World-building as an imaginative exercise has been with mankind almost from the time men discovered fire, but it was only relatively recently that fancy began to give way to logic. That began with the work of Jules Verne, who based his many novels on a strict application of the science of his time, an approach that can be seen most strikingly with The Mysterious Island.
The work of H.G. Wells quickly followed. Utilizing points of departure that were a bit more fanciful than those of Verne (alien invasion, invisibility, time travel), Wells kickstarted modern science fiction, which, in America, soon morphed into tales of interplanetary warfare and galactic empires. But the stories by such writers as Edmond Hamilton and Doc Smith concentrated more on action than social context. As a result, though they created elaborate worlds filled with planets populated by every kind of alien creature, they lacked the background and cohesion needed to create believable settings.
That approach had to wait another decade or so until John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction and himself a former writer of space opera in the Hamilton style) determined to raise the quality of science fiction from the slam-bang-action variety to more thoughtful fare. With that revolution, writers began to turn out stories with more fully realized futurescapes that explored every societal permutation that intelligent beings were capable of creating. Reaching its full flower in the mid-fifties, the movement eclipsed space opera with many authorial visions becoming so popular that they generated numberless sequels, affording the space needed to build complex universes for readers to explore.
With much of the genre landscape over the years blurring the line between science fiction and fantasy, any list of the most interesting SF futurescapes would have to meet certain criteria, including a strong basis in reality and science, and be made up of multiple stories or volumes enabling a full exploration of the futurescape. That said, check out the following list of the top ten most fascinating worlds in science fiction:
Beginning with City of the Chasch, Jack Vance created the world of Tschai, a planet hundreds of light years from Earth. There, spaceman Adam Reith is stranded, forcing him to deal with Tschai’s interconnected alien races. Through the course of the books, each race is thoroughly explored, making the changes brought on their societies through Reith’s influence all the more fascinating.
Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai! stories see the known universe divided between different planets, each with their own splinter culture and specializing in some area of expertise. Our hero, Donal Graeme, comes from the planet Dorsai, which specializes in military affairs, often hiring out its citizens as mercenaries to other cultures.
Beginning with Rally Cry, William R. Forstchen launched the first of nine books in the Lost Regiment series. Here, a regiment of Civil War soldiers, the 35th Maine, find themselves transported to an alien planet. They soon discover that other humans from different points in Earth’s history have also been brought over, forming a patchwork of nations all at the mercy of giant alien creatures similar in culture to medieval Mongols who consider human beings their chief form of nourishment!
Paul O. Williams’ Pelbar Cycle was a series of seven novels that began with The Breaking of Northwall. About a thousand years in the future, after the U.S. has been devastated by a combination of nuclear and natural disasters, the remnants of humanity reconnect to begin the process of putting the country back together again.
In Fred Saberhagen’s future, man has spread to the stars but then, from another galaxy, come the Berserkers, rogue war machines designed by an alien race as doomsday devices. They succeeded too well, wiping out their makers after doing the same to their enemies. But they didn’t stop there. Continuing to follow their programming to destroy all living beings, the Berserkers arrive in the area of the galaxy populated by men. For the first time, the Berserkers encounter real resistance — and through an ever more sophisticated series of adaptations, the war for human survival grinds on…
5) Cities in Flight
In James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, the invention of the spindizzy enables whole cities to leave Earth and move into space, where their populations become latter day “okies.”
George O. Smith’s stories of Venus Equilateral concern life aboard a space station located at a point between Earth, Mars, and Venus. Privately owned, the station’s purpose is to supply communication between the three planets when line of sight is blocked by the sun. Thus, many of the stories involve technical problems to be solved by the station’s population of technicians and engineers.
Cordwainer Smith’s The Instrumentality of Mankind was developed over a series of short stories and a novel covering thousands of years of human history… or post-human history as the case may be. Strange and beautiful at the same time, Smith’s futurescape is rich in detail and told in a style that at times sounds like a different language!
With its theme of psychohistory, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series takes its cue from how the Church preserved knowledge through Europe’s Dark Ages. In the far future, the Foundation is established to perform the same function across a thousand-year interregnum between the fall of the galactic empire and the rise of its successor.
Through a mix of Christian and Islamic elements leavened with a conservationist subtext, Frank Herbert managed to create one of the most intriguing futurescapes in all of science fiction. A complex relationship between powerful families, spacing guilds, and quasi-religious orders forms the basis for the novel Dune and its many sequels. The story of Dune was made all the richer by numberless subsequent books written by the author’s son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson.