The Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.

— M. John Harrison

… I’m fighting the urge to simply type ‘discuss’, really I am.

There’s more to it somewhere, but the original post seems to have disappeared.

Lexington, who showed me the tiny extract that exists, believes there was something about how Middle-Earth’s history, topography and populace merely existed, and was encountered, and only gave you the immediate, necessary details rather than exhaustively finding reasons to explain the unnecessary. That’s part of what’s doing my nut at the moment; the obsessive need to precisely break down how many of X and Y and Z species/ethnicities (if we’re lucky enough to have ethnicities, and not be in the presence of someone who farms off ethnic and cultural traits to non-human ‘races’ instead) are resident in the town and what its primary exports are and generally burden us with a truly tiresome level of detail.

Another thing that’s doing my nut is the tendency, particularly in game-universe creation, to flaunt your sources, to make overt pastiches and parodies and references, to base what you’re doing on “this meets that” – the High Concept approach to world-making. It’s particularly vexing to me since I cut my teeth on Warhammer and Pratchett and that’s how they work, and there’s something fundamentally satisfying to me about that sort of thing – but in my own creative efforts I catch myself simply piking things wholesale. Unlike Frankenstein, I recognise my creation’s ugliness before I give it life; I can see the stitches, and the misbegotten nature of the whole repels me.

Yet another thing: the habit of readers and audiences to look for the seams, and feel clever when they spot them, and consequently make creators feel that that’s what’s wanted; more obvious referentialism and explanations, less sense of atmosphere or wholeness. The production of inert environments, obsessively detailed and often with descriptive vocabulary but… not alive, somehow. Missing a sense of what it feels like to live in them.

It’s the kind of readership fostered by narratology and its outside-the-ivory-tower cousin, trope-hunting (I’m not going to link to TV Tropes, that’s evil). TV Tropes is oddly fascinating and compelling stuff, but… I want you to imagine a well trained and alert Troper, who is very much inclined to navigate worlds through Troperese – everything’s a Negative Space Wedgie or a Xanatos Gambit or what have you – and who world-builds with a very clear sense of what her world is About and how it works and what she wants to express with it, but which ultimately doesn’t lead her to go anywhere with any of it. Laden – positively burdened – with detail, all of it very well tuned and possessed of great verisimilitude, but… there’s no story in it. The nerdist perspective seems to treat narrative like trainspotting; once you’ve established what kind of everything everything is there’s no point in following it through. You’ve found the serial number and that’s all you need.

The obsession with detail and mechanism often – not always, but often – seems aligned to a worldview which tries to take the fantasy out of fantasy, for the sake of some half-cocked ideas about ‘realism’ and ‘merit’ and ‘wanting to be taken seriously’. I feel, instinctively, that this is what leads us down the tangled path to things like Elder Scrolls Online – a game which is certainly richly detailed, but I draw the line at saying ‘beautiful’ because the images I’ve seen seem so… bland, so pseudo-historical, a wealth of effort put into expressing an awful lot of grey and brown and gritty places. I’m sick to death of grit, and realism, and merit, and I’m sick to death of ‘world building’, of sinking our energies into the pseudoscience of things at the expense of the things themselves. Show some people a portal to another world and they’ll be too busy fretting over how the cosmology and relativity and physics works to go through. As Lex said to me, it’s there because it’s there, and in the moment of your story, all of that stuff is irrelevant, even if you know some of it as an author.

One feels like a right heel telling people not to ask questions, but – it’s the spirit in which they’re asked. It can be ‘I wonder how that works’, which is not as fun a question as ‘I wonder where it goes’ but at least a step in the right direction, but all too often it’s a petulant ‘how does that even work?’ – a statement in disguise, an ‘actually I think you’ll find that doesn’t work because’, a great clomping foot of pedantic, overbearing fucking nerdism that comes down smush on wherever we were going to go and whatever we were going to do.

If you expect me to spend four hours working out and explaining how the portal works, don’t be surprised if you never get to go through it. I’m not interested in building worlds; I’m interested in exploring them. We’ll be talking about how on Sunday.

“I did not deliberately invent Earthsea, I did not think ‘Hey wow — islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let’s build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea.”

— Ursula K. LeGuin

15 thoughts on “The Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism

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  1. A great and interesting topic, and one upon which many large tomes could be written already. I’m not a writer, and not a GM when my friends and I do RPGs, so this is not a habit I’m likely to take up. So I will only say that reading science fiction novels is most satisfying when the rest of the made-up universe is implied, living its own path around the story, and not when it is (as you point out) catalogued and chronicled.

