Stephen King’s The Long Walk is a dystopian novel without a dystopia. The entire 1979 novel takes place during a walking contest to the death; when the young male participants are too tired to continue they are shot, and the last one still upright and moving forward wins.
The up-close details of the contest are rendered vividly — the participants walking backwards to urinate, since they can’t stop; the way the main character Garraty feels “the dew seep through his cracked shoes and paint his ankles,” the way each boy falls and dies along the road. But the world beyond that barely exists. Somewhere out there, vaguely, is a totalitarian United States ruled by a military leader called the Major. But how he gained power, or even what life is like outside of the road on which the Long Walk takes place, is never portrayed in any detail. Rather than build his own world, King just gestures vaguely in the direction of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and other science-fiction dystopias. It’s parasitic storytelling. You know how this kind of world looks, he says. Just sketch it in yourself.
Good science-fiction isn’t supposed to work that way, according to many experts. The insightful sci-fi author and critic Charlie Jane Anders, for example, wrote, “Worldbuilding is an essential part of any work of fiction. But especially for science fiction or fantasy, it’s the lifeblood of storytelling … when worldbuilding fails, it can wreck your whole story.”
The wonderful fantasy novelist Patricia C. Wrede has listed a dauntingly complete list of questions authors should ask themselves about the worlds they create, including “What shapes are tables/eating areas (round, oblong, square, rectangular, etc.)?” and “Are bedrooms on the top floors for privacy or on the ground floor for convenience?” Look at very successful and beloved science-fiction and fantasy, though, and you’ll find that the worldbuilding is often less thorough.
Consider Star Wars. Since the first film was released, Star Wars has become a sprawling franchise, with hundreds of creators and thousands upon thousands of fans carefully sketching out the details of Jedi hierarchy and Wookie history. Go back and watch the original film, though, and it’s striking how little effort there was to make the universe long, long ago and far, far away seem like a coherent, sensical whole.
How did the Empire seize power? How does it govern? What exactly is the Rebellion fighting for? Nationalist self-determination? Democracy? A restoration of monarchy? What’s up with droids anyway? Are they happy servants? A discriminated underclass? Are they even sentient?
The film doesn’t answer any of those questions. It just bumps along, nicking imagery from The Searchers here, stealing plot points from The Hidden Fortress and various adventure serials there, all the while conveniently signaling that the bad guys are bad guys by dressing them in black cloaks or literally naming them Stormtroopers. The world of Star Wars isn’t so much built as it is cobbled together from familiar tropes and baling wire. Vividly imagined landscapes or set pieces, like the wonderful cantina scene, are carefully arranged atop a pasteboard backdrop.
It’s easy to make fun of Star Wars‘ shoddy construction. Not only are there explosions in space, but spaceship engines roar exactly like they do in planetary atmosphere. That ramshackle half-assedness was a big part of the original’s charm. Sword-fights on starships, cowboys with blasters, Nazi-fighting princesses, giant shaggy space-dogs and gleaming British robots! Okay! Whatever! Whee!
Tolkien’s solemn Lord of the Rings gets gravitas from its detail; all the languages and the history and the careful maps add weight to what’s meant to be a weighty story. But Star Wars was a goof to begin with. Never meant to be load bearing in the same way as a Lord of the Rings, Star Wars still benefits from its improvisatory refusal to think things through, and the joy of discovering the next ridiculous, improbable thing that shouldn’t be there around the next planetoid. The holes in the world building (some filled with sarlaccs) are part of the fun. The franchise’s subsequent efforts to fill gaps in its history and mythology have only ensured that Star Wars will never recapture the exhilaration of that first film.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s world is similarly patchy, and for similar reasons. According to various Marvel movies, Tony Stark has invented cheap infinitely renewable energy and working artificial intelligence; Hank Pym has created reliable shrinking technology; Wakanda has miraculous medical tech and has decided to use its know-how to improve the world.
Any one of these advances would change our planet so radically as to make it virtually unrecognizable. And that in turn vitiates the premises of much MCU storytelling. Punisher’s gritty street level adventures aren’t going to make much sense in a city experiencing an unprecedented economic boom thanks to an influx of pseudo-magical technological advances. Would the abilities of Spider-man or Captain America even be all that impressive in a miraculous world of easily accessible technological miracles?
A serious world-builder would try to reconcile such contradictions — and as a result, many of the MCU movies and television shows would need to be scrapped. Superspies, space gods, sorcerers, and sentient robots don’t make much sense together, and all the megapowers whooshing about can cause logical problems, as they do I’d argue in the overstuffed Infinity War. If Thanos is worried about resource overuse, why don’t Stark and Pym just explain that between their advances in energy and matter, they’ve solved problem and Thanos can go away? (Or why doesn’t Thanos just make more planets, for that matter?)
Poor world building, then,can result in annoying plot inconsistencies. But it can also just be an excuse for whacky good times, as when Hulk unexpectedly and without much explanation barges into a Thor picture. Is there concrete world building that justifies the ability to suddenly create giant Hello Kitty pez dispensers? Hell no. That’s why giant Hello Kitty pez dispensers are awesome.
World building is meant to create a sense of realism, a grounded feeling that the reader or viewer is actually exploring a different realm, era, or universe convincingly comparable or extrapolated from their own. But part of the reason many people like science-fiction or fantasy is that it’s not realistic. They want to hear explosions in space, or see gods fight alongside ninjas. “I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued,” Philip K. Dick said, with some glee. Weak world building is often intentional; creators leave cracks in their worlds so that silliness and wonder can get through.
So poorly built worlds are often deliberately unrealistic. But they’re also, sometimes, more realistic than their better-constructed counterparts. After all, most people, most of the time, don’t know why the world works the way it does. We often aren’t even sure why the tables are that shape. Building a world gives you a god-like perspective, but most of us aren’t gods. We see through a glass-eye darkly, as Mark Twain put it. If your world makes too much sense, it doesn’t feel like the real world at all.
Which is why King’s The Long Walk would be a worse novel if the world-building were better. The book’s mood is one of claustrophobia and fear and confused desperation. There’s a lucrative if ill-defined prize for the winner of the contest. But many of the participants aren’t focused on the money. In fact they don’t know what they’re focused on. They walk out of nowhere into nowhere; “they didn’t think about it, they just did it.” Whatever is out there is a shadowy haze, too amorphous to grasp or understand. “Eyes blind, supplicating hands held out before him as if for alms, Garraty walked toward the dark figure.” He just puts one foot in front of the other, staring straight ahead, as the world no one built collapses indifferently around him.