In Praise of the Info Dump: A Literary Case for Hard Science Fiction
Daniel LoPilato on Greg Egan’s Diaspora and the Limits of Literary Realism
It was August, and I was in the middle of a cross-country road trip. After driving all day, I would settle into my sleeping bag at night with a headlamp to read Greg Egan’s Diaspora, a road novel of sorts about the search for interstellar life. Diaspora was my first foray into the subgenre of hard science fiction. It had renewed my awareness that, as earthlings, our lives are subject to physical and chemical laws over which we exert no control—a feeling literature rarely provokes in me. Realism, after all, subordinates the physical in favor of the psychological, creating an illusory, human-centric world. Watching the earth change slowly from behind a bug-splattered windshield, I began to wonder: what does realism risk when it reduces the planet we inhabit to background noise?
Hard science fiction, according to its most basic definition, arranges the conventions of science fiction in such a way that they could plausibly happen in the real world. Readers encounter monsters, but only if the monsters live according to durable biological precepts. They encounter futuristic technology, but only if it functions according to observable natural laws. To characterize this subgenre as realist or anti-realist is to miss the point: rather, its relationship to the real is fraught.
Diaspora tells the story of Yatima, a genderless artificial intelligence and a “citizen” belonging to the virtual city-state of Konishi. It begins in 2975, the year of Yatima’s birth. Unlike the other denizens of Konishi, Yatima does not resemble the offspring of “parent” citizens. Instead, Yatima is a random combination of archived human genetic traits, an ontological experiment designed to trial a unique set of genomic data. Yatima is an orphan, in other words.
Diaspora resembles literary narratives about orphanhood to a surprising degree. Novels like Bleak House or Jane Eyre resolve when the orphan-hero, once a foundling with no understanding of the world or its rules, assimilates into the matrix of bourgeois values that undergirds society. To establish these value systems, literary texts often employ legalistic discourse to negotiate anything from inheritances to romantic entanglements. Bleak House is a book about a lawsuit after all. It’s but one mimetic trick for making the real world intelligible in a fictional text—few subjects are as recognizably “real” as contract law and private property.
Likewise, Diaspora’s adventure into deep space serves to illustrate Yatima’s understanding of the self and its relationship to society. But hard science fiction puts mimesis to different ends. The discourses it employs to establish authority are not familiar in the usual sense, but specialized vocabularies understood by relatively few readers. If hard science fiction has a reputation for being difficult, it’s principally for this reason. It asks readers to learn in order to understand. We can think of the genre, then, as an extensible, even multidisciplinary mode of literary writing that uses expert discourse not to ground its narratives in the real, but to push the boundaries of the possible.
For his part, Egan employs a heady mixture of biology, computer science, mathematics, and physics to make Yatima’s world intelligible to the reader. The opening chapter, which narrates the formation of Yatima’s consciousness, is a dizzying example of this language. Yatima’s existence, like all Konishi citizens, is forged in the “conceptory,” a “non-sentient software, as ancient as Konishi polis itself.” The conceptory creates new citizens from a “mind seed,” a genomic sequence of “instruction codes” cobbled together from human DNA nine hundred years ago. The mind seed of Konishi consists of a billion strings of code partitioned into subprograms. When the mind seed initiates, fifteen million of these subprograms interact, filling in the data fields to create a unique identity. “Orphanogenesis”—the process by which orphans are generated—is birth by algorithm.
Although they don’t “exist” in the proper sense, the citizens of Konishi do live a certain type of life. They argue with one another, become involved romantically, and have falling outs. They even struggle to negotiate their proximity to embodiment and to the humans, known as “fleshers,” who still dwell on Earth’s surface. This struggle deepens when an errant blast of cosmic energy causes the extinction of the fleshers and severs Konishi’s tenuous connection to humanity for good.
In the wake of this tragedy, many of Yatima’s fellow citizens forsake biological life altogether, reprogramming their software to value only pleasure and solipsistic pursuits. Yatima, dismayed by their solipsism, rejects Konishi and joins a group of citizens aboard the Diaspora, an interstellar spacecraft dispatched to discover life in other star systems. Their mission is to forewarn distant beings about the likelihood of extinction. What they find in deep space is even more alien than they imagined.
