There are conflicting points of view within the field of speculative fantasy as to how one should approach world building when writing a novel. For some, Tolkien’s meticulously detailed approach is best; they desire a sense of mystery and implied history, for their glimpse of this world to intimate a vaster reality than the novel can capture. As Andrew Leonard said in a recent Salon article:

Give me… the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative.

Mr. Leonard proceeds to praise Steven Erikson’s GARDENS OF THE MOON series, saying:

Erikson is a master of lost and forgotten epochs, a weaver of ancient epics on a scale that would approach absurdity if it wasn’t so much fun. His time span ranges over hundreds of thousands of years. Races (both human and nonhuman), cultures, empires and even gods rise and fall. Vast struggles range across multiple continents and dimensions of time and space. There are so many fragments of myth, so many hints of back-story unending, and so little explained, that it is all the reader can do to comprehend what is going on, to hang on to the narrative as if clinging by one hand to the underbelly of a flying dragon.

One can imagine Erikson filling endless notebooks wherein he details these cultures, empires, and gods. Where he tracks the eons, where he details their mythology, slowly weaving an incredibly complex world that lures readers such as Mr. Leonard ever deeper into its apparent reality.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have writers such as M. John Harrison who wrote his Viriconium series with a completely different approach. In a famous essay, he said of his setting:

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).

Another great author, K.J. Bishop, said of her setting for ETCHED CITY:

I tended to use whatever my subconscious came up with, if it seemed to fit. I was usually just trying to create a climate, an impression. I hoped that if I described details now and then, the reader would fill in the rest to his or her own liking. 

So should one seek to emulate Tolkien, writing a vast history, creating actual fictional languages, mapping out their world from coast to coast? Tolkien, having been a trained philologist and academic was able to pull this off and create a sense of sublime and wondrous verisimilitude–too many other author have stumbled and created poor imitations, seeking to create that same sense of depth and magic. Or one could take Harrison’s approach, disdaining maps, histories, any detailing or explicating of the world beyond that which serves your narrative as allegory or vehicle for greater truth.

I’m trying to decide where I’m going to fall on this spectrum with my new project. The setting plays a decisive role in very nature of the story. As such, I’m tempted to do endless amounts of research on the Heian Court of 10th century Japan, learn all there is to know about the history of gas lighting, the development of the steam engine, the nature of mine shaft ventilation, the world of Victorian London, sexual dimorphism, the plot structure of The Wire, the world as experienced by the blind, and on and on and on, all with an eye toward world creation.

Yet Harrison would scoff at such endeavors if undertaken for their own right, and not harnessed to the purpose of philosophy, language, ideology. It’s as if, by seeking to flesh out my world as fully as possible, by seeking to make it as ‘real’ as possible under impossible circumstances, I am crossing a line and becoming crass, commercial, purblind and missing the point.

And yet. And yet. It is so much fun to follow lines of reasoning toward their logical end, to envision a vast chthonic city in all its improbability. Am I misunderstanding Harrison’s critique? Am I dooming myself to join the rank of amateurs who have sought to emulate Tolkien’s mastery? I suppose the only way to tell will be to judge my execution of this project.