an apologia for worldbuilding

We need to have a chat about worldbuilding.

(I’m mostly talking to the futures people, here, rather than the literature people… but the latter may find it of interest anyway, so please stick around!)


Your man Dré “Daily Design Fiction” Labre posted a little thing about the movie After Yang (which I have not seen).

Usually, design fiction elements are fragments, not the whole—they’re the evidence of the technology or the situation. We see them as posters, product packaging, or ads. However, in “After Yang”, there’s a particular element that’s conspicuously missing, subtly signaling its implications. I must admit, this wasn’t a realization I arrived at independently; it took reading an interview with the film’s production designer to put the missing pieces together.

Alexandra Schalle was interviewed by Arch Daily on her work in After Yang. In this interview she briefly mentions that there is no plastic in the diegesis of this film.

[…] there were to be no props or scenery that were immediately disposable and everything had to be either renewable or biodegradable, so there’s no plastic in the world.

That’s some thoughtful film-making right there. Labre continues:

This, in its own understated way, felt like design fiction. Instead of showcasing ‘the artifact’, it draws attention through its absence. This missing piece becomes a puzzle element, subtly narrating part of the story.

At this point I was like “nah, man, that’s not design fiction; that’s worldbuilding“.


Worldbuilding has a bit of a dirty name in the design fiction world. Julian Bleecker in particular is really not a fan; as I understand it, worldbuilding to Bleecker is what those big corporate agency futures reports do. You know, lots of expository crap about driverless cars or AI or whatever, either written in the future-prophetic or in a sort of blank omniscient-third-person present tense. “In the city of the future, AI will wipe your ass for you, which we at McFlimsy assess to be a potential ass-wiping market of USD3trillion.” To use a dichotomy that the writers in the audience will know well, these reports tell rather than show.

Some parts of the genre fiction world have a similar beef with worldbuilding, and for pretty much the exact same reasons. The indispensable Turkey City Lexicon‘s entry on “infodump” covers most of it (though “infodump” itself is, I believe, a much older term-of-art is sf circles):

  • Infodump

Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or “Encyclopedia Galactica” articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as “expository lumps.” The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as “kuttnering,” after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story’s basic structure, this is known as “heinleining.”

The latter part of that lexicon entry is important, though, because it makes the point that worldbuilding—which, for want of a less contentious definition, I’m just going to temporarily gloss as “thinking in great detail about the context in which a work of fiction plays out”—isn’t the problem. The problem is writing it all down in “expository lumps”. I offer that this is also the problem with those big agency futures reports.

(Well, that’s one problem with them; another is that the future they’re peddling is almost always just investor storytime. But let’s leave that aside.)

Worldbuilding is important, assuming the story you’re telling has anything to do with the relation of the characters to their environment. I would even argue that it’s important to non-genre authors—and I would have on my side no greater an authority than the late Papa Hemingway, whose iceberg metaphor for fiction writing is basically an argument for doing a lot of worldbuilding, but letting as little of it onto the page as possible.


Back to Labre. It’s very natural that the visual worldbuilding in After Yang might be parsed as design fiction, because design fiction is predicated on the notion of the diegetic prototype, a concept from film theory (courtesy David Kirby). In film theory, something is diegetic when it exists in the fictional world that the film is exploring. The diegetic prototypes of design fiction might therefore be thought of as equivalent to props for a movie which has not been made, at least in theoretical terms. To return to Bladerunner, the Voigt-Kampf test and its associated apparatus is a diegetic prototype which is presented to us as part of the world in which it is proposed to exist. The power of design fiction comes from the way in which a provocatively-designed object or image prompts the viewer to imagine the movie (or future) from which it appears to have been extracted.

(This power inheres both in the skill of the designer(s), and in what we might call the “reading protocols” of the viewer; this is a digression for another day, but to put it simply, sf cinema has trained us to interpret objects as diegetic prototypes when we detect certain familiar tropes. Sf literature has likewise trained readers to parse text in a different way to “literary” readers; I’ll return to this point sometime soon, I hope, but in the meantime there’s a great aside on the topic in this wonderful and very recent New Yorker profile of Samuel Delany, who literally wrote the theoretical book on this stuff.)

