The OF Blog: Worldbuilding nerdism, redux

Monday, September 06, 2010

Worldbuilding nerdism, redux

Was involved in a Twitter discussion earlier this morning when I remembered an old February 2007 argument over M. John Harrison's "the clomping foot of nerdism" post on the perils of worldbuilding overtaking the story.  Although Harrison's post (and old blog) have since been deleted, I did find it reproduced over at Pat's site, with some commentary by Pat that I still find to be quite silly and provincial three and a half years later.

Of course, this reminded me that I had written a post or two on the topic (click here for one of them).  In re-reading that, I found myself thinking about a related topic that I neglected to discuss at the time, that of the actual story.  In some of the books I've read recently (and have chosen not to review), the stories have been suppressed due to the authors' insistence of focusing so much on their created setting, to the detriment of anything else that makes a story, well, a story.  It is a tricky issue, perhaps one that varies greatly from tale to tale, but one bit that I don't think I really addressed in my original post.

And for those who have read these first two paragraphs and are going "buh?", what are your thoughts on this subject of "worldbuilding" and the "clomping foot of nerdism?"


Anonymous said...

I see why it is that some folk are getting upset by this (and, hey, sometimes I do quite enjoy a well-realised world).

But, really, pleasantly realised worlds can be something covering up poor writing. Last year I read The Affinity Bridge and, yeah, it had a decent enough steampunky setting which kept me going. But, Christ, was it ever covering up for almost everything else about that book. (FWIW, Ghosts of Manhattan didn't even have decent world-building.

Eric M. Edwards said...

I come late to this bun fight, but even after being a dutiful combatant and reading through the many pages of responses, I'm left bemused by it all.

Harrison's own comments included, to a lesser degree.

Having just finished his collection of Viriconium stories in the Fantasy Masterworks series of the same name, I have nothing but praise for Harrison's work. His narrative skills, atmospheric detailing, remarkable prose, and his command over mood, character, and theme, is so expert at times as to be unsettling.

And yet, I'm not convinced either by his claims about world building, not exactly, nor the silly accusations hurled his way by his detractors.

The world which he spins, out of gossamer, quicksilver, and acid yellow poisons, is as complete in its way as any I've seen in fantasy. It is etched, indelibly on the mind the reader, at least this reader, and I find it hard to imagine it failing to do so except in the most stubbornly intransigent.

If what he argues against is an encyclopedic detailing of imaginary geographies and sprawling, fictionalized histories - again, I'm left nonplussed. These pursuits can be rewarding, and they aren't always the provence of stomping nerdism - one need only look to such novels as Calvino's Invisible Cities, Eco's Baudolino, and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to see how much can come of inventive, bordering on obsessive, world building. And what all these examples have, fictionalized landscapes exhaustively detailed, footnoted, documented, lovingly elaborated, is exactly the same thing that percolates through the metal marshes which border the rust coloured wastelands of Harrison's dying earth. And the same impulse that glints in the hearts of Lothlorien and the caverns under Helm's Deep.

All these authors simply choose different paths and different means by which they build their worlds around the reader - and I see those who use mood and atmosphere over fictionalized brick and mortar to be only guilty of a difference, if at all, of degree and in methodology - not intent.

Where it works, and work it does in both Viriconium as well as Lord of the Rings, the result can be truly breathtaking, stirring, and lingers long in the mind even after the dialogue and the exact twists of plot of the stories have long faded.

Happier reading,


Bill said...

I don't have anything to say about Harrison, per se, and I'm not convinced that you or Pat have any striking differences between you and the desire to read a good tale.

Your definition of that good tale may vary, but that's not really a profound statement now, is it?

However, I have too many thoughts on worldbuilding's function, so it might be easier if I just handle that separately. Voila!

Never a dull moment, Larry. ;-)

Ben Godby said...

Although I am woefully unread on the subject of "world building," I can say with confidence that when I read a book where the author has spent more time on setting than on story, it is both evident and painful.

