I've been reading a new book lately that may quite literally be the most difficult to follow piece of fiction I've ever read. Not because it's poorly written from a technical stand point. Quite the opposite. The author is a great writer. The problem is the setting in which it all takes place, and how the elements of the world in which the characters operate are overwhelming and confusing. I've been trudging through it in hopes that it will all eventually make some kind of sense, but it's also been making me think a lot about world building.
World building is a big thing these days. There is even a reddit thread dedicated to it. Personally, I think it's fairly easy to draw up a map, name a few societies and countries, and call it a world. Writers and dungeon masters do this every day. It's like creating a stage or game board for our characters to move about on and act out their little stories. It's also a lot of fun to do. But there is so much more to world building than just naming (or renaming) everyday nouns. There is a balance that must be attained between the new and the familiar, and an attention given to the simplest of details that can turn a fictional society into a living and breathing culture.
I think many writers make the assumption that learning all the new names and places within their fictional world is exploratory and therefore fun. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there are those who perhaps take a great deal of pleasure in being experts of such things as fake languages and realms, but on a whole, when the majority of readers sit down to enjoy a book they do not want to muddle through a history or anthropology lesson. In particularly one that has no bearing on reality. It's a chore and it steals from the enjoyment of a good story.
Discovery, however, is entirely different from exploration. A good book keeps a reader exploring without them really noticing they are. They shouldn't realize they're absorbing information until it's too late and they've discovered something fun and fascinating within the story. Discovery feels good and makes the reader feel smart or awed or any number of emotions. A story's world should reveal itself effortlessly as the plot unfolds and as the characters move through it. We should see it revealed in ways that feel both familiar and foreign through the characters. It's not a barrage of unknown words in the first chapter where names and places mix together in a fashion that would make J.R.R. Tolkien spew from disgust, but the careful placement of the unknown within the known so that through association with the familiar the reader can discover something new and exciting without any effort at all.