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10 Essential SF Books of the 1990s

By / January 16, 2017 / no comments

This was the decade in which some right-wing commentators proclaimed the end of history, and to be fair that’s how it felt. The fall of the Berlin Wall had been the trigger that ended the Cold War, and throughout the early years of the decade we saw the gradual but inevitable disintegration of the Soviet empire. And in among the crowing over their victory in the West, we did see the benefits of what was called the peace dividend: a decrease in defence spending allowed a small increase in social spending. Of course it wasn’t all peaceful, there were wars in the Balkans and in the Middle East, enough at least for the military to claw back some of that defence spending, but even so it felt like the world was entering a more stable and happier period. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this mood saw the elections of apparently left-wing governments in America (Clinton) and Britain (Blair), though in the end they followed pretty much the same neo-liberal agendas as their more right-wing predecessors.

In science fiction, perhaps because of this very stability, it was a period of consolidation over experimentation. The new movements that had characterised the 1960s and 80s were in abeyance. American science fiction in particular seemed to turn in on itself. It was, therefore, a period in which other science fictions, particularly that being written in Britain and Australia, shone. Though it is noticeable that the so-called British Renaissance, or British Boom, that flourished throughout the decade and saw a number of exciting new writers emerge and become established, did so primarily through what became known as the New Hard SF or the New Space Opera. Science fiction had turned back to older more familiar forms, away from the excitements of the new wave and cyberpunk. And though these old forms were given a new gloss (and some writers did doggedly follow the path of innovation and experimentation), there was, overall, a sense that science fiction had turned the clock back.



Use of Weapons (Culture)Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Perhaps no writer so vividly embodies the excitement and the achievement of the New Space Opera as Iain M. Banks. His work, particularly his sequence of novels featuring the galaxy-spanning, technologically and socially advanced civilisation known as the Culture, displayed all the vastness and drama associated with space opera, with space battles and escapades and derring-do, but reimagined it in a way that felt completely new. And none of the Culture novels were as complex and as astonishing as Use of Weapons. In one strand of the novel we follow the last mission of a mercenary working for the Culture, a mission that underlines the technological superiority but questions the moral superiority of the Culture. But intermingled with this story we go backwards in time to discover the background of the mercenary, ending with a revelation so shocking that it undermines everything we have learned to that point.

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Other key works: Queen of Angels by Greg Bear, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr., Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland



Synners (SF Masterworks)Synners by Pat Cadigan

By the beginning of the decade, cyberpunk had already pretty much run its course. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling were already moving in a different direction. But there was still one essential and archetypal cyberpunk novel to come, and that was Synners by Pat Cadigan. When a big corporation gets hold of the technology to implant computer images directly into the brain it just seems like a really neat advertising idea. Except that the technology has been infected with a virus, and it comes down to a group of outlaw hackers to save the world. It’s a novel that starts slow but suddenly unleashes a high-octane ending that will leave you gasping for breath. And then you think: this could all happen tomorrow.

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Other key works: White Queen by Gwyneth Jones, Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick, The Summer Queen by Joan D. Vinge, The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, He, She and It by Marge Piercy



Red Mars (Mars Trilogy)Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Wow, this is one of those years, like 1984, when all of a sudden a host of top rated books appear at the same time. I mean, there’s the awesome time travel of Doomsday Book, the stunning space opera of A Fire Upon the Deep, the haunting mystery of Sarah Canary, and on and on and on. Yet there’s one novel that effortlessly rises to the top of the pile, the first volume in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars Trilogy (and you really need to get all three books). Red Mars is a massive book that describes, in painstaking detail, the human colonisation of Mars, the first steps towards transforming the new landscape, and the political problems that follow in its wake. It is so convincingly done that you believe any colonisation of Mars must be exactly like this. And yet the novel, for all its size, is never dull; there’s murder and plots and spectacular catastrophes and the inevitable drift towards conflict. All set against a Martian landscape so brilliantly described that you feel you are actually there.

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Other key works: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler, Poor Things by Alasdair Gray



VurtVurt by Jeff Noon

Every so often, a book appears out of nowhere that really overturns our genre expectations. That was the case with Vurt, a first novel published by a small press that went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Before that moment, hardly anyone had heard of it; afterwards, they couldn’t stop talking about it. Taking its inspiration from such various sources as the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld, Alice in Wonderland and Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, Vurt tells of an hallucinogenic virtual reality accessed by sucking colour-coded feathers. After one trip, Scribble’s sister, Desdemona, disappears, and Scribble must search for her through the Manchester underworld and the virus-infected alternate realities of the Vurt. It’s a wild, surreal ride full of vivid and unexpected images that really took sf in a new direction.

