The OF Blog: Deja vú: Why is this "worldbuilding" such a big deal to some?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Deja vú: Why is this "worldbuilding" such a big deal to some?

A little over two years ago, I posted a commentary on two website forum discussions of M. John Harrison's comments on "worldbuilding." Quite a bit of the usual ensued, ultimately leading to no real settled conclusions. Not that I'm expecting anything different this time around, but again I'm finding myself baffled by this neologism, "worldbuilding."

For the past week or so on the Westeros Literature forum, there has been a discussion about "worldbuilding," in particular that of R. Scott Bakker's. Currently approaching 200 comments, this thread in many ways is perhaps a paean to "that clomping foot of nerdism." Discussions on the "need" for trade routes being mentioned or featured, ponderings on social customs, queries on whether or not it would be efficient labor usage for sorcerors to blast mountains to clear paths for roadbuilding. All of the "essentials" for a social/economic history, just for an imagined world.

Imagine that! Some of the same people who claim to read fantasies for escapism purposes are wanting to make sure the imagined worlds they read conform so exactly to the "real world!" There is a bit of delicious irony in that, but lest some think that I'm mocking all this out of proportion, let me note that I can understand the desire for things to make sense "just so." However, I do find these rather long-winded discussions to not be my cup of tea/coffee/something I'd actually drink.

As I've said several times over the years, I don't read a fiction for its setting, no matter how much detail and effort an author puts into developing a plausible one. I like "weird" fiction, stories that don't spell out exactly why Lester has horns springing out of his head every full moon. I don't need to "escape," but engaging in a story that challenges me to pay attention and to use my own imagination to fill in the gaps, rather than expecting the author to dictate all the terms of story interaction, that would be quite nice.

Doubtless, many of you reading this see it differently than I do. Perhaps a few want to exchange heated words just because I don't value setting quite the way many others do. But while I can see the allure such an "immersive" setting can have for some, it is still baffling to me that quite a few place a premium on such window dressing at the expense of characterization and storyline development. I'd much rather have a challenging story that has some "meaning" to it than a relatively simple tale that contains all sort of window dressing.

After all, if I want to read a history, I can always consult the hundreds of books left over from my undergraduate and graduate studies. Those will always contain more depths than any fictional setting imagined by an author or groups of authors could ever hope to achieve.


Adam Whitehead said...

Worldbuilding is an essential component of Tolkien-derived, secondary world-set fantasy fiction where one of the author's goals is to make the setting as authentic and realistic as possible so the reader invests time and belief in that world.

For writers using fantasy to explore purely thematic ideas, such as magic realists or others employing dreams and other non-quantifiable story elements, it is obviously unnecessary.

Harrison gets criticism on this front because the first Viriconium book appears to be a secondary world-set fantasy but later turns into a hazy, cannabis cloud of vaguely defined ideas more in keeping with the latter set. If the author is simply going to handwave away things that happened previously, or rewrite the underlying reality of the world on the fly, then the reader feels the writer is 'cheating' and not putting much effort into their creation. Sometimes this is a fair point and other times it is not.

I note distressingly little mention of the macro-economics of London Below in the thread so far ;-)

Larry said...

Ha! Well, I was trying to avoid discussing macro-econ of LB in this thread! :P

So is this term really anything other than setting on steroids? I just don't see a qualitative difference between it and non-secondary world fictional creations, merely a quantitative one of more, more, and still more focus on details.

As for MJH, I disagree to the extent that I think he purposely eschewed concrete establishment of time/space. Whether or not he succeeded is a debate for another time (I might re-read/review those books after I finish re-reading/commenting on the LotR books).

Joe Sherry said...

I generally don't focus on the worldbuilding, as such, but I would like to know that the author put in enough thought to get certain things right.

Like, if someone puts a palm tree or an orange grove in Minneapolis there better be a damn good reason why. Minnesota's climate is not amenable to such vegetation.

It's not that I'm going to focus on that level of detail as a reader (I know some do), but I don't want stuff that's just obviously sloppy.

