A friend of mine asked me the other day, what do I consider to be great examples of sci-fi/fantasy world-building universes? At the time, I didn’t really have an answer for her — for where could I start? But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, here are my picks for the most interesting, inspired, and inspiring unreal worlds I’ve had the pleasure of exploring:
“Lord of the Rings” trilogy and assorted Tolkienverse fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien
A given, perhaps, but fantasy writers have Tolkien and his more directly Christianity-influenced colleague C.S. Lewis to thank for the amount of critical and popular attention paid to modern “epic” fantasy. When it comes to intricate world-building and universe expansion, Tolkien really does take the cake.
“Dune,” Frank Herbert
Yeah, the books get pretty wonky as they go along, and the Sting-starring film that came out from the first novel is tragic in so many ways, but the original text contains a world that is truly iconic.
The “Abhorsen” trilogy, Garth Nix
My personal favorite fantasy narrative of all time, Nix’s exploration of death and the modernity/old world split (and all through the eyes of compelling female protagonists!) is beautifully written in clear, compelling detail. Also, bells will never seem the same again.
“His Dark Materials,” Phillip Pullman
Another fantasy tale that Hollywood butchered, these novels tackled ideas of religion and science in a thoughtful way, and framed childhood as something that was truly magical. That said, once the notion of a daemon was planted in my head, I’ve been obsessed with seeking out my spirit animal ever since.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood
A riveting and disturbing tale of a dystopian world that is only really a stone’s throw from the one we have now. Atwood’s poetry is visceral, and her prose is starkly laid out but beautifully fulfilled. This novel is the one that everybody knows, and while it may not be her best or her most political, it has perhaps never been more timely, never more relevant.
Assorted short stories, Zadie Smith
She might not be known for her alt-world fiction, but Smith’s New Yorker short stories are some weird, thought-provoking stuff. Start because it’s Zadie Smith — finish because you just can’t stop.
I haven’t touched anything by H.P. Lovecraft, and there’s loads of fantasy stuff that I haven’t even begun to touch because fantasy tends to work in epic series, but if you have any recommendations, please let me know — am always, always, looking for more explorations of non-realist narratives.
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