News Ticker

MIND MELD: Our Favorite SF/F Settings

Update: Added John Joseph Adams’ thoughts.

Update #2: Added Bob Dierks’ response.

Update The Third: Added Adam Callaway’s response. My apologies to Adam for completely missing his email. Bagels on me.

One of the good things about reading SF and F is that it allows the author to create as mundane or as wild a setting for a story to take place in. And with innumerable stories to choose from, the range of settings, and a reader’s favorite, is limitless as well. We asked our panel this week to answer this question:

Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy settings and why?
Angela @ SciFiChick
Life-long SciFi fan, portrait artist, and avid reader of all genres. I have a fulltime job at a Fortune 500 company. I do drawings on commission and volunteer for my local Humane Society and church. I like dogs, but love Shar Peis. I’m addicted to too many TV shows. And I read every chance I get. Can be found blogging at

My favorite setting would have to be deep space, out exploring new worlds. This is why I loved Star Trek and Stargate so much. They were able to encounter new worlds and alien races each week. The mystery of the unknown, exotic aliens, and advanced technology – these are what I love most about science fiction. So space operas and adventures will always be my first love.

Andrew Wheeler
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years. He spent sixteen years as an editor for various bookclubs (most notably, working for the Science Fiction Book Club the entire time), ending as a Senior Editor. He is currently a Marketing Manager for John Wiley & Sons.

It’s very appropriate that I’m thinking about fantastic settings this week, since right now I’m in the least real city in North America, Las Vegas. But this place certainly wouldn’t be my favorite anything!

My favorite fictional worlds have always been multiverses. As long as it’s all fiction anyway, why be limited to just *one* universe? And so I think I’ll gravitate more towards the fantasy side of the equation — though, come to think of it, Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats is a great, possibility-filled, SFnal multiverse.

But the multiverses that come to mind first are Roger Zelazny’s Amber — a penumbra of shadow worlds cast by the two great poles of Amber and Chaos — and the original multiverse as constructed by Michael Moorcock. Both of those settings have enough excitement for a thousand years of adventures — and Amber has the additional advantage, for the right people, of being able to provide you with precisely what you want or need at that moment. (Now *that’s* a multiversal feature I could really appreciate!) They also both manage the neat trick of subsuming any other fictional (or real) universe one might think of into their manifolds — so, by choosing a multiverse, one can get *every* universe one might want, all at once.

(I should also mention Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast as a very similar, and specifically SFnal, multiverse along the same lines. However, Heinlein’s multiverse is infested with red-headed sexpots whose nipples go spung! at the drop of a hat, which can be annoying. One will also find that inhabitants of a Heinleinian multiverse all fall into a very few broad character types, which will become wearying after a time. One additionally find that it is impossible to win an argument with any denizen of a Heinlein world.)

Somewhere on the border between SF and fantasy is Philip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers multiverse. His worlds are notably smaller than Moorcock’s or Zelazny’s — purpose-built structures the size of a continent or less, rather than full-fledged planets — but there’s just as much adventure to be had as in Zelazny’s worlds, with greater social mobility into the ranks of the “gods,” and one is much less likely to have one’s soul devoured by a demon in the form of a sword than in Moorcock’s. Farmer’s is the safe schools of multiverses, perhaps.

All of those multiverses have essentially the same ground rules across all the individual worlds, which is more convenient for travelers. L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea stories — collected, to various degrees of completeness, in books with the word “Enchanter” in the title — have a multiverse in which the great fictional and legendary universes (Orlando Furioso, The Faerie Queene, and so on) are accessible through semi-scientific means, but each follow their own laws. I wouldn’t recommend that multiverse to first-time travelers, but it has great charms and attractions for the seasoned multiversal adventurer!

Heather Massey
Heather Massey is a blogger who travels the sea of stars searching for science fiction romance adventures aboard The Galaxy Express. Additionally, she pens a science fiction romance column for LoveLetter, Germany’s premiere romance magazine.

Gosh, it’s such a challenge to limit my answers to “some.” Because of the stories found in science fiction and fantasy, I’ve had the honor of visiting so many amazing places. However, since a few of my favorites originated in my youth and made a lasting Impression, I’m going to focus on two that strongly influenced my tastes in SF/F.

One of my first forays into an epic SF/F series was Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. At first, I had no idea what I was getting into. I remember being swayed by the majestic looking dragons on the covers (and what teenager wouldn’t be?). The tales hit me like a sledgehammer even though I was a total SF/F noob. Reading the books at such a young age was akin to licking the icing off of a cake without delving into all the gooey delicious layers. Desperate to know more, I read them over and over again. To my delight, the stories grew with me as I aged.

