Dream-Eaters and Three-Sexed Aliens in the Five Greatest World-Building Novels

What would weather be like if you lived in a planet-sized bag of oxygen? What would reproduction be like if there were a third sex who combined the genetic material of two other sexes by linking them at the neurological level and giving them braingasms? What would scientific progress be like in an anarchist-feminist society? One of the ingredients in many great science fiction novel is world-building, the practice of creating an entire unfamiliar (yet familiar) world whose strange permutations allow us to explore how unfathomable environments can dramatically reshape events that happen all the time in our own lives. Here are five cool world-building novels to suck your attention away from the misery of cooling weather and impending turkey day doom.

5. Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder. Rebel, former pirate, and kickass airbike rider Hayden lives in Virga, a giant bag of air floating in space, built by a post-human society. The air is heated by high-tech suns dragged around by city-states that create their own gravity by building on the inside of vast, spinning tubes. Virga is a kind of eighteenth-century world of kings, despots and pirates, and many of the city-states horde sun power — they'll attack out any nation that tries to assert independence by building its own sun. Most people remain dependent on a few big sun-owning nations for their warmth; those who refuse to toe the line live in the cloud-draped sunless reaches of "winter." Hayden, whose mother was killed after she built a pirate sun, is out to change all that, even if it means killing the leader of Slipstream, one of Virga's most powerful nations. The characters may be a little two-dimensional, but you'll keep reading just to visit the vast, globular floating oceans, the strange cities, and bizarre barren outposts in Virga. Plus, pirate battles in zero gee! Sun of Suns is the first in a trilogy, and the second novel just came out in hardback.

4. Ringworld, by Larry Niven. A classic 1960s world-building epic about aliens on a quest to find out more about a vast artificial Dyson ring built around a dying sun. This is the novel that inspired the people who created the game Halo, which also takes place on a ring world. Expect strange weather, bizarre vistas from on and below the massive structure, and alien encounters that feel very Star Trek (but at a time when Star Trek was still the shit).

3. Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler. This trilogy of novels by MacArthur winner Octavia Butler is about what happens to humanity after earth is destroyed in some kind of nuclear apocalypse, and all the human survivors are rescued by powerful, mysterious aliens called the Oankali. Three-sexed, the Oankali reproduce via a third sex called the TK, which mixes genetic material inside its own body and creates offspring. All their technology is biological too. Lilith, one of the human survivors that the Oankali enlist to help them deal with the other human survivors, discovers that the Oankali recreate their species every few hundred years by merging their genetic material with other species. And the humans are next on their list of species to merge with. Set aboard vast biological ship-words and a newly geo-engineered Earth, Lilith's Brood traces three generations of humans and Oankali as they have children together — children who grow more alien to both species with each generation. Yes, it's a very complicated and subtle allegory about colonialism. And yes, it's an amazing tale of the unknown. Enjoy it for either, or for both.

2. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. It's a world where bureaucrats raise demons with steam-driven machines, and "thaumaturgists" remold human bodies with their hands. A strange kind of species-transforming weather called The Torque occasionally rips through, converting humans into half-insects, half-birds, half-seamonsters. It's been years since a Torque came through, and all the different post-Torque human groups live separated into nineteenth-century style ghettos in a city whose polyglot heart is in a train station called Perdido Street. Everything is steaming along normally in the city — anarchists print subversive pamphlets, artists date across species lines, and scientists study winged creatures from around the globe. But trouble comes to town in the form of dream-eating moths who suck people's minds out, and the only creatures who can stop them are a mad scientist, his half-insect lover, a sentient garbage dump, and a trans-dimensional spider.

5. The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin. A classic novel by one of the supreme world-builders in SF, The Dispossessed is a tale of two planets: one is a lush, economic powerhouse ruled by greed, consumerism, and a rich elite; the other a desert planet full of the descendants of rebels who fled the first planet two centuries before. It has scant resources but is governed by a feminist-anarchist belief system that preaches collective ownership, gender equality, and sexual liberation. Shavek, a physicist from the anarchist planet, is one of the first to visit the home planet in many generations, and his experiences traveling between worlds reveal chinks in the Utopia he's left behind — and unexpected benefits on the corrupt home world, where scientific innovation flourishes in an atmosphere of capitalist competition. What's stunning about this novel is that LeGuin avoids simplistic judgments, and shows in honest detail how even the most progressive culture can be corrupt. And even the most corrupt culture can foster creative brilliance.