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MIND MELD: What are the Best Examples of SF/F Worldbuilding?

In keeping with our worldbuilding theme to help out the creative young minds of the Shared Worlds creative writing program, we asked this week’s esteemed panelists the following question:

Q: Which sf/f story is your favorite example of worldbuilding? Why?

Read their answers below…

Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie is a British film editor and author of the unheroic fantasy trilogy, The First Law. He is nominated for the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer this year, which he firmly believes he will lose to Scott Lynch.

My own taste as a writer is for a light hand on the worldbuilding. In epic fantasy – where Tolkien and his mighty efforts of detailed world making still loom large – I feel that world can sometimes be emphasised at the expense of the characters, and it’s the characters that chiefly interest me. I like to keep the setting where I think it belongs, in the background. A detailed and convincing background, hopefully, but a background nonetheless, and one that contains relatively little of the fantastic. So it always seems like some kind of magic to me when a writer manages to have their cake and eat it, giving us tastes of the truly weird and wonderful without it getting in the way of people and story.

The best recent example I can think of is from Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. The city which is the central setting of the book is built around, inside, and on top of a much more ancient city made from glass. This beautiful and mysterious architecture shows through, and contrasts with, the ugly crust of human buildings on top and the often filthy lifestyles of the villains living in them. It’s a wonderfully simple idea, takes minimal time and effort to explain to the reader, requires no map and no glossary, but immediately gives a unique feel to pretty much every location in the book and allows for some great, vivid, descriptive writing. Sunset shining through the elderglass, sparkling on the water of the canals, I can see it now… The city truly becomes a character in its own right, and one with which the people in the novel all have their own relationship.

A fascinating, beautiful, and alien setting created without interrupting the flow of the story? That’s my idea of great worldbuilding.

Karl Schroeder
Having wracked his brains to be innovative in the novels Ventus, Permanence, and Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder decided to relax for a while and write pirate stories, starting with last year’s Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce. Of course, these novels are pirate stories set in a world without gravity — but hey, swashes are still buckled, swords unsheathed, and boarding parties formed in the far-future world of Virga. He’s currently writing the fourth book of the Virga series (no, it’s not a trilogy) and thinking about how to hammer science fiction into some new shapes based on current research into cognitive science. When he occasionally pokes his head out of the trenches, he blogs about this stuff at

Well, here I go giving eccentric answers again: my favourite SF short story has always been “The Mask” by Stanislaw Lem, but it’s not because of the worldbuilding in that case. I’m much more versed in SF novels than short fiction, and there’s been some extraordinary examples of worldbuilding in novel form lately–I’m thinking mostly of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Brasyl — but nothing has ever had the impact on me for sheer worldbuildy goodness that the Gormenghast trilogy (by Mervyn Peake) did. It’s not SF — heck, it’s not even fantasy by many common definitions (no magic, no supernatural elements at all) but it’s such an outpouring of sheer poetic madness of invention that nothing else comes close…except maybe Gravity’s Rainbow (by Pynchon) which is also seldom called SF, but really is. These are what the literary critic Northrop Frye called “encyclopedic” narratives, along with Finnegans Wake, say, or Delany’s Dhalgren, or Stapledon’s Starmaker. These works transcend genre by their very nature, for to be encyclopedic means to be a snapshot of the entire universe. I’m a sucker for encyclopedic fiction, as you can tell, and for me, Gormenghast is the most wondrous example of it.

Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress is the author of 21 books of SF, fantasy, and writing advice. She has three more books appearing in 2008, a collection of short stories and two novels. Her fiction has won three Nebulas, a Hugo, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

My favorite example of world building is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. It’s actually two worlds, Anarres and Urras, and while Urras is an imitation of Terran societies (and meant to be so), Anarres is unique. Le Guin has created a gorgeously detailed society of anarchists, and she has included everything: politics, economics, dissenters, education, environment, aesthetics, medicine, technology, cultural values. Moreover, all these grow naturally out of both the premises of the settlers and the harsh landscape. And then, as if that were not achievement enough, Le Guin shows not a static society but one in plausible social evolution over several decades.

Every time I read this book, I am in awe of her achievement.

Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. Card also writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

I have two answers to this question:

1. For years, I have told my writing students that the best example of world-building in fiction is James Clavell’s “Shogun.” When you read this book, the world-creation is so thorough that you think you can speak Japanese. You can’t – but it feels as if you can.

