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At Home In Fantasy’s Nerd-Built Worlds!

istock_000010147908medium— by Saladin Ahmed, January 06, 2013, NPR

Once, in an age long past, “epic” was a dirty word.

Way back when I was a young nerd growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s — long before I became a professional writer — histories of magic rings and chronicles of ancient evils were not exactly mainstream fare. Indeed, to publicize one’s knowledge of Elvish sword-names and Orcish myth was to contract a kind of voluntary leprosy.

But it would seem that age has passed. In recent years, American culture has fallen in love with epic fantasy. Film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth books have grossed more than $3 billion. Tens of millions of viewers have tuned in to Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. And next week the concluding volume of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is almost certain to debut at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list.

What is it that draws millions of readers and viewers to these works? Surely, the vast casts of compelling characters and the harrowing, twist-filled plots have something to do with it. But there are other genres that scratch those itches. What is it about fantasy?

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an informal lecture/pep talk for up-and-coming fantasy writers by the man Time called “the American Tolkien,” the now-world-famous Martin. The grizzled master described the very early days of Tolkien’s cult popularity to a room of us wide-eyed newbies. When college students and hippies started hanging up Lord of the Rings posters, Martin pointed out, “It wasn’t the book covers or some artist’s conception of Frodo that went on our walls. It was the map of Middle-earth.”

In other words, more than the profound lessons on the corrupting influence of power, more than the stirring battle scenes, more even than beloved characters like Frodo and Sam, readers came to Tolkien’s books for the rich, magical world that they built out of his words. Martin has taken this lesson to heart in his work — as have some of his most successful contemporaries, like the late Jordan — pulling fans into constructed worlds every bit as elaborate as Tolkien’s. And readers, it seems, can’t get enough. Indeed, for many readers and no few writers of fantasy, world-building is the very heart of our genre.

Roughly put, world-building is the attempt to describe an invented, fantastic world by cataloging that world’s history, geography, languages, religions, economy and so forth. It’s a way of nudging the reader into Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” through the accumulation of telling details. It sets readers and writers asking and answering a sometimes jarring array of questions, ranging from “Does this world have (a) God(s)?” and “Does it hold true good and evil?” to “How fast do the boats go?” and “What are the orcs’ loincloths made out of?”

Not all novelists, nor all readers in the field, are interested in such literalism and mundane detail, of course. Some of the most talented and challenging fantasy writers of recent years have indicted the genre’s world-building fetish. “How can we map every corner of a nonexistent place?” acclaimed British novelist China Mieville has asked. “Why do we want to?” And M. John Harrison, one of contemporary fantasy’s most inventive writers, raised quite a stir a few years back when he raised doubts about “the psychological type of the world-builder,” famously disparaging world-building as “the great clomping foot of nerdism.”

Even among writers and readers who agree upon the importance of world-building, there is great disagreement over how to do it right. A thousand blog posts have been launched arguing over how much detail ought to be revealed to the reader. Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, in particular, is a sort of perennial target of parody, even among die-hard fans, padded as it can be with relentless descriptions of clothing, hairstyles, furniture and food. And Martin can spend page after exhausting page detailing the coat-of-arms of every attendee at a royal banquet. For readers used to the protocols of literary fiction, novels that come with glossaries and appendices can feel distinctly like homework.

But at its best, work that prioritizes world-building offers pleasures that just can’t be found in other sorts of literature, the joy of traveling to, as Tolkien put it, “a Secondary World which your mind can enter.” The type of immersion that a massive built world provides is unique. It’s an almost physical sense of getting lost somewhere that isn’t home, but which comes to be home. A sense that one is walking, sometimes even dancing, on a tightrope between the fantastic and the mundane. As with the Thousand and One Nights, which so often — and yes, clompingly — mentions things like which vegetables were just bought or who the monarch was at a given time, the modern fantasy novel’s nerdy attendance to world-building gives it a strange mimetic heft not present in, say, fairy tales.

