11 December 2005


I like infodumps. The well-done ones, at least.

How did Heinlein do it? The infodump thing, that is. Why can I read pages of two disembodied characters yakking at each other and not get bored? And it's not just disembodied heads that's the wonder -- it's that Heinlein would literally pull the "as you know, Bob, but it bears repeating..." schtick. Pull that one at Clarion and I'm guessing your mangled corpse is found with your keyboard embedded in your chest.

But it's there all the time, and in some of the best writers. Science Fiction and Fantasy are genres that live for the infodump, probably because sometimes the complex world-building becomes impossible unless you can step in and share some direct info. Kim Stanley Robinson waxed poetic and scientific and philosophic in the Mars trilogy; in the Heinlein book I'm reading, Beyond This Horizon, he has had numerous talking head conversations and an entire chapter that is nothing but infodump, and I'm only 100 pages in or so. Nor is this just a science fiction thing. Fantasy does it, too. Susanna Clarke had some fun with it in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Tolkien did, too, in the form of many a well-described meal, with stories.

I think I'm interested here because of my recent bad experience with a book, which I shall not name again (see the old Livejournal home if you want to see my spazz attack). That had infodump aplenty. Characters told each other stories left and right. Why didn't it work? The primary reason is that readers are more willing to ingest an infodump if, you know, it has some bloody relevance. Heinlein's infodumps are always on target to the matter at hand; so are Robinson's. Tolkien's at least often are, if only in hard to nail down thematic ways. But that's the point -- there's a point.

In the case of the Bad Reading Experience, it began to feel like one of those "I read all these cool legends and I'm going to share EVERY SINGLE ONE." That may be enthusiasm. "This stuff is cool!" the writer chortles. "Lookie lookie lookie!" And the funny thing is, that's why I love infodumps. It's geekness at its best, that "omigod omigod you just HAVE TO SEE THIS." Only, the good writers manage to rein that in slightly, get it under control, and make it work for the story. So Robinson is jumping up and down, excited to share some interesting anarchistic philosophy of economy or physics problem, but he makes it work with the story. In the case of the BRE? It was just there. Padding. Pages of no story happening, nor even anything related to the story. I guess it added color, and sometimes little bits of info about the world. But it told us nothing about the story, or the characters, or in anyway helped make sense of things.

The other big problem, of course, with that kind of geek enthusiasm is that you risk discovering that other folk aren't nearly as enamored and drift off to the buffet table, laughing behind your back as they do so.

The master of the infodump, incidentally, was Victor Hugo, just to show that science fiction and fantasy don't have the exclusive lock. The man could go off for 60 pages about, say, the Battle of Waterloo, just because it was So Darn Interesting.

All this just goes to show that, as long as one has some discipline, a walloping big dose of enthusiasm can let a writer get away with almost anything.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heinlein would literally pull the "as you know, Bob, but it bears repeating..." schtick. Pull that one at Clarion and I'm guessing your mangled corpse is found with your keyboard embedded in your chest.

Actually, we had (more than) a couple of tropes trot their way into stories, and of course the "As you know, Bob" was one of them. One of the students wrote this wonderfully, chortlingly funny piece based on the whole "going postal" thing which had the line, "'As you know', Bob said" in it. (The other one was a story which, at the end, quite literally had a character escape from dreadful machines in a maze only to be rescued by strangers in a space-ship. Talk about the original deus ex machina!)

12/11/2005 9:19 PM  
Blogger Gregory said...

What, were you guys practicing for Scalzi's issue of Subterranean? :-)

12/11/2005 9:22 PM  

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