Science fiction is great when it's weird. Really bizarre science fiction takes you on a wild ride, blowing past genre conventions and depositing you someplace miles from where you started. But where can you find the truly odd stuff?
Like hallucinogenic spores in a subterranean cavern, the most mind-bending science fiction books can take some digging. We asked around, and here's what we came up with: the 10 weirdest science fiction (and fantasy) books that you've probably never read.
10. This Business of Bomfog, by Madelaine Duke (1967)
Cover tagline: "The Astonishing World of 1989 — A World of People Gone Mad, Mad, Mad." This is recursive bit of Philip K. Dick-esque metafiction, set in a Orwellian dystopia where the Brotherhood of Man, Fatherhood of God (BOMFOG) complex tries to prevent wars by giving Important Guests access to perpetual-motion art and private swimming pools. Key line of dialogue: "Sex is part of our reeducation program."
9. The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders by Isidore Haiblum (1971)
A Tsaddik is a Hasidic spiritual leader or wise person, and this book is legendarily steeped in Jewish lore, as the main character visits various times and places in Jewish history. Writes Eleanor Skinner in her Amazon review, "The tsaddik wanders around through time & space, while a wisecracking Retief/James Bond sort of figure from a galactic bureaucracy accidentally rescues a Polish princess. Eventually they all meet to fight an intergalactic real estate conspiracy, culminating in a climactic battle between hordes of demons & time-hopping Chassidim in a Polish castle. 60s psychedelia meets Yiddish humour."
8. All of An Instant by Richard Garfinkle (1999)
A scientist discovers a place called the Instant which, as Amazon's summary puts it, is "a paradoxical nonplace that is simultaneously all times and no time." Soon everybody's battling to control the Instant, where changes ripple forward and alter the future. Every little ripple erases entire cultures and wipes out whole timelines. The SFSite review conveys just how weird this book gets:
In addition to the normal dimensions of height, width and depth, duration forms a fourth dimension in the Instant, and it places limitations on the memories and abilities of its inhabitants. Kookatchi, for instance, has a particularly short duration, and therefore his memory recycles frequently, only allowing him to retain the most vital of information. Nir, the War Chief from the Now, has a duration of a decade which allows him to take part in longer term planning, although Garfinkle reveals that those inhabitants with longer a duration have a more difficult time seeing the Instant for what it really is.
7. Passing for Human, by Jody Scott (1977)
Benaroya is a giant space dolphin who's only interested in pleasure, until she decides to study humans. To do this, she disguises herself as Brenda Starr, the girl reporter from the newspaper comics. As she tells one human, "You might say I try to relate in a meaningful, concerned way to autochthonous bipeds in general." Later, Benaroya disguises herself as Emma Peel (from The Avengers) and author Virginia Woolf. Other members of her species are disguised as Abraham Lincoln and George S. Patton, while their support drones look like Richard Nixon. While disguised as Virginia Woolf, Benaroya gets herself captured by a race of psychopathic aliens who want to destroy the Earth, and you get a weird scene where Virginia Woolf debates whether it's a bad thing to fall in love with the leader of a group of genocidal alien psychopaths.
6. Time Snake and Superclown by Vincent King (1976)
We reviewed this one back in 2008, and it's still hard to come up with a summary of the plot. Let's just say that the main character is living on Earth, observing a species of wraiths who are pretending to be human. While investigating this insidious plot, the hero has bad sex with a female wraith, who transforms his face into a clown mask — permanently — and steals his pants. He doesn't notice his pants are missing for about 20 pages, and when it finally dawns on him that he's pantless, he observes, "I must have been really bad not to have noticed that." The girl also cuts off his "strobe," trapping him on our planet because he can't access his spaceship. She eventually tells him he's destined to fight the Time Snake, which is coming to eat the world — but should he trust the girl who turned him into a clown and stole his pants? Probably not, but he does anyway.
