Vox Day has a poll for greatest living SF writer that I’m flagging for the purely selfish reason that I agree with the result: Larry Niven. I didn’t vote, but if I had, that’s who I would have voted for. And yes, I don’t even need the "from the choices offered" qualifier: Niven is the name I would offer up to an open-ended question too.
That said, I have to note that calling Larry Niven the greatest living SF writer is problematic in the sense that if "living" is a qualifier meant to keep the thing reasonably modern, the we’re obligated to note that Niven just ain’t what he used to be. All his best stuff was written before 1990, which, to put a fine point on it, is going on 25 years ago. Niven is just not a writer for this generation of readers. Full disclosure: I actually enjoyed Destiny’s Road, which I gather I’m not supposed to do, so I’m not hard core anti-latter-day-Niven. I’m just saying – there was a watershed at some point (I decline to say exactly when), and the quality dropped usddenly and precipitously in the 90s.
From the choices offered, here’s my ranking – with the qualifier that this is largely a product of ignorance:
- Larry Niven
- Robert Silverberg
- Orson Scott Card
- Lois McMaster Bujold
- Neal Stephenson
- Jerry Pournelle
And I decline to rank Michael Flynn, John C. Wright, Gene Wolfe or China Mieville on the grounds that I haven’t read any (Wright, Flynn) or enough (Mieville, Wolfe) of their stuff. So really, I don’t get a vote.
Some of the rationale: Robert Silverberg is consistently interesting and consistently a good writer. He’s also a bit shallow. But he gets an edge on Card here – even though Card is easily the best crafstman on this list – because science fiction is a genre of ideas, and Card really only has one. As a list of straight-up oldskool Literary Value, I’d consider ranking Card above Niven, but this is Science Fiction we’re talking about, and you don’t read SF the same way you read Dickens or Dostoevsky.
Anyway, I’m really pleased that Larry Niven is still such a going concern. He does better with shortstories than novels to be sure, but Ringworld is the classic 1970s paperback.