20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

A truly great infodump is a work of art. The best science fiction authors can brief you on everything you need to know about their worlds, without making you feel lectured. Here are 20 great examples of the smooth infodump.

Because you demanded it!

We all love science-fiction books that have rich world-building — but not if they ram it down our throats. We've all seen hideous examples of infodumps. In one novel we reviewed recently, there's a whole chapter that's just the characters sitting through a PowerPoint presentation. But sometimes, you have to introduce a lot of backstory in one go, so that it makes sense — my epic fantasy novel, now in revision, has tons of worldbuilding. In one draft, I tried to introduce it all subtly, through little showing-not-telling moments, and the readers were all confused. They wanted it all laid out neatly. Sometimes you need to tear off the Band Aid in one go, and just explain how stuff works, and how we got here.

So here are a bunch of infodumps that do a terrific job. They're all different types, and hopefully they give some hints as to how a writer can introduce a ton of details without losing the reader.

Note: As in all things, there's an element of personal taste and judgement here. Some of these infodumps may not seem as elegant and clever to you as they do to me, or to the friends whose brains I picked. Feel free to register your disagreement in comments, and pipe up with your own favorite infodumps!

Telling, Then Showing:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Counting Heads by David Marusek is often held up as an example of a novel that provides tons of information in clever ways, including having a character who's struggling with dementia and needs stuff explained. There's also this fantastic passage, where an explanation bores a character but then a demonstration thrills him:

"Look up there," she said, and pointed to the sky. He saw a double halo, one above the other, of what looked like boiling air. "That's where the microwave beam passes through the canopies. Although the microbeam is nearly one terawatt in strength and the electricity it generates powers all the agriculture and cities from Terre Haute to Indianapolis, we can't see it. Isn't that fascinating?"

"I suppose," he said.

"Well, let's fix that," she said, and drew to pairs of spex from a seat pocket. "Put this on, your excellency."

He put on a pair of spex and looked into the valley again. At first all appeared as before, but gradually the landscape darkened as though at sunset, and the huge array target in the valley below gave off a ghostly glow. No longer black, the oval target took on the appearance of a creamy disk, when, suddenly, it was stabbed from the sky by a shimmering shaft of the purest, whitest light Meewee had ever seen. "Ah!" he said.

— Counting Heads by David Marusek.

The Scene Setting Mixed With Backstory:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Samuel R. Delany is often noted as an expert on working in lots of world-building, and Tales Of Nevèrÿon uses a story-telling format, allowing Delany to introduce lots of information easily. He also blends current description seamlessly with history:

The lower end of New Pavē (so called somewhere between ten and ten thousand years) was one with the dockside. Along the upper end, where the road dipped down again to cross the Bridge Of Lost Desire, male and female prostitutes loitered or drank in the streets or solicited along the bridge's walkways, many come over from exotic places and many spawned by old Kolhari herself, most of them brown by birth and darkened more by summer, like the fine, respectable folk of the city (indeed, like himself), though there were a few with yellow hair, pale skin, gray eyes, and their own lisping language (like Meise) bespeaking barbaric origins.

— Samuel R. Delany, Tales Of Nevèrÿon.

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

The Infodump In The Service Of Symbolism:

Frank reached out and pushed at the inner membrane. It stretched until his fingers were buried to the knuckles. Slightly cool. There was faint white lettering printed on the plastic: ISIDES PLANITIA POLYMERS. Through the sycamores over his shoulder he could see the platform at the apex. John and Maya and their cluster of Terran admirers were still there, talking animatedly. Conducting the business of the planet. Deciding the fate of Mars.

He stopped breathing. He felt the pressure of his molars squeezing together. He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town's grid. Polyvinylidene diflouride was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to hyrdrogen and flourine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for flourine, for instance, and you had saran wrap.

Frank started at his wrapped hand, then up again at the other two elements, still bonded to each other. But without him they were nothing!

— Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Backstory So Vivid It Feels Like Scene-Setting:

There's no vantage point in this paragraph — it's pure telling without showing, but it's so starkly written that it feels like a camera panning over a poisoned world:

Lake Atlantic, a narrow ribbon of stagnant brine ten miles in length by a mile wide, to the north of the former Bermuda Islands, was all that remained of the former Atlantic Ocean, and was, in fact, the sole remnant of the oceans which had once covered two-thirds of the Earth's surface. The frantic mining of the oceans in the previous century to provide oxygen for the atmospheres of the new planets had made their decline swift and irreversible, and with their death had come climatic and other geophysical changes which ensured the extinction of Earth itself. As the oxygen extracted electrolytically from seawater was compressed and shipped away, the hydrogen released was discharged into the atmosphere. Eventually only a narrow layer of denser, oxygen-containing air was left, little more than a mile in depth, and those people remaining on Earth were forced to retreat into the ocean beds, abandoning the poisoned continental tables.

— "Deep End" by J.G. Ballard.

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

A Terrible And Baffling Disaster Inspires People To Spout Off:

People moved in closer, impressed by the boy's knowledgeability and wit. It was remarkable to hear him speak so easily to a crowd of strangers. Was he finding himself, learning how to determine his worth from the reactions of others? Was it possible that out of the turmoil and surge of this dreadful event he would learn to make his way in the world?

"What you're probably all wondering is what exactly is this Nyodene-D. we keep hearing about? A good question. We studied it in school, we saw movies of rats having convulsions and so on. So, okay, it's basically simple. Nyodene-D. is a whole bunch of things thrown together that are byproducts of the manufacture of insecticide. The original stuff kills roaches, the byproducts kill everything left over. A little joke our teacher made."

He snapped his fingers, let his left leg swing a bit.

"In powder form, it's colorless, odorless, and very dangerous, except nobody seems to know what it causes in humans or in the offspring of humans. They tested it for years and either they don't know for sure or they know and aren't saying. Some things are too awful to publicize."

He arched his brows and began to twitch comically, his tongue lolling in a corner of his mouth. I was astonished to hear people laugh.

— White Noise by Don DeLillo.

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

The Scientist Explains Stuff As Part Of The Process Of Understanding It:

China Miéville often uses a kind of Doctor Who-esque Doctor-companion exchange to allow his smarter characters to explain what's going on, as Farah Mendelsohn writes in Rhetorics Of Fantasy. And in some cases, the "Doctor" is actually figuring stuff out as he's explaining it, just like David Tennant so often did:

Isaac sat back for a moment. To his surprise, he was loving this. The process of explaining his theoretical approach was consolidating his ideas, making him formulate his approach with a tentative rigor.

Yagharek was a model pupil. His attention was totally unwavering, his eyes as sharp as stilettos.

Isaac took a deep breath and continued.

"This is major shit we're dealing with here, Yag mate. I've been nibbling at crisis theory for arsing years. In a nutshell: I'm saying it's in the nature of things to enter a crisis, as part of what they are. Things turn themselves inside out by virtue of being things, understand? The force that pushes the unified field on is crisis energy. Stuff like potential energy, that's one aspect of crisis energy, one tiny partial manifestation. Now, if you could tap the reserves of crisis energy in any particular situation, you're talking about enormous power."

— Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. Art by Vishal K. Bharadwaj.

The RantyDump:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Cory Doctorow's angry/friendly narrator comes out with tons and tons of rants, that also manage to deliver a ton of useful info:

Last Christmas season, there'd been poor losers on every corner dressed as warriors from the Halo series, handing out bags of these [Xbox] game-machines as fast as they could. I guess it worked — everyone says they sold a whole butt-load of games. Naturally, there were countermeasures to make sure you only played games from companies that had bought licenses from Microsoft to make them.

