The authors of the SF genre have created many vast empires, strange cultures and unusual planets with bizarre environments, all fertile ground for the imagination to go wild (not affiliated with “Girls Gone Wild”). No one person could have possibly read them all - although I’ve given it yeoman’s effort. And, as it seems one purpose of a group such as this is to bring the works of SF to the attention of others that they might otherwise miss. It is also an opportunity to highlight those works that we consider to be exceptional.
What I would like to see are not just the titles of those works, but also, why you believe them to be worthy of note.
For empire creation, the award has to be to the master of the genre, Isaac Asimov, for the seminal work, The Foundation Trilogy. It is far more than a trilogy. It is a multiple book epic written over a 30+ year period. The original trilogy ( Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation) was just the beginning. The epic extended to, Prelude to Foundation, Foundation and Earth, Forward the Foundation, Foundations Edge. And, the whole series was tied back to the Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw series (general known as the robot series Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, et al).
The series even extended beyond his death as other authors added to the epic - Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear, Foundation’s Triumph by David Brin and Foundation’s Fear by Greg Benford.
Runner up (but by no means inferior), IMHO, is Frank Herbert’s Dune series which was also continued beyond his death by his son Brian and Kevin Anderson. While some of the later books by Frank begin to be mired down with mythic – religious themes, the continuing series by his son and Anderson gave the series a shot of renewed vigor.
What are your favorite novels of empires, cultures or strange new worlds?

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I adore the worlds of Octavia Butler, my favorite author of all time. Check out her Xenogenesis trilogy and Seed to Harvest series. I'd also recommend Dan Simmons' Hyperion books-- I'm almost finished with the last book, but haven't had the time to touch it for a little while.

I was a big fan of Anne McCaffery's Pern when I was just a high school kid, but then, every girl could use some vicarious sex and dragons when they're trying not to lose it in catholic high school.
Dan Simmons' Hyperion series is an excellent series. His writing is simply brilliant. It is the only SF novel that actually made me cry (and in places, made me cringe). When Harlan Ellison sings his praises you know he's good (Ellison hates everyone)
His horror stories are really, really terrifying. A book of short stories called Prayers to a Stone God is one of the few collection of horror stories that I actually enjoyed (normally I can't stand them). One in particular "Eyes I Dare Not See in Dreams" will put your hair on end.
While I found the storytelling to be sloppy and 'ok' at best, I loved the overall parallel universe concept in Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Moreover, I REALLY loved the idea of our souls being physical animals that follow us around. How totally cool is that?!? One can't help but wonder endlessly what your daemon would be in his world.
I would vote for Niven's Known Space stories. I have read and reread the Ringworld books several times and always find something new.
The Ringworld series is certainly among the classics of strange and unique worlds as is the Integral Trees and Smoke Ring also by Niven (although it's not a world per se). Niven and Pournelle also created one of the most alien of aliens in the Mote in Gods Eye - the Moties.
I definitely need to check out some the books mentioned here.

If you want immersion in a fantasy world, I would suggest George R. R. Martins "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Though not quite as fantastical as some other titles suggested (I tend to think of it as "fantasy light" when compared to heavy fantasy like the LOTR series) it is extremely well detailed epic and everything fits together organically.
I am not a big fan of fantasy, however, Tad Williams' 4 book series Otherland is an exceptional work that combines SF and fantasy using advanced virtual reality as the vehicle.
It would be lying to say that Robert Heinlein wasn't a major scifi influence on me.

I regularly have to re-purchase his novels due to being worn out or lost due to loan.

His Future History stories were a major source of reading for me and my mom had a large Heinlein collection, so easily and repeatably accessible.

The nice thing is they stand very well as short stories outside the framework of the Future History, but present a nice thread in the tapestry of the larger universe.
Double shadow, by Frederik Turner, is a truly fascinating novel I read some 30 years ago. It takes place on a terraformed Mars, and describes a society where all moral conventions are replaced with aesthetic codes. The prose is beautiful (Turner is also a poet), and although you occasionally meet gods from the Greek pantheon (although they're by no means divine), I believe the book should appeal to atheists who are interested in morals and ethics.

Among the 'empire builders', Cordwainer Smith is also a classic. I don't like everything in his Instrumentality series, but there are many gems to be found here. Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of my longtime favorites.
This theory was also the basis for Verne's wonderfully entertaining Journey to the Center of the Earth as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series (including Tarzan at the Earth's Core.) It's a cheap way to get to another world without the need for space travel. I'd rather use cross-dimensional travel to achieve the same end, though; it's more scientifically plausible.
I've always had a weakness for Tolkein's Middle Earth. Robert Jordan comes close with his Wheel of Time series too, although his passing left finishing the series to someone else. Others have already mentioned some of my other choices as well. Orson Scott Card has several series of books that are excellent, the Enderverse books being my favorite. For me, there's nothing I enjoy more than losing myself in an author's universe of peoples and their civilizations! Frank Herbert's Dune books are tied at #1 with Tolkein in my heart.




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