I’m not against worldbuilding…

…on the grounds that it impedes narrative. Nothing I’ve said has anything to do with worldbuilding vs narrative. Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies, it isn’t deftness or economy. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “I’m not against worldbuilding…

  1. Paul McAuley

    There’s a kind of history theme park in Lillehammer. A dentist collected old, traditional rural buildings and rebuilt them in a nice, landscaped setting. Lovely place. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

  2. Ben Godby

    No, no, I think it wants to re-enter a world: this one… and this time, we’ll make a damn fine entrance…

  3. uzwi

    Don’t forget yr sword. Oh, & this http://tinyurl.com/cblkzw8

  4. matt ridley

    I fully agree, though to my humble taste Jack Vance managed the best of both worlds

  5. uzwi

    Vance. Light touch, cleverly packed prose. That’s how he did it.

  6. I just read Anathem and was underwhelmed to say the least. Was left thinking “Wow all that effort, just for that??”.

  7. Most damningly, epic fantasies have no Faulkner to make the settings (and characters) rise above their constituent parts. Those “worlds” are just there, with marionettes prancing about but without a real semblence of life and vitality. Is that how some of these writers project their visions of this world onto their constructs?

  8. Chris Lites

    William Gibson.

  9. Worldbuilding: the accretion of inert details – doublets and barding, falchions and lyres – where fiction should be gravid with molecular intensities. As if writers of epic fantasy were all frustrated antique dealers.

  10. martm

    The double-bind is the detail. Too much is banal – and on one level, you can read “Report on Probability A” as a satire on immersive writers who never know when to stop. But try to make the detail too glancing, too subtle, and you end up with a narrative that might just as well be a realist fiction. So I enjoyed Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” but finished it wondering why a murder story involving a possible Messiah couldn’t just as easily be set in “our” Alaska, “our” London – or even “our” Frinton-on-Sea. The narrative turned on a sense of Jewish identity and one particular problem in chess – and neither one’s unique to Chabon’s alternate Alaska.

  11. … They drink a lot of tea there. Cupfuls and yet never does it wash away the painful yearning for the lost Home Counties.

  12. Clifford Simak could also evoke strangeness with the fewest and simplest words, as could Raymond Carver and Roald Dahl. Perhaps it’s a skill best learned by writing short stories.

  13. Luke

    KJ Bishop’s ‘The Etched City’, I think, breaks this mold. Actually reminded me somewhat of Viriconium–it all (intentionally) unravels and topples in itself as the book progresses.

  14. Evan

    All Along The Watchtower. Madame George.

  15. They put in all that effort to get away and what they really seem to want is slippers, a Baileys and a three-bar, wood-effect electric fire.

  16. shoegazer

    Depressing, isn’t it. Such hope, left in careless hands.

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  18. As one critic has remarked, “The master knows how to convey a sense of place with the occasional sharp detail of sound or smell or color; the prentice hand betrays itself by either a complete absence of such detail or a laborious and inevitably tedious recitation of minutiae.”

  19. Leonora Piper

    Well, about David Foster Wallace. I still can’t make up my mind about Infinite Jest, but I thought The Pale King was a horrifying disappointment; the very definition of over-engineered and under-designed. Obviously unfinished, it seemed like he was trying to rebuild our world exactly as it already is, or was; but unlike Joyce’s Ulysses, utterly joylessly. And why would anyone want to do that? I do sometimes wonder if this was something he knew he could never finish all along, that the project was by definition unfinishable, and that makes me shudder just as much as the alternative. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, on the other hand, which is for me far and away his best work, does occasionally exhibit great deftness and economy of line. ‘Signifying Nothing’, in particular. I agree with you on Pynchon and Grass, but I wonder if David Foster Wallace is a good example.

  20. uzwi

    Hi Leonora Piper. I’m inclined to regret Wallace now you shine that cold light on him. But I’m glad Pynchon & Grass hit the mark. Would Lawrence Durrell work for you ? My idea was to separate capaciousness (which would include, obviously, generosity of reference, a complex aesthetic, sense of humour, broad interests, the feeling of a big, lively authorial inscape) as one good strategy, from deftness & economy, which is another; neither being found often in worldbuilt fantasy precisely because it’s so obsessed with the struggle to literalise its mise en scene.

    Nice choice of name, by the way.

  21. Leonora Piper

    Hi uzwi. Thanks. I’ve never read Durrell, though I’ve been meaning to for a long time. Soon will. I see your separating capaciousness from deftness & economy now. I thought it was interesting you mentioned Wallace, though, because he was a writer who appeared to be exceptionally capable of both at once (with a decided bias towards the baggy side of things), but who then rarely made either work – at least for me. Now I’m thinking my problem with Wallace might be tied to your problem with the fantasy worldbuilders, inasmuch as both seem reluctant to allow the space between a world and its literalisation sufficient room to breathe – nevermind the chance to grow. But then I suppose that’s a very, very general problem.

  22. Germ Nerd Gospel

    What are your thoughts on the Codex Seraphinianus?

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  24. uzwi

    Hi GNG: I’d call it an act of the imagination, as opposed to a heavy-handed mise en scene.