Science Fiction

Science Fiction: Created Worlds


Once upon a time, planets were nice places to visit—but nobody would want to live there.

But today, the created world—with its own geography and ecology, people and customs—is one of the major attractions of science fiction, and some of the worlds of SF have come to seem as real as our own.

Travel to other worlds is nothing new in SF, of course. The solar system is a pretty small place, cosmically speaking—and cosmologists seem to agree planetary systems must be commonplace in the universe. This knowledge gives a great deal of freedom to modern SF writers—they know there must be planets out there someplace, but they don't know where they are or what they're like, so they can go ahead and create any kind they want—subject only to the laws of science and probability.


That isn't how the idea of the created world came into science fiction in the first place, however. For that we have to credit, more than anyone else, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs is world famous as the creator of Tarzan, but his claim to fame in science fiction is the world of "Barsoom."

It was all quite accidental. Burroughs wrote A PRINCESS OF MARS in 1911 after failing in everything else but deciding—after a glance through stories in the pulp magazines of the day—that even he couldn't write anything worse! He was so sheepish about it that he used a pseudonym.

As early as 1903, H.G. Wells had created a lunar environment with a really alien feel to it in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON—but in spite of a brilliant description of a lunar sunrise, and of dormant plants proliferating in seemingly-barren craters, the idea didn't quite catch on. The novel as a whole was devoted more to sociological satire.

But some of the Wellsian imagery—from that novel, perhaps even from the earlier vision of a decadent future Earth in THE TIME MACHINE—rubbed off on Burroughs when he set down his own vision of an ancient and decaying Martian civilization where warring species of humanoids compete for dominion over the remaining canals and dead sea bottoms.

By contemporary standards, A PRINCESS OF MARS is more science fantasy than science fiction. John Carter, the hero, travels to Mars by astral projection. The geography of the planet doesn't conform even to the addled vision of Percival Lowell. The sociology isn't consistent. And John Carter fathering children—by a princess who lays eggs?!

Yet somehow this Ruritanian romance transplanted to another planet works. It has what Roger Zelazny once called "world vision" as opposed to "stage vision"—meaning it seems real enough that the hero could go anywhere in it and still find himself in another wondrous part of that world, rather than out in the wings, with prop men scurrying out of the way.

Burroughs' first novel was so successful that it spawned 10 sequels and inspired a host of imitators. That this kind of science fantasy adventure, with its swordplay and derring-do across exotic landscapes peopled with strange beasts and men hasn't lost its appeal is shown, not only by the reprintings of Burroughs' novels, but by the success of John Norman's TARNSMAN OF GOR (1966) and its sequels—despite their stylistic limitations and intrusive male chauvinist philosophy.

But the conception of the created world has evolved considerably since Burroughs' day. One path has been followed by Leigh Brackett, a top writer for Hollywood (she collaborated on THE LONG GOODBYE) as well as SF. Brackett places as much emphasis on mood and atmosphere as on adventure in such works as THE SWORD OF RHIANNON (1953) and THE COMING OF THE TERRANS (1967).

Not only are Brackett's alien cultures far more original than Burroughs', but her created (although labeled "Mars" or "Venus") worlds are usually in regular contact with Earth—and moral and cultural conflicts play a leading role in her plots. The integrity of her worlds is threatened as much by external imperialism as internal decadence.

This sort of conflict becomes even more explicit in Ray Bradbury's THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1950), which some purists like Frederik Pohl have criticized for being laid on "a mythical planet which for some reason he insists on calling Mars." A more valid criticism is that the created world tends to take a back seat to the morality play in Bradbury's book, which otherwise has an undeniable stylistic and imaginative brilliance.


A different path was followed by L. Sprague deCamp in an effort to make honest science fiction out of the Burroughs-type adventure. His VIAGENS INTERPLANETARIAS (from a Brazilian space line that dominates interstellar commerce) series involves several planets of other stars with backward—but realistic—cultures. However, deCamp keeps the basic appeal of the Burroughs-Brackett romance in such novels as THE HAND OF ZEI (1951) and THE TOWER OF ZANID (1958)—the princesses are beautiful, even if they do have green skin and antennae, but of course they can't interbreed with humans (which doesn't, however, preclude sexual relationships).

It was also deCamp who originated the idea of a cultural embargo to protect native cultures from the danger of disintegrating under the too-sudden impact of modern science and technology (the notion has since become a staple of SF, even on STAR TREK). Problems of intervention figure in THE TOWER OF ZANID, ROGUE QUEEN (1951) and several stories of THE CONTINENT MAKERS (1953). But deCamp treats them in a light, humorous vein—totally unlike that of Brackett or Bradbury.

Several other successful writers have modified the Brackett-Burroughs formula to set adventures on imaginary worlds. Amond the best known are Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley, in whose worlds magic often co-exists with science, and in which the imagination of science fiction touches that of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and others.

Norton's WITCH WORLD series (1963-8), for example, is almost pure fantasy—although lacking the traditional props like dragons and elves. Bradley's Darkover, scene of a continuing series of novels since 1959, is the home of an apparent mixed race of humans and natives with occult powers. In yet another variation, Anne McCaffrey's epic DRAGONFLIGHT (1968) and DRAGONQUEST (1971) have native Dragons as the allies of human colonists—but are otherwise written in the manner of "hard" science fiction.

One of the best creators of worlds, however, is Jack Vance, whose strong point is the depiction of exotic—but still human—cultures on far planets. Vance avoids the supernatural or the mythical; his magic is in the cultures themselves. He began his career with a very moody series of stories about a fantasized future Earth (THE DYING EARTH, 1950), but most of his work is science fiction in the true sense.

Vance's cultures tend to be very static and formalized, and the plot usually centers either on some catastrophic event that challenges the security of the culture, or on the awakening of a hero who realizes he doesn't fit in and must find a new destiny—or both. In THE DRAGON MASTERS (1962), an isolated human colony tends its herds, aided by genetically modified descendants of an alien species that invaded the planet long ago. Then the aliens come back—with genetically-modified human allies.

In a recent Vance novel, TRULLION: ALASTOR 2262 (1973), a major element in the culture is a sport called hussade. Hussade is totally imaginary, of course—but Vance's descriptions of matches, and of the sport's place in the culture and its importance to the hero, are so vivid that it seems as real as baseball or football. This attention to cultural detail is typical of all Vance's best work.

The most detailed created world novel ever written, however, has to be Frank Herbert's DUNE (1965): Herbert spent literally years working out the entire historical, ecological, and (this was a real innovation) religious background of his desert planet of Arrakis.

In DUNE, the harsh environment shapes the whole psychology of the people, already the inheritors of a cultural tradition that includes a Butlerian jihad against computers and partially-successful efforts to create a truly ecumenical religion. The political background—a sort of restored feudalism on a galactic scale—is less convincing, even though it shapes the plot and provides the origin for the messiah Muad'Dib.

On a somewhat less epic scale, the influence of new environments on human culture and psychology has figured in such novels as Ursula K. LeGuin's PLANET OF EXILE (1966), in which the created world has a year equal to 60 of our own—and a person born one spring may never live to see the next.


Although the typical created-world science fiction novel deals with planets close enough to Earth in atmosphere and surface gravity to make suitable homes for humans, this isn't always the case.

Hal Clement is science fiction's master at creating worlds with non-human environments. His best novel, MISSION OF GRAVITY (1953), is set on a world 12 times the mass of Jupiter, which rotates so rapidly as to be shaped like the yolk of a fried egg (and thus have a surface gravity ranging from three times Earth's at the equator to 600 times at the poles), a methane atmosphere—and natives that look like centipedes, and are sharp traders.

Artificial worlds have figured in science fiction for decades. Briefly mentioned in J.D. Bernal's THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1929) and Olaf Stapledon's THE STAR MAKER (1937), they loom larger in such "space ark" stories as Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" (1939), Clifford D. Simak's "Target Generation" (1950), Brian Aldiss' STARSHIP (1958), Harry Harrison's CAPTIVE UNIVERSE (1969)—and the current STARLOST television series.

Fritz Leiber's THE WANDERER (1964) dramatizes an encounter between the Earth and an artificial world as large as a real planet-large enough to cause widespread destruction by tides and earthquakes on our planet, but manned by fugitives from a cosmic tyranny who eventually win the readers' sympathies.

But Larry Niven's RINGWORLD (1970), may be the ultimate in artificial world novels. Niven's world isn't a planet at all, but a huge hoop assembled around a star with an inhabited inner surface (the air is kept in by mountains along each edge of the inner strip). The fact that the "ground" curves up in two directions is the least strange thing about this seemingly unbelievable (but entirely possible) world in which a party of human and non-human explorers find themselves.

Even where the created world does not hold center stage, with its natural or cultural environment creating the major theme, it is a necessary element in modern science fiction—which has to take the possibilities of the entire universe into account. Creating worlds takes a wealth of imagination and hard work, of course—but that's what makes it so much fun, for the writer as well as the reader.