5. Flesh & Gold by Phyllis Gottlieb (1999)
From the Amazon.com synopsis:
Travelling judge Skerow, of a race of moral haiku-writing telepathic sauropods, stumbles upon two mysteries while on duty on grimy mining planet Fthel V. The same day she discovers her senior judge and colleague of 25 years was under investigation for accepting bribes, said colleague is murdered in his bedroom; and Skerow espies a genetically-altered, almost-human mermaid held captive in the display tank of a brothel window.
Luckily, it sounds like Skerow gets lots of help from her ancestors, whose brains are all in bottles, Futurama-style, plus she teams up with a human gladiator-for-hire named Ned. Too bad the food on Fthel V is so awful.
4. Panda Ray by Michael Kandel (1996)
Christopher looks like a normal 10-year-old boy, but he's actually a member of a superpowerful race of creatures who control the world using their technology and psychic powers. When Christopher starts bragging about this at school, including details about how ESP killed the dinosaurs, his mother gets mad and decides that he should be "scooped out" — robbed of his psychic powers and turned into a shadow of his old self. So the boy escapes with his grandfather in a time machine disguised as a bathroom, fleeing through multiple universes. They go in search of the grandfather's mentor, Panda Ray, who may be able to save the boy, but only by turning him into a completely different person. Kandel is best known as the English translator of Stanislaw Lem, and by all accounts this is a very Lem-esque satirical coming-of-age novel.
3. The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer by Carol Hill (1996)
From the official synopsis: "A brilliant, philosophical, and athletic physicist, Amanda Jaworski is in training to be the first person to journey to Mars. With her magic cat, Schrodinger, Amanda goes on the ultimate space odyssey. She finds herself in a battle for her life and her planet with the greatest seductress of all, The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, a being from forty million light years away." Oh, and apparently the magic cat learns to order off a Chinese menu. And apparently Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is put to unexpected tests, in a storyline that combines physics and silliness. Eventually, according to Amazon reviewers, Amanda ends up meeting red and blue robots, a creature named Ooze, a "smelly overlord" and omniscient computers.
2. The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy by Harold Bloom (1979)
The only novel that the famous literary critic ever wrote — and he has disowned it utterly. Don't let Harold Bloom see you reading this book! It's a quasi-sequel to the space-faring novel A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. And like Lindsay's book, this involves a flight to another world, in which Gnostic philosophy is explored — and this time, it's the planet Lucifer, where a guy named Olam guides the travelers to escape from Crystalman. As one Amazon reviewer explains:
set on a distant world where time and space shift back and forth and where the conflicts of first-century religion are still being played out. Harold Bloom's story begins with an Aeon, Olam, descding to earth to bring two men, Valentinus, a reincarnation of a Gnostic prophet, and his young warrior escort Perscors, back to Lucifer on a quest to help Valentinus recover the call that motivated his previous life. For Perscors, the quest is a search for a transcendental principle, but to reach it, he has to do battle with enemies both divine and semi-divine, to finally reach his inner discovery of his own uniqueness.
1. The Butterfly Kid by Chester Anderson (1967)
As the book's blurb says: "The Hippies had a New Kick: From Outer Space!" Here's how we summarized this book a few years ago: Anderson's semi-autobiographical novel has a main character named after himself, and a supporting character named after his roommate at the time. Aliens are supplying a new kind of drug, known as "Reality Pills," which cause your LSD hallucinations to become physically real. One character takes the Reality Pills and is able to make butterflies appear spontaneously, all colors and sizes. Chester faces the vicious Blue Lobster aliens, who hook him up to a machine that forces him to experience horrifying visions that he would have paid to see otherwise. He writes: "I was the rabbit in the moon. I was as corny as Kansas in orbit. I wasn't thinking very well at all!"
Thanks to Eileen Gunn, Bruce Townley, Kate Bornstein, Regis M. Donovan, Ken Applebaum, Ray Radlein, Henry Mahncke, Tom Marcinko, Raskable Glaud, Justin Partridge, Joe Rojas-Burke, Steve Silberman, Christie Dudley, Robbie Taylor, John D. Berry, Michelle Denise Norton, Larry-Bob Roberts, Chris Granade, M. McClure, Ben Werdmuller, Allen Varney, Ron Hogan, Kate Sherrod,