The fanciful dragons, the perilous nature of Thread, the titillating romances, and the science fictional underpinnings made for highly charged adventures. Pern is a very dangerous place, yet I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to visit it (however, a second would

be about as long as I would stay once Thread hits). Ultimately, though, it was the mix of

compelling characters and imaginative settings that made this series one of my all time


On the opposite end of the spectrum, another of my favorite settings can be found in Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, a ’60s British television show. Filmed in “Supermarionation,” Thunderbirds features the adventures of International Rescue, an organization that responds to large scale disasters all over the world in a near future setting.

I first encountered this show at the age of twelve when it ran on one of the local television stations in the U.S. Having caught the tail end of an episode, I distinctly remember seeing the characters and thinking, “Who are these people? What are these people?!” The technical wizardry involved in the marionettes, models, and sets was unlike anything I’d ever seen. “Surreal” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. Even though the plots were slow-moving at times and the characters almost as flat as pancakes, the detailed setting imbued Thunderbirds with an otherworldly nature.

Looking back, it’s clear how much love went into the creation of settings like Anne

McCaffrey’s Pern universe and Gerry Anderson’s marionette shows. On a basic level, I think that’s one reason I was so shocked by their brilliance. They were totally immersive, like great big SF/F bear hugs.

Andrew Liptak
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and science fiction fan, and writes regularly at Words in a Grain of Sand on speculative fiction and history, and has written for sites such as SF Signal, io9 and He currently holds a degree in History and a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and resides in the green mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books.

Setting is an important element of science fiction, and a believable setting is generally the more memorable, especially when it intersects with the plot in a meaningful way. Speculative fiction offers up a rich variety for the imagination, bolstered by the very real images that NASA comes up with through their large number of satellites and cameras pointed at the heavens.

The first major setting that comes to mind is Cavanagh’s Star, from Karen Traviss’s fantastic Wess’Har War series, introduced in City of Pearl. A rich, truly alien world, Traviss really takes her time to explore the life and ecosystems in a series of stories that increasingly touch on environmentalism and imperialism, creating several worlds that come to life far better than James Cameron’s Pandora.

In a similar vein, Allen M. Steele’s Coyote contains many of the same attributes, where an alien world is very similar to our own, with its own details, in a way that is reminiscent of the American West, and it captures the pioneering spirit and imagination that makes the novel truly a great one.

Closer to home, there are a ton of books that I can point to for their interesting interpretation of how our world will be, but of all of those, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker comes to mind straight off the bat – not only for her vivid descriptions of an alternate Seattle (which came to life in a way that most books rarely do for me), but also the rich context that really appealed to me as a historian: her reasoning of an extended Civil War and the surrounding political climate really made the book a fun one, and I will be very interested to see what she does next, with Clementine and Dreadnought.

However, none of these books come close to one of my absolute favorite works of art, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and the world of Calvin’s alter-ego, Spaceman Spiff. His strange worlds, twisted and full of color, fueled my imagination as a child, and make up some of the best scenery that imagination has to offer.

Karen Burnahm
Karen Burnham reviews science fiction and fantasy for SFSignal and Strange Horizons, blogs at Spiral Galaxy Reviews, and works for NASA.

Two universes jumped to mind when I read this question. The first was David Brin’s Uplift Universe. He set at least six books there (Sundiver, Startide Rising, Uplift War, Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore, Heaven’s Reach) and also short stories. In this universe, humans have modified chimps and dolphins to be tool- and language-users. They’re getting close to being as smart as we are. About that same time, we make contact with aliens. Turns out that the universe is generally considered to be one great big apprenticeship program: since the Progenitors, aliens species have Uplifted other species, who then repay the favor with a few millenia of subservient status and service. Then they get to uplift a few species of their own, and the cycle continues. By not having had a ‘sponsor’ race of our own, humans are considered almost feral. But because we’ve uplifted the dolphins and chimps, we can’t just be adopted or ignored.

The best thing about the Uplift universe is the huge diversity of alien races Brin invents. There’s a whole book (Contacting Aliens: An Illustrated Guide to David Brin’s Uplift Universe) that just goes through the alien species in that universe and gives some backstory and illustrations for each one. It’s endlessly inventive: bird-like aliens who make great space fighter pilots, aliens made of stacks of rings, each of which adds different abilities to the alien’s conciousness, war-like koala types, reptilians, cyclops with laser range-finding eyes, you name it. Our dolphins are particularly valued by other races for their songs. When I started reading the series in high school, it contained the most Alien aliens I had ever read. There’s room in this universe for a huge number of other stories, almost any of which would be worth reading.

