Roundtable on Ten Exciting Writers
At the 2014 Cannes film festival press conference, film-maker Quentin Tarantino talked about how he periodically puts “the state of film under a microscope.” Riffing off an e-mail exchange he describes, I’d like to pose the following forward-looking question to this group: Who are the ten currently working writers that most excite you today? To be more specific: these should be writers about whose every new work you feel genuinely excited, believing it could represent their *best* work and outshine whatever they’ve done before. Maybe writers whose books you pre-order, or for which you get ARCs because you just can’t wait to read them. Also, please don’t feel confined to pick genre authors, or even fiction for that matter.
Ten off the top of my head (and no doubt overlooking a number I shouldn’t) in the category of people whose books I actively look forward to and seek out: Carol Berg, Gemma Files, Karen Joy Fowler, Nicola Griffith, Ann Leckie, Bennett Madison, Elizabeth Moon, Terry Pratchett, Lilith Saintcrow, Sofia Samatar.
My list (with the caveat that it’s an ever-changing one, but also according to said criteria):
Aliette de Bodard
Yoon Ha Lee
Kim Stanley Robinson
There are writers I’ve followed for decades–some for so long that I have outlived them. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that one of my standard column-opening paragraphs is “I’ve been reviewing X for Y years,” where Y > 20. I keep a quick-reference directory where I store reviews of writers I know I’ll be returning to, and there’s way more than ten of them: Eleanor Arnason, Neal Asher, John Barnes, C. J. Cherryh, Greg Egan, William Gibson, Kathy Goonan, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, Jack McDevitt, Linda Nagata (welcome back!), Larry Niven, Alistair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Allen Steele, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, John Varley, Walter Jon Williams. And those are just the living members of the club.
Then there are the writers I haven’t covered often enough yet to store in the archive but who I know I would be happy to add to it: “James S.A. Corey,” Ann Leckie, Stephen Gould, Susan R. Matthews, Alexander Jablakov, Karen Traviss, Elizabeth Bear. Two of these are relatively new names; others go for longish periods between new books or seem to have gone inactive; others sometimes operate in modes that don’t resonate with me. But I watch for them all the same. Then there are two writers whose books I no longer get assigned (and who I won’t be able to catch up with until I’m confined to a nursing home): Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson.
The only pattern I see in this list (beyond a bias in favor of age and experience and my inability to follow rules) is a taste for strongly coherent SF and really good writing chops. I’m not especially good at picking up on the newest writers, partly because I don’t follow the short-fiction side of the field and partly because that list of established gotta-reads that push to the head of the queue.
Since we’re invited to stray outside SF, here’s a writer whose new titles I await eagerly: Jason Goodwin, whose 19th-century Istanbul is as exotic a setting as anything in SF or fantasy.
There are too many authors that would fit into this category to readily list; my list probably skews toward short fiction, because I don’t have time to read many novels these days. Restricting myself to living authors, I’d mention Ian McDonald, Paul McAuley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alastair Reynolds, Eleanor Arnason, Ian R. Macleod, Michael Swanwick, Elizabeth Bear, Greg Egan, Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Kress, Lavie Tidhar, Pat Cadigan, and Robert Reed, although I have no objections to anyone else on Russell’s list, and could name a dozen more besides. Like Russell, I have a taste for strongly coherent SF (although it’s becoming dismayingly hard to find these days) with good writing chops. Stuff that’s scientifically plausible would be nice, although I also have a liking for flamboyant stuff with lots of local color and Sense of Wonder chops, which is why I like Space Opera, stories set on alien worlds, far-future stuff, and Alternate History stuff.
For fantasy, I’d have to add Terry Pratchett, Le Guin again, George R.R. Martin, K.J. Parker, and Joe Abercrombie, for mystery, James Lee Burke, Martin Cruz Smith, and Steven Saylor, and for non-fiction, John McPhee, Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Paul Theroux, and David Attenborough.
I wish Octavia Butler were still alive to follow. I don’t have to pre-order Ann because I always get to see drafts, muahahaha. Ditto Barry Deutsch.