In one of the novel’s most impressive chapters, the Diaspora’s spacefarers observe a new lifeform on a distant planet they name Orpheus. At first, it resembles a massive carpet of interlocking cells. But they soon discover its true complexity:
The carpet was not a colony of single-celled creatures. Nor was it a multicellular organism. It was a single organism, a two-dimensional polymer weighing twenty-five thousand [tons]. A giant sheet of folded polysaccharide, a complex mesh of interlinked pentose and hexose sugars hung like alkyl and amide side chains. A bit like a plant cell wall, except that this polymer was far stronger than cellulose, and the surface area was twenty orders of magnitude greater.
Undoubtedly a work of the imagination, Egan couches his description of this organism in the technical and very much “real” language of plant biology. But to say that the events of Diaspora could actually happen is an exaggeration, opening fissures in the definition of the genre.
What distinguishes this genre isn’t so much plotting, characters, or concepts, but its special relationship to information. In a certain sense, an effective piece of hard science fiction comprises one world-sized info dump. Expert discourse is simply the most efficient delivery mechanism for this volume of information.
Maligned almost universally in fiction workshops, the info dump is a device that supplies a sizable amount of background information or other narrative material in order to make a story intelligible to the reader. Egan is a master of the trick. Yatima’s birth, an enormously complicated process that takes place in the first three pages of Diaspora, may be the most magnificent info dump I’ve ever read.
In another memorable passage, a citizen named Orlando alters his perception to accommodate five visual dimensions. Looking into space from the viewing deck of the Diaspora, Orlando sees stars “below the horizon—not through the ground, but around it, as if he was standing on a narrow, jutting cliff, or a sharp pillar.” His eyes behave like “two eyecircles, one above the other, suddenly made spherical, their axes still confined to the swivel within their planar world but their lenses, their pupils, their field of view, protruding beyond it.” His vision exceeds “its ordinary field in two orthogonal directions,” somehow both sideways and vertical at the same time. When he attempts to connect the extra planes, he finds that they meet at a single point. “Planes were supposed to intersect along lines,” Egan writes, “but these ones refused to oblige.”What distinguishes this genre isn’t so much plotting, characters, or concepts, but its special relationship to information.
Info dumps like this one break a cardinal rule of literary fiction: they don’t really “show” us anything about the character. But that’s not the point at all. If we can imagine how it might feel to see in five dimensions, in accordance with the actual laws of our universe, then in a very real sense Egan has expanded the mechanics of subjectivity. It’s hard for me to imagine a more impressive literary feat.
Back on Earth, I found myself at a roadside overlook above the Sandhills of Nebraska. Windswept dunes rolled along for miles in every direction, their valleys full of water and their slopes blanketed with blue-green prairie grasses. Like many writers, I’ve made an incessant habit out of cataloguing places I might one day write about. But it felt absurd to search for material here: these dunes bore no relation to me, or to anything other than the simple fact that they’d been left behind thousands of years ago, like slug trails in the wake of departing glaciers, and now I happened to be here to witness it. The Sandhills began long before we showed up and they’ll continue long after we’re gone.
Still, it was impossible not to wonder, what sorts of things happen here? What does one need to know in order to know the Sandhills? How can we extend the real into fiction?
When writers turn away from the rules of society—the “soft” parameters of reality—and toward the physical, the biological, the geological—the “hard” parameters of reality—they invite a whole new dimension into the real. Long, slow processes like the shifting of tectonic plates and natural selection are perhaps as germane to realism as the virtual psychology that dominates literature. If we’re to create fiction that confronts a new awareness of hard problems, like diminishing biodiversity, climate change, and even the specter of societal collapse, then I suspect literary writers have much to learn from their genre counterparts. As the real becomes more and more frightening, we may be forced to take shelter, like Egan’s simulacra, in the realm of the possible.