When it comes to worldbuilding, you go to a master – Philip K. Dick. From novels such as A Scanner Darkly to his charged short stories, he can build a whole new world inside you with just a few words, and you become immersed, you believe it. And if it’s immersive experiences you want, I’ll offer you to my adolescent obsession: Anachronox. Released in 2001, it’s a cyberpunk/noir mix of third person RPG and turn-based combat that follows down-on-his-luck PI Sly who gets swept up in a ‘fate of the universe’ quest across varied planets and with a huge cast of allies, including sarcastic robot assistants, dangerous ex-girlfriends, brilliant scientists, washed-up superheroes and a planet (yep, a planet). Although a bit buggy due to rushed production, Anachronox is a classic, with so many side quests (that smelly-sock quest, though…) and genuinely funny dialogue, you can replay it as many times as you can reread a Philip K. Dick book.
If you thought GLaDOS was the best part of Portal (or, really, the preferred Portal 2: When Nature Calls) then I recommend trying the horrific (and very much problematic, but still a classic) short story ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’ by Harlan Ellison in which a megalomaniac supercomputer has taken over the world and is keeping the last few humans – it’s creators – hostage. This isn’t for the fainthearted, it is a dark and twisted view on technology and humanity, and it is probably one of the seminal texts in the evil-AI canon.
However, if you’re looking for a little less evil, then it’s gotta be Mike AKA HOLMES IV from Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award–winning The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The story takes place in 2075 in penal colony on the moon and depicts the plotting, enactment and aftermath of a revolution – a fascinating look at individualism, liberty and the frontier mentality – but it is also about Mannie, a computer tech, who realises that by continually expanding the functions of the computer that runs their settlement, the HOLMES IV computer (ie. Mike, short for Mycroft) has achieved self-awareness, a sense of humour… and the capacity for friendship.
Sticking to the AI theme, if the politics of the Geth (cybernetic organisms created and used for labour who become self-aware and then outlawed) in Mass Effect really had you hooked, then you’re going to love A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. And the politics of AIs and their autonomy is really expanded with Lovelace’s arc in book 2. Mass Effect is so effective at hooking you in to a strong narrative, the writing is killer – something it has in common with Chambers’ books. If out-of-this-world worldbuilding and developed, complicated characters and relationships are what you’re looking for, look no further.
In the fourth instalment of Bethesda’s Fallout series you follow a character known as ‘The Courier’ through a desert of the American west coast long after the world was torn apart by nuclear war, watching as he travels to different communities and makes allies, his actions eventually swaying the outcome of the warring between local political factions.
In David Brin’s Hugo and Nebula shortlisted classic The Postman you follow a man who calls himself ‘The Postman’ as he travels through the deserts of the American west coast in the aftermath of a world torn apart by bioweapons, reading as he travels to different communities and makes allies, eventually swaying the outcome of the warring between local political factions.
What more is there to say? And if you’ve already replayed New Vegas through each of the four endings at least twice and your copy of The Postman is falling apart at the spine, you can check out this anthology of grim futures, Wastelands.
Gripping, epic, a hero traveling through a multiverse – are we describing the super-addictive Bioshock or are we discussing King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower series? Why not both? Booker and Roland have some serious similarities: both once great soldiers, men on a quest, haunted by guilt of the past, both with a young follower (Jake, Elizabeth – really the Wesley Crushers of their respective media), both traversing detailed historical and imagined landscapes – both forcing us to consider the consequences of our actions. I read recently that Bioshock’s underwater paradise of Rapture was based on the ideas of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism – but considering Rand’s The Fountainhead was, like, the worst, I’d recommend picking up King instead. (Tip: The Gunslinger: Book #1 is great, but isn’t the strongest of the series – I’d highly recommend pushing through to book 2 to get a true feel for the epic saga at play.)
Production Editor for Hachette Australia. Raised on acronyms such as TNG, SG1, BtVS, MtG and DnD, I have a particular fondness for short stories, gruff space cowboys, time travel and word play. Injuries resulting from my architecturally unsound TBR pile are a statistical certainty.