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What are the Essential SF Books of the Last 20 Years?

An upcoming WorldCon Panel called 20 Essential SF books of the Past 20 Years caught my eye because it sounded like an attention-grabbing post title. And it got me wondering…What are the essential sf books since 1988?

I suppose it depends on the definition of “essential”. One definition could be those that won the major awards. It certainly seems common that those who want to read up on science fiction use award winners as their guide. So I went to Locus Online’s awesome award reference, and pulled out all the novel winners of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus (SF), and British (SF) awards to use as an initial suggestion pool. (I also ignored strict genre definitions and included books that some might consider fantasy. If you catch me, you can flog me.)

So, given the following list of suggestions, which of these would you consider Essential Science Fiction? Which ones published in the last 20 years would you add to this list? Feel free to use your own definition of “Essential”!

Huge, ginourmous list of sf books, sorted by title, follows the jump…

[UPDATE: A reiteration folks… This isn’t a list of books I consider essential, it’s a starter list “to use as an initial suggestion pool”.And by all means, use your own definition of essential. This list was generated from one possible definition.]

  1. A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  2. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
  3. Air by Geoff Ryman
  4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  5. Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
  6. Aztec Century by Christopher Evans
  7. Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
  8. Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  9. Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
  10. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
  11. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  12. Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh
  13. Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear
  14. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  15. End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
  16. Excession by Iain M. Banks
  17. Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
  18. Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks
  19. Felaheen: The Third Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
  20. Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
  21. Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  22. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  23. Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
  24. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  25. Ilium by Dan Simmons
  26. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  27. Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock
  28. Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
  29. Moving Mars by Greg Bear
  30. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
  31. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
  32. Passage by Connie Willis
  33. Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
  34. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
  35. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  36. River of Gods by Ian McDonald
  37. Seeker by Jack McDevitt
  38. Slow River by Nicola Griffith
  39. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
  40. Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
  41. Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland
  42. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
  43. The Baroque Cycle: The Confusion; The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
  44. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  45. The Extremes by Christopher Priest
  46. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  47. The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
  48. The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre
  49. The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
  50. The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons
  51. The Separation by Christopher Priest
  52. The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod
  53. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  54. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
  55. The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
  56. The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
  57. The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  58. The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
  59. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  60. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  61. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

18 Comments on What are the Essential SF Books of the Last 20 Years?

  1. I agree with a lot of your choices, John, but if I had to add to the list, I’d tack on Nick DiChario’s A Small and Remarkable Life and Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain.

  2. Out of your fine list, the ones I’ve read and agree with:

    1. A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

    2. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

    4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

    9. Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

    14. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

    20. Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

    22. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowlin

    24. Hyperion by Dan Simmons

    35. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

    36. River of Gods by Ian McDonald

    40. Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwic

    42. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

    44. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

    46. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

    50. The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

    53. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

    56. The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

    Many of my omissions can be ascribed to not getting around to reading books I’ve intended to read. I haven’t read many books on this list and thought “oh no, that’s crap!” I’ve read the ones above and found the experience worthwhile.

  3. I must admit that there are several books in that list I haven’t read (yet), but I feel like it’s a bit excessive for a list of ESSENTIAL SF books.

    A book like American Gods is extremely entertaining, but it sure isn’t something you have to read to stay up on SF of the last 20 years. The same goes for Pyramids by Terry Pratchett of cause.

    It would be more interesting to hear the commentators single out one or two books (from the list or elsewhere) that they feel you can’t live without.

    For my part I would single out Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It’s very well done, fresh and exciting, and brings something new to SF at the same time as it preserves the old.

  4. My God…I is an ass…a idiot. I have not read ONE of those books. How did I miss them? I guess catching up on books from the previous twenty years plus wasting my time reading Raymond Feist novels got in the way.

  5. Define essential.

    Your list of 61 award winning books is exactly that: award winning. They may be an excellent survey of the breadth of SF over the 20 years, a fine sampling of the leading authors. But awards are often won for reasons other than quality or importance of a work: popularity, marketing budget, even simply being different enough to attract the attention of the judges, to stand out in some way.

    This doesn’t match my own definition of essential. To me, essential science fiction must excel at what makes SF stand above all other genres: imagination, vision, and impact on the future. That impact can be on readers or on writers as it affects the entire genre.

    Books such as Arthur C. Clarke‘s Rendezvous with Rama, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Childhood’s End. Larry Niven‘s Ringworld, or Lucifer’s Hammer. Or Vernor Vinge‘s Across Realtime (see The Technological Singularity). Fred Saberhagan‘s Berserkers. Isaac Asimov‘s I, Robot.

    Which of the last 20 year’s books can claim such an impact? Unfortunately, I only own a dozen from your list. Excellent reading, well written, often highly entertaining. But not essential.

    I’m looking forward to learning what essential SF I’ve missed, so I can run to my nearest bookstore.

  6. Erm, a reiteration folks…

    This isn’t a list of books I consider essential, it’s a starter list “to use as an initial suggestion pool”.

    And by all means, use your own definition of essential. This list was generated from one possible definition.


  7. I would add on the following:

    City of Pearl, Karen Traviss

    Coyote, Allen Steele

    Altered Carbon, Richard K. Stross

    Accelerando, Charles Stross

  8. Matte Lozenge // August 1, 2008 at 9:31 am //

    From the list:

    Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books – reinvented the space opera blockbuster series

    Excession by Iain M. Banks – explores the parameters of utopia with a merrily irreverent tone. All of the Culture novels from the late 80s and early 90s are of similar quality, so the choice is slightly arbitrary, but Excession is the most concerned with Ships and Minds and so may be the most sfnal.

