SF writers have had a problem since about day one of the genre. As the story must, in some way, involve science for the story to actually qualify as science fiction, and the average reader’s knowledge of said science cannot be assumed to be anything more than minimal, somewhere along the line the writer must explain whatever scientific theory, gadget, or fact that the story uses. This requirement is unique to the genre, and can make it far more difficult to write than conventional stories, as somehow interest in the story must be maintained while all this information is imparted.
Over the years, several methods have been used to accomplish this task, some of which are clearly better than others, and some of which are suited only for certain types of situations, stories, and scientific levels.
1. The ‘classic’ info-dump. In this method the story gets interrupted by a mini-lesson in whatever science is relevant. Whether this is handled in third-person omniscient mode, where the info might just have well have come straight out of a science textbook, or delivered via ‘dialogue’ between the story’s characters, this method has the severe disadvantage of being essentially a lecture to the reader. As the reader is looking for entertainment rather than a science lesson, most readers encountering this will be disappointed and unhappy with the story. Many stories from the twenties to the forties used this method, and reading them today is a sometimes painful experience, as in general this is just bad writing. Especially if these info-dumps start off with something like: “Hey, Jack, I know that you’re already aware of most of this, but just to make sure you understand how this little gizmo works…” followed by three pages of semi-scientific gobbledy-gook. Unfortunately, this method still gets used today, sometimes by writers who should know better. It does have the advantage of allowing a very direct explanation for whatever piece of science you are using, and if it is limited to very short expositions it can work. However, much of today’s ‘hard’ SF is dealing with very esoteric theories, environments, concepts, and hardware; being able to explain these items in very short info-lets is probably impossible.
2. Drive the exposition from a direct need-to-know by the point-of-view character. This is the method that Heinlein practically pioneered and perfected, as shown in his Have Space-Suit, Will Travel – when his main character has just gotten a space-suit and needed to repair it, it was fairly easy to insert engineering details about how such suits are constructed and why they are built that way, without losing connection with either the story flow or reader interaction. This method is excellent for those items that have concrete relevance to the story’s action. It does not work so well if what is being described is more theory than practical application of that theory.
3. Create futuristic ‘Headlines’ that describe the theory, invention, or relevant history. These must be brief, and preferably part of other ‘headlines’ that have relevance to the story. This has the advantage of being part of a story ‘interruption’ that nevertheless moves the story forward by providing proper background and that is more acceptable to the reader than pure exposition. Some of John Brunner’s novels used this method to very good effect.
4. Don’t explain it at all. This has the obvious disadvantage that it may leave the reader totally at sea, but if the function of whatever gizmo is being used is derivable from context, it may be all that’s needed. Imagine a cave-man reading the following:
“He rolled out of bed and propped open his eyes. Shuffling into the kitchen, he turned on the coffee pot and went to grab the newspaper. Returning, the fresh coffee aroma started to clear his head, and his first sip went a long way towards making the day look bearable.”
The cave-man would know nothing about electricity, coffee pots, or even what coffee was – but he could tell from this that the pot was a device for making a drinkable item that had invigorating effects, and that the coffee pot works pretty quickly. And this may be all the information the reader needs to know about this device.
A sub-class of this method is to present the futuristic item as a commonplace of the day, not worthy of comment. Obsessing over the ‘gee-whizness’ of some gadget will, in general, take away from the focus on your story and characters. Once again, this is something Heinlein did well, such as his one-liner in Space Cadet about using a microwave oven (written in 1948 before such items became a reality).
Context can be much wider than just the direct sentence(s) describing the item of interest. Especially for setting up a social environment, it’s frequently better if how the world got to its current condition is not explained directly (at least not immediately), but the reader can see how this society operates from what is happening now. Things like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984, Heinlein’s Friday all benefit from having the story delineate the current society, rather than have some long treatise on the ‘history’ of how the world got this way. Sometimes this involves just what effect a gadget has on society’s customs and mores – just think what today’s society would be like if the automobile had never been invented, for instance.
There is another sub-class of this, that of those items that have a long history of being used within the field, things like FTL drives, telepathy, time machines, etc. Unless your story really depends on the details of these things, they can often be taken as ‘givens’, mere background for your story setting. Of course, once again, a reader with little exposure to these customary artifacts may not be able to take all of this in stride, so using these devices this way may limit your audience – but then again, explaining all of these when they are not the prime movers of your story will definitely bore a veteran reader of the field.
5. Provide partial and/or very abbreviated explanations. This method frequently assumes that the reader knows a fair amount of conventional science, and that he can pick up on things like references to the Lorentz contraction effect, Bose-Einstein condensates, quantum ‘entanglement’, or other such items which are pretty well known to science students and rocket scientists, but frequently are little known outside those circles (and yes, there are some rocket scientists who read this stuff – which just means that what science you do put in had better be accurate). This seems to be the method of choice for several recent ‘hard’ SF novels I’ve read., and while this is generally OK for the veteran reader of SF, it probably precludes these types of books from gaining a wide audience. But when you’re trying to present a whole host of scientific data points (say, your story line depends on the gravitational and magnetic properties of super-Jupiter sub-dwarfs, nano-tech, computer uploads of the human conciousness, genetic and mental engineering far beyond today’s capabilities, and super-cold organic chemistry, to name just a few items in one recent book I’ve read, it may be the only viable choice).
Right now there seems to be a pretty sharp divide between what are typically known as ‘hard’ SF works and those that deal more with the softer, social aspects. Far too much of the ‘hard’ variety is either inaccessible to the average non-sf, non-science trained reader, or becomes mind-bogglingly difficult to understand, even with extended explanations that make the reader stop cold while he tries to assimilate the information. While the ‘softer’ stuff is just that, and sometimes it doesn’t satisfy that yearning for the ‘sense of wonder’ that marvelous ideas and gadgets can engender. But if SF doesn’t wish to go the way of the dodo bird, it needs to get far more proficient in presenting its ideas such that Mr. Average Joe can still comprehend and enjoy the story.