Worldbuilding II

There’s been a discussion on world-building over at the Westeros forums; since I’ve posted here on the topic before, and since my contribution this time was from a different angle from last time, I thought it might be worth sharing. However, I don’t want to replicate an entire argument, some of which was a little technical, so he is just the major part of my ‘big post’ from the thread, which hopefully will be of interest even to people not involved in the argument itself.

Background: somebody reported the views of a friend, that “He saw worldbuilding as completely pointless, and claims to be naturally averse to any writer known for using it.” People chimed in on both sides; the discussion turned to whether we could distinguish clearly between ‘setting’ (respectable, literary) and ‘world-building’ (“the clomping foot of nerdism”, despicable, weird, pointless). The obvious spectre in the room is Harrison (and cohort). Most prominently on the Harrison side was, as usual, Dylanfantasy, here “DF”, writer of the OF Blog of the Fallen (see links to the left).

I hope that the specifics of the argument are not required to understand the below, which should be read as a series of rebuttals of arguments against world building, and against the claim that world-building and setting are the same thing.


Some specific points:

– No, stories do not ‘take place in’ New York. They take place in a fictional world of the author’s creation. An illustration from Chesterton: in London, if you take the Tube, once you have passed Sloane Square, you know the next station “must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria.” But when a character in a novel passes Sloane Square, the next station can be whatever the author wishes. Now, oftentimes the author will restrain themselves to the expected, allowing Victoria to arrive as it does in reality – but in reality, this arrival in necessary, and in the fictional world of the novel, the arrival is contingent upon authorial fiat. The same fact in the same world cannot be both contingent and necessary – therefore, the story, however mimetic in appearance, is not in reality occuring in London, anymore than the stories about the Shire in reality occur in the Home Counties. In one case, the author has chosen to follow more closely certain facets of reality; in the other, they have deviated more greatly into their imaginations. But the same occurs to some extent in every novel: we do not say a writer is ‘a nerd’ because they have deviated from historical characters, or even because they have added or subtracted events in a dramatised historical account. And as others have pointed out, even if we confine ourselves to ‘the world’ (the series of ‘facts’ regarding geography, society, culture and history presented by the story), there is no clear dividing line between you and us.

– DF is being disingenuous in his focus upon terminology. So the phrase ‘world-building’ was invented more recently than ‘setting’? Fine – I don’t really see why that means the former shouldn’t replace the latter, but let’s grant that it shouldn’t. There still remains the fact that this is a confusion of “X is Y” with “X should be called Y”. I can say quite easily that a certain animal is an avian without denying that it is a bird, and without saying that the term avian should replace the term “bird”; nobody cares whether you call it “setting” or “world-building”, only that you don’t falsely demarcate, for essentially political/social reasons, between the two.

– Nor is it honest to argue that this synonymy makes either term redundant: I think we are all away that a word may differ markedly in connotation, intension/comprehension, sense or Sinn (or insert alternative terminology here), while having exactly the same denotation, reference, extension or Bedeutung. [Indeed, the words ‘denotation’, ‘reference’ and ‘extension’ all have approximately the same Bedeutung, interchangeable in most writers, yet all differ in connotation and sense). The words ‘setting’ and ‘world-building’ call attention to different elements and significations of the same activity (the former tends to call attention to the activity in passive form as the mirror or support of other narrative activities, while the latter tends to attract notice to the activity in active form as a work of art and effort and skill in its own right); I think this is an asset, compared to other activities in narration, such as “characterisation”, where the one word must stand for both aspects; but since every work has setting/world-building, and whenever the activity exists it has both aspects, dividing the words between genres rather than aspects is impoverishing our language by taking away a useful distinction and wasting a perfectly serviceable word for no apparent other reason than social manoeuvreing…

– “setting/world-building” is only the name we give to the part of the narrative activity particularly concerned with certain elements of the story: imitations of geographical awareness, imitations of historical retellings, imitations of cultural nuances, imitations of social potentials; imitations of all those things that shape the plot and the character that cannot be described through the stream of consciousness. Why is it less legitimate to play with these potentialities than with the potentialities of conscious choice? “World-building” is interesting to me because it is a mirror on the fascinating portions of the world: culture, society, history. The fact that the modern Anglo-American “Analytic” tradition extols rational agent theories so greatly that any attempt to address the particularity of the character’s moment as the fundament and touchstone of their historically-embodied conscious activity is a lamentable reflection on the close-mindedness of the ideology, and itself a moment in history that will no doubt pass away – a moment of striving for an ungraspable solidity.*

