indigestible lumps of technical explanation in the guise of purported dialogue

That invigorating yet frustrating thing where someone smarter than you with a bigger audience makes a fairly neat version of an argument you’ve been trying to peddle for a decade or more. Henry ‘Crooked Timber’ Farrell has been reading Cory Doctorow’s latest, and uses it as a foil for talking about what most sf types would probably just call “infodump”, but which here gets the more specific (and Turkey City approved) designation of

the “As-You-Know-Bob” problem of bad science fiction – indigestible lumps of technical explanation of detail in the guise of purported dialogue. “As you know, Bob, the neutron flux problem eases after we pass the hyperluminal barrier. That’s how we were able to escape the Wixilit fleet.” The problem is not only that this kind of stuff is painfully dull to read, but that it does not make narrative or logical sense. If both parties know how something works, why is one telling the other about it? Consider how it might seem in a different popular genre. “As you know, Bob, when you press the ‘5’ button, a bell dings, the elevator’s doors close, and it goes to the fifth floor. That’s how we were able to escape Mr. Wixilit’s goons.” It’s fun to imagine an “Exercises in Style” type story in which the tropes of terrible expository science fiction were applied to a crime novel, or similar. But it’s probably much more fun to imagine than to read.

The point is twofold. First, that science fiction can be understood, without too much conceptual violence, as a congeries of evolved narrative strategies to avoid, sublimate or escape the As-You-Know-Bob Problem. Second, that these strategies can be extremely useful outside science fiction.

That twofold point is a big part of my argument in favour of narrative prototyping. Julian Bleecker is justifiably keen to keep design fiction distinct from science fiction, but I think there’s more value in understanding them as different ways of achieving similar goals regarding engagement around issues which otherwise wouldn’t be of interest to non-wonk audiences—not least the possibility of using the advantages of both forms as ways of compensating for one another’s disadvantages.

Farrell continues:

We could learn from science fiction writers. The good ones have spent years getting better at performing a fabulously difficult task – getting people to pay real cash money for books and stories imparting knowledge about technical subjects that are often completely invented and have no practical application whatsoever. If you read science fiction and pay attention to what the author is doing, you will learn enormously. Read Red Team Blues and see how Cory provides just enough technical detail at any point for you to follow along, and how he unobtrusively uses the narrative both to convey the information and persuade you that it is important. Then try to steal his best tricks and use them for yourself. At the least, you’ll be more fun to talk to when you mount your hobbyhorse. And – who knows – perhaps you’ll find that you have a book of your own to write.

Farrell doesn’t mention the mechanics, of course… and I doubt many sf writers could explain it in a procedural way, either. You just kinda pick up tricks when you see them done, and you try out your own variants… but a lot of those tricks and variants are to do with character, positionality, interiority, and the relation of narrative to fabula.

(You don’t need to know those particular terms to be able to do these things, of course—but if you want to understand what you’re doing more systematically, then it wouldn’t do you any harm.)

Farrell ends with a rather bold flourish:

Science fiction is the trade secret of writing popular history.

I think that’s a little strong. There’s still a lot of really bad infodumpy sf out there, for starters… and if people started writing popular history in the style of, I dunno, Kevin J Anderson, then I sincerely hope that the popular history readership would manifest at the publisher’s offices with torches and pitchforks.

But Farrell’s right that the sf genre—very broadly considered—has developed, through trial and error, a number of strategies for infusing exposition into narrative in ways that don’t break the spell of the story, and thus allow the exploration of worlds other than that in which the reader is reading. Those are the same strategies which I have been trying to operationalise in the context of futures work in recent years, and I’m glad someone else can see the point.

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