The Creative Info Dump

The Example of Hyperion, Blackfish City and Children of Time

Result of an info dump crash landing.

In science fiction, the author must describe the special features of the story’s world to the reader. At worst, the information is laid out in a long didactic paragraph, the dreaded “info dump.” And sometimes, an info dump includes details not relevant to the story: the alien societies sewage system or philosophy of early childhood education, for instance. The info dump  often sounds like a mini-history lesson.

“The world of Adelia had always been a place of strife. Over the centuries, a multitude of kings had vied for ultimate control. Now the rivers ran dry and vast deserts spewed dust into the heavens…5 pages later…But today, Crystoline must fetch the water.”

And who’s giving the history lesson? The author, of course. A large block of information not connected to a character or the plot inserts the author between the reader and the story, slowing the story down.

So how does an author successfully convey an imaginary world? Hopefully not in direct dialogue. A character wouldn’t blab on about recent events any more than you’d go on about the origin of COVID19 while standing in the grocery store check out. They live in the fictional world. Everything occurring is their normal, usually not worthy of comment. Attempts to insert information into dialogue at worst might sound like:

“As you know captain, when the revolutionaries jumped the line and destroyed Ilagra, Thagros eliminated our transponders.”

Usually, authors try to weave background information subtly into the character’s dialog, observations or thought.

“Crystoline rolled the water barrel to the spring, desert sand catching in her throat and triggering that irritating dry cough. She wiped a gritty sleeve across her mouth. A drink would do nicely, not that it’d taste right. Not after the contamination. Damn kings and their greed.”

But some science fiction celebrates the info dump, taking large chunks of bone dry information and converting it into a special feature of the story. And sometimes this strategy works incredibly well, usually when the information being conveyed is so interesting that it keeps the reader’s attention.

Take for example Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos. This book mirrors the Canterbury tales: a collection of aspirants travels to a shrine, and during their travels, each pilgrim tells their tale.

Each tale is basically a massive info dump; however, each story is so interesting that the reader “listens” with rapt attention to each traveller. (Although I’m still annoyed the book ended right at the climax, and the climax was drawn out over a much padded second book.)

Then consider Blackfish City, a novel I reviewed some months back. The action occurs on a post-disaster floating city with an interesting history and culture beautifully presented through episodes of a mysterious broadcast entitled,”City without a Map”. Excerpt from this poetic and subversive text are sprinkled throughout the book; the ultimate source remains mysterious until late in the story. The device wore somewhat thin as the book progressed, but overall it served well to explain Blackfish City’s unique features and describe its inhabitants while adding ambience.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky also uses bulky info dumps with success. Didactic chapters detail the history of a spider civilisation, following the spiders from pre-sentience through to a spider space age. (Really how can you go wrong with spiders in space?)

The spider sequences are highly “told.”

Her attention is fixed on another spider at home in its web.

The subject spider is planning to hunt down the spider in the web, but note the passive construction, the spider’s behaviour reported as if by an observing scientist. A “shown” version, as experienced by a spider might read like:

“The other spider hung succulent and juicy, seemingly oblivious in its web.”

But do we know a spider can detect succulence? How do we know a spider can create a mental image of another insect’s mind? This shown spider reads very much like a human with our more or less shared theory of mind and body language. A nervous human can be shown pacing and chewing their nails without the author needing to state, “she was nervous.” However, nervous spiders might tap on their webs or rub their legs together. How’s a human supposed to recognise a nervous spider without being told, “the spider was nervous?” Unless the spider is anthropomorphised, stating the spider’s emotional state is required.

So I can’t fault the author of Children of Time for choosing a didactic style.  And Children of Time toggles between chapters detailing the spider’s world, and more conventionally written chapters featuring humans trying to survive a desperate space odyssey. I particularly enjoyed the human protagonist, an introverted scholarly old man, an atypical choice for a space adventure. The human chapters relieve the reports from the spider world. Also as the spiders evolve, and as the reader gains familiarity with the arachnid world, the spider chapters become increasingly immediate.

I have a fair bit of tolerance for the creative info dump; although some readers will claim “boring, nothing happens, brutal slog or repetitive.” For those readers, I recommend The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, an old-fashioned adventure story I reviewed some months ago. Raidships takes place in a vibrant imaginary world, but the world unfolds during a fast-paced plot.

“A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves.” From Children of Time by Adrian Tschaikovsky

The Reincarnation of Tom by Aden Simpson, a Review.

Humorous and philosophical species-jumping time-travel.

The Reincarnation of Tom by [Aden Simpson]Cubical dwelling everyman, Tom Robinson, has a problem. He’s been hit by a bus, but fortunately a crystal shop purveyor has just provided him with the secret to remembering past lives. Now Tom will wake into a new life with the memory of his old life intact. Sounds great! Doesn’t it?

Problem is Tom immediately messes up because, like most of us, he’s morally average: a bit cowardly, an occasional liar and self-interested. He spends several lives popping back and forth in time, sampling different animal species and genders, while trying to game karma into reuniting him with an unrequited love. Naturally, Tom runs afoul of the reincarnation system and his fellow “reincarnation remembers” and various unfortunate events ensue.

This book raises many of the classic time travel questions, such “should one kill Hitler?” While addressing classic karma issues, such as “is being a vegetarian that necessary, especially when one has been reincarnated as a tiger?” And the answers to these questions are interspersed with nuggets of humour and wisdom. But sadly Tom never quite learns to stop meddling and go with the flow. In fact, Tom seems to be at his best as a tree.

The writing is excellent throughout, and I appreciated the exceptional proof-reading. The Reincarnation of Tom appears to be the second book from a talented, young self-publisher. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author.

Them Bones by Howard Waldrop, a Review

Bayou time travel adventure.

Time travel fiction encompasses many subcategories, and Them Bones by Howard Waldrop fits into a couple. The novel has an anthropological survival angle and an archaeological subplot, but also falls into the hail-Mary-backward-pass-last-ditch attempt to fix an untenable present.

The author presents three story threads; the most fleshed out relays the tale of Madison Yazoo Leake who hails from a “bombed-out time in which everybody would eventually die from radiation, from disease, from chemicals.” Continue reading Them Bones by Howard Waldrop, a Review

The Ages of Entanglement by Robert L. Jackson, a Review

Ages of Entanglement by [R. L. Jackson]Poetic Post-Apocalypse Amongst the Palmettos

In R.L. Jackson’s novel, The Ages of Entanglement, Samson, an aged man, strives to protect himself from the intrusion of others as he wanders a near future Southeast nearly depopulated by a technological blunder. He fears entanglement with others, because entanglement precedes loss, and he’s already suffered enough loss for several lifetimes. But when he encounters the solemn and capable girl, Selene, and a handful of other travellers Samson is drawn back into the web of human relationships. Continue reading The Ages of Entanglement by Robert L. Jackson, a Review

Space Vikings! The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, a Review

The Raidships by [A.D. Wynterhawk]Pros: Action packed plot. Vivid, cinematic prose.
Possible Cons: High graphic index (violence). Low to medium graphic index (sex) but much unpleasantness implied, including non-consensual and abusive gay relationships.

In The Raidships, Mercenaries from a near by planet brutally attack Whit’s peaceful village on Alesia. He’s enslaved and transported to Valkra, a cold, cruel world rife with violence and abuse. Continue reading Space Vikings! The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, a Review

iRomance by Darrell B. Nelson, a Review

iROMANCEiROMANCE When mild mannered accountant Otis receives a stray text from an old friend, he’s pulled into a world of technological and industrial intrigue. Turns out, the old friend has been brutally murdered, and conveniently, just as he receives this mysterious text, he encounters the highly competent and well informed Cynthia. Continue reading iRomance by Darrell B. Nelson, a Review

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, a Review

Pros: Intricately imagined world. Timely themes. Much wisdom.
Possible Cons: Suspension of disbelief mandatory. Many informational passages, characters and indefinite nouns.

Tell/Show Ratio – high
Graphic Index Sex – low
Graphic Index Violence – medium
World Building – excellent
Internal Veracity – medium

Science fiction novels often magnify current societal concerns. The opening quote from Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, informs the reader that Blackfish City will involve real estate problems of epic proportions. Continue reading Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, a Review

Grass by Sheri Tepper, a Review

(You can’t melt a frozen heart with anger)

Pros: Lovely prose. Fabulous world building. Engaging plot with mystery, peril and hope. Deep themes including population control, religious hypocrisy and societal constraints, the human-animal connection. Fine characterizations including a portrayal of a failed marriage, and an intriguing protagonist. Characters act from in response to well-depicted psychological motivations.
Possible cons: Anti-organized religion theme may trouble some readers. Third act drags and occasionally becomes preachy. Fair bit of emotional tell. Continue reading Grass by Sheri Tepper, a Review

Battlestar Suburbia by Chris McCullen, a Review

(Marginalized humans undermine the dominance of machines with the help of a sentient breadmaker and a hair salon.)

Pros: Clever set up, an interesting character, brilliant machine-world psychology.
Possible Cons: Probably not the book for those unable to suspend disbelief or those who like their dystopias grim and sincere.

Battlestar Suburbia begins as the story of Darren, a hapless everyman, and Kelly, a prickly woman accustomed to living outside the law. The pair accidentally run afoul of the powerful machine-world that controls their Dolestar and find themselves on the most wanted list. Continue reading Battlestar Suburbia by Chris McCullen, a Review