Some read with the expectation of intellectual rigor and homework-done by the author. Trade routes make sense to them, as does clothing-as-status and while these details do not need to overwhelm the story, I can see how they add to it. The author took the time to really think about how their created world works. Not just to over-Tolkien the story, but because how the world works will inform the behaviors and beliefs of the characters in a more than superficial manner.

Personally - I just like the small details that adds to the richness of the story.

Larry said...

Joe, while I agree with what you say (and I do appreciate it when such elements add to a story), I was thinking more about the possibility of things being so OCD-like that the elements that I treasure most in a tale (characterization, thematic elements, prose) would be swamped by what would often amount to little more than infodumping. Some things can be taken on faith, I believe, and the story wouldn't suffer as a result.

Nick said...

I don't know where the term originated exactly but 'worldbuilding' is a quintessential pen-and-paper (PnP) gamer term. It's what a game master does to create a setting for a roleplaying game and tends to necessarily be more important to the RPG world than it does to the fiction world.

A lot of current and former gamers are speculative fiction writers (George R. R. Martin & China Meiville are two bigger names) and this flows through. Meiville has said that he reads RPG books to see how people create worlds for example.

I'm a PnP RPGer as well as a reader and while I like a well done bit of worldbuilding (the only thing I liked for example about R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series) I'm increasingly of the opinion that just revealing what is necessary for the story is much better practise than putting it all out there.

Larry said...

Thanks for the information, Nick, as I didn't know that. Makes quite a bit of sense, actually. Agreed on the need to withhold all but the essential information if at all possible.

Jonathan M said...

I think you're looking at this the wrong way round.

I recently watched Slumdog Millionaire and while I enjoyed the social realism at the beginning, I really struggled with the gangster shit and the extraordinary coincidences that drive the second half of the film.

The problem is that there's a shift of ontological register. The film begins by giving you social realism and then becomes some kind of weird parable.

I think the same thing is going on with the clomping foot of nerdism.

Some works of fantasy DO think through the implications of things and try to pick out a coherent world. Tolkien being one and the palliative fantasy producers being about 10,000 others.

If you set out to create a partly believable world then you're making it clear to your audience that your world functions like their world and as such it is only natural for them to start wondering about trade routes and industrial magic and because an author is one person and fanbases are hundreds of people, you eventually find the whole world coming apart (like what happens if you ask why the Rohirrim live in castles).

Problems occur when writers want to shift between registers. They want enough social realism to have politics but they want enough 'magic' to be able to gloss over some issues for the sake of theme. Authors who complain about this kind of thing are essentially engaging in special pleading; only THEY get to decide which bits are real and which aren't.

The Viriconium books are an interesting example of this as Harrison went out of his way to take a hammer to the idea that his world was realistic at all. The central idea behind Viriconium is "fuck you fanboys, only *I* get to decide what my world is like" leading to him not only muddling details but actively producing stories that nay-say what has been said before.

I think that this kind of special pleading is essentially central to the concept of epic fantasy. It's certainly built right into Tolkien who was a good linguist but a terrible social and political historian.

Anonymous said...

Rohirrim do not live in castles. I can only assume this misconception has arisen from hazy memories of the Battle of Helm's Deep (located at a fortress that predated the Rohirrim's control of the area) or seeing the name "Golden Hall" and not figuring out it's really just a glorified longhouse, or a "thatched barn" as Saruman called it with a degree of uncharitability to match the Rohirrim overcharitability.

Tolkien is actually rather good at that sort of details too. For a good example, try looking into the sociopolitical reasons that led to Gondor having a Steward but no King for centuries. Despite the unlikely sound of the setup, the chain of events actually makes perfect internal and realpolitik sense.

Joe Sherry said...

while I agree with what you say (and I do appreciate it when such elements add to a story), I was thinking more about the possibility of things being so OCD-like that the elements that I treasure most in a tale (characterization, thematic elements, prose) would be swamped by what would often amount to little more than infodumping.

Yeah, I tend to call that "bad writing", or more accurately - bad storytelling.

I can't say that there is one right way to do good worldbuilding, but like pornography, I know it when I see it.

And like pornography, what is good worldbuilding for some may be bad storytelling for me. The inverse also holds true, of course.

Larry said...


Good points. Serves to remind me just how pathological a lot of this has become.


You mean there's bad pornography? :O


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