Review: “Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation” by Mark J. P. Wolf’

Mark J. P. Wolf. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012.

In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, Mark J. P. Wolf develops a framework and criteria for describing and examining imaginary worlds, subcreated worlds. Indeed, Wolf accomplishes this goal, exploring various issues related to philosophy, narratology, storytelling, readers, characters, authorship, transmedia storytelling, and more. Thus, Wolf’s volume is quite thorough. At the same time, some of Wolf’s analysis felt cut short and left me wanting more. Nonetheless, the book forms a helpful foundation for analyzing and exploring notions of world building not only in fan fiction, media, and cultural studies but in other fields as well.

Summary

In the Introduction, Wolf acknowledges that while some readers are primarily and only interested in narrative, other readers may be especially interested in the world building aspects of a book inasmuch as those elements enhance the reader’s experience (e.g., glossaries, maps, timelines). As such, imaginary worlds do not necessarily rely on narratives. Thus, the nature of imaginary worlds and reader preferences necessitate a critical approach distinct from one focusing on narrative. Moreover, building imaginary worlds, Wolf rightly contends, is a universal human behavior [1]. Additionally, Wolf provides a general overview of how previous writers and theorists explored making imaginary worlds. Much of this work was written by the world authors themselves or took a distinctly philosophical perspective of “possible worlds” and modal logic. Wolf’s book, though, continues this discourse by focusing not only on the language and text of imaginary worlds but by including the audiovisual aspects of imaginary worlds in his analysis. This shift away toward media studies for understanding world building is pertinent because, as Wolf highlights, media consumption patterns are changing with media types (i.e., more focus on world building through audiovisual elements) and “the more traditional literary criticism are not world-centered and constitute a different focus” (12).

In Chapter 1, Wolf describes various aspects of how an imaginary world, subcreated world, or Secondary World works. As a jumping-off point, he briefly explains the history of imaginary worlds within philosophy, otherwise known as possible worlds. While foundational to fictional worlds more broadly, such philosophical approaches, Wolf contends, inadequately address audiovisual-based worlds, instead focusing primarily on literature. He shifts to world-builders themselves and traces a thread regarding how those people approached fictional worlds. Beginning with the notion of imagination presented by Coleridge and George MacDonald’s considerations of such imaginative worlds necessitating internally consistent laws, Wolf leans especially on J. R. R. Tolkein’s works. Because humans are created by a god, Tolkein asserts, so human have the ability to subcreate, which Wolf describes in detail: “Subcreation . . . involves new combinations of existing concepts, which, in the building of a secondary world, become the inventions that replace or reset the Primary World defaults . . . . The more one changes these defaults, the more the secondary world becomes different and distinct from the Primary World. It is not surprising, then, that secondary worlds will in many way resemble the Primary World . . . . Secondary Worlds, then, have the same ddefault assumptions as does the Primary World, except where the author has indicated otherwise” (24). In light of this idea, Wolf starts to discuss to what he calls the “secondariness” of a world, namely, the degree to which it is connected to the Primary World. Secondary, imaginative worlds are best arranged “along a spectrum of attachment to, or reliance on, the Primary World (as we know it) and its defaults” (27) so that people experience different worlds in different ways.

These worlds are often more than a story, though. As Wolf comments, “A compelling story and a compelling world are very different things, and one need not require the other” (29). A text, then, can become world-building when the narrative goes beyond what is necessary to advance the story. He articulate the aspects of world-building through three categories: invention, completeness, and consistency. These categories link to three descriptions of how one experiences a world: immersion, absorption, and saturation. Speaking less about the reader’s experience and more toward how readers fill gaps, he discusses the world Gestalten of ellipsis, logic, and extrapolation, or how “a structure or configuration of details together implies the existence of an imaginary world, and causes the audiences to automatically fill in the missing pieces of that world, based on the details that are given” (52). Shifting away from perception and Gestalten, Wolf draws attention to catalysts of speculation, how certain worlds make people curious and result in people attempting “to answer questions in more etail, either by the world’s originator, by those authorized to add to it, or even by unauthorized fan additions” (61). Finally, Wolf concludes by highlighting that the framing of clear boundaries between Primary World and Secondary World has lessened overtime as people have become more used to these imaginary worlds.

