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Speculative fiction works of genius, and their authors


I'm not interested in parroting what the industry people think when it comes to a discussion of which speculative fiction writers are geniuses, and why. Instead I am going to tell you what I think. I will keep this brief.

I have been reading a book called Literary Genius, which presents 25 essays on various British and American literary geniuses over the past few centuries. The editor of the collection defines literary genius as style, in the sense of the presentation of a world view that is more than just expanded or artistically restricted vocabulary, more than just linguistic tricks; it is a world view that presents an innovative vision of literary possibilities so powerfully communicated that the reader comes away from it seeing the world for the first time. I cannot embellish on this definition; it is applied to literary fiction writers and poets, but I am applying it to the following authors and the works indicated.

Ursula LeGuin - Left Hand of Darkness A mind-blowing novel of gender politics and gender roles. I read this as a young man and was not familiar with feminism except in a perfunctory way. This book was not merely an entertaining story; it made me think about who determines our gender roles. I am still thinking about this, thirty years later.

Anne Rice- The Vampire Chronicles. Emotionally deep and psychologically insightful, this set of books presented a vision of vampires which redefined an old monster and made me see them anew. Every few years I go back and re-read the original trilogy, just to marvel at the power of Anne's storytelling.

Alan Moore- Watchmen. Dave Gibbons did the artwork for this graphic novel, but Alan Moore did the writing. They go hand in hand, but I'm concentrating here on literary genius, and so I will say that of the works and authors I have so far discussed, Alan's genius is the most powerful. This was a radical vision of super heroes, an old favorite genre in speculative fiction, and the story was intense, deep, and very hard-hitting. I was not merely reading the story, I was rooting for the heroes and was firmly on their side.

I want to make a note about Neil Gaiman and Sandman graphic novels. I think this set of stories was brilliant, but it doesn't strike me as genius. It deepened my appreciation for graphic novels, but it didn't redefine style. This will undoubtedly annoy Neil's fans, but you can make your case in replies to my email.

Now I have said my piece, and I want to hear from you. Who are your geniuses? What are their works that blew you away and redefined your sense of what is possible in speculative fiction?
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Insolent Lad

I totally agree on LeGuin, not only 'Left Hand' but also novels such as 'The Dispossessed' and, of course, the Earth-Sea books. There's plenty to be found in pretty much all her work.

I tend to go back further for my 'genius' inspirations, however. James Branch Cabell, for certain (even if Tolkien found him 'boring'). 'Jurgen' — or any of his novels, for that matter — manage to be both highly entertaining and full of interesting ideas, especially about human nature. And yes, they are a bit naughty at times. Or a lot naughty. He certainly showed me how to have a very different sort of hero/protagonist in my own work.

And I could name some of the 'classics.' Shoot, I could name hundreds but who is to say whether they are 'genius' writers? Did any blow me away, as you ask? Maybe Lord Dunsany, more than any other. The Pegana stories are a textbook in world creation (and they do start with the creation of the world).


Myth Weaver
I'd put in a word for almost anything by PK Dick.
But for me, in the arts "Genius" is too subjective a title to be meaningful to all.
When it come to visual artists I think Mark Rothko and Claude Monet are geniuses so is Edward Hooper but I would not give Edvard Munch or Gustave Klimt wall room... Go figure...
PKD was a very specific form of genius, both loose and sloppy and profound in a way few authors can aspire to. No one else can imitate. I'd rank Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as only slightly inferior to Fifth Head, and equal in dignity to Left Hand of Darkness. But those are my three, as much as I love modern fantasy and think the field is better than its ever been, I'd put most modern works in the category of 'perspiration' over 'inspiration'.


Felis amatus
Hard to argue with Gene Wolfe, and I agree regarding PKD’s Three Stigmata. Of course, I’d all Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (if the latter counts). Angela Carter’s short stories.


Felis amatus
But of course! Sadly, Gormenghast is likely to sit with The Magic Mountain and The Recognitions among the great works of genius I'll never get to finishing.

I made it about halfway through The Magic Mountain. I’ll get back to it some day (along with Proust, perhaps). I finished Gormenghast twice :)
For me, the geniuses are Michael Moorcock, who wrote about the same hero from so many perspectives, it's almost mind-boggling, and Isaac Asimov, with his laws of robotics and his social-scientific Foundations series. I'm compelled to also mention Roger Zelazny, who so brilliantly mixed science and magic in his Amber books, and Fritz Leiber, whose Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser felt so real to me and yet so fanciful at the same time. Those are all authors who impressed me in my youth. From the vast list of authors who first started writing in this century, I think N. K. Jemisin may be the one who has most impressed me, with her novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I found this novel while researching comp titles for my own WIP, and I may be biased because of the similarities I see between her work and mine. Her brilliance is in how to write about godly characters who are at the same time both powerful and constrained.
I'd personally put Samuel R. Delany on the list for Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Lots of people might mention Dhalgren, but sad to say that although I have a copy lying around somewhere, I've never read it.

Stars has something like one of the first concepts of an internet, with both "GI" (General Information) being a kind of communal database people can access through neural implants, and an organization called "The Web," which controls the flow of information about the universe and which tries to fight the occurrence of "Cultural Fugue." Cultural Fugue isn't well defined at all but it's something that destroys whole planets when information and the actions based on that information collect...or develop in some peculiar way. The Web is basically Google on steroids with hands on all the levers of power. Communication via these implants between people also is possible; i.e., like making a phone call via the internet. (The book was published in 1984, same year as Gibson's Neuromancer, and two years before Card's Ender's Game, so I think it qualifies as a true first- or earliest- concept for the world wide web, along with those.)

The book also explores a different way to look at gender, plus some cultural developments resulting from blurring the lines between what makes up a "family" (having both human and non-human members of a family, for instance.) Two factions in the universe, The Sygn and The Family, vie for control while also trying to prevent Cultural Fugue. (And I really wonder if we are just know seeing something like this happening in our world, heh.)

Its epilogue is also the best description/contemplation on "morning" I've ever read.
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Article Team
Can I chime in with Middle Grades and YA that I think hit the nail on head as far as warranting literary merit, or speculative genius, or whatever?

All three of Madeleine L'Engle's books, with A Wrinkle In Time being the best of the three. Pretty much everyone knows the scene where all the kids are jumping rope and bouncing balls at the same time. It was even used in a Simpson's episode, lol.

Lois Lowry's The Giver

Jeanne DePrau's City of Ember