There several awards given to writers of science fiction(SF)with the most notable being the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award and the Campbell Award. Receiving a nomination and subsequent honor of being selected in one of the many categories can make a career much like the production of an award winning wine can make a winery famous. To a SF writer the awards represent their Oscar's, Golden Globes, Tony, Most Valuable Player and just about anything else. It gets attention and can get TV and movie deals.
I first became interested in SF as a youngster enjoying the movies. First was the string of poorly made Japanese films followed by all the domestic garbage of the 50s but some gems did surface. The first that comes to mind is The Day The Earth Stood Still followed by Forbidden Planet and War Of The Worlds. I actually discovered that many of the films I saw were based on books. What an awakening! That started me on Jules Verne to Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke and why continue to name drop? Reflecting back I am amazed at how visionary some of the writers were.
One of the first books I remember reading is Earth Abides by George Stewart. This is a post apocalyptic book that presents that all popular theme in a fascinating and gripping manner so that the book has become a classic. I'd place that number one on my apocalyptic theme list. I enjoy that theme along with time travel and alternate history. Forget horror and fantasy. Elves and vampires just don't do it for me.
A popular theme is contact with aliens and Childhood's End was the first I read of this genre and was my first exposure to Arthur C. Clarke. I have since read everything Clark has written. Needless to say one of my favorite all time movies is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course when I got older and reread Childhood's End I realized there was a whole sub text I had missed the first time around. That was what happens when you also read Orwell.
I could go on and on about the Masters Of SF but will concentrate on who I prefer to read today.
Jack McDevitt has been around quite awhile and has some great material much of it centering around pilot Priscilla Hutchins who first appeared in Engines Of God. McDevitt creates a universe that was once alive with life but now is sparse. His novels Chindi, Odyssey, Cauldron, Omega and Deepsix are all intertwined. Excellent story teller and character development.
Stephen Baxter is like many in SF today in that he has a hard science background that he translates into his work. I just finished his Time's Tapestry series and consider it an excellent work. Baxter also co-authored the Time Odyssey series with Arthur Clarke. If you start on Baxter's work and enjoy it you will be very, very busy as he is a prolific writer.
Robert Sawyer created the The Neanderthal Parallax series but what caught my attention was his first work that I read - Calculating God. As you may imagine by that title Sawyer often explores science and religion in his work. The TV series FlashForward is based on his novel. Sawyer can make you think.
When I don't want to think I read Allan Dean Foster. Foster is an easy read and doesn't really try the mind but he has created one character I enjoy called Flinx. Foster wrote one of the funnest SF books I have ever read - Mad Amos. I'd put it right up with the work of the late Douglas Adams.
I first picked up a book by John Scalzi about a year ago and that book was Old Man's War. The universe he created in that book has been followed up by several others but his second novel after Old Man's War was Agent To The Stars. Was a complete switch from his first work and a very funny book. Scalzi is a quick and enjoyable read as his books are quite fast paced.
What would happen if a West Virginia mining community was dropped into the middle of the thirty years war? Historian/novelist Eric Flint has created a whole cottage industry out of it. If you enjoy accurate history, splendid character development and a bizarre concept this whole series is just for you.
My wife - The Lovely Cynthia - is Polish. As a joke a few years ago I got a SF work by the late Leo Frankowski that was the first book in his series Cross-Time Engineer. This is the adventure and mis-adventures of a young Polish engineer name Conrad Stargard who does a back in time to 13th century Poland. If you like blood, sex, humor, clever engineering and a bit of history this is for you. Most of his works are now after market.
Allen Steele examines colonization of space with an interesting insight in both his Coyote and Near Space series.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a great read that can be quite depressing but with an incredible grasp of the horrors of The Plague. Willis is a very accomplished writer but some of her works I have had to force myself to complete.
Harry Turtledove is "The Master of Alternate History" but I find that his series often can be tedious after the first few books. This has happened with his Worldwar & Colonization series that I have found to be of most interest to me. I know Civil War buffs enjoy his endless Timeline - 191 series. Not me.
Ben Bova has been churning out books for four decades and the series he created that I have enjoyed the most is Orion with a good nod to the Grand Tour series.
I'll stop here as there are many more I could and probably should cover. What I usually do is find collections of short stories and if I find a writer I am unfamiliar with and enjoy I will then look into their works with a bit more depth.