Hackers blow through those countermeasures. The Xbox was cracked by a kid from MIT who wrote a best-selling book about it, and then the 360 went down, and then the short-lived Xbox Portable (which we all called the "luggable" — it weighed three pounds!) succumbed. The Universal was supposed to be totally bulletproof. The high school kids who broke it were Brazilian Linux hackers who lived in a *favela* — a kind of squatter's slum.

Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.

Once the Brazilians published their crack, we all went nuts on it. Soon there were dozens of alternate operating systems for the Xbox Universal. My favorite was ParanoidXbox, a flavor of Paranoid Linux. Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.

— Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

Man Returns From A Long Soujourn In The Land Of Forgetting

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End finds an ingenious way to let us know how much the world has changed since our era. Poet Robert Gu has had Alzheimer's Disease for years, until modern medicine finds a cure for his condition, along with improving his eyesight and making him look much younger. All of a sudden, he's able to function once again in a world full of miraculous technologies, including internet-enabled contact lenses. We get a crash course in this new world, and a ton of worldbuilding, all through the eyes of The Man Who Came Back.

The Trash-Talking Run-Down:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

"The kind of software someone like you would rent from Two-a-Day, that's nothin'. I mean, it'll work, but it's nothing anybody heavy would ever bother with. You've seen a lot of cowboy kinos, right? Well, the stuff they make up for those things isn't much, compared with the kind of shit a real heavy operator can front. Particularly when it comes to icebreakers. Heavy icebreakers are funny to deal in, even for the big boys. You know why? Because ice, all the really hard stuff, the walls around every major store of data in the matrix, is always the produce of an AI, an artificial intelligence. Nothing else is fast enough to weave good ice and constantly alter and upgrade it. So when a really powerful icebreaker shows up on the black market, there are already a couple of very dicey factors in play. Like, for starts, where did the product come from? Nine times out of ten, it came from an AI, and the AIs are constantly screened, mainly by the Turing people, to make sure they don't get too smart. So maybe you'll get the Turing machine after your ass, because maybe an AI somewhere wants to augment its private cash flow. Some AIs have citizenship, right? Another thing you have to watch out for, maybe it's a military icebreaker, and that's bad heat, too, or maybe it's taken a walk out of some zaibatsu's industrial espionage arm, and you don't want that either. You takin' this shit in, Bobby?"

Bobby nodded. He felt like he'd been waiting all his life to hear Beauvoir explain the workings of a world whose existence he'd only guessed at before.

— Count Zero by William Gibson.

The SnarkyDump:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Cairns sometimes felt that, deep down in the most adolescent recesses of his seventy-year-old brain, he harbored a personal grudge against the universe for not having turned out the way his ancestors had expected. He could have lived with a universe whose interstellar gulfs could be crossed only with generation ships, cold-sleep, or ramscoops. He'd have been absolutely fucking delighted with one that could be traversed with some kind of warp-drive or jump-gates or wormholes or similar fanciful mechanism. In much the same way, he could have been quite metaphysically satisfied with a godless universe; or, if he'd ever come across a convincing apologetic, happy to affirm that this one was the work of a God.

Instead, he'd found himself in a universe where gods swarmed by the trillion, a regular Oort Crowd of them around every star - most of the gods, as far as anyone knew, being convinced atheists. The only thing the gods had ever created for anyone else's benefit was the stardrive. The stardrive could get you to the stars, in an instant of subjective time. At the speed of light.

There were times when he felt like saying to the gods, Thanks a bunch.

— Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod.

The Military Narrator Who Loves The Hardware. A Lot:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Robert Heinlein's penchant for lecturing his readers gets way, way out of hand in his later novels — in Friday, he even tells you to go ahead and skip the next chapter, because it's all just a long lecture. But his earlier books do a great job of sprinking in info in a non-obtrusive way:

I'm not going to talk much more about my boot training. Mostly it was simple work, but I was squared away—enough said.

But I do want to mention a little about powered suits, partly because I was fascinated by them and also because that was what led me into trouble. No complaints—I rated what I got.