Clavell has the advantage, however, of working from historical sources. Since there really WAS a Japan of that era, as long as he’s faithful to the sources, it will be a plausible, self-consistent, fully-extrapolated world. Science fiction writers have a much-harder task – achieving all the plausibility and breadth and depth and variety and madness of a real world with only their own imagination as a source.

2. Science fiction is, in many ways, DEFINED by world creation. Anybody who’s any good in this field knows how to create worlds, at least well enough to get by. So what we tend to value are the worlds that surprise us. The master of the surprising yet apt detail is Bruce Sterling; I point to his “Green Days in Brunei” as an exemplar.

More recently, though, I was deliciously surprised by the world creation of James Maxey’s Bitterwood and Dragonforge. What looks and feels like fantasy at the start gradually becomes justified as our own world in a completely believable future. It is a masterpiece of world creation – and of the difficult art of quantum exposition, where new details are introduced that redefine the meaning of all that went before.

Mike Brotherton
Mike Brotherton is the author of the hard science fiction novels Spider Star (2008) and Star Dragon (2003), the latter being a finalist for the Campbell award. He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, Clarion West graduate, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers ( He blogs at

Out of many great choices, my favorite example of world building, I’ve concluded, is Larry Niven’s Ringworld.

First, it is the science fiction tradition to take a term or metaphor and make it literal, and in Ringworld Niven himself built an entire world the likes of which had never before been seen. Maybe smaller variations on the idea, but here was an entire world, something so good it got ripped off by Microsoft as the basis for their best-selling HALO games. Perhaps “ripped off” is too strong a term and the game creators were making an homage. Either way, it’s a cool setting, illustrating a lot of fundamental physics and elements of how the world works are integral to the story. Now, there are some more subtle physics at work, too, beyond the simple ones, and it was pointed out that Ringworld isn’t stable. That is, there’s nothing to stop it from drifting off into disaster. That point led to an entire sequel. Finally, I’m a big fan of the so-called Big Dumb Object (or BDO), having written an entire novel around one myself (Spider Star). Niven’s Ringworld is one of the greatest, original BDOs in science fiction, and it’s my favorite.

Lou Anders
A 2007/2008 Hugo Award and 2007 Chesley Award and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), and the forthcoming Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008) and Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish,Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at, and Visit him online at and

For years, I would hold up the original Dune as the paragon of worldbuilding. Then, in the early part of this decade, I read John Meaney’s Paradox. That book – the first of his three-part Nulapeiron Sequence that includes Context and Resolution – blew me away. I thought it was some of the most detailed, and best, worldbuilding I’d encountered in years. I was a huge champion of Meaney’s work before Pyr came along, and when I did get hired to be the editorial director of Pyr books, getting US editions of his incredible vision was top of my list. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed by Kay Kenyon’s epic world-building and by David Louis Edelman’s extraordinarily believable future. It’s interesting to me, personally, that all three of these authors – Meaney, Kenyon and Edelman – have all drawn comparisons to Frank Herbert’s Dune in the press…which suggests that Dune is still the gold-standard of worldbuilding (and also that if you like Frank Herbert, you should be checking out the authors that I mentioned, of course).

In fantasy, leaving aside the obvious example of Tolkien, in whose shadow everyone labors, I think China Miéeville was the first author to show me a world as complex as Middle Earth even as it is distinctly different. I’ve also been very impressed with Greg Keyes’ worldbuilding, particularly his ability in The Briar King to create a religion as complex as medieval Catholicism really was, but totally unique. And if I can be forgiven, I think readers are going to be impressed by Tom Lloyd’s The Stormcaller when it comes out in October.

That being said, Michael Moorcock is probably my all time favorite fantasist. And we know how he feels about maps.

Jeffrey Ford
Jeff Ford has short fiction forthcoming in the anthologies The Del Rey Anthology of Science Fiction, The Starry Rift (Viking), Extraordinary Engines (Solaris), The Living Dead (Nightshade), The Best of Leviathan (Prime), The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #21 (St. Martins), and Year’s Best Fantasy #8 (Tachyon). His most recent novel is The Shadow Year from Morrow/Harper Collins, and there will be a new collection, The Drowned Life from Perrenial/Harper Collins in November, 2008.

