Science Fiction & Fantasy: More Than Just a World?

american gods

As I wrote in “Why I Write Science Fiction & Fantasy,” one of my favorite aspects of the science fiction and fantasy genres is their imaginative world building. Whether reading or writing, I love being transported to an entirely new realm, or thrown into a version of Earth I barely recognize. Often, I’m “sold” on a book or movie simply on its world. For example, before I read Wool by Hugh Howey, all I knew was that it takes place in an underground silo in a dystopian-type world. That was enough to hook me — and Howey delivered on his gripping world, and so much more.

And that’s what I want to talk about today. The more. If you’re my friend on Goodreads or notice the widgets on my blog, you might see that at the time of this writing, I’m about 200 pages into Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And I have been. For weeks.

I was sold on the concept of American Gods immediately. The various deities of world religions are real? They walk among us? The main character essentially road trips with them around the U.S.? Yes, yes, and hell yes.

But as I started reading the novel, I found myself struggling to get from one page to the next. As a protagonist, Shadow feels emotionally detached from his own life. And sure, I’ll grant that prison and tragedy can do that to a person — but I find him dull. Likewise, while Gaiman is a talented writer, the plot seems to move at a glacial pace. As for the mythology — yes, it’s fantastic. Though as someone who is interested in mythology but does not actively study it, I know there are dozens of references I’m missing. And that’s frustrating.

I’ve discussed American Gods with a few of my friends. When I express the above issues, they say “Oh, yeah, I agree. But isn’t the world awesome?” Which, yes, it is. Great concept. We’ve all said it a thousand times.

So, fellow science fiction and fantasy readers and writers, my question is: Is having a fascinating world enough for a sci-fi/fantasy novel?

Now, if you disagree with my feelings on American Gods, don’t let that cloud your answer to the question. I’m sure you can come up with your own example of a killer world with dry characters and an unengaging plot. Another one of mine? The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The Axis Powers won World War II? Fascinating. The plot and characters? Not so much. (I know, I know. What kind of SFF writer am I?) Feel free to share your example in the comments.

sci fiPersonally, I don’t think a great world is enough. Should a sci-fi/fantasy story have an original world or inventive driving concept? Yes. I think it’s, arguably, the entire point of the genre. That being said, I don’t think a story can rely on a world alone. As a reader, I need characters that I can love or love to hate. I need a plot that feels purposeful from almost the beginning of the book, if not the first 100 pages. I prefer a dash of action, a tangible subplot, and on a purely structural basis, chapters that aren’t 50 pages long.

In my own writing, I try to hit all of these points. I like to think that a steampunk world without steam is a strong enough concept to enthrall sci-fi and fantasy fans. And I tried to make Aya and the supporting characters engaging, complex, and flawed. I hope the plot is clear and stimulating, even though the action is more covert than sword-wielding. To some people, I will succeed. To others, I’ll probably be their American Gods (and not in the good way). But hey, art is subjective.

I’d like to close with a caveat. Obviously, I have not finished American Gods yet. Maybe, when I get to the 250 or 300 page mark, the story will pick up, Shadow will take some initiative, and the plot will chug along more quickly. I fully recognize that I could love this book and bow down to its genius with my other sci-fi/fantasy fans. I’ll finish it — but I have feeling it’s going to be a slog.

So give me your two cents on this.

Can a science fiction or fantasy book rest purely on its world? What makes a truly great sci-fi/fantasy story for you? Are there any “classics” that you find dull? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Kate M. Colby is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction. When she is not writing or working, Kate enjoys playing video games, antiquing, and wine tasting. She lives in the United States with her husband and furry children.

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Posted in Fiction Blog, Musings & Bookish Things, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Geeky Things
26 comments on “Science Fiction & Fantasy: More Than Just a World?
  1. Whitney says:

    Sci-fi and fantasy alike need the cool world building to let it fit in their respective categories, but books that have cool backdrops but wimpy storytelling or characters does nothing for me. For me, sci-fi and fantasy are stories that are still relatable, no matter if the main character has magical abilities or Chewbacca for an ally. I think the world building is what gets readers into the book, but the actual writing and character development is what gets readers to stay and read until the end.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I don’t generally read science fiction and fantasy but I’m sure you’re right that the world is not enough on its own. I loved HIs Dark Materials by Philip Pullman because it’s a great story with fascinating characters. The fact that it was set in an alternative world was definitely not the point, for me. How long is American Gods? Sometimes you’ve just gotta know when to quit 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You bring up another good point – that for a lot of people, the world comes second. I think that’s something writers in my genre should try to keep in mind. And it’s around 500 pages, but I’ve only ever quit one book without finishing (because it was so sad I couldn’t stop balling).

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  3. Jonas Lee says:

    The best backdrops of worlds and concepts will always be meh if the characters don’t engage us somehow. For me, A Darker Shade of Magic had a lot of the same. I liked the twisting concept of magic but the characters weren’t all that remarkable if they weren’t already a cookie-cutter version I’ve read in a half dozen other books.

    P.S. I listened to American Gods on Audible and that was all that saved me from not finishing it. Like you said, great concept I kept waiting on to develop somewhere else, but I never got the payoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you. To quote a well-known movie, ‘the world is not enough’!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The world is definitely not enough to keep a reader going. I read American Gods and I also thought Shadow was not the life of the book, but the characters around him held my interest along with the events of the story. I have knowledge of a lot of mythology and seeing Gaiman use them as well as the new gods, is what kept me reading. I enjoyed the book though. I hope you can finish it, but the Anansi Boys (another Gaiman book) has more protagonist flare if you want to give that one a try and keep in Gaiman’s library.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. While I disagree with you about Shadow, who is a favorite character of mine, I do know that feeling of reading a novel where the world fascinates me but the characters don’t . . .and I have trouble finishing those. I read primarily for story and characters, not worlds, though I love it when I can get both.

    One that didn’t work for me was Larry Niven’s Ringworld. I just couldn’t care about anyone, therefore I lost interest in the book. Compare that to Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, where a period of history that isn’t that interesting to me became fascinating through the eyes of great characters and an alternate history lens.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the great examples! I think it’s a true sign of a great author when s/he can do the reverse and make you care about a world you wouldn’t normally like. And I hope I can foster a little more Shadow appreciation later in the novel. I haven’t totally given up yet!

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  7. I agree, the story needs to shine also. But like everything in life, reading tastes are different so it’s hard to please everybody.

    What bugs me more than this is when writers use fantastical elements in novels, just to give it a twist, and everyone praises them. Specially when it feels like a tool to give it a hip vibe.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. psikeyhackr says:

    It sounds like you don’t care about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. But in the real world people need to know enough to make decisions about science and technology because of the power of its effects. Consider Fukushima and Global Warming.

    Like

    • I suppose the two fiction genres are very fluid for me. I probably should have included fantasy in the title of the post. And yes, I agree that science and technology is extremely important in reality, but that is a whole other discussion outside the breadth of this post.

      Like

  9. Steve Morris says:

    In my experience (haven’t read American Gods; the book description put me off) Gaiman is good on atmosphere, but weak on plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. frenchc1955 says:

    This is a book that does not follow the norms of storytelling, but I recommend that you work through it to the end. It has its own style and technique. I think it is brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Helen Jones says:

    A bit late to this post, Kate, but I agree with most of the other commenters that a fantasy world alone isn’t enough. I feel you can have a great story and characters without a fantasy world and still have a good book, but it doesn’t work the other way around. And omg I’m with you in that the concept for American Gods sounds amazing – what a shame you’re finding it such a disappointment.

    Liked by 1 person

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