Okay - I am sure that this topic has been explored before, but based on the innumerable LOTR threads and this Dune thread, there is a whole lot of passion about thoroughly imagined alternative worlds. So, what are the best ones?
Tolkien - LOTR
Okay - there are plenty of others, but lets not spend a ton of timing showing how cool we are listing as many different universes we can. If you had to pick 1 - 2, what are the most credible, enduring alternative worlds that have been created?
I’ve always thought that the first four seasons of Babylon 5 painted a coherent, consistent, and fascinating alternate universe. It got a little wonky in the fifth season and some of the movies, but I’ll still throw it out there.
The Discworld has survived almost thirty books, and Terry Pratchett’s the second-best-selling author from Britain ever (Curse you, J.K. Rowling!). Not only does it sell a lot of books, the world itself is pretty well convincing, even if it does… Evolve, let’s say… over the course of the series.
Actually, I was always mildly impressed by the near-future glimpsed in Robocop and Tekwar. Despite the many bouts of silliness, a gradual increase in corporate power and a growing fascination with gee-whiz gadgetry seems the most likely mid-21st-century path.
White Plague by the late great God Of Dune, Frank Herbert.
The only thing really Fi about this Sci-Fi is that it just hasn’t happened yet. Read it, a must for Herbert fans, enlightening overall, even though it is fiction…
Fantasywise, Katherine Kurtz’s Gwynedd appears well-thought-out, as does Steven Brust’s Dragaeran Empire.
For SF, I’m not sure, perhaps David Brin’s uplift universe. My SF taste doesn’t run towards the hard side, and thus my most well-read books take liberties that probably wouldn’t be likely in a more realistic universe (giant alien turtles (Liaden universe) and cats (Sholan universe) aren’t that realistic )
I will vote for Peter F. Hamilton’s Confederation from his Night’s Dawn series of novels as being the best example of Universe creation in the past 10 years. Blows away Star Trek/Wars in the field and shows how it should be done. I can’t compare to LOTR as I haven’t read it.
My number two would be Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series of books.
For fantasy world, I would go with the one created by Robin Hobb in her three big fantasy series. The development of characters, the political and economic background, the different animals present and the ecosystems, all of it shows a lot more thought than typical fantasy works.
On TV, Firefly has the most plausible depiction of the future of humanity. Mankind stretches out from Earth in search of planets to colonize. It terraforms a bunch, and then pioneers head out, with low-tech colonization gear mixed with high tech. It’s cheaper to ship frozen horse embryos than tractors. So you wind up with a sort of weird frontier. Then as Earth gets better at intersteller travel and starts to reach out and re-establish connection (and control), they find that some of the terrraformed planets don’t like it…
The show shows how cultures might mix and blend into a future pan-humanity culture and language. Everyone looks dark-haired and somewhat exotic. People attend square dances in grand Elizabethan halls, while across town people live in the space age. People speak English but swear in Chinese. Great stuff.
I never bought into Star Trek’s future. Perhaps The Original Series. But by the time the Next Generation came along, we were supposed to believe that humanity had ‘evolved’ in a few hundred years, and no longer had greed, or needed money? Uh huh. And there wasn’t a whole lot of coherence to the Star Trek political structure.
For my money, Hal Clement and Robert Forward were the most consistently consistent world-builders. Compare and contrast their two heavy-worlds, Mesklin (from Clement’s Mission of Gravity) and the world of the cheela (Forward’s Dragon’s Egg).
I personally don’t find any great level of consistency of credibility in any of the long-running series milieus (xcept for Babylon 5, but the plotting of that series made it unique). The demands of a weekly television series (or ongoing film series) preclude the type of rigorous attention to detail and continuity a good world demands.
H. Beam Piper and his Terro-Human Future History. He build a universe that STARTED with the destruction of the northern hemisphere in nuclear war. This led to the colonization of the stars by a combination of Afrikaaners, Zulu, Australians, Argentinians, etc.
And just about every story/novel referenced something that happened prior, whether it was 10 years or 1000 years prior. And the farther back the reference was the hazier the protagonists grasp of the event was.
The last story, set 5000 years from now, has humanity rediscovering Earth. It had been lost in one period of barbarism or other.
Also, Piper showed himself a bit of a Toynbean by using historical situations as ‘background space’ for his history.
Maybe this is because I’m a cynic, but I was highly impressed by the worldbuilding in Donaldson’s Gap series. Yes, it’s very dark and dreary and violent and grim and all of that. Yes, it’s a hard, slogging read, with all the torture and agony and death.
But it’s the details that sold me. The fact that the ship-to-ship particle-beam weapons weren’t visible, and that you wouldn’t know whether or not you’d been hit until the split second before your vessel ruptured, was great. The genetic piracy of the Amnion was chilling, too. And even the really nasty throwaway stuff – I seem to recall a performance artist who had microservos clamped on major arteries in order to stop life-threatening bleeding after a self-mutilation act – was a plausible extrapolation from available technology and human degeneracy.
But again, maybe it’s just because I’m a cynic.
Oh, and I’m currently reading Delany’s Einstein Intersection. I’m only partway into it, so not all the puzzle pieces have fit together yet, but even at this point it’s obviously a remarkable feat of imagination.
What JohnT said, Peter F Hamilton has by far and away the best sci-fi worlds I’ve read, after reading his books, he was instantly my top sci fi writer, even between 2 different storylines he manages to change the use and economics of FTL travel in different ways and still make it plausible, and his space combat is much more realistic than phasers and whatnot.
Of course, all sci fi generally has to cough when they explain FTL
Of the four in the OP, Dune would have to be the most plausible. It does have some out-there elements, like psychic powers, but everything else seems perfectly possible, considering that it’s set over 20,000 years in the future.
I always like Larry Niven’s Known Space stories, but they weren’t very realistic. Very imaginative, though.
I like the Varley stories that are set in the future where mankind was evicted from Earth by aliens and is scattered throughout the solar system. There’s very little technology that would require anything more than refinement of current technological progress - no faster than light travel or antigravity. People have adapted to living in a totally artificial environment, but are still people.