More Thoughts about Worldbuilding and Food
How we should or shouldn’t imagine imagine new worlds
Last month, I wrote an article about how I find the concept of “worldbuilding” to be overrated, which has generated a lot of discussion, some interesting responses, and a fair amount of angry tweets.
Since the article continues to be read and talked about, I want to expand and clarify a few points. If you aren’t interested in some meandering and possibly pedantic thoughts about craft and genre, you might want to click away now. However, if you want to argue with me about dwarves and aliens, let’s dive in!
Although before you do, please read my original essay:
Chopping Down One Tree in the Forest
Before I get into defending my arguments, the near perfect example of the attitude that baffles me came across my Twitter feed recently. It was RT’d as an essential thread “for worldbuilders” to read. It began:
Now I don’t know Ellis, and I’m not trying to single this tweet storm (or the author) as particularly egregious. I’m quoting them because I find them typical of the attitude that baffles me. You can read the whole thread here. Everything Ellis says is correct, if you assume realism is the goal of these shows and movies. But here’s the rub: there’s not a single remotely realistic thing about something like The 100! That show follows a group of teens sent back to earth after a nuclear war made the planet uninhabitable. Deer are mutated. Normal people die in seconds from the radiation. To pick one example of the absurdity of the show — the 100 teens are said to have “evolved” immunity to the nuclear radiation that instantly kills normal humans (some of whom live in a nuclear shelter and are the primary antagonists of one season)… after three generations! Needless to say, that’s a little quick for evolution.
Indeed, the fact that teenagers are wasteful instead of intelligently saving every scrap might be the single most realistic part of the entire show. Here’s the realistic worldbuilding version of The 100: the teens are sent to earth and all die quickly and painfully. The end.
When we critique a work (and there are plenty of reasons to critique The 100 or Waterworld), we need to do it on the terms of the work itself. Those terms aren’t always realism, scientific accuracy, or historical accuracy.
Against Worldbuilding, Not Against SF/F
Some readers assumed I was a snobby literary fiction author who hates genre fiction. I promise you this isn’t the case. My own story collection has zombies and Lovecraftian monsters. I count Bradbury, Atwood, Delaney, Ballard, Butler, and many other SF/F authors as among my all time favorites, and consider them every bit the match for my favorite so-called “literary” authors.
Here’s the realistic worldbuilding version of The 100: the teens are sent to earth and all die quickly and painfully. The end.
Nor do I think that worldbuilding fiction is inherently bad. There is a place for all kinds of narrative houses in the vast city of fiction! My argument is that worldbuilding is overrated and overused. That a concept that’s useful for certain kinds of fiction (such as epic second world fantasy or role-playing games that require clear rules for gamers to follow) is being inappropriately applied to all fiction genres. That expectations for worldbuilding in all genres have become a problem, causing readers (and critics) to focus on background details while missing the essential aspects of a story and leading to quick dismissals of different fictional modes.
Since I made the mistake of listing some literary counterpoints to worldbuilding, let me pick an unquestionably SF one here: William Gibson discussing game makers who wanted to turn Neuromancer into a board game:
“They set me down and questioned me about the world. They asked me where the food in the Sprawl comes from. I said I don’t know. I don’t even know what they eat. A lot of krill and shit. They looked at each other and said it’s not gameable. That was the end of it.
“The Peripheral is not gameable. It has a very high resolution surface. But it’s not hyperrealistic down into the bones of some imaginary world. I think that would be pointless. It would be like one of those non-existent Borgesian encyclopedias that describe everything about an imaginary place and all of it is self-contradictory.”
And a bit more forcefully, here is SF author 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 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.
“Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. 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.”
Do we need more terms for imagined worlds?
In my essay, I made a distinction between the common concept of worldbuilding (the idea that worlds should have clear rules the reader can understand, that authors should work out the realistic workings of their world beyond the scope of the story, and the idea that more details = better fiction) and what I called worldconjuring (evoking a world through thematic and resonant details without being overly concerned with whether the world could truly exist).
