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, and makes us very afraid.
— M. John Harrison
… I’m fighting the urge to simply type ‘discuss’, really I am.
There’s more to it somewhere, but the original post seems to have disappeared.
Lexington, who showed me the tiny extract that exists, believes there was something about how Middle-Earth’s history, topography and populace merely existed, and was encountered, and only gave you the immediate, necessary details rather than exhaustively finding reasons to explain the unnecessary. That’s part of what’s doing my nut at the moment; the obsessive need to precisely break down how many of X and Y and Z species/ethnicities (if we’re lucky enough to have ethnicities, and not be in the presence of someone who farms off ethnic and cultural traits to non-human ‘races’ instead) are resident in the town and what its primary exports are and generally burden us with a truly tiresome level of detail.
Another thing that’s doing my nut is the tendency, particularly in game-universe creation, to flaunt your sources, to make overt pastiches and parodies and references, to base what you’re doing on “this meets that” – the High Concept approach to world-making. It’s particularly vexing to me since I cut my teeth on Warhammer and Pratchett and that’s how they work, and there’s something fundamentally satisfying to me about that sort of thing – but in my own creative efforts I catch myself simply piking things wholesale. Unlike Frankenstein, I recognise my creation’s ugliness before I give it life; I can see the stitches, and the misbegotten nature of the whole repels me.
Yet another thing: the habit of readers and audiences to look for the seams, and feel clever when they spot them, and consequently make creators feel that that’s what’s wanted; more obvious referentialism and explanations, less sense of atmosphere or wholeness. The production of inert environments, obsessively detailed and often with descriptive vocabulary but… not alive, somehow. Missing a sense of what it feels like to live in them.
It’s the kind of readership fostered by narratology and its outside-the-ivory-tower cousin, trope-hunting (I’m not going to link to TV Tropes, that’s evil). TV Tropes is oddly fascinating and compelling stuff, but… I want you to imagine a well trained and alert Troper, who is very much inclined to navigate worlds through Troperese – everything’s a Negative Space Wedgie or a Xanatos Gambit or what have you – and who world-builds with a very clear sense of what her world is About and how it works and what she wants to express with it, but which ultimately doesn’t lead her to go anywhere with any of it. Laden – positively burdened – with detail, all of it very well tuned and possessed of great verisimilitude, but… there’s no story in it. The nerdist perspective seems to treat narrative like trainspotting; once you’ve established what kind of everything everything is there’s no point in following it through. You’ve found the serial number and that’s all you need.
The obsession with detail and mechanism often – not always, but often – seems aligned to a worldview which tries to take the fantasy out of fantasy, for the sake of some half-cocked ideas about ‘realism’ and ‘merit’ and ‘wanting to be taken seriously’. I feel, instinctively, that this is what leads us down the tangled path to things like Elder Scrolls Online – a game which is certainly richly detailed, but I draw the line at saying ‘beautiful’ because the images I’ve seen seem so… bland, so pseudo-historical, a wealth of effort put into expressing an awful lot of grey and brown and gritty places. I’m sick to death of grit, and realism, and merit, and I’m sick to death of ‘world building’, of sinking our energies into the pseudoscience of things at the expense of the things themselves. Show some people a portal to another world and they’ll be too busy fretting over how the cosmology and relativity and physics works to go through. As Lex said to me, it’s there because it’s there, and in the moment of your story, all of that stuff is irrelevant, even if you know some of it as an author.
One feels like a right heel telling people not to ask questions, but – it’s the spirit in which they’re asked. It can be ‘I wonder how that works’, which is not as fun a question as ‘I wonder where it goes’ but at least a step in the right direction, but all too often it’s a petulant ‘how does that even work?’ – a statement in disguise, an ‘actually I think you’ll find that doesn’t work because’, a great clomping foot of pedantic, overbearing fucking nerdism that comes down smush on wherever we were going to go and whatever we were going to do.
If you expect me to spend four hours working out and explaining how the portal works, don’t be surprised if you never get to go through it. I’m not interested in building worlds; I’m interested in exploring them. We’ll be talking about how on Sunday.
“I did not deliberately invent Earthsea, I did not think ‘Hey wow — islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let’s build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea.”
— Ursula K. LeGuin