Jump to content

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

Larry.

M. John Harrison on Worldbuilding

Recommended Posts

Since this is getting some interesting discussion over at wotmania, I thought I'd repost Harrison's blog entry on his fears/concerns regarding "worldbuilding." Thoughts? Opinions? Snide remarks? ;)

When I read it, I paid a lot of attention to his first sentence, talking about how the story must "triumph" over the worldbuilding aspects for a story to "work." While I know many over at wotmania (and likely here) will have a visceral reaction to the sentences that follow, I think it is worth noting that the point of the first sentence is a key one. Furthermore, there is a lot there in his short post that basically is just a truism - you make a text too encyclopedic, it is going to become unreadable in terms of a story. Important things for many to consider when constructing a tale - the story ought to come first, the backdrop should obviously move to the background where it probably belongs.

But I suspect many here will have some interesting takes on it, so time for me to shut up, no? :P

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
When I read it, I paid a lot of attention to his first sentence, talking about how the story must "triumph" over the worldbuilding aspects for a story to "work.

To be pedantic, he specifically said the 'writing' should triumph, not the story. I'd say that is an important distinction for Harrison's books since they often seem to be, for better or worse, more focused on the writing than either the story/plot or the worldbuilding.

Personally, I think there is room for both approaches. I don't think there's anything wrong with the Tolkienesque inclusion of huge amounts of worldbuilding exposition in a book (if done right), but I'm glad that not all fantasy books feel the need to feature lengthy pseudo-historical appendices or invent grammatically-correct language.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Maybe so, although I do in some senses conflate "story" and "writing" into an approach in which the language and means of coded transmissions are occurring from the Author to the Reader. Style is indeed an integral part of all this.

While I suppose there is some room for various approaches, I would argue that stories that do not stand on their own outside this "worldbuilding" are just weak stories that should have been strengthened or abandoned in the first place. But perhaps my view on this is a minority one?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hmmmm. I'm definitely more interested in the story (or the writing) than the worldbuilding in any book I read. If you think of it as a balance of content then I absolutely DO want more story than world-building. I guess different people have different balances that they can tolerate.

I would MUCH much much rather read Harrison than Bakker for instance. I'm a huge Harrison fangirl though, he hits all the right notes for me. The comment he makes here about NOT building up a world and then allowing only a small amount of that detail to show through in the story BUT never developing that level of detail in the first place is great. That rocks. Because it works. Because as reader you get a strong impression of place in his stories but what he's saying is: he never created those environments in detail. And he didn't need to. Sweet.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Well to be short, more absolute hogwash from a man whose opinions never appeal to me.

Had this been written by someone I didn't know I'd just think it was totally ignorant. But of course this is more from the pen of New Weirdists, in this case by an author whose books I loathe, M.J. Harrison. His writing style, his stories, they are unreadable to me. OTOH I know a few people ( yourself included Dylan) who love this sort of writing. And from what you have said here before Dylan, I know that Harrison shares your opinion on worldbuilding.

To go into what he says, I disagree that worldbuilding is necessary dulll , as Harrison claims it is. I see no reason for why a great worldbuilder cannot be a great writer but I do see many samples of evidences for great worldbuilders who are great writers. Furthermore I don't think it has anything to do with nerdism but much more with an author trying to give some substance to his world ( substance being a foul word for Harrison, whose stuff is mostly dreamy, floaty, surreal and bizarre).

In other words there is absolutely no merit to what this man says. In fact it's all rather Moorcockian.

Personally I love a well-built secondary world and think it can add greatly to my enjoyment of a story. The idea that this somehow impedes one's writing skills is daft and narrow-minded, and to me examplifies how little experience with the genre the man must have.

I suppose you could turn Harrison's argument around. What is it with writers whose settings have no depth whatsoever? Is it because they lack imagination? Is it because they do not want to be pinned down to anything? Is it because they do not want their stories to have continuity or internal consistency, or because they are afraid they cannot pull that consistency off and thus write their settings in a vague nebula of blurryness?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
While I suppose there is some room for various approaches, I would argue that stories that do not stand on their own outside this "worldbuilding" are just weak stories that should have been strengthened or abandoned in the first place. But perhaps my view on this is a minority one?

I agree that stories do have to have more to them than just good worldbuilding - for examples Ricardo Pinto's The Chosen had some very impressively detailed and imaginative world-building but I still wouldn't say it was a good book because I found the characterisation and plot severely lacking and the book much longer than it needed to be. However, that's different from saying that extensive worldbuilding makes a book automatically bad.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't agree with Harrison at all, although I admit personal likings and dislikings play a big part here. I think Harrison should admit the same.

