Writing science fiction is enormously difficult. If you cut corners, it gets easier. Cutting corners is always a temptation, because (a) if you don’t, your whole story may collapse, and (b) your readers or viewers probably won’t notice or care.

Quick example: Last week I watched an episode of Dr. Who called “Daleks in New York.” It’s the 1930s, and the Daleks are doing something to the spire atop the Empire State Building in order to capture the energy of what is clearly described in the dialog as an impending “solar flare.” Solar flares can’t be predicted, and not much of their energy reaches the surface of the Earth (for which we can all be thankful), but never mind that. As the climax of the story nears, the “solar flare” has transmuted into a simple bolt of lightning emanating from a thunderstorm.

I’ll bet not one viewer in ten even noticed the switch.

A reader named Conrad Cook has been grilling me about my unflattering view of Riverworld, by Philip Jose Farmer. I was critical, among other things, of the biology of the manufactured world. Cook asked what SF novels I felt have well-developed ecosystems. That’s both a fair and an intriguing question. So I went and stared at my bookshelves for a few minutes … and I couldn’t think of a single one.

My reading has been extremely spotty, of course. I’m anything but a diehard SF fan. But it seems to me that SF writers almost always cut corners when it comes to designing planetary ecosystems.

Our knowledge of planetary ecosystems is quite limited, but it’s also incredibly detailed. The only planet whose ecosystem we’ve been able to study offers an extraordinary variety of habitats and zones. So writing a novel about “a desert planet” (you know the one I’m talking about) or “a jungle planet” should be a red flag. But readers seem to accept this type of thing with nary a qualm.

What about it, folks? Can any of my five or six irregular readers recommend any SF novels that have truly well-developed ecosystems?

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3 Responses to World-Building

  1. conradcook says:

    Hey, I’m famous!

    Niven’s Ringwold is famous, and it’s quite good — I didn’t realize how vividly it was written until I got it as a book on tape; it reads very well — but personally I like his _Integral Trees_ better. I think it’s more imaginative and a better story.


    ps – My favorite sci-fi glitch is when the crew of the Enterprise find Nomad, an ancient human space probe that has corrupted its programming through contact with an alien probe.

    At some point, they have this thing on the bridge, and Spock decides to transmit their library to it. Soon sparks start shooting from his console! He must turn it off!

    On investigation, he explains that Nomad was receiving faster than they could transmit. That’s what caused the blow-up. See, it was pulling the information out of the console, like a string.

  2. Marla Mendenhall says:

    Assuming that a truly unique eco-system could be conceived and well-developed, one with no familiar characteristics to those we already know, would readers even be able to relate? Given that our planet offers a vast divergence of these systems, albeit carbon based and oxygen supported (with the exception of those freaky little vent animals that feed off the bacteria that develops from the toxic undersea volcanic plumes), isn’t it expected that a created world would have some relationship to one of those systems, allowing for a ‘cutting of corners’ by the writer so that a reader might connect?

    That being said, and the ‘desert planet’ and other developed planets in its universe aside (which would have been the first of my suggestions), I appreciated the construction of the worlds of Pern (McCaffrey), Tiamat (Joan D. Vinge), Earthsea (Le Guin), those of the brothers Jim and Ken Wheat for Riddick, those of the brothers Robyn and Rand Miller for Myst, half a dozen Heinlein lands, and the first two books of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, to name but a few. Did they ‘cut corners’ in their creations? Perhaps. As a reader, do I care? Absolutely not. Build me any world that I can inhabit believably for 1-600 pages, and I’m a happy camper. In fact, I’ve spent 309 pages several times behind a Wall, and never cared one iota about their eco-system. I’m just sayin’…

    • midiguru says:

      The thing that matters, ultimately, is whether readers enjoy the depiction of the fictional world. And readers’ tastes and expectations will differ; you can’t please all of the people, all of the time!

      That said, there are ways to cut corners gracefully, and ways to cut corners clumsily. Myst, to take just one example, cuts corners gracefully in two ways: First, each “age” is a small island, which naturally circumscribes one’s travel. Second, Atrus has “written” the ages, and we have no idea what form of sorcery he has employed, so pretty much anything goes in terms of both nature and technology.

      I don’t feel Farmer cut corners quite that gracefully. But that’s just me. I’m more critical than some readers.

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