weird worlds in fantasy and science fiction

I love weird worlds. Tempt me with a clockwork universe, a planet with two suns, or a moving city. Immerse me in the details of how life works in such a bizarre place. Entrance me with your imagination.

Give me a weird world, and I’m halfway there for your book.

Some of my favorite strange worlds are:

Upon Another Living Creature

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld rests on the back of four elephants which stand upon the shell of Great A’Tuin, the cosmic turtle. In Martha Wells’ The Serpent Sea, a large part of the action takes place in a city built upon the back of a sea creature magically compelled to swim at the water’s surface (and you can just tell what would happen if that compulsion failed, can’t you?). In Leviathan, Derryn Sharp is a midshipman on a living airship engineered from a blue whale, with its own ecosystem of flachette bats, strafing hawks, hydrogen-sniffing canines, and many other (fun!) creatures.

Non-Earth-like Planets

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (second in the trilogy) has delightful sections on the terraforming of Mars and the creation of colonies on other planets and moons. A giant umbrella shades Venus. The human settlement on Mercury is on a moving train. Denizens of the moons around the gas giants genetically alter themselves to survive the environment.

Life on the Edge

Living in extreme yet Earth-like environments also works for me. Kat Falls’ Dark Life takes place on Earth–but in human settlements built undersea. Brandon Sanderson’s world of Roshar is battered by massive storms and much of the natural life, including botanical, is able to retreat into shells.

In the Air

Flying cities show up in games, movies, and books. From Skies of Arcadia to Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky to The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, habitats in the air are toe-curlingly wonderful to this reader.

Build Your World

Some habitats, notably in science fiction, are entirely man-made. Space stations and generation star ships are good examples. An interesting megastructure is Larry Niven’s Ringworld, an artificial ring orbiting around a star like our own sun.


Weird worlds also creep into my writing. The world of Quartz is a disc in a mechanical universe. The world of Riven is folded, like a paper fan. And in Rainbird, an entire community lives upon the skeleton of a continent-sized dragon.

What are your favorite weird worlds and environments, in fiction and out of it?

threats from outer space

Those of us who read and write fantasy and science fiction like our conflicts on a large scale. Forget about family feuds and bickering neighbors–we like wars that engulf whole continents, Dark Lords that threaten to drain the life force of the entire world, and weapons that can take out entire planets.

And since I like to spice my fantasy with a dash of science fiction, I am always interested in world-destroying, humanity-menacing threats from outer space and the many forms they can take.

An Alien Invasion

This is the classic threat, really. From H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds onward, aliens have invaded our TV screens and our pleasure reading for decades. V: The Final Conflict was one of my favorite sci-fi TV shows as a teen. In movies like Independence Day, Signs, and Titan A.E. and books such as Ender’s Game and The Kraken Wakes, aliens are bent on taking over Earth and destroying or subjecting humanity.

And you thought this was a book about sea monsters…

The Thread in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books is an interesting variation on the alien invasion trope. Thread is biological, but not sentient, a mindless parasite that consumes everything organic.

And then there are stories like Avatar, where the alien invaders are–us.

Meteorite* Strike

We all know how bad a meteorite strike can be–just ask the dinosaurs.

*crickets chirping*

K, so we can’t ask the dinosaurs, but while Earth may survive a big strike by a meteorite or comet, humans may not. This is the scenario in the movies Deep Impact and Armageddon (neither of which I have seen, by the way–these are husband-provided examples).

Or, you can combine the alien invasion and the meteorite strike and get something like Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant: Giant elephant slams into the Discworld in the dim, dark past, creating vast deposits of fat.

Megatons of screaming, angry elephant bearing down on the world? Now that’s a frightening thought.

Strange Space Phenomenon

You don’t need to physically harm Earth in order to throw our civilization into chaos.

In John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, a shooting star show blinds everyone who sees it. Chaos ensues.

In Blake Crouch’s Run, everyone who witnesses an aurora is suddenly gripped by an uncontrollable homicidal urge to kill everyone who didn’t. Chaos ensues.

In our very real life, scientists warn us that a solar flare could disrupt our technology. Chaos will ensue.

The Vogon Construction Fleet

Yes, this deserves its own category. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is destroyed in order to make way for an interstellar bypass.

It’s nothing personal.

Miscellaneous Space Threats

Besides these categories, there are threats by black hole, rogue planets smashing into our own, the inevitable expansion of the sun at the end of its life, and the ripping of the space-time fabric. All of which make the hearts of apocalypse rubber-neckers like me go pitter-patter.

What other threats from outer space–real and imaginary–can you think of?

* Edited to use the correct terminology. See dkoren’s comment below.


spectacular solar flare images

NASA’s Solar Dynamic’s Observatory captured this cool shot of a long filament of super-heated plasma erupting from the sun.


And here’s the same eruption, captured in different wavelengths of light.


Any of these images would make great cover art for the right science fiction novel. The raw explosive power shown here is scary-awesome.


dear pinterest, let’s just be friends

Several weeks ago,  I posted about my passionate fling with Pinterest and my subsequent reconsideration of my relationship (addiction?) in the cold light of day. The last time you tuned in (to the soap opera), I had deleted all my boards save one and put some distance between myself and its oh-so-pretty site (“Stay away from him! He’s not good for you!”).

Why, yes, I can flog that relationship metaphor past death.

