Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Worldbuilding and the Origin of Fandom -- Part I: The Fans

Blade Runner Cosplayers
This post originally appeared in 2012, but disappeared due to a glitch.

Some years ago, during the heyday of the Harry Potter craze, there was an interview with Rowling going around the internet where she revealed that the snake Harry freed from the zoo in the first book was actually Nagini, the bad guy's pet snake from the later books. Fans went crazy over it: here was yet more evidence of the intense amount of planning that went into Rowling's series, sure proof of the complexity and depth of her books.

Yet all I could think was that this was a meaningless detail. The whole thing turned out to be a hoax--but even if it had been true, why would it matter? Would it have added anything to Harry as a character, or to the villain? Would it have added meaning or direction to the plot? If Rowling revealed that Harry wore the same underwear the first night of class his second year as he did the first night his third year, that would technically be a connection within her world, but it still doesn't mean anything.

There are a lot of badly-written fantasy books out there, and for a long time, I was puzzled to see every flaw in these books defended as being 'part of the world'. An author with no poetic skill writes a three page song? It's not boring, it's worldbuilding. A chapter that is nothing but troop movements, despite the fact that no matter what the army does, the bad guy can only be killed by the Plot Coupon of Seven Parts (which also conveniently destroys his army)? Fans call it 'depth'. A lengthy explanation of how magic spells work, despite the fact that none of them are ever used? It's not a symptom of maladjusted autism, it's proof of many-layered writing skill.

How Hard Can It Be To Make One Of These?

And that's the problem with worldbuilding: any detail an author drops about their world, no matter how meaningless, is still technically worldbuilding. It becomes a Ship of Theseus problem: the construction of the globe and its map are worldbuilding, the magic and technology, the culture, the politics, the economics, the myths, the history--so where does it end? What detail cannot be included under at least one of those categories?

Writing is the process of deciding which details to include, and which to leave out. Books skip through time from scene to scene, we feel no need for descriptions of eight hours of nightly sleeping. At some point, we draw the line and state 'this detail is an important part of the world, while this one is not'. Worldbuilding is only as useful as its ability to provide meaning to the story. Writing that is unfocused and superfluous is always bad writing, and increasing the complexity and length for its own sake just amounts to more pages of bad writing.

The whole point of worldbuilding, the reason to have a world, is because we need somewhere for the story to take place, a stage on which the author can explore their ideas. As in theater, you need a set, you need props, you need the things that facilitate the characters' actions. Even roleplaying guidebooks, which are ostensibly all about the details of a world, are constructed and laid out as tools for the telling of a story, giving only the pertinent information.

I've read a few, in my time
This doesn't mean that an author should get rid of everything that doesn't contribute directly to plot and character--you can set mood, pace, and voice when describing the world, too--but those are still important parts of the story. They modify the characters, the plot, and the ideas, and how we see them--they aren't merely filler. Whether or not Han shot first is not an extraneous detail, because either way, it tells us something about his character.

But it's completely different to talk about whether Dumbledore is gay, or what color the inside of Boba Fett's helmet is, or what type of stone was geologically formed in the mountains of the neighboring kingdom, because none of that is meaningful to the story. If the old wizard's sexuality were a central part of his character, then it would already be in the book--if the story works completely without that detail, then it is extraneous. Yet the fandom seems to be obsessed with these sorts of pointless details--why is that?

On the surface, fandom resembles other obsessive interests--like literary critics, they comb through books looking for connections; like historians, they want to collect various facts about a world and develop an understanding of it. But unlike those activities, fandom is insular and self-contained, which for many fans is precisely the appeal.

Unlike the unsure messiness of history, in fandom, there is actually one right answer. You don't have to read a dozen conflicting accounts of a war from both sides, then try to put together an understanding based on that--even in an absurdly complex and messy canon like Star Wars', there are still central tenets and absolute authority on what is correct. As large as it is, it's still easy to tackle compared to real history.

