The 1990s was the last decade of the century and the millennium, and although science fiction has been around for centuries, it feels like the genre blossomed in the second half of the 20th century. By the last decade it feels fantasy flavored SF had overtaken hard science fiction in popular appeal, but many of the most successful science fiction books of the 1990s were about space travel. Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks, Dan Simmons, and Peter F. Hamilton began paving the way for the New Space Opera of the 2000s. Ben Bova, Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson used NASA’s recent knowledge of the solar system to build new visions of interplanetary colonization. And more than ever, science fiction is concerned with the post-human future.
SF writers of 1990s represents the centennial descendants of H. G. Wells, and his genre originating novels The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898). Where Wells explored the impact of Darwinism, 1990s science fiction writers were inspired by NASA interplanetary probes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the many breakthroughs in contemporary cosmology. It’s quite amazing, but in the 1990s, both the scientific universe and science fictional universes are tremendously bigger than the objective reality of the 1950s and its science fictional universes. Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke loom large in our history, but modern science fiction writers stand on their shoulders and see much further than they ever imagined.
Yet, I would claim by the 1990s that it was obvious that science fiction had forked in its evolution. On one hand, we still have a branch of science fiction inspired by science, but on the other hand, it’s all too obvious that the larger branch of science fiction is inspired by older science fiction. New sub-genres like Military SF, seemed descended from 1959’s Starship Troopers by Heinlein, and isn’t the sub-genre of galactic empire romances descended from Asimov’s Foundation stories? NASA will never be able to send a probe to either of these universes. Whereas, Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Flynn are practically begging NASA to use their books as blueprints for its future budgets.
A handful of writers dominated the decade with their series books. Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson and Vernor Vinge, all won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards as well as getting many nominations, and winning other genre awards.
Kim Stanley Robinson set the standard for hard science fiction with his decade spanning Mars trilogy. He won two Hugos and one Nebula by writing about a realistic colonization of the Red planet.
Lois McMaster Bujold had so many award winning books in the 1990s that picking the best is impossible. The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign are probably getting even more readers today than in the 1990s. The Vorkosigan Saga just keeps on growing. And fans debate whether new readers should follow publication order or internal chronological order.
Connie Willis won five Hugos and three Nebulas in the 1990s, with The Doomsday Book winning both. Willis has carved out a much loved series based on time travel and history, blending two genres together, and like Bujold, Willis keeps expanding her series today.
Vernor Vinge picked up two Hugos and two Nebula nominations for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, proving that fans still love a good space opera.
Some people have asked me how I make up these lists of memorable science fiction books. The first one, about the 1950s, was more from personal memory, but eventually I discovered various resources I used for the later decades. I start with Internet Speculative Fiction Database. I use its advanced search and look up novels, language and type. I only worry about books in English. I go down their listings looking for books I remember reading or reading about. I can right click on any title to bring up it’s bibliographic record which includes how often it was reprinted and whether or not it won any awards. Most valuable is whether the book made the Locus Poll that year. That’s the first indicator how popular a book was with the fans during the year it came out.
I also study various best of lists to discern long term popularity. I look for books that get picked time and again. This is how I create the short list called the Best Remembered books. The longer Defining Books list are those books which got particular notice during the year they came out. Most of these have been frequently reprinted and are often on some of the best SF of all time lists. I avoided fantasy novels unless they won or were nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, or other SF award.
Best of Book Lists
- The Classics of Science Fiction By Year
- Top 100 Sci-Fi Books
- Next 100 Sci-Fi Books
- NPR Top 100 SF/F Books
- Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (David Pringle pre-1985)
- Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time (pre-1990)
- ISFDB Top Books by Year
- All the Lists at Worlds Without End
The Best Remembered Science Fiction Books of the 1990s
- The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1990)
- Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick (1991)
- A Fire Upon the Deep/A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
- Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
- The Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
- The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
- Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (1995)
- The Sparrow/Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
- The Vor Game/Barrayar/Mirror Dance/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1990s