Just this past weekend, I saw Kim Stanley Robinson give a talk about narrative and time at the Marxist Reading Group Conference at the University of Florida. During this talk, Robinson suggested, as I’m sure he has elsewhere, that science fiction has been the victim of casual writing instruction, which has mistakenly convinced us that exposition is terrible writing. He argued that exposition is, in fact, the bedrock of sf, as it provides much of the formal variance necessary for the genre to thrive, particularly given the genre’s history. In a sense, what Robinson argues is that the formal uniqueness of sf lies in its ability to represent what does not exist, and so exposition, by dint of representing the unreal, is a necessary tool for any writer of the genre. His argument likewise reduces the “show, don’t tell” rule to a curse of narrative zombification — what he calls a zombie meme.
This might be why I find works like Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013), Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (2013), or The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar (2013) so fascinating. At the same time, this assertion about exposition cannot possibly be universal. Indeed, I doubt Robinson would suggest that the absence of exposition is necessarily the default of an inferior work, as the removal of exposition could serve a literary purpose. For example: while I cannot speak for Robinson, I suspect that a surface level view of Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth Saga would result in a number of loaded assumptions, the most of important of which is that these are just not good books because they aren’t loaded with exposition. But part of what Buckell’s writing style does, whether this was intentional or not, is tied to Buckell’s oft-cited desire to represent “people like him” or “people he saw while in the Caribbean” within the genre he has so come to love. This is a charge we’ve heard from other writers who put QUILTBAG or PoC characters into their work: so much of sf/f doesn’t include characters who look like me, and so I’m going to fill the gap on my own. That is that Buckell’s Xenowealth Saga takes characters which have been perhaps “trapped” in the literary sphere or the literary sf sphere and throws them into the high-flying adventure and mayhem universe of Space Opera. He plays in a particular literary mode, albeit a modern re-imagination of the form. His books do not contain mountains and mountains of exposition; they are rather subdued in that realm, in fact. But they are also excellent books precisely because of what they do with the mode. If it’s not clear, I’m not suggesting that Buckell is a bad writer; rather, I’m suggesting quite the opposite.
Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps what Robinson was pointing to were the extreme forms of anti-exposition writing found in, say, James Patterson, who I personally think is one of the worse prose stylists whose works routinely appear on the NYT Bestsellers list. His writing lacks the kind of depth that Robinson called for in his talk, so much so that I couldn’t finish one of his Alex Cross novels. It was too limiting. Too removed. Too oriented around the plot and not oriented enough around the characters. In the case of science fiction, which Alex Cross most certainly is not, I think Robinson sees exposition’s value in its ability to convey the unreal in potentially liberative ways — in the sense that our understanding of a world and our ability to immerse within it can be, in some cases, contingent upon that world seeming fully realized, allowing us to extricate ourselves from our (mundane) lives into the otherworldly. Patterson’s prose, if I’m honest, does not do that. I am not extricated. I am not compelled. I am simply “there,” reading, aware.
But I want to be immersed. I want to feel connected to the world and to the characters. And perhaps that really is facilitated largely by the exposition, and to remove that is to remove, in a way, the soul of the work.