Some people think science fiction is all spaceships and robots and aliens. Some people think science fiction needs real proper extrapolated science or technology in it. Some people think it should be called “speculative fiction”.
Science fiction is not about science. Nor is it the garden in which its stories play. It’s not about the trappings, the settings, the toys or the gizmos. It’s about the world – our world; and it’s a mode of telling stories about our world. Which can present something of a problem to writers and readers. Because the setting of the story may well be an invention, and the reader will know nothing about it. But for the story to work, they must do. Otherwise… well, otherwise what would be the point in having an invented setting?
This is where exposition, or the info dump, rears its ugly head. An info dump is, at its most basic, a piece of information the character knows which the writer is telling the reader. This information is typically about the world or setting, although it can be about something else. The plot, for example. Although that would be drifting into different territory – such as the murder-mystery novel.
Unless the writer has chosen to use an outsider as a protagonist – a common trick in fantasy, but much less so in science fiction – the only way the reader is going to learn anything about the world of the story is through info dumps. There are elegant and inelegant ways of info dumping. Having one character tell it to another character, who already knows it, is a particularly bad way. Nor is it unique to science fiction – see chapter two of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker for an especially clumsy example. Other techniques include footnotes, excerpts from a “Galactic Encyclopaedia”, or – and this is generally considered to be the only real way to do it – streamlining the exposition into the narrative.
Yes, make it part of the narrative. But even then, you’re often still explaining something which doesn’t really need explaining. Does it matter how the hyperspace drive works if all it needs to do is to get the protagonist from A to B? Too much exposition in science fiction stories has nothing to do with the story – it’s the author showing off their setting. For many readers, this is required. It’s immersion. Such readers need those details if they want to immerse themselves in the story. But that’s fiction as role-playing games supplement, and I don’t agree with it. Story first… and then whatever world-building is required for the story to work…
… which is not all that uncommon in sf. But a lot of exposition fails for me as a reader because it has no authority, no authenticity. It often seems that the more time the writer has spent researching the details of their world, the more of that research they lard into their story. So, instead of the setting feeling authentic, we have a story buried under info-dumps. Or perhaps, they go the other way and just make it all up. But writing science fiction doesn’t mean you can make it up as you go along. The details have to be convincing. And nothing convinces as well as verifiable science (although there are those who would disagree…).
It seems to me that modern science fiction – the good stuff, anyway – makes more of a point of authenticity than the genre did in previous decades. I suspect the same is true of mainstream fiction. Is it a change in attitude; or because we live in a world in which we expect to have information on anything and everything at our fingertips? Perhaps the real world these days has been buried under so much spin and propaganda that we look to fiction for truth.
And where best to look for it but in science fiction?