– DF makes the argument that in Literature, apparent ‘fantasy’ is really a reference to a disguised reality – Rushdie and Garcia Marquez are talking about the real world through a series of metaphors. Fair enough – but what do you think that fantasy is about? I don’t just mean the obvious point, made already, that all the elements of a fantasy, like the elements of a dream, find their origin in our waking lives, but the more precise point, that authors classed as “fantastical” are just as interested in the world as any other authors – or at least there can be. Some, no doubt, are interested only in escape and delusion, as no doubt are certain writers of spy novels and historical romances; but it is a wrong to blackball fantasy as it is to blackball all novels that have elements of romance. Have you read the Book of the New Sun, and the Lord of the Rings, and Foundation, and A Canticle for Leibowitz – and if so, can you honestly, truthfully, honourably stand in public and say that their writers have no interest in real world themes, have no metaphors or messages in mind, have no desire to talk about reality through their works? If you can, I can only congratulate you on having achieved a simplicity in your views that must be the result of great personal effort, since no reader could be so tone-deaf as to fail to hear these harmonies purely by accident – only determination and grit could allow anybody to veer so far from reality without the slightest quaver of uncertainty.

– A fantasy is like a lucid dream that has been shared. It has the mechanics of a dream, and is no less useful for our psychology.

– If, returning to an earlier point, it is acknowledged that, for example, culture may have some influence upon the individual, and consequently that it might be interesting to examine culture – what other option is there but an experiment? A description of a single case is no examination, howeverso accurate. And in an experiment, for what reason must our tests be confined to the mundane, the ‘real’, the conventional, the known, the already-occured – no, there is some value to more ambitious, more problematic, analysis. And if it is to be allowed that we can indulge in fantasy – what, are we meant to suddenly eschew all reason? Some people seem to think that once we have abandoned the limits of reality (as paradoxically conceived for social purposes), we should abandon all limits – causality, coherency, consistency, continuity – and revel in our power of authorial fiat. Such chaos is exciting, but dull, and shows us little. The further we go from the sure ground of experience, the more care we should take with our footfalls – we should construct carefully in the wilderness if we are to create what is to last, because we are not sheltered by the lee of the surrounding buildings. Or to put it in a more naturalist way – when we experiment, we change one factor and keep the others all the same. No data derives from changing all of the conditions at once! I don’t think world-building needs to be so rigid as to limit itself to only one dimension at a time (indeed, it is not possible – each change makes other changes), but the general aesthetic should (for this motivation, which is only one of several – but a legitimate one, and not one that is to be trivialised as a clomping foot of any description) be one of restraint. when we ask “how does X affect Y”, we have to pay attention, greatly, to the details of X. [And this hold true both in ‘expansive’ fantasy, where the fantastic elements are themselves the protasis, and in ‘permissive’ fantasy, where the fantastic elements exist to allow the protasis to take effect more freely and clearly]

– it’s a tangent, but philosophically I think DF is on extremely shaky ground. It’s highly tendentious to claim that we can distinguish between “New York” as a ‘real thing’ and the “aspects” of New York that include all the facts about it (its geography, its freedom from werewolves, its history, and so forth). All these “aspects” can be taken away from an account of New York; all of them can be added to an account of Minas Tirith. When all the aspects have been transferred, what remains of “New York” to make it “real” and “setting”, and what remains of Minas Tirith to mark it as fantasy and “world-building”? The name? But the name can be transferred as well; the name can be transferred even more easily; it is only a trivial accident of history, an aspect of an aspect, the work of a single plebiscite or mayoral decree to alter; it is far more trivial as an emblem of the real than the presence or absence of werewolves. There’s an old philosophical analogy to theis view of “reality” as opposed to “aspects”, but I can’t remember who said it – Ramsay, perhaps? The “realist” in this sense is a man who tries to take the clothes off a stick-figure – when the skirt lines are rubbed out, we do not see the “real” woman beneath.

*[the literature/genre distinction is a pathology of a divided will – a will for truth expressed through naturalism and realism that scorns the fantastic and the problematising, and at the same time a will for truth through art that does not permit certain works to be entirely derided; consequently, that part of the undivided subject-matter that comes to the attention of the smaller, ‘artistic’ realisation of the social will is classed in one way, and made respectable (to the artistic, if not to the naturalist majority, who in general retain some respect for the artists themselves but very little for the work they praise), while that part that comes to the attention primarily of the larger, naturalistic realisation is classed in another, and derided]


Incidentally, last time this came up, here’s what I said. It takes a different approach entirely from this post, and is more personal; some of it may not be strictly compatible with what I’ve said here; blame this on rhetoric, complexity of personality, or the passage of time.


Appropriate, I think, to end the post with a quote from a fantasy (he goes so far as to subtitle it “A Nightmare”), where the hero, Syme, stands up for a particular mentality against Another Mentality. Although it was originally talking about the real world (or the real world of the Nightmare, which, we must all admit, is so far from the world we inhabit that it is deceitful to even call it reality, though it fulfills all the criteria of Literature), I think it stands just as well for fantasy (just as things said in a fantastical setting have signficance for the real world):

“‘It is you who are unpoetical,’ replied the poet Syme. ‘If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a time-table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!’