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Other key works: Moving Mars by Greg Bear, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick, The Broken God by David Zindell, Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress, Virtual Light by William Gibson



North Wind (White Queen Trilogy)North Wind by Gwyneth Jones

This is the second volume in Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, but like Red Mars, above, it is really standing in here for the entire trilogy. In other words, you really need to read all three books, White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café, to get the full impact of this amazing work. It’s essentially an alien invasion story, that hoariest of sf ideas, but it’s like none you’ve read before. Because the aliens (called Aleutians because that’s where they first land) truly are inscrutable, and what is interesting is the human response to the alien colonisers. In a work that echoes the hidden histories of India, Africa and South East Asia, there are those humans who resent and conspire against their new masters, but still others who try to become just like them, including mutilating their own bodies to look as much like an Aleutian as possible. Given that human society is itself divided by the Gender Wars, the result across a trilogy that traces the Aleutians from their arrival to their departure, is an astonishing account of the effects of even relatively benign colonisation.

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Other key works: Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop, Fools by Pat Cadigan, Towing Jehovah by James Morrow, Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Permutation City by Greg Egan



FairylandFairyland by Paul McAuley

Don’t be mislead by the title, this is no bucolic fantasy but the hardest of hard science fiction. It’s set tomorrow, when viruses are engineered, when nanotechnology infects us all, and when technology means that even our desires and myths are turned into commodities. Is love real, or is it just an effect of being sprayed with nanobots, and does it matter. Whatever love is, it sets our overweight virus engineer hero on a quest that takes him through the wild excesses of this convincing yet disturbing future in search of someone who may no longer be human. This is a dazzling story, full of shocks and surprises, yet always absolutely real: we know these characters, we understand them, because they are just like us even if their world isn’t.

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Other key works: The Prestige by Christopher Priest, The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, Chaga by Ian McDonald



The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & DiscoveryThe Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Most of the time, when writers from outside science fiction attempt to write within the genre the result is a mess, a failure to understand how it works why it should be structured in one way but not another. Yet every so often a mainstream writer produces a novel that just has to be science fiction, and comes up with something stunningly good. At the heart of the story is Sir Ronald Ross’s discovery of the malaria parasite at the end of the 19th century. In the novel the real discovery is made by his unregarded Indian assistants who have to guide him painstakingly towards the revelation. But this is linked to a near-future story of a researcher who has gone missing in Calcutta, and who may have stumbled upon the secret to eternal life. Novels about the day-to-day work of scientists are strangely rare in science fiction, but this book makes up for it.

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Other key works: Voyage by Stephen Baxter, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall by Sheri S. Tepper, Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling, Excession by Iain M. Banks, Sacrifice of Fools by Ian McDonald



The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

As an example of how much American science fiction of the 1990s referenced the past, you only have to look at this debut novel by Mary Doria Russell. Anyone versed in the science fiction of the 1950s and 60s could hardly read this novel without recalling works like A Case of Conscience by James Blish or Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Star”. That Russell seems to have been unaware of these precursors when she wrote the book is beside the point, because this was unmistakeably one of the zeitgeist novels of the 1990s, winning a fistful of awards, and being talked about everywhere. Reading the book, it’s easy to see why it caused such a stir: it’s vivid, uncompromising, visceral, and asks deep moral questions. A Jesuit mission to another world so misunderstands the civilisation they find there that it leads to grotesque torture and a profound crisis of faith. It may not be new, but it reminded its readers of what they used to enjoy about science fiction.

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Other key works: Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand, Titan by Stephen Baxter, Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman, Slant by Greg Bear, Phoenix Café by Gwyneth Jones



DarwiniaDarwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

One of the changes that can be seen in science fiction of the 1990s is the move away from computer-oriented cyberpunk towards more biologically-oriented sf. It was an evolutionary rather than a radical change, what would become known as biopunk swapped computer viruses for real viruses, engineered virtual realities for bioengineered realities. But the two strands were never really that far apart, using the same terms, and very often the biological and the digital merged, as they did in this novel of a radically transformed world. Suddenly, one day in 1912, large parts of the world disappear, to be replaced with flora and fauna that has followed a very different evolutionary path. But as American explorers make their way into this strange new habitat, they make discoveries that will change everything they understand about the world.

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Other key works: The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod, Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan, The Extremes by Christopher Priest



CryptonomiconCryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Cryptonomicon marks a sea-change in the novels of Neal Stephenson, from this point on they became huge, baggy, over-stuffed affairs with too many characters and too much going on. Yet somehow they still manage to hold the attention. Cryptonomicon is only tangentially science fiction, yet it belongs more comfortably in science fiction than it does in, say, historical fiction, even though much of the novel is set in the past. The story shifts between the Second World War and the present of the late-1990s, and concerns code-breaking and deception, and data storage, so although the technical inventions are subtle the whole book concerns the way computers have changed our everyday lives, making it a natural development from cyberpunk.

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Other key works: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, Distraction by Bruce Sterling

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