Wisdom Beyond Her Years, by J-L Heylen (17:18)

IOD-WisdomBeyondHerYearsToday we get stuck in the swamp of conspicuous exposition.

What I gleaned about the story: After 192 years of blissfully ignorant death, Ariel Connelly wakes up in a utopia and appears to spend the rest of her new life studying the history of economic theory. (Okay, she probably moves past that, but I didn’t last that long.)

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WTF #1: The world dump.

Analysis: This got off to a rolling good start, and I wondered if it might go the distance. I was immersed and intrigued… But then I hit the wall. The wall of background exposition. It’s a really common problem with science fiction and fantasy – whenever authors have to construct entire new realities, there is always the risk of the world dump.

I get that Ariel has awakened 192 years after she died, in a strange new world, and that it’s natural for her to wonder what has happened, and how this new world ticks. But that’s her need to know – not mine. The reader just needs a very few salient details – enough to understand the story. And of course, the reader also wants to know that Ariel got it all, because that makes Ariel a more credibly competent and intelligent character. But the mistake is in walking the reader through all those details along with her. Doing it that way can quickly begin to feel like being force-fed a telephone book.

The problem, I think, is that as writers, we spend enormous piles of time thinking our way through the logic and systems of the worlds we build, and then all that lovely planning and architecting is just sitting there in our notes, begging to be included. Hence, the world dump. But my argument is that if you’ve built a grand world, it will show in the details. Give me just enough details so that my imagination can begin to connect the dots. That’s where immersion happens – when my brain starts filling in the gaps you’ve left for me. If you give me everything, it’s like putting all the dots on a connect-the-dots picture 1mm apart. There’s no work for my imagination to do, and I get bored. It’s a disguised form of telling instead of showing.

I suspect that this would have worked better for me if the brief history monologue had conveyed 2 or 3 items, and then the rest were parcelled out to me as those points became relevant to the unfolding story.

WTF #2: The “in must exceed out” formula.

Analysis: There were some lovely bits of theory and philosophizing in all that exposition, and I did try to stay in the spirit of poor Ariel’s thirst for knowledge, following along as she recounted it all. But then we got to this bit about the economic theory practised by the new state. Apparently, they believe in a sort of value added imperative, where the resources consumed by any activity must more than replace the products of that activity. So the output of that activity must be greater than its inputs. But for some reason, the theory is called the “in must exceed out” formula. Isn’t that backward?

I’m sure there’s a way to look at the situation that inverts it, so that the logic makes sense. Perhaps it was meant in the sense of “what you put into society must exceed what you take out.” But the way it was presented was in the context of resources being the product of activities, and I tripped hard over it, and then spent some unproductive time trying to make it all line up in my head. And time spent trying to reconcile the writing against the author’s apparent intent is time not being immersed.

WTF #3: The resourcing model on which their new economy ran meant there was no cash in the city, … [goods and services were] exchanged for ‘Contribution Credits’, known colloquially as conties. Such a system was not easily subverted; the more you contributed, the more credit you accrued, and there were no bonuses and few ways of bribing people…. Full electronic control of earnings and transfers between contributors and providers meant everything could be tracked, and illegitimate transactions would soon come to light.

Analysis: But isn’t this just a description of the modern implementation of money? Most people these days don’t carry cash or conduct transactions in cash. Goods and services are provided in exchange for credit tokens we call dollars, which are issued by our system in accordance with the contribution you make. Everything is tracked and accounted electronically. Yes, in our world, cash still makes some kinds of nefarious transactions easier, but it can happen just as easily without. Just look at the Enron scandal a decade ago – none of that was conducted with cash, and billions were scammed and shuffled into unworthy pockets.

The point I’m making is that removing cash from the system doesn’t make it inherently un-cheatable. And “transforming productive social contributions into freely exchangeable credits” is exactly what dollars are for. Or rupees. Or quatloos. The story-telling function of this brave new money appears to be to illustrate how benign and enlightened the future economy is, as compared to the bad old system used in our day. Except I can’t see any substantial difference in their the future system, and that proved to be a disconnect for me. It pulled me out of my happy little immersion bubble as I tried to work it out. Sadly, I suspect that this didn’t need to have happened at all. Was that particular aspect of their world system really crucial to the exposition? Will some later story point turn on the precise standard for their economic valuation? I doubt it. And if not, those details could have been left out, and my immersion might not have been interrupted.

Which makes this an excellent example of why less is more when it comes to exposition of world mechanics. The more you say about how the world works, the more chances there are that some pedantic geek like me is going to trip over the logic of your infrastructure. Just about everybody can accept the off-hand reference to Heisenberg Compensators in ST:TNG, but as soon as you try to explain how they actually work, you’re just begging for a geekstorm.

Scarlet Angel, by C. A. Wilke (40:00)
Shiny New Swindle, by Simon Cantan (12:54)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.