Watch out, that writer’s taking an info-dump!

This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.

As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.

So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.

Do you?

A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.

As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.

Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.

To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.

I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.

TV Tropes has a good article on info-dumping and why it’s so painful to read.

More book reviews! Science fiction by women…

I was pleased to contribute three of my book reviews to SF Mistressworks, a blog devoted to reviewing science fiction written by women and published during the 20th century.

The reviews:

I appreciate what SF Mistressworks is doing to highlight science fiction written by women, a strong interest of mine. Please check out the rest of the reviews while you’re there.

Recommended science fiction reading for people who don’t like science fiction

I am a great fan of science fiction. I have been reading it all my life, and I read across the spectrum of the genre, from the very soft to the very hard. I enjoy it all, as long as it’s well written. But I realize that science fiction is not for everyone. Some people find it difficult to suspend their disbelief far enough to get into a story about aliens on other planets or traveling between alternate dimensions.

I developed this list as an introduction to science fiction for people who haven’t read a lot of it and don’t think they’ll like it (such as my husband). I don’t think anyone (except me, perhaps) will like every book on this list, since there is a lot of variety here, but you may find something you do enjoy as an entry into the genre.

I start each recommendation with an author who isn’t primarily known for writing science fiction but who has contributed to the genre. If you’ve enjoyed some of that author’s books, you may want to try their more science fictional offerings. Or perhaps you’ve read some of these already and didn’t realize that you were reading science fiction. I follow each of these authors with a recommendation of a similar author who does primarily write science fiction and who you may also like. I also provide a suggested title to start with.

Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.

Mark Twain wrote a satirical time travel novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I highly enjoyed when I read it as a child.

If you like this, you should try Douglas Adams, who also wrote very funny satire. Start with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Kurt Vonnegut is not typically considered a science fiction author, but Slaughterhouse-Five is a time travel novel with aliens, and Cat’s Cradle is about the end of the world. His novels are satirical, darkly funny and often mind-bending.

If you like Vonnegut, you might also enjoy Ray Bradbury. Start with the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

Stephen King is of course classified as a horror writer, the reigning king of the genre, but many of his novels can also be considered science fiction. The Long Walk and The Running Man, both collected in The Bachman Books, are the most straightforwardly SF, but The Dark Tower series has science fiction elements as well. His most recent novel, Under the Dome, is a good example of a blurring of the genres.

King fans might like the Larry Niven-Jerry Pournelle collaborations. These are much harder science fiction than King’s books will ever pretend to be, but they also feature large casts of characters and larger-than-life situations. Start with Lucifer’s Hammer.

Margaret Atwood is well known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and she has recently published two inter-related apocalyptic novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. However, she is still primarily known as a mainstream writer of feminist novels.

If you like Atwood, give Octavia Butler a try, who writes about feminist themes in dystopian settings. Start with The Parable of the Sower.

P.D. James is well known as the author of the Adam Dagliesh series of mysteries, but has contributed an excellent apocalyptic standalone novel, The Children of Men, to the genre.

You might also enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about human culture and philosophy but in alien settings. Start with The Left Hand of Darkness, which is probably her best book.

Michael Chabon enjoys playing with genres and wrote an excellent example of the alternate history as well as a good mystery, The Yiddish Policemen’s Detective Union.

If you liked the alternate history elements of Chabon’s novel, give Kim Stanley Robinson a try. His books are dense, detailed and also explore questions of religion and culture. Start with The Years of Rice and Salt.

Kazuo Ishiguro surprised many of his readers with his moving novel Never Let Me Go, about human cloning in a dystopian alternate history.

I’m not going to pretend that Kate Wilhelm is as literary a writer as Ishiguro, but her novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is another compelling exploration of the consequences of human cloning.

Jonathan Lethem is not really considered a science fiction author but has written too many books in the genre to discount. Gun, with Occasional Music is probably his most accessible, but there’s also the post-apocalyptic Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, about alternate dimensions.

If you liked Gun, with Occasional Music, you might try Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which explores similar themes but in a more straightforwardly science fiction milieu.

Charlie Huston is known for his crime novels, but his new book Sleepless sets the noir thriller in an apocalyptic, tech-obsessed Los Angeles.

William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, writes noir fiction about technology set in the near-future. A good starting place is Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge trilogy.

Frankenstein: The first science fiction novel?

 I had admired the perfect form of my cottagers- their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool . . . and when I was convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some might argue that Frankenstein, which depicts a scientist using technology to play god and reanimate a corpse, is the first science fiction novel. I have trouble coming up with an earlier example of science fiction than Frankenstein, published in 1818. So the first science fiction writer, Mary Shelley, is actually a woman, and her creation endures as a true classic of the genre.

Those who take the time to read the book may be surprised to find that Frankenstein’s monster is not a green bolt-head with a limited vocabulary. Although larger and stronger than most men, he is actually intelligent and an eloquent speaker. After trying to interact with people and being rejected because of his hideous appearance, the monster realizes that no human will accept him and he is doomed to isolation. He becomes obsessed with seeking vengeance from his creator by murdering members of his family. Frankenstein vows to destroy the monster, and the two engage in a chase that finishes in the Arctic.

Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18, and it was published anonymously when she was 21.The story of the novel’s composition is almost as legendary as the novel itself. When Percy and Mary Shelley were visiting the poet Lord Byron one rainy summer, they amused themselves by each writing a ghost story. There, Mary Shelley had a dream that gave her the idea for the story:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

(Another guest, Dr. Polidori, wrote a vampire story, so two classic horror figures were born from the same game.)

The classic theme, and warning, explored in Frankenstein is that man should not play god. The dawn of the Industrial Age brought with it fear of what man and machines could accomplish, and the unforeseen consequences they could have. There is also a theme of the monster as isolated, without an identity, adrift in a world where he can make no connections and life has no meaning for him. Again, this poses a warning of the dehumanization that technology can bring. These themes resonate throughout the science fiction genre even today.

Of course Shelley’s creation endures in films, plays and popular culture. Frankenstein also spawned several science fiction tropes, including the mad scientist and the monstrous reanimated corpse. Frankenstein represents our continuing fears of meddling with technologies we do not understand. Writer Isaac Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex” to describe the fear of robots. Even the term “frankenfood” has been used to refer to genetically manipulated food.

As familiar as Frankenstein is, it is worth it to return to the original novel, which remains an entertaining and relevant work.

More information: The full text online, with critical articles and other resources; An audiobook versionOn Frankenstein, review by Percy Bysshe ShelleyWikipedia articleArtists’ interpretations of Frankenstein’s monsterFrankensteinia: The Frankenstein BlogMary Wollstonecraft Shelley Chronology and Resource Site

Science fiction is my mythology…

A post about why I love science fiction so much in all its forms over on my book reviews blog.

I recommend some great reads about immortality

Remember a while back, when I wrote a neat little piece about our obsession with obtaining immortality. You don’t? Well, let me refresh your memory. And there has been news since then! Some scientist has come out and said we will achieve immortality within the next 20 years, using nanotechnology and robotic body parts. Sound like science fiction? Well, it is, because he’s just making a wild prediction based on technologies that don’t yet exist. But still, take care of yourself and let’s all try to mitigate the effects of global warming. Because you never know.

Anyway, all of this thinking about immortality turned my brain on to some good speculative fiction books that address the theme. So as is my hobby, I put together a little reading list, which Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a blog of book lists, has published. Please go by and check it out. While you’re there, why not browse all the intriguing book lists and maybe buy a book or two? (They are an Amazon.com affiliate.) You know you want to.

Hell is repetition: The theme of cycles in science fiction

Recently, I have become fascinated with the notion of cycles. We humans tend to regard everything linearly, with a beginning and an end, because that is our individual experience. But taking a wider view, we can see that events tend to happen in cycles, that an end leads inexorably to another beginning. It’s easiest to see this in nature, with our regular seasonal cycles and the cycle of growth to death to fertilizer to new life again. In physics, the concept of eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. According to Eastern religions, we are all caught up in the Wheel of Life, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until we can escape via enlightenment.

Post-apocalyptic literature, a favorite of mine, is obsessed with endings, an interesting mind game in itself. What would happen if everything, as we know it, just stopped? But the concept of repeating patterns, of endless cycles, is even more of a mind bender. Recently, a couple of favorite TV shows have explored this theme.

**Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica and Lost follow, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know.**

Battlestar Galactica‘s controversial finale, seen as a happy ending by some and as a silly warning to be nice to your robots by others, was, in my view, highly pessimistic. Despite all their efforts to break the cycle of Cylon uprising and mutual destruction, even to the point of sacrificing their technological advantages, the surviving characters only managed to put the inevitable off for a few thousand years. But all this has happened before, and will happen again — and the cycle begins anew on modern-day Earth.

Lost is exploring similar themes, although it is not clear yet whether the pattern can actually be broken. Still, last night’s excellent season finale asks the question: If the pattern is destined to keep repeating, why take action at all? Why not just opt out? In my opinion, the show has not taken a side. We’ve seen characters opt out (Bernard and Rose), and they seem perfectly happy. We’ve seen other characters take action to try to change the pattern, break the cycle, but we don’t know if they will be successful. Even if they are unable to change the pattern, will just trying be enough for some kind of personal salvation or redemption? Is what matters making a choice and doing something, rather than the effects of that action? These are great questions to ponder on a sleepless night.

I am now getting interested in science fiction novels that explore similar themes. Here are a few that I could think of (ahoy, there may be spoilers ahead):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is structured in a cyclical manner progressing forward and then back through time.
  • The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, in which Roland seems doomed to relive the events of his quest for the Dark Tower until he can find a way to break the cycle of repetition.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which an alien civilization is doomed to cause its own apocalypse and then rise from the ashes over and over.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood, in which a man relives his life again and again (I haven’t read this).

Does anyone have other suggestions? I would love to hear them.