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The Pros And Cons Of Worldbuilding

A while back, in a reply to CJA's 2013 essay on The 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding, I posted a quote from the British writer M. John Harrison (no, not him) on the subject of worldbuilding, or as he put it, "the great clomping foot of nerdism." As Harrison put it on his (now non-extant) blog in 2007:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader's ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.


I've been thinking a lot about this quote recently. A couple of weeks back, 99TelepodProblems posted a comment addressing a critical takedown of Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies and Tolkienesque fantasy in general, written by the Telegraph's Laurence Dodds. In criticizing Jackson's over-literalizing adaptation of Tolkien's novel, Dodds directly cites Harrison's "clomping foot of nerdism" (henceforth referred to as CFON), observing that

The Hobbit is Tolkien in the spirit of the storyteller, the spirit of the medieval tales which he took for his inspiration. It has the humour and lightness of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its punning heroes and comical understatement. Like them, it gestures towards ancient legends to inspire a sense of awe and history.

But Lord of the Rings is Tolkien in the spirit of the archivist – a serious man who does serious work and does not abide half measures. It is the spirit of his seminal scholarly work on Beowulf, Gawain, and the Pearl poems – and of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he spent years meticulously tracing the etymology of Germanic words which began with the letter W. It is a noble spirit and an admirable spirit and a spirit of great interest to many people. But it is not a spirit for storytelling.

Dodds is no fan of Tolkien's LotR, which he decries as "rubbish" and "a gigantic, sprawling trek of boring asides." But he loves The Hobbit, precisely because it is simpler and more straightforward — "like visiting a lost world, one which 20th century fantasy left behind." Jackson's crime, as Dodds sees it, is that in the process of adapting the earlier novel into a trilogy, he infected the simpler, lighter work with its sequel's CFON virus of gigantism, over-literalization, and portentousness. For Jackson, his collaborators, and the studios, it was more important to bring the story in line with the epic scale and tone of the established universe of the LotR movies than to retain the childlike spirit and charm unique to the original text.

Around the same time I saw 99's post, I came across this recent interview with Michael Moorcock in Locus, in which he reiterates many of Harrison and Dodds' points:

I think the notion of worldbuilding is a failure of literary sophistication... I only invent what's necessary to explain the mood of a character. I haven't thought about an imaginary world's social security system; I don't know the gross national product of Melniboné. If worldbuilding is a sophisticated working-out of how a world interacts in and of itself, I don't really have any of that... That's why I don't see myself as a worldbuilder. The world unfolds in front of the character as the story develops. If the story doesn't need it, it's not there.

I've fought against this kind of anti-romantic rationalization most of my career. That's why I don't like Campbellian science fiction as such, because it has to present itself as a pseudo-realism to create a suspension of disbelief. I'm trying to do the op­posite. I'm trying to tell a good story without you having to believe it as ''reality" .... Most science fiction tries to rationalize something so you believe it as reality and frequently ruins the great visionary quality which inspired it. I'm describing reality, but it isn't a construct. I'm not trying to convince you this is going to be real. I'm trying to convince you that these ideas have to be considered, that what's going on in the world has to be thought about. The conscious life is all I'm advocating.


I have to confess to having very mixed feelings about CFON-style worldbuilding. As a teenager, I was never really a big fan of epic fantasy fiction. I went through a period where I was really into computer games like Ultima and Zork, which had very elaborate fictional histories and geographies, but that didn't necessarily translate into a love for their literary equivalents. I liked the idea of big fictional worlds, I just didn't appreciate not being able to wander around in them of my own volition, rather than having my POV yoked to the perambulations of various Hobbits. I struggled to get through LotR (I wouldn't read the whole thing until I was in my mid-twenties), and couldn't get into the various other bestselling fantasy authors that were popular at the time, like "Dragonlance," Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings, Piers Anthony, or Terry Brooks. Most of the fantasy I liked tended to be more "literary," along the lines of Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn or John Crowley's Little, Big — deceptively simple novels that came with no maps or appendices, but contained multitudes. And I liked fantastical novels with contemporary settings, along the lines of Stephen King (who is, despite the "horror" label, essentially a fantasist) or Ray Bradbury. If Neil Gaiman (arguably the least "Tolkienesque" writer working in fantasy today) had been writing fiction back then he would have been one of my favorites.

Mostly what I liked about those writers was their attention to language, atmosphere, and tone, which were qualities that fantasy writers tended to downplay in favor of simple, direct "storytelling." Apart from writers like Le Guin, I didn't find a whole lot of that in high or "secondary world" fantasy, and so I ended up seeking it elsewhere, in horror, oddball "uncategorizable" writers like Harlan Ellison and Shirley Jackson, magical realists like Mark Helprin and Jonathan Carroll, and the fabulism of literary writers like John Barth and Angela Carter — what writer-editors like the VanderMeers would classify today as "weird" fiction. And I also read a lot of SF, which is known for complex futures, though with the exception of something like Dune, there wasn't a whole lot of massive worldbuilding in the stuff I encountered, and even when it was expansive, it wasn't sustained. Even in the future histories of Asimov, Heinlein, and Niven, the stories represent fleeting glimpses of a larger timeframe in which everything is in constant flux. This was just as true of the contemporary writers I grew up reading. In about 500 pages, Dan Simmons built up the space opera universe of Hyperion; in the companion volume he destroyed it in about as many pages. The pleasures of reading a novel by William Gibson or Gene Wolfe wasn't so much in what was revealed, but what was withheld — the writers might have constructed a huge universe, or just sketched out a tiny portion of it, but the real testament to their abilities was that you couldn't tell the difference. It was a drop in an unknowable bucket that might as well have been an ocean.


