11 One-hit Wonder Science Fiction Books

“One-hit wonder” has an insult buried in the compliment, but it’s hard enough to write a good science fiction novel, much less get it published and then have it become popular and enduring. So even having a one-hit wonder is an impressive achievement, and the books on this list should be appreciated for their merits, instead of their authors being lightly mocked for not doing more.

by Ken Grimwood – 1986

Jeff Winston, forty-three, didn’t know he was a replayer until he died and woke up twenty-five years younger in his college dorm room; he lived another life. And died again. And lived again and died again—in a continuous twenty-five-year cycle—each time starting from scratch at the age of eighteen to reclaim lost loves, remedy past mistakes, or make a fortune in the stock market. But what if he’s not the only replayer…?

Ken Grimwood has written a number of books, but none of them came close to the acclaim of Replay.

“Grimwood has transcended genre with this carefully observed, literate and original story.”
— Publishers Weekly

Alas, Babylon
by Pat Frank – 1959

In this class post-apocalyptic novel, a nuclear holocaust ravages the United States, and tens of millions of people are killed instantly. A thousand years of civilization are stripped away overnight. But for one small town in Florida, miraculously spared, the struggle is just beginning, as men and women of all backgrounds join together to confront the darkness.

Author Pat Frank (real name Harry Hart Frank) was a journalist that penned a few other novels (Mr. Adam and Forbidden Area), but nothing as enduring as Alas, Babylon.

by David R. Palmer – 1981

Emergence is one of the overlooked gems of science fiction with a small but passionate following. It follows a remarkable 11-year-old orphan girl, living in a post-apocalyptic United States. From the book:

Homo post hominem is new species, apparently immune to all ‘human’ disease, plus smarter, stronger, faster, etc., emerging to inherit Earth after H. sapiens eliminated selves in short, efficient bio-nuclear war. Am myself Homo post hominem. Rode out war in Daddy’s marvelous shelter, now engaged in walkabout, searching for fellow survivors.

David Palmer wrote another story, Threshold, before abandoning writing and choosing a career in law.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
by Walter Tevis – 1963

T. J. Newton is an extraterrestrial who goes to Earth on a desperate mission of mercy. But instead of aid, Newton discovers loneliness and despair.

You might be familiar with the movie version starring David Bowie.

Walter Tevis’ other science fiction novel, Mockingbird, was well-regarded, but didn’t achieve the popularity of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

His novels that take place outside of science fiction were successful, though: he wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, which were both turned into movies.

“Beautiful science fiction… The story of an extraterrestrial visitor from another planet is deigned mainly to say something about life on this one.”
— The New York Times

The Black Cloud
by Fred Hoyle – 1957

Astronomers in England and America have made a terrifying discovery: an ominous black cloud the size of Jupiter is traveling straight towards our solar system. If their calculations are correct, the cloud’s path will bring it between the Earth and the Sun, blocking out the Sun’s rays and threatening unimaginable consequences for our planet. With the fate of every living thing on Earth in the balance, world leaders assemble a team of brilliant scientists to figure out a way to stop the cloud. But when they uncover the truth behind its origins, they will be forced to reconsider everything they think they know about the nature of life in the universe…

This is the first and best-known novel by astronomer Fred Hoyle. He wrote many more books, often co-authored with his son, Geoffrey. Interestingly, Hoyle coined the term “big bang” to describe that theory of how the universe began, mostly as an insult—he died never believing it.

“[A] rattling good story… a really thrilling book. There is a largeness, generosity, and jollity about the whole spirit of the book that reminds one of the early Wells at his best.”
— New Statesman

by Gregory Benford – 1980

1998. Earth is falling apart, on the brink of ecological disaster. But in England a tachyon scientist is attempting to contact the past, to somehow warn them of the misery and death their actions and experiments have visited upon a ravaged planet.

1962. JFK is still president, rock ‘n’ roll is king, and the Vietnam War hardly merits front-page news. Gordon Bernstein, a young assistant researcher at a California university, notices strange patterns of interference in a lab experiment. Against all odds, facing ridicule and opposition, Bernstein begins to uncover the incredible truth… a truth that will change his life and alter history. The truth behind time itself.

Timescape won the Nebula Award in 1980 and the John W. Clark Award in 1981. Gregory Benford wrote many other science fiction books, including several with Larry Niven and even a Second Foundation book (based on Asmiov’s Foundation series), but none of them was anywhere near as popular as Timescape.

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger – 2003

The Time Traveler’s Wife is the story of Clare, a beautiful art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity in his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous, his experiences unpredictable, alternately harrowing and amusing.

The Time Traveler’s Wife depicts the effects of time travel on Henry and Clare’s marriage and their passionate love for each other as the story unfolds from both points of view. Clare and Henry attempt to live normal lives, pursuing familiar goals—steady jobs, good friends, children of their own. All of this is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control.

Audrey Niffenegger has written a number of other books, but none of them has reached the wild popularity of this one.

“It is a fair tribute to her skill and sensibility to say that the book leaves a reader with an impression of life’s riches and strangeness rather than of easy thrills.”
— Publishers Weekly

Planet of the Apes
by Pierre Boulle – 1963

You know this one: in the not-too-distant future, three astronauts land on what appears to be a planet just like Earth, with lush forests, a temperate climate, and breathable air. But while it appears to be a paradise, nothing is what it seems.

They soon discover the terrifying truth: On this world humans are savage beasts, and apes rule as their civilized masters. One man struggles to unlock the secret of a terrifying civilization, all the while wondering: Will he become the savior of the human race, or the final witness to its damnation?

This novel is intelligent, ironic, and literate, which is less surprising after learning that Pierre Boulle also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai. However, none of his other science fiction books came close to the popularity of Planet of the Apes.

A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller, Jr. – 1959

This is Miller’s first and only novel, but he didn’t hold back: it spans thousands of years, chronicling the rebuilding of civilization after an apocalyptic event.

Despite early reviewers that called Miller a “dull, ashy writer guilty of heavy-weight irony,” it’s never been out of print in over 50 years.

So there.

The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell – 1996

Sandoz is a Jesuit priest and linguist, part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human.

Sandoz is the only surviving member of the crew and upon his return he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. But the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.

Some readers find this book provocative and compelling, while others were a little let down by the ending.

Author Mary Doria Russell may be one-hit wonder science fiction author, but in Western and history genres, she’s got multiple hits, including Doc, Epitaph, A Thread of Grace.

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes – 1966

Flowers for Algernon is a beautiful, human book, with a little science fiction thrown in.

It examines morals and ethics without getting preachy—it’s a surprisingly easy read for such a thoughtful and deep book.

There are a few juicy scenes in it, which is why it’s occasionally removed from school libraries in Texas.

Flowers for Algernon is told through progress reports written by a low-IQ person who has an operation (we never learn the details) that quickly increases his IQ to genius levels. Unfortunately, his social and emotional skills do not increase at the same rate, and this causes hurt feelings all around.

I recommend buying this book. Seeing this on my shelf gives me a moment of pause, a two-second meditation, like briefly floating in a deep but safe ocean, before getting on with my day.

Author Daniel Keyes was a successful writer before penning this book: he wrote and edited comic book scripts for Stan Lee. He also won several award for a later nonfiction book The Minds of Billy Milligan, but nothing came close to the zenith of Flowers for Algernon.

22 thoughts on “11 One-hit Wonder Science Fiction Books

  1. In addition to the various other books you mentioned were written by these “one-hit wonders”, please don’t overlook these:

    Walter M. Miller, Jr. nearly finished a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz. It was completed by Terry Bisson and published the year after Miller’s death.

    Mary Doria Russell published Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow, two years after the first book, and got a Hugo nomination for it.

  2. “Emergence” does have a sequel called “Tracking”. It was serialized in Analog magazine in 2008. You can find copies of it on the intertubes. David Palmer is planning to get it published by Eric Flynt’s outfit but that has not happened yet./

  3. Good list, except for the baffling inclusion of Gregory Benford, a successful author and editor with multiple Nebula and Locus award nominations.

  4. any such list that does not include Greener Than You Think (Ward Moore, 1947) is an incomplete list. any list that does not place Greener Than You Think in the top spot is a misguided list.

    Greener Than You Think is about why humanity will destroy itself, if it does. it is wicked AND wickedly funny to the point of sardonicism. every character is unforgettable — which isn’t necessarily a compliment (just look at the narrator, Albert Weener, a shady door-to-door salesman who bears the scars and malevolence of a certain American president’s NPD and is given ample opportunity to demonstrate this) — and every compound word a price above rubies.

    you might be fooled into thinking you’ve stumbled upon a sequel to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (published 8 years prior) or to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels but with the unabashed immodesty of his A Modest Proposal. you’d be wrong in the first instance, not so very wrong in the second; Moore is positively Swiftian in the accuracy of humanity’s foibles and in the use of satire to bring those foibles to glaring light. any resemblance to Joyce is purely literary; in his trenchant observations, he is purely Swiftian.

    IMO, there is no better fictional manual on How to Commit Suicide Without Really Trying for mankind to place on its bedside table, next to that tumbler of water. be warned, though: reading it may keep you awake, both night and day, to what actually ails us.

    1. My favorite part of Greener Than You Think is the language evolution of Albert as he goes from a near illiterate to accomplished businessman. It’s so subtle and well done it took me a quarter of the book to realize.

  5. “Flowers For Algernon” gets a shoutout in Neal Stephenson’s new book Fall, or Dodge in Hell, where it gives a name to a phenomenon in an alt-continuum where individual human brainscapes are sent after post-mortem scanning.

  6. 1984 comes to mind. Also Brave New World. Neither author made a habit of sci-fi. Still an interesting list and some titles to explore

  7. I also agree that Gregory Benford should not be included. While it’s true that the rest of his work never achieved the same sales level as Timescape, that’s true for every author. Logically, there always has to be one highest selling book in their portfolio.

    As a replacement, I nominate Patrick Rothfuss’ “Name of the Wind” and the Kingkiller series. Not sure what happened with him (flew too high too soon?) but it was excellent writing never to be repeated.

  8. I’ve only read four of these, but they were each excellent, so will definitely be reading the others.

  9. Has anyone ever heard of a book written in the early 20th century about a person who escapes from a cube or cell where everything is provided and discovers the outside world? I read about it once but can’t find the title or author.

  10. An interesting list, but it seems to me that the term “one-hit wonder” is being used rather loosely, since several of the authors mentioned here (Pierre Boulle, Fred Hoyle) wrote other (often worthwhile) works of science and fiction and fantasy, even if they were famous mainly for one particular work. The term seems especially ill-suited to Gregory Benford.

  11. Ian. I think you may mean The Machine Stops, a short story by EM Forster, which incidentally is definitely a one-hit sci fi wonder

    1. Richard, thanks so much, that’s it! I’ve been trying to figure that out for a long time (over a year) using various key words in searches but couldn’t find it.

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