You want a really weird ride? A science fiction or fantasy epic that stretches your brain like taffy and ties it into strange irregular shapes? Forget television or movies: books are where the really off-kilter stories are told in speculative fiction.
A while ago, we listed 10 ultra-weird science fiction books that you've never read. But what's really mind-blowing is the list of science fiction and fantasy books that are equally strange — but which almost everybody has read, or wants to read. Here are 10 super-weird SF books that are considered part of the canon.
Top image: Ubik cover art by Chris Moore.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Why It's Weird: It opens with a man making love to a woman who turns into a tree. It ends with this:
But I still hear them walking in the trees: not speaking.
Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of
the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the
hills, I have come to
Dhalgren takes place in a burning, dilapidated, extra-dimensional city named Bellona, and it's famous for its non-linear narrative, which requires multiple readings to get a lot of meaning out of.
Why It's Required: Dhalgren is full of mythological references, and layers of meaning. It's also a fascinatingly contentious book. The novel has drawn praise from Umberto Eco: "I consider Delany not only one of the most important SF writers of the present generation, but a fascinating writer in general who has invented a new style." It's become a stage play and a MOO, and it's been compared to Pynchon. The original edition sold more than a million copies.
The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing
Why It's Weird: Lessing's sprawling Children of Violence series starts out as realistic quasi-memoir about growing up in Africa, only to turn weird and experimental in the final couple of volumes. There is voluntary sleep deprivation, weird sexual experiments where nobody touches each other, and more. After spending the entire series building the character of Martha Quest, Lessing kills her off on a contaminated island off the coast of Scotland during World War Three. Lessing's World War Three takes place during the ‘60s and ‘70s, with most of Britain wiped out via bubonic plague, nerve gases, nuclear explosions, etc. by 1978. The ideas behind the novel, as elucidated on Lessing's own website: "[It] takes on the medical profession, which she believes is destroying (recently through imprisonment, currently through the use of drugs) that part of humanity which is in fact most sensitive to evolution, those people we label as mentally sick or unbalanced: and, criticising the scientists who have created and perpetuate a climate in which "rationalism" has become a new God, she claims that everyone has "extra-sensory perception", in varying degrees, but has been brainwashed into suppressing it, and that schizophrenia is the name of our blindest contemporary prejudice."
Why It's Required: Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize and wrote The Golden Notebook, which frequently appears on college syllabi — but the Children of Violence trilogy is the series on which she spent arguably the most time, and in many ways the cornerstone of her work. Earlier parts of the Children of Violence series appear on college syllabi pretty often.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Why It's Weird: The novel follows Valentine Michael Smith, son of the first astronauts to explore Mars, as he is reintegrated into human society after being raised as a Martian. Valentine believes a bunch of strange things, Valentine believes in a bunch of strange things, including the rightness and sacredness of consuming your friend's flesh after he/she dies, the superfluity of clothing, and the obvious self-evidence of an afterlife, based on his experiences on Mars. He founds the Church of All Worlds, in which sexual liberation blends with psychokinesis.
Why It's Required: In addition to winning the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel, Stranger in a Strange Land is considered a bona fide classic, frequently mentioned on the lists of the best science fiction books of all time. One of its invented Martian words, "grok" has even entered the Oxford English Dictionary. You can also see it on Pearson's Recommended High School Reading List.
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Why It's Weird: From lunar telepaths to mysterious product placements to a kid named Jory who sucks the life force out of other people, this is a book that doesn't particularly care about making sense. Did we mention that half the characters might be dead? As Conceptual Fiction explains, "Ubik keeps you guessing at almost every step along the way, and your hypotheses about what is actually transpiring will probably change several times as the story progresses. From this regard, the work progresses much like a conventional mystery, with clues to be deciphered and puzzles to be solved. Only here the questions are peculiar ones – not who committed the murder, but whether a murder actually took place, not finding the body but understanding what a body might be and become, not avenging a death but reassessing the boundaries between life and death."
