Worldbuilding – Why?

I posted this in a Tolkien discussion on a forum, but it was at best tangential there, and I thought some of the people who peer in here from time to time might be interested in it, so here’s a copy for wider viewing.

The posts referred to are the Blog of the Fallen posts on Tolkien and worldbuilding, respectively and , and Mieville’s comments here:


It’s good, if surprising, to see Mieville on my side. I’ve not read him yet, and always assumed he was one of the Harrison-type people. In particular, it’s good to see somebody talking about subcreation in a tone other than ridicule.

As it happens, I was just reading one of DF’s blog posts from back in March, where he was rather disparaging of worldbuilding. As a would-be-worldbuilder first and would-be-writer second, I think he entirely missed the point when he worried that worldbuilding could get in the way of character and plot. That is, for certain writers, the objective is not so much to prevent worldbuilding from getting in the way of character and plot, but rather being able to come up with characters and plots that do not get in the way of the worldbuilding. For Tolkien, for instance, it’s missing the point to say that the history gets in the way of your power of imagination; the book exists FOR the history. The worldbuilding comes first, the story second. [Indeed, often the story has to be done away with entirely. I build worlds, and I want to write books, but none of the books I actually intend to write have anything to do with the worlds I’ve built, because the stories would get in the way of the art too much. Likewise, Tolkien published books about peripheral settings (the Hobbit, LotR), not about the core world that really mattered to him, the world of the Silmarillion.]

Perhaps the different opinions of worldbuilding, and hence the different opinions of Tolkien, are ultimately to do with different expectations of fantasy? For some readers, fantasy is ‘meant’ to be an escapist activity, about freedom and imagination and not having to have anything to do with reality – hence when DF says that Tolkien’s rich descriptions left him unable to let his imagination round around by itself.

In the other view, fantasy is not escapist, but only a mirror of the world itself – a testimony to imagination’s power to reshape reality. Those of us who love worldbuilding in our fiction are not, perhaps, so selfish in our reading. I feel no need to let imagination follow fancy when I’m reading a fantasy; I’m content to briefly inhabit the world that’s been shown to me.

Worldbuilding is not, or is not wholly, about supporting a story; worldbuilding is its own art, in its own right, with its own characteristic experience. I think perhaps that the experience is an experience of the sublime – when you read about a world, inhabit it, you are surrounded by an immense vista, alien and inimical; if you lose concentration, you fear, you may be lost in it. If you can see through it, see where the fabric has been torn or not completed, you can see that it’s only an illusion, and it fades and wisps away, because to be sublime a thing must be, above all, convincing enough to be threatening.

And when you leave it behind, and you see that all of it was only constructed from the everyday things lying about in the world, in can imbue those ordinary things with the infantile element of wonder that is so easily lost from our perception of the familiar world.

In fact, perhaps that’s a shorter way of stating the difference: Harrison’s ilk take us into the unfamiliar, and in the process make it familiar. Worldbuilding takes the familiar and makes in alien.

Of course, that’s all after-the-fact justification. It isn’t why I like worldbuilding (either practicing it or experiencing it). That’s just something inherent – maybe not in everyone but in some people. Subcreation is as old an activity as fabulation, only a more private one – only occasionly do we see the ‘Secret Vice’ in public through the ages. Is it a defect that in our century we take the craft of the imagination more seriously than earlier ages have? I don’t believe so. Perhaps it’s useless, but we no longer need be enslaved by the idea of use. Art can be presented for its own sake; and the popularity of writers like Tolkien and Borges (many of whose stories are pure worldbuilding without any real elements of storytelling) shows that it’s an activity that can appeal to others.

Personally, subcreation is probably just how I see the world. When I see something, I think about what I could do with it. That I create worlds is only another way of saying that I have an insatiable curiosity about the world, a constant urge to know how things work. And if you know how things work, you should be able to put together your own versions, and watch them run. If they don’t work, you didn’t understand it in the first place, and you have to go and learn more. As a concrete example: at university I fairly casually (ie mostly in the mind, rather than on paper) created an alternative history of central asia in order to study electoral and party systems for my degree. If you want to know how a political system would work, you make a country for it and you think very careful about what would happen next – and what would be necessary for that situation to have arisen. [As it turns out, it’s a teaching method the university had thought of itself – our class for a term was on writing the constitutions for a range of imaginary countries].

And are there no plots, then? Of course there are plots in worldbuilding. A world is a story on a larger scale – instead of individuals, a world is a story of nations and cultures, species and religions and technologies. To enjoy it, only open your eyes to new protagonists.

Why should anyone want to read this? Well, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether they do, but I think that that art can by itself by worthwhile for an audience. It’s makes art out of the world, and it teaches about the world – we do not see the world so clearly that models do not help us see it better. Models, we can hold in our hands and turn around to different angles to get a better view.

Do people not all find that sort of thing interesting? I’m sure that’s so – but some of us do.


