Who are the Science Fiction Masters of the 21st Century?


By Jacob Foxx

A week ago I was watching Prophets of Science Fiction on Science Channel, and a thought occurred to me. It is an awesome show about the eight great science fiction writers of all time and how their work inspired science and engineers to make their fictional technologies come to life. It is only one season (8 episodes I think) but I noticed one thing odd about it. None of the writers were contemporary writers. It seems the greatest sci-fi works were before 1985. Is that true? Has science fiction hit a lull?

Ask yourself, what books in the past thirty years have truly been groundbreaking? Which authors have impacted society and science in a magnitude equal to Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov? Are there any?

The writers covered in the show are Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and George Lucas. All of them are worthy of recognition and special attention but all of their masterpieces are from before 1985. I decided to look into this and find the top sci-fi of the past thirty years and the top authors of the last generation.

Three names jumped out: Michael Crichton, Orson Scott Card, and Margaret Atwood.

I love Michael Crichton for his innovation, in-depth research, and attention to detail. His novel Jurassic Park won me over easily with dinosaurs, genetic engineering, evolutionary theory, and… dinosaurs. The movie is a classic, which I’ve seen at least 500 times. His other great works include Sphere (1987), Andromeda Strain (1969), and Disclosure (1994). His work generally falls under the category of technothriller but I think this category could easily be considered a type of science fiction, namely contemporary innovation. His stories don’t venture much into the future and incorporate mostly state of the art technologies taken a step further. I say that in the most positive away possible. Nobody did it like Crichton.

Orson Scott Card’s contributions to science fiction canon began with Ender’s Game (1985). The brilliant military sci-fi novel is often listed in the top 20 sci-fi novels of all time. It is in my top 10. It is the first of a quintet series and the foundation work of much of Card’s writing to date. His expansive knowledge of multiple scientific disciplines and ability to incorporate psychology and religion make his work special.

Then there is Margaret Atwood. When I finished reading Handmaid’s Tale (1985) I was blown away. The dystopian masterpiece had such insight into the experience of women in a horribly repressive theocracy. Its impact is comparable to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Recently her MaddAddam Trilogy has been making waves as well.

1985 was a big year for science fiction. In fact if you expand the time frame to include Star Wars and Jurassic Park, the 1977-1990 period was a golden age. What about the 90s and the 21st century? Is that where the drop off happened?

Orson Scott Card and Margaret Atwood published some strong works in the 1990s and 2000s. The Ender Quintet stretches into the late 1990s. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) is considered a groundbreaking work in its own right.

Okay, okay, but are there any new authors?

I did some research on this, looking for rankings of recent sci-fi novels, big time new names, critical acclaim, and movie deals. These are a few names that kept popping up.

Neal Stephenson has published numerous successful novels that have been described as cyberpunk or postcyberpunk in flavor. He is known to incorporate advanced mathematics, philosophy, and the history of science. I haven’t read any Stephenson books yet but three have been recommended: The Diamond Age (1995), Cryptonomicon (2002), and Anathem (2008).

John Scalzi is a famous sci-fi writer specializing in space adventures and military sci-fi. His most often cited work is Old Man’s War (2005). I’ve read it and Redshirts (2012). While both are entertaining reads, I wasn’t blown away. Still, Scalzi has entertained and enthralled readers for nearly a decade and deserves mention.

China Mieville doesn’t have the big-time sales but has won plenty of awards. Perdido Street Station (2000), The City and the City (2010), and Embassytown (2011) are highly-touted favorites of the sci-fi world. I’ve read Embassytown and enjoyed the intelligent approach to alien civilization, language, and diplomacy but the writing style is an acquired taste.

Suzanne Collins work has captivated millions and brought a compelling new heroine to American culture: Katniss Everdeen. The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010), and sold millions of copies and get rave reviews. I read the first two and enjoyed both of them. The dystopian adventure is captivating but isn’t particularly original. The technological innovations are few and far between and I think it is best categorized as young adult fiction. Great books but I don’t think it is fair to compare them to the works of Clarke, Heinlein, or Asimov.

A few others deserve honorable mention: Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alastair Reynolds, Connie Willis, James S.A. Corey, and Daniel Suarez. I’ve read Robinson, Willis, and Corey. None of them are true standouts in my opinion but others have cited them as sci-fi’s best.

More recently, Ernest Cline and Hugh Howey have emerged as great new voices for the genre. Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) is a great read, introducing readers to the gamers’ subculture. Set in a dystopian future yet most of the story takes place in virtual reality. Hugh Howey’s Wool (2011-212) changed the publishing game. The post-apocalyptic adventure is an extremely successful self-published work that will be made into a movie soon. It is post-apocalyptic with a little bit of steampunk. I think both Cline and Howey are names we will hear more and more as time goes on.

Finally, World War Z (2006) is an absolutely brilliant zombie apocalypse novel that reinvigorated its subgenre in my opinion. I think the work provided the foundation for The Walking Dead graphic novels and the AMC show that is truly groundbreaking. The author, Max Brooks, hasn’t written anything notable since then which is a damn shame. Get to it Max!

I probably missed a couple names and a couple books. The genre is very large and hard to take in without spending enormous amounts of time in research. Most of these books that I haven’t read are on my to-read list for sure. If you love sci-fi they should be on yours as well.