Science fiction has changed a lot over the past few decades, and some great books have faded into obscurity. Here are four vintage sci-fi books that shouldn’t be forgotten.
There’s a wonderful bookstore in my town of Belmar where I go most weekends. Sometimes I go just to get out of the house – it’s one of the few places in town that’s not dangerously crowded on the weekend – but mostly I go because they’ve got the best, cheapest selection of obscure science fiction books from forty or fifty years ago. This is where I found most of my favorite books, and I’m pretty sure I would have never heard of some of my favorite authors if I hadn’t found this place.
Science fiction, like most genre fiction, is subject to a lot of short-lived trends and subgenres. It’s only fitting that the genre of futuristic fiction is always changing and creating new ideas. However, this means that a lot of excellent stories have been forgotten, and it’s hard to find these stories unless you know where to look.
The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Leguin
This was something I found in my high school library back in 2015. Later, it took me several weeks to find this in the Paperback Exchange, and I picked up a lot of other books by the same author in the process. Not that I’m complaining at all. Ursula K. Leguin, who died in 2018, was one of the greatest science fiction/fantasy writers of the twentieth century. Her most well-known work was probably her short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, but LeGuin wrote about everything from alien anthropologists to Arcadian high fantasy settings, and several charming children’s books featuring winged cats. The Lathe of Heaven, however, is weird even by LeGuin’s standards.
The year is 2002 (yep, this is vintage sci-fi) and the world is going to absolute hell. The planet is insanely overcrowded, there’s a war brewing in the Middle East, and global warming is wreaking havoc on the environment. George Orr is an unassuming technical artist with a terrible secret: his dreams appear to be rewriting reality, and he’s the only one who notices that anything is wrong. After years of abusing drugs to prevent his brain from subconsciously rewriting reality, he’s finally forced to see a psychiatrist. However, Dr. Haber doesn’t share any of Orr’s reservations about rewriting reality—especially since we’ve already established this reality is terrible.
If you’re wondering, the title actually comes from a quote from the Tao Te Ching which also serves as the novel’s epigraph:
“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”
The quote reflects the philosophical struggle in the book; the villainous doctor tries to force the world to become a better place and ultimately makes things worse. His failures result from his meddling with something he doesn’t understand. If you’re looking for a short, powerful book that will make you think, The Lathe of Heaven is a good choice.
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
I found Shards of Honor and Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold at the Paperback Exchange last summer, and since then I’ve been trying to find as many books from this series as I can. They’re not easy to find, and it doesn’t help that the series has 24 different entries. Still, it’s usually worth it if you can find the books online or in the library. The Vorkosigan saga is written by the author of the Sharing Knife and World of the Five Gods series. And in the words of Anne McCaffrey, “Boy, can she write!”
The Vorkosigan saga could best be described as a military fiction space opera with a comedy of manners on the side. The story follows the exploits of the Vorkosigan family, a noble house on the planet of Barrayar. The first story begins with the meeting of Captain Aral Vorkosigan, a soldier in the Barrayaran army, and Cordelia Naismith, a woman from the planet Beta, on opposite sides of a short-lived war. Later stories focus on the life of their son, Miles Vorkosigan, as he struggles to make a name for himself in Barrayar’s hypercompetitive, militaristic society.
The series is heavily preocuppied with war and politics, and Bujold doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war. Despite this, Bujold’s writing is painfully funny and unusually optimistic for a military writer. In a genre full of gritty, complicated intrigue, and gratuitous violence, Bujold will generally give you someone to root for and a sense that things will be alright in the end. If you enjoy complicated political intrigues, space operas, and comedy, the Vorkosigan saga has a healthy balance of all those things.
Z For Zachariah, by Robert C. O’Brien
I was wary about putting Robert C. O’Brien’s last novel on the list, simply because it’s technically a YA novel. But just like any YA novel worth its salt, Z for Zachariah makes you wonder what kind of sick person thought this was appropriate for kids. When you consider that its author also wrote the childhood classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the gloom and danger of Z for Zachariah is even more surprising. But Mr. O’Brien handles this apocalyptic thriller just fine.
Here’s what I can say about Z for Zachariah without spoiling too much. The world has ended in a devastating nuclear war. Sixteen-year-old Ann Burden is surviving on her own in a valley that somehow wasn’t affected by the radiation. After the disappearance of her family, she is almost certainly the last person alive. When the mysterious John Loomis enters the valley, Ann finds that she isn’t the last human. However, after a few weeks of living with Loomis, she wishes she was. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game in a world with only two people.
In 2015, the book was made into a movie, but this movie took out the YA elements and turned a perfectly good thriller into yet another dystopian love triangle. If you feel nostalgic for that dystopian romance trend from the 2010s, you can try finding that movie. If you’re looking for a cat-and-mouse thriller crossed with an apocalyptic survival story, there might be a few copies of Z for Zachariah left in your local library or bookstore.
Andra, by Louise Lawrence
I think I found Andra in the middle school library. I distinctly remember the day I found this one; I started reading it during lunchtime (yeah; I spent lunch in the library during middle school and high school and most of college) and I literally could not put the damn thing down. I finished it that night and spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling. I could call it a predecessor to that YA trend—where the protagonist disrupts a conformist society by being special and getting in a love triangle—but I don’t think that would do it justice. While those stories tended to be self-indulgent, Andra was ruthlessly bleak. And yet, you really wanted it to end happily.
The story takes place in a cold, sterile, subterranean society, which was formed after a nuclear war devastated the surface and knocked the Earth into a different orbit. Sixteen-year-old Andra goes up to the surface on a dare and falls into a coma after a horrible accident. Dr. Lascaux saves her life with a brain graft, using the brain of a boy from the twentieth century. After that, Andra sees everything differently. Along with an aging archivist, a political refugee, and—eventually—her fellow teenagers, Andra mounts a hopeless revolution against the new world.
Louise Lawrence was an English author who wrote mostly during the 1970s. Along with Andra, she wrote several science fiction and fantasy stories, many of which are now sadly out of print. Some of her books are still available online, though, and I usually look for her whenever I get to the Paperback Exchange.
Science fiction is an innovative genre with a short attention span. This means that there’s a lot of variety, but it also means that some of the best books of one era can be forgotten in the next. If you like science fiction, maybe try keeping these authors in mind next time you go to your local bookstore.