Entry updated 21 August 2023. Tagged: Theme.
An item of sf Terminology commonly used to designate chunks of technical discourse inserted into fictional texts, usually texts described as Hard SF, which are based (or claim to be based) on non-fantasized understandings of Technology and science. It is therefore often safe to assume that the infodump itself, certainly in the hard sf context, is a condensation of non-fantasized knowledge, and that it is therefore simultaneously integrated into but distinct from the SF Megatext. This sense that the infodump fits uneasily into most sf texts is strengthened by hard sf's didactic advocacy of the virtues of real-world technology and science; an infodump that buttresses and authenticates the Thought Experiment of a hard sf story should not, therefore, promulgate Imaginary Science or previously discredited Scientific Errors. In hard sf, the infodump is meant to be perceived as truthful to fact.
Though the pure infodump (as described above) may normally be presented in terms that seem to brook no dissent, there is of course no such thing as a value-free literary device, a truism all the more pointed when the central function of the literary device in question is information retrieval. This is not simply because it is the winners who write history; it is in fact central to Information Theory that Homo sapiens cannot separate "pure" information from the shape information takes in order that we may perceive it. In this light, a condensed information-conveying device like the infodump is almost always conspicuously marked by signs of advocacy, and the hard sf assumption that its contents are value-neutral can be seen as contrarian.
Examples of the concentrated dumping of information can of course be found throughout Western literature, an early instance being Homer's description of the Greek fleet and its origins in the Iliad, the most intense perhaps being William Shakespeare's description of the first sight of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (performed 1607; 1623): "I will tell you. / The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd Throne, / Burnt on the water: The poop ..." (a point, perhaps, where ekphrasis becomes infodump). Proto SF texts frequently contain explanatory passages – most of them visibly shaped to convey Political or Satirical points – which can be seen as ancestral to the twentieth century infodump. After 1800 or so, as plural and contesting explanations of the nature of things multiplied, documentary assertions that the truth was being told frequently mark the modes of retrieval commonly found in Fantastika. The highly elaborated story forms of the Gothic as a whole – tales within tales within tales, each inserted in order more and more securely to ground the surrounding text – can be seen as verging on infodump, certainly in a desperately explanatory text like Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820 4vols), or in the intense reiterations of back-story that a few years later mark the Ring Cycle (1854-1876) operas of Richard Wagner (1814-1883), where Wotan's sequential reconstructions of the past come closer and closer to an accurate Prediction of doom, which is to say (in terms that some sf critics might recognize) that in Wagner the past is a spoiler. It may be insufficiently sensitive to his didactic enterprise to describe as Gothic or Wagnerian the innumerable operatic infodumps at the heart of so many of his novels, but Jules Verne clearly shares a need with his predecessors to universalize what in a mere romancer might be no more than back-story, so that his voyages can extrapolate real worlds from the fixative rhetorics of science and technology. The fatal propensity of authors of Utopias to shape their narratives as a sequence of lectures, often climaxing in Economics, similarly shares a need to present argument as no more than reportage. Future War novels before World War One also tend to contain compressed cod histories, almost invariably shaped to present as self-evident the moral virtues of one nation over another. To the dismay of some readers, Arthur C Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) is a sequence of infodumps, his Sleeper Awakes protagonist being cast in the role of Visitor and lectured to almost without stop.
As the understanding of Fantastika has deepened over the past two centuries, the assertiveness of the form, and its heterodox relationship to consensual reality, are now better understood as comprising arguments about the world. In this light, the purest (though not the most rewarding) form of fantastika may well be the Hard SF novel, at whose heart the infodump beats time. Even in the crudest examples of hard sf, its condensed clarity can convey a powerful rhetorical force. It may therefore be unsurprising to discover that in contemporary texts the infodump, or the knowledge that an infodump has been imparted, can be apprehended by the reader as an Icon, as a tangible representation that the right story is being told in the dark, without the cost of a laborious transmission of loaded data. Readers are often therefore offered lore beyond human ken via an intense invocation of infodump that, like a Black Hole, is almost entirely rumour: it is entirely through its effects that we register the omniscience of an ancient Computer about to tell us the secret of the race, or the sudden recovery from Amnesia of a Hero, or the sudden jolt of knowledge that marks the coming into his own of an incipient Superman, or (for an example) the vast infodump embedded instantly in Patera Silk's mind by a godlike entity which may or may not be an AI in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun.
Most infodumps, however, sometimes sadly, are nothing like instantaneous, and few attain the pyrotechnic exuberance of Alfred Bester's scene-setting Prologue in Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996). In sf criticism, the term is often used to pejoratively name a flaw, when the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it; this is a peril for writers and readers alike in Sequels by Other Hands, where a measured delivery of necessary information is hard to accomplish at the hands of multiple cooks. It may also become a visible tic in series which for the sake of new readers must repeatedly incorporate resumés of settings or furnishings, such as the Alternate History (and its initiating Jonbar Point) of Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy sequence; the ecstatic Cyborg mind-fusion that recurs again and again in E C Tubb's Dumarest adventures; and the titular Space-Habitat hospital's description in James White's Sector General stories. Adam Roberts has argued that Neal Stephenson's Anathem (2008) is essentially all infodump. Several sf novels deploy overt infodumps between chapters, as in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) – which homages the technique of USA (1930-1936 3vols) by John Dos Passos (1896-1970) – Joe Haldeman's Mindbridge (1976), and Frederik Pohl's Gateway (November 1976-March 1977 Galaxy; 1977) and, rather less successfully, Syzygy (1982); Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (2012) has some notably lyrical examples, as do almost all of his previous works; Andy Weir's The Martian (2014) is full of more prosaic infodumping.
Though most common in sf, the term is immediately comprehensible even to uninitiated readers, and is relevant to other literary forms; indeed, the entire oeuvre of Tom Clancy might be characterized as infodump novels of Technology transfer. The term itself seems fairly recent, though its use in computer design seems to go back decades. The earliest literary attribution recorded by Jeff Prucher in Brave New Words (2007) is to Howard Waldrop in 1990, telling us that it is in common use "in my neck of the woods"; but there are still earlier appearances in K W Jeter's Dr Adder (written 1972; 1984), where "info-dump" in the hyphenated form is described as "The incompetent writer's way of revealing the details of his story's setting, or whatever axe that particular writer had to grind", with the coinage attributed to a book review in an old SF Magazine. [JC/HW/DRL]
see also: Clichés.
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