It’s that same quality of expansiveness, of having room for more stories, that also attracts me to the other setting that sprang to mind: Robert Reed’s Marrow universe (Marrow (2000), The Well of Stars (2004)). Reed is best known as a short story author, selling over a dozen solid speculative short pieces a year to venues such as Analog and Asimov’s, and winning a Hugo for Best Novella in 2007. However, I’ve a real soft spot for the universe where he’s set two of his novels. Imagine a world the size of Jupiter, more or less hollowed out into liveable volume. It’s orbiting the galaxy at close to 1/3 lightspeed. As it passes by star systems, any nearby race has a chance to send a mission out to explore it. It’s been doing this for a bazillion years, and many of the races have opted to colonize it. There’s so much volume that almost any race can carve out a living space for itself and make itself comfortable: water species, flying species, burrowing, radiation-hardened surface dwellers, etc. Of course there are also common areas where species from all over the galaxy meet and greet and do business. And sometimes the world itself faces crises from within or without, and lots of different species and factions have to band together to keep things working. Another world of infinite possibility for stories to be told.

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), By Blood We Live, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. He is also the fiction editor of the science fiction magazine Lightspeed, and is the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Upcoming anthologies include The Living Dead 2 (September) and The Way of the Wizard (November).

I could go on and on on this subject, so I’ll just stick with one favorite per medium, and just apologize to all those settings that I neglected to mention.


Archonate: Matthew Hughes’s vastly underrated Archonate milieu is something I wish more people knew about. It’s really quite a lot of fun, and Hughes has shown that he has a near limitless supply of stories he can tell there. The gist of it is, it’s the far future and the physics of the universe is governed by an unending cycle of magic vs. science; when one is in ascendancy, the other wanes, and vice versa. So for protagonist freelance discriminator Henghis Hapthorn, a man of reason and science (think Sherlock Holmes), his world is thrown into disarray as science wanes and magic comes slowly seeps back into the world. The Hapthorn stuff, which deals with the science vs. magic aspect, is great, but Hughes shows that he can also keep strictly to the SF side of things with his Archonate novel Template, which is possibly the best thing he’s ever written.

Video Games

Fallout: My favorite video game series ever, largely due to the great milieu in which it is set. The post-apocalyptic setting is vast and full of everything you’d expect of a post-nuclear wasteland. One of my favorite things about it is the inventive cultures that have developed after the bomb: scavenger-types, “Vault dwellers,” people who worship a nuclear bomb. Plus, there’s all kinds of great futuristic weaponry, devices, and even drugs. My favorite has to be “Jet”–because when you take it, it feels like you’re FLYING. Get it?–which comes in an inhaler like asthma sufferers use.


Avatar (film): Say what you will about the lack of originality Avatar had in the plot department, the visual worldbuilding in the movie was staggering; seeing it in 3-D IMAX, I found myself completely lost in the visuals as I never have been with a movie before. It’s too early to call it my favorite of all time obviously–I’d have to give that to the Star Wars milieu–but it’s what comes to mind first now, because it was so vivid and indelible.


Avatar: The Last Airbender (animated series): I will not speak of the movie, having not seen it (and having no plans to see it), but Avatar: The Last Airbender is quite possibly the greatest animated series of all time (and perhaps the best work of fantasy ever to run on television). A large part of what makes it so great is its rich, wonderfully-diverse setting. Just watch an episode taking place in the city of Ba Sing Se and you’ll see what I mean. But Avatar really takes advantage of its setting by necessity; the characters basically have to traverse the entire world in order to complete their quest, allowing the viewer to leave nearly no corner of the world unexplored. Populated with a wealth of fabulous creatures, from the Sky Bisons and flying lemurs to fantastical creatures like the spirits Hei Bai and Koh the Face Stealer, the world of Avatar is as fully-realized and inventive as that of any fantasy I’ve encountered.


