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M John Harrison On Worldbuilding

This is just glorious:

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.

Published in researchmaterial


  1. 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 permissio…

  2. Yes, I guess in the writer’s imagination the world should be built before he puts words on the page. He should be confident in the veracity of it before he begins. If he is creating it as he writes, he is writing it, rather than writing from within it.

  3. “A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.”

    Much of James Joyce’s reputation lies on doing just that.

  4. Worldbuilding can be done in an interesting way – isn’t Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius mostly worldbuilding?

    Of course, it helps if you’re writing about a very interesting world.

  5. PK Eiselt PK Eiselt

    Maybe i am dense but didnt both tolkien and Steinbek build their reputaitions on “worldbuilding” for their audience? Now some might argue that both of those authors are nearly unreadable. and i might not disagree. but they are still considered Literary Giants for world both *there* and *not there*

  6. Jane Pietran Jane Pietran

    I’d be more impressed if Harrison wasn’t such a dedicated recycler of his own work (which I guess explains this affected despite, as the fox said to his twin who’d lost his tail) — while he _has_ had his moments, some of them very fine indeed, he resuses material more than a stand-up comic who’s standing next to Jo Brand and doesn’t want his new stuff nicked.

    Like most things, worldbuilding can be done well or badly. Sometimes it’s vital and sometimes Alan Moore just needs to show up and kick a tank shell in the face.

    I suspect that when Harrison read KJ Bishop’s _The Etched City_, he retroactively cursed his entire life with an insidious thin resenting worm….read his short stories (in particular) and tell me that man can keep the scissors off his nose for a minute.

    (Don’t anyone show him _Planetary_ without a mop and a bucket to put him in afterwards.)

  7. […] 14th, 2007 The inestimable Warren Ellis enjoys very afraid; while over at Ed Champion’s Return of the Reluctant, China speaks (literally). For the […]

  8. zerone! zerone!

    Agreed. Some of the best writing gives minimal details and leaves the rest up to your imagination. Case in point : HP Lovecraft. Sure he created dreamlands and nearly his own universe….but he only told you a little about it, didn’t he?

  9. nebris nebris


  10. Matt Matt

    I guess he’s easily frightened. He’s right to imply that the act of world-building can’t be used as a replacement for writing, and it shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a story, but to dismiss the entire exercise as “nerdism” is absurd (and as something of a nerd, I don’t appreciate this guy sneering at me). World-building is essential in some cases, even if the construct remains entirely in the writer’s mind and not a lick of the detail makes it to the story.

  11. It’s pretty easy to cross that line between establishing an atmosphere from which the story gets its start to falling overly in love with the setting and leaving story and character by the wayside in favor of “Look how imaginative I can be.”

    I, honestly, never got easily through the first 100 pages of Fellowship because I would always get incredibly tired reading about Hobbit genealogy. Of course, in Tolkien’s time that kind of expansive writing was more or less the way of things. Presently, we live in a different age of storytelling, one heavily influenced by faster-paced mediums like film and television.

    When I write, I like to get crazy-specific about a few details of my setting and let it go at that, then allow the story to guide the evolution of the world rather than restricting the story to a model world in my head. That may allow the story to drive the world into becoming a whole new animal, if what I had set fast in my mind turns out not to play with the story as much as I had expected. And then I can go back and polish the setting in rewrites.

  12. Greg Greg

    Worldbuilding is there to support the writing, not the other way around. If your writing is supporting the worldbuilding, you’re not telling a story, you’re writing a Star Wars Sourcebook

  13. I somewhat agree with Mr. Harrison’s interpretation. Worldbuilding can be very banal insofar as mise-en-scenic fodder and the addiction to referencing past continuity. Both of those details tend to lay the characters on the altar and sacrifice them to exposition. Setting and continuity matter but they should be a reflection the protagonist’s journey not an excuse to sell action figures. On the other hand it can be very pleasurable to experience the mechanics of a well realized world. You can form a relationship to the world because the deas and, albeit, single-note characters become familiar and comforting… Mr. Spock comes to mind. So I guess the moral of the story is don’t use your powers for evil.

  14. Now, see, I like worldbuilding, at least when done well. Or at least I like very clever frameworks on which a multitude of stories can be told consistently, and maybe that’s how I define worldbuilding, and perhaps that definition doesn’t entirely meet what he’s talking about. IMHO the author should build the world to a reasonable level of stability, but only reveal such parts as are necessary for the reader to grok the story within that setting.

  15. The over-reliance on world-building is the primary reason I could never get into Tolkien, and I suspect it is also the biggest problem with the last 3 Star Wars movies from Lucas.

  16. Lindon Lindon

    Philip K Dick, in “Ubik” (I think) needs to get his hero from San Fran to New York quickly, and does it thus:

    “…he went to the airport and caught the next available flapple and was in New York half an hour later…”

    What’s a “flapple”? No idea, Dick never says or mentions it again…world building? Nope not on his watch.

  17. Onymous Onymous

    Dick may have used a flapple. but it’s important to note that he didn’t use say a plane that just happened to be able to go fast enough, because flapple doesn’t just allow you to do what you want but it also implies a change in technology not just an improvement (fast plane). It also isn’t just a teleporter, teleporters change the dynamic of the world and change how things could work.
    Don’t assume just because some one doesn’t explain a bit of world building it wasn’t thought about, or that it doesn’t contribuite to building the world for the reader.

  18. cain_devera cain_devera

    From Mr. Harrison himself, found at:

    “The commercial fantasy that has replaced [great fantasies] is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.”

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