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May 01, 2006

As You Know, Bob

Strange Horizons editor Jed Hartman has a very amusing entry on the art and craft of the infodump, which in the real world is usually called "exposition," but we in science fiction call it something different because we're special, you see. Science fiction has a pronounced tendency toward infodumps, if for no other reason that the writers are often creating whole new worlds which the readers have never visited before, and they need some context if they're going to figure out what the hell is going on. However, science fiction writers also have had a pronounced tendency to abuse the infodump, which has made people wary of them as a plot device.

I don't know how I feel about that. Fact is, as a reader, I like a good, chunky infodump, so long as it's done well in the context of the story. Give me an omnicient narrator with just a bit of attitude to dribble out interesting tidbits of information just so, and I'll be a happy boy. One of the reasons The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works so well is that Douglas Adams was the undisputed master of the amusing infodump -- so good at it, in fact, that just about every other SF attempting an amusing infodump since has unconsciously (or otherwise) aped his delivery. You can get away with it if you're good enough; Gaiman and Pratchett do it marvelously well in Good Omens. Alas, we can't all be Gaiman and Pratchett. But the point remains: there's nothing wrong with a well-delivered infodump. They can be fun.

I think the infodump has gotten a bad reputation because there's some measure of uncertainty how much information is enough, and SF/F writers, on balance, tend to err of the side of too much information rather than too little. Therefore, the infodumps are frequent and large and (depending on who you are as a reader) possibly extraneous and tiring. SF/F readers get trained to accept random infodumping as part of the price one pays for the genre, but I can see how it gets annoying to people not trained in the care and handling of an infodump.

I don't shy away from infodumps in my own writing, because sometimes you need them, and sometimes they're enjoyable to write. But I do try to make my infodumps as interesting to read as possible; I don't want them to drag, and I don't want them to throw the reader out of the story. It's largely a question of narrative flow: Can you make this infodump look necessary and desirable for the reader at this point in the story? If you can manage that, I don't think reader will consider an infodump as an infodump; it'll just be another part of the story.

Now, do I always manage this smooth delivery of the infodump? Well, probably not, and in event, everyone's personal infodump tolerance is different. But it's what I aim for.

Posted by john at May 1, 2006 02:22 PM

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Comments

Pat Rock | May 1, 2006 02:42 PM

I would like to submit that Neal Stephenson is the consumate master of the infodump. You could argue that the Baroque cycle is just one large many faceted infodump loosely connected by a narrative.

If Gaiman, Pratchett, and Adams write infodumps then surely Stephenson is writing entire artificial planets of infodumps.

Anonymous | May 1, 2006 02:55 PM

Spoilers Ahoy!

Give me an omnicient narrator with just a bit of attitude to dribble out interesting tidbits of information just so, and I'll be a happy boy.

Funny. When you started this post, I immediately thought about how generally lacking in omniscient-narrator infodumps _Old Man's War_ and _The Ghost Brigades_ were. Such infodumps there were were basically always in character voice, with said characters either partially-informed, confused, or lying. It worked quite well, I thought, particularly the infodump from the villian in _The Ghost Brigades_ on the humanities relations to our surrounding races, and the various infodumps on consciousness of the Special Forces. Nifty, and completely un-Hitchhiker's-Guide-ish.

Kelsey | May 1, 2006 03:06 PM

I don't read a lot of SF/F, but I recently read OMW. I agree with the previous post that I did not have any problems with the info dumps in it and the ones that were in it did not interrupt the flow.

What I'm trying to say is that you are a pretty good InfoDUMPER, keep up the good work.

Man, I need to grow up. I got way too much joy out of typing "InfoDUMPER."

JonathanMoeller | May 1, 2006 03:17 PM

The "Welcome To Your New Body" brochure in OMW was one of the best infodumps I've seen. So was the BrainPal Setup Wizard scene.

...

That sounded disgustingly syncophantic. Alas.

John Scalzi | May 1, 2006 03:24 PM

And you know how I hate being told when I do something competently! So stop it!

Alex S. | May 1, 2006 04:07 PM

Pratchett, in general, does great infodumps. I especially like the footnotes he drops in. (Optional infodumps! :) )

I also rather enjoyed the infodumps in Bruce Bethke's Headcrash.

Lisa | May 1, 2006 04:31 PM

I haven't read much SciFi either and had never heard of this term "infodump" before. But, yeah, the first thing I thought of was OMW and how the info was weaved into the natural observations and training the main character went through. Very clever. I can tell you a lot about that universe and I can't even remember having to read through a long infodump.

Also, coincidentally, I just watched the movie version of Hitchiker last night. I'd never read the book so I guess that's cheating. Very Funny and yes, very clever use of infodumps.

Cassie | May 1, 2006 05:09 PM

[checking behind me to see if you're looking over my shoulder]

Thanks for the link. It's timeliness is scary.

If one is doing a space travel story wherein galactic transport does use the Theory of Relativity and causes great spans of time to pass, should I infodump that, as virtually every other book on space travel since Star Trek ignores it?

Codrus | May 1, 2006 05:44 PM

Interesting, since I've been meaning to talk about this in a blog-review of Ghost Brigades. I wasn't quite sure how to approach the review, but since you are talking about info dumps, I'll try to get the main point I wanted to make across here.

I really enjoyed OMW and enjoyed Ghost Brigades, but if I have any complaint about Ghost Brigades it was that it seemed like a slow starter for me. The third person perspective, a number of early info dumps, and a significant amount of material goes by before we're really introduced to the protagonist of the story. Basically, it was a little bit of a slow starter for me, but ended quite well. :)

I admit a bias towards strong first-person perspective storytelling. OMW and Agent to the Stars both had very interesting first person perspectives. It was easy to get into their heads and be along for their ride throughout the story. Ghost Brigades took longer for me to really drop into it like that.

I admit, I'm also a sucker for great dialog.

To bring up another author, Chris Butcher's Harry Dresden novels are all first person perspective, and the main character is fun to be around. The reason I bring those books up is the many infodumps throughout the series, but well managed within the context of the story and often done as dialog. I think when it is done as dialog, it becomes more difficult for an author to really get lost in the dump. Not that some authors haven't tried. :D

Anonymous's points about character perspective are also a great point. If the info dump is coming from the omniscient narrator, that's very different than when it comes from an untrustworthy source within the story.

I guess what I'm saying is, the 'in character' info dumps in OMW were very interesting to me. The "Why did they build a sky-hook?" was a great 'hook' for the reader...oooh a mystery! Some of the omniscient ones in Ghost Brigades didn't work for me. I'm not 100% certain that isn't my bias towards first person narrators and dialogue.

Does that help?

Scott | May 1, 2006 06:08 PM

Pat Rock wrote:
I would like to submit that Neal Stephenson is the consumate master of the infodump. You could argue that the Baroque cycle is just one large many faceted infodump loosely connected by a narrative.

Alternately, he could be considered the worst infodumper of all time. Me? I love reading Stephenson's books, BUT that's because he's usually writing about something which I find interesting or at least entertaining.

No author in his right mind will infodump for 4 pages about the dangers of Captain Crunch, and the proper storage of UHT milk in small refrigerators. Thank God that Stephenson is batsh.... uh... crazy.

Plenty of people can't stand Stephenson's later books because he "won't get to the point."

If you're interested in his info, then he's a winner, if you're not, he's terrible.

Andrew | May 1, 2006 07:00 PM

I saw infodumps entertainingly introduced once with "As you know, Yorick..."

Nothing more to say at the moment.

Erbo | May 1, 2006 07:18 PM

I may be in the minority, as evidenced by other commenters above, but I appreciated the infodumps in The Ghost Brigades, especially the early ones on the history of the CDF and the process of creating a new Special Forces soldier. They gave me some better insights into "how the world works" that couldn't be seen from the limited perspective of John Perry in Old Man's War.

Of course, some of what's been called "infodumps" in OMW, like the beanstalk discussion, the Guide to Your New Body brochure, and the "BrainPal Setup Wizard" scene, didn't seem to me like "infodumps" as such; they seemed like just part of the story. Maybe I just have a narrower perspective on what "infodumps" are...or maybe you're good enough to pull a fast one on me. :-)

Codrus | May 1, 2006 08:12 PM

I may be misremembering, but I think John mentioned the beanstalk sequence was one of his ways to sneak in science-fiction material to people who don't regularly read SF.

My take on it was that it was an infodump on the colonies and the world and that doing so as dialogue, with the characters questioning what they know about things, opened up an interesting mystery for me the reader to think about.

