[Meta Gaming] M. John Harrison on worldbuilding, writing, reading and play

Long long ago, in the before-time, I wrote a post that quite badly misapplied, misunderstood, or perhaps merely under-utilised M John Harrison on the matter of worldbuilding.

I stand by what I said – that the nerdist approach to games and literature and cinema is based on an obsessive and pedantic hoarding of facts that’s ultimately misguided, dull and ever so slightly dangerous – but I didn’t go all the way down and I regret that.

What Harrison actually talks about is the claim that an imagined world really exists, and is a thing that can be interacted with at all. It’s all just words – words written by an author or authors – and what you’re really engaging with is an exchange between author and reader in which you complete the process of creating fiction. It’s not real when the author writes it, and it’s not really real even after you’ve read it, and pretending that there is something real and “canonical” behind/underneath the author’s writing of it is a fundamental failure to apprehend how the real universe works.

Yes, to discuss a book relies on familiarity with what’s actually in it and what you’re bringing to it, and claiming that your headcanon is what the author wrote is factually incorrect, but that’s not a disservice to some external true-reality of what the author wrote about. The real object is the book. Paper and ink, forming words, with meanings, that express concepts. (Or the film, or the code, whatever medium you’re on about, I talk about books because they’re the most physical media objects, the easiest with which to make this point about what’s real and what’s not.)

That fundamentally transformative process is what interests me the most about roleplaying games in particular; if I ever go back to the PhD, I’d want to shift my focus into that, into drawing parallels between the RPG rulebook and the playscript as drama-texts that are very obviously only realised when the play’s afoot. Harrison is correct in that all reading works like that, but it’s a lot more obvious when you have a performative element at the readerly end of the process. It happens again, as another act of reception and re-creation in the universe of the Actual Play, which is something I wish I was more into so I could document it more thoroughly. (Those things are long, brother, and I work for a living.)

What doesn’t interest me is any sort of in-universe “explanation” (read “excuse”) for the failings of a text, be they narrative or ideological or technical craft-manifestations that just aren’t very good. These amuse me sometimes, but they’re not praxis, they’re not engaged with the material world on a level which matters, there’s a reason we used to call this sort of thing “wank” for pity’s sake. Pleasurable, but doesn’t get anything done.

This post is brought to you by my occasional frustrations with Vampire: the Masquerade fans online, and their lack of engagement with the production side of the game and text. I say “fans” because a lot of these people are media-fandom people, they’ve played the CRPGs or watched the actual plays but the game text itself is mostly of interest to them as a reference book. A map to a territory that does not exist. An act of world-building.

Under the cut you’ll find versions of Harrison’s original posts, synthesised into a rough and ready essay. I do this because they’re only available through the Internet Archive, and if that should ever fail they’ll be gone-gone, and I don’t want that. I understand the desire to delete and purge one’s online snail-trail, I’ve done it myself enough times, but I also understand that some things have an impact and a worth to posterity that warrants their preservation, just so long as the person who wrote them isn’t still getting their menchies blown up by people missing the point.

I. What It Might Be Like To Live In Virconium

The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes. They were sermons. They were metaphors. They were rhetoric. They were books, which means that the one thing they actually weren’t was countries with people in them.

The commercial fantasy that has replaced them is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.

Literalisation is important to both writers and readers of commercial fantasy. The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”

Given this, another trajectory (reflecting, of course, another invitation to consume) immediately presents itself: the relationship between fantasy and games—medieval re-enactment societies, role-play, and computer games. Games are centred on control. “Re-enactment” is essentially revision, which is essentially reassertion of control, or domestication. (The “defusing sequels” produced by Hollywood have the same effect: as in Aliens, in which the original insuperable threat is diminished, the paranoid inscape colonised. Life with the alien is difficult, but—thanks to our nukes and our angry motherhood no longer so impossible as it seemed.)

“What would it be really like to live in the world of…?” is an inappropriate question, a category error. You understand this immediately you ask it of the inscape of, say, Samuel Beckett or Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t want it asked (and I certainly didn’t want it answered) of Viriconium, so I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because—like Middle-Earth—it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological. “Viriconium” is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).

Like all books, Viriconium is just some words. There is no place, no society, no dependable furniture to “make real.” You can’t read it for that stuff, so you have to read it for everything else. And if its landscapes can’t be mapped, its threat of infinite depth (or at least infinite recessiveness) can’t be defused but must be accepted on its own terms, as a guarantee of actual adventure. Like the characters, the reader goes in without a clue. No character ever “survives” Viriconium: the best they can hope for after they have been sucked in is to be spat out whole (if changed). Recognise this procedure? It’s called life. This is one of Viriconium’s many jigsawed messages to the reader. You can’t hope to control things. Learn to love the vertigo of experience instead.

