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Mind Meld Make-Up with China Miéville on World-Building

China Miéville has his say with his answer to this week’s Mind Meld question on Wolrd-Building:

Q: Who do you consider master world-builders, and what did you learn from them?
China Miéville
China Miéville lives and works in London. He is three-time winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award (Perdido Street Station, Iron Council and The City & The City) and has also won the British Fantasy Award twice (Perdido Street Station and The Scar). The City & The City, an existential thriller, was published in 2009 to dazzling critical acclaim and drew comparison with the works of Kafka and Orwell (The Times) and Phillip K. Dick (The Guardian). The City & The City recently won the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlisted for the Nebula and Hugo prizes. China’s latest novel is Embassytown.

Worlds are too big to build, or to know, or even, almost, to live in. A world is going to be compelling at least as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does. Nothing is more drably undermining of the awe at hugeness that living in a world should provoke than the dutiful ticking off of features on a map. ‘World-Building’, at its worst and most compulsive inexorably means the banalising of an imaginary totality. How fucking depressing is that? Surely we want culture shock, which is about not understanding, rather than understanding. And we can get culture shock at home, too. Hence the greatest moment in world-creation ever, that opens M John Harrison’s The Pastel City. “Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them”. That refusal to speak of them is one of the most awesome and confident moments of scare-quotes world-building scare-quotes ever.

In fact, while we’re on a Harrison tip, I think one of the most productive things anyone interested in World-Building can do is to go straight to his now notorious, and magnificent, diss of the whole project, here, and read and reread it and be troubled by it. Not that you have to agree with it, of course. (though you can.) But I think that rather than starting with a kind of chippy denunciation with which that passage was greeted by many when it emerged, it would do us all good – especially 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 – to start from the presumption not that he’s wrong, but to try to figure out how and why he might be right. Why does the ‘internal consistency’ of a world matter to us? What does that even mean? How can we map every corner of a non-existent place? Why do we want to? Why are we so anxious when writers contradict their canon statements? What is going on? What kind of urges are these? Again, none of this presumes that the only honourable path is to throw up the project, necessarily – but it can only be bracing to force us to think about it, whatever our ultimate direction, because it’ll make us think about what it is we’re doing, or should be doing. Which is fiction, which is, we should probably hope, literature.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on Mind Meld Make-Up with China Miéville on World-Building

  1. I agree with this article – it shouldn’t be world building for the sake of it that matters. However, I think its also interesting to note that one of the few epic fantasy settings to actually work and suspend our disbelief is that of Tolkien’s – and he was completely obsessive about the world he created – almost to the extent that the fiction was an afterthought. 

    Sadly most epic fantasists just copy Tolkien but never really understand what he was trying to do. 

  2. At a basic level, I agree that true “worldbuilding” is tedious when it gets excessively detailed or aspires to absolutism.

    But when it comes to questions of “internal consistency,” I find as a reader it offers a level of security-If the world makes some internal sense to me, than I have greater context by which to understand the more fantastical elements of a story, thus requireing less intellectual investment on my part. Of course, that might be the point Harrison is making, in that readers shouldn’t need that sense of security, and indeed owe the writer more investment. In which case, it definitely puts an onus on the writer to make sure that his demands on the reader pay off: by refusing to offer the security of a sensible world, the rewards of engaging in that world must make it worth my time and energy. I’d say that Gene Wolfe is an example of this, in that he requires a large investment on the part of the reader, but the reward for that is great indeed.

    Most writers aren’t Gene Wolfe, though.


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