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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.

There are those who will tell you that the four novels that make up The Book of the New Sun constitute the finest work of science fiction ever written. They may not be wrong. This is a work that is so rich and complex that you will discover something new in it every time you re-read it.

It starts like something grim and medieval, with an apprentice torturer, Severian, dealing with prisoners in dark and forbidding towers that turn out to be long-abandoned rocket ships. Because this is a story set so far in the future that the sun is dying and people have forgotten things we haven't learned yet. When Severian breaks the code of his guild by showing mercy, he is sent out into the world as an executioner. His journey through this startling society will introduce us to aliens and conmen, wars and conspiracies, time travellers and monsters, until Severian himself becomes the new Autarch, or ruler of the Commonwealth.

Why it's at the top of the list:

Each of the four volumes that make up The Book of the New Sun won at least one and usually two major genre prizes, including the BSFA Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Nebula Award. The original quartet was followed by a coda, The Urth of the New Sun and two other related series, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. Together they established Gene Wolfe as the most highly praised and most important science fiction writer of his generation.

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There's a surfeit of treasure in the science fiction of this era. It's hard not to think that the Mars Trilogy also deserves to be top of this list. After all, it was one of the most monumental works of the 90s, a detailed examination of what life would be like on a recently colonised Mars, that is clearly one of the founding texts of the New Hard SF.

Two main story arcs link the three volumes. In one we follow the debates about terraforming Mars, and the subsequent transformation of the Martian landscape from the bleak desert landscape encountered by the first settlers in Red Mars to the seas that are there by the end of Blue Mars. Against this backdrop, which features Robinson's characteristic and loving accounts of nature at its rawest, there is the dramatic story of the revolt of the Martian colony that is crushed, leading to a dictatorial government, wars on Earth, renewed revolt on Mars and the eventual establishment of a utopian state as humankind starts to spread out to other planets and star systems.

Why it's at the top of the list: Red Mars won the Nebula and BSFA Awards, Green Mars won the Hugo and Locus Awards, and Blue Mars also won the Hugo and Locus Awards. No science fiction before this had so thoroughly absorbed current scientific knowledge about Mars and produced such a convincing account of what it might be like to live there.

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Okay, maybe we should have a three-way tie, because this was where cyberpunk really started, which makes it undeniably one of the most important novels of the period. Of course, Neuromancer is only a single novel, unlike The Book of the New Sun and the Mars Trilogy, though it is the first book in the Sprawl trilogy, to be followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But it is in Neuromancer that the innovation, the energy and the excitement of cyberpunk are really to be found.

It's not worth paying too much attention to the plot: there's a lot of it with hackers and cyber-cowboys and street samurai; there are double crosses and triple crosses; there's a plan to access what turns out to be an incredible and illegal AI, and there are twists galore. Just go with the flow and enjoy an intoxicating ride through a run-down urban future and a glittering cybernetic world.

Why it's at the top of the list: Neuromancer was the first novel to win the triple crown of the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards, and it was also listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 best novels since 1923. It gave us a new language for talking about the World Wide Web, and it may even have influenced the way the Web was developed; and it initiated a literary movement that shaped science fiction for a decade or more and that continues to affect just about everything we read.

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For a long time, feminist science fiction concentrated on all-female societies, picturing a world from which men had been excluded. But the counter to this was societies in which women's rights and roles have been more reduced than ever. Margaret Atwood's devastating dystopia presents just such a society; its model is clearly ultra-orthodox Moslem societies, but by setting it in a future USA she also makes it a warning about the increasing erosion of women's rights by the American right.

Set in a near-future where the religious right has seized power and renamed the state Gilead, it is a place where everything is limited, women have lost all of their civil rights, and selected women are held as handmaids or concubines for powerful men. The story is told by one handmaid, Offred (the name denotes that she is the property "of Fred"), whose account is discovered long after the collapse of the Gilead regime. Her narrative recounts her experiences from before the revolution, through separation from her family, indoctrination as a handmaid, and the abuses she suffers as part of Fred's household.

Why it's on the list: The Handmaid's Tale, the first winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, has been one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction that remains as relevant today as it has ever been. The novel has been filmed, adapted as an opera, and taught in schools, so it has also been extraordinarily influential.

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Award Nominations:1990 BSFA, 1991 CLARKE

Iain Banks burst upon the scene with a mad, pyrotechnic novel called The Wasp Factory, which immediately established him as one of the most controversial but also one of the most important contemporary writers. Then, after three massively successful novels, he added the "M" to his name and gave us a full-blooded space opera: Consider Phlebas, which introduced the pan-galactic utopia known as the Culture. More Culture novels followed, right up to his premature death in 2013, but the best was actually the first one he had written, Use of Weapons.

