I was listening to a back episode of Stop Podcasting Yourself and the two hosts got to talking with their guest about Sci-Fi, Fantasy, the differences between the genres and why they did or didn’t like them. This wasn’t hard a roundtable discussion featuring the greatest minds on genre fiction, comparisons between media, etc etc (and a good thing too ’cause I probably wouldn’t have understood them) but they definitely touched upon an interesting point in between guffaws.
The point being that one of the trademarks of both genres is world-building, and that asks the reader* to do a bit of homework; an amount of learning, figuring things out, and comparing the functions and nature of these features to real-world equivalents. The first things that come to mind are monetary systems, flora and fauna, religious or political groups, whole hosts of technologies (weapons, transportation, communication, etc etc), social mores, and more(s)! Developing, explaining (expositing? expositioning?), and maintaining internal consistency of these things is an epic undertaking for the creator of this world. Even harder is building a convincing, believable, and thoroughly alive world while still remembering to tell an interesting story therein. Spending too much mental capital (be it yours or the readers) on world-building often leaves parodies of characters, one-dimensional adventurers and wizards and spies clumsily clomping around your beautiful world, snarling cliched lines and crackling with crackleful energy. (and preposterous adjectives) Or you can go the Anathem route and go too far in your world-building, cobbling together a poor, broken language to accompany your world, a world close enough to our own to make the reader wonder why you bothered, and then burden your narrative with so much meaningless explanation of your own terminology that it never fucking goes anywhere. Sorry, Neal. I digress.
When done well the results can be wonderful.
If you’re a fan of the genres.
It often seems to require more work than many people are willing to do to experience stories told in these fictional worlds. A fascinating story of family life set in a simulacrum of the real world allows the reader to take as rote the basic functioning of the world the characters inhabit and better focus on the characters themselves. It’s just an exercise in suspending disbelief. I understand that parallel features could easily be a distraction – if it’s a gun that shoots lasers, why not just use a gun? If it’s a system of currency, why not use dollars, or baht, or yen? Every time the reader is forced to scramble to remember the exchange rate between Frontier Credits and Imperial Credits, it could serve as enough of a distraction to break the sense of immersion. Of course, if they’ve had enough practice at this, teaching the mind to play by the rules of the fictional world can serve to heighten the impact and believability of the setting, removing the easy preconceptions and pre-made associations of works set in so-called reality.
* For convenience’s sake I’ll just pretend this is a written work, not a movie, TV show, video game, etc.