One common critique of the essay argued that worldconjuring was just a type of worldbuilding, a minimalist version that didn’t need its own term. It’s a fair argument. I’m not planning to write a non-fiction book on worldconjuring, and the term isn’t a hill I’m trying to die on.
That said, different terms are often necessary for things that exist on a spectrum. What’s the difference between a pebble, a rock, and a boulder? The size cutoff between those terms is largely arbitrary, and yet it’s still useful to distinguish a pebble from a boulder. So too, I think, is it useful to distinguish creating a world through thematically resonant details and expecting the reader to fill in the gaps, and trying to flesh out a “real” version of a fake world that explores how changes to the world would “really” affect it. This is more than semantics. From a creative point of view, I believe it affects how one writes.
What’s the difference between a pebble, a rock, and a boulder? The size cutoff between those terms is largely arbitrary, and yet it’s still useful to distinguish a pebble from a boulder.
Think of William Gibson again. Many SF readers, myself included, would consider the Sprawl trilogy to have one of the most memorable SF worlds… and yet, as he says above, Gibson rejects the idea of a hyperrealistic, fleshed-out world. Instead, Gibson created a future noir aesthetic that took tropes from hardboiled detective fiction and spun them into a futuristic setting. He did this by picking details, set pieces, and characters that fit the themes and atmosphere he wanted to create. A different writer who was focused on creating a realistic and fleshed-out world would have written an entirely different book. A version of Neuromancer built on modern principles of hyperrealistic worldbuilding wouldn’t necessarily be a bad novel. It might be great! But it would be a very different novel, which is why we need different terms and different ways of critically evaluating different types of fiction.
Literary people can write entire books on the different effects of 1st person voice or 3rd person voice, and fans have endless arguments about a dozen different SF subgenres. I think we could stand to have more than one term to describe the making of fictional realities.
A perfect example of why I think a term like worldconjuring is necessary can be seen in the rebuttal article Emily Temple wrote for Lit Hub. (Full disclosure: I know and like Temple IRL.) Unsurprisingly (it’s a rebuttal, after all), I take issue with most of what she says. For example I started my essay saying that that worldbuilding is used everywhere from universities to video game reviews as evidence that it was a term worth discussing, not to “clutch pearls” about fantasy terms being used in college classes. (As a professor, my syllabuses include Ursula K. Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut!)
But Temple’s main argument is that worldbuilding means, well, any and everything. Let me quote her fully:
When I use the term worldbuilding with creative writing students, I use it to mean the existence of an internal logic, mood, or yes, set of descriptions that gives their work a sense of context — which may or may not be a spatial or historical context. For instance, I find the voice in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond to be as much a kind of worldbuilding as her descriptions of the landscape, because the world of the novel has so much to do with her mind. Michel mentions Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes as a novel that would be ruined by worldbuilding, and he’s right that it would be ruined by any more worldbuilding, but honestly Abe does a fairly thorough job of building the world of the hole, which is also the world of the novel. It’s a monotonous world, but it’s a complete one. This is only true if you subscribe to a wider definition of the term, of course.
Temple uses the term worldbuilding to encompass, as near as I can parse, every aspect of a story. If mood or voice are part of worldbuilding, then certainly characters (e.g., the archetypes of hardboiled fiction), plots (e.g., the quests in epic fantasy), setting, atmosphere, and everything else is as well. Is such a broad definition useful at all?
If I said a novel’s worldbuilding was faulty you’d know that the mechanics of the world weren’t properly thought out. If I said I wished a story had more worldbuilding, you’d know I wanted more details about how the fictional world works. With Temple’s definition, though, if I said the worldbuilding was faulty, I could be referring to anything from inconsistent narrative voice to a lack of atmosphere. What does it mean then to say Abe’s novel would be “be ruined by any more worldbuilding”? More voice would ruin it? More mood? If everything is worldbuilding, worldbuilding is always at its limit and is either simply good or bad but never less or more.
Some readers said that worldbuilding creates a more immersive world, and helps the reader slide into the story easier. Different readers need and want different things, so this is surely true for some people.
