World-building

There’s an article on io9.com asking whether The Phantom Menace has better world-building than Star Wars 1. The debate, in my mind, boils down to this: Show vs. Tell. Every book, every article on writing that I’ve ever read stressed one core rule for exposition, and by extension for world-building 2: Show, don’t tell.

Charlie Jane Anders, the author of the io9 piece, comes down in favour of Show, don’t tell. She shares my view that the original film had far better world-building than the first prequel, because Star Wars showed you the world you were in, with little pieces in virtually every scene, whereas The Phantom Menace told you most of what you “needed” to know, either in the opening crawl or in “as you know, Bob” 3-style dialogue.

I much prefer my science fiction — actually, any fiction — to stay clear of too many giant expository information dumps. (One series that kind of annoyed me for this reason was the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons — the story was flowing along pretty well, and then the final book featured a lengthy chapter that was essentially one character explaining the story to a group of other (and, by proxy, the reader). It stopped every hint of forward momentum, and it let me down, I feel, as a reader.)

Here’s a list of novels & series that I think did their world-building right:

  • Frank Herbert’s amazing Dune saga 4
  • Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide
  • William Gibson’s novels — I have a soft place in my heart for the Sprawl trilogy, especially
  • Joe Haldeman’s Forever War
  • Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga — the opening line spoke volumes: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Looking at my list, it seems that I like stories that dump me into the story in the middle — in media res, as they say — and then let me build the world in my own mind as I read.

What about you? Where have you seen/read exceptional world-building?


  1. Fine, fine, A New Hope
  2. Really, world-building is a class of exposition, one that requires as light a touch as any other. 
  3. “As you know, Bob, the Force is carried by symbiotic bloodstream parasites called oh look the entire audience is snoozing now.” 
  4. Nope, not the prequels. They would have made me happier by simply publishing Frank’s notes.