This article picks up from my previous piece in TeleRead on “Worldbuilding in fantasy/SF: Retreading the great clomping feet of nerdism,” and in particular, on one of the comments on that post. There, a commentator called Sturmovik states that
When you remove world building from Fantasy then all you are left with is reality. I don’t consider Game of Thrones to be a fantasy series at all. It would have been set in 15th century Europe without losing anything that makes it enjoyable to its readers. In fact the recent success of the similarly named “House of Cards” proves the point. The presence of fake Fantasy and fake Sci Fi does nothing but drain those genres of what makes them unique,, new and fantastic worlds that differ from those in other genres.
I’m highlighting this because its wording recalls another recent, and rather controversial, comment on “true” versus “false,” a.k.a. the rant by science fiction writer Paul Cook that Chris Meadows picked up, about “science fiction’s infection by girl cooties.” Cook took up the issue in Amazing Stories, under the title “When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction,” arguing that “some writers who might have started off in science fiction soon reveal their true selves when they start publishing what they really want to write about … [and] publish their stories as science fiction (or as in one case, science fantasy), but the novels they write are clearly and unmistakably not science fiction but something else.”
Then you have Jim Hines’s fairly tongue-in-cheek expose of “Fake Writer Girls!”: “And don’t get me started on how they’re ruining science fiction and fantasy with their romance cooties! Urban fantasy? Paranormal romance? Why don’t they care about the history of our genre? SF/F stories should be about spaceships! and swords! and fighting!” I don’t think he was exactly being as serious as Paul Cook, though …
Still, back to the original point, and the other perspective on this whole true/false right/wrong debate. In his original “very afraid” post on worldbuilding, and more especially in the long notes and addenda added to it later, M. John Harrison draws a constant dichotomy between “the writer–as opposed to the worldbuilder.” The implication is that the worldbuilder is somehow not quite a true writer, somehow illegitimate or false, ideologically unsound, and even implicated in climate change and the destruction of the global ecosystem, “allowing the massively managed and flattered contemporary self to ignore the steady destruction of the actual world on which it depends.” Wow, worldbuilders, what a heavy weight of guilt rests on your shoulders.
M. John Harrison’s critique may provide some really handy insights into how and why worldbuilding works, but its fundamental problem, as with the same criticism from the opposite perspective, seems to me to lie in this assumption that there is a true versus a false way in writing, and that one type of work, produced by the One True Way, is legitimate, and the other is not. Surely whatever works is what gets words on the page? There is no true or false fiction, only written or unwritten fiction.