by Thomas Manuel
More than ten years ago, in a now iconic pronouncement, the writer M. John Harrison decried worldbuilding as “the great clomping foot of nerdism“. He called on every science fiction story to represent “the triumph of writing over worldbuilding”, calling it dull and technically unnecessary. “Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent”, he wrote. “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.” To writers and readers of SFF, these words cannot help but be troubled. And yet, they demand being read again and again, as China Mieville said, “especially [by] those of us fortunate enough to look down and see the targets on our shirts, and look up and see one of the most important, savage and intelligent (anti-)fantasists of recent times aiming down the barrel of his scorn-gun at us.”
I am one such fortunate soul. As I write this essay, not five inches from my right hand, is a sheet of paper with the scribbled schematics of my mongrel, dream city of Orbaiz. I patched together this bastardized urban backdrop for an imminent tabletop RPG campaign and a less-imminent fantasy novel and have enjoyed every minute of it. And now, as intended, I am troubled.
It’s clear that Harrison doesn’t mean these words literally. He has, with a certain amount of arrogance clearly, thrown out this provocation, knowing full well that it lends itself to misinterpretation and enraged internet commentary. If the words hadn’t done the job, the tone of moral superiority and whiff of ‘high art’ sentimentality certainly would’ve. But Harrison isn’t a civilian and can’t easily be dismissed. As a writer, critic and editor, he looms over British SFF. He was a vital member of Michael Moorcock’s team at New Worlds, which ushered in the New Wave of the 60s and 70s. For those who are civilians, the New Wave was, in simplistic terms, the movement in SFF away from pulp to more artistic or literary ground. (Of course, the truth is more complicated. As Helen Mirrick writes in the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, “For some it is “the single most important development in science fiction”, an era that “transformed the science fiction landscape”, but others suggest that it is a meaningless generalization or that it never really existed.”)
The New Wave was kicking against the combined sedimentary deposits of pre-60s SFF – with Harrison identifying worldbuilding as one of the problems. As he wrote in his 2001 essay, What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium, “The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes… The commercial fantasy that has replaced them is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery.” If books are metaphors, pushing them past a certain point becomes counter-productive. Harrison claims that once worldbuilding was a tool, a means, but now it has begun to function as an end in itself. In this trend, he sees a movement opposed to the anxieties and tensions central to literature and art itself. If fantasy is about alienating the reader from the current world, generating a kind of culture shock that will shake them up and leave them open to actually being affected – then this trend is diametrically opposed to that objective. This trend becomes an attempt to domesticate the fantasy world and the book and thus neutralize its transformative potential as art.
And writers were complicit since they were providing their readers the opportunity to do so in the first place. Harrison’s own books, the Viriconium sequence, are in his own words, “a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair.” But he doesn’t want them to be read for the “furniture” of the world so he makes sure that the reader can never grasp it. Viriconium has an evershifting description – there is setting but no continuity. He makes sure that “you can’t read it for that stuff and so you have to read it for everything else.”
So Harrison isn’t knocking the deployment of metaphor and allegory, the embodiment of thematics or alienation through secondary worlds, etc. Rather, he has probed the psyche behind the kind of reader who enjoys worldbuilding and has found only one answer: escapism.
As I have discussed escapism in a previous essay, I’ll avoid rehashing the same points except to say that escapism exists on a spectrum.
On one hand, there’s pure escapism – where worldbuilding has become an end-in-itself. In these situations, it seems to feed a part of us that has very little to do with reading. It becomes more akin to collecting. (Or any other harmless and comforting hobby on the verge of pathology – like philately, baking or macroeconomics.) That said, there are many who start attempting to write fantasy novels but find themselves trapped exhaustively surveying their imaginary world and never actually writing a word – they’re infected with worldbuilder’s disease. An example where writing has definitely not “triumphed” over worldbuilding.
On the other hand, there are obviously numerous novels where worldbuilding co-exists with deeply political and aesthetic explorations. In these novels, arguments about the deleterious effects of worldbuilding would have to revolve around whether it pushes the artistic agenda or detracts from it. What’s now become apparent to me is that if it doesn’t do the former, it might be doing the latter.