Worldbuilding isn’t a term I have much connection to, although, I do confess, I use it occasionally. My problem with it is that it seems to denote a process akin to brick laying, as if the piling up of adjectives, artifacts, and social touchstones and taboos is going to result in a convincing, vibrant “reality.” For me, personally, fiction writing is an act of discovery and organic growth rather than a conscious construction. All aspects of a great story inherently inform each other, so that the “reality” of a story is tied into the dialogue, the characters, the sentence structure, the writer’s idiosyncratic grammar, etc. These attributes are not limited to the literature of the fantastic. In answering the mind meld question of what is my favorite piece of worldbuilding, I would merely list some of my favorite stories, anything from “The Figure in the Carpet” by Henry James to “Hands Up Who Wants to Die?” by Lucius Shepard. But when I hear the trowel at work and get a whiff of mortar, I’m more than likely to close the book.

I most recently used the term in a response I wrote on Ellen Datlow’s livejournal comments section in discussing Margo Lanagan’s story “The Goosle.” In doing so I was trying to point out the remarkable aspects of the story as a true work of art and also taking a piss at the term “worldbuilding” the way it is, I believe, traditionally understood. Defending Lanagan’s story against a claim that it was some kind of pornography, I wanted to point out how cohesively all of the different aspects of the story blended inextricably together and supported each other. Lanagan’s grim “fairy tale” reality would be less terrifyingly effective, less an authentic nightmare, and I’d care less about what happened to the protagonist, if the dialogue were more “standard,” if the sentence structure wasn’t a little loopy at times, a little tortured at others in just the right measure, if her word choice wasn’t unique. You can’t separate these things out from the incredible imagery. The beauty of that story is that it’s a vision, an organic whole, and not some construct of parts super glued together.

That said, I do have an idea what you’re asking for here and won’t be a big fart and leave it at the above crackpottery. I prefer to think of these examples I list as idiosyncratic visions of fantastic realities rather than instances of worldbuilding.

  • Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris is a place I always feel exists full blown in his mind and he is mining it. The deeper he goes, the more is revealed to him. In reading about it, I have the feeling of discovery and not construction.
  • China Miéville’s work, especially The Scar, is so vibrant a reading experience, and a wonderful instance of the language being inextricable from the imagery. The world is the word informed by a discovery of the imagination. I never doubt the existence of his “monsters.”
  • Leena Krohn’s Tainaron is so strange and so enchanting. The experience of reading it is like being cocooned in a dream. While I was reading it I thought about what it must have been like when the initial idea for this book presented itself to her imagination — maybe like the discovery by European explorers of the Pacific Ocean.

These are just three that come readily to mind. I feel the same way about the fictional realities of all the great books and stories I’ve ever read whether they carry the label of “Fantastic” or “Realistic.”

Jeff VanderMeer
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer’s latest book is the critically acclaimed Shriek: An Afterword, with The Situation forthcoming from PS Publishing, a new Ambergris novel on the way, several anthologies, including The New Weird and Steampunk, and, last but not least, Predator: South China Sea from Dark Horse. For more information visit his blog at

Hands down I’d have to say the world-building that blew me away the most when I first read it, and continues to do so to this day is what Stepan Chapman does in his novel The Troika. In this surreal SF/fantasy story of dysfunction and redemption, an old Mexican woman, an intelligent jeep, and a brontosaurus crossing an endless desert under two purple suns. How can an author possibly support that premise? And yet in this supreme example of the power of breaking all of the rules, the power of the absurdist cut-up, and the power of writing characters that are real, unruly, and at times horrifying, Chapman gives us astonishing humanity, along with an astonishing ability to make it all work. From a frozen army to squid-headed priests to ambulances mourning the loss of their beloveds, this is the lyricism of the surreal meshed to a hard-headed idea about the reality of our situation in the modern world. There are passages of emotional description in this novel that will stay with me the rest of my life-now that’s worldbuilding! To make all of that coherent and to manage levels of reality in that way. This is both my favorite example of worldbuilding in the story and novel form because it can be read either as a series of linked stories or as a single piece. (Note: I liked this novel so much I published it through my Ministry of Whimsy Press in the late 1990s, at which time it won the Philip K. Dick Award.)

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

It’s not really a world, but since it floats in space and it’s inhabited, I think James White’s Sector General qualifies as one for this question.