Harrison is almost right when he talks of the clomping foot of nerdism. I think he really meant geekism – but that’s a minor point. Yes, we’re geeks. Tolkien, today, would indisputably be called a geek. Borges was a geek, though perhaps he hid it more stylishly. M. John Harrison is not a geek; Harrison is Kool, and Sexy, and Popular, and all the other wonderful things. Except that… [lacuna the result of deletion of psychological metaphors relating the Harrison. He’s a Blogger, and they have a tendency to arrive in unexpected places, and who knows what a person like that might do. Geek-experiences of the education system (even if only a selective school) have honed my protective geek-reflexes, donchakno] …even though they all think he’s a geek.

But even if Harrison weren’t a geek or a nerd or anything – he uses the accusation as though it’s the accusation of something terrible. Well, I can look at geeks, and I can look at popular people, and I know which side I’m on. Going by what I’ve read said by both of them, I consider Papa Tolkien not only more successful and a better writer than Harrison, I also consider him a better, more admirable, more emulandory person. I’m quite happy with the side I’ve been born (or raised) on. What reason does anyone have to pay attention to Harrison’s hegemonic sociopolitical opinions (which is what the geek-hate ultimately is)? Being Super Kool is not by itself a qualification; nor, from my perspective, an objective.

An intention…

Pathetic, I know,  to begin by merely stating an intention for the future… but I intend to review some books here. I would like to review ten truly sublime books.

Books can be wonderful in many different ways. They can be funny; they can be exciting; they can be joyous, or tearful, or beautiful; they can arose any emotion one can have in the world. Some can simply grip and compel without being funny or exciting or emotive, but purely through some strange addictive magic of their own.  Lots of books do these things; I will probably talk about some here at some point.

Some books, however, achieve something beyond quotidian emotions, and bring us into contact with the sublime.  I should make clear that I do not believe in the sublime in any metaphysical sense in which it may have been meant at times, but more simply as a certain aesthetic reaction that we have to things immense, uncontrollable, impersonal, terrifying, yet at the same time pleasurable. Things where we feel awe and wonder*.

Some books have the power to make the reader feel, particularly when he turns the last page over, as though his brain and his liver are simultaneously being beaten into a pulp, viciously, with golf clubs, and he is standing observing the assault on himself impartially, quietly thinking both ‘that’s not very good for me’ and ‘this is quite refreshing’. To make the reader feel as though when he stands up the world moves and not him, and every pinprick  and ache feel as though they are happening to another person who happens to share the same skin. These books, the books that can show us the sublime, are the books that make us feel crushed to our knees even when hours after we are standing up and walking around and trying to care about life; that throw us down into a deep drowning pool of insulation from everything, so that we can burst up into the air feeling more alive than ever before.

These books are not necessarily the best books, although I think that they must be among the best to have such an effect – but laughter and joy and tears and adrenaline also take skill to produce. They are, however, probably the most memorable. Yet they are often not our favourites. I can think of a handful of contenders for this off-hand – and thinking about it I realise that every one of these books I have only ever read once.  Like a harrowing film or a soul-searching composition, such books, for me at least, surround themselves in a halo of effulgence that at the same time as it inspires devotion inspires also repulsion, a holy fear, like the magnetic attraction and terror of a cliff-edge – another source of the sublime.

My intention, then, is to re-read these books, and then write something about them.  I’ve said ten books – but unfortunately I do not know ten such books. Suggestions are welcome.

Looking back at my memories, I think there are three books where I indubitably felt the sublime the first time I read them: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Blindness, and The God of Small Things. How much was the books and how much the time and place I read them? I will read them again in an attempt to find out.

In addition, there are a number of other books that caused me to feel something that may have been sublime, but my recollection is not confident enough to say for sure. Those that spring to my memory include The Sirens of Titan, The Book of the New Sun, The Story of San Michele, Shardik (I was very young at the time), and, strange to say, Ash: A Secret History (I suspect this was actually a combination of disorientation when leaving the rollercoaster of a plot and a touch of falling in love with the main character). Others will probably occur to me as time goes on.

This won’t be an instantaneous  little journey, but rather a long-term project. And frankly I’m having second thoughts about it now, looking at that list of awe-inspiring, rather frightening, books. I think I’ll probably begin with Blindness, as I remember having things to say about it last time. And it’s probably the shortest, other than Sirens, which I don’t think I have to hand.

(Some might note the dearth of classics. I’m open to suggestions, but I tend not to like them that much, however much I adore the prose of the day. So I haven’t read many. And even those I do like don’t have this sort of effect. Closest is probably Conrad’s Nostromo)

(((Should anyone care to make suggestions, I should be clear that I am referring he purely to novels, not to non-fiction works, however astounding they may be)))

* Spelling edited due to complaints. Apparently some people don’t believe that ‘wondour’ is spelt with an o. And a u. Fie upon them.