As writers, we are always wanting to improve our craft as well, whether it’s taking courses, getting a writing degree, or just studying our favorite authors. Becoming writers causes us to look more critically at books when we read them, taking notes and absorbing what works and what doesn’t.
There are always writers that we return to again and again, as well. There’s something about certain writers that just grab us. It could be their poetic prose, impressive worldbuilding, relatable characters, or punchy dialogue that keeps bringing us back as repeat customers.
If you’re looking to improve your skills as a speculative fiction writer, I have two must-read authors below to check out if you haven’t already. These writers have influenced me as a sci-fi and fantasy writer, so I hope they can help inspire you too!
One of the most revered science fiction and fantasy writers of all time, Ursula K. Le Guin won over thirty writing awards in her lifetime, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. If you’re looking for a heavy hitter to take inspiration from, Le Guin is top shelf.
The thing that grips me the most about Le Guin is her gorgeously poetic prose. Writing in a time of male-dominated sci-fi, Le Guin was able to breathe an air of femininity and beauty into her sci-fi and fantasy novels, proving that sci-fi doesn’t have to be hard and dry.
One instance of me being completely blown away by her writing is the first chapter of her incomparable The Lathe of Heaven. In this novel, George Orr discovers his dreams can shape the lives of everyone around him, changing the world entirely. After Doctor Willian Haber starts exploiting George’s power for his own greed and rise in status, George loses the woman he loves. He then sets out to take back his own power and find his beloved.
In the first chapter, Le Guin likens a human dreaming to a jellyfish being pushed and pulled along by the tide:
“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moon-driven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will…What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?” (Le Guin 1).
When we’re dreaming, we’re vulnerable, helpless beings. Jellyfish, being an “insubstantial creature”, has no way to defend itself, much like us when we dream. Our only defense, our only power, is the violence and power of our subconscious. We must give ourselves, our being, our will, over each night to sleep, with only our subconscious to protect us.
This poetic introduction is a foreshadowing of George taking back the power of his subconscious to rescue his world from the hands of the greedy and manipulative Doctor Haber.
If you’re looking for a prolific and influential writer in the speculative genre, Le Guin is definitely worthy of close study to improve your own writing. She demonstrated that science fiction can be beautifully poetic, even in a dystopian world on the brink of collapse.
No one has quite left an impact on science fiction the way Philip K. Dick has. His novels and short stories have inspired around twenty film and TV adaptations, including Blade Runner (based on the classic best-seller Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), The Man in the High Castle, and Minority Report.
Philip K. Dick was a mainstay in my house growing up because of my dad, so I naturally gravitated toward his works. As a kid, I loved the cyberpunk dystopia Blade Runner. I loved the way I was so immediately immersed into the world I saw on the screen, and I then discovered PDK’s writing was no different. Even though the Ridley Scott film does differ from the book, it stayed true to the core themes and kept PKD’s exquisitely gritty, dilapidated Earth intact.
In the novel, we meet Rick Deckard, a jaded bounty hunter whose job requires him to “retire” rogue Nexus-6 androids, or andys. Along the way, he meets humans he thinks are andys, and andys he mistakes as human, calling into question (in true PKD fashion) what it means to be human.
One of the main underlying currents to this electric masterpiece is the idea of those left behind. Published in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep opens in the futuristic year of 2019, and we discover an Earth ravaged by war. The humans who weren’t lucky enough to emigrate to Mars still cling to life in a crumbling “kipple”, or junk-filled planet plagued by radioactive dust. Since many have emigrated to the Mars colony with their custom android servants, this leaves a palpable feeling of utter desolation of those left behind in the suburbs of San Francisco.
One character, J.R. Isidore, who at first sympathizes with the andys he encounters, lives in one such desolate area, in an abandoned apartment building:
“In a giant, empty, decaying building which had once housed thousands, a single TV set hawked its wares to an uninhabited room. This ownerless ruin had, before World War Terminus, been tended and maintained. Here had been the suburbs of San Francisco, a short ride by monorail rapid transit; the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life and opinions and complaints, and now the watchful owners had wither died or migrated to a colony world. Mostly the former…” (Dick 15).
