Lucy Hounsom has just posted on the Waterstones blog referencing the great critique by by British science fiction and fantasy master – and consummate worldbuilder – M. John Harrison of worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction: “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.” M.John Harrison’s original statement, along with his fascinating and very deep notes and explanations added later, is archived here, and it’s recommended reading.
At a time when Game of Thrones is riding high in the novel charts and viewing figures, it may seem churlish to challenge extensive fantasy worldbuilding. Haven’t the public just given their verdict on this? Yet perhaps that success, which might inspire dozens of aspirant writers to do likewise, makes this just the time to revive the debate. For one thing, much of the success of Game of Thrones comes from George R.R. Martin’s decision to write fantasy where people behave, personally and politically, like real adults instead of Tolkeinesque cardboard cutouts, and where the world is convulsed not by some terminal struggle between Good and Evil, but by struggles between different factions, dynasties, and interest groups. (Keep the show’s imagined tagline “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth” in mind.) How much of an imaginative leap did that require? Too much for many previous fantasy authors, it seems.
Part of Harrison’s critique of Tolkienesque worldbuilding is that it has an ideological agenda to impose its authority on a fictional reality with an almost religious intent. “It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker.” Tolkien was a committed Catholic, and part of the reason so many of his human and elvish characters come across as plaster saints and angels instead of real people is because that is exactly what they were intended to be, in this analysis. Think also of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia cycle, where Aslan is revealed as an alternate avatar of Christ and Narnia as one more stepping stone en route to the Heavenly Kingdom. Those hidden agendas have influenced much subsequent worldbuilding.
One of Harrison’s many and detailed criticisms of certain types of exhaustive, overdone worldbuilding is that this approach “actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.” What was supposed to energize the imagination actually ends up turning it off.
Hounsom argues for worldbuilding with a lighter touch, sketching in brief references to a broader background that trigger the imagination rather than obstructing it. And with the rich and deep historical and other areas of reference available to writers, worldbuilding doesn’t have to happen in a fictional alternate universe. Take, for instance the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and his heirs and successors. The imaginative force of his mythos, its pervasive power to captivate attested to by computer games, RPGs, cosplay, and even semi-serious religious cults, surely owes as much to its Jazz Age and New England settings as it does to the created pantheon of Elder Gods and Great Old Ones – historical fiction with an extra imaginative dimension.
Above all, worldbuilding, whatever its faults, taps the fabulous fabulist powers of the imagination that energize much of genre fiction and that much mainstream a.k.a. “serious” fiction misses out on. There was a time when (almost) all fiction was like this, before 19th-century Realism came along to hobble it. Compare a typical Munchausenesque Picaresque 18th-century tale to a modern comedy of manners as just one parallel. Worldbuilding in any genre poses the greatest challenge to the creatively and intellectually challenged worlds of too much *un*imaginative modern generic non-genre fiction.