First they tried to drag us back to the 1960s with Austin Powers. Now they're doing it again with Men in Black III, whose plot time-jumps to the 1969 Apollo launch. But why go back to this world-changing decade with bad science fiction when you could mainline the good stuff? Here is a book list that will introduce you to some of the best SF published in the 1960s.
The 1960s were a great decade for literary science fiction — it was a time when new writers were bringing new themes into the genre, and exploring old themes in radically new ways. We could easily have created a list of 100 great books published in that time. This list is intended purely to whet your appetite. I've only picked one book from each author, even though celebrated writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Delany and Philip K. Dick published several notable books in the 1960s. Please pipe up with more suggestions in comments.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
A man has gotten "unstuck in time," living the events of his life out of order, all while being watched over by a seemingly benevolent group of aliens. A moving, semi-autobiographical account of how human consciousness works in the wake of trauma, the book jumps between our hero's experiences in Germany during World War II, his marriage, and his weird life as what amounts to a reality TV star on an alien world.
Samuel Delany, Babel-17 (1966)
This is a novel of ideas that's also an incredible war story. The military on an alien world invents a specialized language that controls thought, called Babel-17. Speaking the language can turn even the most loyal soldier into a secret agent for the enemy. A spy sent to figure out how Babel-17 works is forced to question everything she once believed about freewill. Meanwhile, we slowly realize that all languages can be understood as a form of thought-control.
J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962)
Though the post-apocalypse subgenre is nearly as old as SF itself, it wasn't until Ballard came along that people really started to enjoy it. Literally. The Drowned World is a global warming story, where "solar radiation" has melted the poles — and our naturalist hero loves nothing more than to watch the city of London slowly melting into a neo-Triassic muck. This novel paved the way for a whole subgenre of darkly satirical apocalypse tales that suggest the end of the world might be what we secretly want (and deserve).
Anne McCaffrey, The Ship Who Sang (1969)
Beloved for her Dragonriders of Pern series, McCaffrey captured imaginations in the 1960s with this story about the relationship between a cyborg ship and her captain. McCaffrey imagines a future where people who are disabled have the option of implanting their brains and nervous systems into ships. They may have more-than-human bodies, but their human emotions remain intact. This novel calls into question what it means to have a body, and in the process explores what it means for men and women to relate to each other as beloved equals rather than sexual objects.
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Dick was a master of bizarro dystopias, and this alternate history is one of his most incredible. The Axis has won World War II, and we follow several characters through a fragmented, occupied America as they try to get their lives on track — and try to figure out the mystery of an alternate history novel about a world where the Allies won World War II . . .
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
One of the first novels in set hin her "Known Worlds" universe, this remains one of LeGuin's masterpieces. A single alien ambassador is sent to a world to make first contact with its inhabitants — who are more interested in making war with each other to be concerned with the idea that aliens are out there somewhere. As our protagonist navigates the strange politics of the world, he must also navigate its even stranger sexual relations — for on this world, nobody has a gender at all.
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
Though many authors had imagined Moon colonies before, in this novel Heinlein tries to offer a plausible scenario of what a Moon society would look like after generations of living offworld. His "Loonies" develop their own customs and norms, and for the first time readers were exposed to a genuinely thoughtful portrait of how human civilization would evolve as it spread to space.
Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (1961)
Lem wrote many mind-bending SF novels, but this early 1960s exploration of how humans try to communicate with an intensely alien intelligence is truly incredible. He was one of the first authors to deal realistically with the idea that alien life probably won't be anything like our own.
Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
One of the most popular children's science fiction novels of all time, L'Engle's story takes her preternaturally mature young heroes far across space to many worlds — until they find themselves mortally threatened on planet where obsession with conformity has become a nightmare.
Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
Celebrated for her mind-blowing science fiction short stories in the 1960s, Russ turned the theme of planetary exploration on its head in this funny, disturbing novel. A group of tourists land on a beautiful, uninhabited world for a lunchtime stop during their space cruise. Unfortunately they get stranded, and our rich idlers must fight to surve. This is the dark side of space opera.
Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 (1968)
Clarke and Stanley Kubrick worked together to develop the story for the classic film 2001. While the film was being shot, Clarke wrote the companion novel about the discovery that aliens not only exist, but may have been responsible for human evolution in the first place.
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)
(Ed. note — this book was added to the list by popular demand!) Dune is perhaps one of the first truly modern space operas. Call it the birth of the astropolitical novel. Herbert pulls us headlong through an exciting but never simplistic tale of a spacefaring civilization that has incorporated elements of Islamic tradition, and wars over the Spice, a natural resource whose function is similar to oil on Earth today. Our hero, the semi-mythical Paul Atreides, realizes his destiny is not to be a monarch but to lead a revolution of the local nomadic peoples on a planet colonized by Spice-mining interests. The political undercurrents of the novel are as relevant today as they were in 1965.