Building Worlds

One of he big topics going around at the moment is this post by M John Harrison, in which he refers to worldbuilding as dull, unnecessary, and calls it on the way having all the details worked out for you can take something away from the reader’s experience.
The debating began when his post began to generate a lot of negative responses, most notably at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. Readers cried out against Harrison’s “arrogance” and “elitism”; they wrote of how wrong it was to say all worldbuilding should be done away with.
The problem with all this outcry, though, is that most of it doesn’t seem to have much basis in what Harrison actually said. My first response to reading his post was that it seemed not arrogant, but honest; and most importantly, I thought he was right. The context in his post suggests that he refers specifically to the kind of worldbuilding where an entire setting is mapped out in intricate detail for a story–and he’s right in saying that it is not necessary. A story should carry its own weight, supported by worldbuilding where necessary, but there’s usually no need for history and geography and languages and all sorts of those details–details that in many cases are not used, or do not have any significance in the context of the story told.
In the cases I can think of where such an extent of worldbuilding is used and is necessary–Scott Bakker’s ongoing Second Apocalypse series comes to mind–the writing supports it; the story justifies it. And that is how it should be.
If you are going to craft an entire world in which to set your story, you should have a reason for it. Your story should need it. Writing over worldbuilding. Always.

[Afterthought: This is a very simplified form of the argument. Must every piece of it be necessary? Here my answer has been ‘yes’. But that’s not the case, in practice. Unnecessary as they may be, I have no objection to “ooh, shiny” or “cool shit”, as long as it’s not out of place. I guess that’s the problem word here: necessary. Need and necessity aren’t the right way to put it, but what other? “Suitability”?]


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