In chapter 2, Wolf broadly descries the history of imaginary worlds. He begins with transnarrative characters and literary cycles, suggesting that wold build begins to take off when characters from one story appear in another, thereby causing audiences to fill the gaps of such transnarrative characters. Moving forward, and in some cases at the same time, world building happened in mythical stories, such as in the Odyssey, Herodotus, Lucian, or Plato. The next major shift occurred closer to the turn of the first millenium, which gave rise to travelers’ tales during the age of exploration (up to the nineteenth century), of which many explorations were simply fantastical stories with world building. During this time, we also see the emergence of utopias and dystopias. Beginning in the nineteenth century, and based on the various world-building groupings before, fantasy and science fiction books emerged and proliferated as a genre. Such proliferation changed how people understood such imaginary worlds: “People grew more accustomed to experiencing and forming a mental image of distant parts of the world through media representations, which often involved a wide range of sources of varying reliability. In this way, mass media helped to lessen the gap between real foreign countries which were experienced solely through media, and imaginary worlds, which could only be experienced through media” (112). So emerged new forms of world building in mediums that readers of the twenty-first century are more familiar with: early cinema and comic strips, the first world building of Oz, pulp magazines, movies and theater, radio and television, Tolkien’s work, and the rise of world-building media franchises (e.g., Star Wars, Dune, Star Trek, etc.). With technology changes in the last fifty to seventy years, we have also see interactive worlds, such as video games, become a major medium for experiencing other worlds. Overall, Wolf’s outline of world-building history demonstrates the role of secondary, imaginary worlds as places where humans have been able to perform art and thought experiences.

In chapter 3, Wolf explores various aspects involved in structure imaginary worlds and the systems therein. While narrative plays an important role in world-building, he focuses more on the specific experiential elements and how those elements can overlap: maps, timelines, nature, culture, language, mythology, and philosophy. World-builders can tie together different aspects of these categories to create infrastructure for a complex, imaginary world. What makes this chapter more than a simple description the aspects involved in constructing a world is that Wolf make clear how world-builders incorporate these elements in distinct ways and in distinct contexts. Similarly, he explains how these particular elements function to form the infrastructure for a secondary work.

In chapter 4, Wolf examines how “narrative operates within a world and helps to structure it” (198). He first discusses narrative threads, braids, and fabric, drawing on narrative theory to explain how the weaving together of narrative braids can play a central role in world-building. Although Wolf does not give this example, Game of Thrones (at least the TV show, as I haven’t read the books) is a great example of how various narrative braids are woven together into a fabric to construct a broader world, each braid coming together to form a fabric. Second, and related to the issue of narratives, Wolf highlights the importance of backstory and world history, and such stories often have “low narrative resolution” (202) and involve characters different from the original stories. He also calls these “nested stories” (204), which link stories within an imaginary world. Third, he addresses sequence elements and internarrative theory, which concerns how world-building occurs through sequels and prequels, and even stories coming in between stories, which Wolf coins midquels, interquels, and intraquels, and framing stories, which he coins transquels. These various ways to think about world-building and sequencing provide helpful categories for describing the history of world building. Third, he addressing retroactive continuity (retcon) and reboots. Fourth, he identifies how crossovers, multiverses, and retroactive linkages can create larger, overarching world. Moving to a different form of media, and fifth, he addresses how certain technologies enable interactivity and alternate story lines that “raise questions regarding the status of a world and the canonicity of events in that world” (221). Finally, he discusses how “making of” documentation serve world-building by highlighting details, demonstrating world consistency, and adding new content. And narrative links all of these things together.

In chapter 5, Wolf addresses the next level after subcreations: when a subcreation creates its own subcreated world. In these contexts, words play a central role because they give rise to a sub-subcreated world. With this process in transmedia, creators often bring a degree of self-reflexivity to the table, reflecting on their own acts of subcreation. So, Wolf identifies multiple examples. Within this context, he highlights evil subcreators, who become importance to the broader narrative fabric of a story and world.

