That's no moon.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (1977)

Perhaps the Death Star wasn't your introduction to the really big, ridiculously enormous thing, big for the sake of being big, but it was mine.

It all happened at Earthport, greatest of buildings, smallest of cities, standing twenty-five kilometers high at the Western edge of the Smaller Sea of Earth. Jestocost had an office outside the fourth valve.

Cordwainer Smith, "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", 1962

In between and afterward, there was the Ringworld from Larry Niven, as well as a number of enormous McGuffins from Iain M. Banks, among them the (eponymous) Bridge, the Holdfast from Feersum Endjinn, Culture GSVs, and Vavatch Orbital from Consider Phlebas. "Really Big Thing" was a term a friend of mine made up to describe Banks's enormities.

The generation ship from Heinlein's "Universe" probably predates them all, but perhaps, did something come before?

(I thought it over and worldcities like Trantor which developed over time probably don't count. The Labyrinthine Castle trope is close but doesn't really match. Big Dumb Object is too restricted).

What was the first Really Big Thing in science fiction, an artifact so big that thousands of people, or perhaps whole nations, could live out their lives inside of it?

I guess I should have been more specific. I was thinking of unitary constructed objects, Big from the perspective of the individuals that view/live in them, and not enlarged (or the viewers not shrunk) after construction.

*It gets tricky in the case of the Culture. Is a ship an individual, or does that distinction go to the Mind installed in it?

  • 15
    Probably something by E.E. Doc Smith, but I'd need to dig a bit to be sure.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 2:02
  • 6
    How big does it have to be? Your examples are all over the place. Does it have to be an inanimate object, or do really big living things (Hoyle's Black Cloud, Manning's Living Galaxy) count? How about all those old stories where our world is an atom in a bigger cosmos, ordinary household objects on the next level up would dwarf your examples, do they count?
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 2:28
  • 3
    Is "The Library of Babel" (1941) science fiction?
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 4:31
  • 4
    @Theodore By site policy religious texts are not treated as fictional.
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 21:57
  • 7
    The Tower of Babel was meant to reach the heavens, literally. Some apocryphal sources report it took a worker a year to climb to the top and add his portion, and it still wasn't finished. In the Genesis version, it's entirely a human effort, and offends God so much that he decides to make it impossible for them to finish it. I'm not sure about dating other sources, but Genesis is about 700BC. Noah's Arc, as measured in Genesis, was certainly mega-sized for contemporary readers. "Really big thing" is a "really old idea".
    – user15742
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 3:07

8 Answers 8


@Ivo has the right work in his answer, but the wrong object. In Lucian's 'A True Story' (written circa 200AD and generally hailed as the first genuine science fiction work), the Sunites build a gigantic wall made out of clouds to blot out the sun and prevent the peoples of the moon from being able to survive.

The enemy decided not to lay siege to the city, but on their way back they built a wall through the air, so that the rays of the sun should no longer reach the moon. The wall was double, made of cloud, so that a genuine eclipse of the moon took place, and she was completely enshrouded in unbroken night. Hard pressed by this, Endymion sent and begged them to pull down the construction and not let them lead their lives in darkness. He promised to pay tribute, to be an ally and not to make war again, and volunteered to give hostages for all this. Phaethon and his people held two assemblies; on the first day they did not lay aside a particle of their anger, but on the second day they softened, and the peace was made on these terms

A wall that entirely covers the moon's surface (38 millions square kilometres plus) is certainly a megastructure by your definition.

  • 1
    I'm not sure Lucian set out to impress readers with the thing's bigness, but this is technically it.
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 18:11

What about A True Story written in the second century AD?

It features a 200-mile-long (320 km) whale in whose belly a variety of fish people live.


1726: In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, we encounter Laputa, which is described as a fully navigable, flying maglev city about 4.5 miles in diameter:

The flying or floating island is exactly circular, its diameter 7837 yards, or about four miles and a half, and consequently contains ten thousand acres. It is three hundred yards thick. The bottom, or under surface, which appears to those who view it below, is one even regular plate of adamant, shooting up to the height of about two hundred yards....