For literary criticism, the point is to study and understand how written communication works: how we tell stories and create meaning. The whole process is built around developing an overarching theory, a philosophy of human communication. Pure fandom, on the other hand, has no purpose but itself. It is a cyclical, cannibalistic process where details are considered valuable only because they can be memorized and known.

We all want to be right, we want to be informed, and as the internet demonstrates, a lot of people just enjoy being able to prove others wrong--but what's the point of being right about something that simply doesn't matter? The point of course, is to be right, no matter what. It's not about improving one's own understanding, but winning a game which, on the surface, vaguely resembles actual debate, all for the sake of an ego trip: 'See! I told you I left my hat on the second peg, not the third one! Now come on, I want to hear you say I was right.'

Doré's Fall of Satan
I'm not against reading books carefully and thinking about them, nor am I against paying attention to detail. Books say a lot about how we live and think, and reading can teach us about ourselves and the world. If someone wants to talk about how Milton's Satan and Adam present opposing views of what is morally important in life, that's great, because that has an impact on how we all think and live. The ideas in books inspire scientists, philosophers, artists, and musicians, they provide a great place to explore our world and our own minds.

But once they start bringing up details which have no bearing on any actual idea or experience, that's just talking to hear yourself talk. Imagine debating someone about social welfare when they suddenly respond 'Oh yeah? Well, you have black hair!', as if all details were equally pertinent.

But then, there are people whose brains rank importance in different ways. One of the chief causes of hoarding is an inability to judge the value of objects. If you show a hoarder a sapphire tie pin and a torn up old paperback and ask 'Which one of these shall we throw away?', they simply won't be able to make that decision. For them, there is no clear distinction. Both are objects which can be collected and possessed, both have a purpose, and both, once lost, are gone forever.

If their inability to choose sounds incomprehensible to you, let me ask you this: how many people you know with a drawerful of expensive jewelry they never wear and a stack of torn-up used books they read constantly? Now who's judging value inaccurately?

The world is full of information, more than could be consumed in a hundred lifetimes. There will never be a shortage of things for you to experience. This is why you have to choose what information you want to take in, to decide what's important to you--you have to draw the line somewhere. For many people, this isn't even something they consider, but in the words of Neil Peart: if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

For me, I want things that are going to make a difference in my life, that are going to change how I think. This doesn't mean I'm going to avoid fiction or adventure stories, because they can be just as informative as anything else (indeed, nonfiction can be just as pointless and removed from life as the worst genre trash). But it does mean that after watching LOST for a bit and seeing the same conflicts, character types, twists, and messages about faith come up again, I lost interest. Once they started to repeat themselves, there was nothing new to be gleaned.

"Be seeing you . . ."
But for a show like The Prisoner, where each episode has its own theme and concept, its own way of telling a story, there's something new to learn each time you watch. So, I've decided it's of priority for me to focus on taking in new and unusual things that help me to think in different ways. Sure, I've fallen into the trap of obsessing over a world's details now and again, but then I realize that, at best, I'm just treading water, not getting anywhere--and at worst, I'm training myself to argue with people whose only purpose in life is to be correct about insignificant details.

Of course, it's up to each of us to decide where to draw that line. I don't want to spend my time reading things that have nothing new to offer, or reading things that are just poorly-written. I get no pleasure from doing it, or from writing negative reviews afterwards, or from the scree of angry comments that inevitably follow. Sure, it can be instructional to look at what authors do wrong, but I would never read a book if I thought it was going to be uninteresting or just bad.

Of course there are people out there for whom reading is an end in itself, people who tell me 'you really have to get to the fifth book, when it starts to get good', people who are happy to fill their heads with details that have no bearing on their life, details which they will never use outside the deepest depths of a forum. Many do this because it is a known thing, it resembles the study of literature or history, but without the vastness, without the unknowns.

