Worldbuilding Doesn’t Need to Build Everything

On Star Wars, William Gibson, N.K. Jemisin, and the power of not overexplaining worlds

A few days ago there was a viral tweet that hit home for me:

I wasn’t alive in 1977, but I’m old enough to have seen “geek culture” shift from a celebration of cool shit to a faux academic discipline where fans obsesses over every throwaway line. This attitude has always existed to a degree. When I was a teen, everyone liked Star Wars and some big fans debated things the Kessel Run while a few super fans read extended universe material. Now this brand of nerdery is the mainstream, default position it seems. The extended universe is no longer the extension.

I’m not sure if this is actually a change in people’s mindsets or if the “stans” just control culture in a way they didn’t before, oh, 2005 or so. (Which is to say, corporations have realized they can milk super fans for money.) This is all exacerbated by a click-bait hungry media that churns out dozens of “explainers” for every episode of a superhero TV show. Since when is watching a goofy fun movie supposed to require research?

Anyway, this is a fiction craft newsletter and so I’m thinking about the concept of “worldbuilding” which has also undergone a change. A few decades ago, “worldbuilding” was a term for how puts some cool ideas on the page to make the reader feel like they’re in a different world. Now, it’s turning into a demand for completely “logical” worlds and encyclopedic detail. You want to write about weird aliens or dragons? Well you better have every aspect of their digestive systems and commercial real estate laws down before you even start!

I always think of a William Gibson quote about game designers trying to turn Neuromancer into an RPG:

They set me down and questioned me about the world. They asked me where the food in the Sprawl comes from. I said I don’t know. I don’t even know what they eat. A lot of krill and shit. They looked at each other and said it’s not gameable. That was the end of it.

And quite literally just now, as I goggled this quote from memory to include in the newsletter, I stumbled upon the perfect illustration of this mess:

A Google Books search of “krill” in Neuromancer turns up just three passing references that are clearly meant to add textural detail to the world. Not to “predict” exactly what people will eat in the future.

Star Wars is a prime example of the worldbuilding conundrum because it both shows the great value of textural asides (in the original films) and the utter peril of trying to explain every single damn thing (in the prequels). There is virtually no one who thinks the world of Star Wars is enriched by midichlorians, a boring army of interchangeable clones, or watching kid Vader build C-3PO. As author Sam Sykes said, “prior to nerds overwhelming all media, the kessel run was just a bit of flavor text, but NOW, with advances in storytelling and technology, it's a scene in a forgettable movie.”

One counter argument is “Lucas could have written the prequels better!” Which is, yes, true. But the problem is hardly limited to the Star Wars prequels. Prequels that explain the original films are almost always a letdown. Who prefers Hannibal Rising to The Silence of the Lambs? Or The Hobbit trilogy to Lord of the Rings? When prequels are great, they avoid trying to explain everything in the originals. The best ones are typically reboots or reimagings of the source material (think Hannibal the TV series) or else new stories that simply take place in the same world. They don’t obsessively examine and overexplain every detail of the previous works.

Worlds should have a little mystery.

For me, personally, part of what I loved about Star Wars (the original films) is how they evoke an entire complex and chaotic universe with these passing details. Yes, references to things like “the Clone Wars” that aren’t explained but also just tons of a different creatures, ships, and planets. Each of the first three films keeps expanding our sense of the universe and does not waste time trying to explain how so many different alien species can breathe on all these different planet or, I dunno, what standardized information exchange network exists between spaceships from different cultures. (This is also what I personally dislike about both the prequels and the sequels: they shrink the world of Star Wars. What once was a chaotic, complex universe full of endless possibilities now entirely revolves around like five related people.)

But to get back to the craft question, I think the most effective worldbuilding is often done through these textural details. Or as I sometimes think about them, “world seeds.” You toss some interesting details—names, historical events, creatures, whatever—and those seeds can bloom into entire worlds in the reader’s mind.

How do you choose what seeds to scatter? Personally, I prefer a thematic approach. I like when a world picks some kind of theme or conceit that makes their world unique and distinct. My go to example of this is N.K. Jemisin’s fantastic (and much acclaimed) Broken Earth trilogy, in which the fantasy world is organized around basically geology. The world is plagued by earthquakes. There are people with magical earth-related powers. There are creatures made of stone. Boil bugs with almost geysers inside them. Etc. It’s a really gripping and original world that feels completely distinct from the typical LOTR- and D&D-derived worlds of magicians, dragons, and elves.

For the fans of very detailed, logical worldbuilding, let me note that I don’t think you are wrong to find pleasure in that. I’ve come around to the belief that the problem with “worldbuilding” in the writing discourse is not that people want detailed explanations of everything per se. It’s that they now expect it from every kind of work. Some types of stories are really built around the worldbuilding. A Song of Ice and Fire is one of those. A (not coincidentally very very long) story all about history, alliances, and political machinations. The details add that project.

The problem is when people start to treat every work of science fiction and fantasy as a work of detailed worldbuilding. When people insist that a work of fabulism or surrealism or some other speculative mode must be constructed like The Silmarillion. This is something I’ve written about in a bit more detail here.

I’ve gambled a bit that there are readers who agree with me, as my forthcoming novel is a “world seed” type book in my mind. It’s not that I didn’t think through the world, but that the details I put on the page are the ones that fit the themes and ideas that animate the story.

Anyway, that’s probably enough ranting about worldbuilding today. When you’re reading a SFF novel or story, I’d encourage you to try and be open to mystery. Let your own imagination enhance the text on the page. Let the world seeds bloom in your mind.