For me, however, I’ll say that excessive worldbuilding tends to take me out of the story, because the worldbuilding is conveyed unrealistically and the focus on the worldbuilding details only highlights how impossible worldbuilding actually is. By “conveyed unrealistically,” I mean the painful exposition where characters explain their world to each other in a way that nobody would ever do in real life. If you simply tell me someone has X implausible SF weapon, I may go with it. If you spend 10 pages explaining the workings of X, I’m way more likely to be thinking about how the explanation doesn’t really make sense.
In my original thread, I noted how often fans poke holes in massive, worldbuilding works like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or A Song of Ice and Fire. I also notice plenty of holes in the plot and worlds, and it’s hard not to think that they’re so glaring precisely because the works spend so much time worldbuilding. By contrast, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series — especially the first book, The Gunslinger — just throws crazy shit at you without stopping to pretend it could really work. I never stopped to wonder about the workings of The Gunslinger’s world, because King wasn’t asking me too.
Is Realistic Fantasy Worldbuilding Even Possible?
If you are writing near-future SF, you can, if you want, give a realistic picture of how our society might be changed by some technologies. You’re likely to be completely wrong — like the historical SF that obsessed over flying cars yet never imagined the internet— but you can do so in a logical way. When it comes to far future SF, or most fantasy, the picture is dicier.
Going back to A Song of Ice and Fire as an example, the worldbuilding problems in that series are countless, if you care to focus on them. As I noted in my first essay, a continent that gets pummeled with decades-long winters would not have the same flora and fauna as Western Europe. Hell, why are the characters eating any food items from earth? A different planet with a different evolutionary history would have entirely different creatures regardless of seasons.
But there are plenty of other problems too: the technological and political development gaps between Westeros and its near-neighbors in Essos are implausible, the entire raven communication system is bunk, the size of Westeros (roughly South America) wouldn’t allow for the political system it has or the troop movements described, it’s highly implausible that so many noble houses would have reigned in unbroken lines for thousands of years (especially when almost every noble house is on the brink of extinction after a few years in the books!). And on and on.
The problem is that even the slightest change to our world would cause countless ripple effects. Even if a writer could fully explore all of them, the book would simply be boring to read. It’s much easier to have Westeros be filled with wolves and ravens and lamprey pies, for both the writer and the reader.
My least favorite example of this is fantasy that imagines magical creatures living and influencing human history. Since the existence of tons of werewolves (or wizards or vampires or whatever) would drastically change cultures, historical events, and daily life, writers have to bend into logical pretzels to explain how these powerful beings have either (a) hidden themselves away so as not to influence the world (and when have those with power ever done that?), or (b) the authors rewrite history to make it so that the Nazis were really vampires or the witch trials killed real witches. This is both silly and somewhat morally offensive, witch-washing away the real human evil our species has done to itself.
There may be some hard SF works that worldbuild in a nearly complete and realistic way, but I’d submit that there’s essentially no popular work of SF or F that holds up to any real worldbuilding scrutiny: Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, etc.
But none of this is to say I don’t like works about, say, werewolves. I do. Stories like Le Guin’s “A Wife’s Story” or Nathan Ballingrud’s “Wild Acre,” among countless others, tell great stories about traditional werewolves. They do so by telling the individual stories of a few characters, though, not by rebuilding our reality to include werewolves in life and history.
Whatever Works Is Whatever Works
I’ll end by saying that most of my focus here, and in the original essay, has been focused on the reading side of books: how fans and critics think and talk about literature. The writing side is a whole different question. People often complain that SF/F works are too stuffed with exposition and focus on the details of the world over the details of the characters or story. I think that can happen, and I do think the focus on worldbuilding encourages it.
But it is also certainly true that whatever works for a writer is the only thing that matters. Some writers may eschew thinking about the logic of their world entirely, others may need to write an encyclopedia of worldbuilding details before understanding what they are writing (even if few of those details make the final text). The process of writing a book is a whole separate thing from the process of evaluating one. If writing on napkins, creating fake languages, editing in a hot tub, drafting with urine on a snowbank, or anything else helps you make a great piece of fiction then go for it!
Build your worlds in whatever way works for you.