1. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    M. John Harrison on worldbuilding

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Wreybies, Jan 8, 2015.

    I came across this article while internet stalking China Miéville, in truth. I found a blog where China had made a guest post that mentioned M. John Harrison's critique of worldbuilding. I dig both authors and they both take rather diametrically opposed attitudes on worldbuilding. China creates lush, decadent worlds that are ripe and pregnant. M. John Harrison creates worlds where the setting is often disjointed and sketchy, but also poetic and transcendental.

    Here is a portion of the statement by M. John Harrison:

    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 unneccessary 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 neccessary. 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.

    When I use the term “worldbuilding fiction” I refer to immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding, or by making it “logical in its own terms”, so that it becomes less an act of imagination than the literalisation of one. Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding 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.

    ~ M. John Harrison

    http://makingplaces.tumblr.com/post/6294792267/m-john-harrison-on-worldbuilding

    What's your take?

    _________________________
    M. John Harrison's awards include:

    Arthur C. Clarke Award
    2007 • Nova Swing

    Philip K. Dick Award
    2007 • Nova Swing

    James Tiptree, Jr. Award
    2002 • Light

    Tähtivaeltaja Award
    2005 • Light
     
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  2. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    Wish you quoted this part too:

    When I use the term “worldbuilding fiction” I refer to immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding, or by making it “logical in its own terms”, so that it becomes less an act of imagination than the literalisation of one. Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding 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.

    ~ M. John Harrison
    It just explains those first paragraphs a bit better.
    He has a point to a certain extent but it seems to miss the mark a little.
    I'll admit, I am a huge world builder, but as a writer I also know the difference between what information should go into the piece and what needs to be omitted.
    Kind of like, for lack of a better example, A song of Ice and Fire has much more world building than is presented in the books, which is already expansive all on its own, it does a wonderful job of presenting it naturally through narrative, locales, and dialogue on how that "world building" affects the current situation.
    I mean, why do you think there is entire books dedicated to ASoIaF that are nothing but lore and family trees and maps?
    World building is crucial when making entirely new worlds and wanting to make sure everything fits together.

    Such as is the case of stories where magic exists in a vaccuum.
    Sure, society has had magic since dawn of time, yet peasants seem beyond frightened of it.
    No real technology or commercialism came from it.
    And of course the rules are right and left when it comes to how normal it is to have magic and how thin/widely spread it is.
    What this shows is a lack of forethought on "how does X mechanic in my universe affect it?" leaving much to be desired a la Harry Potter magic system where anything goes from book to book and scene to scene.
    Tell me, Rowling, do they need wands or words? Half the time magic just wills itself into existence! And the Wizard Trials? Why is there no mention of them in the first book when they should have happened when Harry Potter was in Year 1? And why the hell do parents and adults do shit-all when the school is under friggin' attack and their children are literally dying?!

    See? World building has it's place.
    The trick is learning how to write well as well as critically think your ideas though.
     
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  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    You preach to the choir, mon frere. ;)

    Remembering that I found that article originally cyber stalking Miéville, I think Harrison is more innovative than Miéville in a lot if his writing. His novel Light was trance-inducingly good, but it's a very different experience to Miéville's work where the place is such an important character in the story. Harrison's work is more experiential, but at the same time, while it can be amazing, it makes some of his works one-shot deals. I read Light and was amazed. I read it again, and since I was no longer virgin to the work, the original effect was not there. Kinda' like the film Dancer in the Dark. It has the power to emotionally molest you only the once. Miéville's work on the other hand, where setting is so thick and rich, I can read again and again and find new alleys to walk down and buy drugs from Khepri dealers.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    I really want to have an opinion or at least a thought, since this sounds like the sort of thing that I'm interested in, but...I'm not confident that I understand. I feel the desire for a list of the fictional worlds that I'm familiar with, and a checkmark on the ones that aren't...er..."overbuilt"?
     
  5. A.M.P.
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    There's another point that the article doesn't consider; style.
    Some writers are known for world building, strong characters, excellent fight scenes, or this or that.

    My personal style is all about characters vs. environment where my stories move forward through character growth and desire for change to better their own lives, whether for good or ill.
    To some, my stories will be a snooze-fest. They'll say "Where's the action? Why are the fight scenes so short? Where's the bad guy?" because they want something different than what I offer.
    So, in a sense, from their perspective, I am over-characterizing and it seems the "goal" of the book isn't clear because there is no "evil thing" to focus on.

    So, basically, Harrison is condemning a style that isn't overly popular and many have gone overboard with and ended up with a shoddy manuscript.
    However, there is nothing wrong with it just because it falls short of pleasing everyone or being written for a general audience.

    It would be the same as me condemning Rosalind Laker for her To Dance with Kings because the politics seemed slightly ambiguous, the characters were overly romantic, and the female characters (All 4(?) main characters) seemed to singularly obsessed with riches, sex, and love rather than having epic scenes and a clear tale that I can quickly recognize and categorize. However, her work was well written, interesting, and simply riveting despite it lacking in other aspects.

    Style, peeps, style.

    Go ahead and find that list :3
    I wouldn't be surprised if some works had more world building than actual story just like some are too much story and not enough information.

    Take for example Steve Erikson who wrote a very very long series of books all pertaining the same world where you have so much world building at once you forget who's who and what's what and even then you end up flabbergasted on some of the finer details. Moon's spawn is a city? or is an actual rock with a city inside it... or.. what?

    Honestly, I bet if I was a huge DnD nerd (Which the writing seems to suggest to with all the glowy swords and stuff) I bet I'd understand his work way more. However, excellent read and interesting story and characters.
     
  6. Leviathan
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    Leviathan Active Member

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    By Harrison's logic, Tolkien, who spent 12 years worldbuilding, is not a good writer. Kinda have to disagree on that. I do admit that good worldbuilding is pointless if it has no real influence on the plot.
     
  7. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think world-building is important, as long as I don't have to read about it.
     
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  8. GingerCoffee
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    This author would agree:

    5 Ways to Build a Detailed World Without Boring Your Readers
     
  9. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like the philosophy that world building, insofar as it's presented to readers, should be done only when they absolutely need the information in order to understand and enjoy the story.

    Sounds like a pretty straightforward concept, but I see it violate a LOT. Too often, the world is explained when it's convenient to do so - I just finished listening to The Black Prism (appalling narrator for a meh book) and the author used the device of bringing a neophyte into the magic world and having another character explain it all to the rookie. It was convenient for the author to have the info all dumped there at once, because he didn't have to worry about working it into the narrative, but, damn, was it dull. (And it's hard to skim with an audiobook).

    In terms of how much work an author should put into building their worlds, off-page? As much as they want to, I guess, but I've got to say I don't think my enjoyment of Tolkien was enhanced in the slightest by all the time he spent inventing the Elven language or whatever.
     
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  10. A.M.P.
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    @BayView
    Brent Weeks' Black Prism is amazing!
    His first trilogy about the assassin/ninja was terrible after the first half of book 2.
     
  11. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm sorry, you're wrong.

    That is all.

    ; )
     
  12. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    :eek:
    It was very good for a debut novel!
     
  13. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I may be biased b/c the audiobook narration was SO awful, but... I don't know. I think if it had been a print book I would have been doing a LOT of skimming. And I just couldn't buy the situation behind the big plot twist. And I didn't really like any of the characters (although, again, the narration may have been PART of the problem, there...)
     
