by Thomas Manuel
More than ten years ago, in a now iconic pronouncement, the writer M. John Harrison decried worldbuilding as "the great clomping foot of nerdism". He called on every science fiction story to represent "the triumph of writing over worldbuilding", calling it dull and technically unnecessary. "Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent", he wrote. "Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader's ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done." To writers and readers of SFF, these words cannot help but be troubled. And yet, they demand being read again and again, as China Mieville said, "especially [by] those of us fortunate enough to look down and see the targets on our shirts, and look up and see one of the most important, savage and intelligent (anti-)fantasists of recent times aiming down the barrel of his scorn-gun at us."
I am one such fortunate soul. As I write this essay, not five inches from my right hand, is a sheet of paper with the scribbled schematics of my mongrel, dream city of Orbaiz. I patched together this bastardized urban backdrop for an imminent tabletop RPG campaign and a less-imminent fantasy novel and have enjoyed every minute of it. And now, as intended, I am troubled.
It's clear that Harrison doesn't mean these words literally. He has, with a certain amount of arrogance clearly, thrown out this provocation, knowing full well that it lends itself to misinterpretation and enraged internet commentary. If the words hadn't done the job, the tone of moral superiority and whiff of ‘high art' sentimentality certainly would've. But Harrison isn't a civilian and can't easily be dismissed. As a writer, critic and editor, he looms over British SFF. He was a vital member of Michael Moorcock's team at New Worlds, which ushered in the New Wave of the 60s and 70s. For those who are civilians, the New Wave was, in simplistic terms, the movement in SFF away from pulp to more artistic or literary ground. (Of course, the truth is more complicated. As Helen Mirrick writes in the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, "For some it is "the single most important development in science fiction", an era that "transformed the science fiction landscape", but others suggest that it is a meaningless generalization or that it never really existed.")