An M.I. lives by his suit the way a K-9 man lives by and with and on his doggie partner. Powered armor is one-half the reason we call ourselves "mobile infantry" instead of just "infantry." (The other half are the spaceships that drop us and the capsules we drop in.) Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence ("intelligence" in the military meaning; a man in a suit can be just as stupid as anybody else—only he had better not be), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability.

A suit isn't a space suit—although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor—although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn't a tank—but a single M.I. could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I. A suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little—on the other hand neither spaceships nor atmosphere craft can fight against a an in a suit except by saturation bombing of the area he is in (like burning down a house to get one flea!). Contrariwise we can do many things that no ship—air, submersible, or space—can do.

— Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.

Telling Us About The Main Character's Home World By Describing Another World:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Like all the Kings' House this room was high, red, old, bare, with a musty chill on the air as if the drafts blew in not from other rooms but from other centuries. A fire roared in the fireplace, but did no good. Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh. The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during these thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity, and other principles; but they do not install them in their houses. Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept in warm tents, who being released get frostbitten feet.

— The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Tell-All Book That Works In Useful Details:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

There's no mystery behind how the Minutemen first got together. Captain Metropolis had written to Sally Jupiter care of her agent, suggesting they might meet with a view to forming a group of masked adventurers who could pool their resources and experience to combat crime. The Captain has always had a strategic approach to crimefighting, so I can see why the idea would appeal to him, although back then I was surprised that he'd made an effort to get in touch with Sally. He was so polite and reserved that Sally's drinking, swearing, and mode of dress were guaranteed to shock him speechless. Later, I realized that Sally was simply the only costumed vigilante forethoughtful enough to have an agent whose address was in the phone book.

Under The Hood, as quoted in Watchmen by Alan Moore.

The Scale That Grows On You, The More You Read:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Iain M. Banks is the master of huge-scale world-building, and he conveys it amazingly well. Check out the bit in Matter (page 63) where he describes the Shellworlds — it starts out relevant to the plot, laying the groundwork for the book's conclusion. Then Banks starts delving into the specifications of the Shellworlds, including their size and the spacing between their levels, and you get sucked into how cool they are. The description builds from mundane details to a sense of their scope and power. There's also this:

General Systems Vehicles were like encapsulated worlds. They were more than just very big spaceships; they were habitats, universities, factories, museums, dockyards, libraries, even mobile exhibition centers. They represented they Culture—they were the Culture. Almost anything that could be done anywhere in the Culture could be done on a GSV. They could make anything the Culture was capable of making, contained all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated, carried or could construct specialized equipment of every imaginable type for every conceivable eventuality, and continually manufactured smaller ships: General Contact Units usually, warcraft now. Their complements were measured in millions at least. They crewed their offspring ships out of the gradual increase in their own population. Self-contained, self-sufficient, productive and, in peacetime at least, continually exchanging information, they were the Culture's ambassadors, its most visible citizens and its technological and intellectual big guns. There was no need to travel from the galactic backwoods to some distant Culture home-planet to be amazed at impressed by the stunning scale and awesome power of the Culture; a GSV could bring the whole lot right up to your front door.

—Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks.

The Bizarrely Funny Grand-Scale Narrator:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Douglas Adams' infodumps in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy aren't just screamingly funny, they're also bitchily omniscient, which is not a combination you see very often. Just take his explanation of the Vogons:

He was the way he was because billions of years ago when the Vogons had first crawled out of the sluggish primeval seas of Vogsphere, and had lain panting and heaving on the planet's virgin shores... when the first rays of the bright young Vogsol sun had shone across them that morning, it was as if the forces of evolution had simply given up on them there and then, had turned aside in disgust and written them off as an ugly and unfortunate mistake. They never evolved again: they should never have survived.

The fact that they did is some kind of tribute to the thick-willed, slug-brained stubbornness of these creatures. Evolution? they said to themselves. Who needs it?, and what nature refused to do for them they simply did without until such time as they were able to rectify the gross anatomical inconveniences with surgery.