Like a detailed model railroad the size of a football field, or a small city of fully furnished dollhouses, the well-built fantasy world astonishes us with the vastness of its intricacies. And from this wood, paint, cloth, metal, and hours and hours of painstaking nerds’ work, a kind of magic is made.

Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and was selected as one of Barnes and Noble Book Club’s Best Fantasies of 2012. You can find him online at


3 comments on “At Home In Fantasy’s Nerd-Built Worlds!

  1. Becca Mills
    January 7, 2013

    Totally agree about the centrality of world-building to fantasy. We can credit Tolkien with one of the seminal insights on how to do it effectively: for God’s sake, don’t try to explain everything! Create a sense of history and shared culture undergirding the fantasy world. For instance, in real life, I might mention World War I in conversation without stopping to explain what it was. Why would I? The person I’m speaking to already knows because we share the same world and, therefore, a body of knowledge, a shared past. When fantasy characters are shown to share a body of cultural knowledge and history in this way, the reader senses the fantasy world’s depth, and therefore its realism. The depth comes from the fact that the reader is inevitably trapped near the surface, in the present, yet she *knows* there’s more down there. Ideally, much more. Tolkien’s work in this area is the best ever — perhaps because he had in fact developed much of his world’s past. When you read Lord of the Rings, which is set in his world’s late history, you get the sense of an almost oceanic past beneath the surface. Beneath the adventure and heroics runs a powerfully elegaic current — this is an old world, and much has been lost. It tantalizes you because you’re an outsider and therefore don’t share it, cannot quite reach it. Now *that* is world-building.

    • John Adams
      January 7, 2013

      So agreed. Very good analysis, and I’ll take you one further…

      The opportunities to explore the *archetypal* qualities of life and human nature (your “body of cultural knowledge”) by stripping away all the noise, chatter, and distraction of real life allows us to not only share, but discuss, evalute, play out various scenarios, measure our morality and ethics, laugh, and marvel at one of the main reasons humans stand out from all other creatures on the planet…our Imaginations.

    • Mary Hughes
      January 7, 2013

      John Adams, Becca Mills, & Saladin Ahmed: wow – such an extraordinarily well-written article & insightful, well-written comments! It was a pleasure reading them.

      John Adams: True. Though I’d say at least some animals dream & might be able to imagine themselves doing things they would like to be doing. If you’ve ever seen a family dog in REM sleep w/his or her legs starting to do running motions, you realize that the dog might be dreaming that s/he’s back at the park or back in the country running free again as s/he had actually enjoyed doing before. And remember Coco the guerilla using sign-language to communicate that he wanted to visit with & play with his real-life kitten ‘Ball’ again.

      So, while awake, some animals – I think – can remember doing something just for the pleasure of the memory & a desire to do it again, which can be said to be imagination. But creating totally new experiences in our minds & in ways that wouldn’t or couldn’t happen in our world as we know it – & in our own lives as we know them – is the extra step in human fantasy/imagination. I can’t imagine other animals creating fantasy worlds in their minds like that just for fun & for other things that humans get out of it – for ex, as you said – the ability to play out various scenarios & evaluate things & to measure our morality, ethics, etc. – & just to ‘experience’ things we wouldn’t otherwise. By the way, not all people are nerds who truly appreciate literature, fiction in general, & fantasy-fiction or sci-fi. There’s a reason Star Trek fans came up w/the term ‘Trekkers’ as an alternative to ‘Trekkies’ to describe some fans. Both terms describe serious fans who love Star Trek, but only ‘Trekkies’ refers to fans that many would say go too far & get too nerdy in almost not knowing the difference between fantasy & reality & taking the fictional world too seriously. Trekkies include people who’ve Actually spent time in their lives to (I would say ridiculously) learn an entire fictional language of ‘Klingon.’ They’re also likely to own Trek uniforms that they’re likely to wear at least sometimes. Personally, I’m a Trekker – definitely not a Trekkie.

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This entry was posted on January 7, 2013 by in Literature and tagged .
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