I’d also like to give a shoutout to a couple of my favorite D&D settings, namely Dark Sun and Planescape. Dark Sun has the fantastic conceit that the use of magic destroys the environment, and so the world of Dark Sun is a blighted place, destroyed by power-hungry wizards. Planescape, meanwhile, is interesting partially because it’s an interstitial kind of setting; the gist is that the players can travel from plane to plane (or from campaign setting to campaign setting, i.e., from Forgotten Realms to Dark Sun, etc.), but the central location in Planescape, the city of Sigil (the City of Doors) is fascinating in of itself, being kind of a melting pot of all the planes of existence. I mean, damn, how cool is that?

Bob Dierks
Bob Dierks considers himself the master of useless trivia. He spends most of his time surfing the internet looking for subjects to write about.

There are so many differing settings which abound for Science Fiction and Fantasy. No rubric exists to allow you to pick and choose amongst the selection. Like picking through a bargain bin, behind every find is something potentially new and different.

One of the classic settings in Fantasy is the world of Middle Earth. I read The Hobbit and I was instantly hooked. This strange and yet completely believable world with Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits! J.R.R. Tolkein created the sort of world that was just this side of tangible. I still pick up my worn copy of The Hobbit and reread it from time to time.

William Gibson’s world of Neuromancer had me hooked from that classic opening line. There was just so much that resonated with me. The Blade Runner-esque dystopian world with its “cyberpunks” running just beneath the notice of the corporate overlords.

Blade Runner is always a perennial favorite of mine. I was so very impressed when I heard Ridley Scott actually used sociologists to help craft the look of his futuristic city. I still get chills every time I watch it.

My guiltiest science fiction setting is the world of Battlestar Galactica. I loved watching the adventures of Apollo and Starbuck, my space-born Bo and Luke Duke. I had dreams of growing up and becoming Boxy with my very own daggit.

My ultimate Science Fiction/ Science Fantasy setting will always be Star Wars. I loved the exotic locations and the set up of a evil galactic empire being opposed by a plucky kid from a back world.

My favorite fantasy setting is a toss up betwixt the modern world shown to me by Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman. They way they show us a world that co-exists with us and makes me yearn for what could be.

Adam Callaway
Adam Callaway recently replaced his brain with a phononic supracapacitor and is looking to fill the increased space with speculative fiction. This is why he runs Sensawunda, where he reviews SF/F/H short fiction on a daily basis. When he’s not reading, he’s writing and trying to con editors into buying it.

This is a question that would lend itself to a book more than a hundred word response, but I’ll try to limit my answer to places where I would personally like to visit.

Fantasy: Bookholm

In Walter Moers’ The City of Dreaming Books, the protagonist (a cultured dinosaur named Optimus Yarnspinner), journeys to a city entirely devoted to literature in search of the writer of the greatest manuscript ever written. While the sprawling, decaying streets of Bookholm are as well wrought as any setting I’ve read before, the Catacombs beneath are even better. From hallucinogenic books, to tomes that have become sentient, to a society of gnomes that have created a massive book sorting machine/mass transit system, to the King of the Catacombs who rules with a paper fist.

SF: The Library of the Citadel

Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer is my favorite novel. Period. The reasons for this are numerous and for another post. That is a world fully realized if there ever was one. My favorite section of the book was where Severian went to the Archivist. The Library the Archivist overlooks is almost impossible to fathom. A crystal that holds more information than the entirety of human knowledge is a bit of a mind bender. It comes to light that the Library is actually interplanetary, with books, manuscripts, sold state memory, ionic resonators that held the collective knowledge of many worlds.

What makes a good setting is hard to describe. I love places that are so foreign that I have no point of reference for comparison. I love interesting beasties and baddies that inhabit the land. As shown from my answers, I also love metafiction and fantastical libraries.

No matter how cool a place seems, however, it must follow its own interior logic or I will immediately set the book down. I honestly don’t care what the logic behind the setting is, as long as it is explained and consistent.

John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and the upcoming Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

I have different settings I favor for slightly different reasons, depending on how the question is read.

If the question is read as meaning, “Which setting by a science fiction or fantasy author displays the skill and craftsmanship science fiction and fantasy writers ought to bring to their work?” the answer must first define what skill and craftsmanship SFF writers ought to bring.

Picking a setting for a novel is like picking a setting for a gem, or picking a frame for a picture. You want a frame that will bring out the particular colors of your work. Likewise, the mainstream novel adopts a setting that brings dramatic emphasis to the subject matter: for example, a story meant to emphasize Man’s isolation in the face of hostile nature, as Melville’s Moby Dick, gains that emphasis by choosing an isolated setting, as a whaling ship in the midst of the deep. A story about self-reliance, as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, is best set in the wilderness, where one must rely on oneself. A story about defending law and civilization against lawlessness and long odds, as High Noon, gains emphasis when set in a frontier settlement, because the frontier is

where civilization peters out.

