Astronomers recently discovered a planet in our galaxy that appears to be made almost entirely of steam. And while the temperatures required for this steamworld preclude the possibility of human life, it’s hard not to imagine what it might be like to live there—and that’s where Science Fiction steps in, since imagining humanity in extreme environments is part of the job description. This May, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312” will imagine a future where humanity has spread to many inhospitable places—the book joins a long line of Sci Fi about bizarre worlds and how humanity has sought to adapt them.
Neither Planet Nor Gravity
Integral Trees by Larry Niven
Niven, renowned for his extraordinary Sci Fi creations, imagined a world that’s not even a planet. Instead, he set “Integral Trees” in an immense ring of gas that had developed around a star, creating a vast world of plants and animals living in perpetual free-fall. Having crash landed in this world generations ago, humans now live on floating trees that gently spin to create a semblance of gravity—but the ship that brought them, and the artificial intelligence that runs it, still waits.
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
Humanity has spread out across the solar system, adapting the many diverse environments and, sometimes, being adapted in return. As well as colonizing Mars and the Moon, human civilization has spread to the Asteroid Belt, mining the orbiting rocks for ore. Living in such a low-gravity environment has taken its toll on the asteroid colonists, causing their bodies to become elongated.
Living on a Feat of Engineering
Ringworld by Larry Niven
In one of his most famous novels, Niven explores what to do when you want the most possible space from your world. His answer: Create an enormous metal ring and have it spin around a star. Imagine that, instead of orbiting the sun, Earth simply stretched that entire distance, and you have the basic concept. The spinning creates an artificial gravity and another ring set closer to the sun creates day and night as alternating areas block and allow sunlight.
The Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon
Kenyon imagines a unique universe, one without planets and inundated with exotic matter. Instead of isolated stars providing light to scattered worlds amidst vast stretches of empty space—like our universe—Kenyon’s creation is filled entirely with land stretching impossible distances, perpetually lit by shimmering exotic matter high above. This universe is only one world, and it is quite flat—coruscated walls of energy lie at its edges, keeping it separate from the universes it’s squeezed between. Humanity seeks to use it as a shortcut to destinations in our own universe, but they first have to contend with the despotic rulers—and creators—of this bizarre new world.