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The Sin of Worldbuilding

Forgive me, Warren, but I must disagree.

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, 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. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

See, what he misses here is that Worldbuilding is its own form of art, and very much its own kind of business. Worldbuilding is what I do pretty much every gig for Institute for the Future, for Global Business Network, for Monitor Institute, and for essentially every corporate, government, or non-profit client I've worked with over the last decade. That great clomping foot of nerdism is what the clients want to see, because they can then use that as a backdrop for their own stories about their organizations.

The art of Worldbuilding comes from knowing what to omit, from knowing what needs to be surveyed and what can be tacked up as a Potemkin Future. It becomes an intensely detailed game, figuring out what the readers want to know, covering what they need to know, teasing them with the implications of a fuller vision, and creating an effective illusion of paradigmatic completeness.

Harrison has it wrong: it's not the biggest library ever built, it's a painting of a library that seems to go on and on, with some prop books on a table in the foreground. Make sure those prop books are interesting enough, and the reader will never try to explore the rest of the library.


I would agree to Harrison in the narrow sense that obsessively worldbuilding can be an impediment to writing. Specifically, short story and novel writing.

It certainly isn't the case with your gig, or the role-playing-game industry writing I have recently gotten back into.

Ah, but what I do is writing... it's just non-narrative fiction.

I think you need to make a distinction between authors that crank out explicit world-building wankfests (not naming names here), and authors talented at subtly doing it in a way that makes the reader actively want more. The latter category, for me, would include Vernor Vinge (Fire Upon the Deep is a great example), Iain M. Banks, Brin, and a few others.

In SF, it is a rare enough skill that I can see where Harrison is coming from; I still disagree, however.

I wrote the offical role-playing-game adaption of Brin's "Uplift" series. A fairly massive amount of filling-in was required. Brin was amazingly adept at leaving around those prop books that Jamais mentions; it left the impression of incredible richness. For the purpose of a novel, he didn't need to do anything else. But it meant a lot of work for me.

Right now, I'm working on something called "The Arcane Alphabet." Twenty-six adventure seeds for role playing games. I'm deliberately holding back on comprehensive worldbuilding in favor of gists: Colorful hints and name-dropping that create the illusion of depth and comprehensiveness.

Paintings of libraries with props in the foreground...
Such tromp d'oeuil (or should that be tromp d'esprit?) are food for the imagination. The best writers always leave it to the reader's imagination as to what lies behind that shelf or other. Show too much, and the magic vanishes: the whole thing becomes an intricate but static mechanism: clever, detailed, complete, and ultimately as boring as an expensive Barbie accessory.

(Which is where Godel comes to the rescue, but that's another thread elsewhere...)

I actually started writing this to point out that the library itself can become the subject in the foreground (ever hear of 'L-space'?)

"Potemkin Future." Awesome.

The natural weedy outgrowth of a potemkin present.

Potemkin Panopticon!

your mother fucking novel is not the place for worldbuilding. thats what we invented virtuality for. seriously, setting is just that, backdrop. all good novels are about people and events. dune was never worldbuilding, it was always storytelling, even as herbert was weaving a detailed and consistent historical context. look how much worldbuilding wasnt in neuromancer.

worldbuilding is the background work you need to tell your story: background. props.

with that, you've still got to put everything in the air and make it fly.

You need to learn to express yourself with more passion, rektide.

some of the alastair reynolds sci-fi falls for your potemkin's wager, that its possible to just entice readers into your world by waving enough candy at them. i would've traded fingernails to figure out what the shade was in Revelation Space. the nesting dolls ended though (actually i think they formed a space fold and consumed some local space time or what not) and it never really made a mark.

the best worldbuilding-as-story sci fi i can label right now would be john c wright's golden transcendence trilogy, because the virtuality technologies that define the storyline are so ingrained in the actual world itself. its a great case of a wonderful world to feed a fantastic story.

accelerando does not fit in this discussion because it is our future.

i'll try man, i'll try! :D


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