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.
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.
1. The Book Of The New Sun
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.
2. The Mars Trilogy
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.
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.
4.The Handmaid S Tale
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.
5.Use Of Weapons
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.