Another element of the modern Western novel is verisimilitude or realism: the whaling ship, or the mountain, or the frontier town, has to include enough details about real whaling to make it seem as if it is, or could be, or should be real. One thing a modern reader first notices about reading an Homeric epic is the lack of those small, realistic touches modern writers use to create the illusion of verisimilitude–no person in Homer is described (except Thersites) and nothing of the location. Likewise, compare the description in Ariosto or Mallory of the forest of Arden, with the descriptions in Tolkien of the Old Forest, the forest of Lothlorian, the Forest of Mirkwood, the forest of Fangorn.

If you notice that these four Tolkienian forests immediately spring up in your memory with an unmistakable look and personality of their own, whereas the forest of medieval poets is merely a lifeless archetype, you notice the difference between verisimilitude and the lack of verisimilitude. In the same way the tricks of shading and perspective give Renaissance paintings an illusion of depth that Medieval and Ancient visual arts lacked, the tricks of verisimilitude, those little, telling details, gives the modern novel an illusion of realism.

Science Fiction and Fantasy differ from other genre or mainstream writing in this one particular: the setting is not the real world. Science fiction readers are invited into a world of the writer’s invention; and fantasy takes place Beyond the Fields We Know. It is as if the reader is being asked to participate in a game, or a magic trick, one where the illusion of realism is harder to maintain, precisely because the premise of SFF is unreality. Speculative fiction has a quality of hypothetical: if this were true (pigs had wings) what are the realistic details that would also be present (umbrellas would be designed to deflect falling pig-droppings)?

The challenge to the reader and writer of SFF is to use the imagination to fill in these realistic details. SFF must do everything a modern realistic novel does, but more so. A modern novel is like an architectural drawing of a castle in perspective, where every detail must be correct and lend emphasis to the whole image: an SFF novel is like a architectural drawing of a castle in the clouds. No matter how filmy and foggy the foundations, the SFF drawing must show where the gutters pour out the accumulated dew, or how the trap doors in the bottom of the castle work.

We can speak of a failure of verisimilitude in setting when the reader gets as sense that there is nothing behind the painted backdrop. If there is something introduced in Chapter Five, such as a portal opening through dimensions, but the surrounding society looks and acts like the typical Western European High Middle Ages, complete with knights and royal families and international hierarchies and remnants of the faux Roman Empire still lingering in the background, then the Portal looks flimsy. Inter-dimensional Portals should at least have as great an effect on history as the invention of the jib sail or the compass. The lack of realistic detail makes it look as if the author simply has not thought through

the ramifications.

If I may be permitted to critique authors both more skilled and better selling than myself, the Fionvar of Guy Gavriel Kay used inter-dimensional transport not to collect firearms from Earth but to collect college students; likewise the Waygates in the Wheel of Time world do not seem to have changed the world or people surrounding.

If this is the question, which settings best accomplish this? Which novels show the skill of small details to lend the greatest realism to the basically unrealistic effort of an unearthly or extraterrestrial setting?

I will proffer three examples:

JRR Tolkien invented so much richness of detail, indulging in descriptions of the hardship and trudging drudgery of adventures, that no one seemed to have noticed what that great author was actually doing: he was writing a modern, realistic novel more modern and more realistic than his contemporaries, men like James Joyce. Joyce famously attempted to contrast the ancient heroism of Ulysses by drawing parallels to the life of a common, ordinary man in modern Dublin; even had he succeeded he would have succeeded only in parody or Daliesque absurdism. Tolkien wrote an epic as grand as anything attempted by Mallory or Virgil, but told from the point of view of common, ordinary Hobbits, showing how the trudging drudgery of adventure, particularly the last and thirsty walk across the Volcanic cinder-plains of the floor of Hell, leads to heroic

self-sacrifice, the scouring of that corruption at home, and the hope of balm beyond the end of the world. He succeeded in portraying the common man growing into heroism. The obsessive complexity and thoroughness of Tolkien’s world building to this day excite admiration and imitation akin to awe: Tolkien is rightly named the founder of modern heroic fantasy. I submit that this is due in large part to the perfect exploitation of detail and realism to make his Middle Earth as real to his readers, if not more so, as that lower Earth in which we have the misfortune to live.