But for me, when it comes to living life, the vastness and the unknowns are precisely what make it all worthwhile. I'd rather read five different books that might be good rather than the next five books in a series when I know book one is shit, because I want to read as many good books as possible, and as few bad ones as I can manage. If you're interested in history or geology or astrophysics, then read about them instead of investing that time in a simplified substitute.
I'm No Stranger to the Occasional Sport
Of course, there are also those who get into fandom for social reasons. They want to belong, and one way to do that is to find an insular community and school yourself in its jargon and collection of factoids. It creates commonality, something to discuss. This is something that can be witnessed in every group, from role-players to juggalos to sports fans. Again, to me, there seems to be a better option: school yourself in something meaningful, something that has an impact, which creates meaning and understanding in life, then join that community. That way, you gain not only commonality, but personal understanding of the world.

I'm not saying a fantasy reader or role-player or sports fan can't approach their interest with an eye toward understanding the world and self-improvement--there is no field of study or activity that is outside the human sphere, that cannot be turned into a tool for understanding ourselves--I'm just saying that for many, if not most, when knowledge is secondary to status, or fitting in, or being right, or some other symptom of insecurity, we all suffer. There is no status great enough, community large enough, or argument of sufficient vehemence to overcome insecurity. The only thing that can oppose it is greater knowledge of the world, and of the self.

Thanks for reading Part I, the fans' side of obsessive worldbuilding, next up is Part II: The Authors.


  1. Hi Keely!

    You don't seem to understand what wordbuilding is supposed to be.
    No doubt you're not alone in this but surely you can see that your definition is vaccuous:

    "anything an author writes about their world is worldbuilding, no matter how meaningless"

    Useful definitions are discriminating. If anything can be "worldbuilding", nothing meaningful can be said by talking about such a thing.
    Here's what "worldbuilding" is supposed to mean:

    So I wouldn't call the mention of insignificant details worldbuilding.
    Such details can lend a setting versimilitude or flavor. They can also be used to hide clues and foreshadowing. So they can be justified.
    But they can't be justified as worldbuilding (properly defined). Meaningful details are something else.
    In our world, nuclear fusion being exothermal up to iron is a detail of great import to worldbuilding (I like unfunny puns) for instance. Your choice of underwear isn't.

    "The whole point of worldbuilding, the reason to have a world is because we need somewhere for the story to take place."

    I think you're missing the point. If that was the case, why not write stories which take place in our world and take advantage of your readers' familiarity with it? That's what most litterature does, and for good reason. You could if necessary add a twist or two in the fashion of alternate history or urban fantasy in order to tell a story which wouldn't fit squarely in our world. Or you could use familiar mythology (I'm not going to lecture you about that!).
    Yet there's a significant minority of fiction which takes place in worlds very different from our own. Usually, this departure from efficency can't be justified solely on story-telling grounds. That's because some people like to imagine different worlds. Imagine that!

    And some of those people also like their imaginary worlds to make sense. They like geology, astronomy, history and whatnot even if they have no real use for this knowledge in their lives (not even on Internet forums).
    If a kid can marvel at the explanation of a geographical feature in our world, why should geography be arbitrary in imaginary worlds?
    Why should seasons make no sense in A Game of Thrones for instance? GRRM saw fit to include a wealth of details irrelevant to worldbuilding but he didn't bother to flesh out what is probably the most distinctive feature of his setting. I guess he couldn't. Winter is coming... for no reason. That's just bad worldbuilding, even for fantasy.

    If you care to look, I think you'll find it's often the shortest works which have the most on worldbuilding.
    There are even rare works of short fiction which are virtually all about worldbuilding, with little or even no story and perfunctory characters. An extreme example would be "Exhalation" from this popular collection:
    And then of course you have the weirdos who enjoy reading the occasional RPG sourcebook and such. All worldbuilding and no story...

    1. Did you actually read my post? I talk specifically about the importance of good worldbuilding throughout. I agree that the definition "anything an author writes about their world is worldbuilding, no matter how meaningless" is vacuous, but that's my whole point.

