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.



  1. First thank you for addressing my comment.

    While people love to poo poo notions of “real” vs “fake” the truth is that standards have to exist least genre and other helpful descriptive labels lose all meaning. I don’t think anybody would object to the idea that mystery novels have to contain a mystery and Romance novels have to contain some romance and moreover that said works should have a mystery or a romance as the primary focus of the story.

    Works that cut across multiple genres are always going to be grey areas, but I think it comes down to what is the primary focus of the work and I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that Fantasy and Science Fiction genres are DEFINED by fantastic worlds and fantastic situations. The community should not be afraid to call out works from another genre that are set In Space! or With Elves! and honor those works that create something more innovative.

    The best Sci Fi an Fantasy create brand new world’s instead of recycling the American West, Fedual Japan, the Napoleonic wars or Medieval Europe. It’s about novelty, new worlds, new concepts, new stories. It’s not a high bar, but when mainstream culture is fixated on providing interesting characters and familiar stories that don’t demand much in the way of imagination it’s easy to just give them what they want and slap on a convenient label.

  2. I am going to followup with an additional comment on why the fakeness issue matters to people.

    At the root of all these “fakeness” disputes is that the every human everywhere is inclined to promote their own wants and desires (and those of their tribe) ahead of the wants and desires of other people. One popular way of doing this is through the technique of Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

    Embrace – Identify an existing group with traits and resources that you desire. IE Science Fiction is a well establish genre with hundreds of millions of fans world wide.

    Extend – Your individual tastes may not match those of the group you have joined so import them. IE Zombies and paranormal romance have fantastic and sciencey elements so start incorporating those into the existing community and its discussions.

    Extinguish – Bring enough like minded individuals into the existing group and you can co-opt the existing group’s infrastructure into serving your individual taste. IE The creative industries notice how much Zombies and paranormal romance is being talked about in Science Fiction circles and fill the slots earmarked for Science Fiction works with zombies and paranormal romance.

    We would like to think that issues of art and culture can be divorced from politics, but the decisions about which faction gets their way and which doesn’t are in essence political. There is nothing wrong with humans wanting to have their own needs met and their own tribe to prosper, in fact we’re hard wired to do it. The onus is on the existing groups’ membership to maintain high standards and keep out those that would seek to radically change the groups’ priorities and focus.

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