    The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson – The nanotech society; endlessly inventive

    Spin by Robert Charles Wilson – personal relationships in a world trying to ignore impending catastrophe

    There’s a lot I could add to the list, but that would take all day. Some of the authors on the list have written essential works that aren’t on the list. There are short story collections I would put on the list too.

  9. If I had to pick Science Fiction books I would define as essential reading of the past 20 years, this would be my list:

    Terraplane – Jack Womack

    Hyperion – Dan Simmons

    The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

    Stations of the Tide – Michael Swanwick

    Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

    Red Mars (Mars Trilogy) – Kim Stanley Robinson

    A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge

    The Story of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

    Look to Windward – Iain M. Banks

    Light – M. John Harrison

    And two that may cause some debate:

    Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

    The Road – Cormac McCarthy

    (The above two are distinctly of the SF genre and provided me some of the most engrossing reading of the last 20 years.)

    Here are a couple of books I would also add, if we stretched the definition of SF a bit:

    Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

    The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – Michael Swanwick

    It’s hard to know which books from the past 2-3 years can be considered essential (The Road excepted) since we need more time to really evaluate the impact of certain works. If I had to hazard some guesses, however, I would say these books are the most promising examples of the genre:

    Counting Heads – David Marusek

    River of Gods – Ian McDonald

    Pump Six and Other Stories – Paulo Bacigalupi

    Any thoughts on these?


  10. No flogging but “books that some might consider fantasy” Is there a person on Earth (outside of the Bay area in CA) who wouldn’t consider Harry Potter fantasy?

    Seriously though, an interesting list. I’d need to read many more of them before I could make a judgment.

  11. Point taken, Dave. I was already wording my disclaimer before I started compiling the list.

  12. Nancy Kress’ Beggars In Spain

    I didn’t love the subsequent books as much, but that initial novel blew me away.

  13. Allow me to suggest a somewhat philosophical definition of essential: if the book has had such a major effect on the books following it that the reader should read this book to understand the genre fully.

    Now, we all have a vague sense of what this means for the genre as a whole: we can all list the books of which we think “Whoever has not read some or all of these has not really read science fiction.”

    In the cases where someone writes a book deliberately to answer or overtop or put a new spin on something a prior author put in his book, the chains of stories forms a dialog. A recent (and obvious) example is Phillip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS, which he says was written as an answer and rebuttal to C.S. Lewis’ THE LION, THE WITCH, and THE WARDROBE. Another example is Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” books, which neatly reversed all the tropes of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories: instead of a dark-haired brawny barbarian, we have an effete, overcivilized albino. The New Wave was a reaction against the tropes of John W. Campbellian science fiction and its attitude of can-do Yankee know-how, and Campbell in turn was a rebellion against the unscientific inaccuracies of earlier pulp adventure fiction.

    (To toot my own small horn, my own THE GOLDEN AGE was a rebellion against the tropes of Gibson’s streetwise cyberpunk movement, typified by such essential books as NEUROMANCER. You will not ‘get’ what THE GOLDEN AGE is about, unless you read NEUROMANCER, and see what the original is that fathered the variation. And Gibson himself was a rebellion against earlier writers whose thought-experiment futures were unrealistically tidy.)

    Now, the only problem with my definition of essential, is that you can only use it in hindsight. If many people from here on in writes books that are variations on or reactions against RED MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson or RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald, so that all SF is dominated by tales of terraforming or futuristic India, then they will turn out to be essential. But you can only see it in hindsight, never at the time.

  14. I like your definition, John, that was what I was thinking as well, and why I “listed” SPIN.

    Actually, I consider THE GOLDEN AGE essential as well – at least to my own exploration of the genre. I have never read anything quite like it, and will recommend it to anyone who’ll listen.

    Then we have NEUROMANCER who nobody can seriously claim wasn’t essential when it was published. I don’t feel that you have to read it however, as there are many other, more interesting and better written examples of that step in the evolution of the genre. Therefore I don’t see it as essential anymore.

    It would be interesting to try and map out the evolutionary tree of science fiction, to illustrate/see what has influenced what. Do you know of any such projects out there…?

  15. In no particular order:

    The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

    Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling

    Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

    Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

    Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer

    Hyperion Cantos (both books), Dan Simmons

    Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

    Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang

    Air, Geoff Ryman

    Light, M. John Harrison

    Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan

    A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge

    A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge

    Queen of Angels, Greg Bear

    Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

    The Separation, Christopher Priest

    The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

    Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler

  16. I think everyone else has covered the titles I would include except for:

    The Carpet Makers – Andreas Escbach

  17. Hi –

    Just a brief note from someone who’s on the panel. (Don’t worry, I had already compiled my own list of 20 before I saw the ones here.) I thought you might want to know what rules we’re following if you want to come along to the event and compare your lists with ours.

    1) “Books” includes novels, collections, anthologies – any set of words between covers.

    2) As far as series go, we’re saying that you can choose the whole of a series as one pick, if you want. (Or you can just have the first book if you think, as Misty Massey does above, that the sequels to Beggars in Spain aren’t as good.)

    3) As far as I’m concerned – though I can’t speak for my fellow panellists – I’m taking a pretty broad definition of sf, but am avoiding anything that’s clearly fantasy.

    Which is not to say, of course, that you have to follow those rules if you don’t want to…


    Graham Sleight

  18. Thanks for the info, Graham. It’ll be interesting to see what the panel comes up with…and see which titles get multiple mentions.

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