Why It's Required: Most often found in science fiction class syllabi, Ubik is also used as an example of of late-‘60s paranoia about reality and government or corporate control of life. And Time Magazine named it as one of the 100 best novels written in English between 1923 and 2005. Reportedly, Michel Gondry is working on a movie version.
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold
Why It's Weird: This is a novel about time travel, and as such it comes with all the expected weirdnesses - time paradoxes, alternate realities, etc. However, the really weird part of this book is the way that the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. While he starts off with the generic stuff, like betting with his past self on sporting events of which he already knows the outcome, he graduates to having sex and a relationship with his past and future selves, including massive time-traveling orgies. He eventually impregnates a female version of himself, and she may turn out to be his own mother. Basically, time-wimey, orgy-porgy.
Why It's Required: This novel was nominated for two prestigious genre awards, the 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It also appears on lots of college syllabi.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Why It's Weird: In The Female Man, four women from different realities are brought together, and after experiencing each other's gendered (or not) cultures, come away with new ideas about womanhood and gender roles. The catalyst for their meeting, Jael, comes from a dystopia which literalizes the "battle of the sexes" into an actual war between men and women. Another woman, Janet, comes from a world called Whileaway, where all the men were killed in a gender-specific plague more than 800 years ago.
Why It's Required: Nowadays, it's read as a representative work from the 1970s feminist movement, but it's also picked up a crop of awards. Like many works in this list, it was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel (in 1975), and it also won a Retrospective Tiptree Award in 1996 and Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame Award in 2002.
Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
Why It's Weird: The novel follows a healer through a post-apocalyptic, desert-like landscape, as she looks for a replacement "dreamsnake." Dreamsnake bites produce hallucinations similar to acid trips. So in a sense, what we're looking at here is one long roadtrip dedicated to the pursuit of LSD.
Why It's Required: Dreamsnake swept the awards when it was first published, winning the 1979 Hugo Award, the 1978 Nebula Award, and the 1979 Locus Award. It was also nominated for the 1979 Ditmar Award in International Fiction.
Lilith's Brood (Previously Xenogenesis) by Octavia Butler
Why It's Weird: The most famous feature of the three novels in Lilith's Brood is the Oankali, an alien race which has three sexes - male, female and ooloi. Their goal is to replace the human race with human-Oankali hybrids after a massive near-genocide has almost wiped out humanity. The main character, Lilith, is a human who spends most of her time among the Oankali, and eventually sides with them against humans. Mating is probably where it gets weirdest. All three sexes are necessary for reproduction. The ooloi take genetic material directly from the bodies of the other two partners as needed to create new life; although the female stores the child in her body, she doesn't have a uterus, and the baby will exit through a random location after about 14-15 months.
Why It's Required: Lilith's Brood was written by multiple Nebula- and Hugo-winning author Octavia Butler. It's taught in college classes, and often appears on lists of the best science fiction and fantasy books of all time.
The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
Why It's Weird: In the world of the novel, humans are used as riding mounts for an alien race called the Hoots. And most of them are pretty cool with it. As we wrote back in 2007, "Hoots have weak legs that fit perfectly around human necks, as well as superior weapons that easily convert the disobedient to dust. What's compelling about this beautifully-written novel, though, is that it's no simple "aliens oppress humans" tale. It explores what happens when humans get used to, and even enjoy, their servitude."
Why It's Required: It won the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novel.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Why It's Weird: Bombs in this world attack matter by "removing information" from it. This process causes the matter to disappear entirely, and is supposed to represent a "clean" weapons system without the radiation side effects of previous powerful weapons. However, the bombs do leave behind their own waste, referred to as "stuff," that floats around the world in giant storms. When these storms come in contact with the noosphere, they take the form of whatever the nearest person is thinking about, resulting in horrific apparitions and "new" people popping out of nowhere. In the post-war world that constitutes the novel's present, this "stuff" is kept at bay with whatever comes out of the Jorgmund pipe.
Why It's Required: It was nominated for a 2009 Locus Award for Best First Novel and a BSFA Award for Best Novel.