There’s a genre that I love very dearly, and which I’ve already talked about in some places on this blog. Here are some examples of the genre:
- Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV (and the TV series Alien Planet based on it)
- Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, with luscious art and interesting descriptions for many species from science fiction.
- Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy, which does for fantasy what Extraterrestrials does for SF.
- The Morae River, detailing the ecology of a river valley on a planet that doesn’t exist.
- Furaha: Natural History of the planet v Phoenicis IV
- A lot of concept art fits. Alex Ries’ excellent work on the Birrin is a strong example.
- The Future is Wild, speculating about evolution on Earth far into the future.
- Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, speculating about the future evolution of homo sapiens.
- The Dune Encyclopedia, a reference guide to the universe of Arrakis
- Lebek, a fictional city of northern Europe through the ages
- The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a reference guide to many fictional worlds found in literature and elsewhere
- Karen Wynn Fonstad‘s books, including the Atlas of Middle-Earth, the Atlas of Pern and several others.
- The Guide to Middle-Earth, a reference guide to Tolkien’s world
- The online Encyclopedia of Arda, providing an even more complete guide to Middle-Earth in handy wiki format.
- The Usborne Book of the Future, a kids’ book that looks at many paths the future might take, almost all quite prescient
- The First Travel Guide to the Moon, describing aspects of the moon in a future where lunar travel is commonplace
- The Terran Trade Authority books, detailing a complex and lengthy future
- Books similar to the TTA books, such as Alan Frank’s Galactic Aliens
- The Klingon Dictionary, one of the most famous works of conlanguery
- Many other official movie and TV tie-in books count. With Star Trek, for example, there are the Star Trek Encyclopedia, the Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology, deckplans and many more reference works.
- Similar references exist for many comics. The Appleseed Databook, the Scout Handbook (“An Atlas to Survival in New America”) and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe probably count. Heck, the Tick’s Giant Circus of the Mighty probably counts.
- Mark Rosenfelder’s excellent Almeopedia, detailing the languages, cultures and much more of a fictional world
- Jorge Luis Borges‘ short piece “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is certainly one of the fundamental works in the genre.
- Games such as Microscope and the worldbuilding game we played at Diversicon also fit.
- RPG setting materials, of course
These are basically reference works without plot for places that do not exist. They are pure worldbuilding sans plot. They are, as I usually think of it, fictional nonfiction. There are many, many more examples of the genre that I haven’t described.
It’s really quite an amazing genre: full of interesting details, eye-opening vistas, erudite speculation and limitless possibilities. It’s all the more amazing for not having a common name. I usually refer to the genre as fictional nonfiction, but other terms appeal at other times.
Like all genres, it gets fuzzy around the edges. Are David Macaulay‘s books such as Castle and Pyramid, with their minimal characters and scant plots, fictional nonfiction? What about books such as the Dune Encyclopedia or Dictionary of Imaginary Places that describe things found in prose fiction without directly relating the plots? The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might fit, at least if we’re talking about the encyclopedia-like entries rather than the real-world media (radio show, book, movie, etc.). The Encyclopedia Galactica — Adams’, Sagan’s or someone else’s, take your pick — is another strong candidate for this genre, though we only ever see tantalizing snippets. Much of Borges’ work seems to dance along the line between this mostly unnamed genre and standard prose fiction. The Codex Seraphinianus probably fits this category, though with its incomprehensible script (possibly a conlang), it’s hard to tell. Similarly, the Voynich Manuscript may also fit, though until it gets deciphered, we won’t know for sure. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home intermixes a thin plot with anthropology (songs, recipes, myths and more) about a fictional far-future culture of central California. Many computer games, such as Sim City, probably fit in here somewhere.
Nonetheless, I think it’s pretty clear what the characteristics of this genre are: reference materials, whether encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, travel guides, cookbooks, hymnals or whatever else, for worlds that do not exist. One of the most important characteristics of this genre is that it is not prose fiction; it isn’t primarily about narrative (unless you use a definition of ‘narrative’ so broad as to be useless). And as I’ve mentioned before, I think that pure worldbuilding with no plot is worthy in and of itself. I think a big part of why this genre doesn’t have a clearer popular definition is that it’s often considered to have less prestige than prose fiction. Hopefully this post will do something to help destroy that misconception.
There are a few other interesting characteristics of fictional nonfiction that I’ve noticed, and I will eventually post more about them on this blog. Yep, it’s yet another multi-part series! Maybe I should just call them ‘themes’ instead…