I myself am not very demanding re: writing. If the prose is reasonably competent and transparent, I'm happy. If the prose does a good job at evoking the mood, I'm even more happy. But if the prose is the kind that gets described as "great" prose, there's a big chance I will actually hate it. I think I would throw Hal Duncan's Vellum against a wall based on a short snippet I have seen on the Internet and which was portrayed as an example of great writing. (I have not actually read the whole of that snippet, as it made my eyes glaze over.) That kind of writing draws just far too much attention to itself and obscures the story.

On the other hand, I'm a worldbuilding fan and the quality of it matters a lot to me. I feel Harrison has entirely missed what good worldbuilding is all about. Firstly, worldbuilding and scene description are two different things. Knowing the eye colors of various characters is not worldbuilding unless there sort of point to it, such as specific eye colors being connected specific brands of magic, for example.

Then there's the big difference between good and bad worldbuilding. Let me have an example: "...and so, with the armies of the North killed to the last man and the evil god Gromph the Deathbringer shut in the magical force cage in the Swamp of Desolation, an era of uninterrupted peace dawned over the world that was to last for three thousand years. During this time the Blabulandians farmed peacefully corn and vegetables. [Deleted a long section of the specific vegetables that grow in Blabuland and the dishes made thereof.] Each Wrigquelandian practiced their military manuevers and kept their katana collection in good polish in preparation for the return of Gromph. The Z'zath-rrt'q hunted dinosaurs with their stone-headed spears and danced naked around bonfires. Every single member of the Ee-ooh Empire engaged in commerce and the mastery of the difficult skill of double accounting. The evil Northmen did nothing in particular except wait. (They sustained themselves by casting Hunger-Away spells.) This all finally ended when the evil necromancer Yrrh from the Southern Continent that nobody knew existed arrived without warning with his army of ninja elf zombies..."

That's the kind of horrible worldbuilding you can get from the likes of Eddings and Goodkind and Forgotten Realms novels. (Forgotten Realms sucks less than the other two examples, though.) THAT worldbuilding is the kind that is incompatible with imagination because a) it's implausible and really thinking about it is sure to reveal tough questions that cannot be explained away adequately, B) one of the things causing that implausibility is that the world is implausibly static and full of clones

By the way, Moorcock's worldbuilding style is really not too different from Goodkind's, except that Moorcock contradicts himself intentionally (just to annoy people like me with his "intellectual flexibility" or because he just doesn't care, I have never been able to determine). Both hate maps and like to add stuff from nowhere if it sounds cool, not considering its wider implications. Both have become increasingly preachy and filled with current-politics references too. I think all of that is betraying the integrity of a secondary world. (Eddings and his cookie tray worlds are just plain incompetent/complacent/shallow.)

Real worldbuilding, such as Tolkien's, reveals always wider and more distant new vistant the farther you go, and those vistas are consistent, so that you don't see a mangorove forest next to a tundra or look to the sky and wonder why all the cumulus clouds look like a repeated clipart of one cloud. Real worldbuilding is a thing of beauty and unlimited fascination.

BONUS:

I took a look the blog, and only to find a newer post along the same lines, but this one is about characterization.

Harrison bashes the characterization in epic fantasy and science fiction. He claims epic fantasy is predicated on the Victorian idea of personality as "continuous, coherent, purposive & (thus) narratively meaningful". But no, that's not the way he wants it. He wants people to write about lives that are "more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves" that have no outdated concepts such as "motivations".

Ouch. I'm finding trouble putting into words how much I think that's a bad idea. I'm firmly tagging Mr. Harrison's books to the AVOID category next to Eragon.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

M. John Harrison is talented writer, but also utter, arrogant asshole. I did enjoy some his books, but I am completely uninterested in his opinion on any given topic. His contempt for "nerdism" shows not only in this entry but also very often in his interviews. I remember one interview in which he ranted how SF and fantasy writers are contemptible nerds while he is a real macho man, because he is a rock climber. Bleh.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Literally the only book in 2006 I found so poor I couldn't finish it was Viriconium (the Fantasy Masterworks collected edition). My argument has and always will be that a good story with interesting characters can survive dubious or lacklustre writing (although never really poor writing), but if you are the most amazing prose stylist on Earth (and Harrison runs a long, long way behind the likes of Wolfe and Peake in this arena) but have no story and no decent characters, your work will still be poor and, even worse, highly pretentious.

I know Dylan, Jay, Isis and others love Harrison's work, but based on the sample I read (which may or may not be representative), I found it cold, remote, unengaging and paced exceptionally badly. The only two positive elements I could find in his work was a plotline straight out of a Warhammer novel (the dwarf in powered mech-armour) and the fact that he inspired the far more interesting, China Mieville. Whose worldbuilding is absolutely exemplery and original (aside from the Khephri, whom he nicked from Harrison and ancient Egypt). Hmm.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You know, I'm really glad I'm not the only person with a negative reaction to what Harrison had to say. I haven't read any of his work beyond the opening pages of Light, and I wasn't really a fan of his style, but of course that's not much to go on.

