No matter how weird science fiction gets (and it can get pretty weird), it still always feels like a pale reflection of the incessant nuttiness of the real world.
Maybe I’m looking for a mushroom-and-fusion-fueled Burning Man spaceship that crashes into itself, tossing out stars like confetti.
Barring piloting that actual machine, the books below are a good way to push your brain in new directions. Some you’ll like, and some you’ll just detest.
You can get away with almost anything in science fiction. Many writers have tried to do exactly that, and a fair number of them went completely off the rails. Fortunately, a number of hardy, warped souls were able to put together conspicuously strange tales that are still readable, from Meiville’s magic to Dick’s drug-fueled insanity.
The Instant is the fourth dimension and ocean of all-time and no-time, and someone named Dhiritirashta thought it’d be a good idea to build a suit that could go there, and then try to dominate human history.
Of course, this causes an endless amount of trouble as ripples rip forward and backward in time, and before long there are thousand of alternate histories, all with people jumping into the Instant and causing their own messes. Whole cultures vanish overnight.
Will our heroes try to save the chaos of the Instant or destroy it by freezing it into a single history?
“Garfinkle explores… [the] question with stunning imagination, thrilling the reader with adventure, philosophy, and topological wonders.
— Publishers Weekly
This book is not for everyone. Festooned with vertical footnotes, randomly bolded words, another story going on in the footnotes, and occasional directions to read an appendix before getting back to the main story, House of Leaves leaves some readers frustrated and unsatisfied while others are completely fascinated. They all agree this is a challenging read.
“… the novel is a surreal palimpsest of terror and erudition, surely destined for cult status.”
By the way, “palimpset” means “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.” I had to look it up.
You don’t often see books with both “comic,” “feminism,” and “weird” in the description, but The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer succeeds on those levels and more, including quantum physics and romance.
It’s about a female astronaut training for a Mars mission and her magical cat, Schrodinger. Readers generally enjoy the fun wackiness of the first half of the book, but after that, it gets seriously crazy and starts annoying some people.
Mildly futuristic hippies get a drug from aliens that cause wild hallucinations and then makes them real. Chaos ensues. It’s a dated but fun dive into sixties-style counterculture wonderment.
After Christopher Zimmerman tells his whole fifth-grade class about traveling into the past to see dinosaurs and trilobites, he’s in serious trouble with his mom. After all, they’re a family of aliens (or maybe mutants), and that stuff is supposed to be secret. Fleeing his mom’s terrible punishment, Christopher takes a journey through space, time, and other less recognizable things.
“[U]nderstated, surreal and intensely ironic…should find an appreciative readership among admirers of the work of Lem and Philip K. Dick.”
— Publishers Weekly
In this breezy satire, a giant space dolphin visits Earth disguised as a woman, and a number of plot points focus on people’s reactions to her breasts.
“A riproaringly magnificent time. Passing For Human is quite unlike anything anyone else has ever done.”
— Neil Gaiman
A wise, holy, and spiritual Jew, this particular Tsaddik is also a student of Time, and excels in fieldwork. For this, he needs the assistance of a time-travel agent homunculus, who isn’t always dead-on when transporting the Tsaddik to the right time. But when someone appears who wants to “correct” history, the mismatched pair have to stop him.
Sixties psychedelia meets Yiddish humor. Good stuff.
A nice, horrifying book for kids. Five teenagers are trapped in a house filled with no walls, no ceiling, and no floors: just an endless landscape of stairs and a strange red machine.
The machine is not their friend, but its effect on them is insidious, and the teens eventually turn on each other.
If you look online, the descriptions of this book are so dissimilar it sounds they like they’re about completely different stories, which is a good indication of the breadth of craziness of this story.
Written by the son of thriller writer John le Carré, The Gone-Away World has been described as a “beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure.”
“[T]hose intrigued by works that blur genre boundaries will find this wildly original hybrid a challenging and entertaining entry in the post-apocalyptic canon.”
— Publishers Weekly
A mature alien judge, who is a member of a race of haiku-writing telepathic sauropods, sees an amphibious human woman, obviously a slave, displayed in a tank in front of a sex palace. That same day, the judge’s colleague is murdered, catapulting the judge into an interstellar plot involving many races and planets, galactic corporations, exploitive sex, and horrible slavery.
“Like Lewis Carroll, Gotlieb is clever in an almost nonsensical way.”
This book could be included on this list by virtue of its title alone.
The nameless hero watches Earth and is convinced it’s populated by wraiths pretending to be people. Then he has bad sex with a woman who changes his face into a clown mask, permanently, steals his pants, and tells him he’s the chosen one to fight the Time Snake, which is going to eat the world.
Called “The Most Demented Novel of All Time” by i09.com, Time Snake and Superclown is dreamlike, dark, and confusing.
Perdido Street Station borrows from steampunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, and a few other genres that couldn’t run away fast enough.
Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to no one—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.
“Miéville’s canvas is so breathtakingly broad that the details of individual subplots and characters sometime lose their definition. But it is also generous enough to accommodate large dollops of aesthetics, scientific discussion and quest fantasy in an impressive and ultimately pleasing epic.”
Charley is an athlete. He wants to grow up to be the fastest runner in the world, like his father. He wants to be painted crossing the finishing line, in his racing silks, with a medal around his neck. Charley lives in a stable. He isn’t a runner, he’s a mount. He belongs to a Hoot: The Hoots are alien invaders. Charley hasn’t seen his mother for years, and his father is hiding out in the mountains somewhere, with the other Free Humans. The Hoots own the world, but the humans want it back. Charley knows how to be a good mount, but now he’s going to have to learn how to be a human being.
“Brilliantly conceived and painfully acute…this poetic, funny and above all humane novel deserves to be read and cherished…”
— Publishers Weekly
Well, of course there’s a Philip K. Dick novel on this list.
Delmak-O is a dangerous planet. Though there are only fourteen citizens, no one can trust anyone else, and death can strike at any moment. The planet is vast and largely unexplored, populated mostly by gelatinous cube-shaped beings that give cryptic advice in the form of anagrams. Deities can be spoken to directly via a series of prayer amplifiers and transmitters, but they may not be happy about it. And the mysterious building in the distance draws all the colonists to it, but when they get there each sees a different motto on the front.
Fair warning: readers may not get all the answers they’d like to.
A mysterious disaster has stricken the mid-western American city of Bellona: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a man who can’t remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, and the outcast.
If you start reading Dhalgren, don’t be discouraged by the opening pages. Just keep pushing on—it gets easier.
“Stand[s] with the best American fiction of the 1970s”
— Jonathan Lethem (author of the excellent Gun, with Occasional Music).
This satirical novel, written by an English schoolmaster, is dedicated to “The Inhabitants of Space in General.”
Flatland skewers Victorian culture by creating a rigid two-dimensional culture narrated by a square named A Square, who gets in trouble by experiencing and trying to describe a three-dimensional universe.
Flatland was mostly ignored when it was published, but after Einstein published his general theory of relativity, Flatland surged in popularity due to its treatment of multiple dimensions and time.
My wife hates it when I read this book because there are actually spiders all over the cover.
As I’m writing this, my heavy metal station on Pandora is screaming, “I WANNA GET PYSCHO!” which is perfect for this book, because This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It gets seriously bizarre and creepy.
It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and yes, I’m including Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that list.
Two reluctant and generally irresponsible heroes are aware of huge invisible spiders that live in people’s heads due to their earlier ingestion of a drug called Soy Sauce. While they try to stay out of trouble (the kids, not the spiders), Armageddon finds them anyway. Hilarity and horror ensue.
“[A] phantasmagoria of horror, humor–and even insight into the nature of paranoia, perception, and identity.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)