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.