In chapter 6, Wolf describes how worlds grow not just in books (e.g., Baum’s Wizard of Oz) but in different media forms (i.e., transmedia) either via adaption or growth. Key to this matter is transmediality, which is “the state of being represented in multiple media” (247). And while acknowledging that exploring how each media form transfers to another would be valuable, it would also be repetitive and lengthy. So, he focuses mainly on looking “at each of the properties present in different media, their capabilities and peculiarities, and the process of using each as a window that reveals an imaginary world” (248). He focuses, then, on five elements: description, something often originating with words on a page and relates to “describing the experience of perception as much as the object being perceived” (252); visualization, which uses a certain vantage point “to further comment on the scene, enhance aspects of it, and suggest a certain attitude towards what is portrayed” (253); auralization, which uses sound to create a world; interactivation, combining various forms of media into an interactive media (e.g., video games); and deinteractivation, fixed forms of media such as turning Super Mario Bros. into a movies and dispensing of the interactive elements. For these various media windows, Wolf highlights they can be experienced in a variety of ways as follows, and not always in the same order, thereby changing the viewer’s experience: “order of public appearance, order of creation, internal chronological order, canonical order, order of media preference, and age-appropriate order” (265).

In chapter 7, Wolf discusses the circles of authorship and how the relationship between various stakeholders involved in the world-building process, or recipients of it, maintain a degree of authorship, depending on the media. To address this matter, Wolf first distinguishes between closed world and open world, though he recognizes the role that things like merchandise and fan fiction can play in expanding even a closed world. Based on these categories, he also identifies how different worlds can have different levels of canonicity. When it comes to canonicity, many folks are involved, each with a different type of stake in the media or product: the originator and main author; estates, heirs, and torchbearers; employees and freelancers; approved, derivative, and ancillary products, and elaborationists and fan productions. He discusses nuances for each of these groups. In a somewhat secondary category, he discusses participatory worlds as places where authorship also plays a role, such as in MMORPGs. He concludes the chapter, and indeed the book, by highlighting how subcreation “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice with the default assumptions we make about reality” (287).

In the appendix, Wolf includes an appendix of imaginary worlds.

Discussion

In this section, I lay out a range of criticisms, engage constructively with Wolf’s work, and push the boundaries of where Wolf’s method and approach to world building might help fields outside media studies.

First, though media in the modern world is undoubtedly more diverse than it was seven hundred years ago, Wolf may have missed an important opportunity to consider world building in light of diverse, historically contingent frameworks for what constitutes different types of media. Indeed, he is right that “books, drawings, photographs, film, radio, television, video games, websites, and other media,” as well as their proliferation, “have opened portals through which these world grow in clarity and detail” (1-2). Likewise, such world building through these new media forms is undoubtedly historically unique due to the role that sound and images often play in the process. But in describing the history of world building, he should have considered how different societies perceived and enacted world building with their various media forms. For example, although we of view pamphlets, printed manuscripts, hand-written manuscripts, and scrolls as similar things, namely, some form of parchment or paper on which people wrote, the art, physical texture, creation process, general appearance, and general assumptions differed. As such, people would have different experiences reading the various media forms, comparable to the difference between watching movie on a small laptop as opposed to in a movie theater.

Second, one major weakness Wolf’s discussion of world-building history regard transnarrative characters. In particular, Wolf comments that “the simplest literary indication that a world exists beyond the details needed [. . .] is a transnarrative character. A character who appears in more than one story links the stories’ world together by being present in them” (66). He then mentions King Nebuchadnezzar II as an example of a historical, transnarrative character because he appears or is mentioned in 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Josephus. This perspective, though, fails to consider these texts and Nebuchadnezzar’s representation in each text. Moreover, since his representation in these various texts did not collectively aim to construct a complex, nuanced world (i.e., world-building), how Nebuchadnezzar is somehow a transnarrative character related to world-building is unclear.

