Sherwood Smith on World Building

Because I am very behind on reading blogs—and pretty much everything else in my life—I missed this lovely riposte by Sherwood Smith. She’s responding to M. John Harrison dismissing world building. He’s not, though, he’s dismissing bad world building. Just like all those people who say that omniscient narration is evil and wrong. Nope, only when it’s done badly.

You should go read Sherwood because what she says is exactly so:

My objection is this, that worldbuilding is one of the ways humans play. Just as reading is a form of play.1 Many people don’t even know they are worldbuilding. Children worldbuild all the time. They will establish with a few quick rules what each item in the yard represents, and play at that a while, testing that everyone’s on the same page, and then someone begins a “what if?” “What if we all turned into ponies?” “What if the ponies fly?” “What if race cars had brains?” My son, at four, who never willingly reads a book, had had the living room converted to a world that was internally laid out–he didn’t tell us what was what. We could only guess by the sound effects he made as he motored about; then at one point he got the pots and pans out of the kitchen, laid them carefully out into a man shape, pointed the TV changer at it, expecting it to come to life. He cried, the world crashed down, and we had to explain where his rules and this world’s rules clashed, but it was clear that that giant robot had had a role in his ongoing story.

What she said. Read the whole thing. The comments are pretty fascinating too.

  1. The argument that reading ought not to be play, but ought to be useful and informative and force one to think is, I believe, just another form of the great clomping foot of the puritan ethic. []


  1. janet on #

    It astonishes me that both M. John Harrison and Sherwood Smith could even approach this topic without mentioning Tolkien.

    But anyway. As I often do, I feel compelled to cite Ursula Le Guin. Don’t have time to dig out the essay, but she describes an exchange something like this, when asked about world-building the Earthsea books,

    Le Guin: “but I didn’t plan it, I found it.”

    Questioner: “Where?”
    Le Guin: “In my subconscious.”

  2. Kadie-Wa on #

    Wow. very well said, very well said. i agree with her stratogy.

  3. David Moles on #

    I get the feeling M. John Harrison is against play, really. (I know he’s against Tolkien, in that special way only actual veterans of the english class war can really pull off.)

  4. Justine on #

    David: And I’d agree with him about Tolkien. The upper class stink of it is sometimes overwhelming.

  5. David Moles on #

    oh, yeah. I mean, I can still enjoy reading him, but it’s with the sort of horrified fascination I get reading churchill on the war in the sudan. (except churchill was a better prose stylist.)

    (and I think being an aussie automatically makes you a veteran of the english class war.)

  6. Rebecca on #

    sometimes less is more. but sometimes more is more. usually less to me means the story is more elegant; it allows a person to fit him/herself into the crevices between the words. and usually more means, well, the author probably became a fan of his or her own work. heh. nevertheless…

    i’ll use j.k. rowling. what does almost every fan want of her (or claim to want from her)? more details about the harry potter universe. it’s true that she leaves a good deal up the imagination. but every kid seems to want to know more. who did so-and-so love? when did so-and-so die? how did this-and-that work? etc. for many other fandoms.

    lots of fans want more. in some cases, those fans are lying to themselves. they actually don’t want more, they just think they do.

    generally speaking, i think stories that inspire intense introspection are more vague (it allows the author to take an active role as character), but some people like driving about as purely for entertainment or furthering a story (i.e. fanfic). and some people, to realize something about themselves, need to read about an experience extremely close to their own experience in order to get that same intense introspection.

    i’m not sure if i’ve made this entirely clear, but.. my brain’s a bit addled. hope it makes sense…

    the moral is, no verbose world-building under the influence of stupidity for fear of driving a person moribund.

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