One of the first books I read that really impressed on me what the powers of world-building could be was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. As a rough analogy to Haldeman’s experience in the Vietnam War, the novel depicts a near-future in which a distant, interplanetary war is unfolding. Earth soldiers are shipped to the front through space travel, but due to the effects of relativity, when they come back home, much more time has passed for the people on Earth than for the soldiers. The novel follows a series of distant battles with encounters on Earth that are estranging, both for the protagonist and for the reader, as decades pass on Earth while mere months pass for the protagonist. It’s elegant in its premise: less than instantaneous interstellar travel means increasing disjunctures in personal experience with a quickly-changing society. As a world-building technique, it means that there’s a logic to the universe–even if there are aliens, space ships, and weapons of interstellar mass destruction.
In working on this list, I set a few rules for myself. First, it couldn’t include Ursula LeGuin. That’s not because I don’t like her work (I do!), but rather that it so often gets talked about that it obscures a lot of other, often more recent, work that’s just as good. Second, it needed to not already be included in one of the syllabuses for my Human Futures class or discussed in Theory for the World to Come. Third, it needed to stand alone as a short story or novel–meaning no multi-volume series (which excludes tons of great stuff, but none of it could viably be taught in a college class). Fourth, it needed to be focused on the United States. That was mostly to limit the sample size and make it possible to actually compile a list with an ending–I encourage experts of other national traditions to compile and share their own lists. And, fifth, it needed to be based on one fundamental and identifiable change or premise from which everything else followed.
This last rule is borrowed from Hal Clement’s “Whirligig World,” which describes how he set about building the world that Mission of Gravity takes place in. That world, which he named Mesklin, was characterized–no spoiler here–by its severe gravity, relative to Earth’s, because of the planet’s oblate shape. When astronauts from Earth find themselves stranded there, they come to rely on the local inhabitants to help. Most of what the reader experiences is from the perspective of Barlennan, a ship’s captain who is embroiled in the rescue efforts of these stranded humans. Through his relationship with a human helper, the reader comes to understand how the planet’s oblate shape affects gravity, weather, species and their evolution, and social structure. It all spawns from Clement’s initial experiment in literal world-building, which many of the texts below diverge from in that they assume an Earth-like world with small and large changes mapped onto a world similar to what the reader already knows.
I don’t want to spoil any of the following, so I’m leaving my descriptions of the stories relatively vague–and in some cases not revealing what the central change is, particularly if its revelation is integral to the plot. I’ve tried to group them thematically in case you’re interested in treating the list a bit like a syllabus.
In Stephen Graham Jones’ The Bird is Gone and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, what might be thought of as a relatively straightforward social–and specifically legal–change leads to a cascading series of effects. Jones imagines a near-contemporary United States where the government has ceded back most of the middle of the country to Indigenous groups. Robinson posits a change to the size and structure of corporations leading to a more communitarian ethos. Both texts are interested in how these legal changes lead to new ways of relating to one another, although in Jones’ book its more explicitly tinged with the racialization inherent in American settler-colonialism. They’re both, maybe not coincidentally, very fixated on ideas about property.
The feminist speculative tradition of imagining a world without men, which starts in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, flows through Alice Sheldon’s “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” (writing as James Tiptree Jr.), and continues with Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” and more recent work, is variously fantastic or scientific, relying on women finding new ways to reproduce without men. In each case, getting rid of men–accidentally, deliberately, or violently–opens up new social possibilities for the women who remain, which range from changes in gender roles to the entire structure of society. In many cases, men are the visitors to these men-free societies, and the narrative is told from their perspective as they struggle with realizing that they’re useless in the new social world. They also offer stinging rebukes of patriarchy and heteronormative social structures, and bring assumptions about American gender roles into stark relief.
Experiments with human consciousness, which are well represented in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” play with the idea of small changes in human capacities having profound effects on the structure of society, and, ultimately, what it means to fit into the category of human. In both cases, assumptions about what the human is and can be are disrupted by something novel, questioning, in Dick’s case (no surprise), what sanity is and, in Chiang’s case, how human cognition shapes the worlds we live in. (In many ways, this is my favorite subgenre of world-building, and I recommend Steve Shaviro’s Discognition for its engagement with this strain of work.)
Encounters with aliens are by their very nature experiments with world-building as storytellers develop whole worlds populated by a species that is influenced by different social and environmental rules, but there are aliens who are more and less human and who are governed by more and less human rules. One of the best encounters with the alien, notable for the alienating alterity of the aliens involved, is Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Ostensibly a sequel to his more popular Ender’s Game, most of Speaker for the Dead follows a family of xenoanthropologists (although I don’t think that’s what they’re called, since it would basically be an oxymoron) as they attempt to unravel the symbiotic interconnections of a group of species on a distant planet. The rules that govern life there are different than those on Earth, which reveal the anthropocentric biases of human administrators in their assessments of what needs to be done on that foreign planet. In a very different vein, Rivers Solomon’s The Deep imagines a more terrestrial kind of alien, born from the adaptation of escaped slaves to aquatic life. It’s based on a clipping. song, which is an homage to Detroiters Drexciya‘s electronic music. Solomon’s novel imagines a form of life that is haunted by its humanness, but is ultimately something quite different. Taken together, they offer a beginner’s course in Afrofuturism and a challenge to the often obligatory whiteness of speculative world-building. (Thanks to Elizabeth Fein for this suggestion!)
I’m technically over 10 entries if you count Haldeman and Clement. There’s a ton more (see below), but this set of stuff gives a pretty good sense of the parameters that people work with in trying to spell out the repercussions of sometimes subtle, sometimes enormous changes and their effects on a shared world. At their best, they posit a cascading set of changes that alter everything from individual subjectivity to forms of social relations (especially kinship structures), to forms of labor and governance, to planetary politics. Bad world-building usually makes no sense when it’s closely scrutinized.
I’d love to hear about people’s other favorite built worlds and the kinds of traditions they see unfolding in them. Suggest your own in the comment section below.
*Here’s me cheating–this is the list of stuff that I’ve used in classes that I’ve found to be especially effective helping students understand world-building: the first five minutes of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first half of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark’s Lazarus series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Darmok” episode (Season 5, episode 2). Check out the syllabuses for Human Futures for even more.