      Worldbuilding, as per the wiki article you so helpfully linked, is the creation of an imaginary world, and as long as an author is stating a detail about their world, that is technically a part of world creation, even if that detail is otherwise pointless. I'm not saying this is what worldbuilding should be, in fact, I specifically say the opposite:

      ". . . once [an author] start bringing up details which have no bearing on anything outside the book, that's just talking to hear yourself talk."

      ". . . some people like to imagine different worlds. Imagine that!"

      Yeah, and they also like to watch Jersey Shore, that doesn't mean I have to value their choice in and of itself. I'm more interested in why they they like it, and in what makes those worlds interesting.

      Certainly, there are other aspects of writing besides story and character--in my post I mention mood, psychology, ideas, and commentary on the real world. As long as the worldbuilding achieves these things, it's not extraneous.

      "They like geology, astronomy, history and whatnot even if they have no real use for this knowledge in their lives"

      Yes, they do, but that doesn't mean I should value what they like. There are plenty of people whose values I don't agree with, particularly self-justifying escapists.

      "then of course you have the weirdos who enjoy reading the occasional RPG sourcebook and such. All worldbuilding and no story..."

      Yes, something I've done many times myself, but there's nothing that prevents such books from informing us about ourselves, storytelling, and the world. And again, I'd say a sourcebook where the worldbuilding was all cliche or insignificant details would be just as worthless as a fiction book with the same flaws.

    2. Barthes had a put forth a narrative system in Image/Music/Text...if I remember correctly.
      He divided the narrative into Cardinal points, and also the average detail that evokes a world.
      The "Art" of world building is using those...quotidian moments of "the world being built" in order to analogue it to reality.
      I think one can err on the side of one or two too many little quotidian bits (I cannot remember what Barthes termed it...there were four terms, Cardinal to "typical detail/quotidian-walking to the store in a future world is mind blowing...but actually, to the character, its just another walk to the store...
      But there were also two other terms.
      Hold on...
      These two main classes of units, functions and indices,
      should already allow a certain classification of narratives.
      Some narratives are heavily functional (such as folktales),
      while others on the contrary are heavily indicial (such as
      'psychological' novels)

      INDICES is a bit vague in the mere paragraph. They are construction elements, going all the way up to Character, but then all the way down to, in Barthes example, a gun or a telephone. The gun is meant to indicate it will (or will not) be fired...the phone, is meant to be picked up and set down.
      I know, not all that useful yet:|
      "Returning to the class
      of functions, its units are not all of the same 'importance':
      some constitute real hinge-points of the narrative (or of a
      fragment of the narrative); others merely 'fill in' the narrative
      space separating the hinge functions. Let us call the former
      cardinal functions (or nuclei) and the latter, having regard to
      their complementary nature, catalysers."
      "At first sight, such functions may appear extremely
      insignificant; what defines them is not their spectacularity
      (importance, volume, unusualness or force of the narrated
      Structural Analysis of Narratives | 95
      action), but, so to speak, the risk they entail: cardinal
      functions are the risky moments of a narrative. Betwcen
      these points of alternative, these 'dispatchers', the catalysers
      lay out areas of safety, rests, luxuries."
      Here it is, informants:
      "informants, serving to identify, to locate in time
      and space. To say that through the window of the office where
      Bond is on duty the moon can be seen half-hidden by thick
      billowing clouds, is to index a stormy summer night, this
      deduction in turn forming an index of atmosphere with
      reference to the heavy, anguish-laden climate of an action
      as yet unknown to the reader. Indices always have implicit
      signifieds. Informants, however, do not, at least on the level
      of the story: they are pure data with immediate signification.
      Indices involve an activity of deciphering, the reader
      is to learn to know a character or an atmosphere; informants
      bring ready-made knowledge, their functionality, like that
      of catalysers, is thus weak without being nil. Whatever its
      'flatness' in relation to the rest of the story, the informant
      (for example, the exact age of a character) always serves to
      authenticate the reality of the referent, to embed fiction in
      the real world. Informants are realist operators and as such
      possess an undeniable functionality not on the level of the
      story but on that of the discourse.1
      Nuclei and catalysers, indices and informants (again, the
      names are of little importance),"

      Narrative...what I call "widgets" are asynchronous, narrative functions well, they are synchronous.

  2. Obviously I read your post.
    I'm going to be more direct since it seems I need to.

    You don't "talk specifically about the importance of good worldbuilding throughout". You talked about character stuff and called it worldbuilding.
    As far as I can tell, your post is really about how OCD blooms in fandom (something I have next to no experience with).

    You have given me no reason to believe that you understand what worldbuilding is or what the point is.
    Unlike character stuff, it's not necessarily supposed to inform "story and character [or] mood, psychology, ideas, and commentary on the real world". It usually does that in popular fiction because most people aren't into worldbuilding as such.
    Once you understand what worldbuilding is supposed to be and what's it's supposed to be about, you can move on to "why they they like it, and in what makes those worlds interesting".

    I'm of course not trying to tell you what to value or to justify escapism. As far as I can tell, that's your game.

    1. "You have given me no reason to believe that you understand what worldbuilding is or what the point is."

      I don't think you have given me reason to think you know what worldbuilding is, either, so perhaps it's time to get our hands dirty and get some definitions down. You talk about the importance of specifically defining worldbuilding, but you have not actually done this.

      You did link to a wiki page, but that doesn't tell me what you think worldbuilding is, or should be, and I found the definition on the wiki page supported my assumptions about worldbuilding, so clearly we need to go a bit deeper.

      From your link, 'Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world'. You say you wouldn't call insignificant details worldbuilding, but then, how do you separate the significant details from the insignificant ones? My post lays out my rubric for separating them.

      The definition you linked says 'The goal of worldbuilding is to create the context for a story'. This contradicts your point about 'storyless worldbuilding' and 'context for story' is also what I use to define significance. I did not 'talk about character stuff and call it worldbuilding', I stated that the way I separate significant from insignificant is whether those details are important for the characters, plot, and ideas.

      Likewise, my post is not about 'OCD in fandom', it is about the fact that much of fandom centers around insignificant details (and some hypotheses as to why), which is a continuation of my analysis of significant vs. insignificant details in worldbuilding.

      Like your wiki page's 'context for a story', I defined worldbuilding as the act of creating the story's setting, and hence, the only details that matter are those which are pertinent to the story. Even roleplaying guidebooks draw that line, providing details that are useful in telling a story and refraining from including details that are extraneous. It is important to know that Ranulph is king, so we get that detail. It is not important that his pockets have a 25% incidence rate of lint, so that is left out.

  3. I thought I explained it already but I guess I was being too flippant when I referred to nucleosynthesis.
    Worldbuilding (literally) explains how an imaginary world came into being or (by extension) how that world works. In most cases, explaining one goes a long way towards explaining the other (as with our world).
    "Worldbuiling" is also used to refer to precursors to such explanations (such as working out this stuff in one's head) as well as to the delivery of such explanations.

    In practice, it's pointless to explain the parts of an imaginary which are just like our own (no worldbuilder can best the scholars of our world). So information about a fantasy world's magic system would be worldbuilding while commentary about gender roles we are already familiar with isn't.

    Information about characters can in most cases only count as worldbuilding if they reveal things about the setting by implication.
    So letting your audience know a character is gay isn't worldbuilding (we already know some people are gay). But if there's anything surprising (form our perspective) about the way the character deals with being gay, that might reveal something about the imaginary culture of your setting and therefore count as worldbuilding.
    Similarly, telling that the current king is named Ranulf is not only unimportant, it isn't even worldbuilding in most cases. But if that wasn't already established (directly or implicitely), the very fact that there is a king counts.