The huge, multi-environmental hospital, which treats all life forms, and is served by almost all life forms, was carefully, caringly, and meticulously created over the course of a dozen books, and feels more real, more believable to me that Mesklin, Arrakis, Trantor, Barsoom, or any other science fiction world. It is thoughtfully-conceived and consistent from top to bottom (for years I thought White -had- to be a doctor), it has precisely what such a structure needs, nothing is ever moved or misplaced from one story to the next, and it is a physical, three-dimensional extension of White’s belief in the essential goodness and decency of all sentient beings.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is the author of more than 50 novels – primarily science fiction and fantasy, a number of short stories, and various technical and economic articles. His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest books are Natural Ordermage and Viewpoints Critical, a short-story collection.

One of the problems in analyzing authorial world-building is that world-building is essentially an illusion that depends greatly on the participation of the reader. Given the complexity of any working world, describing it or building it in any depth would kill almost any story with expository excess. So what a writer has to do is place pieces and/or actions and references skillfully in places, and tie the occupations and actions of the main characters to those referents in a fashion that creates a façade and an impression of a complete world. Unfortunately, very few writers have ever had the kind of expertise to do that well in a technical sense. More than a few have had the stylistic and story-telling ability to finesse it, especially for readers without expertise in the dynamics of how worlds and societies actually work.

At the same time, readers who are sophisticated in understanding societies generally are a very different class of readers from those who focus almost entirely on the story, and such “societal analysts,” if you will, comprise a smaller segment of the reading audience, even in F&SF. Consequently, you will see reviews of the same book by intelligent readers, where one reader cannot stand it because everything is too “slow,” while the next reader is fascinated and finds the complexities intriguing and a great complement to the storyline. It’s why some authors debunk “world-building,” and others revel in it.

At the risk of alienating some writers and readers, I do think that there is a way to combine technical expertise and illusion to create a world illusion that is real to human [or intelligent species’] requirements and motivations, but that kind of expertise is generally foreign to the “action-oriented” story-teller or the one who finesses technical understanding with brilliant word-smithing, or the one who describes the “science” in great detail, often neglecting the fact that such science could never develop in the culture he is writing about.

For those reasons, I’m not going to be terribly enthusiastic about most world-building that I read, because my non-authorial background is rooted in analyzing the building blocks of societies, especially from environmental, political, economic, historic, and technical points of view. In this regard, few authors deal well with economics, fewer still with environmental or technical/engineering issues, and almost none with any sort of politics except copying feudalism, corrupted democratic systems, or monarchies.

That doesn’t even take into account trade, climate, social history, disease, and a few dozen other items.

In the end, most so-called world building is the verbal equivalent of “Houdini-ism,” where the reader tends to think more is there than is because of the distractions of a few well-placed details and props… and, for most readers, that’s exactly what they want.

Jeff Somers
Jeff Somers was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and as a child he imagined he would be a brain surgeon, until a spirit-crushing experience convinced him that in order to be a brain surgeon he would have to actually attend school, work hard, and master basic mathematics. After a severe head trauma, he chose instead to write stories and learn the high art of cocktail mixing, and spent the next twenty years in a pleasant haze of fiction and booze. He is the creator of the zine The Inner Swine, and the author of the books Lifers, The Freaks are Winning, The Electric Church, and The Digital Plague, not to mention numerous short stories. He currently lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his lovely wife Danette and their plump, imperious cats Pierre, Oliver, Guenther, and Spartacus. Jeff insists the cats would be delicious. In-between all this and writing too, Jeff plays chess and staves off despair with cocktails.

At first I thought this would be a question requiring some thought, but then I took a glance at my bookshelf and immediately spied Frederick Pohl’s Heechee books.

I haven’t read them in a year or two, but I can remember the first time I tore through them, and it still feels like one of the most completely imagined future universes I’ve ever encountered. The technology, the personalities and how they interacted with the technology were perfectly woven together. It felt like the characters just took the technology completely for granted, which felt right, since that is exactly how most people really do interact with technology.

Yet he managed to keep his characters essentially human, and the society he envisioned was a very human society. I did not doubt for a second while reading that this was a real, functioning universe.

The crux of it all, of course, in the beginning at least, is the Heechee artifacts themselves. Their mysterious functions, their perfect operation, and the fact that there was no sign at all of the creatures that had created them all added to a sense of a deep, layered universe. One of those series of books that makes me jealous every time I read them.

Paul Levinson
Paul Levinson‘s The Silk Code won the 2000 Locus Award for Best First Novel. He has since published Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), and The Plot To Save Socrates (2006). His science fiction and mystery short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards. His eight nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), and Cellphone (2004), have been the subject of major articles in the New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into nine languages. New New Media will be published in 2009. Paul Levinson appears on “The O’Reilly Factor” (Fox News), “The CBS Evening News,” the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (PBS), “Nightline” (ABC), and numerous national and international TV and radio programs. He reviews the best of television in his blog. Paul Levinson is Professor and Chair of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City.

I would say Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – beginning with his stories in Astounding in the 1940s, and proceeding through the Foundation trilogy published in the 1950s.

Who wouldn’t want to know the future? Hari Seldon applies equations of human behavior in the past and present to statistically map the future. The First Foundation is positioned in just the right place in the galaxy to take advantage of this knowledge without fully knowing it themselves, and they use this jiu jitsu to beat back the declining but still dangerous Galactic Empire.

But equations that summarize and project mass human behavior are no good against unforeseen mutations, and when the mutant Mule arises and begins to attack the First Foundation, Seldon’s equations are unable to protect them. A holographic scene in which Seldon’s recording appears to explain what the First Foundation needs to do is one of the best in the series – Seldon clearly is talking about a galaxy in which the Mule does not exist.

But Asimov/Seldon have provided an insurance policy: A Second Foundation which, rather than blindly following Seldon’s equations, actively amended them, to take into account unforeseen developments such as the Mule… So, from the very beginning, Seldon’s “psychohistorical” inevitability was not exactly what it seemed to be…

Asimov in the 1980s brought his wonderful robot stories into the Foundation saga – but I think both the robots and the Foundation universes shone far more brightly on their own, and I’d give the Foundation a slight edge.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

27 Comments on MIND MELD: What are the Best Examples of SF/F Worldbuilding?

  1. Over at my website I did a short list of ten excellent examples of world-building, mostly hard sf, and none of them are mentioned here! When I was first approached about this, my first thought was, crap, there’s been a lot of great worlds built out there. I doubted there would be much overlap. I did consider The Dispossessed, Foundation, and Gateway, although they didn’t quite make my top ten.

  2. Cordwainer Smith.

    Very few have gotten close to his world-building.

    Tons of others, of course, Poul Anderson, for example. Hal Clement. Jack Vance. Robert Heinlein, both in his YA books and his future history. James Blish with the “Cities in Flight” tales and more.

    I’m glad to see some of my favorites mentioned like Olaf Stapledon, Isaac Asimov and James White.

  3. For fantasy, I’m going to throw a probably unpopular choice into the mix here, but… the Malazan Books of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson has some amazingly detailed world-building. The world is huge and has several very distinctive areas and cities. Aside from the geographical detail, it’s also historically very detailed, with several races going back ages, having gone extinct, and so on. It’s a staggering amount of detail, and I confess to reading them more for the setting than for the plot at times (I think he’s still honing his craft as a story-teller). I believe Erikson originally designed the world for a role-playing game, which may explain the level of detail. Erikson also has a background in archeology, which makes sense of the historical perspective.

    For SF (universe-building instead of world-building?), I still have fond memories of the very first SF book I ever read, “Planet of Adventure” by Jack Vance. Maybe not the same level of detail as more recent SF, but it was my first experience with a somewhat realistic and detailed planet other than Earth, and also the first book I read that came with a MAP!

  4. Joe Parrish // July 30, 2008 at 2:13 pm //

    Though I love the Dune books, and really liked Lynch’s Lies books, the world that I think needs mentioned is Karl Schroeder’s Virga the books Sun of Suns, and Queen of Candesce has one of the most original worlds I have read about in along time. Though it does remind me of Nivens Intergal Trees, and Smoke Ring, the big balloon that is Virga is just so much fun. I am rereading the two books that are out now to be ready when Pirate Sun comes here in the next couple of weeks, and am patiently waiting for the Sunless Countries next year, and The Hero short story later this year. These are two books soon to be three that readers of both fantasy and science fiction need to read.

  5. Didn’t we just have a Mind Meld about discrimination in science fiction and fantasy writing? Have we forgotten already?

    Twelve people in this Mind Meld, one is not a white male. One! Not shockingly Nancy Kress mentions a woman. And the eleven men summon ONE female author between them.

