Against Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is big business. Though thought of as pertaining to genre fiction, I reckon it has some manner of iteration in every single story we read – and I’m not alone. One aspect at work in worldbuilding is that of the cartography of imagined places. Even if, like Henry David Thoreau, we “have traveled a good deal in Concord,” the Concord we read about is not Concord but a version of it taking shape in our minds. The dynamics of this effect are being explored by literary scholars these days, making literary mapping a hot topic.1 Addressing the issue in 1995, J. Hillis Miller found “the effort of mapping is interrupted by an encounter with the unmappable” (7). He contends this occurs because reading enlivens our innermost selves, where space is abstract and mapping ultimately fails. When reading about Concord, my Concord will be different from your Concord will be different from Thoreau’s Concord will be different from Concord itself. An accompanying map of Concord is not just an attempt to pin down Concord – it is also intrusive and manipulative of the dimensions taking shape in our imaginations. Maps can be tools of control, conquest, empire, dominion over the land. If I’m on a hike, even in a place I know pretty well, you can bet I’ll have a topographical map with me. But when it comes to reading fiction, I have no interest in forfeiting my own inner reaches to maps’ colonizing effects.

Literary maps? I hate literary maps. Be it Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, literary maps bore me because they limit my own sense of the size and scope of the world I am reading about. One of the most irritating literary maps is that of Earthsea, the archipelago of Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterly series about wizards and dragon masters. What irritates me is how useless it is – a smattering of ink blots representing islands that can move about like ants on paper when really trying to study it. Even more annoying is how LeGuin’s books describe thousands of islands that come and go depending on tides and whatnot, flecks that may or may not be there on the map. To make matters worse, printing quality varies across various editions – in mass market paperbacks, the map looks overloaded with ink, bolding every edge, further ruining it on the page. Most significantly, LeGuin’s astonishing descriptions override the map every single time.

The map that most takes the piss in all the entirety of imaginative literature, however, is L. Frank Baum’s map of Oz, one of the earliest genre maps. Printed on the endpapers within his books, Oz is perfectly rectangular, made to fit the dimensions of the book. As a kid this map felt like a betrayal of Baum’s sprawling, fourteen-book series. The weirdness of Oz’s characters and landscapes, both as described and illustrated, is simply too rich for its land to be so clumsily mapped.

I recently read – and loved – Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning (Saga Press, 2018), the first book in a post-apocalyptic monster-slaying series set in the Diné Nation. The book does not include a map, for which I am so appreciative. Roanhorse is a great writer, the sort you can trust to tell you just enough of what you need to know about the whereabouts and locations being described. Setting in her novel is based on reality, but she expands and does with it what the story demands. It is also heartening to read a page-turner presenting a culturally distinct relationship to the land itself. Not to mention, the way in which this continent was (and continues to be) carved into maps that pretend to be neutral mendaciously masks a history of genocide against its indigenous peoples. There is power in refusing to present a literary map, in rejecting map-making.

Cartography aside, I think some of my stink about worldbuilding has to do with the fact that it strikes me as utterly insincere. When an author micromanages the imaginary world he is writing about, filling out the minutiae of its cultures, laws, politics, religions, history, sciences, economics, arts, cuisine, dress, and so on, and so forth, I feel as though he has Orientalized this fictional realm being shared with readers. I imagine Edward Said looking over my shoulder and saying something about how so-and-so, with his meticulously curated world, is stabbing at control, not just of the imaginary setting at hand, but the imaginations of his readers. This obsessive variety of control – expressed in blatant expository explanations – can stifle what could otherwise be good stories.

Ray Bradbury was seemingly inoculated against this encyclopedic manner of worldbuilding. His imagination proved peculiarly elastic, as evidenced by his divergent representations of Mars. Those collaged in The Martian Chronicles (1950) are his best-known, presenting a Mars where (mostly white) Americans colonize the planet. In his uncollected Martian stories, however, Mars can lack a breathable atmosphere (“The Lonely Ones,” 1949), transform human colonists into Martians (“Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” 1949), or be colonized solely by African Americans (“The Other Foot,” 1951). This ability to offer readers disparate versions of Mars runs directly against genre fiction’s popular (and franchise-making) trend of canonizing details of a fantastical setting that cohere across multiple works. Bradbury’s variable Mars is both postmodern and practical, remade in the service of telling different stories. Had he committed to worldbuilding, its inherent dogma would have forbidden revising Mars as needed to tell the variety of stories he told. In resisting it, Bradbury produced a new Mars whenever a story called for it.

My biggest problem with worldbuilding has to do with the fact that author-dominated imaginary settings bear absolutely no relation to my own experience of reality. Every day I’m sticking my nose in some thing or things that have totally been around forever and I just never knew about them – and will only ever have so much of a chance to get a grasp of understanding them before my time is up. Our world isn’t known. We sure like to pretend it is a lot of the time but, if we’re being honest, we encounter the unknown almost constantly. No matter what field of study is your passion, you can dazzle yourself for your entire lifetime by learning more and more about it every day.

When it comes to human beings in general, we are such newbies when it comes to knowledge. Do you know when scientists figured out that female mammals carry egg cells? That fact wasn’t verified until 1827. Before then, plenty reckoned that human sperm cells had teeny, tiny, fully-formed people in their heads, that women were merely incubators for men’s baby-batter. Thinkers in the late seventeenth century believed this because “there was no compelling evidence to make them appreciate” the necessity of an egg (Cobb 6). Today we’re just shy of two hundred years of knowing for certain how the hell we’re conceived. Clearly, our species has not needed to know everything about our world in order to lead fulfilling, complicated, dynamic, fraught lives. Storytelling itself forgives this incompleteness of knowledge of all things. An exhaustively curated fictional world betrays this truth – that we know so little about our actual world – and can cast an author as overbearing, territorial in a domineering way, a dictator not only of his realm as he imagines it but his realm as readers imagine it, too.

I like the imaginary places I read about to be a bit more loosey-goosey in their definition. I want the decisions characters make to make sense psychologically. But when it comes to spatiality and explanation, gimme space. Lemme imagine on the basis of the imagery and understandings conjured by the language. An author may feel the need to know a hundred thousand little things about the imaginary world at hand. That’s fine. I just prefer stories and books that do not let conceit and contrivance freight the narrative. A little wonder goes a long way.

1 For the very best of what’s going on, check out the work of Robert T. Tally: Spatiality (Routledge, 2013), Literary Cartographies: Spatiality, Representation, and Narrative (Palgrave, 2014), and Topophrenia: Place, Narrative, and the Spatial Imagination (Indiana University Press, forthcoming in 2019).

Works Cited

Cobb, M. “An Amazing 10 Years: The Discovery of Egg and Sperm in the 17th Century.” Reproduction in Domestic Animals, vol. 47, 2012, pp. 2-6,

Miller, J. Hillis. Topographies. Stanford University Press, 1995.