This is in response to a question Lyda Morehouse asked: is there less description in contemporary SFF, and if so, does this matter? Is it good or bad?
I just read a fairly recent novelette/novella set on an alien planet and had very little sense of the world being alien. The story may have lost me with the mention of grass, which is a specific kind of Terran plant. Write ‘grasslike’ or ‘groundcover.’ Take 2 lines and describe how it is like/unlike grass. The story isn’t about the alien planet. It’s about the humans. And it was a fast-paced action tale. But I could use a bit more setting. SFF is about the different and strange. We should see and feel the difference and strangeness.
I am trying to remember a story from way back. Humans come to an alien planet where the natives have a regular season of flooding. When this happens people — I remember them as young people — are hung upside down from trees. The humans think this is amazingly cruel and rescue one alien from hanging. The floods come. It turns out that the aliens came two forms: as juveniles, they are mobile and intelligent. As adults, they are sessile and brainless. The person they rescue turns into a brainless adult. If he had remained out of the water, he would have kept his juvenile form. The moral of the story: don’t assume you know what you are doing. I think it’s a Robert Sheckley story. I mention it because it’s really strange, and clearly memorable. I remember it decades later. Also, there are animals on earth — tunicates — which have a life cycle like this. “Despite their simple appearance and very different adult form, their close relationship to the vertebrates is evidenced by the fact that during their mobile larval stage, they possess a notochord or stiffening rod and resemble a tadpole.”