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Pointed Worldbuilding - Elf M. Sternberg
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Pointed Worldbuilding
John Harrison has an essay out this week on his blog about worldbuilding. Cory Doctorow has written that the essay is "like a bucket of cold water in the face. Shocking, refreshing and altogether unexpected." I'm not entirely sure why.

Harrison seems to be addressing the annoying practice of worldbuilding while the reader watches, not worldbuilding in general. And worldbuilding is absolutely essential if you're going to make a story that hangs together.

One of the lessons you hear over and over again about writing is that you should have character sheets. Your character's actions should begin and end as expressions of his or her fundamentals. A character can be motivated from first principles; may have public and private faces; or may just be a collection of impulses bound together in a peculiar personality. But the character must be a whole person, someone with whom the audience can identify, if not empathize.

The world is a character. It has wants, most of which involve stymieing the reader. It has a personality, it has impulses, and it has principles. You don't need to get everything absolutely right; you simply need to not get anything wrong. Sometimes, yes, that means that in the writer's bible for a story or a series, we make details about the biochemistry.

Harrison's essay doesn't seem to be "Worldbuilding is a pointless exercise." If it were, David Weber would be out of a job. Harrison's essay seems instead to say that the writer should never worldbuild while the reader is watching. Even if I know about the biochemistry, I don't have to tell the reader about it. I do know I want the reader to get the impression that I care how fast a starship can travel; I want the reader to believe that I have a grip on the first principles by which facists, moralists, or anarchists come to run a world.

Harrison's essay is nothing more than an overblown restatement of Vonnegut's First Rule of Writing: "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted," (which Cory had posted the day previous) or Twain's "The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it."

It's a nice reminder, poorly stated. My time was wasted considering it. To paraphrase Orwell, Harrison used a big idea when a much smaller one would have served.

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Comments
slutdiary From: slutdiary Date: April 15th, 2007 03:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a lazy reader. I started early with Heinlein juveniles and today look for Allan Steele, or a quasi-plausible military future [i.e., Kris Longknife].

Forty some years ago I realized that Andre [Alice Mary] Norton wrote two different styles of books. One I enjoyed and one I didn't. Galactic Derelict yes, Year of the Unicorn no. I think it's why I never got all the way through any Tolkein.

The bottom line for me is that I want to read a fun story. I don't want to have to memorize an entire language or an entire biology just to enjoy my story. Some folks do, and that's fine. I found myself sort of resenting an author's conceit which required me to devote that much of my mental calories when I'm looking for relaxing diversion.

I think I agree with Vonnegut.
rapier From: rapier Date: April 15th, 2007 05:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I haven't read John Harrison's essay nor Cory Doctorow's gushing reaction to it, but I think I probably will. I just came in here to react to your review of the essay, which is more or less "Oh, damn, burn!"
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