This is a piece of early morning caffeine-fueled speculation, stemming from the superb Academic Exercises by K.J. Parker, which varies its richly detailed invented-world fantasy stories with actual (scholarly?) digressions on the history of arms and armor, etc. To my mind, this takes the principle of the infodump as far as it logically can go – i.e. instead of weaving the information into the story, you actually have it siloed as a separate scholarly exposition. Peter Watts takes a similar approach in his long and fascinating “Notes and References” appendices to his science fiction masterpieces Blindsight and Echopraxia – and face it, when you’re dealing with extremely detailed research-driven scientific ideas, there may be no other way to go. And it really does put the hard into hard sci-fi.

And for anyone who needs a primer on the infodump as a component of science fiction or fantasy, here is a primer, courtesy of io9, of “20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction Novels.” (It’s four years out of date, but I doubt the field has moved on much since then.) And it instances as one of its examples a writer who raises my issue with the concept of the infodump: J.G. Ballard. And Ballard’s infodump example happens to be just a description of what is going on in the story, which I’d argue is not an infodump but the kind of explanation you could find in any work of fiction in any genre anywhere.

Elsewhere, though, Ballard manages to weave the ideas underlying his stories seamlessly into the world-view of its characters, their voices as protagonists (whether recorded inner monologue or speeches to other characters), and the scenes he establishes round them. And this all gels in the overall context of authorial sensibility – the aesthetic, ideology, style, and attitude that the writer brings to his work. Pull this together tightly and cohesively enough, and you have all the information you need for a tale without it dominating the imaginative landscape as big steaming informational dumps.

Of course, one resource that may work but often doesn’t is having one character explain things to another. Sometimes this works when the character’s voice or the emotional content is handled just right – as in io9’s example from Count Zero by William Gibson, where the infodump works because it showcases some superior street jive-talking, and fingers how the recipient, naive ingenue Bobby, is in awe of his instructor and an unlicked cub in the novel’s world. At other times it can be just too obtrusive (for me at least), as in the self-justificatory mantras of would-be corporate magician Wilder Penrose in J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes. And the latter even appears in a story written from the first person where, presumably, all of the narrator’s ideas, tastes, information, worldview, etc, can be relayed to the reader simply by eavesdropping on his fictional inner monologue.

Contrast this, though, with a line like “did the odor of illicit sex acts infest (the nurses’) underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car crashes?” from Ballard’s Crash. That is absolutely about the underlying themes and tropes of the story, but it’s woven into the narrative in such a way that it doesn’t emerge as information at all. Ballard’s novels and stories are usually hugely dense with concepts and ideas, but he was also a writer who originally wanted to be a painter (inspired by Salvador Dali among others), and perhaps that’s one way he learned to modify, incorporate, feel about facts and concepts in his fiction, and produce an aesthetic whole – because he approached them like an artist.

Ditto William Burroughs, another writer massively in thrall to ideas. Or Thomas Pynchon. Or, as another kind of primer, take Max Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland, which parodies the styles of the most prominent writers of his time (c.1912) and in the process gives an object lesson on how a writer’s sensibility incorporates information and ideas. Take the burlesque of H.G. Wells (an archetypal science fiction writer after all), in “Perkins and Mankind”:

He flung himself into a chair in his bedroom and puffed a blast of air from his lungs…. Yes, it had been a narrow escape. He knew that if he had put those beastly blue and white things on he would have been a lost soul…. ‘You’ve got to pull yourself together, d’you hear?’ he said to himself. ‘You’ve got to do a lot of clear, steady, merciless thinking—now, to-night. You’ve got to persuade yourself somehow that, Foundlings or no Foundlings, this regeneration of mankind business may still be set going—and by you’.

Read around and learn, o ye sci-fi/fantasy newbies, so your dumps may be neater and more fragrant …


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail