The sin of worldbuilding – a refutation

The M. John Harrison worldbuilding post has bit the mainstream internet over the last few days (us sf obsessives are so far ahead, it’s just sick) – amazing what a Warren Ellis link can do for a post.

But here’s a polite refutation from futurist / foresight consultant Jamias Cascio, who points out that his line of “non-narrative fiction” is exactly what Harrison is complaining about.

Now, that’s an apples and oranges comparison, and I’m not trying to claim otherwise. But what interests me is that in the last part of his post, Cascio nails the exact point that it seemed to me that Harrison was trying to make, and that so many people misunderstood:

“The art of Worldbuilding comes from knowing what to omit, from knowing what needs to be surveyed and what can be tacked up as a Potemkin Future. It becomes an intensely detailed game, figuring out what the readers want to know, covering what they need to know, teasing them with the implications of a fuller vision, and creating an effective illusion of paradigmatic completeness.

Harrison has it wrong: it’s not the biggest library ever built, it’s a painting of a library that seems to go on and on, with some prop books on a table in the foreground. Make sure those prop books are interesting enough, and the reader will never try to explore the rest of the library.”

When I read Harrison’s post, I thought that was exactly what he was trying to say, and that he was rejecting the overintricate unnecessary filigree that some writers produce. Then again, I’m quite possibly superimposing my own perceptions on both posts, so maybe I’m wrong on both counts.

One thing that I’m pretty certain of, however, is that this debate will run for some time to come. Another is that Jamais Cascio is well worth reading for anyone who likes science fiction literature. He’s coming at the same point from a different angle – great food for thought, and frequently sobering.

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