How old is the worldbuilding phenomenon in writing? What is the earliest writing that can be categorized as such?

The worldbuilding wikipedia page says that the term first appeared in 1965; however, in retrospect there are earlier stories that most would now happily classify as falling into that category - such as those by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

I now see many sci-fi and fantasy stories scrutinized under that lens, although I believe that some of their authors never had worldbuilding as their priority. So it could be that the phenomenon has more to do with the reader's perception of why sci-fi / fantasy authors write, rather than something inherent to the authors or the fiction itself.

That said, I am wondering what the earliest example of this might be. In my definition, in order to qualify the story must be fictional, large (either one large story or a series of many short ones), greatly prioritize in-universe consistency, and come with the understanding that it is not describing our own reality the way religious texts might.

I considered asking the worldbuilding stack exchange, but my guess is that here may be a better database for existing literature, rather than for writing technique.

  • Does Heinlein's Future History count as "worldbuilding fiction"? Doc Smiths Lensman series? – user14111 Mar 19 '16 at 23:41
  • @user14111 Maybe; I have not read them, so I wouldn't know - although I have read several books by Heinlein, and greatly enjoyed them. Part of why I am asking this is because I want to get my hands on some of those early stories and read them. If they fit the criteria, then they count. – Misha R Mar 19 '16 at 23:47
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    +1 good question. The problem with the part, "...the way religious texts might," is massive. Someone might make the case that every story told (except purely objective reporting) is connected to an ethic and an ethos. I'd love for someone smarter than me to ask about this on the Philosophy SE site. – Mikey Mar 20 '16 at 0:17
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    I was going to make an argument for L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, but reading the Wikipedia entry, it's pretty clear that it totally fails on internal consistency. – Torisuda Mar 20 '16 at 1:02
  • @user14111 - Having read most of Heinlein (I think), my vote would be that he was definitely worldbuilding. There are errors and drift, but he's definitely making the effort. Lensman, I can't say. – rosesunhill Mar 20 '16 at 7:07

My suggestion would be Utopia by Sir Thomas More, written in 1516. In it, More gives a very detailed description of a fictional society, religion, and political system on the equally fictional American island of Utopia.

Early editions even came with a map, reminiscent of the ones you'll see in the preface to Narnia and Lord of the Rings books.

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There are of course much, much earlier instances of people creating fictional societies and fictional islands (see: Plato's ideal republic and Homer's Ogygia), but I think this really comes much closer to the nitty gritty of what people think of as "worldbuilding."

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  • Interesting. Nice lead. Will check it out one way or the other - thanks! – Misha R Mar 21 '16 at 1:57

Edit as recommended (but may be valuable to someone else):

Well, while not definitive, worldbuilding was created as far back as Ancient Egypt if not further. The goddess Nun (Nunet?) was associated with the chaos that existed at the edges of the universe as a myth. And there were others, inhabiting places called 'heaven,' in Egypt as early as 3000 BCE, which can certainly be considered worldbuilding (creating fictional places with attributes).

This and other fabled lands continued for thousands of years well past the familiar variety 'Heavens' and 'Hells,' sometimes with vastly detailed descriptions.

I suspect you want another world that is more contemporary, so I would suggest the poem, "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which he talks about a vision primarily of a mystical place called Xanadu, the "pleasure dome" of the ruthless warrior, Kubla Khan, written in 1797. It has been referenced in literature even as far along as the late 80s by science fiction writers.

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  • Ah, I just saw the religious caveat in your question - please ignore the religious example in my answer. Although, they seem pretty worldbuilding. – Mikey Mar 19 '16 at 23:47
  • @Mikey Well, I too would say that Egyptian mythology doesn't pass the non-reality test. To them, this was real stuff, and it was assumed that somewhere in actual reality these gods and goddesses really do exist. They were about our reality. Khubla Khan is a curious little poem - I read it just now - but little is the operative term here. It's about a page long, not really long enough to satisfy the "large* requirement, a necessary one to really have a piece of writing with worldbuilding capacity. Also, not sure how to scrutinize a poem this cooky for in-universe consistency :) – Misha R Mar 19 '16 at 23:57
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    Kubla Khan was more impressionistic, a series of poetic descriptions of evocative scenes (whether from an actual dream or elaborating on one) than what we now think of as "worldbuilding", which connotes some sense of piling on a lot of nitty-gritty details and trying to make sure they are all consistent and perhaps suggest additional history or connections to other parts of the world that aren't actually mentioned in the story. – Hypnosifl Mar 20 '16 at 17:26
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    @rosesunhill Probably depends on how many times he revisited, or how much he wrote in total. If it's another short poem, I would say no. There isn't enough information about the peculiarities of the way in which that universe operates to really give us a universe in which we could predict the outcomes of certain actions, events, etc. As it stands, it's a bit too metaphorical, and provides us with little solid information. If he wrote a lot more of those poems, and we felt that somehow the later ones have to function by the rules of the earlier ones, it might qualify. – Misha R Mar 21 '16 at 2:09
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    @Mikey True - for instance, Chronicles of Narnia is thought by many to be an allegory on Christianity. But in the sense of the events being real, nobody would really say that Chronicles of Narnia is anything but an allegory. The events most certainly did not really happen. On the other hand, the stories in the Bible happened - not necessarily by our standards today, but in the way that readers through much of history were meant to perceive it. The Bible wasn't building an external world so much as making a claim about the world that already exists. – Misha R Mar 21 '16 at 2:17

I don't know if you would consider philosophical speculation as world building, but certainly The Republic of Plato is an example of a constructed fictional society with a lot of thought put into it. One could argue that the description of Atlantis in Timeo and Critias as a fictional world construction, making Plato a proto-scifi/fantasy writer, though some people chose to take it as something Plato actually believed.

Hope this helps. Sorry for any grammar mistakes, english is not my mother language.

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  • Interesting point on The Republic. I suppose I would probably classify that work as simply fiction, rather than worldbuilding fiction. In principle it qualifies as building another world, but the issue of in-universe consistency cannot be effectively tested due to the relatively small volume of the story's fictional aspects. Which is not to say it isn't, let's say, fantasy. That said, it's been a while since I read it. I might actually do it again... – Misha R Mar 21 '16 at 1:55

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