First I would like to clarify what I mean by “worldbuilding.” I am referring specifically to the development of a historical, political, economic, geographic, linguistic, or cultural background for a fictional world in which the story is set. This is above and apart from simply establishing a “setting,” which is necessary for authors of all genres. I am aware that the term can be understood in other ways, but I wish to talk about this particular trend in fantasy and science fiction literature, and it is the closest word I have.
I also want to make clear that I am not criticizing all works that utilize elaborate worldbuilding, nor trying to suggest that it can never be done well. Tolkien proved beyond doubt that worldbuilding can improve a story, and he set a standard to which almost every fantasy author now aspires.
Yet worldbuilding has now become the standard by which we judge science fiction and fantasy. Reviewers will lovingly praise a well-crafted universe, neglecting to mention that the story is tired and the characters are thin. Mediocre stories are raised up as triumphs of the genre, based solely on the quality of their worldbuilding. Is this really the only thing that makes the genre special?
I should acknowledge, however, a distinction between overt worldbuilding and implicit worldbuilding. In the former, the author lays out all the details for the reader’s benefit. In the latter, the worldbuilding is present in the author’s mind but invisible to the reader. To avoid inconsistencies and plot holes, an author might wish to think through the infrastructure of their world and yet choose not to trouble the readers with the results of their labors.
At the least, implicit worldbuilding provides a way in which an author can avoid the wrath of M. John Harrison, who declared: “Worldbuilding is dull. … Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.” If you do not share any of your worldbuilding efforts, at least you cannot bore your audience with it or strip them of their agency as readers.
But I still take issue with the prevalent notion that worldbuilding is an essential part of writing good fantasy or science fiction. It becomes a rule book, a step-by-step guide to stories. And that creates the same problems for books as Save the Cat-style screenwriting causes for movies. In the end, every fantasy novel looks the same, holding up its obligatory map as a talisman to prove that the author has done their due diligence as a worldbuilder.
When Tolkien gave us Middle-Earth, he showed us a type of storytelling that had scarcely existed before. His “secondary creation” was not undertaken to fulfill a cookie-cutter formula. The heart-breaking legends of the Elder Days, the divergent linguistic styles of Quenya and Sindar, the meticulous hand-drawn maps: these were among Tolkien’s primary passions. The adventures of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins were the afterthought.
It is natural that so many wished to imitate the awe-inspiring scope and depth of Tolkien’s work, and some authors have indeed produced impressive works using the worldbuilding approach. I imagine there are innumerable paths to a good story, and worldbuilding is probably as good as any.
But so often, worldbuilding creates only the illusion of depth. It is a parlor trick, dazzling the reader with detail and thus distracting them from whatever defects an author might wish to hide. It allows mediocre storytellers to polish nickel and sell it as silver.
Piling layer upon layer inevitably obscures what lies beneath. Yet if you should ever manage to draw back Salome’s final veil, beware: you may not find the beautiful lady you hoped for. Sometimes there is only a cardboard cut-out in a woman’s shape.