Third, although beyond the scope of Wolf’s work, his discussion of Bibles is pertinent to tracking how the Christian religious imagination developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries through books. In particular, he highlights that “during the 1500s, maps were already appearing in printed Bibles, which may have encouraged the inclusion of more maps of imaginary worlds” (156). Admittedly, I would have liked if Wolf demonstrated how maps in printed Bibles and maps for imaginary worlds were (or were not) historically related to each other, the former giving rise to the latter. Nonetheless, if we accept Wolf’s assertion, we can make some preliminary observations on the nature of imaginary worlds and world building regarding conceptions of religion in the 1500s. First, I wonder to what extent world-building and religion overlap cognitively to the effect that some world-building groups become perceived as so-called religious. Indeed, some folks in the 1500s perceived the world of the Bible as something to be expanded upon, something that needed world-building in its own right. And we see this trend continuing today, to a degree, through new study Bibles, replete with essays, maps, historical context, and more. That is, religious practitioners build out and seek to better understand the Bible’s historical contexts in order to expand its universe. And fandoms perform such intellectual endeavors as well for fictional books. Therefore, this overlap in creating an imaginative world may explain, in part, why some scholars have looked at fandoms and viewed them as a sort of quasi-religious group.

Fourth, Wolf’s work would have been stronger if he had identified alternative ways of framing world-building. In the boo, he frames world-building as a form of subcreation, an idea from Tolkien’s work about humans being created by God and thus subcreating other things. Even at the end of the volume, while he rightly points out that world-building “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice within the default assumptions we make about reality” (287), Wolf nonetheless brings everything back around to appreciating “the Divine design of Creation.” One alternative to simply wrapping his conclusion back to a sort of theological conclusion would be to explore the notion of world-building through an interdisciplinary lens, to show how anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology might shed light on the phenomenon of world-building.

Conclusion

Overall, Mark Wolf’s book is worth reading and offers a helpful way to approach, frame, describe, and think about world-building, a important skill in a world wherein world-building is becoming more important than the narrative itself, where franchise trumps story. And while the book has a few shortcoming, it offers a range of avenues for future scholarship.

[1] Vulcans might not be interested in building imaginary worlds, but they are part of an imaginary world. In facts, Vulcans in this light may be an imaginative opposite of what constitutes a human being.

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When Religion becomes Fandom, or Why the MCU and Its Fans Reminds People of Religion

One approach to comic books currently in vogue is to view comic books, comic book culture, and fandoms through the lens of religion. As Aaron Ricker suggests, though, “By choosing what to study as religion, scholars help define religion, and the ways in which we do this can often look lazy and (confessionally and/or professionally) self serving” [1]. This approach follows Aaron W. Hughes and Russel T. McCutcheon’s recent emphasis that “we may be less interested in studying religion than in shifting the ground and, instead, studying the act of calling something religion,” namely, the discourse around religion [2]. Thus, we must ask not whether the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through a lens of religion but rather why the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through the lens of religion. One answer to this question is by exploring the notion of world-building as it relates to both religion and comic book culture. This world-building, I argue, forms a bridge that results in scholars often viewing comic book culture as a sort of religion.

In what follows, I first identify what constitutes world-building and why it is important. Then, I examine the MCU and religion as separate categories through these lens of world-building. Third, I bring the MCU and religion together through the lens of world-building in order to identify one aspect of why religion scholars sometimes us a religious studies lens to approach the MCU. Finally, I show how the flip side of this observation might give have potential, namely, exploring religion through the lens of world-building and fandoms.

World-Building

World-building is an idea in the field of media studies that Mark J. P. Wolf recently synthesized and developed in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation [3]. Simply put, world-building is the subcreation of a secondary world, not simply a fictional world but a world in which the represented reality is “different enough (and usually detached or separated in some way) from the Primary World [i.e., our world and reality] to give them ‘secondary’ status” [4]. Importantly, world-building is distinct from narrative. Whereas a narrative is a means by which the world is experienced, world-building is a separate act which does not always include narrative. As Wolf highlights regarding Oz, L. Frank Baum’s best world-building occurred outside of his well-known work The Wizard of Oz, other works often counted as his weakest stories regarding narrative [5].

World-Building in the MCU

A recent example of world-building as opposed to story in the MCU is Disney’s She-Hulk. Although I’m only on the fourth episode, my wife and I agree on one thing: the story is mundane, unadventurous, and no particularly engaging. Such a narrative contrasts starkly with, for instance, Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings, which included all the elements of a good story paired with world-building. Because She-Hulk‘s narrative is so mundane (and frankly somewhat boring), the show’s reception has been relatively poor. Where She-Hulk excels, though, is in world-building. In the first four episodes, She-Hulk has worked to map out the MCU world, itself a subcreation, by showing the audience how things work and raising key questions that enable viewers to engage with the world: What happens when superheroes and villains just want to be normal? How do casual viewers perceive the folks with superpowers after the events of the first three phases of the MCU, more commonly known as The Infinity Saga? Can previous-known villains be rehabilitated and become good (e.g., Loki)? These questions are what She-Hulks explores, and the show makes secondary the importance of the narrative.

Importantly, most MCU fans or casual viewers expect that the world-building will pay off in someway down the road with more consistent and inventive films [7]. (At least I hope so.) Put another way, world-building is engaging and interesting for certain MCU fans because it pushes, (re)articulates, and clarifies the boundaries of the secondary world, the subcreation, that Disney developed since the first Iron Man movie. And this world-building keeps viewers interested. (Naturally, we need some quality stories soon.)

World-Building in Religion

World-building is also a feature in some religious traditions. In particular, though, I am interested in religious traditions that look toward history to illuminate, for instance, the “world of the Bible.” For many scholars in the twentieth century, fields like Assyriology and classics were not an end in and of themselves but served to expand the world of the Bible, sometimes the Hebrew Bible and sometimes the New Testament. Notably, though, world-building in relation to religiously authoritative scriptures, otherwise known as “the biblical world,” is not typically viewed as fiction. Instead, the world-building of a secondary world isn’t secondary in terms of reality and plausibility but only along the lines of history. And as L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” [8]. Thus, although world-building in relation to the Bible in religious studies is not necessarily about constructing a new, all-together separate secondary world, the world-building that occurs around the Bible nonetheless is a sort of world-building activity that is separated from the Primary World due to time and history, even if folks practicing religion view such things as reality to a degree.

Why the MCU as Religion via World-Building?

As noted, both the MCU and religion tend to partake in world-building. The difference, though, is that religion’s world-building does not decouple the subcreation from the Primary World, from reality, whereas the MCU clearly expects the audience to decouple the subcreation from reality. (Note that I know of specific children who believe that that MCU was part of the Primary World.) Such overlap in world-building, I propose, is why some religious studies scholars like to see the MCU and its fandom as religion. Although they may not say as much, fandom practices and comic book culture more broadly participate in the world-building activities of the MCU in the same way that some religious communities participate in the world-building activities of the Bible. Such a parallel creates an impression that the MCU and its fandom should be understood as a sort of religion.

The Coin’s Flip Side

The observation that religion scholars view comic book culture through the lens of religion opens up other fruitful methods for approaching religion. What if rather than approach religion through the lens of religion we instead utilized tools from fandom and media studies to explore religion and religious studies discourses as a form of world-building? This approach would essentially follow Hughes and McCutcheon’s approach of exploring why we call some things religions as well as generate new, more fruitful theories of how religion works in the twenty-first century.

[1] Aaron Ricker, “The Third Side of the Coin: Constructing Superhero Comics Culture as Religious Myth,” Arc 43 (2015): 104.

[2] Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon, Religion in 50 Words: A Critical Vocabulary (New York: Routledge, 2022), 250. This emphasis reflects a broader, more recent trend in religious studies. See the referenced page for further references.

[3] Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 25.

[5] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 29.

[6] I am intentionally ambiguous regarding what I mean by “Bible” because I don’t have sufficient time to sift through Jewish and Christian times when this sort of thing happened and happens.

[7] Regarding world-building, “audience members and critical approaches that center on narrative, then, may find such excess material to be extraneous, tangential, and unnecessary, while those that consider the story’s world will find their experience enhanced.” Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 3.

[8] Wolf mentions this quote in Building Imaginary Worlds, but I was unable to find it in the book.