Novel-tea: Can you really show me the world?
I recently finished “Rabbits” by Terry Miles, a book that was just good enough to make me binge-read it. I would describe it as a better "Ready Player One" with 100 percent less misogyny. While I wouldn't call it “genre-defining,” it was a pretty good modern science-fiction book that leans into many different sci-fi topics. But what did I think was its problem? The worldbuilding could have been so much better.
Throughout “Rabbits,” Miles builds the world through stories and flashbacks from the main character. The reader is introduced to the concept of “Rabbits” (something I won’t get into, but definitely give the book a read to find out) as the main character is giving a speech about it. This is lazy storytelling, and it definitely hurt my opinion of the book. There are several other instances where the author is forced to establish something about the world in this manner, and it just feels lazy.
I feel like this problem becomes very relevant in plot-driven sci-fi books — the author doesn’t know how to express some key feature of the world that the story relies on, so they shoehorn it into some form of monologue. At the same time, it’s sometimes necessary for the reader to get a grip on the world they are reading about. For instance, “Dune” is so different from the real world and of such a large scale that it would be almost impossible for the reader to get a full sense of the world just through the main character’s experiences.
While it might be necessary to do this some times, I think “Dune” handles it pretty well. The basics of some in-world concepts need to be explained (the role of Arrakis and the Bene Gesserit), but the more complex aspects are shown through the actions and interactions of the characters with the world — I didn’t feel like I was constantly being spoon-fed information to flesh out the world.
I’m also a huge fan of books that take an “in media res” approach to developing the world. “In media res” means starting in the middle of things happening and then building the world around those events. “The Game-Players of Titan” by Phillip K. Dick takes this approach. I’m a huge fan of books that make the reader ask questions about the world and then slowly give those answers throughout the book. In “The Game-Players of Titan,” the reader immediately wants to know how exactly someone can lose the town of Berkley when gambling or how you need to roll an eleven to get a new wife. Books that can set up a world where the reader wants to know more are doing it right.
I also acknowledge that sometimes it’s okay to just dump some information about the world and move on. This works for books that are much more focused on characters rather than a plot. Character-driven books focus a lot more on the interactions between characters (and sometimes the world), and writers should take into account how much they care about their world and how familiar the reader should be with it. Take, for instance, “They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera. It’s a fairly familiar world where the only difference is people are told on the day they die that they are going to die. The book doesn’t need to focus much on the world because it’s familiar to the reader and it follows the interactions between the characters rather than the characters and the world.
World-building is such an important part of science-fiction and it’s frustrating when it’s not done well, especially if the book’s premise is good. Readers shouldn’t have to suffer through a great story with a subpar world.