And it should be stressed that what we think of today as "epic fantasy" is only a recent development. Even though he coined the term, Tolkien did not invent the "secondary world" fantasy with LotR — he was preceded by dozens of writers in the early and mid-20th Century, including E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, Fritz Leiber, Lord Dunsany, and Robert E. Howard, among others. LotR became an international bestseller in the 1960s, but it failed to create any successful imitations during the peak of its popularity, at least among adults — Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" trilogy and Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" were well-recieved, but were seen primarily as children's books. (John Bellairs wrote The House With A Clock In Its Walls for adults, but was told to pitch it as a kids' novel.) It was only until 1977, and the runaway success of Donaldson's "Thomas Covenant" trilogy, Brooks' Sword of Shannara, and Tolkien's own posthumous Silmarillion, that publishers began to recognize epic fantasy as a category unto itself, not a counterculture oddity or a YA backwater. Up until this point, many writers and critics would have thought of "fantasy" as a literary device, or a very old and somewhat vague tradition, not a concretized genre. "Worldbuilding" would not have figured prominently in their definition of fantasy.

At the same time, though, I can't deny that there's something really seductive about worldbuilding, CFON be damned. Starting your book with a map of a fictional world, as opposed to an epigraph or dedication, is a supreme act of chutzpah. You're informing the reader directly that you're not going to bother with humdrum consensus reality, but have instead constructed an entire new world, with its own cultures, histories, languages, etc. I can still remember the first time I opened the paperback of Fellowship of the Ring and saw the map of Middle Earth that was so big it needed four pages to fully convey the scope of the world. I'd seen a lot of maps of fictional places before, but never with that level of detail or depth. There are books that feel like worlds unto themselves, like Gravity's Rainbow, The Stand, IQ84,or Winter's Tale. But when you're writing an epic fantasy, there's no pretense that you're not building a world, as opposed to creating a selectively incomplete mimesis of the real world, as in "mainstream" fiction, or extrapolating from it, as in SF. The book — or in the majority of cases, books — is the world, the vessel designed to contain the story. In order for the story to work properly, everything must be designed within certain tolerances — cosmologies, magical systems, political entities, etc. This is the opposite of the Harrison/Moorcock model, in which the story shapes the world. Harrison again:

This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.


I think what's happened in the last 30-odd years is that the logic of games has overtaken the logic of storytelling. Dungeons and Dragons also came into its own in the late '70s, and while the original setting was very generic and sketchy, by the '80s game designers were developing more elaborate realms to play in. (A number of them, including Robert Jordan, eventually made the leap to novels, and several writers, including George R.R. Martin and Terry Pratchett, were active in gaming circles.) A big story, the thinking went, demanded a bigger world, whether it was an RPG campaign or a novel. That wasn't the case with most of the pre-1977 fantasy. A writer like Beagle, Bellairs, or T.H. White would focus mainly on the protagonists and build the world out of their perceptions and experiences, rather than setting the parameters in advance, as if it were an MMORPG. In those books, magic is often vague and nebulous, rather than systematized and rationalized, and often serves no other purpose than to move the plot along. Even in novels that we think of as more influential on contemporary writers, like A Wizard of Earthsea or Moorcock's "Elric" series, there is an emphasis on subjectivity, rather than the objective reality of maps or guidebooks. The story creates and fulfills its own needs, and the "world" pops into an existence as an epiphenomenon of that storytelling, its reality contingent on the whims of the author.

For a lot of readers, I suspect that's an alien concept — a world can't be real unless it's quantified, explicated, made "gameable." (It's for this reason that I suspect that preparing these books for publication is more like debugging software than editing a manuscript. And I should stress at this point that I, for one, really really like games — at the moment I'm about 70 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, and have started back into Diablo III. I like interacting with the worlds and the characters in them, just as I enjoyed staring at those maps in Tolkien long ago; I just don't know if I'd ever want to read anything set in those places.) And it doesn't necessarily mean that the books will be boring or badly written. George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series adheres to a number of conventions of post-1970s epic fantasy — there are maps, pages of heraldry, and you can even buy a massive coffee table book about the history of Westeros and its neighboring continents — but it also subverts them, both through a highly subjective limited third-person perspective, and by upsetting most of the conventions of the genre — most of the "heroic" characters tend to get killed. (Oh, and about half of that expensive "official" guidebook is probably BS.) And Patrick Rothfuss' "Kingkiller" series pays only the slightest amount of lip service to the genre — the entire story is related by the protagonist, who's a highly unreliable narrator and kind of a jerk. Both of these approaches would have seemed commercially unwise just twenty years ago, and even today they're kind of exceptions to the rule. But they're also huge bestsellers, with millions of readers who are hanging on desperately to find out what happens next. And we're beginning to see a strange and new exotic blend of CFON-style worldbuilding and literary writing in the works of younger writers like David Mitchell, Nick Harkaway, and Lev Grossman. Maybe the older, ambiguous style of fantasy can coexist with the clomping foot of nerdism — or move swiftly enough to dodge it.

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