Six offhand, probably forgetting like everyone since I just got up (late, I know): Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, Stephen Sondheim, Toni Morrison, Karen Joy Fowler, N. K. Jemisin.
Lots more people I get super excited about but who can occasionally miss for me, but I still pick up everything with excitement. I must have checked the “when does this come out????” date for Pratchett’s Raising Steam a dozen times. But I can’t really stand up (personally!) for all the early work like Color of Magic.
I feel like reading so much is a bit of a disadvantage in making this list because there are so many authors I follow, and am really excited about, but nearly everyone has their misses (even Ted Chiang who I wrote above, though his misses are always still really smart… Ditto most of the list, probably, except maybe Toni Morrison). Geoff Ryman, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ken Liu, Chris Barzak, Cat Rambo… or writers who are still new or who I don’t have enough sample size for like Charles Yu, Sofia Samatar, Maria Dahvana Headley, Benjanun Sriduangkaew… There’s a bunch of early Cat Valente that’s not quite my thing, but recently everything she does takes my breath away…
YA authors with above qualifications: A. S. King, Nova Ren Suma (17 and Gone, so amazing), probably a bunch more not coming to mind right now
And I’m just no longer reading enough plays or enough litfic, I’ve been super-concentrated on YA and SF/F. I still stand by Nick Flynn for poetry, but my poetry reading was never sufficiently broad, and I read very little now.
And still, I must be forgetting half of everyone. Oy.
Paul Graham Raven
Somewhat off-topic, I know, but I’m curious: Russell and Gardner, can you unpack “strongly coherent” for us? Is it a specifically sf-nal quality, and what are its signifiers?
I have too many writers to easily cut down to 10, so I’m going to cheat by sticking to writers who haven’t been mentioned so far. (I
will echo the sentiment that I wish Octavia Butler were still with us.) I don’t believe in genre labels, so it’s good that we’re invited
to stray from them.
In the order that their names surfaced in my brain: Rachel Swirsky, Helena Bell, Liu Cixin (I understand he’s working on a new novel), Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan), Xia Jia, David Mitchell (I am using all my powers to conjure up an ARC for his latest), Gillian Flynn, Candace Bushnell (Trading Up was devastating), Margaret Atwood, Mary Roach.
A bunch more names came up but I’m going to follow the rules and stop here.
I read very few novels at all and SF barely. The only writers whose novels I always try to read are Jonathan Carroll, William Gibson, and James Lee Burke.
Mark R. Kelly
There are writers whose books I will always buy… and always intend to read, though I’m often not successful in doing so. (In fact, I don’t think there’s any SF/fantasy author, no matter how much I love their work, by whom I’ve read all their books, not counting trivial cases of authors who’ve only written one or two.)
My top ten would be something like Gregory Benford, Ted Chiang (for short fiction), Greg Egan, William Gibson, Joe Haldeman, Ian McDonald, Christopher Priest, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe. (Not counting several who just aren’t very active anymore: Aldiss, Delany, Le Guin, Sterling, Silverberg, or who are dead, e.g. Ballard, Pohl.)
Then there are a bunch more who, while usually buying all their books, I’m comfortable with only reading every third or fourth one, just because there’s only so much time: Brin, Kress, Ken MacLeod, Varley, Wilson, Baxter, Doctorow, McAuley, McDevitt, Reynolds, Steele, Stross, Swanwick, VanderMeer… Actually several of these are closer to the criteria of the top 10.
I’m woefully behind on many of the writers who’ve emerged in the past decade.
Aside from SF I follow certain science writers, again whose books I always buy though I don’t always get around to reading them all. These would include Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jesse Bering. The only literary fiction writer I follow regularly is Ian McEwan.
I would like to also mention Dorothy Allison.
There are some years that I keep up with short fiction really well and feel like I’ve got a handle on the up-and-comers, and other years not so much. 2013 and 2014 weren’t great years for short fiction for me. But between what I have read and seen in novels, here’s who I’m really paying attention to:
Chris Barzak–I fell in love with The Love We Share Without Knowing, and recently adored his Aqueduct volume Birds and Birthdays, which includes both fiction and non-fiction.
