Monday, September 04, 2006

On Infodumping

Anonymous asks (regarding my post about novels as a vehicle for learning about stuff):

Why a minimum of infodumping? The infodumping is often quite enjoyable. (And on rare occasions from writers we won't name, the best part).

Well, liking most infodumps is certainly nothing to be ashamed - so unless you’re a character from an Italo Calvino novel, Anonymous, you don’t need to hide behind a pseudonym.

The only kind of infodump that’s rightly despised is the infamous dialogue form (‘As you know, Professor,’ a character will begin, and then tell the Professor what they both know). Other than that, the three main types of infodump that I recognise are all perfectly fine. There’s the catch-up or historical infodump, which summarises compresses events outside the main narrative (It was ten years before she saw her husband again - a time of immense change...). There’s the interiorised travelogue, which uses the character’s response to events or landscape to smuggle in information. And there’s the straight-no chaser unabashed infodump - a sentence, a paragraph, a page, that nakedly and often rhapsodically explains something.

I’ve used all three kinds of infodump in just about every novel I’ve written, and don’t intend to stop now, but I’m going to have to show some restraint this time around, for otherwise the whole damned book will be a kind of prose-poem landscape rapture about Saturn’s moons. And while they are as wonderful and wild and strange than anything ever imagined, I want to bring them to life by having my characters inhabit them, and then there’s the small matter of this big sprawling plot I have to fit in...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

But pros in any medium will see the strings that others fail to notice. An infodump that is done well does not appear to be an infodump. An infodump that isn't done well is...well, you should read some of the student writing that I have to look at. (Actually, no you shouldn't. Be afraid, yada-yada...)

September 04, 2006 11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply to my comment. My apologies for the "Anonymous" post; this wasn't due to any special desire for privacy, but because of limited choices for posting comments. I didn’t particularly want (1) a Blogger identity and I don’t have a (2) personal web page for much the same reason. That left only choice (3), which was anonymity. (Anomié?) Anyway, my name is George…

When I wrote that I enjoyed infodumps, I had in mind a combination of what you term "the interiorized travelogue" and "the straight-no chaser unabashed infodump". I agree that the "dialogue form" is merely bad writing and consider the "historical dump" just another device for plot development.

Infodumping has been a part of science fiction ever since its beginnings. I first encountered it in Jules Verne, who was an infodumper extraordinaire. Many of his books had a character who acted as a designated infodumper –- Professor Aronnax in “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea”, Jacques Paganel in “In Search of the Castaways”, Cyrus Smith in “Mysterious Island” – who dispensed geographic, historical, and technical information for pages at a time. I first read these books when I was nine or ten and still recall fondly much of what was “infodumped” in their pages. These books developed in me a love of geography, exploration, natural history, and science that’s nourished a lifetime. Cyrus Smith in particular became a personal hero, a prototypical Heinleinian “competent man”, who demonstrated that with knowledge and science all problems were soluble.

This attitude carried through to more modern science fiction in the so-called golden age of the forties and fifties and in the pages of Astounding and Analog. Robert Heinlein was IMHO a very effective infodumper in his juveniles and early novels. Much of the knowledge shared by him and other writers invited us the readers to explore new directions in hope of learning more. For many of us, science fiction led toward graduate education and careers in science and technology.

And that’s why I value science fiction such as yours and why I appreciate infodumps. So please don’t skimp when describing the beauties of Saturn’s moons; your pages might inspire some of your readers to reach them.


September 06, 2006 4:25 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

It’s old-fashioned to define the terms of your discourse, but might be useful here. I looked up
infodump in Clute and Nichols but there’s no entry, oddly. So for what it’s worth here’s mine:
INFODUMP n. a factual discourse which although thematically relevant to the narrative in
which it is embedded does not further the plot.

That is, it’s a blatant extrusion of extraneous information, rather than the varyingly visible
narrative practices of writers, pro or others. It does mean that the historical infodump
category is problematical, as it often conveys, no matter how tangentially, plot development
(although I think Kim Stanley Robinson uses what are pretty close to historical infodumps in
his Mars trilogy (which are full of good but some time exhausting infodumps). I’m not sure
that the pure infodump is unique to SF though. Melville has infodump chapters in Moby-Dick,
for instance, and there is plenty of infodumping in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.

But SF is the one literature in which infodumps are the norm rather than the exception, and
Verne definitely is a master (Wells, interestingly, only started infodumping after he stopped
writing SF). Like you, George, I believe that my interest in science was partly stirred by
infodumps in the acres of SF I read at an impressionable age, although I was probably
attracted to SF because I was interested in science; one fed of the other, and vice versa.
Which brings us full circle, I think.

September 07, 2006 7:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for the three of us who are interested, here's the Turkey City definition of Infodump:

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."

We all do it sometimes, but that don't make it right. But then that's true of so many things in life...

September 07, 2006 8:14 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Aha - butI think of infodumps as lyrical nonsequiturs rather than expository matter lumped into one paragraph because the author can't work out how to brush it into the background of the narrative.

Have I in my ignorance invented or stumbled across something new and different?

September 07, 2006 11:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone else remember The National Lampoon's tips for writers from umpty years ago? How to write an info-dump that people will read and find fascinating: put it in an explicit sex scene. Michael Swanwick did it.:)

September 24, 2006 11:53 pm  
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September 10, 2007 6:03 am  

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