7 Best Science Fiction Books with Exotic Ecosystems

Few books about other planets really dive into how wildly different aliens ecosystems could be from ours. These books take a stab at it.


The Integral Trees
by Larry Niven – 1983

Leaving Earth, the crew of the spaceship Discipline were prepared for a routine assignment. Dispatched by the all-powerful State on a mission of interstellar exploration and colonization, Discipline was aided—and secretly spied upon—by Sharls Davis Kendy, an emotionless computer intelligence programmed to monitor the loyalty and obedience of the crew. What they weren’t prepared for, however, was the Smoke Ring: an immense, gaseous envelope that had formed around a neutron star directly in their path. The Smoke Ring was home to a variety of plant and animal life-forms that had evolved to thrive in conditions of continual free fall. When Discipline encountered it, something went wrong. The crew abandoned ship and fled to the unlikely space oasis.

Five hundred years later, the descendants of the Discipline crew living on the Smoke Ring no longer remember their origins. Earth is more myth than memory, and no recollection of the State remains. But Kendy remembers. And just outside the Smoke Ring, Discipline waits patiently to make contact with its wayward children.

Dragon's Egg
by Robert L. Forward – 1980

Dragon’s Egg is a fun, clever look at life evolving on the surface of a neutron star, where one hour of human time is the equivalent of hundreds of years on the alien star.

While the extreme physics of the book are really entertaining, Dragon’s Egg contains some of the most stilted dialogue I’ve come across in a long time, especially in the beginning. I found myself thinking that author Robert L. Forward must have talked to a human woman at some point in his life, but if so, that knowledge did not find its way to his book.

However, this is not a story you read for its character development. Dragon’s Egg is all about examining an alien race evolving on a sphere with a gravity of 67 billion Gs, and living at a million times the speed of humans. The story is most believable when it’s dealing with aliens, and it’s still a fun ride.

“Forward has impeccable scientific credentials, and… big, original, speculative ideas.”
—The Washington Post

by Sue Burke – 2018

Given a billion more years of evolution, what would plants evolve into? Given that life on Earth went from single-celled organisms to us in a billion years, an intelligent plant evolving in the same period of time seems not only plausible, but likely.

Semiosis is a well-written book that follows several generations of humans that land on a planet a billion years older than Earth and have to deal with intelligent plant life that’s friendly and not-so-friendly.

“Impressive debut novel… lush… beautiful.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

by John Varley – 1979

When Cirrocco Jones, captain of the spaceship Ringmaster, and his crew are captured by Gaea, a planet-sized creature that orbits around Saturn, they find themselves inside a bizarre world inhabited by centaurs, harpies, and constantly shifting environments.

by Robert Charles Wilson – 1999

In the 22nd century, humankind has colonized the solar system. Starflight is possible but hugely expensive, so humankind’s efforts are focused on Isis, the one nearby Earth-like world. Isis is rich with complex DNA-based plant and animal life. And every molecule of this life is spectacularly toxic to human beings. The entire planet is a permanent Level Four Hot Zone.

Zoe Fisher was born to explore Isis. Literally. Cloned and genetically engineered by a faction within the hothouse politics of Earth, Zoe is optimized to face Isis’s terrors. Now, at last, Zoe has arrived on Isis. But there are secrets implanted within her that not even she suspects. And the planet itself has secrets that will change our understanding of life in the universe.

“Wilson’s most tightly constructed pure adventure tale to date.”

The Word for World Is Forest
by Ursula K. Le Guin – 1972

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.

The narrative can be a little heavy-handed, but it’s more about the forced loss of innocence than simply beating the drum for conservation.

“Le Guin writes in quiet, straightforward sentences about people who feel they are being torn apart by massive forces in society― technological, political, economic―and who fight courageously to remain whole.”
―The New York Times Book Review

by Frank Herbert – 1965

Written over 50 years ago, Dune is the world’s best-selling science fiction novel. As recently as 2012, the readers of Wired magazine voted it the top science fiction novel of all time.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, it’s a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction” and has inspired countless other science fiction novels.

The comparison to high fantasy is particularly apt given the small part technology plays. There are no robots and no computers. Spaceships are treated as transport vessels, not objects of wonder. There are castles, emperors, witches, dukes, dragons (sandworms), and a substance that bestows astounding powers when you eat it (spice).

“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

18 thoughts on “7 Best Science Fiction Books with Exotic Ecosystems

  1. Alan Dean Foster’s Midword is a great fit for your list. Primitive human tribes live in an arboreal world, coexisting with the creatures living there. A corporate ship lands, planning on exploiting the biological diversity.

    1. I must have read that book a hundred times and the two related Mid-Flinks and short story From Forbidden Planets.

  2. I’m with Frank, above. I came here to see where Midworld would fit in. It wasn’t included. Big mistake.

  3. Personally, I’ve never read anything as engrossing or as fascinating as the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown. I’m open to suggestions starting with this list. Thank you Mr. D. Livingston. PS- Hope your not being affected by the wildfires or the protests. J

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! From what I can tell, the protests are actually only in small areas of Portland. I drove in there the other day and it was completely normal. The wildfires got closer than I would prefer: at one point we were completely packed up and ready to evacuate. Fortunately, we didn’t have to, but now the smoke/air quality has kept us inside for five days. Bleah.

  4. Hello Dan and thanks you as always for your lists
    I’m surprised you didn’t cote
    Iceworld by Hal CLEMENT
    maybe also A door into ocean by Jon SLONCZEWSKI
    Le monde vert de Brian Aldiss (sorry I don’t know the english title)
    even The enigma Score by S TEPPER (because I fall in love with her singing cristal mountains …) or City of Pearl by K TRAVIS for her environmental extremists ET

    1. There is a Pip and Flinx novel set on Midworld.

      Also, Avatar is perilously close to Midworld. I contacted Alan dean Foster about the similarities.

  5. While the thrilling physics of the book are really enjoyable, and fascinating. Characters make sense and the ending of the story is stunning and exceptional.

  6. The Colour of Distance by Amy Thompson.

    Sentenced to Prism by Alan Dean Foster.

    Semiosis by Sue Burke.

    Coyote by Allen Steele.

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