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Best Modern Science Fiction Books

Top 25 Best Modern Science Fiction Books | Best Science Fiction Books

The 1980s and 90s were a time of richness and change in science fiction. The release of Star Wars in the late 70s had triggered a renewed interest in the epic, wide screen baroque aspects of science fiction. An interest that bled over from the cinema into the literature, eventually helping to give rise to what became known as the New Hard SF and the New Space Opera, movements that reinvigorated the most traditional forms of the genre.

At the same time, two other films, Tron and Blade Runner, followed two years later by the first novel from William Gibson, helped to launch an exciting new subgenre: cyberpunk. The name was coined by Gardner Dozois in reference to a novel by Bruce Bethke, but it very quickly got applied to work by Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and others. An up-to-the-minute, iconoclastic take on the growing influence of computers in our lives, cyberpunk borrowed from Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Alfred Bester and John Brunner among others, but still took science fiction in an entirely new direction. By the end of the century, cyberpunk itself was mutating into stories about the post-human that continued to challenge our perceptions of the modern world.

Meanwhile, at the start of the 80s a new magazine was launched in Britain, Interzone. At first it tried to copy the new wave manner of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, but it quickly picked up on cyberpunk. What it was most important for, however, was giving a new platform for British science fiction writers, something that was amplified a few years later by the appearance of a new award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Together, they helped to stimulate what became known as the British Renaissance or the British Boom, which was in full swing by the end of the century with exciting new work coming from authors as varied as Iain M. Banks, Colin Greenland, Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley.

There were crossovers between all of these new movements: McAuley was one of the stars of the New Hard SF while Banks was perhaps the premiere exemplar of the New Space Opera. But altogether, they made this one of the most exciting periods in the history of science fiction.

The first volume in this quartet starts amid dark, forbidding towers, where young Severian is apprenticed to a Guild of Torturers. Sound like fantasy? Wrong! Because those towers are actually long-abandoned rocket ships. The picture of a man in armour that we see inside one of the towers is actually a famous photograph of Buzz Aldrin taken on the moon. This, we realise, is the far future, a future where the world is starting to run down and the people await a saviour who will renew the sun. When Severian is expelled from the guild for putting one prisoner out of her misery, we follow him into a society that is crowded and colourful and mysterious. Here there are aliens, though for a while we don't realise they are aliens because everyone is so used to them that they don't pay them any special attention. Here there are augmented people, and strange technological advances, but knowledge of these has long been lost. As we pick our way through the story we realise that there is a huge amount of stuff going on that we only glimpse out of the corner of the eye, and each time you re-read the work you notice something else so that the story becomes ever richer and more rewarding. Our narrator, Severian, has a perfect memory, but don't let that fool you into thinking he's a reliable narrator; he leaves things out so that there are always surprises awaiting the reader. But there is so much going on in the story that you sometimes don't notice when he's left things out, because there are wars and betrayals and miracles and mysteries and people raised from the dead, and Severian's journey includes companions who may or may not be reliable, assassins attempting to kill him for reasons he doesn't understand, attacks by terrifying creatures, and the staggering revelation that he is actually the next autarch.Why It's on the list Gene Wolfe is the finest stylist writing in science fiction, it is always a pleasure to read his books. But The Book of the New Sun marks the high point of his career, a subtle and brilliantly readable blending of science fiction and fantasy, which is reflected in the fact that all four volumes won at least one major award. The Shadow of the Torturer received the BSFA Award and the World Fantasy Award; The Claw of the Conciliator won the Nebula and Locus Awards; The Sword of the Lictor won the Locus and British Fantasy Awards; and The Citadel of the Autarch won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Books in The Book Of The New Sun Series (7)

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The Book of the New Sun was only the start of the story, Gene Wolfe went on to write a further volume about Severian and then two further series set in the same universe.

The Urth of the New Sun is set several years after the events recounted in the quartet. Severian is now travelling in a massive spaceship to meet the all-powerful alien who can rejuvenate Urth's dying sun. Along the way he has to encounter all the dead people he has known, and, upon his return to Urth, he finds himself once again facing the enemies he had to battle in the first quartet.

The Book of the Long Sun is another four-book series, Nightside the Long Sun, The Lake of the Long Sun, Call of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun, which follows the adventures of Patera Silk. As the series opens he is a lowly priest in a small neighbourhood 'manteion', but in his efforts to save the manteion he discovers that he is actually aborad a generation starship now nearing its destination.

The Book of the Short Sun concludes what has been known as the 'Solar Cycle' with three novels, On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl. A direct sequel to The Book of the Long Sun, the plot concerns the search for Patera Silk across the two habitable worlds, Blue and Green, that the generation starship Whorl has reached. By the end of the sequence we realise that these events immediately precede 

If you love Gene Wolfe's allusive writing and subtle world building, then don't miss The Fifth Head of Cerberus. These three linked novellas concern two planets once colonised by the French, where the population has a rich if rather decadent lifestyle. But there's a mystery concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of the planets who seem to have disappeared, but who are rumoured to have been shapeshifters. Could the humans actually be the natives in disguise?

As The Fifth Head of Cerberus indicates, before he embarked on The Book of the New Sun Gene Wolfe was best known for his multiple award-winning stories, many of which are gathered in The Best of Gene Wolfe; look out in particular for "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories", "The Death of Doctor Island", "Seven American Nights", and "The Hero as Werwolf".

