Friday, August 14, 2015
Why's That So Good? Isaac Asimov - Foundation
That's the classic mistake. The info dump.
Needless to say, many of the Grand Masters of science fiction were also Grand Masters of exposition. They found dozens of sneaky, clever ways of getting the information into the story, and a few kludges too.
Imagine psychohistory in the hands of a novice writer. "How can I explain this idea to my readers?" he asks himself. "I know! I'll just explain it. I'll have the inventor of it give a lecture." Then would follow some dozen pages of exposition as the reader's eyes gently droop, and sag, and close...
But Asimov, instead of giving readers an info dump, embedded the information in conflict. Human, individual conflict. The first chapter in Foundation doesn't deal with Hari Seldon's discovery of psychohistory; it deals with the hostile reception Seldon and his fellow mathematicians receive when they make their predictions known.
Psychohistory has revealed that the Empire in which Seldon lives will collapse within five hundred years. Needless to say, the Imperial government doesn't like that prediction...and the actions it takes against Seldon and his responses to it are the story. Gaal Dornick, the math student who is joining Seldon's team, is shadowed and investigated by Imperial Security; he and Seldon are arrested; there is a "trial" by the Empire's Orwellian Committee for Public Safety; and finally Seldon arranges a compromise with the CPS, after which he reveals to Dornick that the punishment of exile the CPS forces on him has been his goal all along. Psychohistory is the background of the story, but the story itself is about the conflict. And it's brief, too...and from that moment on, the reader is grounded in psychohistory, and accepts it for the rest of the series.
The two scenes in which the reader learns the most about psychohistory are fraught with tension. The first is a job interview, in which Dornick proves himself to Seldon by working out mathematical functions that he doesn't realize at first apply to the Empire. The second is the trial by the CPS in which Seldon (and to a lesser extent Dornick) must explain psychohistory to defend themselves.
Conflict leads to tension leads to drama.
Artful, is what it is. Good craft.