The past hundred years have seen a lot of science fiction, and while some go on to become absolute classics, far more fade into obscurity. Now I’m not going to claim that this article contains the most obscure books in the world. By definition, some books are so obscure I won’t have heard of them. But for every Dune or Foundation there are a hundred other books that time has forgotten. Here are some of my favourite underappreciated science fiction books from yesteryear.
Fury (1947), by Henry Kuttner
Likely co-authored by Kuttner’s wife and fellow science fiction novelist C. L. Moore, Fury is the grandfather of grimdark science fiction. Set in a dystopian and claustrophobic Venus, Fury is all about violence and horrible people doing horrible things. Yes it’s all told through the lens of 1940s’ sensibilities, but it’s a far cry from a lot of the more humanist work that has survived from the period. If you want your classic SF a little darker, Fury is the book for you. It was recently rereleased under the Golden Age Masterworks series, bringing a whole new generation to Kuttner’s twisted creation.
The Gods Themselves (1972), by Isaac Asimov
Okay, so no one is going to accuse Isaac Asimov of being underappreciated. But in all the conversation around his Foundation and Robots novels and short stories, some of his other work does slip through the cracks, and one book I rarely see discussed is The Gods Themselves. It’s a very different beast from his usual works, featuring not only aliens and sex, but alien sex. The aliens here are unique in a way I’ve never seen replicated, and while the latter section involving humans does drag with some of its lacklustre character work, this book stands as proof that there was more to Asimov than his usual (and often brilliant) logic puzzle storytelling.
Space Viking (1963), by H. Beam Piper
Take a collapsing Empire, throw in a man trying to build a kingdom of his own, and what do you get? Well, you get Foundation. But you also get Space Viking, which is the manly, aggressive, violent cousin of Foundation. Following Lucas Trask across the stars in a quest for vengeance, Space Viking is a character-driven, action-filled adventure that goes to some very dark places. Atomics, newspapers, and cigars abound in this unashamedly gritty book, which forms part of a larger universe known as the Terro-Human Future History. This book is an absolute gem.
Worlds of the Imperium (1962), by Keith Laumer
Laumer is a name all but forgotten these days, but in his lifetime he was a highly prolific author. Worlds of the Imperium posits a multiverse of alternate realities, including one where the British Empire never fell, and where men known as Nazis in our timeline are heroes in this variant. It’s bold, paced like lightning, and full of inventiveness. It’s also the first in a series that is sadly out of print these days. Laumer might not have achieved the legacy of his fellows, but he was just as creative.
Planetfall (1995), by Scott G. Gier
A meaty slice of mid-90s military SF, this first contact novel sees a group of marines crash in a system with two alien races, one civilised, the other less advanced. It’s a story of survival against the odds, and full of action. It’s the first of a series, with the first three published by Del Rey, the fourth released independently, and future volumes sadly cancelled due to the author’s health. But even unfinished, the Genellan saga is an epic without competition, and has all the great characters, strange aliens, and wild frontiers that you could hope to find in science fiction.