PKD deeply infuses us with Isidore’s decaying, ruinous life he so desperately clings to with his extremely detailed yet refreshingly simple and economical language. One of my favorite passages in the book is when PKD plunges his readers headfirst into the silence of Isidore’s post-apocalyptic world, as he lives completely alone in the building:
“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived there. From the useless pole lamp...it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-speckled ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible” (Dick 19).
As a writer, Dick proves to us that you can write detailed descriptions to build your world without using overly flowery or difficult language that your readers will trip over (if you’ve read Tolkien’s descriptions of trees, you’ll know what I mean. He’s a great study in how to say a lot in just a few words (he’s taught me the beauty of punchy verbs), so he’s great not only for novelists, but for writers of short stories and flash fiction as well.
If you’re looking for a modern sci-fi author to study, I highly recommend Emma Newman. Her book Planetfall is one of the best 21st-century sci-fi books I’ve ever read. Why? I felt represented. Months later, I’m still thinking about this book daily, and I can’t wait to finish the series, as well as give this one a reread.
Readers feeling represented in literature is an important goal for many authors, especially now in our burgeoning culture of inclusivity. Emma Newman, who suffers from mental illness herself, saw that the science fiction genre was lacking in realistic protagonists who had mental health issues. So, she began writing her own books, centered around characters who deal with mental illness at the forefront of their stories. As someone who suffers from anxiety and panic disorder, I couldn’t wait to dive into this book to see how I related to her protagonist, Ren, who also suffers from anxiety and panic (and other issues I won’t mention here, because spoilers).
Planetfall centers around Ren, a 3D printer engineer who leaves Earth to follow an almost cult-like figure, Suh-Mi, to the outer reaches of space. Suh-Mi claims she has found the secrets to the cosmos on a planet unspoiled by war, pollution, and overpopulation, and founds a colony on said planet. Ren believes in her vision so much that she leaves everything on Earth behind to follow her.
Fast forward twenty years, and Ren is harboring a dark secret. She perpetuates the lie to keep the colony at peace, but to the detriment of her own mental health. Now this lie that has been a central part of the colony’s belief system since planetfall is beginning to crumble, and the truth could devastate the colony.
In the beginning of Planetfall, we already see Ren questioning herself in the way that people with anxiety tend to do. She’s no cocky, arrogant hero of yore—she’s a realistically human protagonist who is at once strong and fragile, trying to shield the colony from this awful truth. “We were all just little broken things, trying so hard to protect ourselves when all we were doing was keeping ourselves blind and alone” (Newman 320).
What I was most impressed with was Newman’s ability to write from the perspective of someone with mental illness. All throughout the book, I found myself saying yes! This is exactly what anxiety, or a panic attack, feels like. Her descriptions of both are some of the best and most realistic I’ve ever read, especially in a sci-fi novel.
At one moment when Ren is afraid that her secrets are coming out, she begins to fight with her anxiety: “I can feel my pulse in my throat as I blink twice at the icon and the text floats across my vision. I have to read it twice to get the meaning through the thick fog of anxiety” (254). As anyone with anxiety can attest, anxiety makes it impossible to focus on the simple tasks, like reading emails.
Then her “fear sucks in shame and guilt with it, like a black hole within my chest, pulling everything into itself” (254). Then the full-on panic attack arrives: “I can’t breathe. My lungs are turning to stone inside me, my throat to iron, my skin to wet paper. I want to dissolve into the earth below me, to collapse into a pile of component parts, all the little pieces of my mosaic no longer held together…And then I’m outside of myself, detached from the storm of emotional shit raging through my body…” (255, 262).
As someone with panic disorder, reading this almost made me cry. This is exactly how it feels! It feels good to be represented, and there are millions of other readers out there longing for this kind of character that is brought to us through Ren.
If you’re a writer who is thinking about adding characters with mental illness to your novels, I would definitely start with Emma Newman. Besides representing a marginalized group in her novels, she is a modern sci-fi master that blends hard and soft sci-fi together seamlessly.
There are hundreds of writers out there to draw inspiration from and to study to improve your craft. These are just three who have been huge influences on me. Go shelf diving, find your favorites, and rediscover them all over again. Or dive headfirst into a novel you’ve never read before. Either way, you’ll be learning invaluable skills, all while doing something you enjoy.
Happy reading and writing!