EDIT - Urk, I've been demoted from Landed Knight to Squire. Time to hunt down the relevant thread...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Werthead just said the main point of what I had tried to convey in so much fewer words...

I have read one book by Harrison. That was the first Viriconium novel, and I remember having liked it quite a bit, although I must say I was something like 14 at the time and even less discriminating of writing quality than I am now. I remember little about the plot, but it was some sort of science fantasy adventure thing set on a far future Earth that had fallen from its earlier technology and had jungles and heavy metal deserts. Later I found out that after that one book Harrison began his whole "I hate entertaining literature" schtick and as a result the rest of the Viriconium books are supposed to be very different, no longer even in the same subgenre...

I don't think Miéville's worldbuilding is actually that good. He's obviously fond of coming up with lots and lots of neat stuff but he doesn't in my opinion expend that much effort in its history and how it all fits together, resulting in what might be Christened the "ninja zombies vs. robot pirates syndrome". (It's representative that I think I saw between the lines that almost all of Bas-Lag's strangeness is due to a bunch of leveled-up phase spiders - I mean Weavers, as this is not a game of Angband... - and those phase spiders - I mean Weavers - are essentially pure authorial hand-puppets, their only motivation being keeping the story weird and interesting.) And then there's the fact that all of Miévelle's fantastic races (save for the Weaver-shaped plot devices) talk and act like humans that happen to have weird biologies. For example, the cactacae - basically all-ethnic replacements for Tolkien's European-tree Ents - have nothing tree-ish in their personality, but are basically spiky, green Mexicans/pirates of the Caribbean who happen to resist piercing and crushing while being weak vs. slashing. Oh, and they have a great STR modifier too but their DEX sucks. Avoiding the slightest appearance of racism CAN indeed go too far. Also, I feel the political reality of Bas-Lag does not rise organically from itself but is mainly dictated by the real world politics Miéville wants to make a point about this time (I mean ultimately dictated by those meddling phase spiders, er, Weavers), with New Crobuzon being mainly London/America.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In response in part to the comments both here and at wotmania, as well as writing to clarify my own thoughts on the issue, I decided to add a new blog entry over at my blog on the matter.

It is not an attack on any, even if some might view it as being less than favorable toward some of their viewpoints. Tastes vary, but I wanted to take the issue beyond just secondary-world fantasy and so I wrote a bit on my blog about that and other matters.

It is no secret that I do like what I've read of Harrison's work. For many, it isn't what they want in a story and that's fine. But let's call a spade a spade: Some of the responses read as being just as belittling toward Harrison's presumed conception of storytelling/writing as what was perceived to be eminating from his blog entry. Like him or hate him, how do you go about refuting his (or perhaps by extension, my own opinions) comments on why "worldbuilding" scares him so?

Defining what you mean by "worldbuilding" might be a good start (as would have been good to see from Harrison, although I suspect it's referring to what generally only appears in secondary-world fiction). Then attempt to tear his comments to shreds. But keep in mind that it might be a simple fact that "worldbuilding" cannot apply to his or many others who write in other genres. How do you combat that?

That's about it. Just wondering how we'll proceed from here in discussing the matter.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
There are others, I know, who prefer seeing what another has imagined and spending hours poring over drawn "maps" and extensive glossaries of invented places and characters. More power to them. Sounds more like a weak and twisted version of studying history, without the desire of those that do study history to apply that knowledge toward a greater understanding of ourselves. I wouldn't be surprised if that is part of what frightens Harrison so. I know it frightens me on occasion.

Why do you find this so terrifying? Why should people choosing to entertain themselves by reading books with lots of world-building frighten you? I wasn't aware that people could only entertain themselves in ways that "apply that knowledge toward a greater understanding of ourselves". I read GRRM and Erikson and Jordan and M John Harrison for entertainment, I do sometimes also read books about actual history, the two are not mutually exclusive.

ETA - I don't think I said it before, but I do really like Harrison's books, particularly Light and the first couple of Viriconium books, that doesn't mean I agree that every book has to be written in ways he approves of.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I see the world as one of the characters - a major or minor one depending on the story - and worldbuilding as nothing more or less than the character development of that character. For example, all of you are probably wise enough to know what is wrong with a girl who is a beautiful, independently wealthy, teenaged half-angel half-vampire brain surgeon/supermodel/secret agent who can kill with her mind. Well, there are worlds of that flavor too, and they are just as odious. Worldbuilding is not describing every dress and teacup in detail just like characterization isn't describing every dress and teacup in a character's closets.