    Whatever the innocuous reason(s) that SFSignal and the people queried could/would/will give, it’s no wonder that people think there’s a serious bias against women and minorities.

    (Yes, I know I’m shrill. Don’t care.)

  6. jeffrey ford // July 30, 2008 at 6:03 pm //

    King Rat: I don’t expect you would have caught this, seeing as you would have had to actually read the entries instead of just look at the pictures of the book covers, but in mine, I mention two women and two men in relation to favorite world building. The piece on Margo Lanagan, the longest, has no book cover attended. Beside that, I went to your site and looked at your Recommended Reading page and all I saw was a bunch of stuff by James Clavell. Where are the women and minorities? Call me shrill. Don’t care. Whatever inocuous reason you might give for this will, of course, not suffice. OK, now shoot yourself.

  7. That’s awesome!

    I did read every entry. However, when I went back and counted I missed both of your references (not because of the lack of book cover though). So I do apologize.

    My own recommendations on my web site do lean toward male authors, something I’m actually trying to rectify by expanding my reading. However, you didn’t read all my recommendations either. Under the Science Fiction recommendations section you’ll find Margaret Atwood, Mary Doria Russell, Elizabeth Moon, and Carol Emshwiller. Under Young Adult you’ll find Ursula Le Guin. My Fantasy page currently lacks any female authors. My recommendations are completely missing any black authors. Anyhoo…

    Even with the addition of a couple of women mentioned, this whole thing still does far more than “lean” male. It’s overwhelmingly a male exercise. Take it as an attack on the people who did answer or take it as a reminder that women matter not just when we are talking about gender bias in SF/F, but when we talk about anything in SF/F.

    Per your suggestion though, I’ll be shooting myself now. Should I aim for the head or is a flesh wound enough to satisfy?

  8. Kay Kenyon is a man?!? I am shocked to learn this. Boy, she had me fooled. I mean, he did.

  9. Doh! I missed another one in my counting. Well, I know better than stick my foot in my mouth again. I shall post on this thread no more.

  10. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station world is by far my favourite example of world building. Weird and wonderful, allusions to a much greater planet full of weird and wonderful stuff hardly even mentioned.

  11. My agent is a woman. My Hollywood lawyer is a woman. Of the 43 writers I have collaborated with, 23 are women. Most of my book editors are women. Most of my magazine editors have been women. My wife is a woman. My only child is a woman. As an editor I have bought over 1,300 stories for my anthologies, more than half from women in a field where they are outnumbered by men. But because I chose to name Jim White’s Sector General as my favorite world, rather than some world created by a woman, someone called King Rat had cast me as a male chauvinist pig.

    Move over, Kenyon (also a collaborator). Us pigs have to stick


  12. Well, the novel I most think about as good world building, the classic example, is Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, going through, say Obsidian Butterfly. I think the biggest reason why she was so influential and why we have so much furry and fang smut around was that the anitaverse was a pretty sensible and logical place for a place filled with Witches Werewolves and Vampires. The main reason for the decline of that series is that, beyond the sexaholic stuff, LKH allowed her narrative to become truly narrow and insular, and it doesn’t play with too much of the world outside of Anita’s immediate domestic purview. No FBI or bounty hunter or Marshall stuff anymores, less stuff about human-monster relations current affairs and history, that sort of thing…

    Aside from the mildly controversial sentiment…I was kinda pleased to see Karl Schroeder here. Lady of Mazes was All.About.The.Worldbuilding, on multiple levels. Greg Egan’s Permutation City is probably a cousin. Justina Robson’s Natural History and follow up novel is interesting…

  13. billyjoeloubob // August 2, 2008 at 5:06 pm //

    I agree with Orson Scott Card. Want to learn from the best? Read the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey & Maturin series.

  14. For those interested in non-“Houdini” non-Western worldbuilding, I enthusiastically recommend M.A.R. Barker.

  15. I’m actually rather surprised that nobody has mentioned Linda Nagata in these posts. Some truly vivid and strange stuff that wrapped itself around my cerebral cortex and squeezed mercilessly can be found in her books.

    Another conspicuously absent author is Iain M. Banks, who has managed to create a sublimely plausible “near transcendent” society in his Culture novels without loosing the characters he finds within it.

