The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1990s

1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

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.

mars-trilogy

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.

mirror-dance

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.

the-doomsday-book

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.

a-fire-upon-the-deep

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 Best Remembered Science Fiction Books of the 1990s

The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1990s

1990

the-difference-engine
1991

a-woman-of-the-iron-people
1992

snow-crash
1993

john-m-ford-growing-up-weightless
1994

permutation-city
1995

the-diamond-age
1996

bellwether
1997
Fools War Zettel
1998

1999

a-deepness-in-the-sky
1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

Table of Contents

14 thoughts on “The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1990s”

  1. Love Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but can’t understand the popularity of Bujold who I find turgid and unreadable.

    1. I find Bujold pleasant entertainment, but not my cup of regular tea. However, I know many SF fans that love Bujold and consider her their favorite science fiction author. Remember how I said science fiction has two branches? I prefer the hard science branch, but on the storytelling branch Bujold is very popular.

    2. I like the Mars Trilogy and the Vorkosigan series. Bujold has better characters than Robinson but does not get sloppy with any of her science like so much stuff called SF these days. But the sci/tech just isn’t as prominent when it is there. Falling Free and Komarr are as “sciencey” as she gets, but then most reviews and readers ignore it

      Komarr has a fundamental similarity to The Cold Equations.

  2. I found your page as I was trying to think of a story where aliens took refuge inside a black hole. The story was Gateway. I gave up reading SF many years ago when fantasy writers took over. Sword and sorcery was always boring. I have read many of the earlier books on your many lists. To answer your question which books would survive in the 22nd century, I think none. I was reading many of the very early 1930’s and 1940’s SF again. I realizes that the unknowns of space had to be replaced by what was known at the time which was the American west.
    This can be further seen by the change in the stories that are being written in the last 15 years. Instead of being preoccupied by what is out in space the writers are focusing on the potential fall of civilization or the extinction of humanity.
    There are many older books that portend what may come like the Forbin project or even Rollerball where computers and or corporations take over the world. Still the SF stories of last century all seem rather out of touch now that science has filled in some of the holes of understanding of the planets and the universe. Science has also told us how dangerous space is. There is no way with our current technology that humans are ever going to Mars much less another solar system. This is why most SF will be forgotten as what the authors wrote about can not happen.

    1. You’re probably right Larry. Science fiction doesn’t seem to have long lasting power. I think a very few might survive, but I’m not sure which. There’s were plenty of science fiction stories back in the 1890s, but The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds have survive. I think if we could live another hundred years we’d be surprised by which books from the 1990s survive.

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