Yoon Ha Lee–I can’t say enough good things about her collection Conservation of Shadows; it shows a really remarkable short story writer in development with a unique voice. I especially love the new perspectives and uses to which she and Ann Leckie are putting Space Opera.
Daryl Gregory–In a short space of time I’ve read his novel Afterparty and his novella We Are All Completely Fine, and I remember why I always make sure to read his stuff as soon as it comes out. He’s a master at neurological and psychological SF.
Karen Lord–My podcast partner-in-crime. I’ve read Redemption in Indigo and The Best of All Possible Worlds and seen an early draft of the next SF novel, and I think she’s bringing an anthropological perspective to SF that we haven’t seen a lot of in the past couple decades.
Ted Chiang–Of course. As someone else said, even his “lesser” work is still interesting and worth reading, and I think “Exhalation” will go down as one of the all-time classic SF stories for the ages.
Greg Egan–Of course. The core hard-SF writer of the genre, although it seems that the genre is moving away from that particular gravitational pull.
Kij Johnson–Another unique perspective, blending genres and formal experiments to very interesting effect.
For non-fiction, Mary Roach. I love all her books with unashamed squee, and none more so than Packing for Mars, her inside look at NASA and space travel. I think she’s one of the best science popularizers working today, in the same league as Adam Savage and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
With regard to short fiction, I’ll read every Kelly Link story that comes out, every Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Nathan Ballingrud, Kaaron Warren, Karen Joy Fowler, Karen Russell, Kij Johnson, and Priya Sharma. (That’s ten–so many more, but it’s a start.)
I think my lists would have a lot in common with those mentioned by a lot of people. I especially like Ellen’s list of short fiction: I feel particularly strongly about Kelly Link, Laird Barron, and Jeffrey Ford, and look forward to each new book. Still feel very passionate about many now-dead writers who I’m still reading or rereading, people like Lafferty and Ballard and a variety of other folk. Looking back at what other writers I’ve tended to read each new book as it came out over the last decade, the list includes people like Caitlín Kiernan, Jeff Vandermeer, and China Miéville: each writer has managed to surprise me after I thought I’d figured them out. The longest term writers in that category are Gene Wolfe and Peter Straub: most writers I first read when I was young either haven’t held up that well for me or I’m just not compelled to go back to them, but I am with both of those. Straub’s work I feel has changed as I’ve changed and continues to surprise and amaze me. Wolfe’s most recent books (The Land Across for instance) are sly and complex and quite wonderful, even if they haven’t gotten the acclaim of The Book of the New Sun, and it’s a wonderful thing to still be excited, at 47, about the newest book by someone I first read when I was 14. On the so-called literary side of things, the living writers I’m most fascinated by are probably Cormac McCarthy, Jesse Ball and Antoine Volodine/Manuela Draeger/Lutz Bassmann (all pseudonyms for the same writer), having recently lost a number of great writers that I admired a lot (Jose Saramago, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño–though Bolaño’s being ruined a little for me by the less-than-scintillating posthumous publications).
Even if I like some books better than others by these writers, something keeps drawing me back to all of them, again and again. Something fascinates me. It’s probably significant that most of them aren’t interesting in staying firmly within any one genre, and that probably says something about my relationship to genre myself as a reader and writer. There are others that I’d mention if I looked at my shelves or if I didn’t do this off the top of my head.
And there are a lot of writers I’ve read several books by that I really admire–maybe even admire more than some of the work by the other writers I’ve mentioned–but I don’t have the same compelling need to keep reading them nor the fascination with what the next book will be. I don’t know why that’s the case but have come to feel that there’s something in addition to enjoyment or the overall quality of the work that compels me–something maybe about the seriousness of the investigation, or the deftness of the style, or simply the uniqueness of the voice. I’m not a huge fan of the well-made novel or the well-made story, of the very deft story written by the writer who knows in advance exactly what genre and story he’s writing (and I use the pronoun “he” because I personally see this more often in male writers than female), mainly because I’ve read it too many times already. I’d rather have something that surprises me, and all these writers do just that.
