World-building is frequently mentioned as a vital aspect of science fiction and fantasy alike. According to certain critics, it’s what distinguishes standard, forgettable fare from the all-time great works. They will write paragraph after paragraph praising a book for solely this trait.
And yet, while an important element, I have found that it’s far from the most crucial one. Like a movie with great cinemaphotography and soundtrack, but nothing else, a book with excellent world-building can fail. To demonstrate this, let’s look at two books renowned for it, one good and one bad.
For my money, no science fiction book has ever built a world as intricate, detailed, and interesting as Dune has. It’s a genuine masterpiece, the sum total of Frank Herbert’s life and creativity. The effort and research spent on the ecology of Dune alone is more than most writers put on a whole novel. And that’s before one considers the deep history, complex sociopolitical structures, or the many new words and concepts Herbert introduced. Certainly, this imbues the book’s events with a grandeur it wouldn’t otherwise have.
Yet, strip away all that amazing world-building, and you still have a very good science fiction book. At its core, it’s the hero’s journey of Paul Atreides, interacting with a colorful, unique group of enemies and allies alike through a series of exciting, high-stakes battles. Imagine that Dune had none of the background information, and was trimmed down to a 300 page work of adventure science fiction featuring all the important encounters and action scenes. Would it have been worse? Certainly. Would it still have been good? Absolutely.
On the other hand, we can look at a book frequently mentioned in this space in unfavorable terms, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. And yet, the world-building is fantastic. We learn all about the customs and politics of the planet Gethen. The imagination poured into some of their folklore is highly impressive, as the tales are similar to ancient ones on Earth, but just different enough to be fresh. And yet, it’s still a lousy novel. The central action is dreary, pointless, and uninspired. Hardly anything significant occurs during the whole story, and when it does the description is as dull as dishwater. (I never thought an escape from imprisonment could be yawn-inducing before reading this) Over the last 80 pages or so, there are no significant revelations or encounters, just a long, slow slog through the ice while starving and freezing to death, perhaps mirroring the emotions of the reader. It ends with the most pathetic of whimpers.
This also highlights a potential pitfall of authors focusing on world-building. The main plot of Le Guin’s book feels very lazy. More effort and ingenuity was spent on the aforementioned piece of folklore, or the hermaphroditic nature of Gethen’s citizens than the actual conflict! But the former can’t replace the latter. Just like an action movie with a great soundtrack isn’t going to make up for awful fight-scenes. And in Le Guin’s case, she spent the whole budget on hiring a great composer, and did the bare minimum with choreography. Her priorities were misplaced. Frank Herbert did an excellent job with both, but as The Left Hand of Darkness shows, if you have to pick one, write a good adventure story!
Which brings us to another important point. One can liken a good author to a master painter; he only needs to convey the setting or world with the bare minimum of brush-strokes, before focusing on the story itself. Thus, in most of the good science fiction or fantasy I’ve read, not only is world-building of lesser importance, it’s utterly irrelevant! That’s how much the focus is on the characters and adventure.
This is true for many great authors, from Howard to Heinlein to Dick.
Thus, if you’re a writer lovely crafting a mythical world to rival Tolkien’s Middle Earth, make sure you have a good yarn to spin first. And be wary of any critics who go on and on about world-building to the exclusion of all else.