What's the Difference Between a Good Setting and Pointless World-Building?


A lot of genre fiction can feel like its characters exist to showcase an elaborately constructed world and a detailed fictional history—Netflix’s Altered Carbon seems to struggle with this.

It’s been a while since I read the book, but that seems to be pretty much in-line with what I remember of Richard K. Morgan’s style. Exactly the kind of cyberpunk that Austin has criticized in the past - chrome and neon, signifying nothing.

What are your favorite examples of well-built fictional settings? How did they make themselves convincing to you?

Have you guys heard of this anime called Legend of the Galactic Heroes…?


Been mulling this over since I read this post yesterday, it’s a problem that comes up all the time in storytelling.
It must be especially difficult when you’ve got an episodic television series to start. Sometimes I dread starting a new genre show, anticipating the awkwardness… 1/2 an hour to quickly establish the setting, characters, etc.
Authors handle it in all sorts of different ways…one that works well in the comic format is to have footnotes, or extra stories at the end of an issue that flesh out the world. Alan Moore is fond of doing this. The footnote section in Carla Speed Mcneil’s Finder is amazing now that I think about it.


You want possibly pointless levels of world building? Read A Clockwork Orange. I read that in highschool I think. It’s written in its own fictional melange language. Thing is, you’ll mostly understand it by half-way through. It’s total immersion. Is that smart or dumb? I honestly don’t know, but it’s different. I recommend it.


I generally enjoy this sort of linguistic invention and thought it helped flesh out the messed up youth culture described in the book. Another example that comes to mind is the last/middle story in Cloud Atlas which is set in post-apocolyptic Hawaii and it’s written in a weird pidgin English.

In less sci-fi/fantasy I also really loved A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James which is told from a number of viewpoints over decades in Jamaica. Difficult to read at first given the amount of unfamiliar slang but it really does so much for the characters and as a result, the setting.


I really loved The City and the City but is this description not a MASSIVE spoiler? Like, the book leaves the mechanics of the two cities completely open to interpretation until the very end. Are they in the same physical space? Are they parallel universes? Some sort of quantum shift? How does Breach act with almost supernatural speed and omnipotence? Are they gods? Aliens?

It’s not until the final pursuit that it’s all laid bare, but you just explained this key detail as if it was part of the book jacket.


Clockwork Orange’s melange is pretty much just transliterated Russian. I assume you might know that, but as a beginning Russian student I was shocked, and then annoyed that I’d always heard of the language as “invented”, when nouns and verbs are just taken wholesale.

A little annoying too that Russian is used as a sign of societal decline, when it’s as beautiful as any language


I guess it may be because I read this before I got too far in the book but I’m very certain that it’s suggested several times that the split in the city was historical and I definitely assumed the entire book that the separate cities were plausible within our own reality.


Gotta disagree on The City and the City, one of the first things that impressed me in the story was how upfront it was about how the two places coexisted from nearly the beginning of the story. It is made very clear that the separation of the two cities is an entirely human construct and not mystical or science fiction in origin. About the only thing not deeply elaborated on until near the end is the Breach.


I bought a copy in the past couple of years and while I don’t have it in front of me, I am pretty sure something like this is literally on the back cover, or at least in the first chapter.


You all had me convinced that I had basically read The City and The City wrong, but then I found this review:

Each of these represent a leveling-up in our understanding of the city, another veil tugged aside to reveal the true nature of the city. And the more we learn about it, the clearer it becomes that that truth is entirely mundane, that there is no magic mandating the separation of the cities or the existence of Breach, but simply tradition and human perversity.

What Niall and Dan read as confusion, however, I see as a deliberate, and purposeful, dismantling of the fantasy genre and its core assumptions. …The better, I believe, to thoroughly undermine the genre when it’s revealed that there is no border between the cities except in their inhabitants’ minds, and that Breach is no more magical than any other civil authority

And then this interview with Mieville:

This is impossible to talk about without getting into spoiler territory…

But, yes, the overtly fantastical element just ebbed and ebbed, becoming more suggestive and uncertain. Although it’s written in such a way that there is still ambiguity—and some readers are very insistent on focusing on that ambiguity and insisting on it—at the same time, I think it’s a book, like all of my books, for which, on the question of the fantastic, you might want to take a kind of Occam’s razor approach.

So I can at least take solace that if I am a complete idiot, at least I’m not alone.


Sorry if it seemed like I was piling on, I didn’t mean any offense. I remembered the reveal of the nature of the two cities as kind of a big info bomb from the start, but thinking back it was a slower reveal of just how mundane the actual situation was.

Not exactly the same, but the first time I watched Contact I spent the entire film thinking that William Fichner’s character had some kind of disorder or was just really eccentric. Only at the very end when he says something like," smell you later," did I realize that he was blind, hence a cane and always looking a little off from where he should be. It was embarrassing when I yelled out," Oh! He’s blind!" in the theater.


I don’t think that at all! I think I benefited from reading the brief synopsis at the top but I will say I think the fantastical elements they might be referring to are the actual existence of Orciny and how it turns out to be complete fiction. That’s just my onions though.


No worries! I was just panicking that I had seriously misread one of my favorite books of the last few years. Now I’m willing to accept that I didn’t miss anything, exactly, I just interpreted it a little differently.

The Orsiny/ancient technology parts are definitely what had me thinking there could be something more to The Cleavage than just, like, people ignoring each other like when you’re walking down the hall at work and see someone you don’t want to talk to so you just keep looking straight ahead like the other side of the hall doesn’t exist.


Wait which Godzilla was this? Shin Godzilla? Because I loved Shin Godzilla. It was like a real-time bureaucracy procedural about disaster response and co-operation. We saw it in theaters!


Fichtner is basically playing a real guy! The character in the movie is just named Kent, and he’s based on Kent Cullers, who was an important early figure in SETI. He may have been the first astronomer in history to have been born blind. Radio telescopes are neat.


I really remembered it being totally out front too, woops.

Maybe it was just my brain going “Oh it’s Mieville so of course that’s the thing”.


It’s not. It’s a 1.5h animated feature, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Shin Godzilla was AWESOME


There’s a new animated film on there that’s just called GODZILLA (to match the other two films on there just called Godzilla). Despite 90% of it being exposition, I couldn’t even follow it half the time. Like, it took me about half way through the movie to realize humanity had teamed up with a second alien race. I also could not explain to you what their plan was to defeat Godzilla, despite listening to it and then also watching it.

Shin Godzilla was a very good film that was not any of those bad things and needs to be on Netflix immediately.


In the work i’ve written and critiqued the difference between good and bad world-building is simply relevance. In my workshops an imaginative and hard-working writer would spend hours thinking about their fictional setting, making notes while eating dinner and on the way to class, come up with political factions and detailed legends and history. They wrote all that into their fiction project where it read terribly. Basically you need to do all that development work and then only use the smallest fraction in the text of the story itself to lend verisimilitude to the characters’ emotional and physical circumstances.

I think Neal Stephenson plays chicken at the cliff of this. He’s willing to do a whole tangential chapter about, for instance, spying on a computer screen via the radiation it emits when it will not be relevant for hundreds of pages. You find yourself reading a secondary character’s erotic fiction and thinking to yourself, “How did i get here?” Most of the time it does pay off in a satisfying way, and so these tangents when you find them become games of Spot the Chekhov’s Gun.


Thanks for the info. I had no idea! I’ll look him up.