Suggest some fun worldbuilding/milieu stories?
June 22, 2013 8:29 AM   Subscribe

I love stories incorporating multiple settings/cultures. Think Lord of the Rings, with Rivendell (elves), Moria (dwarves), and the Shire (hobbits), all with a distinct "feel" to their societal standards. Can you suggest a book/series I would enjoy?

One of my favorites is the Starrigger series, about a trucker who ships to different planets; you get to visit a new world every few pages. This author goes beyond culture into different environments and adaptations, like desert ants that have reached the bronze age and build armor against warring tribes. That's two pages away from a world that sounds a lot like Cleveland, complete with an auto-body garage... which is a few chapters away from a sea world where people ride inside giant whales....

Something very similar is Star Trek, where people of different societies try to work together while investigating mysterious places. This doesn't quite have the magic of Jane Lindskold's Wolf series, which fascinates me particularly in the parts where monk-mages wear face paint...

Basically, it's not fantasy that I like so much as fantastical worldbuilding - some new setting that hangs together as strange yet real and makes me want to explore more details. Can you suggest some books I would enjoy?
posted by heatherfl to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
A great one is Jack Vance's four "Planet of Adventure" novels-- multiple alien cultures on one planet, and their interactions with different human but alien cultures. You can get the individual novels used, or I think there is still an omnibus edition in print.
posted by seasparrow at 8:47 AM on June 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I thought Dune came really close to LotR as far as world-building, including a bunch of linguistic stuff (although it's really just a bastardized Arabic) and a timeline of history that takes place before the main story.
posted by LionIndex at 8:49 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

China Mieville, Embassytown!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:56 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rupert Thomson's Divided Kingdom, in which the UK is geographically divided into four nations and subjects are placed into them by the four psychological humours, does this really well.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:02 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Recently finished Hyperion and thought the world building was great. Several character's stories are told, all taking place on different planets and years.

Seconding Dune.
posted by meta87 at 9:19 AM on June 22, 2013

Have you read "Glory Road" by Heinlein? Three distinctly different cultures, and a lot of the story is precisely about culture shock.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:48 AM on June 22, 2013

An awesome awesome book that I only picked up thanks to Metafilter - Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep.
posted by ghostbikes at 9:48 AM on June 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


* Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of The Wind -- epic fantasy
* Norman Spinrad, Child of Fortune -- space opera Bildungsroman
* China Mieville, The Scar -- floating pirate city with different neighborhoods (my guilty pleasure favorite of his, it's just SO over the top with the sorts of details you subscribe; he just throws away concepts left and right in sentences that other writers would use to write a whole novel with)
posted by foxfirefey at 9:59 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin. Many cultures, religions, types of magic, etc. The worldbuilding is the best part of his writing.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:08 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Star Diaries, Stanislaw Lem. Funny and philosophical, a hapless spaceman wanders around the universe in his crappy spaceship. Star Trek, Hitchhiker's Guide and Red Dwarf owe a lot to it. Seems to be out of print, which is crazy, but easy to find second-hand. Sample chapter in audio.

Big second for Divided Kingdom, intense, compelling, dream-like but detailed descriptions of a very weird dystopia (though I thought the ending was so weak I stop about 4/5ths of the way through when rereading). It's more melancholy than fun, and definitely not meant as a 'plausible' story, but an amazing read.

You could always skip the plot all together--

Dictionary of Imaginary Places, (I hadn't realised until linking it here that it was written by Alberto Manguel, a wonderful writer of books about books)

Histories of Herodotus is supposed to be an account of the war between the Persians and Greeks, but on the way he describes every tribe he's ever heard anything about. It's the ur-imaginary-travelogue. Some are real(ish), like the Egyptians and their devotion to their pet cats; some.. aren't, such as the famous gold-digging giant ants of the far east. It's just glorious.

Invisible Cities, of course!
posted by Erasmouse at 10:53 AM on June 22, 2013

If you're willing to soldier through 13 books the Wheel of Time series has some very strong worldbuilding with distinct cultures.
posted by calistasm at 11:10 AM on June 22, 2013

N. K. Jemisin's Dreamblood series, starting with The Killing Mooon.
posted by wintersweet at 1:00 PM on June 22, 2013

This is a children's book but the characters in The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton visit some surprisingly psychedelic worlds.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 1:34 PM on June 22, 2013

The Belgariad, etc. by Eddings. The cultures aren't terribly creative, since the series is largely an exercise in assembling standard tropes very skillfully, but they are varied and well-realized.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:35 PM on June 22, 2013

Oh, also, The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh is all about embedding a human in an almost-but-not-quite incomprehensible alien culture.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:37 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I just realized that Cherryh also wrote the The Faded Sun trilogy. Maybe you should just look through her entire bibliography. She's really good at the sort of world-building you're looking for.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:41 PM on June 22, 2013

Thank you, everyone. I started to order a few of these, but they're surprisingly expensive used! I'm starting with China Mieville, and I hope to work down the rest of the list soon. :) Happy reading!
posted by heatherfl at 7:53 AM on June 23, 2013

I'm dis-recommending The Scar. Eloquent and creative, but man, it's depressing. I switched over to Planet of Adventure, which is very John Carter of Mars - minimalist with testosterone. I'm looking forward to Lem next.
posted by heatherfl at 6:01 PM on July 15, 2013

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