Depending who you ask, the Golden Age of science fiction lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s, and marked when science fiction rose out of its pulpy beginnings and began to resemble actual literature.
The biggest names—Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, and such—are not on this list in order to give some room for the lesser-known but still worthy denizens of the Golden Age.
Author Leigh Douglass Brackett was an early female icon of science fiction, sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Space Opera.” She was the first woman ever to be short-listed for a Hugo award.
Len and Esau are young cousins living decades after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization as we know it. The rulers of the post-war community have forbidden the existence of large towns and consider technology evil.
However, Len and Esau long for more than their simple agrarian existence. Rumors of mythical Bartorstown, perhaps the last city in existence, encourage the boys to embark on a journey of discovery and adventure that will call into question not only firmly held beliefs, but the boys’ own personal convictions.
For millions of years, the part of the galaxy containing our solar system has been moving through a vast force field whose effect has been to inhibit “certain electromagnetic and electrochemical processes” and thus certain neurotic functions. When Earth escapes the inhibiting field, synapse speed immediately increases, causing a rise in intelligence, which results in a transfigured humanity reaching for the stars, leaving behind our earth to the less intelligent humans and animal lifeforms.
Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a dedicated man: a priest who is also a scientist, and a scientist who is also a human being. He has found no insoluble conflicts in his beliefs or his ethics… until he is sent to Lithia.
There he comes upon a race of aliens who are admirable in every way except for their total reliance on cold reason; they are incapable of faith or belief. Confronted with a profound scientific riddle and ethical quandary, Father Ruiz-Sanchez soon finds himself torn between the teachings of his faith, the teachings of his science, and the inner promptings of his humanity. There is only one solution: He must accept an ancient and unforgivable heresy, and risk the futures of both worlds.
Pulp SF magazine editor Keith Winton was answering a letter from a teenage fan when the first moon rocket fell back to Earth and blew him away.
But where to? Greenville, New York, looked the same, but Bems (Bug-Eyed Monsters) just like the ones on the cover of Startling Stories walked the streets without attracting undue comment.
And when he brought out a half-dollar coin in a drugstore, the cops wanted to shoot him on sight as an Arcturian spy.
Wait a minute. Seven-foot purple moon-monsters? Earth at war with Arcturus? General Dwight D. Eisenhower in command of Venus Sector?
What mad universe was this?
One thing was for sure: Keith Winton had to find out fast, or he’d be good and dead, in this universe or any other.
Written by the famed behaviorist, this fictional outline of a modern utopia has been a center of controversy ever since its publication in 1948. Set in the United States, it pictures a society in which human problems are solved by a scientific technology of human conduct.
In this surrealist tale, animals and inanimate objects reflect the emotions of humans. Multiple plot lines include the love stories of two couples, talking mice, a man who ages years in a week, and a newlywed man whose wife develops a rare and bizarre illness that can be treated only by surrounding her with flowers.
“[A] mad, moving, beautiful novel.”
A collection of the trend-setting stories from “the Dean of Science Fiction” which opened and explored such topics as first contact with aliens, the Internet (called a different name, of course), transfers among parallel universes, and many more.
“The best of [these stories] are remarkable inventions, providing a window on to science fiction’s first Golden Age that demonstrates exactly what made it golden.”
A meteorite collides with Earth! Tintin is part of the expedition to the Arctic Ocean to locate the fallen star. But they aren’t the only ones hungry to make the new discovery—someone is trying to sabotage Tintin and his team!
Thousands of years have passed since humankind abandoned the city—first for the countryside, then for the stars, and ultimately for oblivion—leaving their most loyal animal companions alone on Earth. Granted the power of speech centuries earlier by the revered Bruce Webster, the intelligent, pacifist dogs are the last keepers of human history, raising their pups with bedtime stories, passed down through generations, of the lost “websters” who gave them so much but will never return.
With the aid of Jenkins, an ageless service robot, the dogs live in a world of harmony and peace. But they now face serious threats from their own and other dimensions, with perhaps the most dangerous of all being the reawakened remnants of a warlike race called “Man.”
“To read science-fiction is to read Simak. The reader who does not like Simak stories does not like science-fiction at all.”
—Robert A. Heinlein
Written during the dark hours immediately before and during World War II by the author of the Chronicles of Narnia.
While searching for a place to rest for the night, Dr. Elwin Ransom is abducted by a megalomaniacal physicist and his accomplice and taken to the red planet of Malacandra (Mars) as a human sacrifice for the alien creatures that live there. Once on the planet, however, Ransom eludes his captors, risking his life and his chances of returning to Earth, becoming a stranger in a land that is enchanting in its difference from Earth and instructive in its similarity.
“This book has real splendor, compelling moments, and a flowing narrative.”
—The New York Times
Captain van Toch discovers a colony of newts in Sumatra which can not only be taught to trade and use tools, but also to speak. As the rest of the world learns of the creatures and their wonderful capabilities, it is clear that this new species is ripe for exploitation: they can be traded in their thousands, will do the work no human wants to do, and can fight.
But the humans have given no thought to the terrible consequences of their actions.
Many tribes endure their harsh and stunted lives in a maze of corridors. Though legends exist that they’re actually on a ship traveling through the universe, no one really believes it. But that conviction doesn’t stop a group of people from embarking on a mission to find the rumored “Forwards” section and its control room. Through a tangled, hydroponic jungle, they’ll encounter telepathic animals, giants, outcasts, and mutants in an epic race to uncover the truth—and survive.
“Worth reading, and quite a significant contribution to the long SF history of generation ship novels.”
The Chung-Li virus has devastated Asia, wiping out the rice crop and leaving riots and mass starvation in its wake. The rest of the world looks on with concern, though safe in the expectation that a counter-virus will be developed any day. Then Chung-Li mutates and spreads. Wheat, barley, oats, rye: no grass crop is safe, and global famine threatens.
In Britain, where green fields are fast turning brown, the Government lies to its citizens, devising secret plans to preserve the lives of a few at the expense of the many. Getting wind of what’s in store, John Custance and his family decide they must abandon their London home to head for the sanctuary of his brother’s farm in a remote northern valley.
And so they begin the long trek across a country fast descending into barbarism, where the law of the gun prevails, and the civilized values they once took for granted become the price they must pay if they are to survive.
Ragle Gumm has a unique job: every day he wins a newspaper contest. And when he isn’t consulting his charts and tables, he enjoys his life in a small town in 1959. At least, that’s what he thinks.
But then strange things start happening. He finds a phone book where all the numbers have been disconnected, and a magazine article about a famous starlet he’s never heard of named Marilyn Monroe. Plus, everyday objects are beginning to disappear and are replaced by strips of paper with words written on them like “bowl of flowers” and “soft drink stand.”
When Ragle skips town to try to find the cause of these bizarre occurrences, his discovery could make him question everything he has ever known.
“Marvelous, terrifying fun, especially if you’ve ever suspected that the world is an unreal construct built solely to keep you from knowing who you really are. Which it is, of course.”
In an overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world’s most powerful executives.
Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the most basic elements are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel.
The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed.
Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and has been assigned the ad campaign that would attract colonists to Venus, but a lot more is happening than he knows about. Mitch is soon thrown into a world of danger, mystery, and intrigue, where the people in his life are never quite what they seem, and his loyalties and core beliefs will be put to the test.
“A novel of the future that the present must inevitably rank as a classic.”
—The New York Times
Full of philosophical puzzles and supernatural surprises, these stories contain some of Borges’s most fully realized human characters.
With uncanny insight he takes us inside the minds of an unrepentant Nazi, an imprisoned Mayan priest, fanatical Christian theologians, a woman plotting vengeance on her father’s “killer,” and a man awaiting his assassin in a Buenos Aires guest house.
This volume also contains the hauntingly brief vignettes about literary imagination and personal identity collected in The Maker, which Borges wrote as failing eyesight and public fame began to undermine his sense of self.
“He has lifted fiction away from the flat earth where most of our novels and short stories still take place.”
—author John Updike
Triplanetary was first serialized in Amazing Stories in 1934 and later formed the first of the Lensman series, where it set the stage for what is one of the greatest space-opera sagas ever written.
This original publication brings us to a distant planet inhabited by a highly developed aquatic race called the Nevians. They have managed to harness the atomic power of iron and have an enormous need for the metal to generate energy, but their planet has virtually no iron reserves. They build a spaceship to venture into the universe and find iron. Eventually they discover that Earth has huge amounts of iron and the Nevians start to extract all the iron out of Pittsburgh with a special ray. This ray shoots into the city and immediately vaporizes and removes any iron from the buildings, machines, earth, and even from human blood.
It is up to Conway Costigan, a mercilessly competent, two-fisted whiz agent of the military Triplanetary Service, and his colleagues to save the planet.
Bill Masen undergoes eye surgery and awakes the next morning in his hospital bed to find civilization collapsing. Wandering the city, he quickly realizes that surviving in this strange new world requires evading strangers and the seven-foot-tall plants known as triffids—plants that can walk and can kill a man with one quick lash of their poisonous stingers.
“Frightening and powerful, Wyndham’s vision remains an important allegory and a gripping story.”
Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and International Fantasy Awards.
There’s Lone, the simpleton who can hear other people’s thoughts and make a man blow his brains out just by looking at him. There’s Janie, who moves things without touching them, and there are the teleporting twins, who can travel ten feet or ten miles. There’s Baby, who invented an antigravity engine while still in the cradle, and Gerry, who has everything it takes to run the world except for a conscience. Separately, they are talented freaks. Together, they compose a single organism that may represent the next step in evolution, and the final chapter in the history of the human race.
Winner of the First Hugo Award.
In a world policed by telepaths, Ben Reich plans to commit a crime that hasn’t been heard of in 70 years: murder. That’s the only option left for Reich, whose company is losing a 10-year struggle with rival D’Courtney Enterprises. Terrorized in his dreams by The Man With No Face and driven to the edge after D’Courtney refuses a merger offer, Reich murders his rival and bribes a high-ranking telepath to help him cover his tracks. But while police prefect Lincoln Powell knows Reich is guilty, his telepath’s knowledge is a far cry from admissible evidence.
A contemporary Earthman joins a community of explorers who travel to the farthest reaches of the universe, seeking traces of intelligence. Along the way, they encounter nautiloid water beings, races of hyperspiders and hyperfish, composite group intelligences, plantlike creatures, and other strange life forms.
It is the year 2650 and Earth has become a world of non-Aristotelianism, or Null-A. This is the story of Gilbert Gosseyn, who lives in that future world where the Games Machine, made up of twenty-five thousand electronic brains, sets the course of people’s lives. Gosseyn isn’t even sure of his own identity, but realizes he has some remarkable abilities and sets out to use them to discover who has made him a pawn in an interstellar plot.
“Interplanetary skullduggery in the year 2650. Gilbert Gosseyn has a pretty startling time of it before he gets to the root of things. Fine for addicts of science-fiction.”
―The New Yorker
In this case, a mixed group of people in Melbourne await the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere following a nuclear war.
If you’re a tough guy that doesn’t cry, be alone when you read the end of the book.
“The most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
14 thoughts on “The Best Lesser-known Golden Age Science Fiction Books”
No Henry Kuttner? No Edmond Hamilton? What about C. L. Moore? H. Beam Piper? Stanley Weinbaum, Eric Frank Russell., A. Merritt, or Jack Williamson? All of them wrote top notch sci-fi during the pulp era. I realize that a list can only be finite but if you’re exploring these early writers, I’d recommend you delve into some of these other writers as well. All of them have wonderful bibliographies. P.S. Leigh Brackett was married to Edmond Hamilton and although the two of them never shared a byline, from interviews we know they helped each other out.
Thanks for the list of authors to check out! Very cool.
Finally, my kind of stories! But you missed a big one, a REALLY big one: GREENER THAN YOU THINK by Ward Moore (1947). I think I’ve mentioned it before. And if you’re only allowing one book per author, why not THE STARS MY DESTINATION rather than THE DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester? While I’m at it, why not THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS or THE CHRYSALIDS rather than DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham? And whyever not LEST DARKNESS FALL by L. Sprague de Camp? And the twice-filmed THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula Le Guin? Or, going to an outlier from 1970, Jack Finney’s TIME AND AGAIN?
Really, in at least 90% of the cases, their short stories are at least ten orders of magnitude superior to any of the novels. If you were to make a list of best SciFi short stories, it’d have to be at least 100 stories. Because I feel the absence of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, whose “Vintage Season” and “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” are so good, as well as Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” or (my favorite) “The Game of Rat and Dragon”? Or James Blish’s “Common Time” or “Surface Tension”?
Oh, I could go on …
I’ll have to read “Greener Than You Think”. Loved ” Begin the Jubilee”
“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” is a favorite. “The Last Mimsy” was an interesting if ultimately unsatisfying screen adaption.
This list is an invaluable contribution to disproportionate focus placed on the contemporary fiction scene, especially “YA” titles.
Coincidentally for me, I just finished “A Case for Conscience” this morning. I highly recommend it to any fan of hard sci-fi. Its depiction of a narcissistic demagogue who seeks no political power but simply attention through the electronic media struck me as very prescient.
It’s also impressive to see “On the Beach” to get the top spot. Nevil Shute’s skill as a novelist was to show stoical characters battle against circumstance. I don’t want to give too much away to any potential readers, but in this novel he has one character conduct himself with a “stiff upper lip” in an unforgettable manner.
I also want to add, Dan, that the frequent complaint of “Why haven’t you included X? Where is Y in your list?” implies you’ve got the time to read and absorb every sci-fi story of the past seventy-five years.
I’m just happy that you’re organizing what you have read in a way that helps us set our own reading priorities.
Surprised you mentioned “Out of the Silent Planet” without “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength.”
Because of this list, I have made a new Shelf on my Goodreads account – it’s called “Read Again Before I Die”. I have also added books to my To Read shelf, and sadly have had to leave some off because my library doesn’t have them in stock. But as I say frequently, I’m never going to be able to read everything I want to, so that’s the way it goes.
Thanks for your passion for sci-fi.
I just sent you a friend request on goodreads….
Lester Del Ray was my first
Oh, c’mon! E E ‘Doc’ Smith. One of the most miserable untalented SF writers of all time, and he is listed here as one of the best of the Golden Age offerings. How do you expect people to take this list seriously? As you mention, Triplanetary became the ‘Lensman’ series for which I purchased the whole PB series back in mid 70’s and I admit they were a good purchase…they were perfect for propping up my bed.
Did appreciate you including ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The World of Null-A’. These are two terrific entry level books to have your teens read for sure if you want to encourage them to get into science fiction. Though I agree with other responder Hollis in that ‘The Chrysalids’ might have been the preferred Wyndham choice.
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” would be a good addition for this list.
I am guessing that “The Tar-Aiym Krang” at 1972 would be too late for this list.
I have read:
23: “The Long Tomorrow” by Leigh Brackett
15. “City” by Clifford D. Simak
9. “The Space Merchants” by by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
7. “Triplanetary” by E.E. “Doc” Smith
4. “The Demolished Man” by Alfred Bester
1. “On The Beach” by Nevil Shute – Sad, sad, sad story
Another great list!! Love these older SciFi novels.
Are you leaving Andre Norton and Hal Clement off the list as mainstream writers ?