But then, according to their blogs, both Harrison and Dylanfanatic are not at all interested in characterization either. Harrison even wishes for characters with no motivations. In my opinion, a faithful execution of disregarding both worldbuilding and characterization has only one result:Random Stuff Happens. Essentially, the destruction of the Story.

(I'm not one of those big characterization fans, as I think Hobb etc. gets boring. Instead I hold up the understated style of Tolkien as the ideal in the characterization of people, just as I think him the best in the characterization of worlds.) Anyway, if you don't have characterization how can you have dialogue that's true to the character rather than true to your conception of Generic Human Talk?

Dylanfanatic: "weak and twisted version of studying history"? Come on? I don't think writing near-copies of history with magic is particularly interesting worldbuilding. (Which brings again out the question of what I'm doing on a Martin board, even in the Literature section. Oh, I hate Goodkind's writing. That's why...) The kind of worldbuilding I enjoy is the sort that grows from its own premises without regard for things like accuracy to the medieval European mindset.

By the way: the backstory is a story too.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Colour me confused. I see a link is being made by worldbuilding in Fantasy and to stories set in mainstream literature, in today's own world.

Dylan's point is that since other forms of literature do not all require worldbuilding, surely Fantasy doesn't require it either. Why is it a part of Fantasy, he and Harrison ask?

I suppose one might suggest because Fantasy often revolves around creating a whole new world for the reader? Because that world gives substance ( aah there is that horrible word again!) to the Fantasy story? Because in mainstream literature you automatically need far less worldbuilding because the reader already has a good idea of the setting? Does a novel set in New York ( choose one of the hundred thousand mainstream literature novels) need the same amount of worldbuilding as Westeros, Middle-Earth, The Land or Osten-Ard? Well no, obviously they don't. So why even bother comparing worldbuilding in Fantasy, which is about fantastical things that spark the imagination, which in part derives from great worldbuilding, to the worldbuilding in mainstream literature, which often does not need worldbuilding at all outside of some details of the character's town or city?

I don't know. There's this air of contempt for epic Fantasy by Dylan and Harrison which I find hard to put up with. I love a well-built world in Fantasy. Other people apparantly feel it is to be looked down upon and prefer stories that are undefined, vague, grotesque, hazy, without consistency , without good characterization and with a world that the author can add to ur subtract from at his pleasure because no foundation at all has been established and where the readers never know what they're reading anyway. But at least they have great writing ha?

It's all rather snobbish. Epic Fantasy is the rubbish because it relies on building a secondary world as one of it's ingredients but the pretentious, self-centered "look at me twist that sentence" , highly literate books that describe a perpetually transcendent, dreamy state of mind without any sort of defined setting, if possible translated in Spanish or Serbian language, these books are of course top of the bill. The sort of people whose loins go a-quivering when they see the works of Hal Duncan, later Michael Moorcock and MJ Harrison because they know most other people woill think it's rubbish and that makes it extra special cause they are in the "in circle". And then that idea that if people read epic Fantasy and love the worldbuilding, they must not be reading other genres that don't require such an amount of worldbuilding, it is just so hair-tearingly dumb.

Anyway, just my opinions :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think worldbuilding is an important ingredient when a story involves a world unfamiliar to the reader. Not every detail needs, or should, be laid out in the story, but can be presented as the story requires. ASOIAF is a good example of how a complex backstory for a world helps the plot- there are tons of stories and history lessons that provide hints to future events and solutions to the many mysteries the plot presents. Having an established timeline and history helps the creator enrich the story. He or she might require a character to tell a story, or a reason behind an ancient bloodfeud. Having the pre-created history on hand allows the creator to reach into a grab bag of continuity and insert what's needed.

There is bad worldbuilding, of course, just as there is bad writing and bad stories. And then there are stories that by their design don't need a backdrop. I like both styles, so long as the writing and the story are worth it. For instance, I enjoyed Hal Duncan's Vellum, but I also like character-driven books such as The Lies of Locke Lamora. And both styles can make the reader think. Based in on this forum alone, just look at how much investigation is put into ASOIAF.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I didn't agree with Harrison's opinion on worldbuilding and writing. In fact, his opinions were downright strange.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

No wonder I found Viriconium to be a boring, pretentious crock of shit. Good prose is very important, but not at the expense of characterization and world-building.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Just an outsider's perspective (haven't read the guy, don't know the guy, don't particularly care what he has to say), but it looks like your argument has been thoroughly demolished Dylan.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

All I'll say is that I find Harrison's linked remark, and this post of his as well, a bit of insufferable twittery.

I still intend to read the Viriconium books eventually, despite this.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

×