The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1980s

1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s
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I’ve been reading science fiction for over fifty years, and I’m touring my SF memories decade by decade.  So far I’ve written about the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Something happened to the world of science fiction books in the 1980s.  The genre grew, gaining new writers, publishers and readers.  Star Trek and Star Wars got millions of media fans to try reading SF, often introduced by novelizations.  Science fiction became big business.  From my view of the genre, two SF books went nova in the eighties:  Neuromancer and Ender’s Game, making William Gibson and Orson Scott Card the breakout science fiction writers of the decade, like Delany and Zelazny had been for the 1960s.


Computers and video games made the 1980s a happening decade for science fiction.  Personal computers became all the rage, with the IBM PC being introduced in 1981 and the Apple Macintosh in 1984.  Fandom shifted from fanzines to computer networks like CompuServe and GEnie, connecting readers to the cyber world – letting us all live in a science fictional reality.  Kids growing up with Atari 2600s from the 1970s, jumped to the Nintendo, accelerating the cyber addiction of the 1980s, so is it any wonder that in the mid-80s that teens totally resonated with Ender’s Game and Neuromancer?   They were what the Heinlein juveniles were to my generation.

Now this is a longshot, but I think it was the massive influx of female fans that made Ender’s Game a mega success.  Over the years I’ve been surprised by countless women telling me that Ender’s Game is one of their all-time favorite books.  This was particularly shocking because most of my lady bookworm friends didn’t read science fiction.  Ender’s Game got them started on the genre though, if only a book now and then.

Ender’s Game is often taught in schools, and I’ve met both students and teachers who have gushed over this story.  To me Ender’s Game was just another outstanding science fiction novel, but to new readers it was a mind blowing introduction to the world of written science fiction.  They grew up on science fiction comics, television shows, games, toys and movies, but it’s the books that are the real heroin of science fiction addiction.  Remember, the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12, and to the 1980s generation, their time was just as exciting to them, as the 1960s were to us baby boomers.

These essays about remembering past decades of science fiction are about memory – my memory, our collective fan memory, and maybe the world at large memory of science fiction.  I’m not the only person looking backwards at science fiction.   Last year, Ernest Cline remembered the 1980s in his novel Ready Player One, and its over-the-top success is due to Cline speaking directly to the heart of the Nintendo generation.  The year before that, Jo Walton remembered growing up with science fiction in her novel Among Others.  Walton spoke to the heart of introverted science fiction bookworms, which won her the Hugo, Nebula and British Fantasy Awards.  Here is a list of novels she wrote about in Among Others.  Most of the science fiction books she mentions have been listed in my defining decades lists, but her novel goes further because Walton also remembers fantasy, classics and non-genre books.  Walton resonated with lonely book lovers everywhere.

With each succeeding decade, science fiction gets more sophisticated, and the overall quality of writing improves.  More people take science fiction seriously, and science fiction becomes more serious.  It’s still escapism, but the stories are getting longer and less simplistic.  It also obvious by the 1980s that the genre was shifting more towards fantasy, a trend that has been accelerating ever since.

Science fiction became big in the 1980s.  Bigger books, more books, more series, bigger series, wordier writing, and bigger sales.  In the 1980s writers took to writing trilogies and series like never before.  Lois McMaster Bujold is another standout writer of the 1980s, by developing a huge fan base for her Vorkosigan series.  Her 1980 books won awards back then, but they are still huge sellers today because the series keeps growing. Every new convert to her fictional universe wants to jump back to the 1980s to start the series from the beginning.

For the long list below, I only list the first book in a series unless a later title makes some kind of splash, wins an award, or was very popular for that year.  The 1980s was dominated by series, both new and renewed.  As you gander down the list, think of how many of these stories are part of a bigger whole?  Orson Scott Card, C. J. Cherryh, Iain M. Banks and Lois McMaster Bujold started series in the 1980s that continue to current times.  Isaac Asimov capitalized on his classic Foundation and Robot series in the 1980s in a tremendous way.  David Brin and Gene Wolfe wrote two standout series of the decade.  Dan Simmons started his Hyperion series at the end of the decade.  The most memorable books of the decade were seldom standalone novels.

Not only did we see more series books, but the books seem to be getting bigger, and some writers developed baroque writing styles, moving science fiction away from fast action pulp writing.  Gardner Dozois started his annual The Year’s Best Science Fiction series in 1984, by showcasing a massive amount of short fiction in a single volume.  The 1980s was a boom time for science fiction.

The 1980s will also be remembered for the Cyberpunk moment.  Neuromancer by William Gibson got a subgenre rolling that breathed new life into the old genre.  It was as revolutionary as the New Wave had been back in the 1960s, with Bruce Sterling leading the charge with his fanzine Cheap Truth.  The SF big three, Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov, the old guard of classic 1950s SF, were still selling lots of books, but their future visions were being eclipsed by new ones from Young Turks.

I divide the decade into two lists.  First, a short list for those books that are the most remembered today, and maybe most known by people who don’t normally read science fiction.  Then, a longer list of the books that hardcore science fiction fans should remember, and probably newer fans are slowly discovering.

The Best Remembered Science Fiction Books of the 1980s

The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1980s











1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

JWH – 4/13/13 – Table of Contents

30 thoughts on “The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1980s”

  1. Great list you’ve compiled. I’ve read a number of books by most of the authors on here, but this gives me a chance to look further into the back catalogue. I agree with you on Ender’s Game as well, it’s pretty funny that most girls I know love that book more than anything else. Hoping to get my 80’s sci fi book published soon. It’s a tribute to most of these great authors.

  2. So is Hyperion science fiction? Flying trees? A woman gets younger by the day but only when she falls asleep! It seems to be more horror/fantasy.

