Any discussion of science fiction invariably begins and ends with the masters of the genre. Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Phillip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Frank Herbert, Jerry Pournelle and so on. But what do all of those authors have in common besides their sci-fi prowess? They all did their most significant work before 1980. Ironically for a genre that’s so much about the future, much of our discussion of the great work done within it seems to center around things written in the distant past.
People didn’t suddenly stop writing science fiction novels in 1980. In the past thirty-years a new group of science fiction authors has risen to make their mark on the genre, with their own masterpiece entries into the sci-fi genre. This list is dedicated to those writers, the modern masters who haven’t quite yet taken their place in the pantheon of sci-fi icons, but probably should. If you’re serious about science fiction, or just looking for a great book to read without all the baggage of something written in a long since bygone era, make sure you own a copy of these must-read modern sci-fi masterpieces.
The Dark Tower (1982 – 2004)
Written by: Stephen King
King is best known as one of the modern masters of fantasy and horror but The Dark Tower series is as much science fiction as it is anything. It all started with the publishing of The Gunslinger in 1982, a story which opens with these unforgettable words: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” He followed through seven epic books on a journey across dimensions and time and space. The gunslinger is named Roland and he’s a cowboy, sort of, from a dimension which is sort of like our medieval past merged with a Clint Eastwood movie. His world was destroyed by an evil force, and he’s on a mission to find a mythical place called the Dark Tower, which he believes is at the nexus of everything. He picks up companions along the way, and they develop a relationship with each other (and in the process the reader) that goes beyond mere words. Filled with violence and misery, and heart-wrenching beauty and joy, it’s one of the most emotionally moving works on this list. Read all seven books, and say thankee-sai.
Written by: William Gibson
William Gibson created the cyber punk genre with Neuromancer. A story about a dystopian future where Henry Case is caught as a thief, has his brain interface with the virtual reality world of the “Matrix” removed, and is now a drug addict desperate to find a cure for his problems. What follows is a story of hackers going to battle, the effects of technology on mankind, and an exploration of what exactly defines reality. What really matters in geek culture is that Gibson developed the notion of the cyber punk world with this novel. The idea of AI constructs taking on humans, technology as a drug, virtual worlds where battles can occur, are all either originated or defined clearly within Neuromancer. The novel also established the noir tonal quality of the genre. Of course Neuromancer is most known as the blueprint for The Matrix, but has always been regarded as a seminal work in the sci-fi world.
Ender’s Game (1985)
Written by: Orson Scott Card
There’s never been anything quite like Ender’s Game, before or since. Not even the sequels. Orson Scott Card’s masterpiece tells the story of young children whisked away to a battle school for gifted minds where, humanity hopes they’ll be able to transform one of them into the military genius the world needs to save them from an impending alien invasion. It’s about kids but it’s not a book for kids. What happens in that battle school is brutal and brilliant, full of strategic thinking and mind games played the way they can only really be played amongst untested genius intellects. In the end all the kids involved are left warped, changed, and screwed up, but none worse than Ender. In a sense Ender’s Game is about how saving the human race ruined one little boy’s life.
The Liaden Universe (1988 – 2010)
Written by: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Agent of Change was the first book published (though not the first chronologically) in what would eventually become known as the Liaden Universe. The series contains nine books in all, all set in the same fictional future, but each book completely different from the other. Agent of Change, for instance, is an intimate spy novel focused on a small handful of characters engaged in a complex game of cat and mouse , set on a single planet. Balance of Trade, my favorite of the series, is the story of the crew aboard a massive, intergalactic merchant ship, making their way from one planet to the next. Others are romance novels and political thrillers, all set in the same fictional world. Best of all, it somehow all fits together. They aren’t random stories but larger parts of the same whole, each told in their own way and from their own angle.
Hyperion Cantos (1989 – 1997)
Written by: Dan Simmons
The Hyperion Cantos is actually four books. The first two, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion tell one part of the story. The second two, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion tell a completely different part. Together they form one, contiguous whole, the story of a future where man believes he has conquered the universe, but really hasn’t. It starts with the story of a few pilgrims, journeying to a strange planet called Hyperion. There they’ll encounter an impossible and seemingly all-powerful being called The Shrike, who captures travelers and impales them on his tree of pain (which is every bit as horrible as it sounds). Rarely has anything more thoughtful, imaginative, and emotionally wrenching ever been written, outside sci-fi or in it. Dan Simmons’s story challenges the very nature of humanity and the universe, while delivering serious sci-fi adventure.
