I love world-building.
I hate world-building.
“This much is true of place: we are immersed in it and could not be without it. To be at all is to be somewhere . . . we are surrounded by places. Nothing we do is unplaced.” – Edward Casey
Our experience of this world is partial, fractured, confused and full of small truths and massive lies. Why should we expect the world of our novels to feel any different?
Good world-building should be like the topography of the ocean floor. The novel, its characters, the real business of the book, is the ocean. Where the world intrudes on the novel are the islands. If the world-building is done right, if the topography is ‘accurate’ the islands will be in the right places.
Ringworld was an extraordinary piece of world-building. Awesome and wonderful in the true sense. But, technically, it was wrong. The Ringworld would have spun into the sun. The solution, essayed in Ringworld Engineers, of massive engines to keep the Ring in place might have solved the world-building problem but it ruined the magic of the world.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is commonly identified as the inspiration for modern fantasy’s delight in world-building. This is a world where it is the “18th century” in some places (waistcoats!) and the Dark Ages in others (chainmail!). Go figure.
Tolkien’s world-building was as much about deep-history, myth and language as it was about geography.
The maps in most epic fantasies are more accurate and less full of wonders and terrors than the maps the characters in those novels would have available to them. What does that do to our view of their world and to their view of their world?
“Place is a space which has historical meaning, where some things have happened that are now remembered.”- Walter Brueggeman
Dune has no plants to speak of and very little water. Where did it get all its oxygen from?
Dune is a fantastic example of world-building.
Why do we most often think of the world-building question in relation to epic fantasy and not in relation to SF? Or did I just make that up?
World-building can inform, but should never get in the way of, the characters and their stories. I walk about in the world, I live in my heart and my head.
My biggest beef with Steampunk is its overweening love for the aesthetic of its world.
“Dreams, books, are each a world.” –William Wordsworth
How different would our fantasy world-building conventions be if the Gormenghast novels rather than The Lord of the Rings had become the commercial touchstone for modern fantasy?
Better to build a world in the reader’s head than put it all on the page.
You can hint at wonders and deep gulfs of history with a sentence. The reader’s imagination will do your work for you and may well do it better. And they will feel a sense of ownership.
Michael Moorcock built epic worlds in novels that were mostly less than 200 pages long.
Good world-building makes the world of a novel feel larger than the novel. And feel more full of mysteries and wonders than the characters can conceive of and the pages contain.
“(World-building is) the clomping foot of nerdism.” –M. John Harrison