    1. Yep.

      I think that some awareness of the wider world is important for a GM, so that the actual play in progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but there’s a gulf between that and obsessively chronicling population changes and engineering economy calculators.

  2. Well that’s one of the best things I’ve read for while; both the original quote and your discussion.

    I have a particular dislike for TV Tropes. It’s the ultimate expression of the kind of mindset that assumes – wthout reflection – that stories are the sort of thing that should be broken down (pseudo) scientifically into functional parts and then reverse engineered. My nightmare future is one in which literature professors speak in TV tropes, and it no longer occurs to people that if you name all the parts of a story it disappears, and that that is a terrible thing.

    1. Lucky for you that social justice won out over narratology in Literature departments across the First World, then. And yes, that’s exactly what I’m on about; the trainspotting, rivetcounting, namechecking attitude which, for some few of the afflicted, at least results in a recognition that their own creative efforts were dead on arrival.

      There is another way in, I think, another way of doing inspiration without this hunting-for-spare-parts. You’ll see.

      1. I’m curious. Looking forward to it.

        I think you can create inspired work in this collage, DJ mash-up kind of way – it’s just that most work created in that way isn’t inspired. The thing that makes the difference I think is sincerity and honesty. The creator needs to wear their influences on their sleeve, not acknowledging them with a wink as if to say “look how smart I am” but the opposite: humbly and with an open heart, saying “this is what I took and look at what I made.”

        That’s why satire like O40k works I think. And Pratchett. There’s no attempt by the artist to try to sneak into the pantheon of past creators through imitation. A satirist is openly admitting that someone else came up with the substance: they’re merely manipulating it for comment.

        Inventing a derivative fantasy world out of recognised bits and expecting weight of detail to give it legitimacy just doesn’t cut it.

          1. Well exactly. Because when you make something that people recognise as derivative, their suspension of disbelief is damaged. They remember they’re reading or watching or whatever. No amount of fiddly detail can make up for that. The worst part is people don’t even need to be aware of any sort of original. If a kid encounters WoW before Warhammer then they’re going to feel that Warhammer stole Orcs from WoW. They don’t need to have ever even heard of Lord of the Rings.

            By openly admitting to your derivation you acknowledge the elephant in the room, which helps. But it also changes the work from a straight-up thing to a self-conscious thing. It’s not easy. The best quick example I can think of is a fantasy set in a world of Elves and Dragons and stuff, but instead of just presenting it at face value, the writer makes some effort to explain how these things are related to so many stories in our own world. E.g. the world is some parallel dimension where our stories are the reality, and these beings’ existence is dependent somehow on our stories. I read a Heinlein book like that once, but I’m sure I’ve seen it elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s our world in another age. Like Tolkien, Howard or Moorcock’s early stuff. Both those methods allow the writer to use recognised bits of other work or real world myth without coming across as lazy or uncreative.

            It’s hard for me to explain, I am not a trained lit. academic. I just have a sense that the connection to our world and to our stories needs to be made explicit if you want a free pass to use tired old things. Does that make any sort of sense at all?

          2. I think you have to do something with the tired old things if they’re going to be worth using for any reason other than “they will be recognised by newcomers”, and connecting them to our stories through some means or other is one way in which that could be done.

            I’m just done with using the tired old things, at least in the form where they’re used directly. What I’m trying to do at the moment is take a source, tear it down – not to classify it, but to identify what about it makes me think it’s worth using – and then take that essential “this is what’s cool about X” and using it in a way which is deliberately and self-consciously not drawing on the same context as X.

          3. I just want to add that gaming is different from fiction. if you’re creating an army like your Nurgles or my 40k mercs you’re allowed – almost required – to work within the setting. It’s more akin to fanfiction, which is another style of writing where of course it’s OK (mandatory even) to work within a setting.

            The problem I think we’re talking about here is when people who claim a mandate to create basically write fanfiction of another work divorced from its parent without acknowledgment. Right?

          4. I would VERY much draw the line at ‘mandatory’, actually. For starters, there’s the RPG, in which I think it’s FAR from mandatory to work within Greyhawk or whatever, but even ruling that aside – did you ever witness the Bloodlands campaign in Australian White Dwarf?

            I forget when it ran exactly, but that was a Warhammer World like nothing we’d seen before or since; totally new landscape, totally new power blocs (I recall two Empires, one of which crowned a Skaven as a condition of alliance, and two rival Tomb Kings – one late of Elven origin) – something which had the skeleton of Warhammer but put very different flesh on it. It didn’t so much work within the setting as bulldoze it back to the foundations and build the rubble into something else.