Joe Rybicki | May 1, 2006 08:35 PM

Wasn't it in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls that RAH unleashed a multipage infodump on spacecraft ballistics, preceeded by a recommendation that the reader skip the passage in question? I always got a chuckle out of that.

Pat Rock | May 1, 2006 10:20 PM

Scott: I will love neal stephenson forever for his complete hash of trying to explain crypto related math in Cryptonomicon. Particularly the bit with Turing's bicycle chain falling off intermittently. I can't imagine the fight he had to have had with his editor to get them to keep that bit, or well, actually any of the bits about hardcore math. Especially when they broke out the graphs just to explain everything.

Of course he also had a Perl program wedged in there too... Wow. How the hell did he get away with that and still have a best seller?

Anyways. Yeah. Infodumps. Love 'em. Its probably 50% of why I like science fiction at all.

And speaking of infodumper let us not forget another master of infodumps, Frank Herbert.

Or, and of course the man who is probably the master, even more so than Adams, Tolkien. Who took infodumps so far that they later his son would have to posthumously publish the backstory to all the infodumps (also known as the Silmarillion of course).

Ah damnit and of course there's Richard Adams too...

mythago | May 2, 2006 12:52 AM

I think the infodump has gotten a bad reputation because there's some measure of uncertainty how much information is enough, and SF/F writers, on balance, tend to err of the side of too much information rather than too little.

Or because of that "well-delivered" bit.

The real master of infodumping makes it more like an infodribble; the information is integrated into the narrative so that you learn as the characters learn, or you pick it up through context, rather than having the author drag you aside and natter at you.

Scott | May 2, 2006 03:40 AM

I can't imagine the fight he had to have had with his editor to get them to keep that bit, or well, actually any of the bits about hardcore math. Especially when they broke out the graphs just to explain everything.

I figure it went something like this:
Neal Stephenson: Do you remember The Diamond Age?
Editor: Yes.
NS: ...
E: Okay, you're right, it stays.
NS: Thought so.

rhiannon_s | May 2, 2006 06:41 AM

I think the master of the infodump has to be Tolkien though. After all the whole of The Silmarrilion [sp?] is one big info dump for LotR, actually so is parts of The Hobbit.

Brandon | May 2, 2006 07:35 AM

I never have a problem with infodumps, I just can't stand them in character dialog. I mean, if you're writing about someone giving an academic talk, or lecture, that's one thing, but when it's two people just shooting the breeze, it seems forced.

For the record, I think you did a much better job with Infodumps in TGB than in OMW. That's not to say that you did a bad job in OMW, but from what I can remember, the infodumps in TGB were all pretty much done by the narrator, while in OMW, they seemed to be more in conversation. See Infodumps in conversation, dislike of. ;)

John Scalzi | May 2, 2006 08:04 AM

All this back and form as to which book I do better infodumps in goes to my observation that everyone's tolerance for infodumps is different. Of course, I like both.

Will Clark | May 2, 2006 01:28 PM

My biggest problem with infodumps is authors who try to impress me with how smart they are. (*CoughStevenBaxterCough*) Another problem is that some authors explain things to characters who *already*know*that*! I remember an X-Files episode where someone explains DNA to Scully, who if I'm not mistaken is a DOCTOR! Man I hated that.

Anne C. | May 2, 2006 02:46 PM

"All this back and forth as to which book I do better infodumps in goes to my observation that everyone's tolerance for infodumps is different. Of course, I like both."

It seems that way to me too. It just reinforces how there's no one right way to write. Something that repulses one person is endearing to another. This subjectivity is one thing that makes writing complicated. You want to write something that's accessible, but not patronizing.
I really appreciated this conversation, since in my current work I'm trying to work in some more info/description with a very taciturn main character and a tight 3rd person perspective. I was caught up in the "right" way to do it, but obviously I need to shed that. Unfortunately, that's like prying off leeches.

Stuart1 | May 2, 2006 02:57 PM

I think I read Pratchett refer to this as the 'As you know, your father, the King...' sort of writing.

While he's the big name, sometimes Asimov's infodumps are a little tedious.

Carl Caputo | May 3, 2006 10:45 AM

Joe Rybicki is thinking of Friday, I think, for the ballistics infodump. The narrator in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls would likely not have warned anybody to skip; Friday, kindly, does.

The Turkey City Lexicon has a bit about infodumps (in Part Five), including this definition:

Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as "expository lumps." The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as "kuttnering," after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure, this is known as "heinleining."

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