World-Building is Overrated

Saturday , 21, October 2017 6 Comments

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.

  • MegaBusterShepard says:

    Very true. Without great characters and the story to back it up the setting falls flat. My favorite example would be Phillip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

    Excellent setting and backstory, but without Kickaha or Robert Wolfe to back it up it would be like so many forgettable but detailed books I used to read so long ago.

    Also a great element to World Building is to not explain everything. Not all details need to be told and a great mystery about your settings leaves a great impression on the reader. What else could be out there, why is it set up this way etc. Lovecraft uses this to great effect.

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    A few years back, the Ball & Chain got me to read The Hunger Games trilogy.

    I read all three and found that the 1st book was ‘Meh’, the 2nd Book was a bit of an improvement and the third was a torturous slog.

    But what got me through them was the setting. I found it interesting and fascinating, sometimes for what she didn’t reveal: I always wanted to know more about what had happened to this world.

    But the story itself was just blah. Battle Royale for tweens and such.

    • Vlad James says:


      I’m a huge fan of the Battle Royale manga (it’s even better than the great film adaptation) and so I’ve never had much interest in what seems a very clear plagiarized version of that book. Seems Collins spent more time on the world than the original novel did, though.

    • Faith says:

      The Hunger Games made a pretty good audio book, despite the over-dramatic voice the reader sometimes used.

      But then again, great audio books are often made from terrible books and vice versa. A lot depends on the voice actor.

  • caleb says:

    In part, at least in relation to the current crop of authors, this is related to how many of them came from P&P gaming. It is no secret that many of their worlds started in RPG campaigns of their own making, before they became professional writers. Hence, this contrast between basic and/or unengaging plots and meticulously developed and detailed fictional worlds is not all that surprising.

  • Fidelios Automata says:

    You’re right about Left Hand, the story was not exceptional, though the 2 books I read by C J Cherryh were worse. Seemed like nothing happened in them.

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