The imagination is not context-less.
The words and conceptual markers a writer puts on the page arise from thoughts and perceptions and interpretations rooted in our experiences and knowledge and assumptions. Writers write what they know, what they think is important, what they think is entertaining, what they are aware or take notice of. They structure stories in patterns that make sense to them. A writer’s way of thinking, and the forms and content of what and how they imagine story, will be rooted in their existing cultural and social world.
Now consider the genre of science fiction and fantasy. Creators place a story within a setting. In the literature of the fantastic, this landscape must be explained to some degree so readers can situate themselves.
Some writers describe this landscape in extensive detail while others use a minimalist approach. To quote fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed: “Some readers/writers want scrupulous mimesis of an otherworld. Some want impressionistic wonder. No inherent right/wrong/better/worse there.”
Complaints now and again arise about obsessive world-building and how such dorkery has ruined modern fantasy. Recently on Twitter Damien Walter (writer and critic who, among other things, writes about the sff genre for the Guardian), stated, “Obsessive world building is [a] common cause of crap books. . . . Like some other acts pleasurable to the individual, it shouldn’t be done in public. Or in a book.”
Too much detail, too clumsily employed, is an issue of bad writing and should be addressed as such.
But complaints about depicting a detailed world in fantasy have potential sexist, colonialist, and racist implications. These implications are more damaging and pernicious than the alleged disadvantages imposed on literature by detailed world-building.
Let me explain.
The status quo does not need world building.
It is implied in every detail that is left out as “understood by everyone,” in every action or reaction considered unimportant for whatever reason, in every activity or description ignored because it is seen as not worthy of the doughty thews of real literature.
There are many ways to discuss elaborated world building. This post will focus on material culture and social space.
Material culture can be defined narrowly as any assemblage of artifacts in the archaeological record but here I am thinking of it more as the relationship between people and the physical objects used in life by those people and their culture(s).
Social space refers to the ways in which people interact in social spaces and how these interactions enforce and reinforce custom, authority, and social patterns and kinship.
What follows is an obvious statement that I am going to make anyway: Different cultures have different material cultures and different understandings of social space, just as they have different languages and language variants, different religious beliefs, different kinship patterns and household formations, different aesthetic preferences, and so on.
As well, every culture tells stories about itself and its past. These stories work their way into that culture’s understanding of the cosmos and its place in it.
Just to complicate matters further, cultures are not themselves purely discrete things. There can be cultures that live between and woven into or half outside of other larger and more dominant cultures so that they partake of elements of both (or more). I know this in part because I am the child of an immigrant and grew up in a household that was both part of and in some ways separate from the dominant culture.
The more minimal the world building, the more, pace Jenny Thurman, the status quo is highlighted without anything needed to be said. This doesn’t mean that minimal world building can’t work in narrative: Of course it can.
But minimal world-building championed as a stance against “obsessive world-building” veers dangerously into the territory of perpetuating sexist, racist, and colonialist attitudes. It does so by ignoring the very details and concerns that would make a narrative less status quo in terms of how it deals with social space and material culture as well as other aspects of the human experience.
When people write without considering the implications of material culture & social space in the story they are writing, they often unwittingly default to an expression of how they believe the past worked. This is especially true if they are not thinking about how the material and the social differ from culture to culture, across both space and time, or how it might change in the future.
Which details a writer considers too unimportant to include may often default to the status quo of the writer’s own setting and situation, the writer’s lived experience of social space, because the status quo does not need to be described by those who live at the center of a dominant culture.
For example, consider how many a near or far future sf story uses social space that is modern, Western, and in some cases very suburban American–and how this element of the world building is rarely interrogated by writer or critic or readers when meanwhile other elements of a story may be praised for being bold, edgy, ground-breaking, or brilliant. Compare how deliberately Aliette de Bodard uses social space in On A Red Station, Drifting, an example of far future sf not focused on a Western paradigm and which needs–and relishes–the elaborated detail as part of the story’s unfolding.
The implied status quo becomes a mirror reflecting itself back on itself while it ignores the narrative patterns and interests of most non-Western literatures, which often tell their story in a way different from much Western narrative (as Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Joyce Chng, and Sabrina Vourvoulias among others have pointed out).
The implied status quo in denigrating descriptions of daily living & material culture denigrates the lived experience of so many people. It judges these details as unworthy of narrative in the same way colonialism, racism, and sexism dismiss other cultures and life-ways and life-experiences as inferior or exotic window-dressing. It does so by implying that a self-defined and often abstracted “universal” (of subject matter or of mostly-invisible setting) trumps all else and can thereby be accomplished with none of this obsessive world building, none of these extraneous details. This imagination is not contextless.
In the US/UK genre market, for example, it is exactly the marginalized landscapes that need description in order to be understood and revealed as just as expressive of the scope of human experience as that of the dominant culture whose lineaments are most often taken for granted.
Of course there is plenty of detailed world-building that emphasizes the status quo and expands on it, not always in a deliberate or thoughtful way.
Regardless, a well-described setting is good writing. There is nothing wrong with using (say) medieval Europe for your inspiration if you have a story to tell there. Judith Tarr‘s deeply-imagined medieval landscapes attest to that. The point of this essay is not to suggest what any person is required to write or how much or little world building they should deploy. A story needs to be the story that it is.
Meanwhile, as I don’t have to tell most of you, there is an entire world literature of the fantastic, works of imagination set in the past, the present, and the future, most of which are embedded in the status quo of their particular culture and era. The examples are legion, such as the magnificent Sundjiata cycle, the Shah-Nama, the Journey to the West, the numerous syncretic versions of the Ramayana that spread from India throughout Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, the Popol Vuh, and so many others including all those I have never heard of and the many works being written today. However, speaking as I must from an American perspective, few of these works have penetrated into the Western consciousness to the degree that, say, Harry Potter has become a worldwide phenomenon.
So who chooses what amount of world building is acceptable in fantasy literature? More importantly, from what place can such a demand be made?
The world can and will speak for itself, in a multiplicity of voices, not just in one.
Thanks to Daniel J Older, Liz Bourke, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Joyce Chng for reading and commenting on early and late versions of this post. Special shout-out to this recent Strange Horizons roundtable arranged by Dnaiel J Older: Set Truth on Stun: Reimagining an Anti-Oppressive SF/F. And a final link to N.K. Jemisin’s excellent and important Guest of Honor speech at Continuum earlier this year: “SFF has always been the literature of the human imagination, not just the imagination of a single demographic.”