The other day, someone asked me where I get ideas for alien worlds. That made me pause as I realized that I don’t write many stories that take place on alien worlds or which even have aliens in them. The “alien” worlds I have invented tend to be based on places right here on Earth. For example, the alien world in my forthcoming story “Hoodoo” was inspired from a trip I took to Goblin Valley, Utah about fifteen years ago. The historic downtown quarter of just about any old North American city inspired the domed city on the alien world in “The Fine Art of Surfacing”. I don’t think this is unusual, however; while speculative fiction is a genre of ideas, ultimately a good story illustrates something about the human condition and life on Earth. Most alien worlds in speculative fiction are created to tell such stories and likely have their foundations in something human and mundane.
This must be a disappointing revelation for those who think speculative-fiction writers are infinitely inventive. Some certainly are—I know several who fit the bill—but I’m not one of them when it comes to creating alien worlds (or aliens for that matter). I’m more interested in telling human stories about people than inventing a detailed alien world and/or civilization. World building is a lot of work, especially for a 4,000-word story, and I would rather spend that time developing the story’s characters, conflict, and tension. Besides I find Earth to be interesting enough—it’s already filled with innumerable “alien” worlds and civilizations (at least to me), so who needs to create them from scratch?