Jurassic Park (1990)
Written by: Michael Crichton
Long since eclipsed by the still great 1992 Steven Spielberg based on it, Michael Crichton’s original novel is still worth a read. It’s by far the best work the rockstar-level famous author has ever done and, if you read it you can seem smart in front of your friends when they’re talking about the movie. The plot actually deviates from the movie in some pretty key places, though it’s still about a billionaire who builds a park with live dinosaurs in it, which invariably goes wrong when “nature finds a way”. All the familiar characters are there, but the whole thing gets taken even further, beyond the special effects budget of even a Spielberg movie. Crichton’s book is far more dark and dire than the film too, filled with even more violence and a lot more things blowing up. Spielberg’s movie is the better version I suppose, but Crichton’s book is good enough to be worth a read in its own right. It’s a cultural touchstone which deserves its place in the pantheon of iconic modern science fiction.
On Basilisk Station (1992)
Written by: David Weber
On Basilisk Station is the first book in author David Weber’s expansive Honorverse series, but I’m not going to recommend the entire series. Start with just this one book and stop reading them when its right. The first book is the best of the bunch and the quality dwindles as the series goes on, but that’s fine, because On Basilisk Station works even as a standalone novel. It’s about a female military commander named Honor Harrington and her ship, the Fearless on assignment, and in the heat of battle in a remote part of space where they’re the last line of defense against invasion. Weber’s depiction of Honor is one of the strongest female literary characters you’re likely to encounter anywhere, and his detailed yet entertaining grasp of strategy and tactics used in outer space is unmatched.
The Time Ships (1995)
Written by: Stephen Baxter
In The Time Ships, a critically acclaimed follow-up novel authorized by the Wells estate to mark the 100th anniversary of The Time Machine, British author Stephen Baxter explores the paradox unwittingly created by the original story. Picking up where the Wells classic leaves off, the Time Traveler returns to the future to save the girl he left to die at the hands of the Morlocks. Along the way he notices that time has changed. He stops to investigate and learns that he’s polluted the timeline and the future he left never existed. In trying to repair the timeline, he only makes it worse, even to the point of threatening his very existence and that of the human race. It’s a complex, thought-provoking adventure in true Wells tradition, questioning the moral obligations to one’s future and past. Baxter seamlessly slips into a nineteenth century “Wellsian” writing style while remaining as relevant to modern steampunk audiences as to fans of the classic Wells.
A Deepness in the Sky (1999)
Written by: Vernor Vinge
You can’t really go wrong with any of the books in Vernor Vinge’s “Zones of Thought” series and most people would probably put the older A Fire Upon the Deep here, but I’ve always been partial to Deepness. Both books are standalone novels, despite being set in the same universe, so pick either one and you can’t go wrong. A Deepness in the Sky is the story of what happens when an intelligent alien species is discovered on a planet orbiting around an anomolous star which causes their entire race to go dormant for long periods of time every couple hundred years. The story’s told both from the perspective of the humans in orbit, and from the perspective of the alien species as they prepare for their planet’s big freeze. It’s a great story, but it’s particularly noteworthy for it’s complex depiction of a completely alien species, the best I’ve read since The Mote in God’s Eye. Vinge’s approach is, however, completely different than the one used by Niven and Pournelle in Mote, instead he attempts to translate their completely alien thoughts and life into human terms… and it works.
Ready Player One (2011)
Written by: Ernest Cline
This is the novel that defines modern geek culture, and the impact of video games on our world. Although author Ernest Cline goes far beyond just extolling the greatness of classic video games, it’s within a virtual world that we get to love the oldies once again. Told from the perspective of 18-year-old generic everyman, Wade Watts is a kid who lives in a crime infested trailer park. He spends most of his time hiding out in a junkyard jacked into a school computer where he attends classes virtually. The novel mostly takes place within the virtual world of THE OASIS, a game that becomes so pervasive by the start of the novel in 2044 that it’s not just an online world but is really the whole Internet. Good versus evil, geek references to everything from Gundam to Ghostbusters, and a healthy dose of intrigue and action make Ready Player One not only a good bit of fun, but also this decade’s must read sci-fi novel.
This list is just the beginning. Our way of getting the ball rolling. Keep it going by adding your own modern masters to it in the comments section below.