Why do I claim the absence of plastic in After Yang is not design fiction, then? Because design fictions are props from a non-existent movie, things from the foreground; the absence of plastic in After Yang, by merit of its ubiquity, is an aesthetic decision at the level of the set, which is the background. It’s a decision about context. Sure, the decision presumably plays out in the design of countless props in the movie; but by saying something about all the props, the decision is saying—or rather showing—something about the fictional world of the film.

It’s a worldbuilding decision.


This is not intended as any sort of gotcha, to be clear. The reason I want to rehabilitate the term worldbuilding for futures work is because it’s too useful and descriptive of something that happens in all forms of futuring for us to let it get carried off as the sole preserve of straight-to-Kindle novelists and the big flatpack-future consultancies.

Worldbuilding is not the problem; shitty worldbuilding, and the over-exposition of the world thus built, is the problem.

This is perhaps more obviously the case with experiential futures work which, in its construction of immersive environments—which might be thought of as sets for a movie with no actors, in film-theoretical terms, and which may well in turn contain design-fictional prototype objects in their foreground—would have a much harder time arguing that there’s no worldbuilding going on. I mean, they’re literally building worlds—or small chunks of worlds, at least.

It’s also more important to my own sort of futuring work, narrative prototyping, which steals a bit of the diegetic power of design fiction and combines it with text and storytelling tricks from sf (and elsewhere); as discussed above, a story needs to play out in a world, and even if it’s best not to show all or even most of it—and in most cases*, it really is best—you still need to have accumulated Papa’s iceberg in order to ensure that the bits that you do end up showing (or telling) move with grace.

But I would also argue that design fiction, even in its most raw and just-the-prototype-please deployments, is engaged in worldbuilding too. The difference is that design fiction depends upon the viewer to do more of the worldbuilding work—and that’s the whole point, right? The prototype provokes the imagination, the construction of the world in which the prototype might be plausible.

But that difference is no difference—because all worldbuilding is a collaboration between creator and audience, whether the creator or the audience realise that or not.

And that non-difference gets us to the real difference, the difference that really matters, the difference between good worldbuilding and shitty worldbuilding.

The real difference lies in the degree to which the creator leaves space for the audience to get involved.

This is why McFlimsey futures and amateur science fiction novels suck: because there’s no space left for you to imagine anything interesting. Either you’re drowning in ideas far less original than their writer believes them to be (in the latter case), or you’ve been presented with what is essentially a brochure you can point to as a justification for an investment decision (in the former case). These futures are closed: in telling you as much as possible about them, their authors have made it impossible (and/or unappealing) for you to get inside them. Your input is not wanted, is not necessary. The airplane rides are five cents, buddy, take it or leave it.

Good futures work, by contrast—and I’m counting sf books and movies as forms of futures work, here—doesn’t just invite you in, it leaves you space to fill in with your own imagination. These futures are open.

Futures should be open, because futures should be for everyone—and that goes as much for the methods as the works that we produce with them. To make open futures, we need to understand the relation that the particular methods we’re using have to the imagined world that they conjure, and how much space is being left for the audience to bring their own ideas.

Which is why we need to have a chat about worldbuilding**.

(And also about narratology… but that’s a big scary word, so I saved it to the end.)


[ * — Somewhat ironically, a lot of my more significant projects in the last few years have been predicated on having found a particular format for narrative prototyping in which infodumping is actually really easy to get away with… but that’s another story for another day. ]

[ ** — It’s also why I recently wrote a much longer essay on the same topic, coming at it from a different angle, which will be coming out in an edited volume from the Time’s Up mob in Vienna some time later this year. We’re thinking it might make a good teaser piece for the book, too—so if you know of somewhere we might publish it so that anyone can read it, or if you think I should just release it in chunks here at VCTB, pipe up in the comments and let me know. ]

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