Sci-Fi novels on unusual planets
July 12, 2008 3:32 AM   Subscribe

What are some great sci-fi novels that take place on planets with unusual climate/geography?

Traveling through the Middle East, I just finished Frank Herbert's Dune, set on a desert planet, for the third time. I also loved Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, set on an ice planet.

What are some other fantastic sci-fi novels that take place on planets with unusual climates/geography? Gas planets, water planets, dual suns, etc. Since there are thousands of novels like this, I'm sure, I'd like to lower it down to award-winning novels in which the characteristics of the planet play a major role in the book, like the two named above. Stories (Nightfall comes to mind) could also work.

posted by mamessner to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Brian Aldiss's Helliconia trilogy. From Wikipedia: "It is an epic chronicling the rise and fall of a civilization over more than a thousand years as the planet progresses through its incredibly long seasons, which last for centuries."
posted by Hogshead at 4:06 AM on July 12, 2008

Hal Clement "Mission of gravity" 1954 - a nice quick read about a rescue mission on a planet with different gravitationa forces. Not fantastic per se, thou.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 4:25 AM on July 12, 2008

'Titan' - Stephen Baxter
posted by lungtaworld at 4:30 AM on July 12, 2008

How about Ringworld? I was quite taken with the thing, although not technically set on a planet...
posted by mjg123 at 4:35 AM on July 12, 2008

First thing that comes to mind is Kim Stanley Robinson's excellent Mars trilogy.
posted by gerryblog at 4:35 AM on July 12, 2008

The Integral Trees
posted by Scoo at 4:38 AM on July 12, 2008

This may not be precisely what you've requested, but it sprung to mind immediately: J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World takes place on Earth after an environmental catastrophe has caused the ice caps to melt. Most of the planet is submerged under rainforest and tropical lagoons typical of the Triassic.

This being Ballard, the novel is deeply psychological, the environment being used to illuminate the unconscious of the characters: as the flora and fauna have reverted to those of an earlier time, so the humans begin to experience a recession to a more primitive consciousness.

Quite a few of his early books (see also: The Wind From Nowhere, The Burning World, The Crystal World) are somewhat similar, but as far as i know The Drowned World is considered the best of them.
posted by palimpsest at 4:50 AM on July 12, 2008

H. Beam Piper's Four-Day Planet takes place on the planet Fenris, which has an 8,000-hour year (similar to Earth's), but each day is 2,000 hours long (about a month of daylight, and a month of night). The book is also available online.
posted by steef at 5:09 AM on July 12, 2008

Most of Iain Banks Culture novels include 'Orbitals'. One of his later works 'The Algebraist' sees action taking place on a gas giant.

The novel 'Player of Games' sets the climax on a really well imagined world- would be a spoiler to mention more- his science fiction is well worth a read.
posted by mattoxic at 5:19 AM on July 12, 2008

Karl Schroeder has his Virga series, set inside a giant dirgible/balloon type planet. The first book is Sun of Suns.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:56 AM on July 12, 2008


Millions of square miles of it... a hundred rippling oceans, each ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise... the colors shivering over the prairies... Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy trees which are grass again.
-- from Grass by Sherri Tepper.

Infinity Plus review

SF Site review
posted by jammy at 6:06 AM on July 12, 2008

Even better: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem features a sentient planet as one of the main characters in the story. Brilliant piece of work.
posted by jammy at 6:13 AM on July 12, 2008

hitchhikers guide to the galaxy has a whole scene about a race of people that makes custom planets for the filthy rich in a room that's almost infinity big, but not quite.
posted by Mach5 at 6:24 AM on July 12, 2008

Seconding both Ringworld and The Integral Trees by Larry Niven. Both fantastic books. If you enjoy The Integral Trees, it's followed by The Smoke Ring. Ringworld has three of four sequels now.
posted by Dorri732 at 6:35 AM on July 12, 2008

The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) by CS Lewis. They are very, very good reads and have no theology in them (subtle or otherwise), so don't let that discourage you.
posted by Autarky at 6:39 AM on July 12, 2008

I second Sun of Suns and also recommend the sequel Queen of Candesce.
Some others that you might like (some of them are out of print but you can find those on Amazon used):
Sentenced to Prism by Alan Dean Foster,
Farewell Horizontal by K. W. Jeter,
The Architects of Hyperspace by Thomas R. McDonough,
Inferno by Jerry pournel and Larry niven,
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds.
posted by crios at 6:59 AM on July 12, 2008

Wikipedia's list of planets in science fiction, which doesn't (for some reason) include Melmac. Melmac is notable from an exogeographical perspective because it is the only planet made of Melmac.
posted by aparrish at 7:00 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first thing to come to mind is Harry Harrison's Deathworld, which was a Hugo nominee in 1961 (it lost out to A Canticle for Lebowitz.
posted by xchmp at 7:16 AM on July 12, 2008

Besides "Grass," much of the action in Sherri Tepper's book "The Companions" takes place on "Moss, a disorienting world of exotic plants and dancing lights."
posted by jeffmshaw at 7:39 AM on July 12, 2008

Seconding mattoxic, Iain M. Banks new book Matter is set on (well, mostly in) a well-imagined concentric Shellworld.
posted by nicwolff at 7:55 AM on July 12, 2008

Greg Egan's Incandescence takes place on the Splinter, which certainly qualifies as having strange geography and climate.
posted by Freaky at 8:06 AM on July 12, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin's novelette "The Word for World is Forest", set on a forest-planet.
posted by signal at 8:14 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Larry Niven Known Space novels feature characters from a range of planets that meet your criteria; especially check out his story collections. (*Gak* site won't load on this obnoxiously slow system. He's on Wikipedia and Amazon, of course)
posted by nax at 8:34 AM on July 12, 2008

John Varley's Gaea Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon) is set in a torus-world, and is a cracking good read!
posted by Aquaman at 8:42 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

While technically the world is normal but its star is not, I think Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky" qualifies. It's a prequel to his Fire Upon the Deep, and the star in question spends about 80% of its time dormant, not giving off much energy.
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:43 AM on July 12, 2008

Also - though it's set on a neutron star rather than a planet, Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward qualifies in every other way. You probably can't get a more unusual climate or geography. It won the 1981 Locus Award for first novel.
posted by xchmp at 9:00 AM on July 12, 2008

Robert L Forward's _Dragon's Egg_ is set on the surface of a neutron star.

Someone mentioned Hal Clement's Mesklin - his Abyormen in _Cycle of Fire_ is also detailed and unusual. Clement in general was very good at unusual world-building, so you'll probably find something of interest in any of his books.

Greg Bear's Lamarckia (in _Legacy_) has a very unusual ecology.
posted by aught at 9:07 AM on July 12, 2008

Seconding Kim Stanley Robinson and Red Mars / Green Mars / Blue Mars. It's sort of the opposite of an unusual planet, but the geography and its terraforming is a central, frequently explored theme of the novels. It made me think more about what it'd actually be like living on a different planet than anything else I've read.
posted by Nelson at 9:30 AM on July 12, 2008

Alan Dean Foster's Midworld

Jack L. Chalker's Three Kings series: Balshazzar's Serpent, Melchior's Fire, and Kaspar's Box.
posted by anansi at 10:10 AM on July 12, 2008

A lot of these suggestions are good but kind of tame and predictable.

My favorite current example would be Karl Schroeder's VIRGA (three books; SUN OF SUNS, QUEEN OF CANDESCE, PIRATE SUN). It's set in what is, in effect, a planet (or bigger?) sized balloon with artificial habitats floating in the enclosed air around fusion reactors used as mini-suns.
posted by Justinian at 11:14 AM on July 12, 2008

Terry Pratchett's Discworld is a disc-shaped world, carried on the back of four giant elephants, who stand atop a giant turtle swimming through space. The stars change over time, as the discworld moves through the multiverse.
posted by Susurration at 11:14 AM on July 12, 2008

2nd Hal Clement Gravity Mission - the whole book is centered on unusual characteristics of planet with high gravity, e.g. locals have such fear of heights that even 30cm seems (and is) deadly to them. Also check this out: .
posted by rainy at 11:30 AM on July 12, 2008

Camelot 30K. Shrimp like little things living on a cold, cold, cold asteroid and they poop elements from the periodic table and build nukes to blow their queen into space. lol.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:34 AM on July 12, 2008

A Voyage to Arcturus - by David Lindsey--features Tormance, a world with binary suns and 6 primary colors.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 12:00 PM on July 12, 2008

Jack Vance's Big Planet - a world much larger than Earth, but metal poor, so that the surface gravity is near Earth-normal. A very large planet with many cultures that have adapted, in their own peculiar ways, to a poverty of metal.

Iain Banks' The Algebraist is set primarily on / in a Jovian-sized planet. The human narrator, who flits around in an environmental craft, chums around with the Dwellers, an extremely long-lived race. By the end of the novel, Dweller society seems normal and human society a little strange.
posted by SPrintF at 1:50 PM on July 12, 2008

A Door into the Ocean
posted by Artw at 3:53 PM on July 12, 2008

While set on Earth, most of the action in Starfish, by Peter Watts, happens 4 or 5 miles underwater, in one of the most bizzare and excellent settings I've come across. This despite having just read the Candesce series - and both of those excellent books completely fit the bill for what you ask.
posted by 31d1 at 4:09 PM on July 12, 2008

Not novels, but (here I go again, obsessive me) Cordwainer Smith had a few very odd planets in his short stories, much worth mentioning. Pontoppidan was basically a huge gemstone salad. Henriada was a planet with extraordinarily huge storms, and both some fauna imported from Earth and humans had learnt to live inside the roaming tornados (!). In Amazonas Triste rain was perpetual. The seven Douglas-Ouyang planets have a common consciousness and were still in search of likeminded companionship (! bis). Xanadu was a starless planet, apparently floating in true interstellar space.
posted by Iosephus at 5:12 PM on July 12, 2008

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. Earth, but a million or more years in the future where plants are the dominant life form and take all sorts of horrible and unusual shapes and habits. The book has dated badly with some of its concepts but the setting is beautifully bizarre. I'd suggest borrowing it or finding it cheap second hand.
posted by ninazer0 at 6:26 PM on July 12, 2008

Check out the Biology in Science Fiction blog , which probably would have some good suggestions for you.
posted by gudrun at 11:33 AM on July 13, 2008

Seconding Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky", wherein intelligent life has evolved on a planet that orbits a variable star. When the star is dimmer, the planet cools enough that its atmosphere freezes and falls to the ground. The (intelligent) animals hibernate.
posted by neuron at 9:12 PM on July 13, 2008

Anne McCaffrey's Petaybee series has another sentient planet.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:27 PM on July 15, 2008

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