It Has to Go Somewhere

The question of “embedded exposition” came up again the other day, and I said:

“Embedded exposition” refers to a collection of techniques for making necessary background information into part of the action or of the scenery, instead of having the author stop dead and tell it to us, or worse, having the characters tell it to each other.

Embedded exposition isn’t a literary technique that’s peculiar to science fiction, but it is one that sf has (in my opinion, anyhow) polished to its highest gloss, and it’s also the science-fictional technique that makes (again, in my opinion) the most demands upon the reader. A mystery reader, confronted with a large mass of sudden detail, is going to go—subconsciously, at least—”Aha! somewhere in all of this the writer has planted a Clue!”, and look for that; a reader trained exclusively in mainstream literary fiction is likely to say, “Aha! all this emphasis must point to something of Thematic Importance!”, but an experienced reader of science fiction is going to assume that he or she is meant to take all of those details and out of them construct a world.

Which is why the writer of a science-fiction mystery with literary ambitions is trying to do a quadruple somersault off the trapeze without a net.

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