The young man from Seoul, South Korea who started this whole conversation about world-building with his database in need of a critique, wrote to me the other day. He gave writing a short piece about his world a try and asked if I'd be willing to look at that.
It wasn't half-bad, either. In fact it was quite good. There was drama, a bit of humor, a sympathetic character, and an out of control spacesuit. One thing was very clear to me, and I told him so in my response: the work he'd put into building the background of his universe came through.
It amazes me, actually, how sometimes you can just tell. There's nothing specific about what a person has written that you can necessarily point to, but somehow you get a sense the universe extends beyond the here and now of the moment. You just know, if you turned a corner, there would be more there--that you wouldn't have that Twilight Zone experience of discovering a stage set (did anyone else see that episode? It was creepy/cool.)
In someways, that to me is better world-building than anything else. We struggle as writers to have our prose be invisible, for our hand to disappear. I think the world-building version of that (at least for me) is for a subconscious sense left in the reader's mind as she or his is reading that this is a fully-realized world, and that they should feel free to open all the drawers and look under the beds--because it's all there, whether or not we open those doors or lift those bedsheets to check...