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20180804_100347 Worldbuilding at ArmadilloCon 2018
Marshall Ryan Maresca (left) and Canadian author Robert Sawyer (special guest) at the ArmadilloCon 2018 worldbuilding panel.
Worldbuilding is a perennial panel at ArmadiloCon. Same panel, different years, different writers, different takes on worldbuilding. If Robert Sawyer's opinions and advice dominate this post, it is because I met him for the first time; the other three authors, being Texans, participate in every ArmadilloCon and I have many posts featuring their opinions and advice in my photo gallery and blogs.
The eternal question about worldbuilding is how to avoid infodumps. What if you didn't have to avoid them, but could make them good instead?
To learn to write infodumps, read legal thrillers, says Robert Sawyer. Legal thrillers are full of infodumps that occur every time a detective is questioning a witness, or a witness is on the stand. But they are different than the infodumps we all dread, e. g. the proverbial "as you know, Bob" of two theoretical physicists explaining science to each other. So what is different? Maybe the difference is that an infodump in a legal thriller gives only the information the reader needs to know at the moment -- they provide the clues to the mystery (e.g. a murder case being investigated). Also, in my opinion, the infodumps in the legal thrillers tell stories, rather than dumping dry facts on a reader. Sawyer gave an example of that. If a detective asks a character, "where were you on August 1st?", and the character answers, "August 1st was the hottest night of the year, and I, being an amateur astronomer -- in fact, that's how I met my wife -- ", etc., the character is telling a story. We become interested in the character, rather than being put off by the raw, dry info.
An example of how NOT to do infodumps could be the first edition of Frank Herbert's "Dune". The first edition of Dune was published by Chilton, publisher of automotive manuals, because every publisher in New York turned it down, says Rober Sawyer. Why? The Chilton edition began with a 40 page terminology of the empire. That's the reason why no SF publisher will still publish the first edition.
Martha Wells speculated that maybe Chilton took it on because it was just like the manuals they were used to publishing, except of an imaginary world. She admitted to liking manuals and glossaries as a child. (I, too, remember reading dictionaries and encyclopedias in my childhood just for fun, and I probably would have been not put off, but intrigued, by a glossary of a science-fictional world. I would have wanted to find out more about those amazing, mysterious concepts. But as an adult I want to get into the action of the story much sooner.)
As the extreme opposite, Sawyer presented the most famous infodump in the world, Clint Eastwood's line from "Dirty Harry". "But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?" It could qualify as an infodump, because he tells us the basic facts about the .44 Magnum. But it doesn't feel like an infodump, because it is so well integrated into the story. It comes at just the right time when the "punk" needs to know about the weapon, and gives just the bare minimum of info that the reader, as well as the character, needs to know. And, of course, there is the emotional tone of the scene.
The question of maps came up. Maps are especially common in fantasy novels: do they help, harm, or do nothing for worldbuilding? Robert Sawyer thinks you can't draw a credible map unless you are a geologist, archeologist, or an expert in some other profession where drawing maps is part of your job. "Because if you draw a random shape and label it, everybody is going to know that a terrain could not have formed like that. So when a reader opens a book and the first thing they see is a map, it's like telling them: I know jack sh*t! Read my book!"
Another author disagreed. They said they didn't want a map in their epic fantasy novel for exactly the same reason, but their editor insisted on one. But then the author overlayed the images of the fantasy creatures from the novel on the map (I'm not entirely sure if heard that right, because I haven't read the novel), so the map tells a story.