            I’m talking about a far bigger problem than that, too. I’m talking about a whole kind of production and consumption which makes a fetish out of technicalities and trivia. Unless you mean something different by ‘here’…

          5. Fair enough. I’m not going to argue re: RPGs, you’re right. And I never saw Bloodlands; that must have been during one of my many periods of hiatus from GW games. It sounds like the sort of thing that would never happen today.

            I was playing 7th edition 40k for the first time a few days ago. Did you know that there are no longer generic rules for terrain types in the book? Just specific rules for each specific piece GW currently sells. That’s exactly what you were talking about the other day in your Termite art post.

            ‘I’m talking about a whole kind of production and consumption which makes a fetish out of technicalities and trivia.’

            Yeah, OK. I have no taste for that sort of thing at all. By the way, I think you might be the first person to use “nerd” pejoratively since the turn of the millennium. Taking the term back to it’s roots?

          6. I think the quoted M John Harrison might have been first, or Sue Townsend. More to the point: I never STOPPED using it as such. While unabashed enthusiasm for one’s pastimes is commendable there are behaviours encapsulated by ‘nerd’ in which I take no pride and which I deplore in others. There are some tragic people in this hobby of ours – I see one in the mirror every morning – and I will not be giving up convenient terms of excoriation merely so girls can have GEEK on their football shirts.

            The news that there ain’t no battlefield but a Citadel brand battlefield (available for £360 with independent store discount buy now beat the rush) fills me with naught but a hollow senze of vindication. Remind me why I’m wanting to give money to these dweebs?

  3. Huh.
    The best jobs of world-building I’ve seen tend not to be real heavy handed about it, detail- wise, and it’s the FANS that try to explain away every last detail. They connect the dots between a sentence halfway through book one with a sliver of conversation in book six, or whatever, and suddenly we know why that thingamabob they’re discussing is where it is.
    It’s like…how the fans of Star Trek would watch the way the lights in the Enterprise’s elevators moved (cuz they could go left, right, up, down, whatever) and by counting the flashes and paying attention to the direction of the lights, and then the reveal of the destination, they were able to draw out the layout of the ship.
    Star Trek is a pretty good example of a well-built world, I think- There’s still lots of Flux Capacitors for us to ponder about, but every new release gives the fans a tidbit or two to gnaw on until the next release. We know a lot about the Trek-verse, but not everything’s been explained to us and there’s always room for a big surprise or reveal.

    And then there’s things like Game of Thrones.
    Sigh.
    I wish I could say I approve of that world, but ultimately I don’t (and yes- I read the books that are out so far). It’s needlessly somewhat overly complicated, and a great deal of time is spent by the author spoon-feeding us explanations of it all.
    Meh.

    I prefer the Star Trek approach. I don’t NEED to know how a Flux Capacitor works, but I’m sure there’s some fan out there that connected those dots, and if I really wanted to know, I could Google it.

    Interesting post, sir.

    1. I agree that it’s the fans who start this shit, but there’s a point at which the fanboy ascends and begins to create in their own right. I’ve ranted before on how a generation of GW staffers who grew up with Warhammer rather than its sources and are saturated /in/ Warhammer have presided over the setting gradually losing what maturity and wit it had in favour of po-faced adolescent grimdarkery (it being in the nature of teenage boys to take what they love, make it a cornerstone of their identity, and defend it to the death as though it’s more serious than life itself). It’s not just Warhammer; it’s anything that man-children like me loved when they were fourteen and haven’t ever really looked beyond. Look at what’s happened to Doctor Who, for fuck’s sake… actually, don’t, there’s a good few thousand words to be said on that in its own right.

      The same sort of problem emerges when the rivet-counting-on-the-Enterprise type start to produce their own material with that mindset at work. You end up with setting bibles and elaborate cosmologies and lengthy essays about dragon physics in lieu of anything that has a hook, that has an implicit sense of life and story. I know whereof I speak; I’ve tried to design a game with someone like this and after eighty thousand words without a single gameable in them I gave it up as a bad lot. You see the same thing happening in mechanics; rather than making a game with which to experience worlds and tell stories, you have people making a game which accurately reflects all the dynamics of medieval combat in exhaustive detail. I’m not saying that any of this is bad as such, merely that it doesn’t interest me and never has and I’m tired of pretending that it does just so I can get some games played.

      Everything is fine until the fanboys take over.

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