Suzy McKee Charnas
Walk to the End of the World was the first of Charnas's books that I read, and from the first page I was gripped by the breadth and audacity of her vision. Her work combines a muscular prose style with masterful world-building, utter psychological realism, and a deep insight into the roots of social malaise. Her Holdfast tetralogy (Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines, The Furies, The Conqueror's Child) is, for me, the central text of feminist science fiction. Her novel The Vampire Tapestry, which tells the story of the non-supernatural vampire Edward Weyland, may be the book I have loaned most frequently to friends. It is absolutely wonderful.
A member of the New Wave of science fiction writing in the 1970s, Delany is famous for deconstructing societal norms and the narrative process itself in his books, which include Dhalgren, Triton and Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand. More than any other science fiction author, except perhaps Stanislaw Lem, Delany is revered by literary scholars -- which is good and bad in my opinion. The ideas in his work are often fascinating, but in some places he glaringly crosses the line into telling rather than showing his point. He is still one of my favorite authors, partly because it's so fun to talk about his books and his life (which he writes about voluminously in his autobiographical work The Motion of Light in Water).
Master of the run-on sentence and multiple points of view, William Faulkner entranced me when I first encountered his work in college. His works include The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. Nearly all of his stories take place in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictionalized counterpart of his own home county in Mississippi. Some characters appear in more than one novel or story, though the stories themselves are not connected in any traditional sense. My favorite character? The neurotic Quentin Compson, who appears in both Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury.
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Diana Wynne Jones
Though Jones' books are largely marketed to children, I almost entirely missed them when I was younger. What a delight to encounter her later on! Her work manages a miraculous fusion of humor and heartbreaking insight into her characters and their worlds. Her protagonists invariably manage to "raise their game" and overcome obstacles, within or without, but it is always a complicated process and may involve deep unhappiness. Her works also often feature devilishly complex plots which come together in a (sometimes too hasty) rush at the end. My favorites of her books are Witch Week, Hexwood and the astonishing Fire and Hemlock.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Science fiction, fantasy and mainstream fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has been publishing since the early 1960s. I first discovered her Earthsea fantasy series when I was in junior high, but thought little of it at the time. (It seemed too dry.) But in my sophomore year of college I read The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed -- and found myself fascinated with the play of ideas and deeply satisfied by the clear, well-wrought language. Since then I have read most of her published fiction and essays and have found almost all of it to meet the same high standards. I am especially pleased by her recent outpouring of short stories, which on the whole are amazingly good.
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Maureen F. McHugh
I was slow to warm to the work of Maureen McHugh, but when I fell, I fell hard. She writes in a very plain, matter-of-fact tone of voice that, in the early chapters of China Mountain Zhang, fooled me into thinking I was reading a dry "realistic" novel masquerading as science fiction. But by the end I felt that I had been taken on an intimate, truly convincing tour of a non-existent society, and that I had grown along with the main character, who, for a change, was just a decent guy, not a hero. Her other novels, Half the Day Is Night and Mission Child, also gave me that sense of being in the worlds they depicted; they are subtle and very rewarding for the patient reader.
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Another author whose books are marketed to children, Pullman writes darkly thrilling tales that are, in the end, passionately humane. His fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) takes its name from a line of Paradise Lost, and is correspondingly ambitious in its scope. I found it atmospheric, imaginative and very daring, though some plot elements were not clearly resolved. His Sally Lockhart series (The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well) shares some elements with His Dark Materials -- a spirited heroine, hidden evils that must be laid bare and confronted, a sinister monkey (!) -- but are set in a non-magical Victorian-era London. They clearly owe much to the "penny dreadful" novels that are referred to in their pages, but Pullman's graceful use of period detail, endearing characters and underlying gravity create a uniquely appealing combination.
Simply put, I believe Virginia Woolf to have been one of the finest and most perceptive novelists ever. She was also an excellent essayist and social critic whose writings seem hardly less relevant today than they were when she was alive. Her works include the novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Voyage Out and the long essays A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Quite apart from her writing, her life amidst the Bloomsbury Group is fascinating.
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