the right way to infodump
Posted October 3, 2011on:
Last weekend I got Neal Stephenson’s Reamde out of the library. It’s been a busy week, so I’m only maybe 300 pages into this 1000+ page monster, but so far? I am LOVING it. A book this long and involved deserves more than just a “review” post.
The gist of the plot so far is Richard owns a software company that runs the biggest MMORPG to hit the interwebs since WoW. His neice, Zula, does some work for his company as well. When Zula’s boyfriend does something incredibly stupid, Zula and stupid (ex)boyfriend find themselves “guests” of the Russian mafia, and “invited” to China. And when I say guest I mean hostage and when I say invited I really mean abducted. You see, a virus has broken out in Richard’s MMO, T’Rain. This is a bad thing because it has compromised some sensitive info belonging to the Russians. They wanna find the hacker who started the virus and kill him. Richard wants to find the hacker and hire him.
Because this is a Stephenson, it is jam packed with detail. And not those boring details about what color someone’s hair or clothing is, but the good kind of details, like how Richard and his buddies built the back story of T’Rain, of how his programmers are geologists who literally built the world up from planetary accretion disks, plate technonics and where volcanoes and gold and ore deposits would naturally occur on an Earth sized planets. How they hired fantasy writers (one of Tolkien-esque quality and the other of well, not) to create their own mythologies and histories of elves and dwarves and such.
And that’s just the beginning of the glorious infodumps.
The word infodump has such terrible connotations, doesn’t it? Never ending technobabble laden paragraphs about boring things that the reader isn’t really interested in. You get a ton of info dumped on you, and your eyes start to glaze over.
The trick to infodumps that Stephenson is getting right is to involve me in what’s going on. There is this hilarious internal monologue about rice krispie treats. Who doesn’t love rice krispie treats? It was the first “dessert” I learned how to make by myself when I was a kid. So I’m already interested, I’m already invested. All in one internal monologue, Stephenson connects that to American food traditions on the coasts versus in the plains and midwest, connects that to characters people want to play and how they choose to dress them in an MMO. When was the last time you laughed out loud at the end of an infodump? I read it outloud to my other half, and he was laughing his head off too.
Folks, this is how to do this infodump thing right. Invest your reader, keep connecting it to something they care about, and making them laugh at the end doesn’t hurt.
Although somehow I don’t think I’ll be laughing at the end of this book. It is about gold farming and hacking after all. And the Russians have a lot of guns, and their own infodumps. But again, a blab about comparisons between chess and go? I’m a geek and I dig it!
What’s even better that although I’m sure the tag “cyberpunk” has already been put on this book somewhere, so far all the technology talked about, all the hacking mentioned, all the computer tricks and backdoors, nothing is outside the realm of what is possible today. I’ll bet much of this has already happened in some gold farming operation in China. In fact, didn’t Cory Doctorow write a book about that?
Ever seen the old PBS (it might have originally run on BBC) show Connections? A middle aged narrator would start out with something we take for granted everyday, like gasoline or wooden table legs, or a printing press or breakfast cereal, and over the course of 30 minutes would give the history of the thing and how it’s connected to all these other things you never even think of. The Gen-X version I believe is called Freakonomics. Reamde is a bit like that.