The peril of worldbuilding

I am in constant awe of great works of the imagination. Westeros, Middle Earth, the Discworld. The culture and history that underpins Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Rowling’s fantastical realm of magic. Phillip Pullman’s subtle distortions of reality. Asimov’s and Douglas’ galaxy spanning stories. There are too many too list. Yet, it is precisely because of the childlike wonder these creations inspire that I am willing to overlook their obvious flaws.

For example, take the economics of Rowling’s wizarding society, something which Eliezer Yudkowsky pokes fun at in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Or consider the idealistic avoidance of mundane realities in Tolkien’s legendarium. They do not have empirical rigour—the infrastructure and mechanics of these societies would not function in reality. To explain why, read the following. It is a heuristic called Gall’s Law. It states:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

The creators of these worlds—because of the nature of their work—are forced to violate this rule of thumb because their creations spring from a single mind. It is the equivalent of an emperor having to dream up and explicitly define and describe the workings of his whole empire. It is impossible. No mind is vast enough to conceive of the millions of perfectly cut jigsaw pieces that must be assembled to create a thing resembling the Real World.

I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, but this is what some who disdain the worlds of fantasy of science fiction are really peeved about. They know, on some level, that anything other than reality is unreal and impossible. The processes of evolution, the give and take of creation and destruction, of survival and obliteration—these cannot be duplicated, and they have neither the will nor the ability to compel themselves to forget that. And as someone trying to create their own slice of something that doesn’t exist, I must keep this in mind.

True, my ambition is not as bold and as grand as these awe-inspiring others. But still, I would like my creations to have some sort of empirical rigour. For example, if I create a fictional institution, I would like that institution to at least be conceivable in reality. And for that to happen, I must constantly remind myself that the truest peril of worldbuilding, on any scale, is that is something that happens from the top-down, at the behest of a single authority otherwise known as the author. Whereas the world we know and sometimes love is brought about in reverse, from the bottom up and by the deeds of many millions of beings through many millions of moments.