In the midst of stuff, but just glanced at Brian Evenson’s list, and find he’s given most of the writers I’d list myself. Haven’t gone over everyone else’s suggestions, so may be repeating them: but would add to Brian’s list Brian (for it is he) Evenson, Rhys Hughes and Marcel Theroux.
This one is so impossible, I have so many authors I like and whose fiction I’ve been following for a relatively long time. Just focusing on short stories, I have those folks I’ve been reading since I’ve fallen into the genre–Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Liz Hand, Andy Duncan, Jeff VanderMeer, Rick Bowes, etc., etc., etc. So what I’ll do is just jot down a list of some things I’ve noticed lately in short stories in this particular field.
1. Kaaron Warren really rips it up. The dark aspects of her stories are never forced. There’s a real grace to her writing and the stories are downright creepy as hell.
2. After going through quite a few, I’m still waiting to read a lousy story by Caitlín Kiernan. I challenge you to find one that is less than great.
3. Can’t wait for Veronica Schanoes’ first collection. She’s been writing some of the best short fiction I’ve see in recent years. She’s got a few up on TOR.com you can check for free and there’s a beauty in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.
4. Two relatively new writers to check out are Lisa Bolekaja and Sam J. Miller.
5. The Horror/Dark Fantasy/short story is going through a golden age now with writers like Laird Barron, John Langan, Caitlín Kiernan, Kaaron Warren, Nathan Ballingrud, Brian Evenson, Michael Cisco. These relatively younger writers are being matched, though, by more established writers in “that” genre like Peter Straub, Steve Tem, Joe Lansdale, Stephen King, etc, etc. Add to this brew the fact that there is a whole legion of new writers inspired by the ones I’ve mentioned and it all adds up to good times for the dark arts.
6. Check out two new terrific stories at TOR.com. The first, by M. Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhisville”. The second, by Anna Tambour, “The Walking-Stick Forest”.
7. Something that I’ve been waiting for as far as short fiction goes but that will never materialize (although I can day dream)–a volume of 4 new Maqroll novellas by Álvaro Mutis.
8. Wild Nights by Joyce Carol Oates is still the best book of weird stories I’ve read in some time. So fucking strange.
9. Anything I can find by the tried and always true Delia Sherman, Kit Reed, Terry Bisson, Michael Swanwick, Howard Waldrop, John Crowley, etc, etc.
10. “Wakulla Springs” by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan is an awesome treat just waiting for you to dig into it.
I love those Mutis Maqroll novellas, Jeffrey, and am right there with you wishing that more would turn up… And a great list with good suggestions–glad to be pointed to various things.
One thought on “Roundtable on Ten Exciting Writers”
Paul G. R.: I don’t know how I missed your question during the initial round of discussions, so here’s a top-of-my-head answer.
“Strongly coherent” is one of the traits I see as central in my personal model of “hard SF”: the drive to really follow the implications of an Idea or complex of Ideas as far as the narrative will allow and to check for interactions (clashes, contradictions, heterodyning) with other Ideas. Come to think of it, coherence or consistency or thought-through-ness is a virtue in all fiction, including fantasy. I find strong coherence at least as central to hard SF as coloring inside the lines of “real” science–I sometimes think of it as relentlessness. Writers who I think possess this trait include Nancy Kress (the Beggars sequence is a touchstone for me), Greg Egan, Paul McAuley, Damon Knight.
Crossing this coherence axis (not my favorite metaphor–too binary) at some angle is what might be called “playfulness,” the tendency to introduce or elaborate elements for effect (satirical, comical, atmospherical, comical-atmospherical, et Polonius cetera). This does not necessarily negate coherence, but the motive is less exploratory or explanatory than, well, playful. And plenty of strongly coherent SF writers are also very playful (John Varley, Ken MacLeod, Wil McCarthy, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling).