Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

7 thoughts on “Secondary World Problems

  1. They’re a funny old thing, those secondary worlds. There are ones that set up camp in a completely ‘different’ world supposedly, than our own. And then there are those which try to cover themselves in a thin veneer of the fantastic slapped loosely (and often awkwardly) over our own.

    In the latter case, the ‘wizarding world of Harry Potter’ comes to mind. A place were we can vicariously be a part of a classist society of witches and muggles, wave our silly wands and save the day, or at least the interests of the right sort of wizard.

    The former is even more sweaty palmed in its creation, often little more than fantasy backdrops for fandom to play out their table top and online roleplaying fetishes.

    My very worst writing impulses have come from the second group cited above. Not that story is meaningful either, but even its tyranny isn’t more than a heap of beans compared to the loathsome habit of ‘world building.’ If you start writing by building your world before you bother with the rest of your book, you’ve not put the cart before the horse you’ve shoved both wheels sideways up its arse and yelled Tally ho!


  2. @mjohnharrison lays out some clear-eyed analysis of fantasy or secondary world building. Bringing in laterally among it, an oft overlooked point:

    Literary fiction employs secondary world creation, but often does a more fantastical job of it. Think of the ‘worlds’ of authors such as Kafka, Faulkner, Durrell, Calvino, Borges, Eco, or Pynchon – landscapes which have parallels but not slavish verisimilitude with the real world of which they are shadows.


  3. While I agree that world-building is, more often than not, a vain, grandiose popped pavlova of an effort, I don’t agree that it is a flawed idea in principle — it’s the motivation that matters.

    Let’s assume a SF&F writer invokes a fantasy world, but does so in order to disconnect the reader from the world in which they live, to give both writer and reader a more neutral space in which to introduce ideas, less stained by our daily experiences. In so doing, we think about the meaning and implications of events in this constructed world, in this disconnected space, and then we see the connection with our real world. We learn something and, of course, a good writer makes the learning-story enjoyable.

    If I may use JK Rowling as a positive, if pedestrian, example here (how dare I!) her world lets children and adult alike see the evil of judging someone because of what they can or cannot do. They reader feels the injustice, the bitterness and twisting blackness of being consumed by hate for mudbloods. Then the reader returns to the real world and sees more clearly the same dark path taken by racists and people who mock others for the physical or mental abilities. 

    So, I’d say SF&F doesn’t work when it’s *only* talking about “Pretend-world” (e.g. DnD wanklit), but it does work when it uses other, constructed worlds as a means to inform our understanding of this world in which we live, which is (I think) the entire reason we tell stories to each other.


  4. I do agree that worldbuilding can be a tricky thing when done in a self-conscious way by the writer, before they even tried to write anything. Especially if they have little knowledge of historiography, politics, sociology, and what generally makes the primary world more complex than a nifty coloured map with the Houses of the Four Winds at the centre and the Dragonlords at the edges, or whatever else may sound fantasy-ish. I tend to think that good worldbuilding is a natural side effect of good story-telling: when a writer knows what repercussions an alien element will have on an imagined society, and how little things affect the big picture, then the world can create itself with no need for awkward infodumping.

    Well, seems that now I really have to translate my dissertation quickly so I can send it to you ;)  (all right, five hundred pages on the mechanics of secondary worlds might be a bit of a poisonned gift, as we say in France, but hey…)

    PS: hope you’ve been well since Eastercon! ;)



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