In every other chapter we follow the story of the mercenary Zakalwe, recruited by the Culture for one last mission which will, he hopes, result in him meeting again with the sister who is the only other survivor of four children brought up together. In the alternating chapters, we travel backwards in time, through Zakalwe's previous missions for the Culture, his recruitment, and eventually to that long-ago childhood. The revelation, when these two strands of the novel come together at the end, is devastating.

Why it's on the list:

For a writer as popular and as important as Iain Banks was, he received remarkably few awards, but Use of Weapons won the BSFA Award. Right from the start the Culture was an immense hit with fans, its socialist, anti-religious utopia proved extraordinarily appealing.

More than that, the black humour that marked all of his fiction, the skill with which he presented violent action, the inventiveness displayed in this highly technologically advanced future, and the witty names he gave to his ships (which have a Wikipedia page all their own), all won him a devoted following.

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In science fiction, nothing is more readily transformed than the body. We regularly get to see how the body might evolve, how it might be augmented, how it might be used or parasitized or remade. The result can be both inspiring (we all know how weak and fallible the body is, so it is wonderful to see how much more it might be) and horrifying (we invest our sense of self in the body, so to see it changed into something other is to undermine our very identity). Nothing quite gets this balance of attraction and horror as well as Blood Music.

The story concerns a biotechnologist attempting to create biological computers out of his own lymphocytes. When he is told to destroy them, he injects them into himself instead. There they evolve and become self-aware. Initially they seem to cure any ailments in the body, but then they start to change the body, eventually assimilating other organisms into a vast and undifferentiated mass.

Why it's on the list: The novelette that was the basis for this novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. More importantly, we can probably trace current stories of post-humanity back to this groundbreaking work.

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Award Nominations:1993 BSFA, 1994 CLARKE

Cyberpunk matured rapidly; Snow Crash is probably the last great cyberpunk novel but also the one that points out the direction that post-cyberpunk fiction would follow.

Set in a balkanised Los Angeles where everything is privatised (the central character, the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, begins the novel delivering pizzas for the Mafia) and the economy is breaking down, it tells the story of a new computer virus that affects the users as much as their computers. It turns out that the virus is language itself; ancient Sumerian, the origin for all Indo-European languages, was a source code that can be manipulated just like a computer code, and with exactly the same effect.

Why it's on the list: Snow Crash was Neal Stephenson's breakthrough novel, and like so many of his later books it draws on everything from archaeology to cryptography, from science and history to religion and philosophy. In many ways the whole novel is a bombardment of intellectual ideas. It was a novel that had real world effects, things from modern computer games to Google Earth can be traced back to the book; while in science fictional terms it paved the way for works as varied as the novels of Charles Stross and Earnest Cline's Ready Player One.

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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 Caf, 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.

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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.

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Award Nominations:1981 BSFA

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.

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Despite the name, it is rare indeed for science fiction to deal with the nitty-gritty of actual science. Timescape is one of the few that gives a taste of what the processes, the office politics, the daily grind of doing science is like. And it uses science to give a startling new twist on the idea of time travel.

We start in what was then the future: there's an on-going ecological disaster, which is, in turn, bringing rioting, nuclear terrorism and other social problems. So a group of scientists try to use tachyons, which travel faster than light, as a way of sending a message into the past, a message which will hopefully bring just enough change to put things right. In the past, meanwhile, a message is received, but no-one can make sense of it: is it a military code, does it come from outer space? Gradually, however, scientists in the 1960s come to understand the message and realise the danger, but their efforts to correct things changes history dramatically.

Why it's on the list:

Timescape won the Nebula, BSFA and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards; indeed, it was so successful at the time that Pocket Books used the title for their science fiction imprint. It is still rare to write about science in this way, and it is still rare to use tachyons in this way, so that even after 35 years this still feels like a surprisingly contemporary and relevant novel.

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Awards Won:1992 CLARKE
Award Nominations:1991 NEBULA

For a while, Pat Cadigan was known as the Queen of Cyberpunk, and with good reason. Writers like William Gibson may have shown the way, but it was Cadigan who demonstrated just how wide ranging and powerful cyberpunk could be. It was her grasp of the possibilities created by computers and virtual reality, her literary flair, and her way with a strong, dramatic plot that made Cadigan the first writer to win two Arthur C. Clarke Awards. The first of those came for Synners, a gritty, fast-paced account of what can go wrong with the human-computer interface. The novel posits a world in which there is a direct link between minds and computers, blurring the boundaries between perception and reality. Then a computer virus starts killing a band of outlaw hackers. It's a pell mell adventure that starts at high speed and doesn't slow down, racing through a clogged urban future where the only escape is into cyberspace, and cyberspace has suddenly become deadly.

