But first, a clarification, since I managed a really concise explanation in a reply to someone's comment:
There's a difference, for me, between world-building and the simple necessity of good grounding. The way I use the words (and I freely admit I'm highly Humpty-Dumptyish in picking my definitions), 'world-building' applies specifically to stories set in worlds which are meant to be alien to the reader.
Grounding, and the use of telling detail (which matociquala explains far better than I ever could), is just good craft--part of telling a story well. World-building is part of telling a particular KIND of story well.
Evoking the world your characters live in is not world-building; it's grounding. World-building comes in if the world you're evoking is one you believe to be alien to your intended audience.
This is really easy to figure out in sf/f, because we're writing in worlds that don't exist outside our own fevered imaginations; it's easy in historical fiction taking place more than, oh, fifty years ago. It's tricky in fiction set in a time contemporaneous with the author, or in the recent past, and depends entirely on how the author approaches the temporal/cultural setting she has chosen.
But since I'm a specfic writer, we can leave that Gordian knot the hell alone. (Though if anyone wants to carry it off like a bone and worry at it, please feel free--it's just not an aspect of the question I find particularly compelling my own self.)
I said, in my previous post
: "I'm cavalierly lumping science fiction and fantasy together for the moment, although there are ways in which the world-building each genre requires is quite different." And kateelliott
quite promptly and properly called me on it, wanting to know what those differences are.
Again, ObDisclaimer, this is all my opinion. I'm not saying this is How Things Are, or How Things Should Be; I'm just saying this is How Things Look To Me. And I should probably talk about my own subject-position here, which is that of someone who happily reads both science fiction and fantasy, but who falls very much under the purview of Clarke's Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic as far as my gullibility is concerned. It takes really screamingly
bad science to get my attention; mostly I'm absolutely happy to take it on faith that the science works the way the author tells me it does. (It will not surprise you to learn that hard sf is not so much my cup of tea; even if I were more scientifically minded, that would be true, because I'm always
more interested in the characters and the societies than I am in the tech.) When I write science fiction myself, which I do very rarely, my stance is much like that of Ray Bradbury, who said of The Martian Chronicles
: "There are rocket ships. That's all you need to know." (And I'm sure I'm paraphrasing atrociously, but that's the gist of it.)
But. There is
a difference between the world-building in fantasy and the world-building in science fiction (although, like every other genre distinction in the world, it can be collapsed if you want to, and there are some stories I'm working on that are trying to do just that), and that difference is actually the refutation of Clarke's Law. Technology and magic are
distinguishable, because the world-building they engender supports different kinds of stories. Characters and cultures (and authors) interact differently with a world that is predicated on technology from a world which is predicated on magic. I don't know if I'm going to be able to articulate the difference, but it's there. And I'd argue it's there because science fiction, by definition, is the fiction of machines.
It's an oversimplification to say that sf deals with the consequences of the Industrial Revolution while fantasy denies the Industrial Revolution ever took place. But it's an oversimplification with a grain of truth at its heart, like a pearl. Science fiction is about human beings' relationship with technology, with the machines we build. In this sense, Frankenstein
is very much a science fiction story; the monster is a machine made of flesh and blood, but he is a machine, created by a man.
Fantasy, on the other hand, tries to imagine worlds in which the machine never came to power--sometimes simply by creating a society that hasn't gotten there yet, sometimes by offering an alternative to the machine. Magic may be very mechanical in its operations (depending, she says cattily, on how heavily influenced the author was by AD&D), but it is always based in the flesh and blood of the wizard. There's a terribly weird way (and yes, I am making my own brain hurt) in which fantasy is always Marxist, because it refuses the alienation between the worker and his work caused by the advent of machines. Wizards' power is not displaced into technology; it remains in their bodies, in their minds. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in Fantasia
, like Frankenstein
, is science fiction by this highly idiosyncratic definition, because the apprentice is very definitely alienated from his work--but, like Tolkien, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" rejects industrialization in the end, as the sorcerer regains control, reasserts the identity between power and practitioner.
Science fiction, if it is the fiction of machines, is also the fiction of alienation. I don't think it's any accident that dystopias are also generally science fiction; the two go together. Fantasy is the dream of the alienated, the attempt to re-imagine a world that does not cause the alienation of the self. This would be why fantasy, in the aggregate, tends to retreat towards the more solipsistic world-view of cod-medieval feudalism: socially, cosmologically, epistemologically, everyone has a place
, and that place isn't defined (as it was in real history) by ideology and economics and the machinations of those in power, but by the inherent nature of the world.
Now, obviously, not all fantasy does this, just as not all science fiction is about alienation. But, very broadly, those are the directions the two genres pull in. And thus, the worlds those genres create are different; although the prose techniques of world-building remain the same, the worlds they build feel
different. Science fiction, to me, always smells very faintly of engine oil and isopropyl alcohol. Fantasy smells of stone and cold water. And thus the world-building diverges before I even begin.