Setting, in my opinion, ought to appear as a correlate of the story; same goes for the characters. Of course, some authors are bad at bringing setting and character out by way of the story, which results in a bad story; but a book that relies on a tourist-like jump from hot-spot to hot-spot in some imagined world is hardly a story at all.


Eric M. Edwards said...

A final thought to consider: sometimes the setting is as important a character as any other, or more so.

Peake's Gormenghast and Harrison's Viriconium both come to mind as having as vital a presence in their stories any of their protagonists, and hence their fates and their backstories (i.e. imaginary histories) are just as meaningful to document as any other part of the story


Chad Hull said...

David Fulmer is an author I'm a fan of and have had the privilege of hearing speak a few times. One of his repeated sayings is, "Every aspect of a novel should be a slave to the story." It's only his opinion but I agree with it.

Those who get overly caught up in invented languages, religion, and customs would be better served to write a fictional history book (if there is such a thing; perhaps The Silmarillion) rather than a narrative. I prefer concision and narrative focus in my reading material, and that is merely my preference but it firmly establishes me in the 'world building is absurd' camp.

I was making mention of the same topic this morning in a commentary of Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham.

Jeff said...

What I don't understand about this whole flap (other than why it's being trotted out again) is why the default assumption seems to be that worldbuilding and all the other elements of a good novel are mutually exclusive. I don't think there would be any disagreement over an argument like "novels that excessively build worlds to the exclusion of plotting, good dialog, characterization, and enchanting prose are weak novels." Worldbuilding can have an important place in good novels. If I remember correctly, the original Harrison post flat out condemned worldbuilding in all its guises.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

As a reader - and now an author - I don't enjoy heavy world-building. I don't need to know the technical details or desire a description of a scene that spans for pages. Some people do, though - and that is why there's a varity of writing styles.

Dave Cesarano said...

Adam Roberts over at Punkadiddle has this to say about "worldbling:"

WORLDBLING A variety of worldbuilding in which a great many details of an imaginary world are put on rather showy and vulgar display in order to impress upon the ridder the prodigious imaginative wealth of the author. The imaginative wealth of the author, it can be added, is not usually in doubt, although some critiasses, especially those that value restraint, subtlety and inflection, question the judgment of authors who indulge too blatantly in worldbling.

Granted, this definition uses a lot of his own jargon (scroll below the book review here.

Worldbuilding is a tool. And as a tool, it should not be fetishized. The best authors whom I've read often employ worldbuilding just as much as another great (and more canon/mainstream) literary giant will employ a huge repository of personal experience and knowledge throughout his work. Often, in fantasy, this is mimicked and reflected through worldbuilding.

As a tool, it can deepen the characters, broaden the narrative possibilities, give the setting and story a more grounded or realistic feel, and introduce levels of complexity into the events.

Would Frank Herbert's Dune have been such a complex rumination on ecology, politics, and religion had Herbert not engaged in such thorough and detailed worldbuilding?

The reason worldbuilding is often used to cover up for bad writing has something to do with the fanbase of escapist fantasy readers that found the genre through Tolkien. They didn't want the story of Middle-earth or the Hobbits to end, so Del Rey fed them The Sword of Shannara and TOR gave them The Wheel of Time. It is their opportunity to retire from the real world for a few hours each day into a place where, reliably, securely, heroes come from rustic, pristine, idyllic countryside villages, evil is always simply motivated to "cover all the lands in darkness," and death is rare and often not permanent for "good guys." This is where Roberts' "worldbling" kicks in. It couches the oh-so-familiar and secure story in a new place so that it can be surprising and doesn't plagiarize so ostentatiously. It allows that overly-escapist reader to rest in the cradle Tolkien made, the one they're afraid to leave.

Brett said...

But, really, pleasantly realised worlds can be something covering up poor writing.

And in some books, the setting is the point of the book. Look at a lot of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov books. A few of the characters are memorable, but the focus of the story is on the setting (and frequently the speculative idea that underpins it), and the character and stories exist mainly to showcase it.