The dying earth that we encounter in The Book of the New Sun has a long tradition in science fiction. Don't miss the book that gave its name to the subgenre, The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, set in a distant future when the Moon has disappeared, the sun is burning out, and predatory monsters from another age now infest the cold and barren landscapes of Earth.

This is, without question, the best realistic portrait of Mars to date, as well as being one of the best works of science fiction from the last few decades. The three books, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, take us from the first Spartan colony on Mars through the slow transformation of the planet as the colony grows and prospers. There are internal divisions over whether Mars should be terraformed or left in its pristine state; there's murder and terrorism, there's a war with Earth, there are major catastrophes, and through it all we watch as Mars changes from being a desert planet to being a world that can support its population in comfort. It's an amazing work, huge, slow moving yet never less than gripping, so you feel that this is exactly how the colonisation of Mars will happen in the years to come.   The three books in the trilogy collected just about all of the major awards going, including the Nebula and BSFA Awards for Red Mars, and the Hugo and Locus Awards for both Green Mars and Blue Mars. And the trilogy has never been out of any list of the best sf ever since they first appeared.

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Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of the best and most consistent writers of science fiction, and practically everything he's written is worth checking out.

The Orange County Trilogy offers three separate visions of the future of California. The Wild Shore is a post-apocalypse story in which the survivors start again in small rural communities. The Gold Coast is a dystopia in which California's love affair with the car has run to excess. While Pacific Edge is a utopia in which ecological ideas are put in place to create a better world.

The Years of Rice and Salt is a striking alternate history in which most of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death. The novel traces the social, political and scientific developments in a world in which Middle Eastern, Asian and Native American cultures dominate.

If you want more books about mars, check out The Martian by Andy Weir which is a near-future novel about a man who gets stranded on mars for a couple years. If you want an old school space opera about mars, check out Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And finally, if you want a pulpy science fantasy about mars, read the Barsoom novels by Burroughs starting with The Princess of Mars.

If you want to know the most influential science fiction novel of the last thirty-odd years, look no further than William Gibson's Neuromancer. The novel didn't invent cyberpunk; two films that came out a couple of years earlier, Tron and Blade Runner, had already introduced some of the themes of cyberpunk. And the term itself was invented by Gardner Dozois talking about a novel by Bruce Bethke. Nevertheless, it's safe to say that without Neuromancer, there would have been no cyberpunk. Neuromancer wasn't the first science fiction novel set among the low life and street people of the near future, but Gibson inhabited the Sprawl with utter conviction, inventing a street slang that caught on in the real world. In this underground, Case is a washed-up hacker whose been treated with drugs to stop him accessing the Matrix ever again, while Molly is a street samurai who offers case a cure in exchange for his services.Through a violent world of double-dealing corporations and government cover-ups, Case and Molly risk their lives in the bright and threatening landscape of cyberspace, following a trail that eventually leads them to Wintermute, a powerful AI at a time when machine intelligence is banned.A heady mixture of computer know-how and grimy film noir action, Neuromanceris like no novel before it, a totally original and absolutely gripping take on the near future. Why It's On the ListNeuromancer was the first novel ever to win the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards. It also set the tone for cyberpunk and made Gibson one of the most acclaimed of modern writers. Neuromancer didn't just catch the zeitgeist, it created it, giving us terms like "cyberspace" and "ICE", and being instrumental in the way the World Wide Web developed.Alternative ChoiceMake sure you look at our 'Top 25 Best Cyberpunk Books list' and our Guide to the Cyberpunk Genre for MORE cyberpunk book recommendations.And the novel that is our Alternative Choice for the Top 25 is:Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.  In a balkanised Los Angeles, where everything is privatised and the economy is breaking down, a new computer virus appears that affects the users as much as their computers. A key part of this future is the Metaverse, Stephenson's futuristic version of the Internet where people "log on" via virtual goggles. Everything is conducted through the Metaverse, from business to dating. Stephenson not only presents us with a very realistic look at what could be, but there are some subtle social observations about the way things are different and the same.Stephenson frames the modern social constructs intruding into this cyberworld; ones' social wealth is judged by the look of the avatar they use to interact with the Metaverse, with the wealthy being able to afford custom while the "poor" use off the shelf.This book has it all, from hacker heroes who wield Samurai sword destruction by night in the Metaverse and deliver pizza by day for the Mob, governments and police controlled by private corporations, and a conspiracy that might the world needs some saving from.

Books in Childe Cycle Series (24)

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Neuromancer was just the start of the Sprawl trilogy, so you should certainly go on to read Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, not to mention the stories in Burning Chrome, which tell us yet more about this future of jacked-in cyber jockeys and street samurai, simstim and emerging machine intelligence. You simply can't understand cyberpunk, or anything that happened in science fiction afterwards, without these books. Note that while these books take place in the same 'world' they are unique stories and as such you can read Neuromancer (or the other loosely connected books) as stand alones.

Gibson has recently returned to science fiction with a powerful new novel, The Peripheral, in which people riding shotgun on an immersive game in the run-down near future end up witnessing a murder in the more distant future, and get caught in a time-travelling mystery of escalating violence and ever-increasing mystery. It can be hard going at first, but boy is it worth keeping on with the book.

If Neuromancer got the ball rolling with cyberpunk, there were an awful lot of great writers who quickly joined him. So if this sets you on fire, you absolutely must go on to read Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling, the novel and stories set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe, a future in which humanity is divided between those who go in for genetic modification of the body, the Shapers, and those who prefer mechanical augmentation, the Mechanists. This is the point where cyberpunk started to mutate into stories of post-humanity.

Then there's Pat Cadigan, especially Synners and Fools, both of which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, making her the first person to win the award twice. These are dramatic stories of human/machine interface, and the way it affects our awareness of reality.

For more specific CYBERPUNK book recommendations, make sure you look at our 'Top 25 Best Cyberpunk Books list' and our Guide to the Cyberpunk Genre

Throughout its history, one of the strongest and most interesting aspects of science fiction has been its use in satire. And this is just about the most stunning of contemporary satires, one that is still remarkable apposite. It's set in a near-future America where the Christian right has won. Civil rights have been eroded, and in particular the rights of women have been completely removed. Following the coup, a family try to escape from America but are captured; the woman is separated from her husband and child (who she does not see again) and becomes a handmaid, that is a concubine. Her name is changed to "Offred" because she is literally the property of Fred. The novel reveals the workings of this dystopian state through the experiences of Offred in this household as she is alternately helped and misused by Fred and by his wife, and also her growing awareness of a resistance movement, though how helpful that movement might be is left ambiguous at the end of her tale. Why It Made the List The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlist for a host of other science fiction and mainstream awards. It has since been made into a film and into an opera. This is one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction you are likely to read, an absolutely essential book. Alternative Choice Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which three male explorers happen upon an isolated community consisting entirely of women, who have long since learned to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The story concerns the very different attitudes towards women of the three men, and the ways they come to terms with the utopian society that the women have established.

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At the time, The Handmaid's Tale looked like an oddity in the career of an important mainstream writer. But since then Margaret Atwood has not only written a book about science fiction, she has also incorporated science fiction elements into her novel The Blind Assassin, more significantly she has written a science fiction trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood follow two different sets of survivors, which are brought together in the final volume, MaddAddam. Interspersed throughout the novels are long flashbacks to the polluted, heavily industrialised world before the crash, leading up to the deliberate release of a genetically constructed virus that wipes out a large proportion of the population. Some commentators reckon that these books are more ambitious and more powerful even that The Handmaid's Tale.

There are quite a few other utopian and dystopian novels that explore the position of women. For example, The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri  S. Tepper is set 300 years after a nuclear war has destroyed the United States. Women's Country is an ecologically sustainable matriarchy where the women live within walled towns while the men live in warrior camps outside the walls. But in the novel one of the women finds herself captured by a misogynistic Christian community where women are treated like slaves.

Iain Banks burst onto the literary scene with his controversial first novel, The Wasp Factory, the violent story of a girl who had been brought up as an emasculated boy. He followed this with two novels that both displayed an awareness of and interest in science fiction, so it was no surprise when he added the middle initial and produced a straightforward science fiction novel. What was surprising was that it was a full-blooded space opera, full of battles and last minute escapes and epic explosions. What caught everybody's attention, however, was that the novel introduced a vast, interstellar, left-wing utopia, The Culture. The Culture was an immediate hit, and over the next 30 years he produced nine more novels and a bare handful of short stories about the Culture, which grew into one of the most popular and interesting of all science fiction series. Typically, he would look at this post-scarcity universe obliquely while concentrating on the edges, where the Culture rubbed up against other space-faring societies, and the Culture's most disreputable organisation, Special Circumstances, operated. Occasionally we would be shown what it is like in a society without money, because everything is freely available, a society in which people could be whatever they wanted, changing sex freely and even, in one instance, taking on the appearance of a bush. It's a world of dangerous sports and comfortable living, but mostly we saw it only from the outside, through the eyes of those who did its dirty work. The best example of this is Use of Weapons. Zakalwe is a mercenary, a bloody and effective soldier, who has worked for Special Circumstances on a number of occasions before, but now is called on for one last mission. In the odd-numbered chapters we follow this final mission; but in the even-numbered chapters we go backwards in time through his earlier missions and back towards the secret of his childhood. The final revelation about Zakalwe's true identity is brutal and breathtaking.The unique structure of the novel is what makes this an especially powerful story. And it is told with a combination of cruel, unflinching violence and sparkling wit that is typical of Banks, and helps to explain his extraordinary popularity.Why It's On the ListThe Culture is one of the great inventions of science fiction, a communistic utopia that actually works. It is also a universe absolutely stuffed with amazing inventions, including the ships that are characters in their own right and have typically witty names (in Use of Weapons, for instance, we meet "Very Little Gravitas Indeed" and "Size Isn't Everything"). All of the Culture novels are worth reading, and Use of Weapons is easily the most rewarding of them. Some will recommend Player of Games as the 'best' intro to Bank's Culture novels as it's an exciting, action packed read that takes place a very personal level between characters. It's also introduces you to the  greater world at large without being too overwhelming. Consider Phlebas is another good intro, and as Culture goes, is Bank's classic "Space Opera' entry into the series.

Books in Culture Series (11)

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Basically, anything with Iain M. Banks's name on it is going to be action on a massive scale, great ideas, laugh out loud humour, and soul-searching darkness, all rolled into one. You're not going to go wrong picking up any of his books. But these are some you'll really want to pay attention to.

The Player of Games stars the Culture's top games player, Gurgeh, who is blackmailed to go on a secret mission for Special Circumstances, taking on a brutal alien empire at their own particular game, and the stakes are far higher than he could ever imagine. This is a novel where you just have to take a deep breath every so often before plunging back into the action, because it really will screw with your mind. This is recommended as a good introduction to the series -- it's action packed, it's faced paced, and it's a rewarding story.

Excession mostly concerns the ships who are called on to investigate a strange intrusion into Culture space, and which gradually reveals a whole level of reality they weren't even aware of before. This won the BSFA Award.

