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Worlds Are Conjured, Not Built

I am heading to Readercon this Thursday, 12 July, and I am very happy to be a participant for the first time. It is going to be a very different experience and one that I hope to repeat in the future. I’ve been thinking a lot about the panels I’m going to be on, and this week I want to write some thoughts down about one of them. On Friday the 13th I am leading the panel entitled “Anthropology For Writers,” which has this description:

“In a 2011 blog post, Farah Mendlesohn wrote, ”Worldbuilding’ as we understand it, has its roots in traditions that described the world in monolithic ways: folklore studies, anthropology, archeology, all began with an interest in describing discrete groups of people and for that they needed people to be discrete.’ This panel will discuss the historical and present-day merging and mingling of real-world cultures, and advise writers on building less monolithic and more plausible fictional ones.”

I think there’s potential here for a good discussion about the ways in which culture is invoked and represented in fantastic fiction, but I must say that I have some reservations about the idea of “worldbuilding,” some of which were articulated in a recent blog post that is well worth reading (and yes, it is ranty and mean in parts, but it also points out some concerns that could use more thought and discussion). Cultural appropriation is one of them, tangled as that concept may sometimes be. The fetishization of made-up cultures is troubling to me, particularly since that is part of my own history. And the focus on arcana rather than message, when it occurs, shapes the way that we discuss fantastic literature in ways that dilute some of the potentials and gifts that lie within that field.

My reservations emerge from the idea of worldbuilding itself, which is a way of thinking about the creation of culture in literature that has some problems because its underlying assumption about the construction of culture has flaws. The general idea of worldbuilding is that, as part of the creation of a work of fantastika, the author fashions a culture (or cultures) that the characters inhabit and utilize in the narrative as part of the fictional world. To quote good old Wikipedia: “Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe.” The idea encompasses the physical world, its natural laws, and human society, but all of these relate to the creation of an environment for the story and its imagined inhabitants. The first two components serve as the context from which culture emerges.

Two problems can arise when culture is invoked or represented in a story. The first is the assumption that if a narrative does not perform certain conventions that the “worldbuilding” is insufficient. A good example of this from my own experience comes from my initial reading of Joseph M.McDermott’s Last Dragon a few years ago. As I began to read the novel and experience its dishevelment and unreliability, one aspect of the narrative that I fixated on is what seemed to be poor “worldbuilding.” There were what I thought were Asian cultural overtones mixed with “paladins” and insect motifs and a repellent urban setting, and none of it seemed right to me. Names seemed to come from mixed sources and the novel’s background felt unstable. And so I blamed that at first on poor worldbuilding.

But as you get deeper into the novel you realize a number of things. First of all, for the purposes of the novel, nothing is stable. This story is not about creating a movie-set world with all the little details in place. We are listening to an old woman relive and unlive her life, and her telling is full of questions, loops, and uncertainties. Second, she is not just an unreliable narrator, she is a very particular narrator, and her story is not about the cultural details, nor is she interested in getting everything “right.” The cultures presented seem disjunctive or incomplete sometimes because of the narrator and because, generally, we live our lives not according to a list of characteristics that we tick off. Life in incomplete, in progress, sometimes improvised and poorly remembered.

What I came to realize from Last Dragon is that common ideas of worldbuilding are often incomplete because we do not experience culture as a set of characteristics and motifs that are acted out. Worldbuilding is about more than presenting a cool culture; the world that a writer creates does not have to follow strict rules to work well and be evocative for the reader. While a cohesive culture was hard to extract and abstract from the book, the world that McDermott created worked well because it fit with the story, which is all about perception and its erosion, and the way that the world eats at us. In a way, the novel breaks many worldbuilding rules to achieve its power and resonance for the reader.

The second problem builds off of Mendlesohn’s quotation, which from any anthropological angle I have issues with but that has a valid concern at its core. A lot of worldbuilding in fantastika arises from ideas about what culture is and how it works that are outdated and mechanical. I see so many articles that tick off the spheres of human interaction that mirror those from classic ethnographies of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. While these ethnographies often have good information in them, the way that they construct cultures arise far more from the assumptions of the observer than the workings of the cultural web itself. In many cultures the distinctions between religion, law, family, labor, and other codified spheres are different, and they interact in different ways as well. “Worldbuilding” often presumes that the author must assemble a pile of symbolic parts into a functioning machine. But this conceit can miss the fact that “culture” is neither a superorganic system that animates the characters, nor is it a discrete object.

“Culture” is not a thing or even a complete, clockwork system. “Culture” is what we do, how we think, and why we act. More recently in socio-cultural anthropology and allied disciplines a number of older metaphors of culture (from object to system to puzzle) have been shown to inadequately represent what people do. We are not a collection of characteristics that we draw from some “shared” schema; we each carry within ourselves an idea of a shared schema of proper behavior and practices that we collate and interpret from our lived experiences, our interactions with other people, and the knowledge that we gain through linguistic communication. Culture is the human capacity to learn behavior and mediate our actions through mutual symbolic understandings.

Culture is not an edifice that is built; it is an act of conjuration. We summon up symbols and practices and perform them in ways that make sense to us and others who utilize a similar schema. We behave and speak in patterned, recognizable ways, and this is how we exchange culture with each other. Culture is something that we live and that gives us life. The fictions that build the best worlds are those that create the illusion of life in their characters and settings, that make us forget the theatre backdrop, the quick sketch of the terrain, and the fact that what we are experiencing does not exist, but that communicates the semblance and seeming of life to our eyes and minds and lets us dream, think, reflect, and wonder more powerfully and wisely.

6 Comments on Worlds Are Conjured, Not Built

  1. Thanks, John.

    I disagree with you with the worth of the post you link to, but that’s just me and my own engagement with its author.

  2. Yes! I so agree. Worldbuilding only as a mechanical collection of interlinked trivia is boring, handles aesthetics very poorly and trivializes culture.

    One appeal of super-coherent worldbuilding—complete with tables and charts and graphs and glossaries—is that it gives the reader a great sense of control. You’re at first disoriented totally, then given control in buts and pieces until you have it restored to you in full by the end of the book. It’s a journey that’s pleasurable, even heroic.

    I don’t think that’s a bad thing—I love a book that does that, myself—but it shouldn’t be the ONLY way to journey through a story.

    • I don’t think that those worlds are a bad thing; at the Readercon panel I cited Robinson’s new book as one that seems to do that well. But as you say, it is just one way, not the only or the best way to do worldbuilding.

  3. Hi John,

    I loved this post. I would love to read more speculative fiction that really took the partial, contingent, conflicted and on-going construction of “culture” as one of its starting points – a book that stretches and questions social science the way some SF will do for the natural sciences. I think this critique or approach to world building would be a great step in that direction. Hope the panel went well. Send me your notes if you have the time!


    • I don’t have much in the way of notes but I am going to write something up about the panel. You’ll be very happy to hear that I said culture is not all that stuff we think that culture is!

      I am playing with culture a bit in the Clarion West Write-a-thon novella I am working on, but it is not the central concern. This is something I want to work on in future fiction writing.

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