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September 15, 2012 3:09 PM   Subscribe

BookFilter: sci-fi novels with "menagerie worlds."

Since childhood, my tastes in sci-fi have been extremely visual. I was a huge fan of Barlowe's guides to extraterrestrials and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. I have a well-preserved copy of Stuempke's Snouters, and so on. But my preferences in written sci-fi are very similar. I want settings bursting with varied alien lifeforms: stories of planetary exploration, "space ark" stories, possibly some transdimensional travel stories. As a child, I often considered plot to be a detriment in books like these. There should be a significant emphasis on visual description, and the alien life should be plentiful, varied, and spectacular.

As touchstones, let's consider:
  1. Jack Chalker's "Wellworld" series — concerning an artificial planet covered from pole to pole with miniature habitats for all the intelligent species in the universe (the whole northern hemisphere is for exotic non-carbon-based life)
  2. Cliff Simak's Goblin Reservation — galactic exploration has found various mythical creatures on other planets, the hero attempts to seek out a space dragon specimen for the zoo he works for
  3. Philip Jose Farmer's "World of Tiers" books — a family of immortal aristocrats (inspired by Blake's Book of Urizen) has created a series of off-the-wall playground worlds that communicate via transdimensional portals
I'd toss in Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, but that is both ancient and completely sui generis. Also, I consider Jack Vance's "Dying Sun" books to be bad examples of the above, because they are extravagantly ham-fisted farragoes.

I welcome your suggestions!
posted by Nomyte to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The entire James White "Sector General" canon is just loaded with this sort of life-form confusion or profusion.
posted by jet_silver at 3:14 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Larry Niven's Ringworld

Liz Williams' Winterstrike

Martha Well's Raksura series

China Mieville's Perdido Street Station
posted by spunweb at 3:47 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Lord Valentine's Castle" by Robert Silverberg. On the surface, this book is medieval fantasy, which is not a genre of my liking, and put my off it for a long time. But several die-hard SF-only fans recommended it to me, so I surrendered, and I'm glad I did.

IIRC, it's not the only book that Silverberg wrote that was set on planet Majipoor. Majipoor is a planet of middle-ages tech mixed with tech so high it seems supernatural, and is known to have been settled by space travellers, but those travellers are just out of the picture at this time.

I also second Perdido Street Station-- another world of varied aliens, and note that he has a second book set in the same land. The name escapes me, sorry.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:57 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

While all the books in David Brin's excellent "Uplift" universe are populated by varied aliens and would meet your requirements, the book "Startide Rising," about a human/dolphin/chimp-crewed ship Streaker that discovers a long-dormant secret that puts it on the run from the society of aliens, leads directly into the so-called "Uplift Trilogy," beginning with "Brightness Reef," where the crew of the Streaker hides, and the crew lives with 6 other exiled groups of aliens on a fallow world.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:04 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, Larry Niven's "Ringworld" books. Ringworld is populated by a multitude of aliens.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:16 PM on September 15, 2012

Very much in favor of the Ringworld books, since they are also great in terms of asking what happens when you have multiple species of intelligent life descended from the same common ancestor given virtually infinite space on a "world" to evolve.

Also in Larry Niven's Known Space universe but not by him, Dean Ing's Cathouse, which was originally in the first two Man-Kzin War's anthologies, but also published as a standalone book.
posted by strixus at 4:46 PM on September 15, 2012

David Gerrold's War with the Chtorr series, which is maddeningly still not finished, in case that's an issue, is sort of like this, but it's about an alien ecosystem supplanting that of earth from the bottom up (i.e. first, their viruses take over ours, then their fungi and plankton and lichens, all the way up to their apex predators, which are giant, possibly intelligent worm-like creatures).
posted by infinitywaltz at 5:02 PM on September 15, 2012

Barlowe's Expedition is surely already in your library?

Dougal Dixon's speculative evolution bestiaries might appeal to you if you haven't got them yet: After Man, The New Dinosaurs, and Man After Man.
posted by Lou Stuells at 5:28 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Phillip Jose Farmer's "World of Tiers" to quote Wikipedia "...set within a series of artificially-constructed universes, created and ruled by decadent beings ... the inheritors of an advanced technology ...enables the "Lords" (or Thoans, in their own language) to create novel lifeforms, and also to prevent aging or disease, making them effectively immortal ... also allows them to create small artificial universes, and the planets and stars within them, and modify the physical laws (e.g., changing the behavior of gravity) to create unusual or interesting phenomena within these universes..."

Iain M. Banks Culture novels are full of aliens in all shapes and sizes.

tons more that i can't recall at the moment. my favorite kind of Ask because i can check back and add others' suggestions to my own reading list.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 5:39 PM on September 15, 2012

whoops. i have a fever and didn't read your original post very closely, oviously.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 5:40 PM on September 15, 2012

Brain Aldiss' Hothouse (spoilers), which won a Hugo in 1962, represents something of an eccentrically extreme zenith of this form, in my opinion:
In the novel, Earth now has one side constantly facing the sun (which is larger and hotter than it is at present) so it has become a veritable hothouse, where plants have filled almost all ecological niches. ...

Set in a far future, the earth has locked rotation with the Sun, and is attached to the now-more-distant Moon, which resides at a Trojan point, with cobwebs spun by enormous spider-like plants. The Sun has swollen to fill half the sky and, with the increased light and heat, the plants are engaged in a constant frenzy of growth and decay, like a tropical forest enhanced a thousandfold
May be a bit florid for your tastes, but I loved this book when I was a kid, and it changed my thinking. The grandeur of its sweep and timescale recall Stapledon, and I found it to be supercharged with a green numinousness.
posted by jamjam at 5:54 PM on September 15, 2012

Quite a lot of Alan Dean Foster's (non-movie based) stuff, start with Sentenced to Prism and then follow up with Midworld. (And yes, the plot in these is sort of tacked on, and the characters go into multi-page digressions where they just gawk at All The Scenery, and not a single life form is truly analogous to anything on Earth [ok, except the humans, but they're only there so they can do the narrating].)
posted by anaelith at 6:10 PM on September 15, 2012

The Seeds of Time, by Kay Kenyon -- until I read Perdido Street Station, I considered The Seeds of Time to have the most creative aliens I had ever read about. It's now a close 2nd place.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:20 PM on September 15, 2012

John Varley's Titan trilogy features a hollow world populated by a vast array of fantastic creatures drawn in incredible detail. It reads like fantasy, complete with a heroic quest, but it's grounded in science. The perfect intersection of chalker's Wellworld and Niven's Ringworld. (Seconding Ringworld, while I'm at it).

You might also enjoy Niven's The Flight of the Horse collection about a bumbling time traveler sent "back" to retrieve extinct animals who returns with mythical creatures instead.

And since you mentioned "space arks" and "bursting with varied alien life forms," you really must read Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama.
posted by zanni at 8:21 PM on September 15, 2012

Check out Tad Williams' Otherland series! Some of my favorite books. So many different worlds, all created in VR space but end up being pretty much real. The best part for me was all the different worlds and learning all the weird stuff about them.
posted by christiehawk at 8:26 PM on September 15, 2012

Feel free to suggest more, everyone!

Everyone: Ringworld. Got it. Time to fill in gaps, I suppose!

A bunch of people: I've read PSS but not the sequels, sort of enjoyed it, but it's more grotesque than alien.

jet_silver: I've looked at it several times. This will bump it up a notch!

spunweb: Added the Williams and the Wells to the list. Thanks!

Sunburnt: I've wondered about Silverberg's Majipoor books ever since I saw the Jim Burns covers for them. Silverberg is usually hit or miss for me, but duly noted! Also, I'll definitely try Brin's Uplift books.

strixus: Interesting. "Man-Kzin Wars" is kind of a handful, isn't it?

infinitywaltz: It'll be finished "from his notes" once he dies.

Lou Stuells: Yup, read them to pieces as a kid. Have the daggerwrist poster.

Conrad-Casserole: No worries!

jamjam: Oh gawd, I've wanted to read more old British sci-fi for a long while now. I think I'll start with this one.

anaelith: I would've never reached for Foster, but I'll take a look now.

OrangeDisk: Interesting, I'm only vaguely aware of this author.

zanni: It takes the right mood to read Varley, he's got certain… preoccupations. And I promise, I'll read more Niven. I really like Rama, but it doesn't really have aliens at all. And the less said about the sequels…

christiehawk: Read all of them years ago, but they're not quite what I have in mind.
posted by Nomyte at 9:01 PM on September 15, 2012

I am a huge, huge fan of books that feature complex xenobiologies. These are some of my favorites:
  • Alien Earth by Megan Lindholm - Ancient, out of print, but features a great universe with enslaved alien life forms who act as interstellarships, piloted by the sinister Arthroplana who helpfully "saved" humanity and have taught them to minimize their impact on their host homes. As my husband put it, "should have won a Hugo." Great and underread/rated.
  • The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman - Also ancient, also out of print. Wonderful science fantasy with very lush writing. The main character is an alien; so is the love interest. Several other alien species are vividly described. The plot is good, but non-intrusive. Her prose is florid and really pretty.
  • Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler - Actually a trilogy of (really, really unsettling) novels, but read all of them for a fascinating look at a very cohesively and well-built alien species. These novels are really an examination of post-colonial sexuality, in a way. But the xenobiology bits are stellar, and something you can't appreciate until you see the evolution of the Oankali in the third book.
  • Some of Sherri S. Tepper's work, particularly Grass, which is a sort of feminist Speaker for the Dead. Mysterious alien planet with odd creatures with equally odd life cycles. The book is an exploration of their mystery, of sorts.
  • And, for that matter, Speaker for the Dead. Perhaps obvious, but worth a nod.
  • Believe it or not, Diane Duane's Star Trek novels. Very busy universe she built there; the Enterprise is a much livelier place under her watch.
  • Seconding Ringworld. Also The Mote in God's Eye, of which I'm personally not that much of a fan except for the moties.
  • Probably something by CJ Cherryh? (I've heard good things, but, as I suck, I haven't read her yet, personally). You might look at other soft SF authors of the era, too. McCaffrey's early Pern novels (especially Dragonsdawn) are pretty good for their xenobiology.

posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:21 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oddly, I've read The Merro Tree as well as Waitman's only other novel. But weren't the aliens just "snake people," "blue-skinned people," etc.? And doesn't the hero eventually have sex with all of them?

I thought I'd read something by Lindholm, but that was actually Lindskold. I haven't read any Lindholm, not even the really famous stuff she wrote under the pseudonym. Will have to try it.

Grass sounds like the prototypical Sherri Tepper book. I've read her Six Moon Dance, which was basically the same novel in different clothing. This sounds like an awful comparison, but it reminded me of Evangelion more than anything else.

I think I've read enough OSC in my lifetime. (No, really, I've read all the Ender books published up to 2001 or so. And his book on how to be a kickass writer.)

Taking Butler and Cherryh under advisement. Would've never thought of Butler in this context.
posted by Nomyte at 9:43 PM on September 15, 2012

back for more.
what really helped me in my desire to start reading Golden Age and foundational SF a few years ago was Wikipedia. i think i searched Golden Age Science Fiction and just clicked through categories at the bottoms of different pages and then tabbed back and forth between that and Amazon. might be a bit of work but i found lots of interesting stuff in the reviews and recommendations that way. one of those, which you really should check out if you haven't already read it, is Cordwainer Smith. it's amazing weird literature with big ideas that transcends genres.

here's a link to one of my favorites:
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 9:48 PM on September 15, 2012

posted by Conrad-Casserole at 9:48 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooh! You want Changing Planes by Ursula Le Guin. It's actually a series of linked short stories, each of which is a window into a different world populated by a different culture/species. One species has odd bird-like physical characteristics and lives by a multi-year migration cycle, another has a culture built entirely around anger, etc.
posted by ostro at 11:09 PM on September 15, 2012

If you're up for short fiction from the golden age, I've been dying to recommend Eric Frank Russel's 'Hobbyist'. Available in this anthology, which includes many other gems. I won't give you a spoiler, but let's say the shipwrecked mariner has wondrous, terrifying, and ultimately existential revelations about the biosphere he finds himself in.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:25 PM on September 15, 2012

Alastair Reynolds' Pushing Ice.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:58 PM on September 15, 2012

For a lighter read, try John Scalzi's book "The Android's Dream," in which the menagerie of aliens primarily lives in and around Washington DC (so as to man.. er, populate their embassies), but their tourists are all over (which includes an episode, mentioned in passing, which will leave you breathless with laughter). He also has a short story, in a similar or the same universe, called "How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story," featuring a journalist on the worst blind dates of his life.

And finally, it's worth noting his "Old Man's War" universe, which has a variety of aliens, but most of them are only seen in passing, and they're primarily only engaged as any sort of equal in the last book, "The Lost Colony." As with the scenes in the former works, the book "Old Man's War" includes the main character, your basic space marine (although he is old enough to collect social security), catalogs some of the aliens he has fought against. All the books are, however, primarily human stories, and while I'd recommend them in general as interesting and entertaining reads... you have some better leads above for your menagerie. (The other books are "The Ghost Brigades," which is between the above books, and "Zoe's Tale," a YA retelling of the events of "Lost Colony" from the perspective of a teenaged girl.)
posted by Sunburnt at 1:08 AM on September 16, 2012

Terry Pratchett's Strata is in this vein and is a pretty good read.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:43 AM on September 16, 2012

Oddly, I've read The Merro Tree as well as Waitman's only other novel. But weren't the aliens just "snake people," "blue-skinned people," etc.? And doesn't the hero eventually have sex with all of them?

Only the snake person, if I recall correctly. She does some alien species-building, though, as I said, her novel is (admittedly) more science fantasy than sci-fi.

For what it's worth, both Grass and Speaker for the Dead are the authors' respective bests (It's not clear if you've read Speaker; it's an Ender book that was published in '86, but it sounds like not, so . . . ) Both are actually novels about incredibly detailed alien life cycles, though you wouldn't know it at first glance.

You should also read the Titular story from Octavia Butler's Bloodchild anthology, and consider giving Frederick Pohl a try, as well.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:08 AM on September 16, 2012

It's been forever and a few days since I read it, but your description reminded me of Manhattan Transfer by John Stith. I don't want to vouch for the quality since it's been so long, but you might look into it. Also seconding Pohl.
posted by Alterscape at 2:27 PM on September 16, 2012

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