M / T / Faking A Dump

Frank R Paul - ralph 124d41 city

Frank R. Paul's illustration for Hugo Gernsbach's unreadable Ralph 124C41+

I’ve just started in on a Very Big Book by a Very Important Writer, and man, is it ever tough slogging.

It’s like trying to hack my way through a room filled with tofu armed with only a spoon.[1]

The problem is that the VIW feels it is important that the reader knows all sorts of important background information before the story actually begins so that the actual plot, once it starts, will be easier to comprehend.

This is a bad habit VIW has developed in latter years.  Some time back I began reading one of the author’s previous Very Big Books and was dismayed to the point of despair at all the background information I was being required to read through.  In fact, I was on page 99 and decided that if things didn’t improve on the next page I was bailing out --

-- and luckily on page 100 the VIW finally introduced the main point of the book and the story kicked into high gear and it ended up being one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read.

But pages 1 – 99 of that book coulda / shoulda been jettisoned, especially since they amounted to little more than roman a clef fan-fic of a Very Popular TV series.[2]

All that stuff could have been omitted without harming the actual story.  All the human characters were cardboard dolls who could have been easily replaced, distinguished from their pulp archetypes only by the stray extraneous supercilious detail.

The info dump is often important in very many novels and films; the necessity of explaining or better yet, demonstrating important information that makes the rest of the story comprehensible.

In detective stories the info dump usually occurs when the private eye is hired to solve a case and the client fills him and us in on all the basic particulars.  In spy fiction the spy master calls in the super secret agent and hands them a dossier with all the crucial background information on the supervillain.[3]

Sci-fi and fantasy stories often have an additional hurdle: Contemporary or even recent (i.e., post industrial age) historical fiction does not need an elaborate explanation of the times / culture / infrastructure that supports their stories. We know how big cities function, so the private eye does not need to explain the working of the highway system or the interdependent symbiosis of automobile manufacturers / petroleum producers in order for us to understand how they drove from their crummy office downtown to the client’s elegant mansion uptown.

But make enough significant changes in the background, and leaping that knowledge hurdle becomes problematic.

There are different approaches to this.

Alfred Bester did it most baldly, literally starting off his classic novel The Stars My Destination (Tyger! Tyger! for you folks in the UK) with a historical essay on how the discovery of “jaunting” (teleportation by effort of mind alone) drastically changed the culture of humanity.

Noriyoshi Ohrai - stars my destination

Noriyoshi Ohrai's cover interpretation of Alfred Bester’s novel for the Japanese edition. You’ll note the Japanese editor thoughtfully corrected William Blake’s spelling…

Bester got away with it because he’s a stylish, flamboyant writer and his essay was a rollicking word picture of an extravagant future with sly and hilarious observations.

It was entertaining, and as such no spoonful of sugar was needed to make it go down easier.

Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis of Urine Town took the same approach with “Too Much Exposition”, a meta-fiction number that not only acknowledges it’s a standard trope in a Broadway musical, but also cheerfully admits the entire premise of the production is ridiculous![4]

That trick doesn’t work for everyone, however, and far far FAR too many sci-fi novels begin with a scene (read “lecture”) where too many characters are introduced much too quickly and much too blandly (no matter how much eccentric fringe is hung on them) with no purpose except to discuss amongst themselves the radical changes in human society that occurred since atomic toilets were installed a generation before.

Hack, please…

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A close reading of the story reveals a society technologically far advanced from ours, with hunter-killer robots and buildings so fireproof that firemen no longer fight flames but are government sanctioned arsonists.

But for Bradbury’s purposes, none of the technological background is important to explaining how and why his society works, much less what drives the thirst for forbidden knowledge that makes his protagonist Guy Montag so memorable where other sci-fi characters are interchangeable ciphers.

Fahrenheit 451’s world seems at first glance no different from our own…except for one little thing. And that approach makes it more timeless and translatable -- not translatable merely in the sense of one language to another but in the sense of one time & culture being able to grasp the meaning of another.

There are, of course, a wide variety of approaches in between. Robert Heinlein is perhaps the prime example of a writer who skillfully / seamlessly weaves in great big info dumps without drawing undo attention to them.[5]  Have Spacesuit, Will Travel famously starts off in Norman Rockwell Americana and ends up in Star Wars backyard and does so with a casual series of reveals that literally doubles the scope of the novel chapter by chapter.

Conversely, Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith[6] just plunge ahead with concepts and terminology unfamiliar to the reader, expecting them to hang on for the ride.

In effect, they expect readers to be co-collaborators with them, using their own imaginations to fill in details of the broad vibrant sketches they provide.

There’s no one absolute right or wrong way of m/t/faking an info dump…

…except, of course, for the one unpardonable writing sin: Boredom.

As a rough rule of thumb, the less you tell / the more you show, the better. The less concrete your background and the more abstract, the better.

And ultimately, the details don’t matter.

Even in sci-fi, the story is not so much about what happens (and even less how it happens) than it is why it happens and (most importantly) to who it happens.

Create characters the reader is curious about, and you’re on your way to the homestretch.




[1] And not a serving spoon, either, but one of those dinky little sample spoons they have at Baskin-Robbins.

[2] Sidebar: I understand the temptation to take shortcuts, and in a story where the human character interaction is less important that the ideas being expressed it’s no great sin to fall back on templates that readers are familiar with through TV and movie exposure.  But, people, there’s more than one Very Popular TV series, and more than one Very Popular Movie, and it wouldn’t hurt to lift character types and tropes from other TV and movie series for variety’s sake, if nothing else.  Will, Dr. Smith, and the Robot haven’t been working much recently, know what I’m sayin’?

[3] How this information is obtained is never explained.  It’s nice to think that M may have graduates of Hogwarth’s laboring away in the bowels of MI5 to magically secure the info they hand over to 007.

[4] Harlan Ellison in his great short story “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman” famously brings the proceedings to a screeching halt to explain that his protagonist’s acquisition of $100,000 worth of jelly beans was impossible because (a) nobody uses money anymore (b) the Harlequin couldn’t have possibly accumulated that much cash even if it did exist (c) the logistics of moving $100,000 worth of jelly beans without attracting government attention were beyond any single individual’s ability (d) they haven’t even made jelly beans in over a hundred years!  Nonetheless, the Harlequin still manages to acquire / move / distribute $100,000 worth of jelly beans and literally gums of the works of his time obsessed society.  It’s Harlan’s story, and if he says it happened, it happened…

[5] At least in his earlier, less didactic stories.

[6] Psuedonym for Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

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