Robert Heinlein perfected the knack of using a simple reference or single phrase, sometimes even a well placed word, to create the illusion of reality. The character in dialog would refer to some background detail in their world without dwelling on it, in much the same way that a cab driver does not explain the workings of the internal combustion engine to his passengers. For example, in the opening scene of Farmer in the Sky, the protagonist and his father prepare a meal, and it is casually mentioned in passing that they register or record their calorie use. No details are given as to how and when this world-wide food rationing was put in place, or who enforces it, or what threat of famine compels it: but the day-to-day common-man detail of counting the calorie use from a plate of eggs and imitation bacon implies volumes. Heinlein was not an optimist about the future: overpopulation and Malthus-like extinctions were never far from his imagination. And yet the ability to mention such vast historical changes in passing by touching on a single realistic detail has more power to fix the question in the reader’s imaginations than any number of tedious Ralph Bellamy-style lectures.

I will dwell on my final example. On the planet Tschai, so Jack Vance assures us, the money is called sequins. These are not minted by any of the nonhuman races that oppress and own the scattered races of mankind dwelling in misery on the several continents and steppes, but are grown from the roots of plants which flourish only in one area: the hunting preserve of the Dirdir. The Dirdir are a carnivorous race whose sport consists of man-hunts. Over the years, a desperate and deadly game has evolved. Men sneak into the hunting grounds of the Dirdir to dig for sequins; the Dirdir leading hunting parties to seek men as game animals.

So far, so good. It is a brilliant idea of ghoulish simplicity. What Jack Vance does which sets him above his peers is to next propose the raucous frontier town of Maust, which fronts the Dirdir hunting preserve but is outside its bounds. For, you see, one realistic detail of the unrealistic idea that money grows on trees is the idea that a trade would grow up to make money from those hunting money. In Maust, the bold traveler can be sold equipment and maps allegedly unexploited directing him to ripe pods of sequins; and establishments and inns catering to the doomed hopeful have sprung up like weeds, each clamoring for his custom. Fortune tellers will aver whether you will be successful or end your days in a Dirdir cookpit. You may purchase puff-boots and perfumes to throw

hunters off your scent, or weapons to fend off the crooks and claim jumpers that otherwise follow sequin-hunters into danger.

Each time I see the entrance to a gold-and-demon filled labyrinth in a D&D game setting, or an inter-dimensional portal leading to other worlds were Aztecs raise bloodstained stepped pyramids above cities of gold, I stop and think: where is Maust?

Why are there no peddlers and no inns and no chapels and no post offices erected near the Waygate leading through dangerous dimensions, where the would be traveler can eat a last meal, consult maps allegedly penned by famous explorers, or receive his last communion, or send a letter of farewell? Are there no innkeepers eager for the final coins of those willing to face the inter-dimensional Void? No priests to comfort those about to die, or no harlots offering a more earthly form of comfort?

If the question is read as meaning, “In which science fictional or fantasy background would you, personally, John C. Wright, obscure midlist author, prefer to live and work and raise your family?” sober consideration suggests that even such enchanted lands as Middle Earth lack flush toilets and Novocain and Republican forms of government, would not be a good place to have a toothache or hold an election.

Likewise, the galaxy long, long ago and far, far away of Star Wars seems to be prone to wars and commotions that make for good drama, but not a nice place to live: those of use who are not Jedi nor winged blue shopkeepers would not be sure if our mental processes were being unduly warped by sinister mind-altering influences, whereas on our current Earth, simply switching off the television can shut off sinister mind-altering influences our civilization produces.

Upon reflection, despite occasional interruptions by Borg or angry space whales, the Earth of Star Trek has achieved sufficient peace and perfection and medical comfort to be my choice for a favorite setting to live. Also, all the women wear alluring garments designed by Bill Theiss.

If the question is read as meaning, “In which science fictional or fantasy background would you, personally, John C. Wright, obscure midlist author, prefer to set a story of your own?” This question I can answer merely by looking over my own bibliography. While my science fiction stories are set in settings of my own devising, my fantasy are more prone to homage. By “homage” I mean I am stealing my ideas from my betters.

One of my fantasies (Orphans of Chaos) is set in what is the thinly disguised version of the background Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. A crew of Machiavellian yet supernatural princes bent in endless deadly schemes against each other is a setting rich in innate drama: I crossed this with the savage and grandiose gods and goddess of Olympos.

With the permission of the author’s estate, I wrote the sequel (Null-A Continuum) to The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt. Rarely does the opportunity come to write a sequel to your favorite book by your favorite author, and even more rare is the happy accident that you happen to have the skill to impersonate his writing style will keeping your own unique voice silent.

