The best science fiction novels about world-building

A.A. Attanasio Author Of The Last Legends of Earth
By A.A. Attanasio

The Books I Picked & Why

Einstein Intersection

By Samuel R. Delany

Einstein Intersection

Why this book?

When I first read this novel at age 15, I knew upon finishing that I wanted to be a science fiction writer. The strangeness of the tale enchanted me. And, by dint of that spell, my mind opened to the author’s philosophical insights about identity, cultural dreaming, and sexuality. Set on a far-future Earth where humanity is a mythical memory, the narrator assumes an identity based on Orpheus – and so, lost love and music play witching roles. Meaning is elusive, and that's part of the book's charm. Meaning in this story is also allusive, and the many legendary and literary references in the telling wander far from their origins and lead us to unexpected associations with our own time and lives.


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Cosmicomics

By Italo Calvino, William Weaver

Cosmicomics

Why this book?

Here is a collection of concatenated science fantasies that construct the universe from the Big Bang, through evolution, and right into the mind’s fascination with itself. The world-building here is alien, rich with poetic logic, and unlimited by the key features of our human mind – reason and facticity. I find this literary freedom an invigorating encounter with the absurdity of the cosmos, which lies directly behind the scientific scrim of our very limited awareness of existence. Whenever I feel constricted in my world-building efforts by the boundaries of my own imagination, I read a Cosmicomic – and I’m liberated!


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Lord of Light

By Roger Zelazny

Lord of Light

Why this book?

Conflating myth and futuristic technology, Lord of Light builds a science fantasy world in the cleft between heaven and hell. Starship travelers colonize a planet. Assuming the guise of Hindu and Buddhist deities, they battle each other with astonishing weapons. Their conflict profoundly plumbs the depths of belief, ideology, and reality. This novel packs all the science-fictional weirdness of Calvino’s Cosmicomics into a conventional story structure. The deftness with which the author accomplishes this deeply impressed me as a young reader – and still inspires pangs of awe.


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The Crystal World

By J. G. Ballard

The Crystal World

Why this book?

Anti-time particles collide with the chronometric flow of our world and begin to freeze time into crystals. When the story begins, prismatic splotches of frozen time cover random, far-apart areas and are expanding. Eventually, our planet will crystallize completely. Meanwhile… The entire novel is a ‘meanwhile’ set in this lyrically beautiful apocalypse – the petrification of all life. Meanwhile, the protagonist is on a river journey seeking a lover from his past at a leproserie in Africa. Meanwhile, we learn smatterings about the bizarre, crystallizing phenomenon, which gemstones can inexplicably deliquesce. Meanwhile, the novel is faceting itself about us, locking us into its pellucid prose, strange facts, and eerie observations. But we never learn much. Mystery features as a major force and folds all the wonder inspired by Ballard’s scintillantly beautiful prose into inexorable horror. How Ballard builds this gorgeous, terrifying world is itself a wonder, which keeps drawing me back to these pages.


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Star Maker

By Olaf Stapledon

Star Maker

Why this book?

This is everybody’s classic for world-building, and with good reason: Undertaking a vast out-of-body experience, the narrator explores remote civilizations across the universe and mind-melds in panpsychic ways with numerous entities, including stars, galaxies, and the cosmos itself. Star Maker inspired big creative ambitions when I initially read it and continues to afford revelations about time, myth-making, and the brief season of our humanity. The scale of the book emboldens us to think big.


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