'Round about '95, I found myself reading much, much more fantasy than SF. Not because I didn't like SF, mind, but just because I couldn't find any more of the good stuff. Oh sure, there were always the standbys like Brin, but I had kind of drifted away from the field. Then I read The Terminal Experiment. This is the kind of stuff that got me reading SF in the first place; classic what-if extrapolation. In this case, the Macguffin is a device that can detect "soul waves." Sawyer is remarkably thorough in exploring the consequences of the idea -- every now and then I would think, "Ah! But what about...?" And every time, he'd address the issue within a few pages. More remarkably, he manages to also create characters who actually feel like real people. They have mundane little problems, even as they go about answering fundamental questions of human existence. The Terminal Experiment is Golden Age SF updated for the '90s.
It's rare indeed that an SF novel can combine both literary and philosophical themes with hard scientific speculation. It's even more rare when such a book has a sequel that manages the same feat. The Hyperion Cantos is just such a rarity. Hyperion is structured like the Canterbury Tales; Simmons tells separate stories that vary widely in style and tone, yet are all linked together by a common thread. But the pilgrimage in these books doesn't just serve as a backdrop for the stories, but is itself an integral and fascinating part of the story. Fall continues the story of Hyperion, and is a drastically different book stylistically and thematically, but is nevertheless a worthy successor to Hyperion.
Snow Crash was the book with which Stephenson burst into the consciousness of the science fiction world. In it, he follows in the cyberpunk path that Gibson pioneered, but he brings to that genre a renewed edginess and a sense of humor. Snow Crash is a wickedly fun book from its wildly implausible, fast-paced opening to its mildly incomprehensible finish. It's not a perfect book, mind: Stephenson tries to tie together a few too many elements, and they don't all wish to be tied together; the result is a conclusion that seems to have run beyond the control of the author (a trait shared with Stephenson's later Diamond Age). Nevertheless, this is one of the defining books of the cyberpunk sub-genre.
The first thing I should point out is that this book may not quite count as SF. It takes place in two timelines: one during World War II, and one in the present day, dealing with a tech start-up. There's no alternate history, no science fictional technology, and only a few small things that might possibly be considered fantasy. But I'm not interested in discussing genre classifications; I'm interested in recommending good books -- and Cryptonomicon is a good book. While Snow Crash was a hell of a book, Cryptonomicon is in every way its better. The characters are more interesting, the settings more believable (though, perhaps, slightly less frenetically fun), and the plot far more coherent. For the first time, Stephenson actually has managed to end a book with as much as gusto as he begins it. Don't be alarmed by the monolithic 900-odd pages of this book, though. Yes, it deals with two whole casts of characters; yes, it has a lot of irrelevant (and endlessly amusing) diversions; and yes, it even has mathematical equations in it. For all that, it's first and foremost a book that will make the reader laugh more often than furrow his brow. (And to those who have been bothered by the notorious inaccuracies fiction writers introduce when writing about computers, here's your salvation. Stephenson gets all the geeky little details correct.)