The best science fiction novels about world-building

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

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...

The Last Legends of Earth

By A.A. Attanasio,

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.

The books I picked & why

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Einstein Intersection

By Samuel R. Delany,

Book cover of 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.


By Italo Calvino, William Weaver (translator),

Book cover of 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!

Lord of Light

By Roger Zelazny,

Book cover of 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.

The Crystal World

By J.G. Ballard,

Book cover of 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.

Star Maker

By Olaf Stapledon,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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