Daily Archives: 2023-12-03

The Science Fiction Infodump: Feature Not a Bug #SciFiSunday

Source: adafruit industries blog

Article note: KSR's Mars trilogy is the best example of the difference between being engaging because of detailed realistic world-building vs. of being engaging because it's a generic character drama character drama in a scifi setting. There is a lot more of the latter than the former available. It has extensive scientific exposition (much of which was proven _after_ the books came out) and political polemics and... they're good reading.

Sometimes when you’re reading a big scifi tome, you come to a passage that seems more about getting across the science or scientific advances that are essential to the book. Some folks call it an infodump, and consider it bad writing. Good writing, we are told, involves characters doing stuff. What others call infodumps, legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t just calls writing. Here’s what Robinson has to say, from more the Outspoken Authors book The Lucky Strike:

No, not a compliment. I reject the word “infodump” categorically — that’s a smartass word out of the cyberpunks’ workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject “expository lump” also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It’s an attempt to say “fiction can only be stage business” which is a stupid position I abhor and find all too common in responses on amazon.com and the like. All these people who think they know what fiction is, where do they come from? I’ve been writing it for thirty years and I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that the novel in particular is a very big and flexible form, and I say, or sing: Don’t fence me in!

I say, what’s interesting is whatever you can make interesting. And the world is interesting beyond our silly stage business. So “exposition” creeps in. What is it anyway? It’s just another kind of narrative. One thing I believe: it’s all narrative. Once you get out of the phone book anyway, it’s all narrative.

And here’s an exploration of the phenomenon from LitHub in the context of the work of science fiction writer Greg Egan:

It was August, and I was in the middle of a cross-country road trip. After driving all day, I would settle into my sleeping bag at night with a headlamp to read Greg Egan’s Diaspora, a road novel of sorts about the search for interstellar life. Diaspora was my first foray into the subgenre of hard science fiction. It had renewed my awareness that, as earthlings, our lives are subject to physical and chemical laws over which we exert no control—a feeling literature rarely provokes in me. Realism, after all, subordinates the physical in favor of the psychological, creating an illusory, human-centric world. Watching the earth change slowly from behind a bug-splattered windshield, I began to wonder: what does realism risk when it reduces the planet we inhabit to background noise?

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