There’s an obsession over world-building among a certain kind of SFF nerds. There’s a whole subreddit devoted to it. Much of what makes Tolkien so appealing to a certain kind of nerds is “world-building,” which is to say a bunch of useless made-up trivia. Because this, we should keep in perspective, is all it is. It is not culture, because it doesn’t contribute anything to any culture at large and generally relevant not even to all of SFF nerds, but to a select group: the specific fandom of a specific author or franchise. It is not useful, because it’s–well, a bunch of useless made-up trivia. It is not inherently valuable, because it is useless made-up trivia.
Let’s address this breed of nerds: geeks who identify as geeks with a capital G. They are people who make being a geek an essential part of their identities. It’s all they talk about upon meeting strangers. They make it their personalities. They integrate their fandom into themselves, rather than leaving it what it is: a hobby.
There are things that can be said for secondary worlds being useful for speculative experiments (socio-political, alt-historical, and many others), for imagination, for metaphor and allegory, but the obsession these geeks have with world-building is not so much for the imaginative, the speculative, or even the interesting: it is to do with sheer volume. It’s not that this world or that is unusual or exceptional in its imaginative qualities. It’s not even that all the little details cohere and make for a believable secondary world. No, it’s that there is a fucking lot of it. Ask a diehard Tolkien fan about “world-building.” Prepare to drown in a deluge of mindless praise for Tolkien’s Finnish copypasta, the maps, the letters, the unpublishable writing that gets published anyway because the Tolkien Estate is hungry for cash, the minutiae in the appendices and basically, the verbal vomit of his “legendarium” (and this word will crop up a lot: when you see it, run). There’s nothing much of quality in there, but there sure is a lot of quantity. This love of word vomit is the driving force behind nerds’ love of D&D and its many marketing campaigns–sorry, settings–and similar other franchises designed to sell merchandise. A similar admiration exists for one Ed Greenwood, a gross creepy old man and the creator of Forgotten Realms, not because he is a writer of great craft–he is a producer of the worst sort of verbal diarrhea, not that his fans will admit it–but because he’s churned out a vast amount of material related to his intellectual property, a fair portion of them having to do with fap-fodder (ctrl + f for “breasts”; as a bonus, take a minute out of your day to read this review of one of his self-insert books starring fantasy writer Rod Everlar who sells his fantasy out to a company named Hasbr–uhm, Holdencorp).
There’s nothing wrong per se with world-building, or even an enthusiasm for it, because as I said it could serve many useful purposes. But you’d be kidding yourself if you think the vast majority of the “world-building” that nerds like to do is imaginative or concerned with–say–how an ecosystem that can sustain giant flying lizards might really look like or how language affects thought. It’s not even about how certain kinds of technology appearing earlier than they do in our world might shape the course of history. Rather, the bulk of “world-building” nerds like to do is shit like this. In short it’s mostly gibberish, in long it’s identikit claptrap put together from a patchwork of sources that are themselves derivative. It’s a derivation of a derivation. Yet the practice of world-building is itself held up as inherently valuable, when it patently is not. The average SFF ape is just as liable to praise a book for its strong plot or characterization as for its astounding “world-building,” except who am I kidding? To many SFF fans (the type who identify as a fan, as part of their honest-to-goodness identity and personality) even strong plot or characterization–let alone such lofty a thing as the quality of prose–fades in importance next to that holy grail of nerdism: world-building. Fake geography. Fake “cultures” which are generally thinly-veiled copypasta of existing real-world ones. Terrible, terrible made-up names:
Arskrelthe the Old Guardsword
Elgorn Rhauligan, minor palace servant
Ganrahast, Royal Magician of Cormyr
Lord Rothglar Illance
Ill lance, I ask you. Arse-krel-the? The trouble with most people who do this is that they don’t know anything about anything, and their conlangs are often of the Mando’a variant–
Ke jorhaa’ir Mando’a!
Traat’aliit gar besbe’trayc
Ni su’cuyi, gar kyr’adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum
Ke narir haar’ke’gyce rol’eta resol!
It’s just so, so very embarrassing and so, so very obviously vomited up by someone who’s not only not a linguist but who has never even studied a foreign language. Such is the way of the SFF nerd: they learn not by research or education, but by absorbing tidbits from other nerds and pop culture, and in the case of conlangs or fantasy names what they’ve absorbed is “ADD APOSTROPHES TO ALL THE THINGS” and “unpronouncable idiocy” in the vague hope that it’ll come off as magical, majestic and enigmatic.
But these are the symptoms, not the disease. Just what is it that drives so many of these nerds–often from majority cultures, often white westerners–to take up such an abiding passion for useless made-up trivia? It’s, as I have already pointed out, certainly not evidence of an active imagination since the shit they love and the shit they produce is execrable dross.
The answer, it seems to me, is geek culture.
