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The Importance of Building a Believable World

I recently read a book that really annoyed me. It was well-written, with a well-constructed plot and believable characters. But it fell into a class of books that I am starting to realize almost always annoy me: it was a science-fiction book written by an author who doesn’t usually write in that genre.

This has happened before, but I’m just now figuring out that the problem I have with this group of books is general, and what that problem is. Basically, this sort of author often doesn’t take world-building seriously enough, and ends up constructing a universe that just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t obey the physical laws of our universe, but the author doesn’t give the reader any cues to indicate that we’re in some sort of alternate universe. Or there is a critical plot point that relies on a group of people (usually scientists) doing something that makes no sense for how that group is trained and tends to behave, but again we get no cues to explain why they might do something so strange. Worst of all are the stories in which the author constructs a world that isn’t even internally consistent.

I’ve been thinking about why this happens, and I have a theory. I think these authors want to explore some theme that is easiest to explore if they project the characters into a future of the author’s devising, and they are so focused on that theme and exploring how the characters react to whatever key issue has captured the author’s interest that the importance of world-building is overlooked. Also, I suspect the need to actually think about world-building is quite a change for authors who usually work in a world that they can assume their readers already know.

Whatever the reason for this problem, I’m discovering that it is an absolute deal-breaker for me in a book. I just cannot get past the fact that I think the entire book is taking place in an absolutely illogical universe. (Interesting question: how would I feel about a book that purposely builds an illogical universe? I’m not sure.)

I know plenty of people for whom this is not a deal-breaker. They know I like sci-fi, so they will often recommend sci-fi books by their favorite non-sci-fi authors. I can see that these books often have some other quality that makes them worth reading- but anytime I struggle past my annoyance with the illogical universe and read the book anyway, I am still annoyed and disappointed at the end of the book. I’ve started just abandoning books that fail so fundamentally on the world-building front.

I am not, however, giving up on all science fiction written by non-sci-fi authors. Every once and awhile I come across a gem. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for instance, includes some surprisingly well done sci-fi portions, and I really liked that book. But in general, I am suspicious of sci-fi books by authors who don’t usually write sci-fi. World-building, it turns out, isn’t as easy as it seems.

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