Any child can see that the map is not the ground. You cannot make a “reliable” map. A map, like a scientific theory, or consciousness itself, is no more than a dream of control. The conscious mind operates at forty or fifty bits a second, and disorder is infinitely deep. Better admit that. Better lie back and enjoy it—especially since, without the processes implied by it, no one could write (or read) books anyway. Writing is a con. Viriconium manipulates map-to-ground expectations to imply a depth that isn’t there. Tolkien does the same thing. Or do you think that Tolkien somehow manages to unload an actual landscape into your living room? If you believe that, get treatment.


II. licensed settings

Readers who think my article “What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium” has something to do with licensed settings have, I suspect wilfully, missed its point. I don’t care one way or another if people invent, sell or play games based on fictional “worlds”, though I don’t quite see why they bother. What I care about is the naive idea that a world exists on which a game may be based. When you engage with a novel, it is an engagement with words. What you engage is not a world but the motives of the author, mediated by some more or less effective technical tricks (actually, even that is a faint hope you both have, a shared lie, an over-dignified description of an ungainly struggle with the text’s promises). Something like this holds for every medium–cinema, theatre, dance, games & telling stories in the dark when you are eight years old–up to and including the built environment, which simply isn’t there in the same sense as the natural one, & exists, literally, to “tame” the real. & there are always “the successive phases of the image”*, too, I suppose, the fourth of which reduces readers, writers, game-players and mall rats alike to the status of solipsists masturbating in separate darkened rooms.

The Viriconium stories, as the article says, were written to: emphasise the various problems involved when fiction begins to lay claim to the quality of being a “secondary reality”; make difficult a naive or domesticated reading of the text; & maybe shake the fantasy reader’s confidence in very the idea of the constructability of worlds. I wouldn’t try that again, nor would I write anything like “What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium”, now 11 years old & showing its age. The water needs diverting much further upstream.

* (this is Baudrillard, summarised in ‘Postmodernism: A Reader’, 1993)


III. very afraid

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 unneccessary 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.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. 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.


IV: worldbuilding: further notes

The following observations will be of interest only to generic fantasy readers & writers. They do not form an integrated piece. They were written as notes, or emails to other writers, in separate attempts to clarify my position. They contain repetitions & restatements, & while there is some steady movement towards a set of conclusions, I’ve made no attempt to turn them into an article. The element of provocation has been left in.

When I use the term “writing”, here or in the original posts, I am not referring to prose, but to every aspect of the process.

When I make a distinction between writers & worldbuilders I am making a distinction not just between uses of a technique, but between suites of assumptions about language, representation & the construction of “the” world as well as “a” world.

When I use the term “worldbuilding fiction” I refer to immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding, or by making it “logical in its own terms”, so that it becomes less an act of imagination than the literalisation of one. Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.

I am aware that something describable as worldbuilding goes on in the representational genres, and in even the most minimal of “mundane” fictions; the strength of my position depends on that awareness. I see no technical distinction between the worldbuilding of the representational writer–the travel writer or memoirist–& the worldbuilding of the fantasist. I have a certain amount of experience with both; & a fair amount of experience of sailing back & forth across the line between them. I agree to some extent with Aldous Huxley’s description of fantasy as “foreign travel of the imagination”. The distinction I would make between the two kinds of worldbuilding is in a sense Baudrillardian. But though I see fantasy worldbuilding as parasitic on its quotidian cousin, I also see it as not much more than a matter of the kidnapping & abuse of some techniques which don’t, recently, have much dignity even in their proper place. It’s no big deal until you get behind it to the ideology. After that it becomes important but not in the context of writing fantasy fiction, see below, Notes 3.

Notes 1: Being & Simulating

Some of it is a matter of aesthetics. I think Katherine Mansfield could “build a world” in thirty words & a couple of viewpoint changes, & that Chekhov could cram more into four thousand words than Dickens got into three hundred thousand.

But much of it is a matter of ideology. The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.

My feeling is that the reader performs most of the act of writing. A book spends a very short time being written into existence; it spends the rest of its life being read into existence. That’s why I find in many current uses of the term “active reading” such a deeply ironic tautology. Reading was always “active”; the text itself always demanded the reader’s interaction if the fiction was to be brought forth. There was always a game being played, between writers and readers (for that matter between oral storytellers & listeners), who knew they were gaming a system, & who were delighted to engage each other on those terms.

