My top ten favorite science fiction authors and my favorite book by each:
1. Jack Vance - Maske: Thaery
2. Robert Heinlein - The Puppet Masters
3. Larry Nivan - The Mote in God's Eye
4. Peter F. Hamilton - The Night's Dawn Trilogy
5. Keith Laumer - Catastrophe Planet
6. Greg Bear - Anvil of Stars
7. Tad Williams - The Otherland Series
8. Joe Haldeman - The Forever War
9. Leigh Brackett - The Secret of Sinharat
10. Marion Zimmer Bradley - The Bloody Sun
Note: I know I've left off a lot of important authors, like Clarke, Asimov and Anderson, to name a few. I have a little theory about art and how we judge it which may apply here. I believe we all go through different emotional phases in our lives, and that during each phase we connect with different forms of art. At my age now I am at the point where I am less affected by a sense of wonder than I am by a sense of intellectual curiosity. Writers like Peter Hamilton, Greg Bear and Tad Williams explore the complex situations which arise from amazing advances in science, and really appeal to me now. On the other hand, M.Z. Bradley and Leigh Brackett were writers who cared more about the downright wonder of distant worlds and less about how we could get to them. I encountered them when I was very young and it was books like theirs which really set the hook.
I won't apologize for Burroughs. I didn't know when I first read his stuff that he was not very skilled as a writer. Now that I do, it doesn't make a half ounce of difference. I still love the way John Carter went gadding about Mars, skewering bad guys and saving princesses left and right. This kind of thing never gets old with me.
Heinlein of course should be on everyone's list. If there is one author who single handedly defined the genre, it would be him. As for Jack Vance - I've always considered him to be a writer of incredibly engaging style. Surprisingly, many of his works have been faulted by his well known habit of losing interest in a project before it was completed. Not a few of his stories begin with a measured tempo, but then are abruptly concluded in the last chapter. "Emphyrio" is a perfect example. However, this problem is more than offset by the sheer exuberance of his imaginings. I chose "Maske: Thaery" because it does not suffer from this drawback.