World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets by Stephen L. Gillett is 1 of 4 books that are in the Writer’s Digest Science Fiction Writing Series that was Edited by Ben Bova. This book is one of my essential writing books. If you’ve been following me from the beginning, you know that I’m really big into science and technology. If you haven’t been following me for very long — yeah well, I guess I just told you. I’m a geek for science and technology, it excites me and makes my brain go into all different kinds of interesting directions. I’m telling you this because this aspect of my personality is what makes me love this book so much. If you are the type of writer who just wants a list of questions to answer about your world-building project, this is not the book for you. You’ll most likely find it dry, arduous, and boring. On the other hand, if you enjoy science and sometimes have the secret desire to read science text, then this book could be for you. It’s super geeky, and you could be surprised about the interesting stories you could come up with simply based off of the world you create for your stories.

A WriterAlina Book Review


World-BuildingWorld-Building by Stephen L. Gillett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen L Gillett’s World-Building helps the science fiction (and fantasy) writer understand the importance in world-building in storytelling. I’m not talking about world-building in the context of culture, customs, and modes of transportation, though the ideas in this book address the effects; I’m talking about creating a planet. Gillett writes about the importance of the astronomical setting of your story. His goal is to help a writer use real science to create a “sense of wonder” in a story.

To help the writer World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets is broken down into four topics of study: basic astrophysics information, information about stars and solar systems, information about planets, and information about Earth. I have not listed these topics as they come up in the book, but they are the base information that he feels is important for a writer to consider when writing their stories.

Throughout the book, Stephen introduces the reader to real physics and how it can potentially apply to stories. He also gives several examples of stories written by classic science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Arthur C Clark, and Larry Niven (just to name a few) that demonstrate why it could be important to understand the astrophysics of your story’s world.

Basic Astrophysics

There are several astrophysical concepts discussed in Gillett’s book: such as gravity, orbits, escape velocity, seasons, Roche’s Limit and much more. Ideas such as these are addressed because it’s important to understand how gravity will affect a planet and the creatures on it. Does having orbiting satellites (moons, space debris, etc.) have an impact on a planet’s surface? What will your people see in their day-time and night-time sky? Will it be possible to build a space station that orbits your planet?

Stars and Solar Systems

With all the talk about gravity and orbits knowing what kind of star your planet revolves around could be essential to your story. The kind of light the planet is exposed to, the distance of a planet from its sun, the shape of a planet’s orbit around said sun; these are all essential developmental pieces of the puzzle that will make up your world’s environment. At one point there is even a discussion about whether or not a life-sustaining planet like Tatooine can exist.


When Gillett talks about Earth, he talks about what we understand about the Earth to be like today and what Earth was like in its past, before humans existed. He goes through the development of the planet from its initial formation around our sun to today, lending ideas to possible story settings and explaining how humans might or might not survive in the Earth’s evolutionary past.


There is extensive discussion regarding the possibilities of what a planet can be made of. What conditions can create such different planets with varying environments? What could live in a world that has seas made of sulfuric acid? What could live if Ammonia were the most prominent element on your planet?

WriterAlina’s Take On World-Building

World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets by Stephen L Gillett is not your typical book about world-building for writers. In my opinion, this book is like reading a science book for the non-scientist; but I have to admit, my opinion is probably bias because I’ve read physics and chemistry books in university. And this book isn’t nearly as complicated as reading a book on astrophysics.

I was surprised at how inspired I became while reading this book. Even though I love science, especially physics, I’ve always kept a clear barrier between my fiction and my knowledge of physics. I never had a problem incorporating technology; but when it came to the actual world-building, I only every stayed with what I knew. Earth as we know it today. Mars as we know it today. But World-Building by Stephen L Gillett made me think that I could expand my worlds into something more creative.

As I read through this book, I wondered about the validity of the years of summer and winter in George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I thought about Anne Mccaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books. I was convinced that the concepts that I was opening my imagination to in this book are what inspired the creation of such worlds. This book also made me realize the importance of understanding what you’re creating in your world. I have to admit, I’ve read one too many stories lately that didn’t ring true for me because they didn’t apply real-world science to their story. Reading Super Man is one thing, but trying to convince me that a guy is “strong” on Earth because the gravity on his own planet is less than Earth is simply unbelievable. Yeah, unfortunately, that last thing is a real example, and I’m not going to destroy the author by directly incriminating him/her. But! I think if they had understood the concepts in this book, the author would have been able to pull off their idea more effectively.

For what it’s worth, World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets by Stephen L Gillett is one of the books on my bookshelf that I use to enhance my world-building and storytelling techniques.

WriterAlina’s Recommendation

So, again, I’m going to say that this is a difficult book to determine a definitive recommendation.

If you’re not much of a science person the math and physics equations in this book — yes you read that correctly — will probably intimidate you. The equations are simple and not complicated, but some people’s brains turn off when they see y=mx+b. Yeah, if you’re one of those people, this might not be the book for you.

If you’re not intimidated by the occasional equation, and you enjoy geeky science talk, then you’ll totally be fine. You will rock this book and hopefully find as much inspiration in it as I have.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever read World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets by Stephen L Gillett or even heard of the Writer’s Digest Science Fiction Writing Series? Have you ever picked up a science book to justify what you want to create in your world? I have, but this book was much easier to use. I hope I’ve peaked your interest in World-Building. I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment for me below, and we can start a fascinating conversation.

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