Look to Windward describes an attempt to blow up an Orbital, an artificial world where millions of people live, as revenge for the Culture's interference in a long-ago war. It's the novel where you realise that the Culture isn't a static society but is actually evolving, growing older, maybe beginning to contemplate its own death.

The novels of Iain M. Banks helped to kick start the British Renaissance of the 1990s and also the New Space Opera, so if you love his books you're also advised to look out for some of the other books that emerged out of those movements.

The Fall Revolution Quartet by Ken MacLeod, Banks's childhood friend, is an obvious place to start; each volume takes a different version of Trotskyist politics as an underlying theme in a story that starts in a near future Britain and ends with a war against uploaded beings around Jupiter.

The Quiet War Quartet by Paul McAuley covers thousands of years of human habitation across the solar system, starting in the relatively near future when energy and enthusiasm are driving people ever further out but their efforts have to be directed towards trying to prevent a war between the colonists in the outer system and the authoritarian regimes left behind. But by the end of the series humanity is retreating as the various human habitats crumble and decay, but a mysterious message from the stars could reinvigorate things.

The Xeelee Sequence by Stephen Baxter, one of the most consistently reliable of hard sf authors, whose monumental series of novels and stories range from the present day to five billion years in the future when the solar system collides with the Andromeda nebula, during which time humanity becomes one of the most powerful races in space.

For big space opera with grand ideas and exiting action, give Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series a read. It's got it's own thing going on -- a different sort of story than the Culture, but in my opinion, just as exciting.

If Xenogenesis explores the emergence of posthumanity through exogamy, Blood Music explores it through infection. A renegade biotechnologist faces having his research shut down, so he injects himself with the “noocytes” he has created. These are biological computers that quickly multiply inside his body, and then become self aware. At first the noocytes improve his health, but in time they don’t just take over the researcher, but everyone else they can infect, until the whole of North America becomes one biosphere. Why it’s on the list: Expanded from an original novelette that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Blood Music is both a terrifying and an exhilarating account of how something so small can have such a monumental effect.

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Greg Bear also dealt with nanotechnology in Queen of Angels and its sequel, Slant. In the near future, nanotechnology has been used in psychotherapy so that now the vast majority of people have gone through the technique that ensures they are well-integrated, happy and content. Then a famous writer commits a gruesome murder, the sort of crime that should not exist in this therapied world. At the same time, an AI operating a space probe discovers signs of life around Alpha Centauri and simultaneously achieves artificial intelligence.  The two novels together tell a fascinating story in which questions of identity, who we are and how we got there, are always central.

Bear has also written some monumental hard sf, of which the best is probably Eon, in which a mysterious asteroid comes close to earth and is revealed to contain mysterious tunnels and long-abandoned cities, and at the end the corridor opens out way beyond the physical limits of the asteroid, taking us into an extraordinary pocket universe.

A novel of startling ideas that influenced a generation of writers and pop culture. Some of the best cyberpunk science fiction out there. Fans of dystopian fiction and cyberpunk will love this one especially those who adore the setting present in Blade Runner - a dilapidated futuristic Asian metropolis with little law and even less order. The writing is sharp, the wit sharper, and the sarcasm even more so. Stephenson brings you into HIS world, a world where society has been redefined and the rules of living are vastly changed. It's a distant future that's somewhat familiar while also alien.  There's a lot of ideas in Snow Crash and complex ones at that. Stephenson looks at the not-too distant future; it's a dismal place with no laws, private corporations controlling everything, and the Mob having their hands in the rest – including Pizza Delivery services. Key part of this future is the Metaverse, Stephenson's futuristic version of the Internet where people "log on" via virtual goggles. Everything is conducted through the Metaverse, from business to dating. Stephenson not only presents us with a very realistic look at what could be, but there are some subtle social observations about the way things are different and the same. Stephenson frames the modern social constructs intruding into this cyberworld; ones' social wealth is judged by the look of the avatar they use to interact with the Metaverse, with the wealthy being able to afford custom while the "poor" use off the shelf. This book has it all, from hacker heroes who wield Samurai sword destruction by night in the Metaverse and deliver pizza by day for the Mob, governments and police controlled by private corporations, and a conspiracy that might the world needs some saving from. And like the protagonist takes the win for most awesome name ever: Hiro Protagonist. I feel The Diamond Age, Stephenson's other big Cyberpunk work is actually a better novel with more grand concepts and better social critiques, one that shows Stephenson's maturity as a writer. But Snow Crash is what made it happen and was a highly influential novel on the genre, so it gets my recommendation as "The Must Read".

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Neuromancer. This is often lauded as THE book that started the cyberpunk genre. It's an oldie but has aged surprisingly well. It's more of a reserved cool, calculated read when you want to really think. Stephenson's Snow Crash is pumped full of energy, a white hot read that keeps you on edge.

Read Stephenson's The Diamond Age, his other great Cyberpunk work. Probably the "closest" you are going to get to Snow Crash.

Altered Carbon, a bit of snow crash, a bit of Neuromancer, and a shipload of action. Awesome on every level.
You might give Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth saga a read. While it is space opera and not cyberpunk, but there's lots of in the words of the Penny Arcade Forum member "locomotiveman" "badasses being badass with the aid of gadgetry, cybernetic and otherwise, while overall being really cool, likable and at times quite funny." An apt description I think. Give it a read if you like reading about heroes who kick ass with the aid of gadgets.

If you like the entertaining dialogue present in Snow Crash, you might want to give Neal Asher's Spatterjay book a read.

Gwyneth Jones's first novel for adults, Divine Endurance, set in a richly imagined South East Asia, marked the arrival of a novelist intent on using science fiction to explore the effects of colonialism. Later novels, such as Kairos, showed her to be a writer of complex and challenging political fictions that demanded close attention yet paid rich rewards. These tendencies, vivid writing, political complexity, challenging ideas, achieved their greatest expression in what has become known as the Aleutian Trilogy. Colonialism has been a theme of science fiction at least since the work of H.G. Wells, but no-one has spelled out exactly what it means to be colonised the way that Gwyneth Jones does here. When Earth is colonised by the Aleutians, we are presented with all the problems associated with that. There are linguistic differences which make it difficult for coloniser and colonised to understand each other; there are problems with the fact that the Aleutians have a sort of immortality; and above all there is the new sense of inferiority that leads many humans to have themselves surgically altered so they look more like the aliens. Why it's on the list: The first volume, White Queen, which won the James Tiptree Award, was followed by North Wind and Phoenix Café, though there are also several stories set in the same milieu included in her collection The Universe of Things, and another novel, Spirit, or, The Princess of Bois Dormant, is set long after the Aleutians retreat from Earth. Together they form the central plank of one of the most significant careers in contemporary science fiction.
The Vietnam War had a profound effect on a generation of American science fiction writers (you'll find many traces of it in the work of Joe Haldeman, for example), but it was Lucius Shepard who managed to turn the experience of the war into an astonishing work of science fiction. His stories and novels are frequently set in lush, steamy jungles where humans are diminished to their most basic impulses amid the overwhelming noise and smell and colour of the place. This is best seen in his fix-up novel, Life During Wartime. Here the Vietnam War is transposed to a future war in Central America. David Mingolla is a typical American grunt caught up in a very science fictional army, where helicopter pilots have heads-up displays that detach them from any humanity, where most soldiers use a wide variety of drugs, and where Mingolla is recruited to Psicorps where he will be trained as a psychic. But when he deserts he finds that the other side, manipulated by two ancient families, are fighting a magic realist war where, for instance, a downed pilot is suffocated by a host of beautiful butterflies. Why it's on the list: Shepard wrote a rich prose that no-one else writing science fiction at the time could match. This novel, like many of his stories, combined technologically acute science fiction with evocative magic realism, opening the genre to more literary sensibilities.
In contemporary Britain, a young man called Peter Sinclair loses his job and his girlfriend, and retreats to a remote cottage where he sets out to write his life story. But the story he writes is set in a place called the Dream Archipelago. In the Dream Archipelago, a young man called Peter Sinclair wins the lottery to receive immortality treatment. But the treatment will wipe out his memory, so he is required to write the story of his life. But the story he writes is set in contemporary Britain. We never know which is real, but there are curious and often disturbing resonances between the two worlds. Both Peter Sinclairs may, indeed, be deluded; there is a shattering moment when the long manuscript by Peter Sinclair in Britain, which we think we've been reading in the Dream Archipelago sections of the novel, turns out to be just a pile of blank pages. Why it's on the list: One of the major themes that has developed in science fiction over the last 30-40 years has been the questioning of the nature of reality. Can we trust our world? Is everything an illusion? That strand of sf has been largely set in motion by Priest, particularly in this novel. He had already written a number of stories set in the Dream Archipelago, where it was a place of psycho-sexual allure and terror, and he has returned to it in recent novels, such as The Islanders and The Adjacent, but it was here that it acquired its most charged expression.
Another tale about sending information back in time; only in this instance people are trying to avoid creating paradoxes at all costs, especially the 'Grandfather Paradox', which is shorthand for anything that you do with the past that would have the result of preventing you from doing it. (Think about that for a moment. It's really cool!) The information they're wanting to send back by about 35 years is meant to warn people of impending ecological disaster if the world of the early 1960s continues on its course. The attempt works, but since it changes past history, a parallel time-stream is created and that severs the information link from the future. Meaning that in the original time-stream nothing changes. But you figured that out for yourself already, right? < Why it's on the list: Another good take on the 'send messages to the past' angle. Somewhat different to #6 on this list, taking a somewhat more 'global' view with strong eco-themes; but also taking recourse to 'parallel time-streams' speculations and the attendant consequences.
Synners are jacked-in outlaws, hooked on the astonishing worlds of virtual space as an escape from the grim, depressing industrial reality around them. But, hot-wired in to cyberspace, they have unleashed a wildfire virus that doesn't just trash the system; it can trash your brain as well.The battle between streetwise cyberpunks and the emergent AI that is starting to kill off their friends and colleagues makes for one hell of ride. It's a world overwhelmed by the sheer noise of what is going on, an incessant pounding of information and rock music and advertising that makes for the dark, mean, dystopian streets of this thriller. A vision of the future that feels far too close to reality today.Intricately plotted, fast paced, utterly convincing, this is the epitome of the cyberpunk thriller. Synners won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It is everything that cyberpunk set out to be but so rarely achieved, a brilliant thriller and a chilling vision of a digital world not that far from our own.

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Pat Cadigan is one of the most important science fiction writers of the last 30-odd years, so it is, frankly, a disgrace and a mystery that she didn't win a Hugo Award until she picked one up for her novelette, "The Girl Who Went Out For Sushi", in 2013. But at least she made up for this oversight by being the first person to win two Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Which brings us to our Alternative Choice.

Fools was the novel that Cadigan wrote after Synners, and it is filled with the same dense detail, the same confident handling of its digital future, and the same ability to whip up a gripping adventure plot. It's set in a world in which memories can be bought and sold. When one woman wakes up with a memory of a murder that she didn't commit, she has to find out who's memory she has, while trying to dodge the assassins who are now chasing her. But in this world everyone can have several different personalities lodged in the brain and it's not easy even for Marva to know who she is.

By the late 1980s, British science fiction was ready for the kick-start that would become the British renaissance. And that kick start came from two unexpected writers. One was Iain M. Banks, who had a reputation as an anarchic talent in mainstream fiction, but now burst out with a rip-roaring space opera. The other was Colin Greenland, who had written a handful of elegant if rather anaemic fantasies, but suddenly produced the wild, colourful space adventure of Take Back Plenty.This was a novel that brought together some of the oldest, hoariest ideas in science fiction, and made them fresh. It was a planetary adventure that wasn't afraid of presenting Mars or Venus as frontier territory, rough and dangerous; there are tough spaceship captains forever in danger of losing their precious ship; and there are competing alien races who happen to control the solar system. All this feels like cliché, but it is written with an exuberance that emphasises the devil-may-care fun of space opera.And Greenland undermines enough of the clichés to make us sit up and take notice. Most notably, his rough, tough spaceship captain is a woman, Tabitha Jute, who is a lot less responsible than her intelligent ship, the Alice Liddell (named after the model for Alice in Wonderland, which illustrates something of what lies behind this story). She accepts a seemingly innocuous job, transporting a wheeler-dealer and his band from Mars to the alien space station of Plenty. But things rapidly become more complex, and once started the action barely lets up. Take Back Plenty won the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards. It's a knowing rehash of old sf tropes that makes space opera fun again, which is why this is one of the founding texts of both the British Renaissance and the New Space Opera.

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Greenland took the story of Tabitha Jute on through two more novels, Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty plus a collection of stories, The Plenty Principle. They are fun to read and very entertaining, though they don't quite match the flair of the original.

Other authors whose work was essential in stimulating the New Space Opera include Paul McAuley, especially his early trilogy of Four Hundred Billion Stars, Secret Harmonies and Eternal Light, which, as the title of the first volume might suggest, take the entire galaxy as the backdrop for stories of interstellar warfare, genetic engineering, immortality, and a dramatic journey to the very core of the galaxy. The novels marked McAuley out as one of the major new writers of hard sf, and are still wonderful reading today.

Few debut novels since Neuromancer have had the impact that Mary Doria Russell achieved with The Sparrow. After this novel and its sequel, Children of God, she turned to writing historical fiction, which has led some to argue that The Sparrow is not science fiction (they prefer terms like “philosophical fiction”), but in fact it is clearly and unequivocally sf, fitting into a long tradition that dates back to James Blish's A Case of Conscience, and continues to Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things. These are works in which science fiction is used to confront belief with reality, allowing us to test the nature of both. In The Sparrow a Jesuit priest is among the crew sent to an alien planet, from which transmissions of beautiful song have been detected. But failure to understand the nature of life on the planet when they arrive leads to tragedy. Everyone bar the priest is killed, and he is disfigured, enslaved and debased. Later, when he manages to get back to Earth, his debriefing reveals a crisis of faith that brings into question everything about how the powerful relate to the powerless, and about how our beliefs affect how we choose to interpret the things we see. Why it's on the list: The power of the novel is reflected in the fact that it won the James Tiptree Award, the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

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1995 was the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and in celebration Stephen Baxter produced one of the best novels in his long and distinguished career. Written as a direct sequel to Wells's original, the novel starts with the time traveller returning to the time when he hopes to save Weena, but he finds everything has changed. The mere fact of having written The Time Machine has changed history, and consequently the time traveller and a Morlock companion set off on an adventure that takes them back to when the Time Traveller began his researches, encounters travellers from a World War I still going on in 1938, traps them in the Paleocene, takes them forward to a future in which nanotech entities control the universe, and eventually takes them back to the beginning so that the circle of time is completed and all events become inevitable. Why it's on the list: Baxter is one of the best of the New Hard SF writers, with works like the Xeelee Sequence, Voyage, Coalescent and more recently Proxima, so although Wells has been an influence throughout his career, this Wellsian time travel adventure was something of a departure. Nevertheless, by bringing to the story his skill at writing hard science and his penchant for mind-boggling vistas, he found something new and contemporary in the story. The novel won the BSFA, Philip K. Dick and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards.
Set thousands of years into the future, the universe is inhabited by various races, including super-intelligent entities in the Transcend and the simple creatures and technology of the Unthinking Depths. Space has been divided in these regions of thought by unknown forces. When the Straumli realm uses an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, a huge force of power is unleashed that kills thousands of worlds and enslaves all intelligence - natural and artificial alike. Recognizing what they have unleashed, researchers attempt to flee in two ships, one of which is destroyed. The second ship is unharmed, landing on a distant planet with a medieval type civilization of dog-like creature called the Tines.There's a problem with much traditional space opera: the setting may be as vast as the entire universe, but it's all more or less the same. Or it was until Vernor Vinge came along with the Zones of Thought.The idea, first presented in this stunning novel, is that the further out from the galactic core that you travel, then the greater the speeds that can be attained, and the more advanced the thought that is possible. Close to the core, in the Unthinking Depths, intelligent thought is pretty much impossible. Outside this, in the Slow Zone (where Earth is located), faster than light travel and true artificial intelligence are impossible. In the Beyond, artificial intelligence, faster than light travel and faster than light communication are all possible. Further out still, in the Transcend, there are superintelligent species that are incomprehensible to normal beings.Humans from the Beyond, fleeing the superintelligence known as the Blight, crash onto a planet in the Slow Zone inhabited by Tines, dog-like aliens whose intelligence works within the pack. The humans must raise the medieval technology of the Tines in order to activate countermeasures against the Blight. Why It Made the ListA Fire Upon the Deep, which won the Hugo Award, is one of those novels so packed with ideas that it could keep most other writers busy for years.This novel has everything I want in space opera in it: love, betrayal, aliens, space battles, super-intelligence, physics, and the Beastie Boys. Wait, I think I just included that part by accident. These things happen when you start getting Intergalactic Planetary stuck in your head every time you read about a gripping tale of galactic war. A Fire Upon the Deep won the Hugo Award in 1993.