‘Must you go?’ inquired Gregory sarcastically.

‘I tell you,’ went on Syme with passion, ‘that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word “Victoria”, it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed “Victoria”; it is the victory of Adam.’ “


2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding II

  1. Paul says:

    Came across your blog and have been going through your old posts. Excellent stuff.
    I thought I’d leave what my favourite epic fantasy writer, R Scott Bakker, had to say about Harrison’s remarks:

    “As a diehard grognardian world-junkie myself, I obviously disagree. But it is a blog, which means that it’s probably written without much forethought. Consider his observation that worldbuilding can never “exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.” Who thinks that the “biggest library ever built” is a goal any writer seriously entertains? You can’t do it, the argument seems to be, so why bother trying? But no one outside of characters in Borges stories have ever tried to do this. No one. Ever. He’s just riffing without thinking here.

    And he’s also referring to science fiction, where the situation is somewhat different than in fantasy. It makes me wonder what he would think of a work like Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age, where much of the worldbuilding isn’t “technically necessary,” and yet necessary all the same. My guess is that it probably boils down to worldbuilding he enjoys reading versus worldbuilding he doesn’t, and his arguments are just ad hoc rationalizations.

    The “clomping foot of nerdism” sounds pretty cool. Makes me feel like a bespectacled, buck-toothed Godzilla, building worlds instead of tearing them down. Aaaargh!

    What troubles me most though are the unconditional, declarative tone – as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world that worldbuilders are “bad writers” – and the insinuations regarding the psychological type of the worldbuilder.

    Worldbuilding either is or is not “necessary” depending on the effects the writer is hoping to achieve. Of course Harrison would say that worldbuilders, such as myself, are trying to achieve the wrong effects. Detailing a world beyond the technical requirements of the story, the implication is, simply turns readers into literary shopkeepers with inventories to keep and no meaningful choices to make. Thus the frightening psychology: apparently the worldbuilder’s goal is to cretinize their readers, keep’em dumb and distracted so that they can be better exploited by the powers that be.

    For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events – to “fulfill their part of the bargain” – this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with “representational expectations” (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the “bargain”) by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an “upscale” version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate.

    We’re hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. “Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this…”

    This pattern bums me out because it swallows so much talent in our society and aims it inward. Harrison really is a prodigious talent, but he can’t seem to see his way past this post-modern crap. This is another universal human pattern: whatever your yardstick happens to be, nothing else seems to measure up – it quickly becomes the yardstick.

    Don’t blame the cretinized masses for not reading your stuff. If you really are afraid, if you really are a writer with a social conscience, then go out and meet them. Write something that communicates to them, and not just to those who already share your values. Stop writing for “yourself,” or for the “page,” or for whatever clever euphemism you use to cover the fact that you’re simply a producer of a kind of a high-end cultural commodity.

    Until you do, you’re just another entertainer. Which is okay, so long as you’re not pretending otherwise. Say, “I write for people like me, and I’m not all that interested in making a social difference.”

    Me, I don’t know what my yardstick is half the time. All I know is that I think its important to write stories that challenge readers, and that if I write “literary stuff” my audience will self-select and I’ll just end up catering to expectations and so not really challenging anybody. What’s the use of pissing in the soup if its made of urine anyway?

    When it comes to worldbuilding, I’m simply trying to tell a story that happens in a fantasy world bigger than that story. And there’s meaning-effects aplenty to be explored here, believe you me. Profound ones.

    In fact, the very thing worldbuilders are probing is the selfsame power of words to spin realities, a power which is intensified when the writer approaches the world and the story as separate works – when the writer is also a worldbuilder. I personally think this is one of the keys to Tolkien’s elusive magic: imagine The Lord of the Rings without a separately crafted Middle-earth! And because it resonates with a broad cross-section of readers, I think epic worldbuilding provides a powerful opportunity to communicate, one which “literary minded” writers are less likely to explore because of incredibly narrow “literary virtues” like those espoused here and elsewhere by Harrison.

    But I imagine Harrison would think this power to spin realities, which is the one we regularly confront on the evening news, holds no “real” literary interest for “good” writers. I’m guessing it focuses too much on the pernicious representational aspects of language, and so numbs readers into forgetting all the ways language dupes and deceives – which is why they vote Bush (and why we should be afraid, I’m supposing).

    But what if it works the other way? What if the canned experimentalism of post-modernism, by leaving so many readers behind, reinforces the general anti-intellectualism that seems to characterize our culture, and so makes anti-intellectual politicians like Bush more appealing? This only needs to be an open question to throw a rather severe light on the political undertones of Harrison’s position. He could be the very scourge he’s disparaging. ”

  2. […] Conworlds, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Science Fiction, Surrealism, Worldbuilding Following on from this post here, I thought I’d copy across a further comment. DF, having refused to answer any further […]

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