The New Wave of science fiction started around the mid-60s and was an explosion of new ideas, experimental formats, and some serious weirdness. It was a departure from the more straightforward stories of the forties and fifties, so expect varying degrees of WTF-ery in these books.
Winner of the Hugo Award in 1979.
In a post-apocalyptic future, a young woman named Snake travels the Earth healing the sick with the help of her three snakes, one of which is an alien dreamsnake, whose venom produces intense hallucinations. When that snake is crippled, Snake and a patient suffering from radiation sickness must travel across a black sand desert to Center, a city that Otherworlders visit, in hopes of purchasing a new dreamsnake.
Far out from Earth, two sister planets, Saint Anne and Saint Croix, circle each other in an eternal dance. It is said a race of shape-shifters once lived here, only to perish when men came. But one man believes they can still be found, somewhere in the back of the beyond.
Author Wolfe interweaves three tales: the son of a mad genius discovers his hideous heritage; a young man quests for his darker half; and a scientist endures a nightmarish imprisonment (this is the story with clones). These tales reveal unexpected truths about this strange and savage alien landscape.
“SF for the thinking reader… The style is highly literate and the ideas sophisticated and handled with sensitivity.”
An unnamed narrator lives outside an unnamed town, on the edges of a commune called iDEATH. This commune has a watermelon works where multicolored sugars are produced, that are then turned into all kinds of products. There is the Forgotten Works, a huge junkyard of objects manufactured before the apocalypse, which may or may not have happened.
The sun shines a different color each day and there are talking, singing, yet violent tigers, that may or may not be actual tigers.
Unsurprisingly, there’s less of a plot and more an exploration of a somewhat sad, poetic, and strange way of living.
People generally either love or hate this book.
The world’s cities have been reduced to cinder and ash and alien plants have overtaken the earth. The plants, able to grow the size of maples in only a month and eventually reach six hundred feet, have commandeered the world’s soil and are sucking even the Great Lakes dry. In northern Minnesota, Anderson, an aging farmer armed with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, desperately leads the reduced citizenry of a small town in a daily struggle for meager existence. Throw into this fray Jeremiah Orville, a marauding outsider bent on a bizarre and private revenge, and the fight to live becomes a daunting task.
“One of the most remarkably talented writers around.”
—The Washington Post Book World
Up the Walls of the World explores the possibility that telepathy and other psychic phenomena are real. It sympathetically describes an attempt to invade the Earth by beings with advanced telepathic abilities from the planet Tyree. The book considers the subject of sentience in different life forms inhabiting widely different environments: in computers and in a vast sentient inhabitant of deep space formed of a network of widely spaced nodes.
Alice Sheldon was most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently “male” or “female”—it was not publicly known until 1977 that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman. She was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.
A telepath has spent his life secretly peering into the minds of others for fun and a little profit. But as he approaches middle age, he begins to lose his gift and realizes he’s wasted his life.
In a frozen, apocalyptic landscape, destruction abounds: great walls of ice overrun the world and secretive governments vie for control. Against this surreal, yet eerily familiar broken world, an unnamed narrator embarks on a hallucinatory quest for a strange and elusive “glass-girl” with silver hair. He crosses icy seas and frozen plains, searching ruined towns and ransacked rooms, all to free her from the grips of a tyrant known only as the warden and save her before the ice closes all around.
Ice is a dystopian adventure shattering the conventions of science fiction, a prescient warning of climate change and totalitarianism, a feminist exploration of violence and trauma, a Kafkaesque literary dreamscape, and a brilliant allegory for its author’s struggles with addiction—all crystallized in prose glittering as the piling snow.
“One might become convinced that Kavan had seen the future… A half century after its first appearance, Kavan’s fever dream of a novel is beginning to seem all too real.”
—The New Yorker
In this existentialist tale, Karl Glogauer travels from the year 1970 in a time machine to 28 A.D., where he hopes to meet the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
In a post-apocalyptic world where a few technology-endowed immortal humans rule the Earth as the pantheon of Hindu gods, one among them, Siddhartha, dares to oppose their tyranny.
After the “Accident,” all males on Earth become sterile. Society ages and falls apart bit by bit. First, toy companies go under. Then record companies. Then cities cease to function. Now Earth’s population lives in spread‑out, isolated villages, with its youngest members in their fifties. When the people of Sparcot begin to make claims of gnomes and man‑eating rodents lurking around their village, Greybeard and his wife set out for the coast with the hope of finding something better.
Author William Burroughs was interested in producing a dream-like state in the reader, and if creating that state required wild but totally incoherent writing, so be it. Do not expect to always understand what’s going on; confusion is sometimes the point. So just take a deep breath and let the ride take you where it will.
The diabolical Nova criminals have gained control and plan on wreaking untold destruction. It’s up to Inspector Lee of the Nova Police to attack and dismantle the word-and-imagery machine of these “control addicts” before it’s too late.
In The Drowned World, the sun’s become too hot (terrestrial temperature is 130°F on a good day), and the cities of the world are submerged. Humanity is now collected down in Antarctica or above the Arctic Circle.
(This was written in 1962, so way before the current climate change troubles.)
During a scientific expedition to a sunken London, Dr. Kerans contends with a Triassic-like environment with giant iguanas and mosquitoes the size of dragonflies. These surroundings trigger psychological changes in him and others, back to when humans were nothing but shrews scampering away from dinosaurs. It’s subtle, though—they don’t start digging holes or anything.
Then, of course, trouble comes.
The Drowned World starts out as hard science, but gets a little mental. At points it’s hard to know whether the main character is seeing things as they really are. But even at the book’s loopiest, author Ballard’s writing stays crisp and understandable.
It’s a fun ride, and I really never knew what was going to happen next.
“A bold, hypnotic novel, by an author with a genius for the perverse.”
Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships).
When I first read this book, the androgyny felt entirely alien, since our language had “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown.” However, the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun has increased in recent years. It’s interesting how language evolves.
“A jewel of a story.”
—Frank Herbert, author of Dune
Caught up in local revolution, cosmonaut Ijon Tichy is shot and so critically wounded that he is flashfrozen to await a future cure, a future whose strangeness exceeds anything he could have expected. Filled with black humor and scathing satire.
Riddley Walker is a unique, fascinating book. It takes places a few thousand years after a nuclear Armageddon in England when a young boy comes across a plan to recreate a weapon from the ancient world.
Humanity is semi-literate, and the language in the book reflects that. It can be a little off-putting; here’s the first line of the book:
On the naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for along time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
When I first started Riddley Walker, I thought, “Oh god, I don’t want to deal with this.” But someone recommended it, so I kept going.
It was totally worth it. Yes, you have to read it slowly, and yes, it’s more work than reading a typical book. But it’s also a lot better than a typical book. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It’s intense, imaginative, and probably unlike anything you’ve ever come across.
“Stunning, delicious, designed to prevent the modern reader from becoming stupid.”
―The New York Times
Roadside Picnic is short, bleak, and fantastic. It has a typical Russian life-is-a-meaningless-struggle-against-absurdity vibe, but there’s enough going on to make it an interesting read.
Aliens have visited Earth, but then left, leaving behind a zone where commonplace things are sometimes instantly deadly. But in the zone are also artifacts of alien technology, which you can sell for decent money, if you survive trips into the zone. The main character travels to the zone, despite the effects it has on his life and family.
The basic premise is very similar to Annihilation (also a good book), but predates it by over forty years. They’re different enough that you can happily read both, but maybe not one right after the other.
“The story is carried out with a controlled fierceness that doesn’t waver for a minute.”
Kindred is one of the most intense, anxiety-inducing books I’ve ever read. It’s a tightly written, unconventional thriller.
A black woman living in 1970s California is snatched from her world and transported in time to a slave-owner’s plantation in the antebellum South. She spies a white man drowning, and saves him. She skips uncontrollably back and forth in time, spending longer and longer at the plantation, doing her best to figure out what’s happening to her while trying to survive the horrors of slavery.
“Butler’s literary craftsmanship is superb.”
—Washington Post Book World
Written in 1970 and published in 1975, The Female Man is a feminist novel that combines utopian fiction and satire.
In the book, the character Joanna calls herself the “female man” because she believes that she must forget her identity as a woman in order to be respected.
The novel follows the lives of four women living in parallel worlds that differ in time and place. When they cross over to each other’s worlds, their different views on gender roles startle each other’s preexisting notions of womanhood. In the end, their encounters influence them to evaluate their lives and shape their ideas of what it means to be a woman.
During an interstellar war, a famous starship captain/linguist/poet discovers a new enemy weapon: a language, called Babel-17, which can be used as a weapon. Learning it turns one into an unwilling traitor as it alters perception and thought. The change is made more dangerous by the language’s seductive enhancement of other abilities.
The only way to fight the weapon is to understand it. But once you start learning it, you start to become a traitor…
Babel-17 was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966 (with Flowers for Algernon).
“The most interesting writer of science fiction writing in English today.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The inspiration for Blade Runner.
By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies build incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women.
Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.
“A kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet.”
—The New York Times
Anthologies seldom make history, but Dangerous Visions is a grand exception. Harlan Ellison’s 1967 collection of science fiction stories set an almost impossibly high standard, as more than a half dozen of its stories won major awards—not surprising with a contributors list that reads like a who’s who of 20th-century SF.
Written over 50 years ago, Dune is the world’s best-selling science fiction novel. As recently as 2012, the readers of Wired magazine voted it the top science fiction novel of all time.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, it’s a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction” and has inspired countless other science fiction novels.
The comparison to high fantasy is particularly apt given the small part technology plays. There are no robots and no computers. Spaceships are treated as transport vessels, not objects of wonder. There are castles, emperors, witches, dukes, dragons (sandworms), and a substance that bestows astounding powers when you eat it (spice).
“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
—Arthur C. Clarke
This American classic is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
“Very tough and very funny… sad and delightful… very Vonnegut.”
—The New York Times
7 thoughts on “The 23 Best New Wave Science Fiction Books”
The Reefs of Space by Frederick Pohl
The Time Machine HG Wells
Minority Report Phillip k.Dick
The Twilight Zone Rod Serling all Top stories which test of time has vindicated
The Book of the New Sun
The Man in the High Castle
Another great list! About half of these books I’ve never heard of or forgotten about. I so appreciate your comprehensive knowledge of sci-fi overall. Thank you for continuing to share your passion. It’s especially needed during these trying times!
Lord of Light is NOT set in a post-apocalyptic world. To the contrary, the protagonist and the god-poseurs are the crew of an interstellar colony ship who have retained technology for themselves. Aside from that, a wonderful book which retraces and retells the emergence of Buddhism from the Hindu pantheon.
Thanks for the correction!
Interesting selection. I woinder if A Clockwork Orange, Earth Abides, Man in the High Castle (actually most of PKD’s books), Burning World, Stand on Zanzibar (a personal favourite), the Lathe of Heaven (A very good impression of PKD) fit in as New Wave books? I thought Behold the Man wa svery good but couldn’t finish the sequel. It was too different and, to me, boring. I didn’t hate the Genocides but I didn’t finish it! (maybe I did hate it?). I preferred 334 & Camp Concentration. I’ve never heard of In Watermelon Sugar. I will investigate. I’ve enjoyed the Lem books I’ve read. And Roadside Picnic is pretty interesting (I am studying Russian and maybe I will read the Strugatsky’s in Russian one day (along with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky & Pushkin). I do think Algis Budrys should be in here too. Michaelmas was very enjoyable (I stole one of the main conceits for my own unpublished and unpublishable novel, Rogue Moon and Who? Anyway, it’s your list I can’t really quibble. Well done.
Thanks fot the list. Happy it included Dying Inside by Silverberg, one of his most brilliant stories and outrageously hilarious at times.
A worthy addition to the list would be Ellison’s devastating “I have no mouth and I must scream”.