It embodies as elegant an approach as I’ve ever seen to the central and unique technical problem of sf: a science fiction story not only has to draw a narrative line through a world (like mimetic fiction), but also has to explain how that world is different from ours and how it got like that. (If there’s one term I’d like to see removed from the sf critical vocabulary—including mine—it’s “infodump”: a disastrously pejorative and un-nuanced way of describing the range of solutions sf authors find to this problem.)
There are probably almost as many solutions as there are writers, but off the top of my head I can think of five general approaches.
- Lecture-to-reader: breaking off the narrative to allow the individual telling the story, or even the author, to talk directly to the reader. The most impressive recent example of this is surely Charles Stross’s Accelerando:
Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.
It’s night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore’s law rolls inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2×1027 kilograms. Around the world, labouring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 1023 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 1023 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that, the solar system’s installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIPS per gram threshold—one million instructions per second per gram of matter. Beyond that, singularity—a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is down to double-digit months …
The advantage of this is that a high density of information can be conveyed, because it temporarily abandons any attempt to draw a narrative line, and simply tells you about the world. If thought is given to the identity of the narrator—as it is in Accelerando—it can be revealing on more levels than just the didactic, though. The extract above gives us a clear sense of what the narrator is, and how the terms in which it views the world differ from the terms in which we view the world.
- Lecture-to-character: this would include all the “As you know, Jim” dialogue ever written. A slightly more sophisticated version has an expert explaining something to an innocent abroad; Stephen Baxter has a fairly stock polymathic genius character who crops up in a lot of his novels to serve this function.
- Tourism: acknowledges that both the writer and the reader are outside the world being created, looking in. It’s the inclusion of unfamiliar concepts and words, gradually explaining them as the story unfolds. This is, in a sense, simply an intensification of the work every story has to do to convince its readers of its setting: an intensification because it involves noticing more. I suspect this is what people think of by default when they think of “infodumps”. When a mimetic novel uses this technique—treats the real world as unfamiliar—you get interesting effects, as in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (which is often described as ‘sfnal’) or David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (which has been described by several reviewers as having the feel of the fantastic to it).
- Embedding: narratives that are scrupulously written as though they come from the world they describe. For example, take this from ‘Nekropolis’ by Maureen McHugh:
I grew up in the Nekropolis. We didn’t have running water, it was delivered every day in a big lorritank and people would go out and buy it by the karn, and we lived in three adjoining mausoleums instead of a flat, but other than that, it was a pretty normal childhood. I have a sister and two brothers. My mother sells paper funeral decorations, so the Nekropolis is a very good place for her to live, no long tube rides every day. The part we lived in was old. Next to the bed were the dates for the person buried behind the wall, 3673 to 3744. All of the family was dead hundreds of years ago, no-one ever came to this death house to lay out paper flowers and birds. In fact, when I was four, we bought the rights to this place from an old woman whose family had lived here a long time before us.
On the surface this gives us a lot of information, but we can’t take it neat, as we might be able to in a tourist story; we have to process it to work out what kind of world we’re in, because the narrator only tells us what seems natural to her. To take the most obvious point, we’re not given the date of the story, for instance, we’re given a date hundreds of years in the past of the story. We’re given some idea of what a ‘normal childhood’ is, and we’re given an unfamiliar word, karn, that we have to puzzle out from context. When this sort of story switches to dialogue, the author can also convey a large amount of information through what the characters don’t say. Some alternate histories work this way, although most eventually give us a history lesson; in a similar way, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is brilliant at it for 90% of its length, but spoils things with an unnecessary explanation in the penultimate chapter.
- Never explain: the ultimate in embedded narratives. Even a story like ‘Nekropolis’ usually relents and slips in an explanation of its more idiosyncratic elements; but there are some stories that resist the temptation to the end. Oddly, the first example that comes to mind is a non-sf novel (albeit one popular with sf readers), to wit Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which never tells the reader that its narrator has Asperger’s Syndrome. The reader is expected to work it out. Within sf, Gene Wolfe is fond of this approach (although often, to my mind, it leaves his writing feeling rather dry).
There’s a lot of overlap in these categories, reflecting both the fact that stories are organic, and will use a combination of strategies to convey information, and the fact that I’ve jotted this down in half an hour.
It was all inspired by the recent discussion of infodumps elsewhere over the past month or so. Matt Cheney wrote about the conventions of infodumping, and in particular how it differs from exposition; The Little Professor talked about infodumps in nineteenth-century novels; in the comments of that post there’s a link to Jed Hartman’s “How I explained infodumps and saved humanity“, which anatomises the types of infodump in a different way to my list above; and most recently, Dan Green discusses the difficulty of reading infodumps with reference to Philip K. Dick. His conclusion:
One might say that Dick attempts to portray an unreal world by realistically depicting his characters’ response to living in that world. The “infodump” remains a perhaps unavoidable limitation of such an effort, one that may even call into question the aesthetic integrity of the effort in the first place.
Probably needless to say, given all the foregoing, I think this is a bit strong. In fact, I think it’s aiming at a target that isn’t there: depicting the characters’ response to their world is only a stopping point on the way to the ultimate goal, which is to convey to us the experience of living in that world. This is not to say that sf can make do without character (unless you’re Olaf Stapledon), and certainly there is a good deal of sf in which all the infodumping will be buried in the characters’ viewpoints, done in hints and glances, as noted above. But a writer’s choice to describe the world more or less explicitly for our benefit is ok too; it may or may not be to an individual’s taste, but it has its own aesthetic integrity.