    Alastair Reynolds’ “Glitter Belt” universe may not encompass anything terribly new, but it is a vivid and deeply consistent amalgam of many previously expressed disparate ideas, and has the benefit of asking “what happens when a technological utopia implodes” as backstory rather than central theme.

    Finally, Dan Simmons’ has done tremendous work in both the Hyperion series and in the more recent Ilium and Olympos books and certainly deserves some mention.

    I do concur that Niven, Herbert, Heinlein (I’m not a fan of Starship Troopers’ politics, but “fascism as a good thing” is certainly an interesting notion), Pohl and Asimov were at the forefront in their times as world builders (and perhaps Clark in his original Rama, though it’s a bit too expository in my mind). Back in the day, their work was truly mind bending. They paved the way for some amazingly inspired settings.

    Tolkien remains, I think, the grandfather of them all, since he was the first to really point out that “if you know the history of a place, the stories write themselves”. That, to me, is the essence and justification of world building.

  16. sniktsniktsnikt // August 3, 2008 at 1:35 am //

    There’s a basically conservative slant to this list, which I found sort of surprising and which I think King Rat was somewhat clumsily picking up on. The identity politics strategy of counting women or people of color (not just black, even) on a list is unfortunately still telling, but not always persuasive to loud and defensive members of the privileged majority (jeff ford, the jackass with the woman lawyer, etc).

    Maybe this is telling, too. I found that when I made my own list (which is focused on utopian/dystopian sf because it necessarily concerns itself with world-building), I listed women and people of color without even trying. Not to brag. But seriously, folks, if you have to strain to find women/poc to put on your list, you’re leading a pretty boring reading life!

    my list, in no particular order:

    Delany’s Triton, Dhalgren, or Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

    Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Left Hand of Darkness

    China Mieville’s Iron Council, etc

    Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time

    Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean

    Butler’s Xenogenesis series

    Ryman’s Air

    McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang

    Stephenson’s Diamond Age

    Engh’s Arslan

    Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring


  17. @Mike Resnick: I’m assuming that was a gut reaction, because obviously being married to a woman and interacting with women has little to do with the behavior of the standard “male chauvinist pig,” but seeing as no one called you that but yourself, maybe we should slow down here.

    @jeff ford: unclear on why you were a jerk about that.

    Interesting list, I’m pleased to see Meiville up there, he’s the first person I think of when vivid world-building is discussed. And I really like L.E.M.’s rant on Houdini world-building, although by extension I really wish he’d tel tell us who he think got it right…

    I was surprised to not see Butler, Delaney or Tepper on this list personally. Also, Ricardo Pinto’s two books point towards a pretty impressive fantasy world-building talent.

  18. I LIKE Mieville a lot, but I think “…Station” suffers from being very “kitchen sink.” Everything is thrown in without too much rhyme or reason. The khepri are the most interesting, & he sabotages that angle. “Iron Council” & “Scar” are much more successful, because he let the world stew, & have consequences.

  19. Bascom Guffin // August 4, 2008 at 1:09 am //

    I’m a bit surprised that nobody has mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Does it just feel too close to our own? I mean, the whole series is actually about building a world

  20. Let me add praise for the world-building of Peter Watts in BLINDSIGHT. I hated the book (for reasons I need not go into here) but I was in awe of his ability, with merely a nuanced reference or turn of phrase, to evoke the illusion of a complete and complex world.

    Mr. Watts could weave ideas as strange as neolithic neo-vampires into the same background world with heavily cyber-enhanced soldiers, multiple personality neural constructs, super-strong AI, alien machine-creatures with intelligence but without self-awareness, and so on and so on, and leave no seams showing. Merely the idea that girlfriends in the neuro-cyber future would be tempted to tweak the personalities of heavily-wired boyfriends is worth the price of the book.

    Aside from that, my favorites in world building are no surprise: DUNE and LORD OF THE RINGS (if it counts) and MISSION OF GRAVITY and almost anything by Poul Andersen, but especially his masterwork HARVEST OF STARS.

  21. PuffyPoodle // August 5, 2008 at 1:04 am //

    I’m sorry I just had to comment on all this author discrimination talk, it’s priceless.

    Who the hell cares? why should anyone mind if all the recommendations here are for white supreists sci-fi authors who enjoy dressing in white capes and burning crosses on their free time?

