We look to the great SF authors and get inspiration from their work — along with a healthy dose of envy, sometimes. It's impossible to read the works of authors like Vernor Vinge and Maureen McHugh without wishing we could have pulled something like that off. But which works do the great SF authors wish they'd written?

We asked some of our favorite SF authors to name the achievements in the genre that make them the most envious.

Top image: cover art of David Brin's Kiln People by Jim Burns.

Kim Stanley Robinson

(2312, Red Mars, Galileo's Dream and many others)

As to SF books I wish I had written, Lord, there are so many. Start with The Time Machine and We, and go forward from there.... if choosing just one, I guess I would say Dhalgren, or Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun.... it would change every day. Although I'm also happy to have avoided all the work those other books would have required. Doing my own has been enough, in terms of the work load!

Vernor Vinge

(A Fire Upon the Deep, The Children of the Sky, Rainbows End and others)

Karl Schroeder for his tech insights (eg, Ventus).

Charles Stross for his tech insights and humor.

David Brin for any number of stories and novels (eg, Kiln People).

And many years ago, Poul Anderson, who so often came through with brilliant idea stories (eg "Epilogue") I wish I had done.

Linda Nagata

(The Bohr Maker, Vast, Tech-Heaven and many others)

I'm going to reach way back, and say Larry Niven's The Integral Trees. I remember reading this when I was first getting serious about writing science fiction—a couple of years before I sold my first story. The world building that went into the Smoke Ring—where everything exists in free fall—fascinated me, and left me envious, and admiring.

John Varley

(Slow Apocalypse, Titan, Red Thunder and many others)

A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn. Theodore Sturgeon was Pangborn's only real rival for portraying deep human emotion in SF, and Ted wasn't really a novel writer.

Second place, The Door Into Summer, by Heinlein.

Maureen McHugh

(After the Apocalypse: Stories, China Mountain Zhang and others)

What sf novel do I wish I'd written? That's hard. Short story is easier. I've always admired "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang which feels science fictional to me down to its grammar. I guess I'd have to say Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. The idea of a society where gender is fluid and a head of state could find themselves pregnant—what does that do to culture and society? It is a marvelous question and profoundly science fictional.

Geoff Ryman

(Air: Or, Have Not Have, Was and many others)

I always wish that I'd written We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ. Aside from its word-perfect prose; its acceptance and active use of the unimaginable vastness of space (something it shares with 'When it Changed'), what takes my breath away as a reader is the last section in which we live with the hero through her own death.


As an SF author, what I admire is its challenge to one of the central dreams of SF: immortality of the self, immortality of the species among the stars. Everything dies, why can't we accept that?

Max Barry

(Machine Man, Jennifer Government and others)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I'm always getting to the ends of novels and realizing they're uncomfortably similar to Snow Crash. I think it's because that novel has a thousand ideas in it and I think they're all brilliant. It's just as well I never notice the similarities beforehand because I would never write anything.


As a particular example, my next novel Lexicon has brain-hacking via carefully crafted language, and I seriously got all the way through that before thinking a minute and saying, "Oh goddammit."

Pat Cadigan

(Synners, Mindplayers, Tea From an Empty Cup and many others)

I wish I had written Fairyland by Paul McAuley. It's just so damned good. It's a brilliant integration of science & compelling narrative — one of those books I wished wouldn't end. It passed my test for the PRE: Perfect Reading Experience. I was completely immersed in it and as in all good science fiction, the science enhanced the fiction and the fiction was worthy of the science. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and definitely deserved it.

David Brin

(Existence, Sundiver, Earth, Kiln People and others)

I would wish that I had written John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. I deliberately aimed for that book's sweeping view of our near future, in Both Earth and Existence, so to whatever degree I failed in those, I would have failed in writing SoZ. A fellow's got to admit his limitations. Other perfect books that I both admire and envy include Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Silverberg's Dying Inside. Or almost any story by Alice Sheldon. I could then die happy.

William Gibson

(Zero History, Pattern Recognition, Neuromancer and many others)

That's a question I'm unable to answer, offhand. I sometimes wish I could write something *as good as* but never imagine having written another's book.

The books I most love and admire, it's *because* I could never have written them. They open my head as my own work can't. Offhand, Womack's Random Acts, Crowley's "Great Work of Time", Ackroyd's Hawksmoor... A few minutes later, three others.

I'm allergic to Best Ofs, canon of all sorts, rankings, comparison. I love the bottomless Borgesian library.

Paul McAuley

(Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and others)

Am I envious of the achievements or ideas of others? No, but I do admire and enjoy them. And too often am reminded that there are too many of my novels that I haven't yet written, or won't now ever write, or haven't done my best by.

Ursula K. Le Guin

(The Left Hand of Darkness, The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories and many others)

I guess my mind just doesn't work that way. I want to write my books, but not anybody else's.


When I read the interview with Shirley Maclaine in the Sunday Times a couple weeks ago I did think, "When I grow up I want to be Shirley Maclaine."

But that's not quite SF.