As for the main point, I think that's an artifact of your own perspective, Larry. You read books mostly for the "meaning", but for many of us, the secondary-world-building is a major part of what draws us in. It fires up the imagination, and encourages us to consider other possibilities. It's also something that's unique to the whole "speculative fiction" super-genre, and I think it's crazy for Harrison (a writer in that genre) to be dismissing it as mere "nerdism".

Paul Smith said...

Life sucks, you are going to die alone and escapism is for pussies.

Eric M. Edwards said...

World building, when done with skill, is it really much different than any other kind of research?

Fantasy stories can inhabit entirely imagined or 'secondary' worlds. Magick, strange creatures, implausible histories stretching back thousands of years are more often than not, a part of this tapestry. Surprisingly, they're often rather earth-like, locked in the tidal pull of a frozen pseudo medievalism, but in theory this can mean that the landscape, the customs, and all the rest, are potentially and utterly foreign to the reader in a way even Japan in the stories of Angela Carter, is not.

But then so is the past a foreign country for more people than I'd like to admit, and historical novels do fine. *With* adequate research and due diligence on the part of the author to keep from angering the amateur historians in our lot.

With a world that doesn't exist outside of the writer's mind - the only research you can rely on then, is your own explorations of it inside your skull. Thinking things out, squirreling away a sense of deeper, geologic time (even if it's entirely false), will enrich a good story. It won't make one however, out of whole cloth. But in the hands of a writer skilled at their craft, it helps the reader keep from being snagged by an obvious bit of fakery and fall out of the plain of the narrative.

Build worlds, but build them well and only where they need to be to cover up the whistling backdrop of the void.


Hal Duncan said...

A lot of the MS's I've been critiquing recently, I have to say, have the opposite problem -- failing to conjure the story at all because setting is almost entirely neglected. Inadequate staging, dressing and locale layout, no sense of the milieu of the action -- mimetic or semiotic -- and you don't have a story at all.

Can you have too much rather than too little though? To me it seems there's different things different readers are looking for -- "worldblocking" and various similar strategies versus "worldblazing." (See here for definitions: The former is a geekcore pleasure without a doubt, and it doesn't interest me as a reader or a writer, so I'm sort of with Harrison there. Where it renders narrative a means to an end, rather than an end in its own right, it's not what I'm looking for.

But I think that aesthetic is personal taste; if others treat narrative as a means to an end, and it suffers for it, that's their loss, but if they're getting something *else* out of it, that's their right. You could see it as a distinct idiom, after all. Like, you read poetry for things other than story, so why not read prose literature for these non-narrative features, if that's your bag?

Harrison though, I suspect, extends the aesthetic to an ethical/ideological judgement -- equating immersion and escapism with an irresponsible avoidance of reality. Which is a separate issue.

Lsrry said...


I'm far from a visual person, but I think this metaphor will sum up what I'm thinking about in regards to this issue: focus. Ever seen those photos where the backdrop is blurry and out-of-focus and yet the foreground is almost too sharp? I think your example of those stories is akin to that; the backdrop (say, the setting/worldbuilding) is so fuzzy that it distorts the image.

Now do the opposite. Imagine the foreground being out-of-focus, with the backdrop crystal clear. That is what I see with so many stories, that attempt to create a setting/atmosphere and yet the story as a whole feels out of kilter because all of its elements are not aligned properly.

I believe setting is a necessary tool, one that enriches a story. There are, as you note, so many variations of these settings and their purposes are manifold. What I would argue against is the undue elevation of such above the other components of Story (and by the way, I do like your definitions for various types of setting, even if I still think setting is a perfectly fine word for this discussion). It just throws everything out of alignment, lessening the whole even if that element is now in HD compared to low-def for the other parts. That, too, is what I think MJH was getting at, well that and a few other matters that are more debatable than I'm prepared to rehash right now, sleepy as I'm becoming!

Eric M. Edwards said...

I wish someone would reply to my complaint/question. That's you Larry, I suppose.

Here it is, more concisely formated:

Harrison appears to dislike worldbuilding. It's in the very terms he uses, such as clomping nerdism for one thing.

Yet, he engages in it masterly in his series of novellas and stories about Viriconium.