— The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

The Classic Conversational Infodump, But Done Really Well:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

As they walked along the busy, yellow-lit tiers of offices, Anderton said: ‘You're familiar acquainted with the theory of precrime, of course. I presume we can take that for granted.'

‘I have the information publicly available,' Witwer replied. ‘With the aid of your precog mutants, you've boldly and successfully abolished the postcrime punitive system of jails and fines. As we all realize, punishment was never much of a deterrent, and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead.'

They had come to the descent lift. As it carried them swiftly downward, Anderton said: You've probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We're taking in individuals who have broken no law.'

‘But they surely will,' Witwer affirmed with conviction.

‘Happily they don't—because we get them first, before they can commit an act of violence. So the commission of the crime itself is absolutely metaphysics. We claim they're culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they're innocent. And, in a sense, they are innocent.'

The lift let them out, and they again paced down a yellow corridor. ‘In our society we have no major crimes,' Anderton went on, ‘but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals.'

— Minority Report by Philip K. Dick.

The Creepy Monster Internal Monologue:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

So another new thing, if you please: for the first time in Its neverending history, It needed to make a plan; for the first time, It found Itself afraid simply to to take what It wanted from Derry, Its private game preserve.

It had always fed well on children. Many adults could be used without knowing they had been used, and It had even fed on a few of the older ones over the years — adults had their own terrors, and their glands could be tapped, opened so that all the chemicals of fear flooded the body and salted the meat. But their fears were mostly too complex. The fears of children were simpler and usually more powerful. The fears of children could often be summoned up in a simple face... and if bait were needed, why, what child did not love a clown?

— It by Stephen King.

The Informational Brochure — That You Then Realize Is Just A Kiddie-Show Voiceover:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

"The matrix has its root in primitive arcade games," said the voice-over, "in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks." On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..."

"What's that?" Molly asked, as he flipped the channel selector.

"Kid's show." A discontinuous flood of images as the selector cycled. "Off," he said to the Hosaka.

— Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Explaining How Things Work By Explaining Why They Stopped Working:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

Discussing Samuel R. Delany's Trouble On Triton, Jaya Prakash explains:

One of the first proper infodumps in this book happens when an attack has just been made on Triton, and a government official is trying to tell his companions in a men's cooperative housing building that the brief gravity failure that took place is nothing to worry about. He gives an explanation that starts by referring to things that seem to relate to 'real' science, and rapidly becomes esoteric. Them he is asked to tone it down so that a mentally-deficient person present can understand. He gives a simpler explanation that this person can understand - and even this version makes no sense on our terms if looked at closely. Just as the government agent does not really know quite what has happened, but is asserting his authority by seeming knowledgeable, Delany is giving his made-up explanation more authority by showing how even a mentally-deficient member of his future society can understand what flies over our own head. This is a very clever device, and a way to both demonstrate and practice one of the chief uses of the SF infodump.

You can read that passage here.

Quoting The Dictionary Definition, But Only After You've Proved It's Meaningless:

20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction NovelsS

"Katin, what is Illyion? I used to ask, at Cooper, but they told me it was too complicated for me to understand."

"Told me the same thing at Harvard," Katin said. "Psychophysics 74 and 75. I went to the library. The best definition is the one given by Professor Plovnievsky in his paper presented at Oxford in 2338 and again, three weeks later, before the Royal Society. I quote: ‘Basically, gentleman, Illyrion is something else.' One wonders if it was a happy accident from lack of facility with the language, or a profound understanding of English subtlety. The dictionary definition, I believe, reads something like, "…general name for the group of trans-three-hundred elements with psychomorphic properties, heterotropic with many of the common elements as well as the imaginary series that exist between 107 and 225 on the periodic chart.'"

— Nova by Samuel R. Delany.

Additional reporting by Kelly Faircloth and David Daw. Thanks to Alan and Naamen at Borderlands for suggestions, and I also shamelessly plundered this comment thread over at Whatever and this comment thread at Lorem Ipsum.