17 Best Pulp Science Fiction Books

pulp

Pulp science fiction does not try to be literature. Pulp’s lurid and ridiculous plots usually involve buxom damsels rescued by square-jawed, ray gun-toting heroes as they battle brutish monsters and spout god-awful dialogue.

You can spot pulp books by their colorful covers, often sporting women with their clothes mostly, but not completely, torn off by monstrous aliens.

One of the guiltier of guilty pleasures, pulp is great when you want action and adventure but have no patience for niceties like character development or accurate physics.

 

17
The Cosmic Computer
by H. Beam Piper – 1963

This novel had its genesis in a much shorter story called “Graveyard of Dreams” (Galaxy, 1958). Piper expanded it to book length, and it appeared in 1963 as Junkyard Planet.

Conn Maxwell, inhabitant of a poverty-stricken planet, thinks that if he finds the legendary super-computer Merlin, all of his troubles will be over. There are tense battles, shallow characters, and a bittersweet ending.

16
Second Variety
by Philip K. Dick – 1953

A nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West has reduced much of the world to a barren wasteland. The war continues, however, among the scattered remains of humanity. The Western forces have developed “claws,” which are autonomous self-replicating robots to fight on their side. It is one of Dick’s many stories in which nuclear war has rendered the Earth’s surface uninhabitable.

The story was adapted into the movie Screamers in 1995.

“More than anyone else in the field, Mr. Dick really puts you inside people’s minds”.
– Wall Street Journal

15
Planet of Adventure
by Jack Vance – 1968

Stranded on the distant planet Tschai, young Adam Reith is the sole survivor of a space mission who discovers the world is inhabited not only by warring alien cultures, but human slaves as well, taken early in Earth’s history. Reith must find a way off planet to warn the Earth of Tschai’s deadly existence.

Against a backdrop of baroque cities and haunted wastelands, sumptuous palaces and riotous inns, Reith will encounter deadly wastrels and murderous aliens, dastardly villains and conniving scoundrels.

And always the random beauty in need of rescue…

This book contains the four novels that make up Planet of Adventure:

  • City of the Chasch
  • Servants of the Wankh
  • The Dirdir
  • The Pnume

“Exotic adventure, dastardly villains, beautiful women, baroque landscapes, all served up with the inimitable, incomparable Vance style and wit: dazzlingly inventive, utterly delightful.”
– Kirkus Reviews

14
Tunnel in the Sky
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1955

When Rod Walker decides to take the final test for Deacon Matson’s interplanetary survival course, he knows he will be facing life-or-death situations on an unsettled planet. What he doesn’t expect is that something will go wrong with the “Tunnel in the Sky” and he and his fellow students will not be able to return to Terra.

Stranded on a hostile planet, Rod and his friends are faced with the challenge of carving a civilization out of the wilderness. They must deal with hunger, deprivation, and strange beasts. But the bigger question is, can they survive each other?

This science fiction classic pits a savage world against the most untamable beast of all: the human animal. Chock full of high adventure, futuristic speculation, witty repartee, and profound philosophy, Tunnel in the Sky represents one of the greatest SF writers of all time at his peak.

13
Judgment Night
by C. L. Moore – 1952

Catherine Lucille Moore was among the first women to write both fantasy and science fiction, and reached the height of her popularity in the 1930s and 1940s.

She was also nominated to be the first woman Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Unfortunately, she had developed Alzheimer’s, and the nomination was withdrawn at the request of her husband, who said the award and ceremony would be at best confusing and likely upsetting to her.

C. L. Moore died in 1987 and was inducted into the Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1998.

This collection contains the stories that Moore selected as the best of her longer work, including the title novella Judgment Night.

12
Hothouse
by Brian Aldiss – 1962

I love this premise:

In the future, when the Sun has expanded and is ready to go nova, few animal species remain, while plants have adapted to fill animal niches. One of the few species to survive are humans, but in much-altered forms. Young human Gren finds himself captured by an intelligent fungus with plans to colonize humans to control the world!

Hothouse reads like a dark fairy-tale that deliberately ignores some basic laws of physics, but it’s still a fun ride.

11
On Basilisk Station
by David Weber – 1993

Having made a superior look foolish, recent graduate Honor Harrington is exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace, and her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station.

Parliament isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is Up To Something; the aborigines of the system’s only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with woefully inadequate armament.

But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad.

10
The Legion of Time
by Jack Williamson – 1952

The Legion of Time consists of two novellas that Jack Williamson wrote in the late 1930s, neither of which has anything to do with his wholly dissimilar Legion of Space novels of that same period.

The first novella is a fun, short novel about a regular Joe whose fate will determine whether the future will be a Utopia, or a dead world ruled by an evil queen. It was nominated for a Retro-Hugo in 2014. The second novella, After World’s End, is, well, not as good. You can skip it.

9
The Stainless Steel Rat
by Harry Harrison – 1961

The character of The Stainless Steel Rat is not an actual metal space rodent, which disappointed me as a young reader. However, he is a futuristic con man, master thief, skilled liar, and all-round rascal.

Jim DiGriz is captured during one of his crimes and forced to work a boring, routine desk job as punishment. Unexpectedly, he discovers that someone is building a battleship, thinly disguised as an industrial vessel. In the peaceful League, no one has battleships anymore, so the builder of this one would be unstoppable. DiGriz’s hunt for the guilty party becomes a personal battle between himself and the beautiful but deadly Angelina, who is planning a coup on one of the feudal worlds. DiGriz’s dilemma is whether he will turn Angelina over to the Special Corps, or join with her, since he has (of course) fallen in love with her.

The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat contains three novels: The Stainless Steel Rat, The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge, and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World.

8
Triplanetary
by E.E. “Doc” Smith – 1934

Triplanetary is the first book of the Lensman series, which was a runner-up for the Hugo award for Best All-Time Series, and was beaten by some nobody named Isaac Asimov who wrote something called Foundation, which is possibly about concrete.

In the not too distance future, while fleets of commercial space ships travel between the planets of numerous solar systems, a traveler named Virgil Samms visits the planet Arisia. There he becomes the first wearer of the Lens, the almost-living symbol of the forces of law and order. As the first Green Lantern Corps Lensman, Samms helps to form the Galactic Patrol, a battalion of Lensmen who are larger than life heroes. These solders are the best of the best, with incredible skills, stealth, and drive. They are dedicated and incorruptible fighters who are willing to die to protect the universe from the most horrific threat it has ever known.

7
Skyracos: The Mining Mess
by John Picha – 2013

Chip Daniels wants to be a hero, but he gets more than he bargained for once encased in his streamlined flight suit. Chip and the rest of Unit 9901 are ordered to investigate a mysterious plague outbreak in an isolated mining colony. Things get out of hand quickly, unraveling into a life or death crisis. Notions of good and evil spin into a nightmare of moral ambiguity, which challenges Chip’s definition of heroics.

6
Armageddon 2419 A.D
by Philip Francis Nowlan – 1928

A veteran of the Great War (WWI) is trapped in a cave-in, and put in suspended animation by radioactive gases. He is revived 500 years in the future, where America has been ruled by the Mongol Hans for 400 years. The man out of time uses his military knowledge to help the underdog Americans get pieces of their country back.

The story, with its repeated counterposing of “The White Race” and “The Yellow Race” who fight for control of America, is seen as reflecting the mindset of “Yellow Peril,” prevalent among many Americans at the time of writing.

After Armageddon 2419 A.D. was published, John F. Dille, the head of the National Newspaper Service, which syndicated comics and features, convinced a dubious Nowlan (the author) to turn it into a daily comic strip. Dille renamed the character Buck Rogers. Buck Rogers was a huge success, spawning many imitators such as Flash Gordon.

5
Enterprise Stardust
by Karl-Herbert Scheer – 1969

Enterprise Stardust is the first book of the German Perry Rhodan series, which has over 2,000 stories, and is still being produced on a weekly basis.

The series has sold over two billion copies pulp booklets, i.e., novellas, worldwide, making it the most successful science fiction book series ever written.

4
Doc Savage: Man of Bronze
by Kenneth Robeson – 1933

Here’s all you really need to know:

The mysterious death of his father leads Doc to the Central American republic of Hidalgo where they discover a lost Mayan empire in the mythical Valley of the Vanished. Can Doc defeat the Feathered Serpent and the Red Death and free King Chaac and the beautiful Princess Monja?

3
Bill the Galactic Hero
by Harry Harrison – 1965

Bill the Galactic Hero is satirical, deliberate and ridiculous, and a good comic read.

It was the highest honor to defend the Empire against the dreaded Chingers, an enemy race of seven-foot-tall lizards. But Bill, a Technical Fertilizer Operator from a planet of farmers, wasn’t interested in honor—he was only interested in two things: his chosen career, and the shapely curves of Inga-Maria Calyphigia. Then a recruiting robot shanghaied him, and Bill came to in deep space, aboard the Empire warship Christine Keeler. From there, things got even worse.

2
The Call of Cthulhu
by H. P. Lovecraft – 1928

H. P. Lovecraft, a racist dilettante who died in poverty at the age of 46, wrote some of the most influential horror stories of the twentieth century, and his Cthulhu Mythos remains popular to this day. Stephen King called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

Though it has a more fantasy-horror feel, The Call of Cthulhu can be counted as science fiction, since the creatures and intelligences hail from other planets.

1
A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs – 1912

Packed with wall-to-wall swordplay, daring feats, beasts, battles, and beauties, A Princess of Mars is a classic of 20th-century pulp fiction.

Its original title was Under the Moons of Mars, and is also known for introducing interplanetary romance, which became popular in the following decades and is still seen today in the Star Trek movies.

Do not expect hard science here. It was written in 1912, when there were more horses on streets than cars.

8 thoughts on “17 Best Pulp Science Fiction Books

  1. Once again, a highly informative list Dan! Thank you. Nowlan’s original novel was re-issued around the time that the Gil Gerard tv series came out. Being a kid, I completely missed the racial sub-text, so I think I’ll re-visit it sooner or later. I really like how this list combines the authentic pulps from the first half of the century with more recent literature done in that spirit. I’ve heard that Keith Laumer, who was very big in the 1960s, wrote some titles that were non-stop action.

  2. A bit of trivia about a couple of the above:
    #4 is a series for which Shane Black is in the process of writing a script.
    #5 Many of the Perry Rhodan books were translated into English by the wife of Forrest J. Ackerman.

  3. Nice to see you end up on Barsoom.
    My favorite indulgence is Anton York, Imortal by Eando Binder – it also has a 4+ rating on goodreads

  4. A princess on Mars is in my opinion THE greatest of them all. And I actually enjoyed the film John Carter. Edgar Rice Burroughs is a legend…

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