A lot of authors tend to become more conventional over time. They get more mainstream cred, mellow out, and sand the rough edges off their work. But some of science fiction’s most famous authors have just kept pushing the limits of storytelling. Here are 10 science fiction and fantasy authors whose books only got weirder.
Top image: The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick
1) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The creator of Sherlock Holmes also wrote science fiction, and his work definitely got more bizarre as he entered the 20th century. In particular, he went from sedate tales of detection to the awesome “dinosaurs in London” tale The Lost World, which has been turned into several movies. But his later stories of science adventurer Professor Challenger also included The Land of Mist, in which his hero meets a thinly-disguised Aleister Crowley and discovers that World War I was partly a punishment for people doubting Spiritualism. Also, his final story “The Disintegration Machine” features Professor Challenger being dematerialized and rematerialized — except for his hair.
2) Bram Stoker
The author of Dracula later wrote The Lair of the White Worm, which is about a ginormous snake creature hiding under an English country manor, which can only be battled with hypnotism and dynamite. White Worm was turned into an incredibly strange Ken Russell film. He also wrote The Lady of the Shroud, about a young woman who pretends to be a vampire so as to reassure people who might otherwise be scared about her rumoured death and apparent resurrection.
3) Samuel R. Delany
Delany helped to redefine science fiction with such brilliant works as Nova, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Dhalgren. And for the past couple decades or so, he’s been pushing the limits of language, sexuality and ideas in fiction, even as he continues to stretch the walls of reality. As Jo Walton puts it, ever since his novel Triton, Delany has been saying “there’s no such thing as ‘normal.'” His novel Hogg is a notoriously difficult-to-read pornographic adventure, and his most recent novel, the massive Through The Valley of the Nest of Spiders starts in 2007 and then follows its characters for decades, into the future — and along the way, there is coprophagia, sex with animals, incest, snot-eating and some intense racist language. (Walton has a ton of details here, along with a profound appreciation for the book.)
4) Robert A. Heinlein
The SF grand master charted some pretty astonishing territory in his middle works, like Stranger in a Strange Land with its sexuality, embrace of non-monogamy and its spiritual teachings. But try reading one of his later novels, like The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls or To Sail Beyond The Sunset, and make sense of it — especially if you haven’t read every other Heinlein book first. Heinlein’s self-contained universe gets more and more incestuous (literally, in some cases) and his storylines also get more and more high-concept, until you need a lunar supercomputer just to make sense of them.
5) Thomas M. Disch
Here’s another author whose work was pretty challenging — and rewarding — throughout his life, including the classic Camp Concentration. But his strangest, most confounding book could be his final one, The Word of God — which is a highly fictionalized autobiography in which Disch is actually god, and he retells a ton of events from his divine perspective. Including a section where Jesus and St. Peter come back to life as flesh-and-blood people so they can attend a showing of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Also, a major subplot involves Satan arranging for Philip K. Dick to go back in time and prevent Thomas Disch from being born. Entertainment Weekly called it “Bruce Almighty as a pitch-dark Charlie Kaufman dramedy.”
6) Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s made a whole career of creating strange visions, including the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale. But her trilogy, comprised of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, is just as unsettling and far, far stranger. The trilogy concludes with a vision of a world of genetically modified post-humans living in a kind of post-apocalyptic utopia. As we put it in our review, “MaddAddam ends with a kind of magical GMO paradise scenario, where the humans, Crakers, and pigoons forge an alliance to fight the last remaining members of a violent gang of rapists.”
7) J.G. Ballard
Ballard was a key part of the New Wave of experimental, literary science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s — but he kept pushing the envelope throughout his career. His late novels, starting with Cocaine Nights, examine the relationship between violence and consumerism, and conclude that the former is an inevitable consequence of the latter, as Graham Matthews writes. As the New York Times said about Ballard’s final novel, Ballard zeroed in on the notion that the horrors of the future weren’t coming 100 years from now, but imminently on the horizon in our world of overpasses and entertainment saturation. One character in Ballard’s final book Kingdom Come observes, “Think of the future as a cable TV program going on forever.”
8) Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is another author who kept experimenting and pushing the limits of narrative further as he matured — his 1970s novels like Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions challenge the divide between the omniscient narrator and the first-person protagonist, as well as the walls between fiction and reality. But his final novels like Galapagos, Timequake and Hocus Pocus, are even more experimental in terms of structure and form. As the L.A. Review of Books says, “Even as his celebrity waned, he continued to write poignant, experimental novels of the American experience, and his influence and appeal remained potent.”
Image via In Deference To My Idols
9) Philip K. Dick
Pretty much all of Dick’s books are mind-expanding — and his short fiction, which is often a set of perfect nuggets of strangeness, is even more provocative at times. But his final gift to readers is his ultra-strange, ultra-baffling set of semi-autobiographical novels about Dick’s experience of God, and his encounters with an orbiting space probe that helped bring the Watergate malfeasance to light. Reading VALIS and The Divine Invasion is like having your brain cored with a neon tube.
Image: Rolling Stone via Total Dickhead.
10) Octavia Butler
Butler’s inclusion on this list is somewhat questionable — after all, her earlier works include the Patternist series, which features immortal superbeings enslaving humans and shaping human history. And the Xenogenesis books, about aliens who rescue the human race from our own apocalypse, but want to have really, really strange sex with us. But her final book, Fledgling, features a quasi-vampire main character who appears to be 10 or 11 years old, and has sex with lots of adults, who also become members of a strange cult-like family with her. It’s a book guaranteed to make you uncomfortable, even as it also fascinates you with its beautiful storytelling.
Thanks to Darren McKeeman, Michael J. Walsh, Gordon Van Gelder, Charles Kruger, James McCormick, James Ryan, Daen De Leon, Tamara Bridgecombe, Kate Cowan, Brent D. Ryan, Nathan Mehl, Ira Wile, Mary Behm-Steinberg, Kiala Kazebee, Anne Trotter, Miranda Bellwether, Claire Light, Glenn Hauman, Jenny Bitner, Liz Argall, Richard Hartzell, Ian Hale, Gary Farber, Kendley Fiction and everybody else who helped with this one!