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World-building and mythopoeia

August 29, 2016

A friend recently brought to my attention this youtube video, a critique of what’s come to be known as “worldbuilding”. The basic problem with the practice:

Each [secondary world] has developed audiences that hunger for the author to fill in the margins, the gaps, the geography, the backstories, the histories; and, if the author won’t, they’ll do it themselves. […] The great science fiction and fantasy writer M. John Harrison once famously called worldbuilding “the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.”

Well, what’s so wrong with that? The video pivots from this observation into what’s basically a post-modern attack on realism, whereby the text creates an illusion of reality and so relieves the reader of her knowledge that it’s mere words on a page. Supposedly, this leads to a more passive reading experience, and so encourages habits of reading that make people more susceptible to advertisements, propaganda, etc.

There’s something to this—but in what sense is the reading experience passive if the readers are so engaged that they’re willing to fill in the backstories themselves if the author won’t? That looks like engagement to me! Moreover, it’s communal engagement: people don’t just fill-in-the-blanks on the fold-out map in their copy of The Silmarillion; they share fan fiction and home-made props, they meet online or in person to discuss their theories. They even argue about their theories, and sometimes care greatly about their disagreements—though they’ll always set those disagreements aside when it’s time to look down on those who don’t care about the worldbuilding at all.


In other words: the fans of world-building are less like the targets of advertisements and propaganda, than like the purveyors of conspiracy theories. I was struck by this act of definition in an article about American UFO culture:

“Experiencers” is the preferred term here, since “abductee” doesn’t apply to people who’ve gone with aliens of their own free will, and “contactee” has positive-sounding connotations that actual abductees don’t like.

But why would abductees and contactees have anything to do with one another? If some people think aliens are out to get us, and others think aliens are out to save us, wouldn’t they be mortal enemies? Most worldbuilding-subculture words are kind of like this, “nerd” most of all: nerds may differ about what matters more than most people realize (in both senses of that phrase), but they all agree that something matters more than most people realize, and can find common cause in looking down on “most people”—forgetting, in some cases, that there might be hardly any overlap between the different groups of people they each look down on.

In theological terms, nerds and conspiracy theorists alike are predisposed towards asceticism, gnosticism, monotheism (one world to rule them all). Most people, on the other hand, if any “most people” are even left, are predisposed towards libertinism, universalism, polytheism.


Literary realism, according to the post-modern critique, creates a desire for reality that the realistic work can never fully satisfy, since reality is infinite and a book or movie is finite. Kind of like how Coca-Cola isn’t selling you a soda, it’s selling you a brand, and, drink as many coca-colas and you want, you’ll never quench your thirst for Coca-Cola(tm). I’m not sure I buy this for realistic fiction, but it’s definitely true for worldbuilding fiction, or at least a legitimate threat—secondary worlds can suck you in like a conspiracy theory, make you always hunger for more.

This happens because worldbuilding is, by definition, never finished. In a sense, Tolkien’s failure to publish The Silmarillion in his lifetime was necessary, not contingent. There might be bounds on the section entitled “Quenta Silmarillion,” “history of the silmarils,” but in writing the book now known as The Silmarillion Tolkien tried to encompass the entire legendarium, a task which had no natural endpoint, just a place at which he was forced to stop.

It’s not a question of passivity versus activity: the author can get sucked in just as easily as the reader; and the line between reader and author can easily be blurred. Rather, it’s a question of the telos of poetic activity: is it the perfection of the work itself, or the satisfaction of the hunger the thought of the work elicits? Insofar as authors take it to be the latter, their work can never be finished, for the hunger can never be satisfied. Insofar as they take it to be the former, it can be. This is the difference between building a world and telling a story. Stories end; worlds don’t. Even an apocalypse can’t fill in all the gaps.


Is it bad to build literary perpetual-desire-machines? From a theological point of view, it certainly seems suspect: it makes an idol of the secondary world. Only God should be an object of infinite desire. This suggests to me that authors should not take world-building as an end in itself; as Aristotle said of tragedy, stories are the imitation, not of a world, but of an action.

If I’m right here, then Tolkien’s theoretical justification for his work (offered at greatest length in “On Fairy-Stories”) is somewhat misguided. His argument involves an unjustified logical leap; what he calls the “power of image-making,” even when artistic excellence gives its creations “the inner consistency of reality,” need not produce “Secondary Worlds,” but only secondary images—that is, metaphors; and, in literary work, secondary actions—that is, metaphoric actions—that is, myths. A secondary world is not a necessary component of literary works, and is also a dangerous one, since it seems almost always to result in a temptation towards indulging the desire for world-building, which means indulging nostalgia. Any literary work that does attempt to build a secondary world must have a special reason for doing so, grounded in the myth it seeks to tell.

To see what such a reason might be, we must ask: of what reality does a secondary world, qua secondary world, offer an image? The answer is obvious, and Tolkien basically gives it to us: “At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art.” Secondary worlds are about the human desire to imitate God’s creative act—a desire perfectly natural, and also, in the eyes of traditional theology, exceedingly dangerous. No literary work should consciously embark on an act of cosmopoeia unless it does so to tell a story about this desire—unless it means to make an issue of its own artifactuality.


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