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Vernor Vinge has so far written two more novels set within the Zones of Thought.

A Deepness in the Sky, which won the Hugo, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards, is a prequel set some 20,000 years before the events of A Fire Upon the Deep. Set in the Slow Zone, it is about what happens when an intelligent species is discovered on a planet orbiting an anomalous star, a system that may have entered the Slow Zone from the Transcendent.

The Children of the Sky is a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, but it is set entirely on Tinesworld. The surviving humans on the planet start to fall into warring factions, and while trying to raise the technological status of the Tines they also unleash further wars. A Deepness in the Sky is every bit the equal of A Fire Upon the Deep, but The Children of the Sky feels rather flat and limited by comparison; a decent read, but not a great one. However, there are clearly more Zones of Thought stories to come.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, the first novel by VernorVinge's then-wife, Joan D. Vinge, about an escalating conflict between male and female dominated societies in the asteroid belt is also set within the Zones of Thought, or at least so Joan Vinge has claimed.

For an unusual adaptation of the Zones of Thought idea, try Jo Walton's fantasy novel, Lifelode, in which she adapts the Zones of Thought as zones of magical ability.

If you haven't read any Willis, you are a total fail at science fiction street cred. Willis has won more major awards than any other science fiction writer – ever! She has won 11 Hugos and 8 Nebulas. Her Time Travel series features the superb novel Doomsday Book, as well as To Say Nothing Of The Dog, and Blackout/All Clear. Her short story Fire Watch is also part of this series. She's kind of mean in the sense that she likes to pop reader's bubbles. This series features history students at the University of Oxford, England, time traveling to critical points in history. In fact, her mastery of history coupled to science will smack you around like she's the cat and you are the bell in the little plastic ball. Ouch. Swat. Give me more, I hate you. Don't just take my word for it. Read the books!

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Ken MacLeod was a lifelong friend of Iain Banks, and their interest in science fiction was parallel, though MacLeod's interest in Trotskyist politics gave his work a harder political edge than Banks's. This is most evident in his first four books, collectively known as the Fall Revolution, in which each volume explores different aspects of far left political ideology. The first novel, The Star Fraction, opens in a near-future Balkanised Britain, with a mercenary, a teenager and a scientist finding themselves working together for a revolution against the more or less benign dictatorship that rules the world. By the end of the novel, however, the financial software that has been used to shape the revolution is found to be an artificial intelligence. The next volume, The Stone Canal, takes the story out into space, and by the third volume, The Cassini Division, humans are at war with uploaded beings around Jupiter. Then, in the fourth book, The Sky Road, the sequence makes an abrupt change of direction when it is revealed that a different decision made by one of the characters in the middle of the second novel has created a parallel universe leading to a catastrophic outcome. Why it's on the list: The various volumes of the Fall Revolution Quartet have, between then, won two Prometheus Awards and a BSFA Award. The Quartet marked a dramatic debut for someone who has gone on to become one of the most successful of contemporary science fiction writers, and the political underpinning of most of his fiction has created a very distinctive body of work.

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Downbelow Station is well known among science fiction readers. It's part of a sprawling set of novels - though each reads as a standalone, it's worth reading a few should you find out that it really is your thing. And trust us when we say it will be. This is a tale of conflict, drama and political intrigue. Of course, plenty of books tell these stories, but what makes it such a special piece of fiction that we've placed it at number ten on our list of top hard science fiction novels? Cherryh's solutions to colonising planets - or rather, making use of planets that we can't quite colonise - are ingenious and the world she builds is totally believable (though that fact may well turn you into quite the cynic!). That, combined with a vibrant and varied cast pushes this novel into our top ten. Also, there's a board game based on it, so you multi-fandom geeks can have even more fun with this universe!