At the centre of the island there is a chasm about fifty yards in diameter, whence the astronomers descend into a large dome, which is therefore called flandona gagnole, or the astronomer’s cave, situated at the depth of a hundred yards beneath the upper surface of the adamant. In this cave are twenty lamps continually burning, which, from the reflection of the adamant, cast a strong light into every part. The place is stored with great variety of sextants, quadrants, telescopes, astrolabes, and other astronomical instruments. But the greatest curiosity, upon which the fate of the island depends, is a loadstone of a prodigious size....

By means of this loadstone, the island is made to rise and fall, and move from one place to another....

Now, you might say that 4.5 miles isn't that large compared to something like a Death Star, Halo, or Dyson Sphere, but it would have been enormous for contemporary readers living in a world in which a sailing ship would hardly be expected to be longer than a few hundred feet.

As user14111 mentioned, the city is equipped as an engine of terror to crush rebellions and thus qualifies as an 18th century equivalent of a Death Star:

If any town should engage in rebellion or mutiny, fall into violent factions, or refuse to pay the usual tribute, the king has two methods of reducing them to obedience. The first and the mildest course is, by keeping the island hovering over such a town, and the lands about it, whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases. And if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence but by creeping into cellars or caves, while the roofs of their houses are beaten to pieces. But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise insurrections, he proceeds to the last remedy, by letting the island drop directly upon their heads....

Laputa thus qualifies not only as a Really Big Thing, but as a Really Big Weapon. It's a doomsday engine designed to subdue entire civilizations with sheer terror, and if that fails, utterly annihilate them from above. It has the same function as the Emperor's Death Star.

In terms of whether Laputa qualifies as one constructed thing rather than a very large city such as Trantor, I would go with Cristobol Polychronopolis's assessment that it is a single construct (with a base of a "regular plate of adamant") that was intentionally constructed as a single engineering project rather than a land city that might have grown organically over years, centuries, or even millennia.

  • 2
    Good one! A precursor to the Death Star, since it can crush rebellious towns.
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 12:12
  • Maybe. It seems to have a lot of rock, though; otherwise the Astronomer's Cave would have been called a chamber/room/hall.
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 12:27
  • I'm not sure this one really counts, as it's something that people live on, not in. After all the question explicitly disclaims Trantor.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 14:40
  • 3
    @DavidW Trantor is a world-size city (arguably a collection of artifacts, rather than a single one), whereas in this case at least the base of Laputa appears to be a single large artifact. I'll leave it to OP to make the call. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 19:03
  • 2
    Nice answer. Japanese director Miyazaki borrowed floating city Laputa for his 1986 Castle in the Sky.
    – bfris
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 21:40

1912's The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson contains the Great Redoubt, a giant metal pyramid 8 miles tall with sub levels that go dozens (or even hundreds) of miles in to the earth and contains the last few million humans on a dead earth. Despite the book being written with a more romantic/fantastic tone, the world has mutants, psychic powers, and possibly the first instance of the modern idea of a force field.

  • I probably should have put "modern" in the title...this might have gotten the check mark.
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 18:18
  • @Spencer It's a question of how you define "science fiction" and whether it includes "proto science fiction". The science fiction genre as such was created sometime early in the 20th century, and science-fiction-like stuff before that time (Lucian, Shelley, Verne, Welles) was "proto" SF. Also, if you separate fantasy from science fiction, which was Lucian's "True Story"? And by the way, is a wall of clouds a structure, and does that matter? The rules were not very clearly defined.
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 5:08
  • @user14111 Well, that's a general problem with history-of questions. But I'll go on the fact that when I took a History of SF class in college way back when, Lucian was the first thing we got.
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 12:45

A bit earlier than Starmaker is 1934's "The Living Galaxy" by Laurence Manning, published in Wonder Stories, September 1934.

Part of the setting is a "tiny" (100 mile diameter) planetoid that is converted into a spaceship. Not quite a Dyson sphere in size, but larger than Rama and comparable in size to a GSV, so I figure it qualifies.

They settled upon an uninhabited planetoid circling a small sun — a tiny planet not quite one hundred miles in diameter — and busied themselves in secret preparations. Atomic motors of huge size were constructed and the entire core of the planet scooped out and its stone transformed into metal. From the center, great rocket tubes flared out to the surface — fifty miles away — and the entire planet was in a few centuries made into a rocket ship.

Found on the SF Encyclopedia's page for World Ships.

  • 1
    Note that Edmond Hamilton had the planets of the solar system given propulsion and flown to a new star in "Thundering Worlds" (Weird Tales, March 1934), but I discounted that because the planets were still just planets, not constructs.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 2:43
  • 1
    Earllier and bigger: Donald Wandrei's "Colossus" in the January 1934 Astounding. If it counts. The rules for this question seem kind of vague.
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 3:15
  • Arthur J. Burks had the planet Earth go rampaging through the galaxy under her own power in "Earth, the Marauder" (Astounding, July 1930) but I guess it's still "just a planet" despite the modifications? "Out of Her Orbit Sped the Teeming Earth—A Marauding Planet Bent on Starry Conquest."
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 3:53
  • Not earliest, but I wanted to give honorable mention to Clifford Simak's "Construction Shack" (1973) for the entire Solar System having been assembled (poorly) by departed builders of unknown origin.
    – Mark Wood
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 15:17

Olaf Stapledon's Starmaker is a good start, at 1937 with their Light Traps

Resolved to pursue the adventure of life and of spirit in the cosmical, the widest of all spheres, it was in constant telepathic communication with its fellows; and at the same time, conceiving all kinds of strange practical ambitions, it began to avail itself of the energies of its stars upon a scale hitherto unimagined. Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed...

  • 2
    Well, that predates all the Lensman novels, so I'll stop looking. :) (The Skylark dates from 1949.)
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 2:19
  • 6
    @DavidW 1949???? "The Skylark of Space" appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928, and Galactic Patrol in Astounding Stories in 1937.
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 5:19
  • @user14111 Ack, of course you're right, I forgot there was a 20 year delay between their initial serialization and the novels being published.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 11:08
  • 2
    huh guess we should call them Stapledon Spheres
    – so12311
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 12:54

1929: "The Cubic City", a short story by Louis Tucker, first published in Science Wonder Stories, September 1929, available at the Internet Archive; the reprint in Startling Stories, September 1942 is also available at the Internet Archive.

The Big Thing is a city (what you might call an "arcology" in modern lingo) in the form of a cube 2 miles on a side. I'm not sure how big the ship in Heinlein's "Universe" was but I think this is bigger, so it should qualify as Really Big.

"Two miles wide, two miles long, and two miles high is eight cubic miles. Eight floors to the hundred feet or four hundred to the mile give three thousand two hundred square miles of floor space. This is as large as an ancient city forty miles long and twenty wide, covered solidly with houses four stories high; and no part of it is more than two miles from any other part."

"Obvious," answered I, "but not enthusing."

"You do not click it," shrugged my guide. The phrase intrigued me and I stared at him. He was neatly uniformed in dark olive-drab, like a hotel bell-boy; but few bell-boys have such a chin and none such eyes of flashing dark intelligence.

"Try it from another slant," he said. "We have no traffic problem."

"What is your population?" I asked.

"About eighty millions."

"You are not overcrowded," I sneered. He took me seriously.

"Eight hundred floors," he said: "about a hundred thousand to a floor. That is twenty-five thousand to the square mile and forty persons to the acre. We give a thousand square feet of floor-space to each. That is enough."

No, "no part of it is more than two miles from any other part" doesn't make sense to me either. Don't blame me, I don't write them.

  • 4
    I was about to say, the opposite corners of the cube are almost 3.5 miles apart in a straight line, 6 miles if you have to travel along a rectangular grid at all times. Someone didn't memorize their Pythagoras (whether it's the author or the guide we may never know).
    – Arthur
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 11:38
  • It would make sense if you interpret 'part' to mean 'floor'. No floor is more than 2 miles from any other floor.
    – Brady Gilg
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 15:36
  • @BradyGilg Depending on the metric selected (reflecting the cube's layout), it could be anywhere from $\sqrt{12}, ~= 3.46$ to 6 miles from one corner to the other.
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 17:28
  • 3
    @Spencer That is what this discussion is about, yes. If you interpret 'part' to mean 'floor', then you can accurately state that no floor is more than 2 miles from any other floor. The distance between parallel planes is the perpendicular minimum, not the corner to corner distance.
    – Brady Gilg
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 17:32

There is Voltaire's Micromegas. He stands 39 kilometers tall and has a life span of 10.5 million years. He's born on a planet that orbits Sirius.

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. The question was looking for constructs that people might live in, not giant beings.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 1:56
  • @DavidW All right, so not Micromegas himself, but his clothes, the house he lived in on his native planet, etc.
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 5:14

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