How best to "read" this, in light of his comments on the subject? Any thoughts, revelations?

And finally, world building can be accomplished using such a wide variety of methodologies, how can there really be a straightforward discussion which centres on something so simplistic as excessive worldbuilding equates a poor novel?


Matt Denault said...

Eric, have you read this?

Chad Hull said...

I remain unconvinced on the use of setting and world building as synonyms.

A great setting can exist without world building; think of a ton of books that aren't 'fantasy.' There are many books that may have great 'world building' but a very poor setting for a story.

Hal Duncan said...

Larry: Actually, although I posited the problem of inadequate setting in opposition, the more I think about it, the more I think that's wrong. Like, "worldbuilding" has slipped from meaning Tolkienesque subcreation to simply mean conjuring a (semiotic) milieu -- which is what Harrison does expertly in Viriconium, likewise Peake in Gormenghast. But I suspect you'd agree that these HD settings *don't* overwhelm the whole even as they utterly dominate the text. Partly I'd say that's because the baroque/grotesque aesthetic has crucial thematic import, but partly it's because, I think, they're not subcreation.

Although the resultant setting is a distinct worldscape, rich to the point of functioning as a character, neither writer is carrying out the sort of worldblocking, worldbostering, worldgilding and worldbumphing you find in Tolkien and his heirs. You *couldn't* map Viriconium or Gormenghast, I'd say; they refuse that as something that would dewarp them, allow the sort of immersion Harrison outright rejects in the article linked by Matt. What they're doing is worldblazing. Coherence is born of a unifying conceit that's being worked through (the city in a desert of rust, the Edwardian "Big House" writ large) rather than from the systematic development of a complete & consistent environment a la Middle-Earth. (This is sort of an attempt to answer your question too, Eric; this is where Harrison, I reckon, would consider himself to be doing something quite different to subcreation.)

The point is, worldblazing generally (or maybe always?) binds setting to narrative, discovers it *via* narrative as the conceit is worked through. Staging, dressing and locale are all extensions of the metaphor. Worldblocking, worldbolstering, worldgilding and worldbumphing are independent of narrative, may even subordinate narrative to them (in the creation of substories, backstories, the lore of the worldscape.) It's like writing the bible for an RPG.

Worldbolstering & worldgilding in particular, thickening the mimetic weft with mundane detail upon mundane detail, or layering on decorative quirks (often depleted of their strangeness to generically conventional tropes -- e.g. dragons, etc.) can swamp the action of the narrative. And if the subcreation going on there is an end in itself, that action may be little more than a formulaic plot-structure anyway, with characters largely functioning as ciphers for audience identification. Seems to me, that's where you get the figure out-of-focus because the ground is really the point.

That's anathema to my own approach to fiction. I don't get the appeal and find it utterly tedious -- c.f. your Borges quote on Tolkien. But I think it's as legitimate as any creative endeavour -- each to their own and all that.

Lsrry said...

It may be legitimate in certain narratives, but I think what bothers me (and you've addressed it with your suggested terms for the various types of setting/narrative interaction) is the conflation that occurs when certain people talk about "worldbuilding." It seems to me that in the majority of the fan usages which I've seen lately, it's just replacing setting with that word, with no attempt to delineate. This in turn creates a catch-all that's just useless for me as a term.

What you describe, however, that I can agree with almost completely. Might want to kick the tires later, just to be sure they're sound, but it sounds good so far. I just don't know if I could ever trust narratives where the "research" is the point and the story is secondary. That just seems tedious to me.

One final thought: how many stories do you know of where the setting is "dissolving," say a character's psyche is breaking down and not only is a setting "unplaceable," the entire concept of "place" is being dissolved?

Eric M. Edwards said...


Your World Sized hammer has hit the nail square on, Hal.

Thank you for articulating much that has been swirling around in my fevered brain on this subject.

Lacking the right world-vocabulary, I couldn't think of how to exactly express my disquiet.

And Matt, thank you as well for pointing the way to the article by Harrison which is also illuminative.



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