The best science fiction novels about world-building

Who am I?

I’m a novelist and student of the imagination living in Honolulu. I actually write most of my fiction inside a volcano: Koko Crater, a botanical garden near my home. Fantasies, visions, hallucinations, or whatever we call those irrational powers that illuminate our inner life fascinate me. I’m particularly intrigued by the creative intelligence that scripts our dreams. And I love how this dramatic energy finds its way to the page, into the one form that most precisely defines who we are: story.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Last Legends of Earth

What is my book about?

Seven billion years from now, long after the Sun has died and human life has become extinct, alien beings reconstruct homo sapiens from our fossilized DNA drifting as debris in deep space. We are reborn to serve as bait in a battle to the death between the Rimstalker, humankind's re-animator, and the zōtl, horrific creatures who feed vampire-like on the suffering of intelligent lifeforms.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Einstein Intersection

A.A. Attanasio Why did I love 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.

By Samuel R. Delany,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Einstein Intersection as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A nonhuman race reimagines human mythology.

The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1967. The surface story tells of the problems a member of an alien race, Lo Lobey, has assimilating the mythology of earth, where his kind have settled among the leftover artifacts of humanity. The deeper tale concerns, however, the way those who are "different" must deal with the dominant cultural ideology. The tale follows Lobey's mythic quest for his lost love, Friza. In luminous and hallucinated language, it explores what new myths might emerge from the detritus of the human world…


Book cover of Cosmicomics

A.A. Attanasio Why did I love 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!

By Italo Calvino, William Weaver (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Cosmicomics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introducing Little Clothbound Classics: irresistible, mini editions of short stories, novellas and essays from the world's greatest writers, designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith.

Celebrating the range and diversity of Penguin Classics, they take us from snowy Japan to springtime Vienna, from haunted New England to a sun-drenched Mediterranean island, and from a game of chess on the ocean to a love story on the moon. Beautifully designed and printed, these collectible editions are bound in colourful, tactile cloth and stamped with foil.

Twelve enchanting and fantastical stories about the evolution of the universe from the giant of Italian literature,…


Book cover of Lord of Light

A.A. Attanasio Why did I love 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.

By Roger Zelazny,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Lord of Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Imagine a distant world where gods walk as men, but wield vast and hidden powers. Here they have made the stage on which they build a subtle pattern of alliance, love, and deadly enmity. Are they truly immortal? Who are these gods who rule the destiny of a teeming world?

Their names include Brahma, Kali, Krishna and also he who was called Buddha, the Lord of Light, but who now prefers to be known simply as Sam. The gradual unfolding of the story - how the colonization of another planet became a re-enactment of Eastern mythology - is one of…


Book cover of The Crystal World

A.A. Attanasio Why did I love 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.

By J.G. Ballard,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Crystal World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From J. G. Ballard, author of 'Crash' and 'Cocaine Nights' comes his extraordinary vision of an African forest that turns all in its path to crystal.

Through a 'leaking' of time, the West African jungle starts to crystallize. Trees metamorphose into enormous jewels. Crocodiles encased in second glittering skins lurch down the river. Pythons with huge blind gemstone eyes rear in heraldic poses. Most flee the area in terror, afraid to face a catastrophe they cannot understand.

But some, dazzled and strangely entranced, remain to drift through this dreamworld forest: a doctor in pursuit of his ex-mistress, an enigmatic Jesuit…


Book cover of Star Maker

A.A. Attanasio Why did I love 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.

By Olaf Stapledon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Star Maker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This bold exploration of the cosmos ventures into intelligent star clusters and mingles among alien races for a memorable vision of infinity. Cited as a key influence by science-fiction masters such as Doris Lessing, this classic has left its mark not only in modern literature but also in the fields of social anthropology and philosophy.
Olaf Stapledon's 1937 successor to Last and First Men offers another entrancing speculative history of the future. Its narrator, a contemporary Earthman, joins a community of explorers who travel to the farthest reaches of the universe, seeking traces of intelligence. Along the way, they encounter…


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The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

By J.M. Unrue,

Book cover of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

J.M. Unrue Author Of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

New book alert!

Who am I?

I’m an old guy. I say this with a bit of cheek and a certain amount of incongruity. All the books on my list are old. That’s one area of continuity. Another, and I’ll probably stop at two, is that they all deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances—those curveballs of life we flail at with an unfamiliar bat; the getting stuck on the Interstate behind a semi and some geezer in a golf cap hogging the passing lane in a Buick Le Sabre. No one makes it through this life unscathed. How we cope does more to define us than a thousand smiles when things are rosy. Thus endeth the lesson.

J.M.'s book list on showing that somebody has it worse than you do

What is my book about?

The Festival of Sin is a three-story light sci-fi arc about a young boy rescued in 6000 BCE and taken to the home planet of the Hudra. Parts two and three are exploratory excursions. It's a fish-out-of-water series. More than fish-out-of-water. Fish-on-another-planet.

Plus, there are two fantasy stories dealing with people who must overcome "supernatural" circumstances, things well beyond the realm of common understanding. 

The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

By J.M. Unrue,

What is this book about?

The Festival of Sin is a three-story light sci-fi arc about a young boy rescued in 6000 BCE and taken to the home planet of the Hudra. Parts two and three are exploratory excursions. It's a fish-out-of-water series. More than fish-out-of-water. Fish-on-another-planet.

Plus, there are two fantasy stories dealing with people who must overcome "supernatural" circumstances, things well beyond the realm of common understanding. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

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