Most planets featured in science fiction tend to be rather generic. These planets are usually convenient celestial bodies upon which to pitch a narrative tent for a few scenes before the plot moves on. Generic planets also tend to be one-note, reflecting some particular environment on Earth. You have your ice-worlds, desert worlds, lava worlds, jungle worlds, water worlds, city worlds, forest worlds (in particular, forests that look like those near the city of Vancouver), earthquake worlds, and so on.
But sometimes an author will create a world whose presence has a weight and ring of truth, a world that feels like it could happily go on existing on its own terms, with or without a protagonist or antagonist strolling around on its surface. Setting aside obviously artificial habitats like ring words or hollowed out asteroids, here are my top ten best science fiction planets, in chronological order:
- Solaris (1961): You may or may not have liked the films, but Stanislaw Lem’s conception of a world so utterly alien that it defies any genuine human comprehension still resonates.
- Dune (1965): Best Planet Ever. At first glance, it’s just one of those one-note desert worlds. But Frank Herbert created a complete ecosytem, deep geological history, and a complex native society to go with his sand-covered planet. Dune is no mere backdrop, it drives the plot of Herbert’s complex saga as inexorably as the law of gravity.
- Annares (1974): Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed featured two worlds, a more-or-less straightforward analog for cold-war era Earth, and the far more interesting Annares, where settlers established an anarcho-syndicate-based society in a bid to be free from authoritarian government. LeGuin created a believable society for Annares—including the unpleasant side effects (such as intellectual conservatism) of trying to create a human utopia.
- Mote Prime (1974): In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, this is the homeworld of the Moties, a species that, due to cosmic happenstance, has been bottled up in its solar system ever since it evolved. Mote Prime is planet which has become a palimpsest, mutely testifying to the endless cycles of technological development and collapse experienced by the trapped Moties.
- LV-426 (1979): The dread planet that featured briefly in Alien, and was the location for 1986’s Aliens. In both movies, LV-426 is perfectly portrayed as part of a cosmos utterly indifferent to human concerns, such as staying alive.
- Dagobah (1980): The Star Wars franchise is a planet-producing machine: Tatooine, Yavin IV, Alderan, Hoth, Endor, Coruscant, Naboo, etc, etc. But Dagobah sticks out for its organic messiness and claustrophobic atmosphere that stands in contrast to the typical open spaces that provide the large stages for the movies’ space opera.
- Lusitania (1986): The setting of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Lusitania is the exception that proves the rule—it is fascinating not because it is a rich world, but because its ecosystem has so little diversity, and the implications that has for the book’s characters.
- Red, Green and Blue Mars (1993-1996): Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy has become the standard against which all hard science fiction books about Mars are weighed. Beginning in the near future, with the founding of the first permanent outpost on the red planet, and continuing for two centuries as Mars is terraformed, Robinson’s Mars is a meticulously researched and believable fictional version of our solar system neighbor.
- P2 (2004): P2 is a world orbiting the nearby Barnard’s star, and it is settled by fantastically advanced exiles from the solar system in Wil McCarthy’s Lost in Transmission. Unfortunately, all their technology can’t make up for some basic deficiencies in the carrying capacity of the Barnard system, and what happens to P2 is reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, but on a planetary scale.
- Nasqueron (2004): A gas giant, home of the maddeningly unconcerned Dwellers, and location of much of Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist. Nasqueron becomes not just the huge canvas the Banks requires for his sprawling tales, but also becomes an integral element in the plot, as the protagonist struggles to understand the Dwellers.