However, Pinterest does have some good things going for it. I love that it’s visually, not verbally, oriented. I adore, and am inspired by, pictures, but I work with words. Wordsmithing is wonderful and joyous, but it is also hard and frustrating. Pinning, though, is pure play, a relaxing hobby, like scrapbooking without the mess.

In the past weeks, I’ve developed a healthier relationship with Pinterest. I’ve set boundaries, in terms of time and content, on my pinning. I am cautious about what I pin and where it comes from. Here are some of my guidelines:

1. I pin images that have a “Share via Pinterest” button next to them. DeviantArt and Etsy are two big sites that have enabled pinning. Many retailers and photo sites also have Pin It buttons.

2. I pin pictures that are in the public domain or available under the creative commons license. NASA’s space photos and illustrations on Project Gutenberg are two examples.


A haunting illustration by Kay Nielsen for the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. From Project Gutenberg.


3. If I find I an image I really want to pin and I don’t see a yay-or-nay Pinterest policy on the site, I email the copyright holder for permission. Author and illustrator Susan Paradis graciously gave me permission to pin some of the gorgeous interior illustrations from her picture book, Snow Princess.

4. I don’t repin unless I can follow the internet trail back to the original copyright holder to check if it’s okay. I automatically mistrust images from Tumblr or those that have been uploaded by user (unless the user is clearly the copyright holder).

5. I feel safe pinning book covers as they are advertising materials (and if it’s wrong to post book cover images, then a lot of us who review or otherwise blog about books are in big trouble!).

It’s not a perfect system and there are a lot of lovely pictures I’ve passed up, but these guidelines let me enjoy Pinterest with a clear conscience.

So, come check out my Pinterest boards and show me yours. If you pin, link to your account in the comments. I love to admire other people’s boards!


hubble picture of the carina nebula

This is not a new picture, but I just recently came across it. It’s stunning. I can see a cosmic warrior on horseback or an interstellar dragon emerging from the dust. What do you see?

Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)


curiosity on mars

This. Is. Awesome.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More details and images of Curiosity’s mission on Mars here

meeting discovery

Two weekends ago, we loaded up the kids and went to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (the Dulles annex of the National Air and Space Museum) to see the space shuttle Discovery.

Since Discovery had arrived only a few days before, replacing the Enterprise permanently, there were a lot of people there. Like us, they wanted to get up close to a piece of history.

I look at Discovery–at any space shuttle–and what I see reflected back to me is the human spirit. To me, space shuttles represent the power and fragility, triumph and tragedy, imperfection and ingenuity, the curiosity and will of humanity.

As a race and as individuals, we’ve gotten a lot wrong. I won’t enumerate that list here, but when I think of the courage and intellect and drive that took humans to space (space!) I can’t help but see the image of God shining through us, dimly though it might be.

Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off Pad B at the Kennedy Space Center on September 12, 1993, to begin STS-51. Image credit: NASA

Rest well, Discovery. You have earned it.

friday fun: the space edition

I have a thing about space, something I share with my oldest. It’s not quite a passion, but it’s more than an interest. Part of it is just awe over how mind-blowingly vast and weird space is, and part of it is wonder at how tiny, fragile, and short-lived creatures like us are determined to uncover its secrets. Even if it means spending years building robots to be our vanguards, launching them at the precise right time, and hoping that they can nail that landing when they’re supposed to.

Why, yes, I am talking about Curiosity’s landing on Mars this August. If all goes well, the rover’s touchdown should look like this:

Last week, we discovered a great iPhone/iPad app called Star Walk. Basically, you can take your phone or tablet outside on a starry night (or hey, even in the day!), hold it up in any direction and it’ll tell you what stars and planets you’re looking at–or would be looking at if the sun, the earth, random trees or your neighbor’s pink-turreted house were not in the way. Very fun.

In the mood to help discover new exoplanets for future robotic missions to explore? Look no further than Planet Hunters. I’m planning on setting Sir I. loose on it once life permits.

Do you go stargazing? What do you find fascinating about space?

spider silk: the logistics of luxury

The world’s largest spider silk garment is on display for the first time at the Victoria & Albert museum. Spider silk is one of those ultra-exotic luxuries that crops up from time to time in fantasies, often imbued with magical powers. A spider silk cape, one can imagine, might come with Spidey powers: keen senses, near-invisibility, the ability to leap from building to building. It’s so easy to throw spider silk into the economy of one’s fantasy world, along with heart-sized rubies and mollusk-made purple dye.

However, this article shows that some things are too rare and too labor-intensive to be more than one-time novelties:

To create the cape, British art historian Simon Peers and his American business partner Nicholas Godley spent five years collecting and harnessing over 1 million spiders in special “silking” contraptions to extract their threads, 24 critters at a time.

On average, 23,000 spiders yield roughly 1 ounce of silk, making the process intensely laborious and time-consuming. It’s not hyperbole then to claim that the textiles are among the world’s most rare and precious objects—liquid gold, if you will.

Unless, of course, you have a high-tech world where they’ve figured out how to manufacture artificial spider silk.

Or they have really really big arachnids.


“Spider hunter” on that world might be an um… interesting job!

I would love to touch spider silk cloth, though. Just to see how it feels.

What about you? What rare or one-of-kind item would you like to see in person or hold in your hand for a few minutes?


the universe is looking at you

Via Skymania

VISTA’s image of the Helix Nebula. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit