It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Dumping on your readers


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”.

They’re wrong.

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?


12 thoughts on “Dumping on your readers

  1. A great post! I whole heartedly agree abou the info-dumping and overly researched text. I find a small amount of explanation peppered in the narrative works best for me but too many authors start a story without any explanation for many chapters leaving you confused and bewildered and then suddenly enlightening you to the point of tedium. Finding a balance between revealing enough and revealing too much or not enough is the key to a good story.

  2. Info dump is a good phrase for it. And too often, it never rains but it pours.
    I agree that being artful is a challenge and probably requires a range of ways to succeed. The same thing goes for backstory: how to get the info out without it overtaking the present or boring your reader right out of your storyline.

  3. Great point Ian. I’d observe that the problems of info-dump are the trade-off we make for detailed and interesting settings. It’s a common pitfall of SF, but in no way unique. Any particular technothriller of the last 20 years has it’s multi-paragraph preambles on how the stock market works, or the development history of the A-10 Thunderbolt II. I’ve always felt that Science Fiction stands beyond the normal criteria of genre definitions. It’s quite possible to set romantic fiction on 24th century Mars, just as it’s possible to tell SF stories set in 1960s Birmingham. What defines SF is not setting, but sometime a little more elusive. What defines SF is something that will remain a contention for as long as we continue to think and dream.

  4. I would like to see stories with no info-dumping. None. Assume the writer knows everything the character knows about the setting. Put everything in a glossary, and then delete the glossary.

    Would it work? Would the story still make sense? Would it still be enough for immersion?

  5. Hi Ian—-I think Peter Watts’ “Blindsight” comes pretty close to your ideal of authenticity. You learn the science and philosophy as you read the book, and it’s done almost seamlessly. I can think of no other SF book I’ve read since “Redemption Ark” that does this as well. Dr Watts achieves this at the price of having separate characters illustrate different neuroscientific and philosophical notions. It worked so well for me that I tell philosophers–seriously–that one can learn as much about certain problems concerning mental life (consciousness) as one can from reading literally thousands of inconclusive philosophy papers. I say this as a trained philosopher who gets bored by philosophical “literature” awfully quickly. The book’s more fun.

  6. PS—Another example of what I mean by authenticity are the first 55 pages of Paul McAuley’s, “The Quiet War.”

  7. Ian – Another example would be Gene Wolfe’s novels, especially the Book of the New Sun. He wrote an entire book, The Urth of the New Sun, that functions partially as a glossary after the fact. But it’s a marvelous journey to read the tetralogy of the Book of the New Sun with no idea what’s going on, except of course what you can figure out yourself. Plus you’ve got an unreliable narrator. I loved it.

  8. Pingback: Science Fiction And The Future – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

  9. Pingback: Genrewonk » Trash picking at the Info Dump

  10. Yup – this is actually a main reason I don’t seek out science fiction. It was a problem for me even with Michael Crichton – as soon as I see a big chunk of technical explanation coming, I skip pages. Even when it’s “worked into the text” my eyes glaze over. I don’t care what buttons have to be pushed in what order to activate what mechanism. Just open the pod bay door and get on with the plot.

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