Monday Question: Wuzza Wooza Worldbuilding?
Saladin Ahmed wrote a cool thing at NPR called:
It’s an article about the virtues of worldbuilding in terms of fantasy fiction.
In it, he says:
“Like a detailed model railroad the size of a football field, or a small city of fully furnished dollhouses, the well-built fantasy world astonishes us with the vastness of its intricacies. And from this wood, paint, cloth, metal, and hours and hours of painstaking nerds’ work, a kind of magic is made.”
(Which is a damn fine quote, indeed.)
I’m always a little… reticent to fall too deep into the world-building rabbit-hole, because oh, what a deep and wonderful hole it is. In both my upcoming YA cornpunk series and in my next Angry Robot novel, The Blue Blazes, by golly, there was worldbuilding to be done. But I also found that the worldbuilding was easy to become tangential and distracting — there comes a point when figuring out the details of the world crosses over from “enhances the richness of the narrative” to “tangles the narrative up in its own shoelaces and makes it fall down and chip a tooth and then everybody laughs at it as it skulks home, weeping into its bloodied hands.”
Ahmed points this out — giving some examples of worldbuilding that works (and why) and also noting those examples that perhaps fall towards parody (Robert Jordan, f’rex).
Really heavy worldbuilding distracts me, I think — once I hit that point in a fantasy novel that we have to describe the pubic grooming habits of halflings or the lyrical history of the lizard people’s addiction to chocolate eclairs I start to tune out. But, when done well, it gives you a deeper sense of place and roots you to the story in a way that the plot itself cannot. (This is true in much the same way that details about a character can bring you closer to that character — at least, until they don’t, until they expel you from them like an exorcism purging a ghost.)
I’m fond of saying that I prefer worldbuilding that serves the story rather than story that serves the worldbuilding. (Though the opposite is true in terms of games: a rich world presents myriad stories for me as the player to experience — the deeper the world, the bigger the sandbox.)
It also occurs to me just now that the worldbuilding in the very non-fantasy novel of Ulysses (James Joyce) is actually quite robust. It’s almost like a fantasy novel without the fantasy bits? In that sense that Joyce creates the heroic journey (made mundane) through a capably-realized real world city, and along the way packs in enough allusions and details to perhaps drown a bull elephant. (It’s a hard-to-read novel, though I do quite love it.)
I was never the kid with the fantasy map on his wall, but over time I’ve come to appreciate the power of really good worldbuilding.
Which is all a roundabout way of this week’s question:
What for you is an example of good worldbuilding? Or bad? In genre work or not.
And the obligatory: why?