    I am reading The Magnificent Ambersons. It is not science fiction but it presents a fundamental idea presented in many science fiction books. Technology changes society. The automobile changed American society at the turn of the 20th century. It altered the layout of cities, real estate values and the economic status of the Ambersons but story focuses on the people of course but that story could not have happened without the technology. But it was not science fiction because the author saw it happen from when he was ten until he was fourty. His non-science fiction described the birth of our Brave New World.

    Lois Bujold described a technology changing a world in Cryoburn. But it is an option because other worlds with the same technology did other things. Sci-fi consists of thought experiments in technological options.

  3. Hadn’t read as many of them as I thought. Need the list to fill in the gaps. I have been reading science fiction sinceI was 14 years old.( now 73 ). When I would read Asimov, I understood what he meant, when I read it , but could not retain the concept. Might have to read his books six or seven times, before I absorbed the meaning. Did this bother me? Not a bit. I enjoyed his books so much, it was not a chore to read, each time coming away with new understanding. Enders Game and the couple of books following, were exciting, also. Do miss Isaac, tho…..

  4. I think your take on the defining books of the 90s, 00s and this decade would be interesting. Want to take it on?

  5. I can’t thank you enough for this list. I’ve been trying for YEARS to find a book I read in the 80’s as a young adult – couldn’t remember very much about it. Thanks to you I found The Snow Queen again. Now to find a used paperback or digital version!

    1. A good tool for tracking down out of print books is Read the descriptions of the book’s condition carefully when ordering. If you’re looking for particular covers, check the edition with first.

      Most of these books are still in print though at Amazon. Plus Amazon is a good source for finding used books too.


  6. Excellent! One thing not mentioned in detail (not within the scope of what you are doing) is that the expansion of SF during the 80s was the continuation of what Lester del Rey called SF’s ‘boom and bust’ scycle. mostly contend that it was the result if the success of Star Wars in 77, but that’s not entirely clear – cyclically, the boom was due about this time and might have happened even if SW hadn’t.

    1. I think Star Trek and Star Wars brought in millions of fans and expanded the SF universe pretty much like inflation expanded our early universe, and the field was never the same. I remember back in the 1960s looking high and low for other SF fans. We were few and far between.

  7. It’s kinda ironic that most girlies didn’t care for science fiction(or nerds at the begining of the 80’s but Cards Enders Game helped change that and nowadays he is vilified by the new females (and beliebers) of todays generation for his evil conservative and religeous views.

    I think Mormons(any religious people) are fools, but I try not to care what my reading list authors care about politically. I know I refused to read Dan Simmons Flash back for years because I was a liberal who didn’t want to hear from the Right P.O.V.

    But it is amazing how much flack he got about this novel from the Left(even death threats) when if they knew of what they spoke, they would know it was based off a novella from the 80’s that used that days political party(the Right) and took it to a Dystopia from that age, As he changed it to Lefties and this age to the dystopian future when he turned it into a novel.

    Proving once again, people love their hate, but Hate those that don’t point it in the same direction as themselves.

  8. So good to come across your site – lots of favourites still remembered, some forgotten ones. But I am driving myself mad trying to remember a book I read decades ago which impressed me very much – partly because the translation was so good. But no author, no title, so difficult to find. I had thought it was by Lem, but I think not. Certainly it was an East European writer, not Russian I think, possibly Polish or Czech. It was mechanical, robotical, full of plays on words. I think I read it in the early 80s. It is one of those things that is just around a corner in your mind but you can’t quite catch it. If it rings a bell?

  9. Forgot just how good ’84 and ’85 were. I was just finishing high school and able to devour a paperback in a day or two. Was down at Walden books once a week, looking for anything new to read. Really wish my memory was up for finding some of the more forgotten novels, or when I find them, wish they were at least available in e-book form. I have some David Palmer in a box in the attic, somewhere…

  10. I am raking my brain trying to remember a book I read in the 80’s. Space explorers are stranded on an inhospitable world and running out of supplies. They clone themselves to microscopic size and colonise a puddle. At the end of the book many generations later the civilisation they founded are trying to break through the surface tension to explore the universe. I think it was a sci-fi book of the month club book. Any ideas on the title or author? My daughter is interested in reading it. Thanks for any help.

    1. I got this back Deborah:


      That sounds like a novella titled “Surface Tension” by James Blish. It was included in a number of anthologies: Seedling Stars is one, and one that I have is Groff Conklin’s Six Great Short Novels of Science Fiction. ISFDB under the title “Surface Tension” lists a number of anthologies.

        1. I found some more information:

          It’s definitely one of the three novellas which were combined as “The Seedling Stars” by James Blish. Wonderful story and wonderful book.

          Great taste you have there ………… Livvi

  11. I am hoping that you might help me to find a book that I read in the late 70’s or early 80’s. It was a collection of short stories (I think that they were all by the same author), with a twist or punchline at the end. My boss at the time lent it to me (he reviewed some science fiction books) and I wish that I had bought it. As I am re-reading some SF books I would very much like to read this one again.

    1. That’s not much to go on Thelma. The best I can do for you is to use and use the Publication search. Set “Publication type” is equal to exactly “COLLECTION” and then set Publication Year to 1978, etc. You’ll get a list of single author anthologies from each year. You’ll have to look at each to see if any of them spark a memory.

  12. The most important books of the 1980 have been omitted. So, the list is rigged and worthless. Also, the books omitted were bestsellers and on the New York Times bestseller lists for months. So, the list is propaganda rather than factual.
    Many on the 1080s list presented never made the NYT bestseller list.

  13. Hey James, i just wanted to thank you for your work putting all this together. I just finished one of the first books you recommend, Replay from Ken Grimwood, i absolutely loved it and i’m sure much more from your lists will follow. So thanks again !

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