Sunday, 24 June 2012

Genre's Self-Loathing and the Secondary World.

Disclaimer: M. John Harrison is probably a very nice bloke. Geoff Ryman certainly is, because I've seen him in action at Novacon '40. Nothing, y'know... personal here. Anyway, the kind of unanimous high regard Harrison's held in, he's probably crying out for something like this. I know I would.


No one wants to be seen as unfashionable. Believe it or not, this also applies to the world of science fiction and fantasy literature.

'Fashionable' genre fiction calls itself 'speculative fiction' or maybe even 'fantastika' in its more heavy handed moments. It 'engages with the now' and has white book covers with some everyday object on it in soft focus.

'Unfashionable', er, fantastika, has covers with dragons or exploding shuttles on them, occasionally both at once. It is impertinently popular. But its ultimate faux pas, its Iron Maiden T-shirt and white denim if you will, is the 'secondary world'.

Wikipedia describes the secondary world (or 'fictional universe') as:

 'the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe'

Think Middle Earth or Dune and your bang in classic territory.

The instinctual backlash against secondary worlds first made itself clear some time last decade, at about the same time (tellingly) the wall between SF and Lit-Fic began to look increasingly slipshod and mossy.

The MundaneSF movement was an early-to-mid 2000s attempt to eschew bizarre worlds and far futures, its manifesto describing such things as childish and even a threat to humanity's future. It may have been more honest to say they were a threat to a Booker nomination, but I digress.

Mundane SF even got so far as a whole Interzone issue dedicated to it; a good one actually (though that's par for the course). In his guest editorial, Chief Mundanista Geoff Ryman memorably wrote that 'there'd be less gunfire' in this sort of fiction. 

As far as the world of SF conventions and writers' workshops goes, I'm happy to report this is indeed the case. Elsewhere, you'll have noticed, the world is nothing but gunfire. The irony of a movement hellbent on verisimilitude pissing its cache of it into the well of first-world privilege is so glaring it would be churlish to point it out.  Regardless, Mundane SF's experiment with autonasal face-spitery has left its shadow upon genre's online 'conversation'.


Allow me to nibble at the ankles of a giant. In 2008, author M. John Harrison wrote a short blog post called 'Very Afraid'. It was re-posted by the likes of Warren Ellis (who dubbed it 'glorious') and William Gibson ('Brilliant'). From there on it went viral across the skiffier end of the internet and has become the iconic totem of anti-worldbuilding, one to which its adherents forever flock and point to.

Only fair, then, I quote it in full. But before I do (and in Harrison's defense), I should point out he probably never meant any of it to be disseminated so assiduously.

'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 fufill 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, world building 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.'

You'd be forgiven for ignoring anything containing the phrase 'permission for acts of reading' out of hand, but, for the sake of argument, let's give Harrison the benefit of inferred irony.

Here's a rule that's served me well enough in life--never trust any argument that questions the sanity of those it opposes. Not ever. It's an appeal to  your emotion and not your intellect, despite its dressing in a psychiatrist's overalls. Coming at the end of his post, Harrison waves it like a victory flag, never noticing its material is white.

The longer you look at this 'glorious' post, the more its emotional, visceral nature bleeds out. It's more of an acid reflux than a process of reason, its just that M. John Harrison is such a good writer he can make it seem the latter, I suspect even to himself.

Everything reads well (so much so you want to be lead Tribune in his proposed triumph), until one starts isolating sentences from the overall flow. Surely all creative arts 'literalise the urge to invent'? The first line of the last paragraph is flat out wrong (Jane Austen must have at least pictured the appearance of Mansfield Park in her mind's eye, even if she based it on somewhere real), while the meat of the same paragraph ties its hyperbolic bootlaces together--if a real and a fictional place are equally survey-able, exhaustively or otherwise, where are all the fantasy novels the size of (though not greater than-- that's impossible remember) the Alexandrian library? 

And the opener? Every moment of blood circulation must represent the victory of the pulse over the arterial wall. The circulatory system, like the writing of speculative fiction, is too complex to be so binary.

The fourth or fifth reading brought out an old memory--or collection of memories--I had long forgotten (feel free to concoct psychological types amongst yourselves), but one, I suspect, shared by many whose childhoods were spent floating on tides betwixt cool and dork.

 The memory I have is of standing in the playground with my nerdiest pal, discussing the Dungeons & Dragons game I'd GM'ed the night before. All great conversation until the coolest person I knew turned up. I still remember the horror I felt when my nerdy friend wouldn't shut up about the monsters we had fought and the elves we had been. 

That horror, still visceral to me now as an adult, is the essential impulse behind the current anti-worldbuilding zeitgeist. You'd think Harrison's love of mountain climbing would be enough to re-assure him he isn't a die-rolling stay-indoors. Someone buy the man a shark cage.


Harrison's blog posts, oddly enough, lack their own equivalent of world building. Typically, they are a stutter of profound statements with no real attempt at evidence or definition, no tethering to the ground. One might think the statement 'worldbuilding is not technically necessary' might need a subsequent qualifier or two. Instead we get that iconic 'clomping foot' and have to make do.

And yet it works wonders for him. These words--simultaneously provocative and non-committal--allow others to project their own opinions on to half-apparent bones. Witness Justine Larbalestier with:

'He’s not (dismissing world building) though, he’s dismissing bad world building. Just like all those people who say that omniscient narration is evil and wrong. Nope, only when it’s done badly.'.
Does he? If so, why didn't he say so? Or, if Harrison inexplicably forgot to put 'bad' or 'overwrought' before 'worldbuilding' nine times in a row, why did he not come out and qualify what he'd meant, perhaps around about the time, say, the nerdsphere went aflame with his words? It's difficult not to be reminded of those Chinese wise men, trying to bring context and use to Tsun Tzu's nebulous aphorisms centuries after his death.

Hey, even M. John Harrison does it. A year later he added this-

…I’m not against Worldbuilding on the grounds that it impedes narrative. Nothing I’ve said has anything to do with worldbuilding vs narrative. Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies in that context, it isn’t deftness or economy of line. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that.

 At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

Pleasing as it is to see someone perform the trick of climbing down whilst simultaneously wagging a finger, Harrison could have saved himself and the internet a lot of endless circling if he'd actually bothered to define what he'd attacked.


The one thing uniting most people who sneer at worldbuilding is that they have jobs they actually like. None of the genre readers I know who work factory shifts, drive vans or serve the ever-demanding, ever-infantilized general public complain about a novel being too full of imagined detail.

'What's their problem?' A friend of said some years back when I brought his attention to Mundane SF. 'I hand over nine hours a day of my unrepeatable life, serving arrogant arseholes for minimal pay. Then I've an hour's journey home in a bus rammed with loud idiots. Surely, sat there, I've earned the right to be childish a half-hour?'

Harrison wouldn't give him permission for this 'act of reading', I imagine. But Harrison, for all his undeniable talents, does not speak for the fucked and doomed.

It's been said of fantasy's relationship to the establishment that 'jailers hate escapism'. Lots of people found that clever. Michael Moorcock replied 'Jailers love escapism, they just don't like escapes' and everyone found that cleverer still, especially the anti-worldies. Personally, I find both arguments academic--there is no escape. Not for the vast majority of people, not at the present level of technology.


Like many movements and viewpoints claiming to be the progressive side of the argument (Postmodernism being a luminous example), anti-worldbuilding is actually intensely conservative. An unconscious conservatism, rooted in Victorian notions of literature-as-betterment, that a novel unconcerned with 'saying something' and busking for critical praise is somehow dirty. 

I blame English 'A' level. It's certainly been the biggest hurdle to my enjoyment of reading at any rate.  

(Part two--where I indicate all of world building's sexy bits, is soon to follow (I think). 

Update: Over on SFF Chronicles (where I've linked to this post) there's a few comments.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, so first let's go over that blog post and a few bits you seem to have fixed on. Firstly:
    "unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading) "
    Which I think, honestly, you could only have read the way you did if you were pretty indignant to start with (possibly coming to it through a link from someone else's blog, and reading their interpretation first?). The word you leave out when you repeatedly quote this passage is "unnecessary," and that word is really the point of that sentence. As in: you do not need permission to read, or to write. You should never need permission. It is unnecessary. To give permission implies exactly the attitude that you are repeatedly accusing him of, which is in fact exactly the kind of attitude he is criticising.

    I also think you've misread "literalises the urge to invent". Literalise meanis here "to interpret in the most literal way possible" free of abstract or imaginative layers.

    And I don't think you are incorrect to say that one blog post of his, taken alone, is a little opaque. It is a statement of opinion, not a rounded argument. But its topic is a conversation he has been having with his readers at least since Viriconium: The Pastel City was released in 1971. It's a long conversation, and there's a lot in it, including the inevitable shifts and adjustments in his own position over time.
    Certainly I think Larbalestier was a bit off point as well. What Harrison against is worldbuilding for worldbuilding's sake. Which is different from worldbuilding for narrative's sake, or worldbuilding for character's sake, or worldbuilding that investigates or reacts with ideas. I mean sure, Viriconium was a pitched battle with several fantasy tropes, and it was a world which couldn't be mapped, but it was nonetheless also an immersive secondary world.

    Lastly, I really think you should actually read some of his books. Positioning this particular author as "against secondary worlds in fiction" is holding pretty fast to the wrong end of the stick. It's a hard position to defend when he keeps writing novels set in them.
    His last two books, set in a shared (secondary!) world, manage to fit in sentient spaceships, a tract of space where physics is incomprehensible which is littered with the remains of thousands of precursor civilisations, gene-splicing while-u-wait, noir mysteries with a detective that looks like einstein, an array of unexplainable anomalies, and massive cast of characters, pretty much every one of whom is fucked and doomed. That they do this without adhering to traditional narrative logic whilst also being completely serious and really quite good, is an astonishing feat. And yes, bits of it are about something. That physics issue is it's own form of genre criticism. But I certainly needed to do some escaping when I read Nova Swing, and it still worked. These works are many things, but I'm struggling to see how they could be described as "Mundane".