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To some, the phrase “best pulp sci-fi books” may seem like an oxymoron. Pulp sci-fi has been dividing fans of science fiction for decades. You either love it or you hate it. Many certifiable pulp sci-fi obsessives understand why some people have a bit of trouble embracing it. A poorly written pulp sci-fi book can turn you away from the whole genre; and there is, sadly, no shortage of them.
However, there are some pulp sci-fi books which will convert even the most critical reader. As a pulp sci-fi connoisseur, I have prepared this list of some of my favorite pulp sci-fi novels ever. The books covered here will not only convince you to give pulp sci-fi a second chance, but get you positively hooked.
Second Variety by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is famous for his love of nuclear holocausts and post-apocalyptic wastelands. They appear again and again in his stories, usually having left the world almost uninhabitable. Second Variety continues that theme, but arguably captures it better than much of Dick’s other work.
In Second Variety, we are introduced to a world left in ruins thanks to an unrelenting war between the Soviet Union and Western forces. While the Soviet Union seems impossible to defeat, the West has a not-so-secret weapon: an army of self-governing robots known as "claws."
The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
The Stainless Steel Rat may have the best title of any book ever. On top of that, it is a damn good read. The book follows criminal mastermind James Bolivar diGriz as he is conned into working for the Special Corps.
The Special Corps is basically an elite law enforcement entity operated by Harold P. Inskipp, one of the greatest law-breaking minds the galaxy has ever seen. Inskipp has used his skills to lure a number of high profile spies and bank robbers into his organization, but diGriz is convinced he has the ability to outsmart him and escape.
The Stainless Steel Rat turned Harry Harrison into an undisputed legend of pulp sci-fi and spawned 12 more works in the series.
Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
A quick scan of the pulp sci-fi section of any bookstore will turn up a distinct lack of female authors. Some people claim that this is because “women can’t write sci-fi.” This is, obviously, incredibly offensive and not at all true, as seen in our list of most influential female sci-fi authors. Anybody familiar with the work of C. L. Moore will tell you that women can indeed write sci-fi. In fact, Moore has been behind some of the best pulp sci-fi books ever published.
Judgment Night is a collection of C. L. Moore’s greatest works. It was published in 1952 and contains, among other exhilarating reads, the titular Judgment Night.
The Judgment Night story follows the daughter of an alien emperor as she visits an artificial pleasure planet and falls head over heels for a seemingly normal fellow. A series of twists and turns reveals that she has been duped and leaves her society on the brink of destruction.
On Basilisk Station by David Weber
David Weber’s On Basilisk Station is one of the finest works of pulp sci-fi ever written and clearly benefits from the genre having a more distinct set of guidelines than it did during the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
The book follows Honor Harrington as she is banished to Basilisk Station by a vindictive superior. Harrington is left with little choice but to try to overcome the various challenges posed by being relocated to such a dilapidated, remote station. To make matters worse, Harrington must regain the trust of her team, who hold her responsible for their situation.
Triplanetary by E.E. “Doc” Smith
Fans of the award almost-winning Lensman series will recognize Triplanetary as the book that started it all.
In Triplanetary, we are introduced to two feuding planets: Arisia and Eddore. Long-time foes, Arisia and Eddore are locked in a battle for control of the universe. The final battlefield is located on an unknown planet in a rural solar system. And that planet is our beloved Earth.
If you’re going to give Triplanetary a shot, we cannot be held responsible for any days you might lose as a result. You should be prepared for countless late nights of obsessive reading because the whole Lensman series can get pretty freaking addictive.
Bill, The Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
It says a lot about Harry Harrison that he has two write-ups on this list of the best pulp sci-fi books. As you may remember, it was Harrison who wrote The Stainless Steel Rat, which we looked at a couple of entries ago. Up next from Harrison is Bill, the Galactic Hero.
In this book, Harrison tells the story of Bill, who finds himself Shanghaied into the Space Troopers. As a Space Trooper, Bill manages to fight off an evil race of giant reptiles and is declared a hero. In recognition of his efforts, Bill is granted an audience with the emperor of his new planet. However, it doesn’t take long for things to go awry.
This novel is a bit more lighthearted than others covered so far, so if you’re looking for something to ease you into pulp sci-fi, Bill, the Galactic Hero might be the way to go.
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Frances Nowlan
Armageddon 2419 A.D. is interesting for a number of reasons. For a start, it is set during the First World War, though it was written in 1928. At this time, World War I was the greatest atrocity mankind had ever seen and it seemed like a worse series of events would require a fiction writer. That fiction writer was Philip Frances Nowlan.
In Nowlan’s book, a soldier of the First World War is removed from suspended animation in the year 2419, where he learns that America has fallen into the clutches of Mongol Hans. Horrified by the destruction of his beloved country, the soldier resolves to use his old-school warring ways to return the United States to its former glory.
A Princess Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
In 1912, when space travel was still some far-out dream, Edgar Rice Burroughs released his novel A Princess of Mars, and it made quite a storm.
It really isn’t hard to see why audiences of the time loved this book. It is packed with beautiful women and masculine men who use swords to get what they want. The story takes place on Mars and follows John Carter, a veteran of the American Civil War who finds himself mysteriously transported to the planet while hiding from enemies in a cave.
A Princess of Mars became the first book in a series of 11 books known as the “Barsoom series.”
Tunnel In The Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
Written in the second half of the 20th century, Tunnel In The Sky marks the beginning of a new era of pulp sci-fi and is one of the best pulp sci-fi books of its time.
The book focuses on Rod Walker, a high school student who is determined to pass the final test of his Advanced Survival class. Easy, right? Well, not really. The test in question requires Rod to survive a number of days on an unfamiliar, potentially dangerous planet.
Something goes wrong with the interplanetary transportation device and Rod finds himself stranded on a strange planet. The result of Walker’s misfortune is a stellar book which takes the reader on a series of highs and lows, hurtling towards an unpredictable conclusion.
Enterprise Stardust by Karl-Herbert Scheer
From Enterprise Stardust rose the groundbreaking Perry Rhodan series, which now boasts over 2,000 issues and is published on a weekly basis.
In Enterprise Stardust, we meet Perry Rhodan, who makes contact with the Arkonides, a sentient alien race from a distant star. The Arkonides are far superior to the human race in both size and intellect and, to the horror of Rhodan, are unwilling to co-exist with his people.
Enterprise Stardust is a great start to what is now the most successful series of pulp sci-fi books ever produced. But it just isn’t enough for me to describe it to you. In order to really understand the popularity of this series, you’re going to have to read Enterprise Stardust for yourself.
That concludes our look at the best pulp sci-fi books. As we established already, pulp sci-fi as a whole is not for everybody, but the novels covered here can be enjoyed by almost everybody. You don’t need an insatiable lust for chiseled intergalactic badasses saving large-breasted companions from space creatures to be captivated by these books. Just an open mind and a comfy chair, maybe even a hot drink for maximum enjoyment.