Bear with me a moment, and suppose:
I lie. To a boss, say.
Fearing interrogation, I work out a strong web of supporting lies.
But my boss never asks; instead he happily takes my statement at face value. Perhaps it flatters him, or comforts, or justifies. In any case my careful post hoc calculations remain my secret.
As it happens, though, he ends up believing some of these unspoken supporting (false) claims as well, which after all handily strengthen what he 'knows' to be true (my original lie). And in a private moment he prides himself on having worked things out for himself.
Two questions, then. First: Was my private expansion of the original lie necessary? By which I mean, did my calculations change the experience that my boss and I shared? If you like, alter the scenario so that I concoct my supporting lies before making my initial false claim.
Second, Does my victim believe my version of the story, or some other story, coincidentally identical? Does it matter?
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.
Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.
--M. John Harrison
The difference between Harrison's reader and my imaginary boss is smaller than it might seem. Both want to be allowed to believe; even the contents of their future beliefs are shaped by private predispositions. Each entrusts part of his imagination to someone who turns out to be a fabulist. In both cases, the fabulist engages in an act of 'creation' that he misunderstands as other-directed, as generous (and generative), when its actual goal is self-satisfaction. If this misunderstanding didn't occur - if the fabulists were consciously aware that the output of their 'worldbuilding' activity was not better stories but a feeling of satisfied completism or correctness - the worldbuilding act might not even be possible. The impulse to keep spinning these lies, to 'exhaustively survey a place that isn't there,' partners with the delusion that the whole activity is 'for' something else - a fictional audience in a fictional future.
Worldbuilding is the story you tell yourself so you can tell someone else a different story. It's Nomar Garciaparra ritually tightening his gloves after every single pitch at the ballgame, or soldiers painting stupid slogans on the sides of missiles. It's the ludicrous mythology of heaven and hell - perhaps the most consequential act of fantasy worldbuilding in the history of mankind - justifying the state-building activities of priests who need to believe that they serve something other than themselves.
A means to mask intentions.
I've talked about this before in the specific context of tabletop roleplaying games. Less efficiently.
The tension, here, is between the popular idea that worldbuilding is a 'necessary part of storytelling' (e.g. that Tolkien's decades of obsessive fantasy-lexicography are important to the literary triumph of Lord of the Rings in the same way as his intuitive connection to Frodo Baggins's wartime loss of innocence) and the complicated, troubling, but ultimately much more clarifying notion that worldbuilding as commonly understood is orthogonal to storytelling. In the linked essay I suggested that good worldbuilding was a storytelling act, akin to deciding what to include in a dramatic script, and offered this text, from S. John Ross's wonderful Uresia: Grave of Heaven, as a sublime worldbuilding example:
Four gods are now known to have survived the Skyfall. There may be others, too, but there has been no sign of them in over a thousand years. The surviving gods are an odd mix of "unimportant" gods - morally ambiguous and largely unapproachable.
The Primal One: The god of animal urges - want, hunger, instinct, and lust. Some mistake her/him/it for "evil," but it's both above and beneath such things. It's the shadowy essence of the Id, and of unthinking motive impulse. It cares only for its native worshippers, the wild animals. Paradoxically, it's the secret ruler of a mortal kingdom.
The Sea Dragon: The serpentine goddess of wind and storm at sea, and the protector of the secrets of the deep. A fickle and destructive god, driven by alien motives and fond of drowning anything weak enough to require air to breathe. Villains who attempt to get on her good side end up just as drowned as anyone else. She commands a tiny secret cult of children.
The Arbiters: Their genders and personalities vary according to which culture you ask, but their area of concern is straightforward. They like any contest, as long as it is fair. They have no preference between violence and peace, or between right and wrong, so long as men are competing and striving for a judgment of victory. These cosmic referees inspire most Uresian kingdoms with an obsession for some kind of sport or contest.
The Wine God: In Helt, he is called Tom Beer, a laughing party-animal. In the Volenwood, she is Nysha, Goddess of the Vine, and the patron of the vintners' art. In Sindra, they call it Golu: The Shadow of Drunkards, a semi-sinister spectre of alcoholism, the dark image that the drunkard can only escape by plunging into darkness. Each representation of a facet of the whole truth, but that the Wine God makes more personal appearances in Helt than anywhere else tells Man something, even if it is only how he prefers to be seen.
That's the sum total of the Uresian cosmology. I love it. But note that it's almost worthless as a reference text, and is no more 'definitive' than a simple list ('surviving gods: animal urges, wind/sea, fair competition/balance, wine'). Its purpose is to illustrate the moral character and texture, not of the mythical land of Uresia, but rather of the stories the players will set there. What makes it 'worldbuilding' is the list, but what makes it wonderful is the story - the extent to which this bit of writing is contiguous with the act of storytelling in the Uresian frame.
Roleplaying gamers tend to be quite fond of complicated worked-out backstories, but these same gamers tend not to make full use of those backstories at the game table. Competent RPG play is primarily improvisatory; referring to backstory in the middle of a session is like interrupting a stage play to quote the dramaturge's note. Similarly, the same fantasy readers who praise J.R.R. Tolkien's 'extraordinary worldbuilding' will happily admit to getting five pages into the hundreds of pages of appendices to Lord of the Rings and giving up. (I'm one of these.) There's good stuff in there, but the novel itself resolves all the dilemmas it raises; the appendices start over somewhere else. They're another text, another kind of text. And while Joyce's various schemata for Ulysses are 'of interest' to Joyce fans, we're allowed to admit that noting the main body part 'associated with' each chapter of that novel - a standard Joycean academic exercise - has precious little to do with the story, the 'vivid and continuous dream' which the novel expends so much energy to maintain.
What I think of as 'good worldbuilding,' then, isn't really 'worldbuilding' in Harrison's sense of futilely exhaustive 'subcreation.' It's just one dimension of the discipline of writing, subservient to the storytelling act, and its stopping point is not a state of 'completeness' or even a particular arbitrary level of detail. The limit of worldbuilding is not the limit of the world.
If you identify your 'self' with your own high-level mental activity, your private mental reconstitution of the world from limited perception, then the last thing you want is for things to change - which would, after all, change you. Drama is change; gameplay is change. ('Play' isn't necessarily change, but then game and play are not equivalent. Far from it.) Effective dramatization requires ego-suppression. Worldbuilding gratifies the ego, which identifies the 'self' with its imaginative activity and is happy to see the imagined/constructed self augmented by 'subcreation.' (Tolkien is Middle-Earth in a way that Joyce absolutely is not Dublin.) Blah blah deductive logic, and we arrive back at: 'Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.'
The same goes for roleplaying games - like you give a damn. Media fandom too, of course, particularly among fanfic writers and 'shippers' for whom viewership is understood as a consciously editorial or oppositional act, and who zealously advocate for a particular revisionist take on (say) a TV depiction of a fictional relationship. But the same also goes, if you like, for politics: conspiracism and ideology are worldbuilding, self-gratification through the creation of ever more exhaustive imagined order. I wonder whether the same kind of argument is readily made in other domains. Huh...
At the risk of seeming unpleasantly earnest or just dippy, I'd ask you, in parting, to consider whether something like the worldbuilding impulse - which insists on logical consistency and indeed total predictability in the domain of the imagination - manifests in your own life (as it unquestionably does in mine), and under what circumstances. I'm not sure why I'm asking, frankly, but if you don't mind I'll flatter myself that the question comes out of a storytelling impulse, and wish you earnestly and even dippily well. Isn't nice nice?