Worldbuilding is the province of people who, like Tolkien, actually resist the idea it’s a game, and have installed their “secondary creation” concept as an aggressive defense of that position.

The worst mistake a contemporary f/sf writer can make is to withold or disrupt suspension of disbelief. The reader, it’s assumed, wants to receive the events in the text as seamless & the text as unperformed. The claim is that nobody is being “told a story” here, let alone being sold a pup. Instead, an impeccably immersive experience is playing in the cinema of the head. This experience is somehow unmediated, or needs to present itself as such: any vestige of performativeness in the text dilutes the experience by reminding the reader that the “world” on offer is a rhetorical construct. All writing is a shell game, a sham: but genre writing mustn’t ever look as if it is. This seems to me to ignore the genuine sleight-of-hand pleasures of conjuring in favour of a belief in magic, a kind of non-writing which claims to be rather than to simulate.

Notes 2: Bandwidth

I’m interested in how worldbuilders construct the real world. How do they describe the process of writing & reading about it, for instance ? Do they envisage writing as a kind of camera, which allows them to photograph London–or cheese–or a giraffe–& pass the picture to the reader, who then sees exactly what they saw ? For that matter, would they describe photography itself as an objectively representational process ? Perhaps they would, and perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why worldbuilding fantasy strikes one as so amazingly Victorian a form.

You cannot replicate the world in some symbols, only imply it or allude to it. Even if you could encode the world into language, the reader would not be able to decode with enough precision for the result to be anything but luck. (& think how long it would take!) Writing isn’t that kind of transaction. Communication isn’t that kind of transaction. It’s meant to go along with pointing and works best in such forms as, “Pass me that chair. No, the green one.”

Writing does something else. It not only invites but relies upon reader-participation. Writing and reading are complementary aspects of the same process; much of what appears to be the work of writing is in fact done by the reader in the act of reading. While the writer takes advantage of this, making implications & inviting the reader to do the rest, the worldbuilder–lonely & godlike & in control of (or attempting to be in control of) every piece of footage retrieved from her obsessive creation–induces dependency in the audience, then discovers in the subsequent delirious spiral of self-fulfilling prophecy an excuse to take even more responsibility out of their hands. God’s in her Heaven & all’s right with the “world”.

It’s control-freakery on a scale that reminds you instantly of the other kind of worldbuilding–the political kind. That’s why I am “very afraid” of worldbuilders. They tend to be quite managing, even in real life.

Notes 3: It’s All Down Here in Black & White

The transaction we talk about when we talk about reading goes on not between the writer & the reader but between the reader & the text. The writer (as opposed to the worldbuilder) plans for this inevitability, presenting a spread of more or less “possible” interpretations tied to the themes & meanings of the story, and allowing–or perhaps impishly not quite allowing–for the cultural library & types of interpretative tool any given reader might bring to the text. In this view, any reading, of any kind of fiction, is emergent from the interaction of more variables than can be defined or consciously managed by either writer or reader. There seems to me little point trying to deny that this happens whether, as the writer, you encourage it or not. Any other view of the writing/reading process is at best idealistic & at worst contains an appeal to telepathy (the idea that I can somehow pass my vision to you without mediation, the ultimate paradoxical utopia of the representational).

The writer–as opposed to the worldbuilder–must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive–is it possible to receive–a fictional text as an operating manual ? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities ? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the–purely functional–act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.

Since a novel is not an object of the same order as a vacuum cleaner, and since the “world” a worldbuilder claims to build does not in fact exist in the way a vacuum cleaner exists, why would you want to try & operate it as if it was one ?

In fact you wouldn’t, unless you were already experiencing confusion about what is functional & what isn’t.

This aspect of the contemporary relationship between readers & fiction is complicated further by the fact that, prior to any act of reading, we already live in a fantasy world constructed by advertising, branding, news media, politics and the built or prosthetic environment (in EO Wilson’s sense). The act of narcissistic fantasy represented by the wor(l)d “L’Oreal” already exists well upstream of any written or performed act of fantasy. JK Rowling & JRR Tolkien have done well for themselves, but–be honest!–neither of them is anywhere near as successful at worldbuilding as the geniuses who devised “Coke”, or “The Catholic Church”. Along with the prosthetic environment itself, corporate ads & branding exercises are the truly great, truly successful fantasies of our day. As a result the world we live in is already a “secondary creation”. It is already invented. Epic fantasies, gaming & second lives don’t seem to me to be an alternative to this, much less an antidote: they seem to me to be a smallish contributory subset of it.

