In 2007 M. John Harrison indirectly upset Tolkien fans by branding world-building exercises as 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, & makes us very afraid.

The text persists on Warren Ellis’ blog, although the original has been deleted. Of course you can use the Wayback Machine to get to the original including Harrison’s notes added on Dec 31, 2007.

I felt slightly conflicted about posting this here, because for whatever reason uzwi.wordpress.com has been deleted, the end. I hope that’s because the point is simply no longer important to the original author; but since the essay still persists elsewhere and the point continues to be well made, I think there’s more value in repeating it than not. The deletion sort of mirrors Harrison’s point, though. Constructed worlds are permanent and take on properties of their own outside the intended fiction. Should they really be transient? Fan fiction authors will disagree, but then arguably fan fiction authors are building on realised canonical worlds; is a loosely defined secondary world fertile ground for fan fiction in the first place?

This post discusses the difference between Narnia and Tolkien, and argues “which one is more OSR” — this quote sums the article up:

OD&D isn’t Chainmail set in Middle-Earth, it’s Narnia plus dinosaurs and robots.

The broader tone of that article is the loose, undiscovered nature of Narnia compared to the fully realised Middle Earth – not far from Harrison’s essay.

More recently Jack Shear has compared Poe’s Philosophy of Composition with his own preferences for reading and implementing setting books:

Each one of those books is small; they’re all trade paperback format and the longest is under sixty pages. They’re calculated to fit within my personal preferences: concise over compendious, flavorful rather than all-encompassing, lots of “holes” to be filled in as you want instead of completely defined.

True to his word Jack’s essay is also short and perfect for one sitting.

For myself, I’m not keen on long RPG books, I like a strong premise that invites me to get on with the creative stuff here and now in the game. I don’t really like other people’s adventures, let alone campaign settings. And my principle issue with our habitual, sub-Tolkien world building that infests the hobby is this: when you flag to the players that the world is a massive construction by the mere presence of such monstrously detailed settings, it’s very hard for a character to start with the idea that “I am here, and this is all there is” and then be surprised by an unseen world and truly hooked into the adventure. This is why I like Beyond the Wall, and why I think the Lord of the Rings only goes downhill after the hobbits leave the Shire.

Addendum: I knew I’d seen Harrison’s essay linked to recently. The Torygraph linked to it last year.

5 thoughts on “Great Clomping Feet

  1. It won’t surprise you to hear that I’m on the Harrison side here 🙂 I’ve never world-built for any of my own stuff, because I don’t like the idea of creating a straitjacket for my future self. The discworld is an interesting case in point – for some years Pratchett resisted mapping it, not wanting to tie himself down. Eventually he gave in to fan clamour, and I think most readers would agree the tone of the series changed once the geography had to make sense and join up properly. One might say it matured and solidified, or one might say it lost its spontaneity.

    1. Good comment re: Pratchett. When did he give in? I think Pyramids was the last one I read all the way through; for some reason I ran out of steam with Guards! Guards!.

      1. The maps (of Discworld itself and of Ankh-Morpork) came out in the early–mid 90s iirc. I carried on reading for quite a while after that, I think some of the later more satirical novels (eg,. The Truth) are well worth checking out, but they’re a very different kind of beast to the earlier brio-laden romps.

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