content by

James Davis Nicoll

Five Classic SF Stories About Lost Home Worlds

To quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” The Milky Way is ancient, a hundred thousand light-years wide, and contains four hundred billion stars, give or take. It would be easy to misplace a particular world in space and time; a number of SFF protagonists have done so. Consider these five vintage works in which home worlds have been lost.

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Five SFF Characters To Help You Execute the Perfect Caper

No doubt, we’ve all experienced the urge to recover something lost, whether it was money, a family heirloom, a damning letter, or just an eldritch tome that haunts our nightmares. One solution: assemble a team of experts to retrieve the lost item.

The core members of such a team might include a mastermind (to plan the heist), a thief (to get past any security devices), the driver (to orchestrate exfiltration), the muscle (in case something goes horribly wrong), and of course, the distraction (because it is much easier to get away with stuff if everyone is looking in the wrong direction). Speculative fiction offers numerous candidates who would combine the required expertise with the necessary moral flexibility. Here are the five SFF characters I’d pick for my retrieval team.

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Risky Business: Five Books About Interplanetary Trade

Humans have, starting in prehistoric times (with obsidian, red ochre, etc.), established vast trade networks that cross mountains, deserts, and oceans. Presumably, this will be true in the future as well, even as humanity expands out into SPAAACE. While there are reasons why larger concerns will tend to dominate, the little guys will often provide more engaging narratives. Thus, these five heartwarming tales of working traders enthusiastically engaging in commerce among the stars…

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Not So Fast: Five Books Featuring Sublight Space Travel

Faced with the improbability of superluminal travel, many authors have decided to opt for sublight starships. True, sublight travel has significant challenges (slow travel, high energy demands) but at least it doesn’t necessarily break causality. Is it possible to tell interesting stories without faster-than-light travel? Yes indeed! Consider these five tales of sublight exploration and trade.

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Five SF Books About Living in Exile


Few calamities sting like being driven from the land one once called home. Exile is therefore a rich source of plots for authors seeking some dramatic event to motivate their characters. You might want to consider the following five books, each of which features protagonists (not all of them human) forced to leave their homes.

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Would-Be Utopias: Five Books Featuring Arcologies and Domed Cities

The term arcology was coined by visionary architect Paolo Soleri in 1969, combining the words “architecture” and “ecology.” Arcologies were to be high-density, ecologically low-impact structures, with each one housing populations of thousands or more. Some architects envisioned arcologies that could be self-sustaining (or very nearly self-sustaining).

For many people, arcologies are a vision of a nigh-utopian mode of urban life. Pity, therefore, that nobody has ever managed to build one.   Soleri’s Arcosanti, for example, broke ground half a century ago but never made Soleri’s vision reality, unless his vision centered around under-use and the occasional car-park fire. The issue may be that the technical challenges were greater than imagined half a century ago —or simply that at this moment, other approaches are far cheaper.

Science fiction authors are not limited by such mere practicalities. Thus, it’s not terribly surprising that arcologies and their kin appear from time to time in science fiction. Consider these five examples.

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Six Fictional Characters With Whom You Should Never, Ever Go Camping

If you’re a fictional character, chances are high that you or someone close to you will vanish into the wilderness—particularly if you’re a secondary character (known in the SF field as a redshirt). If you are, you should definitely read the following essay, which discusses the protagonists with whom you should never, under any circumstances, go camping. They will survive. You probably won’t.

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Five Stories About Alien Attempts to Reshape the Earth

The term “terraforming” was first used in Jack Williamson’s 1941 story “Collision Orbit.” As you know, Bob, terraforming is the process of transforming an environment hostile to Terrestrial life into a habitable environment. Humans have been doing this in a minor way for millennia, even before they started domesticating plants. But what we’re talking about here is going from “you die outside the dome” to “you can go outside, breathe the air, and plant a garden.”

Sapients from other worlds might also want to reshape other planets to suit their needs and tastes. Call it “xenoforming.” Perhaps they might want to xenoform our planet. There’s no guarantee that what suits us would suit them… and considerable dramatic potential if it does not, particularly if the aliens have better tech than we do. H.G. Wells was an early pioneer of this conceit in his The War of the Worlds—the Red Weed pushes aside terrestrial plants, at least for a time—but he is hardly the only author to use the idea. Consider these five works about hostile xenoforming.

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Five SFF Novels Featuring Men Who Don’t Give Up Easily

When one thinks of science fiction and fantasy protagonists, one thinks of figures like Morgaine (Gate of Ivrel), Essun (The Fifth Season), Cordelia Naismith (Shards of Honor), Beatrice Clayborn (The Midnight Bargain) and Anna Tromedlov (Hench). A casual glance suggests these are generally women, which only makes sense. The majority of fiction readers are women and of course they want relatable characters.

However, it’s entirely possible to write a book with a strong male protagonist at its centre (“strong” as in striking, resolute, and/or determined, not as being able to dead-lift surprising amounts of weight, of course—assessing male characters purely in physical terms would be offensively reductive). Consider these five recent examples:

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Space Hibernation: Five Stories Featuring Sleeper Ships

Space is way, way big. Bigger than you can imagine. Compared to the size of the Milky Way (which is only our local galaxy, one of 225 billion), even very fast ships are likely to be comparatively slow. Among the options open to travellers who do not want to invest large fractions of their conscious lives getting from A to B: hibernation. Given the correct technology, travellers can just take a chill pill and sleep the dark light years away.

How well this works in practice depends on a number of factors, such as the degree to which metabolism is slowed in hibernation, the frequency of lost luggage scenarios involving sleepers, and of course, the need by authors for dramatic scenarios. Consider these five works featuring hibernation.

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Five Fictional Planets Plagued by Extreme Climate Shifts

The Sun follows a solitary path through the Milky Way. This cannot be said of a significant fraction of the stars in the galaxy. Many stars have companions—some distant, others quite close.

In the latter case, SF authors crafting a plausible setting may need to take into account the effect of a stellar partner on habitable worlds. For example, the distance between Alpha Centauri A and B varies from 35.6 astronomical units to 11.2 AU. At their closest, A would add about 1 percent to the energy budget of a hypothetical habitable world orbiting B, while B would add 4/10th of a percent to a similar world around A. Not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but sufficient to have measurable effects on climate over the course of A and B’s eighty-year mutual orbit.

SF authors being what they are, those whose works feature climate forcing due to companion stars tend to prefer dramatic oscillations rather than low, single percent wobbles. One might expect that such works would have first shown up in these times of worry over anthropogenic climate change. Not so! This was already a well-established genre. Consider the following works from times of yore:

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Five SF Novels That Take the Long View of History

There are a fair number of SF novels that focus not on individual characters but on the society of which they are a part. Often the novels do so by focusing on the development of those cultures over time. Societies evolve; individuals come and go like mayflies. There’s a narrative, but not the sort of narrative we usually expect to enjoy.

You might think that it would be hard to make such books interesting. (I don’t think that anyone has ever described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a cracking thrill ride: “Could not put it down!”) The following five novels show that it is possible to write interesting works that take the long view.

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Far From Any Star: 5 Stories About Rogue Worlds

It’s been weeks since you last socialized (in the flesh) with anyone outside your household…or with anyone, if you live alone. Loneliness is tough. But things could be worse: you could be a rogue world, ejected from your home system billions of years ago. You could be a pitiful world formed far from any star. Such worlds are commonplace in our galaxy. They are not quite so common in science fiction. Still, a few of them feature in books that you may have read…

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Five Fantasy Novels Featuring Gods and Religious Sects

In the days of yore, if I wanted to buy a table-top roleplaying game, I had to travel to Toronto, the nearest major city. If I wanted inked dice, I had to hand-ink them myself. If I wanted fellow gamers, I had to shape mud into human form and breathe life into my golems (oops, no, I couldn’t do that, sometimes I just wished I could).

In those days, most TTRPGs treated gods as a sort of theological ConEd for wandering clerics. Gods had different names and superficial attributes, but otherwise their cults were much of a muchness, with no actual doctrinal differences.

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