And No Maps, Either!

For all you fantasy fans who keep banging on about world-building, some words from M John Harrison:

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 unneccessary 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.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

0 thoughts on “And No Maps, Either!”

  1. This one caused quite a lot of debate on Westeros, Mark, and while I tend to agree with Harrison to some extent about the nerdism of worldbuilding- many Martin, Erikson and to a much lesser extent now Jordan fans sniff their noses at anything without a cast of a thousand characters and place names per book – when Harrison says the following in response to someone’s remarks about his original thread:

    ‘For me, three-decker fantasy worlds became obsolete the day Bob Dylan wrote “All Along the Watchtower”, & got the worldbuilding effect in 130 words. For that, you can bet he didn’t “construct” a whole world then pare it down to a couple of perfect indices. But I do agree that less is more: indeed minimalism & particularity are the best aids to successfuly counterfeiting the unreal (or for that matter the real). As for “original source material”, the horror, the horror. Let’s not go there or I’ll get in more trouble.’

    I don’t agree!

    Because it leans towards the notion that there is only one sort of fiction that should be out there, paired down, lean and mean, content always inferred, never elaborated or extemporised, adjectives a sin – ie fiction like Harrison himself has settled on writing, presumably. It is true, I can certainly not be accused of underwriting in my own lame efforts! But if everything were the way Harrison describes it, and it feels like it has to be now to get past major publishers’ doors, instant lexicographical acessibility for all – Hal Duncan perhaps providing the exception that proves the rule – then Conrad wouldn’t get published, for starters! The world of fiction would be very dull indeed.

    Sometimes less is not more, less is just less!

  2. And when it’s PARED down, it can be even less! Busy doing reviews – and making silly mistakes in my head with them, too.

  3. I agree. A lot of the people who actually buy these books enjoy maps, huge casts, strange names, etc.

    I don’t actually see how world building is separate from planning. It’s just an extension of the planning that goes into writing any book. And I’d imagine that if a writer is creating any kind of new system of reality, as most SF and fantasy writers will be, then they’d need to have the fundamentals sorted out, or else risk contradicting their own ideas. I think the key is not to let it overwhelm the book. It’s true that some writers are guilty of this, but I don’t think that means world building itself is a Bad Thing!

  4. I think what Mike is complaining about – and where I agree with him – is that some authors spend all their time scribbling details in a notebook and forget to come up with characters or a story with meaning. The act of creating the world is an end in itself.

    In good stories, the setting should be there to illuminate the themes of the story you’re trying to tell. Some fantasy novels have a fully-realised world, but the end product feels like a Fodor’s travel guide, not a novel.

  5. I agree with that, Mark. Character comes first. But I’m totally anti ‘clear pane of glass prose’ for the sake of it. I think I am having trouble separating content from style, here. The move towards eradicating any sort of drawing attention to itself in prose I don’t go with, I think it would be the end of literature. Harrison is no doubt talking about something entirely separate, when he refers to the redundancy of world-building devoid of characters of substance to populate it with, and indeed ideological jousting. One can argue all night about Tolkien’s lack of women, his seeming simplistic notion of good and evil (as Erikson has argued, but I would take issue with that on many counts) and yet not only is his world immense in concept, he created many memorable characters, like ’em or not.

    Few can match him (frankly none have or probably will) in terms of world-building, for, I fear, that sort of old-world, pure immersive scholarship that gave rise to Middle-earth may well have been lost to us through the rise of distracting – and intellectually dissipating – too easily malleable and now accessible technology. But that’s another thread! altogether!

  6. Overly descriptive worlds don’t work for me. Part of the pleasure I get from a book is visualising the world in my head. I need to know some info about it obviously, but I like it put into the story in a subtle way or concisely. Iain M Banks achieves a good balance with his Culture series books, there is enough for my imagination to work on but not so much that I get completely turned off by the book.

    As for names, well I like to be able to pronounce them, some authors seem to take great pleasure coming up with names that frankly my tongue doesn’t have a clue where to start with. But then again Siobhan always does my head in!

  7. I would agree to some extent as well. I personally love maps, but only because I think they are pretty. I don’t ever use them when I read a book. I think if a book cannot convey what the scenery looks like or the world that the characters are in without having to force readers to look at a map then the author isn’t doing his job. Too many names can be a hassle too. I have been doing a lot of world building lately for my WIP, but most of it is for my head and not for readers. Half the info doesn’t end up in the book, it’s just there so I can keep certain details straight. I have a map too, but not for any reason other than to have something pretty in front of me and to keep track of where things are because the world I have is enormous. It likely wouldn’t go with the book if I were to publish it, but it’s there for me as a reference.

    But, anywho!

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