Monday, August 19, 2013

Perils of the Writer: The Overexplanation of Genre

I recently discovered a little gem of satire: How David Weber Orders a Pizza.  Go check it out.  I'll wait.


I'll admit, I laughed a lot there, because it was a pitch-perfect satire of Weber's style-- highly technical, and expanding upon every possible detail as if the reader had very little cultural or historical context to comprehend what is going on.  Even the most mundane aspects of daily life can become detailed and analyzed to an absurd level:
120 meters later, he pressed the central pedal on his floorboard and the vehicle slowed smootly to a zero-zero intercept with the pavement. A signpost stuck out of the concrete outside, in front of and slightly to the right of his vehicle. It bore a large red octagon, with the word "STOP" emblazoned upon its center in white sans-serif lettering. The sign was a way of establishing right-of-way rules at this intersection of two streets. The vehicles going his direction, and going the opposite direction on the same street, would both see these "stop signs", and would thus be required by law to stop before proceeding. Vehicles following the street that crossed this one, on the other hand, would not see any "stop signs." They would be allowed to continue across the intersection without changing their velocity. If neither street had displayed any "stop signs", then vehicles following either street could legally cross the intersection at constant speed, resulting in disaster should two vehicles from each street be converging on the intersection at the same time. With the stop signs, the vehicles following the stop-signed street would be required to stop and wait for any such "cross traffic", thus ensuring that both they and the crossing vehicles would emerge from the intersection safely.
While this is sublimely ridiculous, would a description or explanation of something in sci-fi or fantasy along these lines be that out of place?  Weber is far from the only genre author guilty of this sort of thing. 

Now, part of this is the worldbuilding: the author has done the work, and it must be shared, right?  But moderation is key.  Does the reader NEED to know this?  Does not knowing impede their understanding of what is going on?

Sometimes a good infodump is entertaining and exciting-- Scott Lynch is good at this, for example, putting as much storytelling as possible into it.  But more often than not, it's exactly like what this story satires: overcomplicated and absurd in chronicling the details that would be commonplace.

Here's an exercise for you: modern life is pretty much the stuff of science fiction from 20 or 30 years ago.  How would you accurately describe the commonplace of today in the voice of someone writing in 1993 or 1983?


Glynn Stewart said...

It's always the fine line to walk - for the current project I'm working on, there's a lot of historical background and detail (the world has changed in massive ways in the 400 year gap since our time), and I've worked most of it out at at least a high level.

How much of that to include in any given sequence (how relevant, for example, is the rotational speed of the space station when our intrepid hero is mugged in its back corridors?) is always a hard judgement call.

Sadly, I suspect I come down on a Weber-esque side, but that's what I have suckers... I mean first readers for.

Ben Blake said...

Tom Clancy is guilty of this too. Often in his work the tension is building, the fighter plane begins its attack run... and then we're treated to 3 pages of techno-babble about the plane's characteristics, and those of its weapons and how they're better than the ones before blah blah.

And it still isn't enough to fully portray the world. That's why Tolkien-world support stories are still being published, 20-some volumes after LOTR finished. A writer should know (or learn) where to stop and let the reader's imagination do the rest.