I have a short story (“Guyal the Curator”) in Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R.R. Martin. The Dying Earth of Jack Vance delights in its richness and antiquity and the erudite over-sophistication of its various amoral rogues, antic cultists, melancholy damsels, scheming grotesqueries and laughing magicians. The setting is one of the remotest far future, where a wine colored sun hovers weakly over a landscape where ruined metropoli and quaint villages pursue their odd customs in the gathering gloom, while eccentric warlocks beguile their remaining hours by plying frantic intrigues on each other. To say more is nuncupatory.

I have written several short stories in the background of the Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. It is a setting more striking to the imagination than any I have otherwise encountered in its sheer, stark inhumanity. All mankind is gathered into one mountain-sized acrology at the bottom of a lowest chasm of a dry seabed, where a crack leading into the earth’s dying interior emits a psychic or geothermal magnetic energy to keep the remnant of humanity alive.

Besieging this pyramid are forces both subhuman and diabolical, extradimensional, unearthly, or occupying frames of being not properly alive. From five directions immense and immobile sphinxes, moving with the solemnity of glaciers, bend their horrid gazes upon the great Last Redoubt of Man, beating the air silently with their pressure of their dark and implacable hostility.

The setting is as freighted with the immensity of the weight of eons as anything I have ever read or imagined: it is a world as cold and inhuman as outer space, but quaintly immediate, as if your own balcony overlooked the dark side of the moon; or as if the cold, plutonian shores of interstellar space were within walking distance, and a single traveler armed against the arctic cold and armed with an ax living metal and a suicide capsule could venture out into the darkness of eternity, never to return, but only the dim echo of some malignant thing impersonating his voice might, from time to time, be heard returning from the void of night.

Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!
About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

9 Comments on MIND MELD: Our Favorite SF/F Settings

  1. It has to be Middle Earth – ever since I first had the Hobbit read to me at school I have loved the world, and when I was able to read Lord of the Rings I found the appendices at the back to be even more engaging than the novel itself (that I loved), it did take me a few more years before I was able to read and enjoy the Simarlion and the various Lost Tales, but what a joy there where. The work that Tolkien put into fleshing out his world is astounding and still blows my mind.

    When it comes to Sci Fi I really enjoy Peter Hamiliton’s Nightdawn universe, there is a real depth to this setting and a real joy to be had in how the various worlds visited developed and how real they feel to me.

  2. My answers must have gotten lost in the ether, so I’ll post them here.

    This is a question that would lend itself to a book more than a hundred word response, but I’ll try to limit my answer to places where I would personally like to visit.

    Fantasy: Bookholm

    In Walter Moers’ The City of Dreaming Books, the protagonist (a cultured dinosaur named Optimus Yarnspinner), journeys to a city entirely devoted to literature in search of the writer of the greatest manuscript ever written.  While the sprawling, decaying streets of Bookholm are as well wrought as any setting I’ve read before, the Catacombs beneath are even better.  From hallucinogenic books, to tomes that have become sentient, to a society of gnomes that have created a massive book sorting machine/mass transit system, to the King of the Catacombs who rules with a paper fist.

    SF: The Library of the Citadel

    Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer is my favorite novel. Period.  The reasons for this are numerous and for another post.  That is a world fully realized if there ever was one.  My favorite section of the book was where Severian went to the Archivist.  The Library the Archivist overlooks is almost impossible to fathom.  A crystal that holds more information than the entirety of human knowledge is a bit of a mind bender.  It comes to light that the Library is actually interplanetary, with books, manuscripts, sold state memory, ionic resonators that held the collective knowledge of many worlds.  

    What makes a good setting is hard to describe.  I love places that are so foreign that I have no point of reference for comparison.  I love interesting beasties and baddies that inhabit the land.  As shown from my answers, I also love metafiction and fantastical libraries.  

    No matter how cool a place seems, however, it must follow its own interior logic or I will immediately set the book down.  I honestly don’t care what the logic behind the setting is, as long as it is explained and consistent.

  3. ” Joyce famously attempted to contrast the ancient heroism of Ulysses by drawing parallels to the life of a common, ordinary man in modern Dublin; even had he succeeded he would have succeeded only in parody or Daliesque absurdism”

      Just because you don’t understand a book Wright, it does not follow that said book is unsuccesful.

  4. The Dark Sun setting is greatly under-utilized, both in RPG and tie-in novels.  It is quite distinctive and has a lot of possibilities for dramatic storytelling, anthropological oddness, and entertaining, thought-provoking plots and tropes.    I’m glad that it got a shout-out here.