    How hypocritical would you have to be to mention female authors just for being a member of the fairer sex? Or a black author for his being black? And if I, as a sci-fi reader, adore Asimov’s books and world-building stories, I should track down other authors of different racial orientation just to make sure I’m not discriminating as a reader? I’m sorry but, are you retarded?

  22. I’ll make just one note on the “inclusion” arguments… Until quite, quite recently white male scifi authors outnumbered white women and people of color by a huge amount, so when we include previous generations of scifi authors we are, of course, going to have a preponderance of old/dead white guys.

    Everybody just needs to take a chill on that one. There are plenty of good authors out there today who aren’t in some sort of “white guys’ club” and some of them make the lists folks have posted on here. As an honest scifi fan, I can’t apologize for the white guys on my list — I don’t look at an author’s name or photo or bio when I pick up someone new. I look at the cover illustration, title and any synopsis I can find.

    So long as the ABC’s of scifi are Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, people will continue to praise them, not because they’re white guys but because they’re really, really good writers.

    And I’ll stick my hand up to put Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles on the list. Aside from being excellently-written, it was the first instance of world-building that I can remember noticing as such, and the tone of the Chronicles is both unique to Bradbury and spot-on as world-defining.


  23. Puffypoodle: a pleasure to read your comment!

  24. Rob Gerrand // August 6, 2008 at 2:25 am //

    I would put Jack Vance up there as the master against which to measure others, whether his early The Dying Earth, in which he imagined a world in the far, far future that seems, on a recent rereading, as alive and credible and true as it was when I first came across it thirty years ago, or his more recent Lurulu, where the hero of the story is really the various worlds and cultures Vance has invented. He is remarkable, and a writer with a superb ear for words. In Big Planet he devised a series of different cultures, and most of his novels are set on some such imagined world. His great fantasy masterpiece, Lyonesse, has in my view never been bettered. What a totally convincing creation.

  25. Mr. Modesitt’s point about world-building as stage-magic shorthand is well taken, but I always thought that was exactly the art and craft of a writer — to evoke more than is there with as little as possible, to invoke the reader’s imagination in service of the writer’s direction. Like anything else, this can backfire, and obviously does in the face of Mr. Modesitt’s greater personal information on just the topics that imagination is being evoked on…

    That said, I take it as good worldbuilding when I start to a) be able to have a coherent conversation about the world as if it were real, b) not only not trip over badly exposed things, but unthinkingly accept them as part of the underpinning within said coversations/arguments, and c) dream in it (perhaps the most idiosyncratic of measures). With that in mind, I find almost all of C.J. Cherryh’s works, Lee and Miller’s Liaden saga, and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s books to have some of the requisite elements. Of these, Carey’s work actively angered me, because I felt that she had two of the three elements — worldbuilding and characterization — and fell down a flight of stairs and banged her head before she got around to plot. I’ll sidestep the complete soapbox rant here, tho.

    Lee and Miller’s works don’t seem to have any strong major depth to them, in terms of expository philosophy or Great Meaning(tm), but I find it fascinating to try to tease out the elements of a background source culture for what we are presented in place. Mind candy has its place.

    And Cherryh just wrings my mind out on a regular basis.

    I’m sure a different day would produce a different set of authors…


  26. Why should we care about women & non-white people as authors? I realize that you are asking the reverse of the question, PuffyP, but it DOES matter. Inclusive authorship is the best way to create inclusive genres & fan bases.

    • Dal Jeanis // October 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm //

      Hmmm. So, you really believe that (for instance) black people will only read books about aliens that are written by black people? Honestly? So, should I drop Butler from my list because she’s different from me?

      Octavia Butler belongs on the list, not because of what dangly bits she does or doesn’t have, or what color her dangly bits are or aren’t, or how many potential readers share those particular color of dangly bits, but because of how she is able to vividly and compellingly paint aliens that have completely different kinds of dangly bits – as, for example, in Imago.

      Andre Norton was my favorite author as a teen, and I had no clue she was “she”. Wouldn’t have cared one whit. C.J. Cherryh, I am informed, is female. China Mievelle, I am informed, isn’t. Others, who knows? Half my favorite authors might have different colors or genders from me, or even have multiple bodies, such as mystery writer duo Emma Lathen. And it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to my reading list.

      If you have to know the author’s actual body style to enjoy the read, or if you have to have a politically correct balance of body styles in your reading stack, then I’m sorry for you.

      To me, it’s the read that’s important. Life’s too short for bad books.

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