World-building is a difficult exercise, and in the genres of science fiction and fantasy you see everyone tackle it to a degree, and most fail to a degree. It is incredibly difficult to invent a world from scratch, with all the sociopoliticalinterracialphsyics factors, and not tread on your own toes. As an occasional gamemaster, one good rule of thumb for evaluating speculative fiction universes is, “Can I run multiple different genres of campaigns in this universe?” If the answer is yes, then the author Built Well. If the answer is, “The only stories that can be told in this Universe are the stories that the author told”, then the author has not Built Well.
Not that there is anything wrong with telling a character-driven story or plot-driven story that doesn’t really depend all that much on the context. Sometimes, the world is just window dressing, or a place for the Child of Light to stand while he fixes the Universe. For example, Asimov’s Foundation started to creak around the edges the farther he got into the series. Dune was better as the story of “a world around which the Empire revolved” than “the story of an empire”.
I have two favorite world-building examples from science fiction. H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History timeline and Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth. Their other respective abilities as authors aside, both of these gentlemen did an excellent job of building two different alternate futures that had depth and maintained a realistic idea of how humanity would adapt – or not – to the fictional conditions under which the future existed. There are numerous other good ones, but those two are my favorites.
In the genre of fantasy, I’m fond of Andre Norton’s Witchworld and Martin’s Westeros. Jordan’s Andor started out great, but he got too complicated and used too much world building shorthand in pursuit of his labyrinthine plot.
If you’re looking for a series of books set in a more-than-just reasonably coherent greater universe, there’s your recommendation for the week.