Worlduilding, Nerdbusting, Etc.

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. 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.

–M. John Harrison

I pulled this quote of Adam Roberts’s blog, and he got it from Warren Ellis’s blog, and the original link leads to … nothing. Dead site.

Which is a shame, because this is the kind of argument that dies without examples.

I used to beat up on world-building authors myself, if only because the term is so annoying. Or, to be specific, worldbuilding sounds like something a novel shouldn’t do. It sounds like a misplaced technique, the province of game designers or film-set constructors. World-building is what the makers of Witcher 3 do, mapping digital terrain and filling it with digital rocks and bushes and trees. World-building is what the makers of D&D do, writing books full of charts and figures and lists of stuff you might buy at a blacksmith shop. Worldbuilding is what I used to do with my toys in the backyard, digging sapping in sandboxes and raising revetments in my mother’s garden.

Worldbuilding is what anyone has to do when they’re charting an imaginative space for multiple people to use, be it a laser-tag arena or a boardgame or a MOORPG.

But novels are more tightly focused, scripted for narrative clarity. So when a novelist starts doing something that gets the label worldbuilding, it sounds like a breach of duty, a lapse into alternate artistic modes, a grasping after excess imaginative territory. Worse, it sounds–these days, at least–like a cynical foray into marketing, an attempt to knock together the kind of fantasy world or “universe” that can be licensed to corporate developers and made into toys and games and blockbuster movies and amusement parks.

No one wants to read a novel that’s trying to be a video game, just as no one wants to read a novel that’s trying to be a stage set.

Or do they?

The more I think about this, the more I struggle to define “world-building” in any satisfying sense. It’s that jeer at “nerdism” that bugs me. This is the kind of knowing rebuke that tends to glide imperceptibly from a critique of literary techniques into a critique of literary interests.

Was Tolkien guilty of worldbuilding when he wrote his elven poetry? Or was he just following his muse wherever she led? Was Herbert committing the offense of excessive worldbuilding when he made up the resource-driven economy of his Dune books? Or was he working through an intriguing extrapolation? Is Kim Stanley Robinson worldbuilding, in the pejorative sense, when he details the steps involved in terraforming Mars? Or is this kind of detail in fact the chief justification for writing a novel about terraforming Mars in the first place?

One author routinely praised for his worldbuilding is William Gibson. But he famously eschews the clunky exposition that Harrison’s quote seems to critique.

I think few people would accuse experimental authors like Delany or Murakami or David Foster Wallace of doing something as clumsy and tedious as worldbuilding. And yet a characteristic quality of their work is its obsessive totality, its all-embracing scope.

So what does worldbuilding as a derogative term describe? Fiction on fantastic themes that happens to be boring? The term suggests a kind of literal-minded pedantry, a fannish addiction to completism. But that’s more often an aberrance of groups and communities–the appetitive demand of an audience for more sequels, more spinoffs, more detours pursued, more details filled in—than it is of individual authors.

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