    The same applies to information about the plot.
    In Game of Thrones for instance, Robert's rebellion is not there only to set up the plot or the relationships between characters. It's relevant to worldbuilding because it brought down the only dynasty the Seven Kingdoms had known and (along with its causes and the manner of the succession) undermined the legitimacy of the monarchy (as opposed to feudalism). The characters' behavior is affected by that aspect of the setting and not only by their grudges about who did what to whom during the rebellion. While the grudges as such definitely affect the plot, they're mostly random and do not count as worldbuilding.

    This is a recent fantasy book recognized for its worldbuilding:
    My edition of that page has three instances of "worldbuilding" and 17 instances of "world".
    My edition of the page of the first book in the series you mentionned as an example has no mention of worldbuilding and only 2 instances of "world", none of which refer to the book's imaginary world:
    That should give you pause: are you using a private definition of "worldbuilding"?

    I encourage you to take the wiki page in whole instead of quote-mining it to feed a denialist argument which confuses the issue.

  4. If you consider it 'confusing the issue' for me to quote the article you linked to define the term, then this discussion is a waste of time.

    And no, it does not give me pause to see that fans of moderately-successful genre fantasy books are more likely to discuss worldbuilding in the first paragraph of their reviews than kids who read pop bestsellers.

  5. When are you going to write a part II?

    1. Oh, I've got a draft, I just wasn't sure if I should split it into II and III or post it all as one. Then I got caught up in my novel again. I'll polish it up and get it out soon. Thanks for the nudge in the ribs.

  6. I can offer another reason why fans are desperate for details, and that's derivative fanworks. I suppose outsider might view it as laziness, having to have details served on a platter instead of using your imagination. But in-fandom, cult of adherence to "canon" is strong. More data also makes the creator of such works feel safer that they are not misinterpreting something, as well as providing more material to write about. (So, if the snake was Nagini, how did she get there? Why did no one notice she doesn't age properly?)

    Granted, derivative fanworks are polarising, so whether this is a worthy excuse depends entirely on your opinion of them. I'm just offering another reason why fans would latch onto extra info.

    Then again, I'm one of those "weirdos who enjoy reading the occasional RPG sourcebook and such", so I'm probably biased.

    There is, however, a problem in the way this extra information is presented. You mentioned Rowling and she (and other recent authors) are problematic in that they let out information like that randomly in interviews and such. In my opinion, if it is supposed to be shared with readers, it should be put in the book in a form of afterword or appendix. Or at least gathered in one blog. Instead, people have to chase random snippets which, as the example you listed here, are often inaccurate or taken out of context. Rowling is not the only offender, but she is the most prominent one.

    I enjoyed this post even though my views are very different. I like it when I can agree with all of the points, or at least understand where they are coming from, even when I disagree with the conclusion.

    1. "Granted, derivative fanworks are polarising, so whether this is a worthy excuse depends entirely on your opinion of them."

      I see no reason to separate fanwork from any other form of writing. Indeed, the only reason there is such a distinction now is because of copyright law. Many of the great works of history are based off of that sort of interplay, where a new author takes on a great work, expanding it, rewriting it, adding a sequel, or using it as the frame for a new story. Plus there are all the works full of allusive reference to great stories and poetry.

      So sure, if you want to write a Sherlock Holmes or James Bond story, it behooves you to go read the source material so you know what you're writing about. What I'm talking about here is extending that to details that just aren't important to the story, things there was no reason for the author to include in the first place.

      Mostly what I'm trying to do in these posts is to delineate for myself, as a writer, the line when worldbuilding ceases to improve your story, and becomes a self-indulgent thought exercise, and the point at which too much editing becomes destructive to the writing process.

      So, for a fan author, as for any author, I'd want to see that they maintained the same balance: that whatever work they produced was capable of standing on its own as a story, not merely a rehashing of concepts or an obsessive list of details with no other pertinence, and that an obsessive level of accuracy does not make a bad story better, particularly when the author is only being accurate about extraneous details for their own sake, and to the detriment of their pacing.

      "if it is supposed to be shared with readers, it should be put in the book in a form of afterword or appendix."

      I guess I'd carry that further and say that, since a story is a self-contained creation, anything pertinent to the story would already naturally be there, and nothing else should need to be added on. Any detail which is not specified is clearly open to interpretation.

      Thanks again for reading.

    2. I agree. However, in practice, a fanwork will be criticised as "non-canonical" if it ignores such additional details. A "beta reader", an editor of sorts, will nitpick such things as much as style and grammar.

      I can say, however, that I never saw an author of fanwork go as far as to make an infodump out of additional information, because they presume the rest of the readers know the subject matter. They will only make their story compliant with such details when relevant. Or use them as starting point for a new story. They are more prone to create cringingly awkward infodumps of their original elements.

  7. Just read two work with extensive worldbuilding, that works are The Scar and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel. Having seen how worldbuilding really benefit from those stories, I can understand what you mean by now.

    The superflous worldbuilding Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel have are not useless, even those stories in the footnotes. All strange tall tale of fairy and magic place the setting which upon magic itself have exist in England, how it behaved and how the magician of the past treated them. In short, even those not-working spells that Norrel usually talk about, and the footnotes below them are examples of worldbuilding done right for they set for the things to come.

    The same could be same for The Scar I guess. Superflous worldbuilding detail about the world history like the Ghosthead Empire serves as the basis of Possible-concept. The fact how terrifying the Malarial Queendom become the reason why even anophelii men are forbidden to go outside. Some worldbuilding here are extrafluous and more dis-jointed compared to Jonathan Strange, but it still good example I guess.

    Beside my question how my guesses are right, there is one other question: what about worldbuilding that served as atmospheric set of the story? The Perdido Street Station I suppossed could be prime example of this, when worldbuilding primarily served as atmospheric builder. There are many extraflous detail like how the market look, how people in Perdido Street Station do, or how buildings in The Ribs rarely ever finished. Some I found it have no purpose or direct connection to the story. But since this is a constructed world, I supposed that worldbuilding is rather justified because its really built up the atmosphere of New Crobuzon. What do you think?

    I hope you can shed some light upon this mind Keely.

    1. It is often hard to state what makes something good, to recognize all the small pieces that go into that success. It is much easier to recognize why things go wrong, to see flaws. In my analysis, I have spoken a lot about aspects of worldbuilding that detract from the story, that are pointless or ineffective, and I have not concentrated as much on how to do good worldbuilding.

      It is something I think about a lot, but it can be harder to define. In order for it to be good, it is not enough to simply be absent from the bad. Just because a man lacks bad qualities, it does not make him a good man--he may simply be dull or ineffective or uninterested.

      So, as a writer, it's important to have some positive goal to reach for. To me, I have come to think that good worldbuilding has a lot to do with ideas. So, the question becomes: does the worldbuilding have content behind it? So, when the reader is reading the worldbuilding parts, are they impressed by the beauty of the passages, the artistry, are they drawn along emotionally, are they made to think about the story in different ways, does the worldbuilding comment upon the ideas in the book and change how the author approaches those ideas?

      With the authors I think of as having bad worldbuilding, the only reason it is there is to allow the reader to look at the details and connect one point to another, that the worldbuilding has no purpose outside of its own existence. Bad worldbuilding can also be based around ideas which don't make sense, or which are not well-explored in the text.

      So, when I think of Mieville and Clarke, who you mention, I think of authors who are very concerned with ideas, with humor and surprise, and so their worldbuilding reflects that. There is poetry, thought, and depth there--the worldbuilding is always pointing to something else outside, to some concept or scene or emotional content that gives the worldbuilding meaning.

      You talk about atmosphere in New Crobuzon, and I agree--but then we have to ask: how does a writer produce atmosphere? For me, again, the answer is ideas, art, and emotional content. It's about crafting a scene so that it is more than just a description, it also brings in various conceptual elements that give the scene some kind of interesting meaning.

      Part of why I liked the footnotes in Jonathan Strange is because they were also wry and amusing--they were talking about more than just the world, which helped to connect the worldbuilding to other aspects of life, which made it interesting and worthwhile to me.

      It's still an idea I'm working on, but hopefully these preliminary ideas will help to explain what I think constitutes 'good worldbuilding'. Thanks for the comment.

    2. "So, the question becomes: does the worldbuilding have content behind it? So, when the reader is reading the worldbuilding parts, are they impressed by the beauty of the passages, the artistry, are they drawn along emotionally, are they made to think about the story in different ways, does the worldbuilding comment upon the ideas in the book and change how the author approaches those ideas?"
      Seems the most definitive statement from you yet.
      In presenting quotidian details, or informants according to Barthes (the two definitions are not perfect matches), I would think one takes something from today, this world, like ISIS, and creates a "other world" analogue, so that the alien or sci fi of fantasy quotidian, from out of this world, is seen as analogous.
      Helps the reader not only ground the other world (the sci or fantasy or most horror too) is something vaguely similar (the effort requires hiding the all to obvious or ham handed execution).
      Frank Herbert was really good at this: "Atriedes", whats in a name really? Well, it relates to Greek tragedy, but that is irrelevant. Fremen are Arabs, Breeding is discussed as it was normal to have these discussions in Medieval times, but politically incorrect now...or, well, just too informed by genetics.
      Herbert took common ideas, from the times, like Nukes and Computers, and relegated those to there is a use of the "informant" can be to deliberatly estrange.
      The World Building widget can work to estrange or familiarize the reader to the world that is slowly constructing over time, but whose ultimate, or highest term of indexing is Character.

  8. About schooling yourself in something meaningful, I totally agree--but I also think that separating out what's important in life and what's not is already a gigantic challenge.

    For example, it took me seven years to discover what was important in playing classical music--that it wasn't about the long pages of dull sheet music, ogling the child prodigies appearing on Ellen, or practicing scales over and over, but about combining the my limited technical ability with musical ideas to interpret a composition and make it sound beautiful.

    Before that discovery (thanks to a lucky run-in with a superb music teacher) I wasted hours at the piano, trying to memorize rhythms for the sake of memorizing, practicing scales without any thought as to why they were important, and learning pieces that I forgot within a couple weeks of learning them. When I performed for other people, there was never any sense that I was communicating or expressing something worthwhile.

    After that, I realized that it wasn't entirely my fault--I just didn't know any better at the time, and it was part of a bigger learning process. Beforehand, I treated music exactly like your analogy with the hoarding--I could never make decisions about unequally valuable things. There were times when I thought music was stupid and not worth my time, but I still continued playing just to live up to social expectation. It took an expert who knew exactly what my problem was to change that.

    I guess what I'm saying is that the phase where you hang on to unimportant details and have no idea how to differentiate value is a necessary phase in learning. All the *real* meaningful stuff, like history, literature, science, etc. are way bigger than those tiny fandoms where you can instinctively figure out the important jargon/factoids relatively quickly and know its relative value within the community. Whereas, you might be able to memorize the 2nd law of thermodynamics but still have no idea why it's important, even though you might get 5% higher on that science test than another classmate for having known it. Inevitably, during that difficult time it's easy to latch onto all the insecurities you point out--social status, being right, proving something wrong, etc.

    1. Yeah, definitely true--and of course, it makes total sense that when we're starting off, we can't tell the good from the bad, because we don't yet have those critical skills. One of the most important things that teachers and experience give to us is that ability to recognize what is important versus what is a waste of our time.

      I think it can be very comforting to just keep moving, memorizing things and jumping through hoops, because at least it feels like you're doing something, you're active--even if you're just moving in circles. As you say, it's a phase we all have to go through when we're learning something, because we have to try a lot of things before we figure out what's important.

      But of course, it's also easy to get stuck in this phase, because it's safe and not challenging, you just do what you're told and get your gold stars, without ever really coming to a real understanding of why you do it, what makes it important, to you and to others.

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  9. The really strange thing is that when you engage them in their own game of meaningless details and try to play it well, they fold.