The piece that began all this, “What It Might Be Like To Live In Viriconium”, has been up at Fantastic Metropolis for at least five years, maybe longer. It was written in 1996, and originally published in a British print fanzine in 1997. The notes on which it was based were made as early as 1992. Since 1992, the feeling I had that this was an essentially political issue, & not really much to do with epic fantasy or Tolkien movies or gaming in themselves, has only grown. That’s what I meant when I said at the end of my “licensed settings” post that I wouldn’t write Viriconium again, or write an article like “What It Might Be Like To Live In Viriconium”.

As we emerge from the trailing edge of postmodernism we begin to see how many of its by-now-naturalised assumptions need challenging if it isn’t to become as much of a dead hand as the modernism it revised into existence to be its opposite. The originally vertiginous and politically exciting notion of relativism that underlies the idea of “worlds” is now only one of the day-to-day huckstering mechanisms of neoliberalism. My argument isn’t really with writers, readers or gamers, (or even with franchisers in either the new or old media); it is a political argument, made even more urgent as a heavily-mediatised world moves from the prosthetic to the virtual, allowing the massively managed and flattered contemporary self to ignore the steady destruction of the actual world on which it depends. This situation needs to change, and it will. At the moment, the fossilised remains of the postmodern paradigm (which encourages us to believe three stupid things before breakfast: firstly that we can change the real world into a fully prosthetic environment without loss or effort; secondly that there are no facts, only competing stories about the world; & thirdly that it’s possible to meaningfully write the words “a world” outside the domains of imagination or metaphor, a solecism which allows us to feel safely distant from the consequences of our actions) are in the way of that.

3 thoughts on “[Meta Gaming] M. John Harrison on worldbuilding, writing, reading and play

  1. Interesting post- got me thinking a lot, both on the idea of the text/ reader relationship as well as the concept of immersion- something more relevant to at TTRPG than a novel I’d say….

    Thanks for posting it.




  2. Well I have a lot I could say about this (much of which boils down to various long-winded roundabout ways of saying “Personally attacked, don’t @ me like this”), much of which stems from practical experience from the other side of the veil and includes various dark blasphemies and unbearable forbidden knowledge that I’m not actually sure is entirely good form for me to disclose because there are certain unspoken rules in my industry.

    But what I really want to talk about right now is how all this fits in with Games Workshop’s green plastic rod slinging Terminator/Cybermen hybrids.

    I’ve been re-reading through the 3rd edition Codex: Necrons, and it occurs to me that it seems to conform to the ‘Undiscovered Country’ depth that’s contrasted with worldbuilding here, at least as much as a Games Workshop codex book can. Its background lore is deliberately conveyed in a very chaotic, fractured way that purposefully keeps the audience on a strict need-to-know basis, usually only disclosing a certain concept or revelation if it’s directly relevant to something on the adjacent pages. Even the faction’s eye view ‘History Of The ____’ section is in a different place to the other 3.5 era codex books – in the other ones it’s placed front and centre right after the intro section, but here it’s buried in between the army list and the colour section.

    This helps the 3rd edition Necron book do a very good job (again, by commercial GW standards at the very least) of conveying the undefined shape of a world much bigger than just what’s written on the pages. It’s a trait shared with all of the 3rd edition 40k books, including the early 45-pager codexes, but it’s particularly palpable here.

    The 5th edition Necron book, by the very nature of its own background material, is a much more worldbuilding focused game book. It characterises the Necrons into Dynasties and Triarachs and Cryptek cabals and other categorised structures. It introduces rigidly defined colour scheme templates for those Dynasties just like most post-3rd edition codexes do. It even takes the mysterious unknowable cosmic powers of the 3rd edition book and literally breaks them down into smaller shards.

    It is, in many ways, the foot of Nerdism domesticating and colonising the original 3rd edition Necron book.

    Could this be another factor in why the Oldcron/Newcron schism is so polarising?


    1. The battle between the Film and Television Alliance and the League of Novelists is best left for another field, I agree. Possibly some of that spy-vs-spy dark alleyways stuff.

      I’ll level with you, I’ve really come back around on Necrons. I think I’d let the greater amount of fun I had *playing* the fifth edition version deter me from an accurate and honest assessment of the book as text, if you follow me. Re-reading the older volume has convinced me of its superiority as a way of expanding the forty-first millennium as a setting (and also that “we already have galaxy destroying life ending horrors in the Tyranids” is a “potato-tier take”, given that the two factions represent a very different kind of omnicidal monolith, an enemy within/enemy without sort of setup, a horror out of the distant past and one of the looming future).

      I still think the fifth book contains a more engaging set of mechanics for playing as Necrons, but concede that it is in other respects a lot of nerd nonsense for nerds.


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