Saturday, June 3, 2017

On the Historiography of Science Fiction: Info-Dumping and Incluing

When it comes to "info-dumping" and "incluing," a considerable current of thought about science fiction hews to the standards of mainstream literature, down to those misconceptions and prejudices summed up in the truism "Show, don't tell." Simply put, info-dumps (telling) are regarded as bad, incluing (showing) as good; and the fact that we are more likely to do the latter than before is taken as a case of "Now We Know Better," and therefore are better than our more enthusiastically info-dumping forbears. Additionally John Campbell and his colleagues (like Robert Heinlein), while getting less respect from the more literature-minded than they otherwise might, are still credited, at times lavishly, with "showing us the light" on this point.

However, Campbell was merely a dedicated and influential promoter of incluing, rather than its inventor. Others had done it before he and his writers came onto the scene. For example, E.M. Forster did so in his short story "The Machine Stops" (1909), and perhaps inspired by this example, so did one of the genre's founding fathers in one of its foundational works, Hugo Gernsback in Ralph 124 C 41+ (1911) (at least in his account of Ralph's use of the Telephot, which seems to echo the opening of Forster's own story). Indeed, the first chapter of Gernsback's oft-mentioned but rarely read classic uses the technique so heavily--and to my surprise, artfully--that it can be treated as a model for doing so, presenting us with a barrage of obliquely treated technological novelties in the first meeting between the titular hero and his love interest, Alice, that manages to be packed with action and novelty, but also lucidly conceived and smoothly written.

Yet, Gernsback shifted to info-dumping for the rest of the text. One reason, obviously, might be that info-dumping--telling--is simply the easier mode from a technical standpoint, setting aside the iron cage of what we call "style," and thus saving an author from having to spend five days on the same page while searching for "le mot juste." However, this does not seem the sole concern. There were particular reasons for the author to go in for incluing in that first chapter--above all, to keep cumbersome explanations from getting in the way of the action. These concerns were less operative later in the text, especially as a big part of their interest was that mainstay of science fiction from at least Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis on, the Tour of the World of Tomorrow--on which it is appropriate to have a Tour Guide along.

Indeed, Gernsback was a strong believer in the value of a good info-dump, as an editor at Amazing Stories strongly encouraging his writers to produce them. Simply put, there are things that cannot be shown intelligibly or concisely, only told, but which it is worthwhile to convey anyway; things that are worth info-dumping when one cannot inclue them; and while one may take issue with the use made of them in some of the fiction he edited, the principle is a valid one, in both science fiction and fiction generally (as H.G. Wells, appropriately, noticed and argued eloquently). Naturally, just as the author who always shows and never tells is a lot less common than the truism would have it (even Flaubert had to tell us some things straight out), so is it very rare to find a really substantial work of science fiction totally bereft of info-dumps.

James Wood on Flaubert
Tell, Don't Show--Again
On the Historiography of Science Fiction
A Fragment on Fan Writing
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
On the First Person Point of View
Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
Tell, Don't Show
My Posts on Literature

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