  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    All this M. John Harrison chat has made me realize that I missed the third in his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Empty Space. Just zipped it down now from Amazon to my Kindle. :)
     
  15. Wreybies
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    The initial article that drew my attention to the one by Harrison is one by China Miéville, wherein it seems he agrees with you, at least to a point. :)

    The Author of the Century, of course, needs no help from anyone (least of all a speck like me). No force on earth could undermine either the juggernaut implacability of his sales, nor the world-historic scale of his influence, nor the truly enormous weight of his achievement. The man puts the 'epic' in 'epic win'. However--or, more accurately, because of that--every few years, certain as tides, someone will write a splenetic screed against the Professor, explaining why he's the devil/ worst things to happen to fantasy/voice of reaction/zomg most boring writer EVER /etc. The Oedipal Resentment motivating many of these attacks may be trivially obvious, especially in those from within fantastic fiction, but it doesn't follow that the substance of all the criticism is baseless. There are perfectly reasonable arguments to be had about the impact, nature, scale and success of Tolkien's work. The sheer religious zealotry with which some Tolkienistas defend the master, when it ignores those grounds for debate and refuses to countenance a flaw anywhere in the MiddleEarthian edifice, doesn't, then, help matters. Even more nuanced pro-Hobbit partisans sometimes--and acknowledging that there are always debates on this--choose what look to some of us to be questionable grounds for defence. Because there are arguments not only about what is regrettable in Tolkien, but about what is indispensible. Accordingly, what follows is a list of some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien. It may be redundant strictly qua defence, this defence of a corpus that is thriving, but perhaps it's not pointless anyway.

    ~ China Miéville

    http://www.omnivoracious.com/2009/06/there-and-back-again-five-reasons-tolkien-rocks.html

    _____________________________
    China Miéville's awards include:

    Arthur C. Clarke Award
    2010, 2005, 2001 • The City & the City, Iron Council, Perdido Street Station

    Hugo Award for Best Novel
    2010 • The City & the City

    Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
    2005, 2003 • Iron Council, The Scar

    August Derleth Award
    2003, 2001 • The Scar, Perdido Street Station

    Kurd Lasswitz Prize for Best Foreign Novel
    2002 • Perdido Street Station

    BSFA award for best novel
    2009 • The City & the City
     
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  16. 123456789
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    @Wreybies

    Leave it to a real writer to express my own sentiments exactly! I'm particularly fond of his use of the word "nerdism," which I say, respectfully, is a word Ive felt describes at least half the forum users here, based on their posts in regard to writing, in particular to this sort of debate.

    Obviously there are exceptions. Some people were born to world build, but it's a rare ability, and fake worlds will always lose out to reality, as no amount of world building can compare to the mysteries of mathematics or astronomy, and no fake history is as rich as the real one. My heart will always go out to the writers who can just spill out their soul, unhibited by any sort of"nerdism."
     
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2015
  17. A.M.P.
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    I see nerdism as this:

    "Well, my world has dwarves and orcs."
    "Oh, yeah? In my world, there's this cult that praises this old statue-"
    "Crazy evil cult, how original!"

    NEEEEERRRD!!!
     
  18. Wreybies
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    But I don't think that's what Harrison means at all. To me he's talking about the writer geeking out in the realms of his/her own world creation, be that creation a stereotypical D&D - WoW backdrop or not. There has to always be some world building, else your story takes place floating in an isolation tank, a void. The magic of Harrison's own work is that he does not bother with a tightly woven warp and woof. There is no pandering to telling you, in detail, about the rebellion of the Mendakin Slaves that explains - yet again, in painful detail - why Thathara is such a broken little paladin/princess/Robotech driver.

    He's talking to the writers who spend painstaking hours to create languages that work within the mind of the writer, even if they do always fall short of the linguist's meter stick. Why do this? "To make it more real!" cries the writer. More real for whom? Certainly not for the reader whose eyes are going to glaze over until English is again found on the page.

    He's talking to the writer who insists that a prologue is absolutely necessary because you have to know these things before you start reading my story. Please. Read. My. Prologue. Pleeee-heeee-heeee-heeez. *disassembles into snot-bubble-making sobs*

    And in a very strong way I feel that he's talking to the writer who is a control freak and demands that the reader read his story the "right way", so yes, all this detail is utterly necessary because loosie goosie means the reader might read something into my work that was unintended.
     
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  19. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    There is nothing more immersion breaking than having your imagination fill in all the blanks just to be told in minute detail that everything your imagination created is wrong.
     
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  20. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    yeah, I wasnt talking about dwarves.

