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

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If you were a teen in the 1980s, loving Sesame Street, the Muppets, Atari 2600 games, John Hughes movies, D&D, MTV music, Zork, and nerdy Commodore 64s, then I have a book for you:  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  I lived through the 80s too old to play D&D but I dug the music, films and computers.  Cline made me terribly envious I hadn’t grown up in his decade.


I wish I could understand why this book was so much fun to read!  I’d use the formula to write bestsellers.  This story reminds me of a hip new version of Citizen Kane that doesn’t take itself so seriously.  Set in mid 21st century, aging billionaire James Halliday dies leaving a rather unique Last Will and Testament.  Halliday made his fortune developing a virtual reality universe called OASIS that most people use to attend school, work and play in because the real reality is rather bleak.  Halliday’s avatar tells the world he’s worth over $200 billion and that the first person to find his Easter Egg in the OASIS will win his fortune and company.

Now this gets the attention of the world’s foremost video gamers, as well as corporations hot to own the OASIS.  Our story begins with Wade Watts, a poor kid living in the trailer park from hell, whose only access to OASIS comes from his public school gear, but in his own 21st century Horatio Alger, Jr. way climbs out of poverty to compete with legendary gamers.

The contest designed by Halliday is hard, so hard that no one gets anywhere for five years.  It becomes obvious that the clues are hidden in Halliday’s childhood, just like Charles Foster Kane’s secrets, and only the most obsessed fans of 1980s trivia have any chance of solving the puzzles.  Ready Player One is perfect for people who grew up in the 1980s, but the story is so well told bookworms from any decade will love it.

I wonder how many people born forty years after the the 1980s will ever find our times so fascinating?  It would be like me devoting my whole life to the 1910s – but wait, I am madly in love with Downton Abbey.  And just look at the success of Steampunk!

This might be the clue to Cline’s success – creating great characters set in an fantastically detailed milieu, because if we had an OASIS system to visit, I think we all would find virtual worlds based on the past quite seductive.  Nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  At work the favorite topic of guys my age is music from the 1960s and 1970s.  I’m in a classic science fiction book club where we read and reread books from the 1940s-1970s.  Start paying attention to movies (Hugo, Sherlock Holmes, TinTin, War Horse) as more are set in the past.  Maybe it’s the bad economic times and we just need escapism.  Ready Player One sure made me forget about now.

Other Reviews and Sites – probably to read after reading the book

JWH – 1/12/12

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Matthew Wright

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The Astounding Analog Companion

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A Commonplace for the Uncommon

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