Why it's on the list: It was Synners, and her equally potent follow-up novel, Fools, in which changing memories results in changing personalities, that marked one of the high water marks of cyberpunk.

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Award Nominations:1992 PKD

Take Back Plenty was one of the first works (coincident with the emergence of Iain M. Banks) to inject energy and fun into the then moribund form of the space opera. It's an exuberant adventure that picks up all sorts of traditional science fiction tropes along the way, and plays with them in a way that makes the whole form feel fresh and engaging again.

We start with Tabitha Jute and her ship, the Alice Liddell (a nod to Alice in Wonderland that tells you something of the inspiration and the fun of the book), who find themselves swept up in an adventure that takes them from Mars to Venus to various other points around the Solar System, all of which are presented like something from the planetary romances of old. There are aliens galore, hair's breadth escapes, sudden revelations, and a massive ship, "Plenty", whose importance will only be fully revealed in the two subsequent volumes in the series, Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty.

Why it's on the list: There are times when Take Back Plenty reads like a parody of Golden Age sf, but it is done with genuine affection so that what it actually does do is revitalise a lot of old forms. The novel won both the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

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Award Nominations:1997 CAMPBELL

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.

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Awards Won:1993 HUGO
Award Nominations:1993 NEBULA, 1993 LocusSF

The Zones of Thought, which lie at the core of this novel and its two successors, A Deepness in the Sky and The Children of the Sky, is one of the great inventions of space opera. The galaxy is divided into four zones, whether naturally or by some other agency we never know, within which there are limitations on physical laws and human intelligence. Within the Slow Zone, for instance, both artificial intelligence and faster than light travel are impossible. So anyone travelling from the Beyond onto the Slow Zone inevitably finds themselves restricted by these limitations. Further out, in the Transcend which hardly features in the story, there are incomprehensible super-intelligent beings.

In this story, researchers in the Beyond accidentally unleash a super-intelligent entity known as the Blight. Fleeing with the only countermeasure that the Blight fears, they crash on a medieval-level world inhabited by dog-like beings known as Tines, whose packs operate as a group mind. The story then alternates between the survivors among the Tines and the efforts of a rescue operation to find the survivors and defeat the Blight.

Why it's on the list:A Fire Upon the Deep, which won the Hugo Award, is undoubtedly one of the best and most original space operas of the last 50 years. It is so full of invention and ideas that most other writers could have got a dozen books out of what's in this one novel (Jo Walton, for instance, used the Zones of Thought idea in her fantasy novel, Lifelode).

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The novel that shared the Hugo Award with A Fire Upon the Deep was Doomsday Book, Connie Willis's monumental and moving time travel novel about the Black Death.

At 21st century Oxford University, historians travel back in time to get first-hand experience of the period they study. One such is Kivrin, who sets out to explore medieval England before the arrival of the Black Death. But an influenza outbreak causes her to be sent to the wrong date, and also results in the time travel facilities being shut down so she is stranded in the middle ages. Kivrin finds herself in a village just as the Black Death breaks out, and there is a heartbreaking account of the devastating effects of the plague. Meanwhile, her tutors in Oxford have to overcome their own disease outbreak and then find out where Kirvin was sent to so they can get her back.

Why it's on the list: Connie Willis has written repeatedly about the time travelling historians of Oxford University, who also appear in stories such as "Fire Watch" and novels like To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, but this is the first and easily the best of the novels. Willis has never written so powerfully or affecting as she does when describing the Black Death in one small English village. The novel also won the Nebula Award.

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Award Nominations:1996 CLARKE

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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Awards Won:1982 HUGO
Award Nominations:1982 LocusSF

The age of the new space opera was often a time of wild, jazzy work, off-kilter phantasmagorias and startling galaxy-spanning vistas. But there was still a place for the solid nitty-gritty account of daily life out on the edge, and C.J. Cherryh's vast, sprawling, interconnected sequence of Alliance-Union novels is a prime example. There is something weighty and convincing about the books, these are densely textured works that keep us focused on daily life aboard the Merchanter ships that keep trade going across the galaxy in among constantly shifting alliances and psychologically intriguing aliens.

Which is not t0 suggest that there is any shortage of excitement and adventure in the novels; quite the contrary, these are books that keep you gripped just from the power of the storytelling. Downbelow Station is set during the latter days of the war between Earth's powerful corporations and the Union. Merchanter ships, ships carrying refugees, and forces and peace commissioners from both sides in the conflict find themselves converging on the space station that hangs above the inhabited planet known as Downbelow. Here, amid murder and betrayal, espionage and intrigue, the final acts of the war are dramatically played out.

