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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Infodumps or Constellations?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/14/09 at 09:51 PM

The infodump, as Todd VanDerWerff points out, may well be the single generic feature shared by all flavors of science fiction:

You might find some infodumping in a Western or in a period piece, but for the most part, we know the rules those genres play by because those genres take place in our reality, just in the past . . . . To a large degree, the division between hard and soft [science fiction] often hinges on things like infodumps. The hard [science fiction] is often for the people who are really, really interested in the science part of the science fiction equation. The soft stuff skews more toward the fiction end of things and isn’t particularly concerned with plausibility much of the time.

This strikes me as wrong in one crucial respect: the infodumps about which people complain occur at the outset of a work. They’re presented as the technological enablers of the narrative to follow. They are exposition before the fact—before readers have any emotional investment in the characters whose narratives are enabled by the infodumped technology. No surprise, then, that people whose primarily invest in character or narrative find the lengthy technological preambles of hard science fiction off-putting.

To label as infodump the exposition on the Battlestar Galactica episode “No Exit“ is to be a little too literal. “No Exit” did “dump” quite a bit of “info” on its audience, but the information was not intended to make the narrative work, because it already does. You cannot have an infodump four seasons into a series: you can only have a revelation. The argument should be whether too much information was revealed too quickly, but what else were the characters meant to do? Naming an episode after Sartre’s No Exit signals a forthcoming entrapment of the character’s own devising. Their Hell will be the other people they’re trapped with.

But that’s not where I’m headed with this post. I think the thematic parallels with Sartre’s play are important—certainly significant is the implication that this is a Hell of their own devising, one in which they remain not by force or compulsion, but through fear of the unknown. (That all the characters begin by talking about what happened on Earth, only to become increasingly occupied with their own infighting seems an important parallel, even if I am being a bit literal.) What I want to focus on the effect on a viewer when almost 70 hours of thin-streaming history are followed by one of torrential exposition.

On a certain type of reader/viewer, the result is little different than the cumulative effect reading Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest; namely, this person feels like the night sky yearns to snap into constellations—he feels like the heavens look down on, disappointed, because some personal failing prevents him from discovering the order they contain. So what does this person do?

If he’s reading Ulysses, he maps Joyce’s universe onto the tram-lines of William Martin Murphy in order to demonstrate that

[Stephen’s] attempts at upward mobility are futile, frustrated in large part by Murphy’s reluctance to lower the tramfare. However, were Murphy to lower the tramfare, the people riding the tramcars would no longer comprise a tram-riding elite, and Stephen’s desire to ride the tramlines might atrophy into little more than a timesaving utilitarian impulse. Understood in this manner, Stephen becomes a pathetic figure obsessed with belonging to a class he can only feign membership in on payday.

If he’s watching Battlestar Galactica, he writes the following post.



On the principle of recycling-is-good, and off the point of BG and Joyce, here’s what I said last year about Greg Egan’s latest novel.

Which brings me to the subject of infodumping. Here’s one dump from the very first time we meet Roi, at the end of her work shift:

“A group of wretched males clung to the rock, begging to be relieved of their ripeness. Roi approached to inspect their offerings. Each male had separated the two hard plates that met along the side of his body, to expose a long, soft cavity where five or six swollen globes sat dangling from heavy cords ... she used her mating claw to reach into the males’ bodies, snip the globes free and deposit them inside her. ... The ripe seed packets secreted a substance that the males found extremely unpleasant, and whilst unplucked globes did shrivel up and die eventually, waiting for that to happen could be an ordeal. There were tools available for severing and discarding them, but that method was notoriously prone to spilling an agonizing dose of irritant. Something about a female’s mating claw ... sealed the broken cord far more effectively than any tool.” (Egan, Incandescence p. 14)

You’ll remember a similar scene from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl:

“Prince Amerigo removed his clothes. His male generative organ, known technically as a “penis” (although it had a wide range of other, slang and informal names) was no long flaccid and had become stiff, acquiring the consistency of wood or bone. It had also become slightly larger. The Prince achieved this transformation by subconsciously—autonomously—diverting a small proportion of his blood flow into the organ, where a spongy tissue became engorged with the additional fluid. This bodily alteration in the Prince’s organ was accompanied by an emotional and psychological desire, that he experienced as a sense of urgency, to insert the “penis” into Charlotte’s vaginal cavity, using friction to stimulate the release of spermatic fluid. This urgency would eventually dissipate if the penis were not inserted, but the Prince experienced it in the moment as a form of pain, not physical but not the less aggravating for being psychological, and his preference was for full mating with Charlotte.”

Of course not. Of course, we might say, James doesn’t need to write that, because we all know what is involved in the human sex act, while Egan does need to introduce his dumpy little chunk of info because we don’t know what is involved in his insectoid creatures’ mating. Of course we don’t know: Egan has just made the species up. But I don’t think this is actually what is at issue here. (Imagine The Golden Bowl being read by an inexperienced teenager vague on the precise details of the sex act, or by somebody unaware of the precise mechanism by which a penis becomes erect: would spelling these details out enhance their reading experience? Of course not.) Egan’s paragraph is in part a way of marking the difference between human-ness and alien-ness. But it is more than that. It is a desire to communicate a large quantity of information in as efficient a manner as possible. There’s nothing more efficient than an infodump. What is any scientific paper if not a dump of info? But efficiency is an inadequate aesthetic, particularly for the novel. The appendices to The Lord of the Rings convey much more data in a much more efficient manner than The Lord of the Rings does itself. That does not mean that they are to be preferred as a reading experience. There are many better fictive methods for marking estrangement from the ordinary than this.

Naturally, a scientist does not desire to toy with her audience, or play peek-a-boo with her data; she wants to uncover things, not to cover them over with artful narrative suspensefulness. Nor do scientists lay out data so that we can intuit its significance (as it might be: “the door dilated”): the scientific model is that they spell this significance out clearly and fully. That is what this particular scientist (Gregory Egan BSc) does in this novel. He does it all the way through. It is deadening.

Science is the enemy of mystery. Fiction, however, requires a degree of negative capability immiscible with the scientific method. The best SF authors find a way of holding these two elements in an effective emulsion.

By Adam Roberts on 02/15/09 at 08:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, Adam, when are you going to complete your infodump-laden parody of James? What about a Dickensian infodump?

By Bill Benzon on 02/15/09 at 09:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We may have stumbled upon a whole new literary form.

So much depends
a red wheel

a small hand-
propelled vehicle,
usually with
just one wheel,

designed to be pushed
and guided
by a single person
using two handles to the rear,

glazed with rain
beside the white

Gallus gallus,
known as
gallus domesticus.

With a
of more than
24 billion

there are
more chickens
in the world
than any other bird.

Humans keep chickens
primarily as
a source of food,
consuming both their meat and their eggs.

By Adam Roberts on 02/15/09 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The infodump is a form of exposition.  19th century realist novels have them; so do dissertations.  So I take the problem to be double:  an excess of information presented in a way that is too expository, that doesn’t seem integrated into the whole; a misplacement of information, as when the infodump occurs after the expository part of the plot should be over--like when a physical description of a character occurs on the next to the last page, or when the dissertator explains his or her theoretical framework in an arbitrary place in the middle of a chapter.  There can be ample contextual information given without an infodump, if exposition is more subtle or information is given through the act of narrating itself.

By on 02/15/09 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That poem’s excellent, Adam.

By on 02/15/09 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That simple positional distinction between “infodump” and “revelation” accounts for some of the wonderful effect of “Ithaca” in Ulysses and some of the depressing effect of Bouvard & Pecuchet‘s structure: in both cases, the misplacement of giant gobs of exposition becomes problematic for readers. Common ancestors of such excursions might include the wonders described by travelers’ tales and the inset narratives of romance. Indeed, travel genre satires (such as Gulliver’s Travels or Persian Letters) contain passages not far off from Adam’s Golden Bowlworld. Whether the intrusions are welcome or not depends partly (as Jonathan says) on the skill of the writer, but also partly on what the reader is after. Melville can get pretty frustrating if you’re reading for the plot.

Of classic get-it-over-with science fiction infodumps (heir to the multi-generational summaries at the start of a three-decker novel), my favorite may be the story-within-the-story of Thomas Disch’s “The Squirrel Cage”: a page quoted from the New York Times, two pages of frame narrative, and finally two lines of text proper. Sensawunda!

By Ray Davis on 02/16/09 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As you know, Bob, Genoa and Lucca are now simply family estates of the Bonapartes…

By on 02/17/09 at 07:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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