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The Best SF Novels Since 1990


My feelings on “classic” science fiction should be obvious by now, so perhaps this post won’t come as much of a surprise. Anyway…

I recently saw a Locus Magazine poll from 1998 of the best “all-time” sf novels before 1990. I can’t say I’m surprised at the results. The books listed are pretty much the “accepted” canon of science fiction. The Foundation trilogy. Half a dozen by Robert Heinlein (including the execrable Starship Troopers). Ender’s Game. The Mote in God’s Eye. Startide Rising. Ringworld… And yet, few of them, I believe, stack up all that well against the best the science fiction of today has to offer. I’m not saying there are no good books on Locus’ list – with or without caveats. Dune remains a compellingly immersive read, The Stars My Destination is still the best version of The Count of Monte Cristo on crack, there are few sf novels to match The Dispossessed as a readable and intelligent thought-experiment, and Dhalgren is as avant garde and powerful now as it was on publication… To name but a few.


I still believe that when non-sf readers think of sf, they should be thinking of recent books and not something that’s over fifty years old. The perception of sf has to change, it has to be brought into line with the current state of the genre. So, to that end…

I thought it only fair to present my own list of best sf novels. From after 1990. That’s eighteen years ago, so I’ve made my list a bit shorter. Fifteen books. That’s the Fifteen Best Science Fiction Novels Since 1990. IMHO.

1. Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
2. The Difference Engine, Bruce Sterling & William Gibson (1990)
3. The Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
4. A Fire upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
5. Somewhere East of Life, Brian Aldiss (1994)
6. Coelestis, Paul Park (1995)
7. The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)
8. The Sparrow<, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
9. Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
10. Light, M John Harrison (2002)
11. Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds (2003)
12. Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
13. River of Gods, Ian MacDonald (2004)
14. The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
15. Black Man, Richard Morgan (2007)

Obviously the list is biased. It only includes books I’ve read. And it’s to my taste. It’s also Brit-centric, but then I’m a Brit. And no doubt, seconds after I’ve posted it, I’ll think of a novel I should have included… I also wanted a good spread of sub-genres – the above list shows the best the entire genre has to offer.

Here are some interesting statistics about the list:

Male: 11 (73%) / Female: 4 (27%)
UK: 9 (60%) / US: 6 (40%)
In print: 11 (73%) / Out of print: 4 (27%)

(Note: Sterling & Gibson have been counted as a single “author”, and the two series on the list were also only counted once.)

“Out of print” simply means not available on Amazon – not counting the Aqueduct Press titles, Life and the Marq’ssan Cycle, which are readily available from their web site. It’s not just the oldest of the books which are no longer in print, and while critics might think that fact says something about some of my choices, I don’t think I’m the only who believes it’s time for a new edition of Take Back Plenty.

But as a starting point… well, I think it’s a good list. I suspect others might disagree.

4 thoughts on “The Best SF Novels Since 1990

  1. Whoa. Black Man (Thirteen here in the U.S.) at 15…I inhaled that book. I’m intrigued to read the other 14 you’ve rated ahead of it. Thanks for the list.

  2. I can’t fault it, but I could add to it…

  3. I know that you have some dislike for many over-rated classic SF novels (and I do agree with your sentiments for the books that I have read, both good and bad), but perhaps you should write a list of the best SF over fifty years old, or a similar style of list?I am planning to have a look at the books you have nominated as being the best of the last two decades, as I do want to have a look at the cream of SF’s current writing.

  4. Pingback: So you think you know good sf? « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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