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Science fiction is all about changing our world, new technologies, new ways of doing things, new forms of perception always transform the familiar, in large or small ways. Few transformations have been so extensive yet so carefully thought-out as Paul McAuley's Fairyland. We start in a recogniseable, near-future Britain, but already developments in nanotechnology ad genetic engineering are starting to create the world anew. As the novel progresses, we follow, step-by-step, each new logical development, and at each stage the world gets stranger and stranger. By the end there are weird transformations, an underclass of genetically manipulated dolls who serve as gene slaves until they start to revolt, and the once familiar world is like nothing we have seen before. Why it's on the list: Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic, but most of the authors who have taken up this idea have just jumped straight into the magic. McAuley shows us how we might get there, while still revealing a future destination that is truly an awe-inspiring fairyland. The novel won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
Back in the 1950s, a young Alasdair Gray entered a short story in a competition. It came second. That story was part of what would become, nearly 30 years later, the most significant novel in contemporary Scottish literature. Gray went on to be a successful artist and playwright, but he kept working on the novel that would become one of the sensations of 1984.It is the story of Duncan Thaw, growing up in Glasgow, becoming an artist, dying; but the novel opens in Unthank, an afterlife where a man called Lanark learns to negotiate this dark, bleak realm. And after the middle sections that tell us about Thaw, we return to Unthank to find out more not only about this strange city but about all of the literary influences that have helped to construct this amazing story. Honestly, if you havent read it, what are you waiting for? Youve got a real treat in store.It is probably safe to say that without Lanark Iain Banks would not have written The Bridge, Irvine Welsh would not have written Maribou Stork Nightmare, or indeed most of modern Scottish literature as we know it would not exist. Lanark was that important.
Hoban first made his name with books for children, such as the wonderful The Mouse and His Child. When he turned to writing novels for adults, although they seemed to take place in our normal world, there was always something off-kilter about them: the mystical lion in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz or the talking street furniture in Kleinzeit. Even so, nothing hinted at what was to come in Riddley Walker, one of the most brilliant and original post-apocalyptic novels ever written. Like all of his books, it is precisely located in place, in this instance a small area of Kent between Canterbury and Folkestone. Here, some 2,000 years after the nuclear apocalypse, survivors live an essentially hunter-gatherer existence in small tribes. Language has been debased, memories of nuclear war have transmuted into myth (Saint Eusa, the legend of the LittlShynin Man the Addom), and the Gummint exerts its control through the medium of a touring Punch and Judy show. But gunpowder has been rediscovered, and with it the danger of a return to the old ways.   At first the look of the words on the page can seem off-putting – "On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the laswyld pig on the Bundel Downs" – but read it aloud and it makes perfect sense, a rich and vigorous language that really encapsulates the nature of this society. The whole novel is a tour-de-force, a breathtaking and entirely captivating work. No wonder it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
Imagine a London that has become semi-tropical, where people photosynthesise, where cancer has been cured but the human lifespan has been cut in half. Imagine a place where viruses are used to educate, to inform, to control. That is the world of Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden, a place where bioengineering has run riot. Everything, including houses, machines and even spaceships, is genetically engineered. In a novel in which we meet Lucy, an immortal tumour, and Joseph, whose mind is used to store information for other people, one girl is immune to the viruses. As she tries to stage an opera based on The Divine Comedy, she meets the hive mind which rules the world and which is lonely and afraid of dying. Why it's on the list: The Child Garden won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the novella which forms the first part of the book won the BSFA Award.
How much more could you do if you didn't have to sleep? That's the simple question that starts this superb trilogy.In this near future world, a philosophy that is becoming ever more dominant is known as Yagaiism, after its originator, Yagai. It's a world view based on the ideas of Ayn Rand, and argues that someone's worth is a measure of their contribution to society. Against which, Kress asks through one of her characters, what do we owe to the beggars in Spain, the poor and helpless who have nothing but their need. This contrast between selfishness and generosity is dramatized in the trilogy by the conflicts arising over sleeplessness.Genetic modification has allowed some people to live without the need for sleep. Since they can spend a much greater portion of the day productively, the sleepless inevitably learn more, more quickly as children and become more productive and richer as adults. There are other advantages, as well, such as longevity. But there are disadvantages, mainly caused by the increasing resentment and suspicion of the sleepers. For instance, a sleepless athlete is banned from the Olympics because her extended training regime gives her an unfair advantage over other athletes. But as the sleepless band together, so the sleepers find themselves more and more becoming second or even third class citizens. Over the course of the two subsequent volumes, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride, Kress catalogues the increasing discrimination and the political disintegration that follows on from the division of the country into sleepers and sleepless. It is one of the most carefully thought out and most compelling accounts of the near future you're likely to read. The original novella, that became the first part of the first volume, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Its account of emerging technologies, particularly in the area of genetic engineering, is carefully researched and absolutely convincing.

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The Probability Series, which comprises Probability Moon, Probability Sun and Probability Space (the last of which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award) concerns an expedition to a world where the natives have developed a form of telepathy. An alien artefact has landed on the planet, and though its powers aren't understood, it could prove the key in a war against an aggressive race known as the Fallers.

Given that Beggars in Spain is a reaction against the ideas of Ayn Rand, it might also be worth taking a look at Atlas Shrugged, so long as you don't take the Objectivist philosophy too seriously. It's a dystopian novel in which the government of the United States acts against the best interests of industry until John Galt organises a strike by the bosses which immediately brings the government to its knees and ushers in a sensible capitalist regime.

What do you get when mix together a card carrying-homophobe and science-fiction? Ender's Game. Now it's an ethical struggle these days to decide what to do with the great writer OSC and his fiction, but it happens that he wrote one of the best space opera sci-fi novels of all time. So much so, that even the American military seems to agree with this. Ender's Game has been awarded fifth place on our list for one of the most popular and well-written novels space opera novels. The book has been critically acclaimed and is suggested reading for the U.S. Marine Corps. It won the 1985 Nebula Award and the 1986 Hugo Award. Ender's Game ranked in second place on the Damien Broderick's book Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 list.Ender's Game was also made into a well received big budget movie in 2013 as well, though the book is a richer and much deeper reading experience.

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Give Pierce Brown's awesome Red Rising trilogy a read (starting with Red Rising). It takes some of the concepts introduced in Ender's Game (group of younger individuals pitted against each other in a kill or kill game of survival) and do so with panache.