    One of my favorite settings is the world that Paul Park created for The Starbridge Chronicles; it has a great mix of strangeness, profundity, and poetry.  It’s fatalistic arcs, from the seasons to the social structure to the struggles of the characters themselves, are note-perfect, and the setting is compelling to read about even in its most blighted moments.

  5. Thinking of RPG settings I think TSR made a number of great ones in the 80s and early 90s. Yeah there is the ubiquiteous Dragonlance and Forgtten Realms, and whilst both were interesting some of the less well known settings were far more interesting and fun to explore Dark Sun, Planescape (which is home to the best computer RPG ever created in Planescape Torment) were both great Spelljammer had a lot to go for it, but it fell foul of poor planning and grew too quickly, they also did a fantastic take on Buck Rogers that pretty much gave us the universe of Firefly 15 years before Joss Whedon’s creation was killed by Fox.

  6. I heartily agree with Angela; the sci fi tv shows offer incredible variety on a monthly basis. I will always remember hearing the name “puddlejumper” on Stargate, and the fantastic worlds it transported the user to.

    For video games, Bioshock was an “enrapturing” (see what I did there?) experience that immersed you in every facet of a darkly constituted underwater worlds of subterranean tunnels and homicidal splicers, using audio clips, wall scribblings of blood, and other peculiar objects to immerse you in everything.

    Bladerunner is one movie that really pulled off everything it needed to be, an infusion of cyberpunk, along with Avatar, throwing you (literally) into a 3D atmosphere made entirely real by the care taken to construct and animate every fascinating element of its ecostructure .

    One place I found it suffice to mention is the Tron universe: light cycles ahoy! would make it well worth the visit.

  7. Fun topic!  I think the settings that really stay with me are ones that convey a powerful mood or atmosphere.  Delany’s wrecked city of Bellona from “Dhalgren” is *saturated* with a mood or tone that sits right on the fence between incredibly stimulating and frickin’ terrifying.  Herbert’s “Dune,” of course, is pervaded by a sense of vast, untameable wilderness — as is the overgrown forest of Richard Adams’ “Shardik.”  Many of Moorcock’s fantasy worlds are pervaded by a delicious feeling of melancholy and decadence.  And Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” novels convey a dreamlike sense of creaking, echoing Gothic darkness.  

    I notice that this is true of non-genre stories I like, too.  I’m thinking of the deep forest of Faulkner’s “The Bear,” the ship-and-ocean of “Moby Dick,” the baroque dreamscapes of Garcia-Marquez’s novels, the anxiety-stricken, war-blasted Europe of Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

  8. “Just because you don’t understand a book Wright, it does not follow that said book is unsuccesful.”

    That depends on what you mean by unsuccessful. I would offer that MOBY DICK by Melville attempted almost the exact same ironic parallel between modern, common men and ancient heroes, but in that case, real tragedy or real power was evoked, as well as a dark humor (almost a gallows humor) undisguised by overclever stream-of-consciousness wordplay.

    ”  He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.”

    It also depends on what you mean by understanding. At the risk of seeming melonsmellonous, I would point to the clarity of Joyce’s other works, such as THE DUBLINERS, and venture the opinion that ULYSSES was meant to be more evokative than actually understood.

    In that sense, no one understands the book.

    I suggest that it was not meant to be understood, no more than an impressionist or absurdist or cubist painting is meant to portray the natural look of an object. My argument is one of craftsmanship: prolix verbal cubism is not the proper medium to answer, or parody, or parallel the stark grandeur of Homeric hexameters.

    So, yes, I admit I do not understand the book. Mea culpa. Nonetheless, from what little I do understand, I aver that ULYSSES fails in its attempt to draw an ironic parallel between ancient Homeric heroic tragedy with modern quotidian dithering anxiety.

    Contrariwise, the Nantucket whaling men aboard the bone-covered Pequod were at least engaged in labor at the risk of their lives, driven as if by malign gods to a tragic fate, and not merely mooching around the Dublin streets being cuckolded.

    For one thing (if I may draw the digression back toward the main point) the settings in MOBY DICK and the ODYSSEY have a parallel exoticism, evoking far off climes, a proper setting for monsters as unearthly as Scylla or an albino whale.

  9. In SF I love the Culture universe of Iain M. Banks.  In fantasy (or whatever it is that Vandermeer does), Ambergris is as nifty a place as any.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: