“There is something strangely self-undermining about the idea of utopia. Since we can speak of what transcends the present only in the language of the present, we risk cancelling out our imaginings in the very act of articulating them. The only real otherness would be that which we could not articulate at all. All utopia is thus at the same time dystopia, since it cannot help reminding us of how we are bound fast by history in the very act of trying to set us free from that bondage.” – Terry Eagleton
“[A] fictional world is a parasitic world.” – Umberto Eco
“World-building” is a vital component of fiction, one that is especially obvious in the fantastic varieties of literature. Critics, authors, and readers discuss the practice frequently, trying to grasp how it works, extolling its virtues and bemoaning its problems. In fantastika, particularly the SF and fantasy categories, world-building is assumed to be of primary importance and singular significance, used to project a plausible future or generate a richly-textured secondary world that sets each production apart. Every work of fiction, however, is an exercise in world-building to some extent, because every work of fiction generates an understanding (or sometimes multiple understandings) of the world, and every reader conjures a sense of world from their interpretation of that understanding. That is, readers elicit the workings and contexts of human existence in a given fiction; the world is, after all, the conditions of existence that surround us. Yet world-building is not just about conceiving of those conditions within a fictional framework; it is a reflection of the ongoing human impulse to create a world out of the realities our senses and imaginations encounter, to assert that what we confront is an organized milieu with graspable patterns.
Earlier this week, Saladin Ahmed wrote an essay on world-building in fantasy where he highlighted the comforts of creating physically and culturally detailed secondary world in epic fantasy fiction. Ahmed focused on the world as a comfortable travelogue, where tallies of attributes such as food and fashion invite the reader to enter that world through the implied textures of experiencing densely sensual details. As Ahmed wrote: “Roughly put, world-building is the attempt to describe an invented, fantastic world by cataloging that world’s history, geography, languages, religions, economy and so forth. It’s a way of nudging the reader into Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief” through the accumulation of telling details.”
Shortly after reading Ahmed’s piece I was pointed to a discussion of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle by Eli Lee. Lee focuses on the generation of empathy in the novel by pointing out how the narrative creates and undermines the sense of a singular, stable world. There is no one reality, no one basis for how it works, no unquestionable mode that existence follows. It is this ambivalence that requires us to use empathy as the basis for dealing with the world: “We’re meant to empathise with ordinary people in shitty situations – because to be human is to struggle and we’re all in shitty situations. What matters is to have empathy.” The worlds that Dick builds are iterations of reality constructed not for creating comfort, but for creating the discomfort that we often experience in life, the uncertainty that we fully grasp what is real. While Dick is building worlds, he is doing something else with that practice:
“[H]e is challenging the ideas by which we interpret our experience. We think we are embodied minds, which conceive and execute plans of action; we believe our lives reflect these plans. We imagine that the theories we frame about the world are not only useful, but also true. These highly questionable suppositions are Dick’s subject matter. . . .”
Both the classic secondary-world fantasy realms that Ahmed invokes and the unstable, layered realities of Dick’s novel have more resonances than discordancies as they create semblances of worlds for readers to engage. While the former creates comfort and the latter uncertainty, however, both are designed to give the reader enough detail to work with to invoke a world within the narrative. The objective of both is to create a notion of the world” for the reader so that they create a more encompassing fiction in their imaginations. Both approaches rely on the reader integrating their own idea(s) of reality with the one implied or explicated in the narrative, but they then diverge on the nature of the world(s) being built. In the worlds of Tolkien and Jordan and Martin the reader’s mind is saturated with details that create a palpable physical environment to reinforce the veracity of the narrative’s world. The Man in the High Castle does not just explicate an accessory-filled environment as the world of the narrative; it disrupts and questions all of the worlds it posits and refers to throughout the story. A world of disjunctures and discrepancies is put forth that creates a different idea of what reality is and, by extension, what a world is.
Many world-building exercises in fantastika concoct a discernible, incontestable reality for readers to enter into, as if the world is the sum total of the physical details we are presented with everyday. But a world is not just a setting or an array of stuff: “[O]ur everyday worlds host such impossible entities as individual psyches, desires, dreams, and symbols” as Thomas Pavel puts it in Fictional Worlds (p. 51). The world is a conception that tries to explain how everything fits together, and it is never seamless or even logical. These two ideas of how to build worlds differ not just in the intentions of the author but in the foundational idea of what “a world” is.
Both are based in an idea that the world is a higher order of “imagined community,” to borrow from Benedict Anderson, and fictional worlds feed on our ongoing attempts to comprehend and act in that community. The world is a schema in our imaginations that we constantly check against the reality around us and our own experiences. To engage the world is to believe in the world, both the one we apprehend with our senses and the ones we we overlay on what those senses tell us. We do this when we read fiction, but what we check against is are the schema themselves rather than the real world. We apply our beliefs rather than suspending some idea of disbelief. We fill in the many gaps of fictional worlds with a combination of information from the narrative in the writing and from our own experiences and conceptions about what “the world” is. Umberto Eco talked about this in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods when discussing fictional protocols, nothing that “everything that the text doesn’t name or describe explicitly as different” must be filled in with a reader’s own understanding of reality.
World-building is a strategy: some writers let the reader do most of it while others leave as little to chance as possible. World-building is an agreement between the writer and the reader, one that is negotiated differently in each story. The classic epics that Ahmed discusses try to leave as little as they can to the reader, to pull them into an unfamiliar world. And yet, these worlds cannot be too unfamiliar; as Eagleton noted above we can never create a world, even a utopia, that transcends our present. Even the most magical or alien world must be graspable and must on some level engage our ability to believe; even the most thoroughly detailed world has gaps, and even the wildest, most surrealistic spree cannot tear itself from our notions of reality. World-building in both of the conceptions I discuss here must be anchored in our ideas of how the world works; they choose to not make new worlds entirely, because they can’t, but instead choose how to dislocate us a bit from where we are at the moment. World-building is an act of disruption no matter how it tries to create a new frame of existence; it can trick us into thinking for a moment that we are elsewhere, or it can remind us that we aren’t always certain of where we are.
These approaches are not stark dichotomies; every fictional world has some elements of both, even if one is nigh-invisible. The point is that those detailed worlds of epic fantasy share something with Dick’s contingent, shifting worlds; they take different approaches to the same conundrum of the world. Neither assumes the world “as is,” and both argue against such an idea. As I noted not too long ago, “[b]y limiting what we think is real or possible in fiction, we bind our imagination to interpretations of the world around us.” Martin’s re-imagined War of the Roses and Dick’s multiple histories of World War II question those limits and allow us to explore not just impossible worlds but the “real world” around us by giving us new realities to play with and ponder. When world-building can accomplish this it shows us that fictions are not just on the page , but all around us.