineering and terraforming, this novel was successful enough to allow to Stapledon become a full-time writer of fiction and of philosophy.
Stapledon went on to write his most groundbreaking novel Star Maker in 1937. A sprawling and wholly original work, it uses the story of an interstellar out-of-body traveller to describe a history of life in the universe. Much of the book consists of intricate descriptions of alien peoples - some similar to us, others wildly different and beautifully depicted. Virginia Woolf was a fan of the novel, and Arthur C. Clarke described Star Maker to be one of the finest works of science fiction ever written. Conversely, C.S. Lewis was so angered by what he considered the “amoral” nature of the book that he described it as “sheer devil worship” and wrote his own Cosmic Trilogy partly in response to the novel. These days, Olaf Stapledon is most underrated sci-fi authors despite the massive cultural impact of his work at the time, and his work is perfect for rediscovery by modern readers.Books to read by Olaf Stapledon:
Ursula K. Le Guin
Finally, it may seem strange to include Ursula K. Le Guin on a list of most underrated sci-fi authors, given that the renowned writer has won multiple awards for both novels and short fiction, including four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards. She was even nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. However, despite her multiple awards and best-selling children’s books (the Earthsea novels), Le Guin has not enjoyed the recognition outside of science fiction fandom that other writers have enjoyed. While she is very well-known to genre fans, she remains far more obscure to the mainstream than many other sci-fi writers. In particular, her often overlooked novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971) is as easily as mind-bending and fantastically imagined as any work by Philip K. Dick, yet she has not enjoyed fame that films such as Blade Runner and Minority Report brought to her contemporary.
Books to read by Ursula K. Le Guin: