10 Ultra-Weird Science Fiction Novels that Became Required Reading

By MaryKate Jasper and Charlie Jane Anders for io9.com


Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany


Why It’s Weird: It opens with a man making love to a woman who turns into a tree. It ends with this:

But I still hear them walking in the trees: not speaking.
Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of
the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the
hills, I have come to

Dhalgren takes place in a burning, dilapidated, extra-dimensional city named Bellona, and it’s famous for its non-linear narrative, which requires multiple readings to get a lot of meaning out of.
Why It’s Required: Dhalgren is full of mythological references, and layers of meaning. It’s also a fascinatingly contentious book. The novel has drawn praise from Umberto Eco: “I consider Delany not only one of the most important SF writers of the present generation, but a fascinating writer in general who has invented a new style.” It’s become a stage play and a MOO, and it’s been compared to Pynchon. The original edition sold more than a million copies.


The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing

Why It’s Weird: Lessing’s sprawling Children of Violence series starts out as realistic quasi-memoir about growing up in Africa, only to turn weird and experimental in the final couple of volumes. There is voluntary sleep deprivation, weird sexual experiments where nobody touches each other, and more. After spending the entire series building the character of Martha Quest, Lessing kills her off on a contaminated island off the coast of Scotland during World War Three. Lessing’s World War Three takes place during the ‘60s and ‘70s, with most of Britain wiped out via bubonic plague, nerve gases, nuclear explosions, etc. by 1978. The ideas behind the novel, as elucidated on Lessing’s own website: “[It] takes on the medical profession, which she believes is destroying (recently through imprisonment, currently through the use of drugs) that part of humanity which is in fact most sensitive to evolution, those people we label as mentally sick or unbalanced: and, criticising the scientists who have created and perpetuate a climate in which “rationalism” has become a new God, she claims that everyone has “extra-sensory perception”, in varying degrees, but has been brainwashed into suppressing it, and that schizophrenia is the name of our blindest contemporary prejudice.”
Why It’s Required: Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize and wrote The Golden Notebook, which frequently appears on college syllabi — but the Children of Violence trilogy is the series on which she spent arguably the most time, and in many ways the cornerstone of her work. Earlier parts of the Children of Violence series appear on college syllabi pretty often.


Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Why It’s Weird: The novel follows Valentine Michael Smith, son of the first astronauts to explore Mars, as he is reintegrated into human society after being raised as a Martian. Valentine believes a bunch of strange things, Valentine believes in a bunch of strange things, including the rightness and sacredness of consuming your friend’s flesh after he/she dies, the superfluity of clothing, and the obvious self-evidence of an afterlife, based on his experiences on Mars. He founds the Church of All Worlds, in which sexual liberation blends with psychokinesis.
Why It’s Required: In addition to winning the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel, Stranger in a Strange Land is considered a bona fide classic, frequently mentioned on the lists of the best science fiction books of all time. One of its invented Martian words, “grok” has even entered the Oxford English Dictionary. You can also see it on Pearson’s Recommended High School Reading List.


Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Why It’s Weird: From lunar telepaths to mysterious product placements to a kid named Jory who sucks the life force out of other people, this is a book that doesn’t particularly care about making sense. Did we mention that half the characters might be dead? As Conceptual Fiction explains, “Ubik keeps you guessing at almost every step along the way, and your hypotheses about what is actually transpiring will probably change several times as the story progresses. From this regard, the work progresses much like a conventional mystery, with clues to be deciphered and puzzles to be solved. Only here the questions are peculiar ones – not who committed the murder, but whether a murder actually took place, not finding the body but understanding what a body might be and become, not avenging a death but reassessing the boundaries between life and death.”

Why It’s Required: Most often found in science fiction class syllabi, Ubik is also used as an example of of late-‘60s paranoia about reality and government or corporate control of life. And Time Magazine named it as one of the 100 best novels written in English between 1923 and 2005. Reportedly, Michel Gondry is working on a movie version.


The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

Why It’s Weird: This is a novel about time travel, and as such it comes with all the expected weirdnesses – time paradoxes, alternate realities, etc. However, the really weird part of this book is the way that the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. While he starts off with the generic stuff, like betting with his past self on sporting events of which he already knows the outcome, he graduates to having sex and a relationship with his past and future selves, including massive time-traveling orgies. He eventually impregnates a female version of himself, and she may turn out to be his own mother. Basically, time-wimey, orgy-porgy.

Why It’s Required: This novel was nominated for two prestigious genre awards, the 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It also appears on lots of college syllabi.


The Female Man by Joanna Russ

Why It’s Weird: In The Female Man, four women from different realities are brought together, and after experiencing each other’s gendered (or not) cultures, come away with new ideas about womanhood and gender roles. The catalyst for their meeting, Jael, comes from a dystopia which literalizes the “battle of the sexes” into an actual war between men and women. Another woman, Janet, comes from a world called Whileaway, where all the men were killed in a gender-specific plague more than 800 years ago.

Why It’s Required: Nowadays, it’s read as a representative work from the 1970s feminist movement, but it’s also picked up a crop of awards. Like many works in this list, it was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel (in 1975), and it also won a Retrospective Tiptree Award in 1996 and Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame Award in 2002.


Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre

Why It’s Weird: The novel follows a healer through a post-apocalyptic, desert-like landscape, as she looks for a replacement “dreamsnake.” Dreamsnake bites produce hallucinations similar to acid trips. So in a sense, what we’re looking at here is one long roadtrip dedicated to the pursuit of LSD.
Why It’s Required: Dreamsnake swept the awards when it was first published, winning the 1979 Hugo Award, the 1978 Nebula Award, and the 1979 Locus Award. It was also nominated for the 1979 Ditmar Award in International Fiction.


Lilith’s Brood (Previously Xenogenesis) by Octavia Butler

Why It’s Weird: The most famous feature of the three novels in Lilith’s Brood is the Oankali, an alien race which has three sexes – male, female and ooloi. Their goal is to replace the human race with human-Oankali hybrids after a massive near-genocide has almost wiped out humanity. The main character, Lilith, is a human who spends most of her time among the Oankali, and eventually sides with them against humans. Mating is probably where it gets weirdest. All three sexes are necessary for reproduction. The ooloi take genetic material directly from the bodies of the other two partners as needed to create new life; although the female stores the child in her body, she doesn’t have a uterus, and the baby will exit through a random location after about 14-15 months.
Why It’s Required: Lilith’s Brood was written by multiple Nebula- and Hugo-winning author Octavia Butler. It’s taught in college classes, and often appears on lists of the best science fiction and fantasy books of all time.


The Mount by Carol Emshwiller

Why It’s Weird: In the world of the novel, humans are used as riding mounts for an alien race called the Hoots. And most of them are pretty cool with it. As we wrote back in 2007, “Hoots have weak legs that fit perfectly around human necks, as well as superior weapons that easily convert the disobedient to dust. What’s compelling about this beautifully-written novel, though, is that it’s no simple “aliens oppress humans” tale. It explores what happens when humans get used to, and even enjoy, their servitude.”
Why It’s Required: It won the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novel.


The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Why It’s Weird: Bombs in this world attack matter by “removing information” from it. This process causes the matter to disappear entirely, and is supposed to represent a “clean” weapons system without the radiation side effects of previous powerful weapons. However, the bombs do leave behind their own waste, referred to as “stuff,” that floats around the world in giant storms. When these storms come in contact with the noosphere, they take the form of whatever the nearest person is thinking about, resulting in horrific apparitions and “new” people popping out of nowhere. In the post-war world that constitutes the novel’s present, this “stuff” is kept at bay with whatever comes out of the Jorgmund pipe.
Why It’s Required: It was nominated for a 2009 Locus Award for Best First Novel and a BSFA Award for Best Novel.

20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Science Fiction

1 Arguably the inspiration for much science fiction traces back to classical mythology. Think of it—Earthlings abducted by beings from the sky, humans morphing into strange creatures, and events that defy the laws of nature.

2 Birth of the (un)cool: In 1926 writer Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, the first true science-fiction magazine.

3 Gernsback loved greenbacks. He tried to trademark the term science fiction, and he paid writers so little that H. P. Lovecraft later nicknamed him “Hugo the Rat.”

4 Rat’s revenge: The most famous sci-fi writing award is called the Hugo.

5 Writers for the early pulp magazines would often write under multiple pseudonyms so they could have more than one article per issue. Ray Bradbury—taking this practice to another level—used six different pen names.

6 Serious science-fiction heads say sci-fi carries schlocky, B-movie connotations. Many prefer the abbreviation SF.

7 Prominent physicists and space travel pioneers have (often secretly) contributed to SF lit. German rocket genius Wernher Von Braun wrote space fiction and was an adviser to sci-fi movies such as Conquest of Space.

8 During the 1960s, James Tiptree Jr. penned sci-fi classics like Houston, Houston, Do You Read? but was so secretive that people suspected he was a covert government operative.

9 At age 61, Tiptree was outed—not as a spy but as outspoken feminist Alice B. Sheldon.

10 One of the more famous works in the growing field of gay sci-fi is Judith Katz’s Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound, about a woman who bolts from her overbearing Jewish family to the mystical all-lesbian city of New Chelm.

11 Irony alert: Ray Bradbury, one of the world’s most influential SF writers, studiously avoids computers and ATMs and claims he has never driven a car.

12 Not to be outdone, sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov wrote about interstellar spaceflight but refused to board an airplane.

13 Neal Stephenson’s acclaimed 1992 novel Snow Crash has inspired two major online creations: Second Life (derived from Stephenson’s virtual Metaverse) and Google Earth (from the panoptic Earth application).

14 Meanwhile, in the humble brick-and-mortar world: Sci-fi author Gene Wolfe helped develop the machine that cooks Pringles, while Robert Heinlein conceived the first modern water bed.

15 Sexual liberation plays a big role in Heinlein’s books, which really puts the water-bed thing into perspective.

16 In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, the HAL 9000 computer discusses its feelings and Pan Am flies passenger shuttles to the moon. After the book’s release, Pan Am announced a real-life list of passengers waiting to go to the moon; Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, and 80,000 others signed up.

17 Forty years later, computers can’t discuss printer drivers, let alone emotions, and Pan Am has been dead for 17 years.

18 When sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick inadvertently re-created a Bible scene in his book Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, he became convinced that the spirit of the prophet Elijah had overcome him, kicking off a long bout of schizophrenia.

19 After Dick’s death, fans built an android likeness of him that mimicked his mannerisms and quoted his writings.

20 In 2005, the Dickbot was misplaced by a baggage handler. It remains at large.

by Dean Christopher and Jocelyn Rice with additional reporting by William Shunn
From the February 2008 issue of Discover Magazine; published online January 30, 2008

Most Mind-Blowing Surprise Endings from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

By Jennifer Griffith Delgado for io9.com

Lots of science fiction and fantasy novels have twist endings — but a few of them have twists so startling, they actually change your understanding of what’s been going on in the whole book. The coolest twist endings turn the whole reality of the story on its head and leave you rethinking everything you’ve read thus far.

Here are some of the most mind-bending, story-redefining twist endings from science fiction and fantasy books.


Ender’s Game (by Orson Scott Card):
This one caught us totally off guard the first time we read it. Ender’s in Battle School training to fight the Buggers for most of the book. After he gets promoted to Command School, Ender starts a new set of training simulations to test his ability to lead fleets in war. During his final simulation, Ender sacrifices an entire fleet to defeat the enemy and destroy the alien homeworld. He thinks he’ll be expelled for breaking the rules of the game, but it turns out that no one cares. In fact, his teachers are all celebrating his victory because it was not really a simulation. Ender was really commanding an army, and he really committed xenocide.


Rant (by Chuck Palahniuk):
Rant tells the story of Rant Casey, who has an unusually strong tolerance for diseases and toxins and gets himself bitten by poisonous spiders for fun. He eventually leaves his small town for a bigger city. It turns out that Rant lives in a dystopian world where the upper class only comes out during the day, and the lower class is allowed on the streets at night. He joins up with a group of the low class nighttimers for “Party Crashing,” a demolition derby where the crashers slam their cars into other vehicles with the night’s flag (a mattress, words on the windows, etc.) There’s another twist, though: the people in this world discovered that if you crash your car in a certain mental state, you’ll travel backward in time. Rant winds up being killed during a Party Crashing event, but his body is never found, so his friends assume he went back in time. He may have gone to the past to rescue his mother from a version of himself in another timeline. That version, called Green Taylor Simms, has been going back to the past to father his own ancestors, kill them, and make himself a superhuman. (Here’s one person’s “Splintered Time Theory.”))


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (by Robert Louis Stevenson):
The classic tale is narrated by Mr. Utterson, who is good friends with Dr. Jekyll. Utterson investigates the connection between Jekyll and the evil Hyde and in a twist at the end, he discovers that the two are the same person. It turns out that Jekyll has been leading a double life thanks to drug he created that split his good and evil personalities. Of course, today the ending of this story isn’t exactly a surprise. To readers who hadn’t been spoiled already, however, it could have been pretty shocking.


Dragonsbane (by Barbara Hambly):
This book turns the “knight slays a dragon” trope on its head. Lord John Aversin is the only living person in the kingdom who has ever killed a dragon, and thus, he is called the “dragonsbane.” However, when a messenger comes to enlist John’s aid in defeating the dragon, the truth comes out. John actually killed the dragon using a lance dipped in a poison brewed by his wife, a witch named Jenny (who serves as the POV character). Though John’s dragon slaying was less honorable than everyone believed, John is still the only one who can help. The messenger convinces John that the king will provide aid for the lord’s people if he slays this new dragon, so John agrees. Jenny makes a new poison and John goes forth to slay the dragon, only for both knight and dragon to end up near death. The dragon convinces Jenny to save its life in exchange for healing spells that will allow her to heal John, and this is where another part of the twist comes in: the dragon helps them save the kingdom from a sorceress who has had the king under her spell. Ultimately, the story is about Jenny being torn between her family and her magic, and not so much about her husband the knight. She chooses to accept the dragon’s offer to transform into a dragon herself, but misses her family and returns home as a human.


Use of Weapons (by Iain M. Banks):
This novel tells the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a soldier working for the Culture in their crusade to spread their perceived utopia and enlightenment across the galaxy. The Culture’s methods require people like Zakalwe to help them shape lesser societies to their peaceful vision through manipulating politics and war. In Use of Weapons, Zakalwe is called out of retirement to help agents of the Culture prevent a region he previously stabilized from going to war. There are two narratives: one following Zakalwe on his current mission, and the other telling his life story in backward chronological order. As the flashback timeline goes on, it is revealed that Zakalwe was originally in line to rule a planet outside the Culture, but his cousin Elethiomel had attempted to seize it for himself. In an effort to make Cheradenine give up, Elethiomel killed his cousin’s sister, made a chair from her bones, and sent it to Cheradenine. Zakalwe tried to kill himself after that and eventually became the guilt-ridden man in the novel. At least, that’s what the author wants you to think. The last chapter reveals a major plot twist: it turns out that Cheradenine Zakalwe is a name the main character assumed after the real Cheradenine successfully killed himself. He is in fact the crazy cousin, Elethiomel, who has been trying to atone for his crime by working for the Culture to spread peace.


The Man in the High Castle (by Philip K. Dick):
In Dick’s alternate history novel, the Axis powers won World War II and basically split the world. There are multiple plotlines following different characters, and several of these characters have read a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen. This book is to the characters what Dick’s novel is to us, but it is an alternate history in which the Allies won World War II. That alternate history is also fictional, with Britain becoming the dominant superpower after a Cold War between them and the US. One of the themes of The Man in the High Castle is the concept of multiple realities. The twist at the end of the novel reveals that the characters might be living a lie, and the real world lies in Abendsen’s book. In fact, at least one character travels to that reality.


Power of Three (by Diana Wynne Jones):
There are three races in Jones’ novel: the Dorig, the Lymen, and the Giants. The story follows three Lyman children with magical gifts on their quest to undo a curse placed on their people long ago. As the three explore the moor where they live, they meet a pair of Giants… and it turns out that the Giants are humans. The Dorig and the Lymen are in fact tiny people. The “Giants,” the siblings, and some Dorigs must save their moor from destruction and deactivate the source of the Lyman curse.


Bone Dance (by Emma Bull):
In a post-apocalyptic future, Sparrow makes a living buying and selling videos from before the disaster. Sparrow also seeks information on the Horsemen, experimental people who had the psychic ability to jump from body to body. Sparrow regularly experiences blackouts and has no memory of what happened during those times. The second half of the book reveals that Sparrow is in fact a genetically engineered human with no gender, created as a “horse” for the Horsemen to control.


The Transall Saga (by Gary Paulsen):
This novel follows Mark, a young hiker who happens upon a mysterious light and finds himself transported to a strange world. His survival skills help him adjust as he adapts to life in this new place. Eventually, Mark finds people and begins to see similarities between this world and his own. Halfway through the story, Mark meets someone else from his world and discovers that he is not in a different world but a different time. In this future, a mutated form of Ebola virus has driven humanity to near extinction. Eventually, Mark makes it back home and ends up trying to find a cure.


I Am Legend (by Richard Matheson):
The twist in this classic seems to offer such a shift in perspective that it totally deserves a place on this list. After a plague wiped out most of humanity and caused them to come back to life as vampires, Robert Neville is the only man left. He hunts the vampires as they sleep by day, but he still wants to know just what happened with the plague. Eventually, he finds out that the vampires aren’t just mindless monsters — they are sentient and angry that he has been killing them off. In the end, Robert isn’t a legend because he is the last human. He is a legend because he became a feared monster in the eyes of the vampires, who are now the majority species in the world.


Planet of the Apes (by Pierre Boulle):
This is the novel that the various Planet of the Apes films have been based on, but you still might not be expecting the twist in the book version. At the beginning of the novel, a couple on a space vacation find a message, containing the story of a man named Ulysse Mérou. From here, the story is Ulysse’s message. He and his crew leave Earth in 2500, landing on a planet where apes are the intelligent species and humans are mindless creatures. The apes capture his party, but Ulysse manages to prove his intelligence and was given his liberty. The twist starts when the apes discovered the truth about their past. They were once dominated by humans, but their ancestors overthrew their oppressors, who became the primitive creatures Ulysse saw on his arrival. Ulysse flees the planet when some of the apes decide that humans must be destroyed, only to arrive on a future Earth where apes rule the planet. This is when he left his message in space. It turns out that the couple who discovered it were chimpanzees themselves, who doubt that a human could have written the story.

Historical Trends in Science Fiction (chart-ified)

How far ahead is the future?

From the chart we can see that our sense, at least in literary science fiction, of when the future will happen has changed over the decades. There seems to have been a tendency to expect the future (in terms of technological developments, I’m assuming) to arrive relatively quickly following he advent of petrochemicals and plastics. And this trend seems to hold up all the way into the 90s.

For more on the data collation and other details, see the full article here