In praise of the infodump:
or, the joys and pains of reading science fiction in general and John M. MacDonald and Laurence Manning in particular, and various other works of the last century and more, and etcetera
Infodump: “An item of sf Terminology commonly used to designate chunks of technical discourse inserted into fictional texts […]. 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”—from the SF Encyclopedia
Why is the infodump so hated, so derided? I suspect that the chief reason is unstated—or barely suspected. Could it be that vast slabs of unadorned information impede our ability to suspend disbelief and briefly escape the humdrum world of wage labour and quiet despair?
Though often polarising, the infodump is a common feature of science fiction. For its detractors it is the very epitome of all that is non-literary about SF. For instance, the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia’s entry on the infodump notes that for some critics, ‘the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it’. For such critics the infodump simply is a literary flaw. But is there only one type of infodump, an impossibly perfect Platonic form whose perfection is, perversely, its distracting imperfection?
Recently, what set me off ruminating upon the infodump was reading a short story by John D. MacDonald: Dance of a New World (1948). The story is not one of McDonald’s best SF genre pieces (for that I would recommend Spectator Sport). But it’s not all bad. A solid tale to while away some of the perils of boredom.
For the first few pages the story tootled along, establishing character, plot and setting in relatively efficient fashion. From the first sentence, unquestionably a story of the future set on a more hospitable Venus than what we got, with one of the characters working as a supervisor of a work gang of local indigenous lifeforms called Harids. The Harids are conveniently insectoids, presumably so we don’t have to care too much about them being rendered zombie like all the better to slave away upon the human run plantation—no doubt one of many projects spreading the unalloyed joys of marginal economics throughout the solar system and beyond. All this information is deftly arranged by MacDonald, woven into a story that works hard to make more of less. A good example of the “show, don’t tell” principle in action. And then this happens:
Shane Brent went up to his room in Hostel B, shut the door wearily, listlessly pushed the News button under the wall screen and watched the news of the day with little interest as he slowly undressed. Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Brent frowned. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of “Synthetics” would have to be made. He stopped suddenly as he had an idea. He decided to submit it to Frank. Why not get Inter-Federal Aid for a project to develop Synthetics to fill personnel requirements for future project flights? But would humanity agree to colonization by Synthetics? It still wasn’t clearly understood whether or not they’d breed true.
This block of information—a microdump perchance?—plays little or no role in the main plot. Nonetheless, it helps further set the scene—or rather flesh it out. After reading these tantalising flashes of the world that the character Shane Brent inhabits, I found the author’s previous efforts at convincing me of this future even more secure. Though clearly an infodump, it is far from the indigestible mass hated by the haters. The chief protagonist even interacts with it. It is an example of the infodump at the service of the story, working in concert with the “show, don’t tell” principle with the aim of further establishing mood and setting with subtle, not overwhelming detail.
Laurence Manning’s story, The Living Galaxy (1934) is, on the other hand, the very opposite of MacDonald’s wonderfully brief and efficient infodump. These days when Manning’s story is remembered, it is best known for being arguably the first, fully fictional rendering of the “generation starship” trope—though this is under dispute (see, the Generation Starships entry at SF Encyclopedia). Manning’s story is all infodump. It’s at its best in its initial conceit of fictional pedagogy: a future history presented as the past of the near immortal heirs of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, this wonderful set up is frittered away in its dull delivery. My heart goes out to my imaginary descendants in this story, having to sit through their marvellous past rendered boring. It seems as if school sux, even in utopia.
Being all infodump is by no means a slight upon this work. For is the absence of entertainment or convincing distraction the best damnation we can manage?
Indeed, I have not come to damn the infodump but praise it.
I believe there are at least two souls of the infodump. The first is all that is listed as worthy of despair; for instance, the too common reality of the indigestibly prolix and dull in information retrieval. But there is another, more striking class of infodump of which the example from John M. MacDonald above gives us a glimpse. One of its hallmarks is an excess of realism—though excessive only in a literary sense. What I mean is that the reality conjured is by way of a sensory overload, in which fragments of the imagined future (or “present”, for that matter) threaten to drown the reader. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is an excellent, though partial realisation of such an excess (more on this below). Nonetheless, both souls—variously dull and poetic—push at the limits of the novel, even if one is more self-consciously set upon breaking the conventions of literature.
The source of my ruminations on excessive realism is Guy Debord. He once wrote upon a situationist use of theatre which influences my thoughts here. Debord’s aim was decidedly more anti-literary, insofar as he envisaged the negation of theatre by way of ‘an excess of realism’. The characters would meet in a ‘normal’ situation lacking in ‘spirit or interest’, in which the conversation would be equally ‘normal […], which is to say, not very intelligent, not very stupid. A permanent and empty spectacle, like life […], with brief overtures of what could be’. Such a vision reminds me of some of the achievements of literary modernism: from Lautréamont’s Maldoror to Joyce’s Ulysses by way of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The point being that the excess of realism Debord invokes is neither just tedious nor simply marvellous, but both (‘not very intelligent, not very stupid’ surely being alternate names for the two souls).
Two of my favourite SF novels are arguably all infodump: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon’s works, founding epics after the fact, are without peer. In the case of the former, the excessive nature of a future history is underlined by its being an unrelenting infodump, albeit in a more poetic register than most. Stapledon errs on the side of epic, the form in which the infodump is best suited, wedged as it were between the lyrical and the dramatic. Nonetheless, they are not the only examples of the prose poetry of the infodump. Walter M. Miller’s short story, The Big Hunter (1952), is also an excellent example. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) approaches the majestic scale of Stapledon by taking a leaf from the masters of modernity to turn its eye upon the epic quality of the future everyday. Indeed, Brunner comes close to Debord’s demand of an excess of realism. He falls short only to the extent that he concedes ground to the strictures of plot and characterisation.
I have often envisaged an infodump novel that would push further in the direction Brunner opened. Except, whereas Brunner inserted character and plot to relieve the reader of his assault upon their sensibility, I would strip the novel of all such concessions in order to leave the cavalcade of these fragments from a future mass culture. Undoubtedly, by turns tedious and entrancing, the two souls of the infodump would be reunited, all the better to underscore the necessary irreality of aspiring after the real upon the page.
Is it too much to imagine the infodump in its excessive guises as the real source of literature? I am thinking here of not just the dull and repetitive parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey, but especially of the hard prose of the chronicles, Herodotus’ Histories being the true grandaddy of all the infodumps. Closer to the present, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick comes to mind with its innumerable and often unjustly maligned digressions into whale history and folk lore. Stephane Mallarmé’s two paragraph prose poem Le Phénomène futur (1871) is more obviously science fictional, and a simple joy at two paragraphs in length, leaving its world building remarkably dense and slight simultaneously. Mallarmé, to my mind, constitutes a bridge of sorts between the SF ghetto and the 19th century literary avant-garde of Europe. On the far, more science fictional side of the bridge I can see Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) and J. H. Rosny aîné’s La Légende Sceptique (1889), both prose poems of cosmic dimension. On the more self-consciously literary side of the bridge I spy Jorge Luis Borges—though he undoubtedly slummed on the far side as well. Surely Borge’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) is the prose poem of the infodump? Further away, harder to see, buried in the sub-structures of the bridge, an old, dog-eared copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) lies wedged.
Can I be serious that all of these are iterations of the infodump? At the very least I believe not only in the merit of the infodump, but also that what we categorise under this term is somewhat less straightforward than is often imagined. Not only is the SF infodump not as dull or turgid as is often imagined, infodump-like examples of prose can be found scattered through modern literature and its more ancient progenitors. My attraction to the infodump is, nonetheless, leavened by a certain fascination with those that have set out to break literature, or at least give it a good thrashing.
For where does the infodump begin or end? On the page? In a conversation? Broken up into a cavalcade of memes? Indeed, I dream of the world as infodump, and of a work that is one great infodump, a science fiction tour de force that inevitably and simultaneously will be a grand misstep. My Zanzibar that is no longer Zanzibar. Necessarily, it will divide opinion. There can be no other way.
 Guy Debord, Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), trans. Stuart Kendall & John McHale, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 376 (letter to André Frankin, 24 July 1960).
 It’s worth noting that Debord saw little of use in the novel form (at least for situationist uses): ‘There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort’. The only such uses that Debord approved of, insofar as they brought him and other situationists the use of money in a moneyed world, were Michèle Bernstein’s parodic detournements of Françoise Sagan on the one hand, and the Nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, on the other: respectively, Tous les chevaux du roi (1960), and La Nuit (1961), both Roman à clefs of sorts, dealing with Bernstein’s life among fellow young International Letterists.