    Nerdism refers to that guy whose got rose petals lined up the stairs for his date, knows the exact words he wants to say to her before they get to the deed, and has every second of the encounter pre planned in his head.
     
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  21. TheOneKnownAsMe
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    TheOneKnownAsMe New Member

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    This, a million times this.

    I get so sick and tired of the heavy-handed, drawn out, overly detailed exposition that so many authors bother with. Tell me as much as I need to know in order to understand what is happening, and leave the rest in your tabbed, intricately designed, pain-stakingly crafted notebook. If the fans want to know more, they'll go searching for it, and then you can provide it to them. But please, don't assume that everyone wants to know every minute detail of your world, because they don't. Your story could be absolutely amazing, but if it gets dragged down by needless nerdgasming or exposition, you'll lose a lot of your readers.
     
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  22. Chinspinner
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    Likewise. When I think of world-building I actually think more in terms of The Name of the Rose, where the world (a monastery) is intricately designed and that design is central to the plot. I never really think of someone writing "here be dragons" on a map; that is, as TheOne noted, just a nerdgasm that often detracts from a piece of writing.
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2015
  23. A.M.P.
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    @Wreybies
    I was more making a joke than being serious, lol ;p
     
  24. GingerCoffee
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    Setting by immersion (be sure to change to full screen and leave the sound on.):


    Just something about it that makes me feel I'm in another world.
     
  25. jannert
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    This is one of the most interesting threads I've read in a while. Thanks for starting it, @Wreybies .

    When I think of fantasy world-building, I think of Tolkien ...whom I reckon pops into nearly everybody's mind when this topic of world-building comes up. Tolkien's books have been around a long time, most people who are interested in fantasy have either read them or tried to read them. It's interesting to me that most people also broadly agree on the bits he should have left out of the LOTR trilogy.

    The Elven language. (Saints preserve us, I got fed up with all the elven poems.)
    Tom Bombadil. (Fun, but a long and ultimately pointless inclusion. The hobbits could have got hold of their weapons another way entirely.)

    Of course when you read about Tolkien's life, you realise he was a scholar above all else. He was interested in linguistics, and built the language for fun. And of course, once he did that, he wanted to use it in his story. He also built his world long before he built his story about Frodo and the Ring.

    In fact, when you look at his appendixes to LOTR and the Silmarillion (which is not a story, but a collection of notes) you realise that his world was huge. The tale of Frodo was a pivotal point in Tolkien's built history, but it was far from being the only tale he could have told. It was interesting to read that he had no idea where his story was going, when he started out to write it. WW2 interfered, and he felt that the lessons learned from it certainly informed his finished story.

    The Lord of the Rings was rich because Tolkien's created world was rich. He could reach into any portion of it to draw out the details he needed to have, knowing he wouldn't be unpicking the threads of his history and leaving huge plot holes.

    However, he could have used a good editor. He should have had somebody marking the margins of his manuscript, saying ..."you don't need all the elven poems. Just a stanza or two will do, to give flavour. Nobody else speaks this language but you, so you're just giving the reader a lot of gobbledegook to wade through. And Tom Bombadil is a distraction who will ultimately annoy your readers when they realise he didn't actually add anything to the story."

    So ...The Lord of the Rings is a masterclass, both in how to present a fantasy world, and how NOT to present a fantasy world! Not too many other fantasy writers can claim this duality. (Well, maybe George RR Martin ...but that's another story.)

    Writers can certainly create very detailed worlds if they want to. However, the size and intricacy of that world doesn't have any impact on whether or not they are good storytellers.

    Think of writers who write about 'the real world.' Our real world is huge. If I was writing a story about Aunt Edna's affair with the milkman back in 1953, but decided to include all the details of the American Civil War and Ghenghis Khan's conquest of Asia and Eastern Europe, my readers who wanted to learn about Aunt Edna's bittersweet romance might get mightily sidetracked and annoyed by all the other faff. The trick is ...create the world as completely as you like ...but then regurgitate ONLY the parts of it that are necessary to the story.
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2015

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