Many white western nerds have never experienced culture beyond one driven by popular media and mass marketing. Star Wars and Star Trek are their uniting forces, late-night D&D sessions their shared rituals, being the first in line to buy BlizzCon tickets–and cramming ten to a hotel room–their bonding experiences. Now of course these people absorb some “culture” in their odyssey toward mindless consumption of utter piss. It’s why there’s such a proliferation of Arthuriana, Norse gods reincarnating in high schools, and steampunk, which speaks for itself (mostly “we want to revel in the nostalgia of imperialism, aren’t corsets awesome?”). But it is all, again, absorbed via pop culture and possibly a glance at wikipedia, not research or even the source material. Geeks read Tolkien and American Gods; they don’t read Old English verses or the Eddas. Geeks watch Merlin, not read Malory. In fact many genre die-hards have a near-pathological fear of the western literary canon: and while, on one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that if said canon isn’t relevant to you anyway–say if you aren’t part of the white western cultural hegemony (in which case rejecting the western canon is only to the good)–it’s on the other remarkable that many members of said hegemony live in such terror of it. SFF readers break into hives at the very idea of reading anything on a respectable academic syllabus, and clamor for a class to study Stephen King instead and write theses on Harry Potter or George R. R. Martin, which they insist must be taken with deathly seriousness because god fucking damn it Harry Potter is universally relevant and Martin sold so many more copies than Hemingway didn’t you know and The Hunger Games is real literature just like The Bluest Eye in fact it’s BETTER literature because it gets kids to read and doesn’t have any of that ICKY RACIAL BAGGAGE!!!
(Please read that in a voice increasingly high-pitched as the genre reader in question loses their shit and works themselves up to a fit of unrestrained testeria. Incidentally, when anyone wants to talk about how awesome it is that Rue is black? Remember that she–a black girl–is fridged explicitly to motivate Katniss, who is so white she could pose in a motivational neo-nazi poster? Yes, she has “olive” skin. Lots of whites do. Katniss’ full-blooded sister Prim is a blue-eyed blonde, as is their mother.)
There’s a love-hate relationship genre fans have with culture–not even culture created, for instance, by women of color or queer people: SFF fans are scared even of canonized works by straight white males, recognized and recommended by other straight white males. Ask any genre-locked manchild if they’d sooner read Patrick Rothfuss or Paradise Lost and you can probably guess the answer. There are nerds who honestly believe Rothfuss is the height not only of the genre (no) but also the very apex of literary prowess (nope) who has at some point produced “beautifully written, exciting prose,” and who’d read George R. R. Martin–pink masts and all–before they’d so much as glance at Pale Fire. At the same time they flock to any part of canon they believe is sympathetic to their limited, narrow, and entirely boring interests–hence, as aforementioned, the fascination with certain parts of mythology, the clinging-for-dear-life of Arthuriana. But in all likelihood they’ll still not read the actual texts, because The Silmarillion is something they consider intellectually challenging reading, the end-all be-all of a difficult text to conquer after which they can ever after lord it over Harry Potter fans, because obviously Tolkien is the master of literature whereas Rowling is, like, mainstream lowest-common-denominator crap, man.
The other symptom of this disease (and frequently they are comorbid) is cultural appropriation. Again, the root cause is geek culture, geek pride (and also the white western hegemony, but that is a given): the tendency to latch onto “cool” stuff without delving any further than that. Liz Williams botches up Chinese mythology grandly and throws in some random bits of Japanese into the mix because hey East Asia is all the same, eh? Bacigalupi can’t even manage to get Thai right on the very first page of his manuscript. This is the plague of foreigners looking in, itself already prevalent among travelogues about Exotic Thirdworldia written by honky animals, but combine the geeky love of superficiality, the thoughtless impulse to seize on “awesome” things that look or sound cool, and what you get will always be a disaster of stereotypes, fucking awful research, and an absolute lack of giving-a-shit that they’re writing about a real culture lived by real people. The exotic and the cool and the neat take priority. Flavors and garnishes for their otherwise vapid “imagination” can be had mix-and-matched while ignoring their context, meaning and value. Isn’t “tsarpunk” cool? And if anyone calls you out for it, no worries; there are other mindless geek drones ready to spring to your defense! “It isn’t really Russia, it’s RAVKA, the made-up world!” Or it is not Thailand, but a futuristic imagining with random anachronisms mashed in (and Paolo Bacigalupi doesn’t even wait for a fan to do this; he preemptively says something in that vein in his own fucking afterword).
It’s like nothing so much as an instant fascination with lightsabers because lightsabers are shiny and loud, but instead of some shiny loud fictional thing geeks expand to matters that aren’t so fictional. When they’re done with the Tudors or Arthuriana or steampunk (and sometimes even when they are’t done; see comorbidity and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone) they discover the rest of the world exists, and proceed to rifle through it looking for things that are as shiny as lightsabers in blithe regard of anything else.
It’s a desperate bid to seem less boring, an effort born of a realization deep down that if you make “I like these movies and those books” your entire personality what you will be is absolutely fucking dull. Geeks who make “geek” their personality rather than merely a hobby, who take pride in belonging to SFF fandom, who take pride in the act of mindless consumption and mindless replication seize onto bits of culture in a desperate bid to become less banal. They vomit up map after map, PDF after PDF of imaginary histories, and by both their simple existence and their quantity they want you to believe this dribble is inherently worth something. They are “proud” of the apostrophe-ridden conlang they made up. They are “proud” of watery excrement they cobbled together by looking up furred hats and vodka on wikipedia. Because this is all they have to take pride in.
PS. Before anyone reading this starts pitching a fit: yes, yes, there are secondary worlds which are interesting and imaginative, I’ve covered that. No, not all cultural appropriation happens because you’re a geek and some happens even when some dumb outsider has done tons of research. Blah blah blah. I’m sure someone will care about your outrage, how about your D&D group?