Twenty-Eight Offbeat Science Fiction Books

Inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s “10 Essential Offbeat Science Fiction Novels,” I thought I’d add some (eighteen) of my favorite weirder books (aiming for novels but ending up with a couple of omnibi and a couple of novella-duos).

Alternate Realities (2000) by C. J. Cherryh. Cherryh is known for gritty realism more than being offbeat but this omnibus contains her oddest, most experimental novels. Wave Without a Shore (1981) is a personal favorite, about art, philosophy, and invisible people, but the Arthurian spaceship of Port Eternity (1982) and the alien mentalities conveyed by odd typography in Voyager in Night (1984) are also interesting.

Carmen Dog (1988) by Carol Emshwiller. Feminist trapeze dogs only start the surrealist meltdown which is nevertheless quite pointed.

The City Not Long After (1989) by Pat Murphy. Like her Californian compatriot, Lisa Goldstein (see below), Murphy writes a somewhat hopeful tale of surrealist revolution.

The Dead Trilogy (1998) by Richard Calder. This set of novels from 1992, 1994, and 1996 are somewhat like Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale in that I ordinarily have little patience for ultra-dense “style” books and this isn’t even about orgasmic starships but, rather, about sorts of sex dolls. A truly bizarre set but one which drew me in and kept me involved—an honest lunacy rather than just outre for outre‘s sake.

Divide and Rule (1948) by L. Sprague de Camp. I’m cheating here (and not for the only time) with a book composed of two novellas (“Divide and Rule” (1939), “The Stolen Dormouse” (1941)) but when people joust in the future and “kangaroos” ride motorcycles, category is a secondary consideration.

Dracula in Love (1979) by John Shirley. Almost every book Shirley’s written could be on this list, especially those around this time: Transmaniacon, Three-Ring Psychus, City Come A-Walkin’, etc. I don’t even remember this one that well but I’m listing it because I just remember thinking this danced on a sharper razor’s edge of “terrible” and “brilliant” than any of his other works. I can’t even remember if this is accurate but it’s the kind of thing that sounds right—from a two-star review from Goodreads: “The adventures of a vampire in love and his living, prehensile penis with yellow glowing eyes.

The Dream Years (1985) by Lisa Goldstein. “Everyone switch drinks!” Lisa Goldstein romps through time with surrealism and revolution always at the forefront. The evocation of the genuine surrealists of France in the 20s and the events of the 60s are particularly good but, unbound, she includes a futuristic component, as well.

The Green Millennium (1953) by Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber has done it all. Straight SF, fantasy (ranging from sword & sorcery to practically inventing urban), horror, humor, non-fiction, etc. In this one, an almost Phildickian protagonist meets a green cat and things just get weirder from there. This is a particularly offbeat book because it’s not written in an avant-garde style and isn’t artsy-surreal but is a tough, gritty noir sort of book – with fluffy kitties and farcical humor.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) by Jonathan Lethem. Speaking of noir: gun-toting, cigarette-smoking kangaroos.

Knight of Delusions (1982, revised from Night of Delusions (1972)) by Keith Laumer. Yet another book with noir traces. I hesitated to include this because I re-read it not too many eons ago and it seemed much more repetitive and less mind-blowing than I recalled but it was still plenty weird and I include it just for that first mind-blowing experience. The cover with the fish and the alien lighting the protagonist’s cigarette convey a lot but not the twists and turns and funhouse mirrors and inversions and…

Norstrilia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith. Everything in Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe is offbeat, with uplifted animals suffering Kierkegaardian spiritual angst in a Sino-Romanesque future. This is the only novel set in that universe, originally published in two halves as The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968). Stroon!

The Paradox Men (1953, aka Flight into Yesterday) by Charles L. Harness. I suppose this isn’t especially offbeat but is just a good old-fashioned van Vogtian adventure in time and space but, again, that’s plenty weird enough. This is another book which I enjoyed very much on a re-read but not as much as the first time. The first time, this probably came closer to making my head explode than any other book.

Rogue Ship (1965) by A. E. van Vogt. Like Shirley, most everything this wildman wrote could go on this list, especially The World of Null-A), but something about folded-up paper-thin spacemen frozen in time sort of sticks out. (This is fixed up from the 1950 title story (aka “The Twisted Men”—arguably all that’s required), 1947’s “Centaurus II,” and 1963’s “The Expendables.”)