Why it's on the list:Downbelow Station won the Hugo Award, well-deserved recognition for a rich and complex work that is recognisably a model for the work of later writers as varied as Lois McMaster Bujold and Ann Leckie.

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Award Nominations:1995 BSFA

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.

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It is quite possible that there wouldn't have been an Iain Banks, or any of a host of other Scottish writers, if it hadn't been for Alasdair Gray. Certainly Iain Banks's The Bridge was directly influenced by Lanark.

It's a startling, phantasmagorical novel that mixes vivid realism with extravagant invention. In the heart of the novel there is an extraordinary account of the life of an artist growing up in Glasgow before and after the Second World War. The character, Thaw, is clearly modelled on Gray himself, except that he descends eventually into suicide and madness. But before we get to this part of the novel we read the story of a man who calls himself Lanark who arrives in the sunless city of Unthank, a dystopian version of Glasgow. After the realist sections of the novel, we return to Unthank, to find the city becoming ever more dystopian, full of greed and paranoia and political disputes, none of which Lanark is able to control. In an Epilogue that occurs before the end of the novel, Lanark meets the author, who spells out some of the connections between Thaw and Lanark, but also adds some confusions of his own.

Why it's on the list: Alasdair Gray began writing Lanark in the 1950s, and when it finally appeared from a small press it was instantly hailed as one of the landmarks of 20th century literature. It took a while for the science fiction community to latch on to what an incredible novel this is, but Gray himself was well-versed in science fiction and would later publish other science fiction both by himself and by others, and his knowledge of the genre shines through the novel. The blend of realism and invention was completely new at the time, and though others have since tried to copy it, none has quite matched the unique power of this true original.

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Awards Won:1982 CAMPBELL
Award Nominations:1981 NEBULA

On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

It looks difficult but read it aloud and it's easy enough to follow. But it is the debased language that makes this novel so special. It's a post-apocalyptic story set in a Kent that is struggling to hold itself together while remembering all the lost cleverness of boats in the air and pictures on the wind. Riddley Walker himself is a tribal priest whose job is to interpret the messages of the Gummint which are communicated through the travelling puppet shows performed by the Pry Mincer. And the language, fractured and decaying, tells us as much about the state of the world as anything else.

Why it's on the list:Riddley Walker, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is perhaps the most original post-apocalyptic tale ever written, full of riddles and mysteries and echoes of things long past that pull you in and hold you enthralled.

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Award Nominations:1989 BSFA

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.

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The last two decades of the twentieth century was a time when we first began t see science fiction as a genre best suited to the trilogy rather than the single novel, and this list is filled with books that work across several volumes. This is another example; though it began as a novella, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. The original novella became the first part of a novel, and that novel in turn became the first part of a trilogy, with later volumes Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride being added. And yet the story seems to work just as powerfully at each length.

The story works in a way that was becoming less common in science fiction at the time: make one change to the world, then extrapolate the effects of that change. In this instance, Kress asks what if there were people who did not need to sleep? It might seem a simple idea, but an awful lot spins off from it. If there are people who can spend 24 hours a day working through problems, it can result in a rapid acceleration in technological development. 

 But if there are people who get special treatment because they are different, people who can become rich because of their contributions to technology, then that is going to fuel jealousy and class division between the sleepers and the sleepless. And, of course, there will be some sleepless who exploit their superiority over others. The result is a complex and richly textured portrait of the near future and also a devastating critique of the selfish ideology propounded by Ayn Rand. What, she asks, do the superior owe to those who, through no fault of their own, are less well off? It is this that gives a philosophical depth to the science fiction.

Why it's on the list: However simple we may like to imagine it, the future is never straightforward. There are always multiple changes going on at the same time; some will complement each other, some will clash with others. It's a strange, complicated stew, and Nancy Kress presents the richness and the mystery of it all flawlessly in a work that just gets more complex as it gets bigger..

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Orson Scott Card has become an increasingly controversial figure of late, but at the time Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead came out, he was hailed as one of the most important new writers in the genre. The books immediately struck a chord with readers and were widely praised for their reinvigoration of very traditional science fiction forms.

The book is military sf which follows the career of young Ender Wiggins, who is training at Battle School. Here, through a series of increasingly complex games and simulations, he proves himself a tactical and strategic genius. In the end, we discover that the simulations are actual battles against the alien "buggers" and Ender has wiped out their fleet and destroyed their home planet.

Why it's on the list: Both Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, an unprecedented double. Although now widely criticized for its celebration of ruthless violence and even genocide, the novel is on the US Marine Corps reading list for leadership training.

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