The Solarians (1966) by Norman Spinrad. Like Shirley and van Vogt, most of Spinrad’s works qualify. He’s written a science fiction novel as though it were written by Hitler and others about hippies after an apocalypse, starships powered by orgasms, the power of the media in politics, mind-control cults, and mass-movement networked electronic voting… wait. Something about those last three… Anyway, I pick this one just because it’s like somebody gave John W. Campbell, Jr. a giant bag of Acapulco Gold. One of the most bizarre collisions of the Golden Age and New Wave I’ve witnessed. Harlan Ellison, in an otherwise complimentary piece about Spinrad, described this book as “so bad it cannot be read.” Spinrad’s first professional publication appeared in Campbell’s Analog but, if Campbell read the novel, I don’t doubt that he agreed. But, to me, it’s bad in a good way.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick. Y’know… PKD. Nuff said. Tough to pick the most offbeat but, damn…

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen (1951) by Henry Kuttner (as by Lewis Padgett). Kuttner wrote plenty of offbeat stuff from drunken amnesiac inventors to hyper-accelerated evolved cats but when “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (1947) opens with “He knew it was a dream when he shot Carolyn through the head. But not until then,” it’s a sign of the Cold War paranoia to come and “The Fairy Chessmen” (1946) immediately tops it with “The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him.” The latter is not just the weirder, but also the better, story of the two.

What Mad Universe (1949) by Fredric Brown. SF is real. Oh, the comedy! Oh, the horror! Dark, sharp-edged satire.

Wolfbane (1959) by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth. Speaking of satire, few of Pohl and Kornbluth’s works are ordinary and everyone should read The Space Merchants. In terms of this list, a case could be made for Gladiator-at-Law but I feel like the wider scope and sense of mystery (Pyramids have carted the Earth out of the solar system) of the basically non-satirical Wolfbane make it offbeat even compared to their other works.


Note: I’m not going to redo this to include a nineteenth title but between writing and posting, I’ve realized I failed to include any one  of White Light (1980), Spacetime Donuts (1981), Master of Space and Time (1984), or most anything else Rudy Rucker’s written. If I left those off, there’s no telling what else I left off. And, of course, there are authors I haven’t even read (books of) who presumably have very offbeat volumes such as R. A. Lafferty. So I hope this list has lots of good and weird stuff but, in terms of comprehensiveness, it ain’t very. Feel free to add more in the comments or write your own blog posts to help fill it out.

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Review: Clarkesworld #137

Clarkesworld #137, February 2018


Original Fiction:

  • “Deep Down in the Cloud” by Julie Novakova (science fiction short story)
  • “Obliteration” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (science fiction novella)

This month, as is usually the case, features a translation and two reprints which I didn’t read. I had previously read Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi,” which I highly recommend, as it’s one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite short fiction writers.

Turning to the original fiction, there are two short stories which both start strong and fall, well, short, though neither is trivial.

Deep Down in the Cloud” involves a three -member team attacking an underwater data center of the corporation which dominates a dystopian Earth after unprecedented solar storms wreck our technological infrastructure. There are some oddities in word choice and sentence construction but the underwater milieu is evoked effectively. The best thing about this story is its smoothly, clearly framed structure, however the outer frame with the protagonist leads to expectations that are not met as she really has little to do in this story. Further, I have a hard time believing a corporation’s data center could be so easily breached or that it would have much effect even so.

Obliteration” is reminiscent of 50s (or very early 60s) stories which take a technological gimmick and display its funhouse mirror societal effects through the prism of a family or couple (such as Leiber’s “The Creature from the Cleveland Depths”) and this couple is specifically reminiscent of phildickian dysfunction. In this one, people are virtually amnesiac when it comes to their “wet-memories” because they have embedded (and off-site) memory recording devices which record more virtual experiences than physical. When cosmic rays and a neglected patch all seem to conspire to wreck eleven years of the unpleasant protagonist’s memories, he sees his unpleasant wife with fresh eyes. He even attends a sort of Memoryholics Anonymous meeting while contemplating abandoning memory recording altogether. Then an ending is pulled out of a hat and I’m not really sure what the story’s intent with it is. Like “Deep Down in the Cloud” only less so, this was mildly interesting through most of its course, but didn’t ultimately leave me with much.

The story in this issue which does not fall short is a rare web novella. “Umbernight” is falling on the colony world of Dust as a supply shipment from the homeworld is due to complete its generations-long journey. The homeworld was riven by religious faction and a group of rationalists decided to break away but Dust’s “rationalism” has become a sort of dogma of its own, with generational tension between the older and younger colonists. Dust is an inhospitable world because, unknown to the first generation of settlers who were almost wiped out, a second star sometimes bathes the planet in lethal radiation when its obscuring dust cloud temporarily parts. Michiko (“Mick”) is a loner and explorer who returns just in time to be brought into the small expedition going to retrieve the supply shipment. What follows is structured as the classic quest tale which turns into the harrowing fight for survival when the half-dozen people learn that they don’t really know anything about the planet they inhabit.

The protagonist is complex and somewhat likeable, if not lovable. The other characters (including the dog) are varied and well-drawn. While I’m not especially sympathetic to a partially anti-rational message, the viewpoints and issues are illustrated well and the ending (which I was constantly worried would not live up to the story’s bulk) is nicely crafted. But probably the most important things that make this a fantastic read are the clear, straight-ahead plot set in a wildly imaginative and continually surprising and enthralling setting that is anything but a ball of “dust.” Be sure to set aside plenty of time to finish this because, if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to stop reading this gripping and terrifyingly wondrous tale.