As You Know, Bob
Strange Horizons editor Jed Hartman has a very amusing entry on the art and craft of the infodump, which in the real world is usually called “exposition,” but we in science fiction call it something different because we’re special, you see. Science fiction has a pronounced tendency toward infodumps, if for no other reason that the writers are often creating whole new worlds which the readers have never visited before, and they need some context if they’re going to figure out what the hell is going on. However, science fiction writers also have had a pronounced tendency to abuse the infodump, which has made people wary of them as a plot device.
I don’t know how I feel about that. Fact is, as a reader, I like a good, chunky infodump, so long as it’s done well in the context of the story. Give me an omnicient narrator with just a bit of attitude to dribble out interesting tidbits of information just so, and I’ll be a happy boy. One of the reasons The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy works so well is that Douglas Adams was the undisputed master of the amusing infodump — so good at it, in fact, that just about every other SF attempting an amusing infodump since has unconsciously (or otherwise) aped his delivery. You can get away with it if you’re good enough; Gaiman and Pratchett do it marvelously well in Good Omens. Alas, we can’t all be Gaiman and Pratchett. But the point remains: there’s nothing wrong with a well-delivered infodump. They can be fun.
I think the infodump has gotten a bad reputation because there’s some measure of uncertainty how much information is enough, and SF/F writers, on balance, tend to err of the side of too much information rather than too little. Therefore, the infodumps are frequent and large and (depending on who you are as a reader) possibly extraneous and tiring. SF/F readers get trained to accept random infodumping as part of the price one pays for the genre, but I can see how it gets annoying to people not trained in the care and handling of an infodump.
I don’t shy away from infodumps in my own writing, because sometimes you need them, and sometimes they’re enjoyable to write. But I do try to make my infodumps as interesting to read as possible; I don’t want them to drag, and I don’t want them to throw the reader out of the story. It’s largely a question of narrative flow: Can you make this infodump look necessary and desirable for the reader at this point in the story? If you can manage that, I don’t think reader will consider an infodump as an infodump; it’ll just be another part of the story.
Now, do I always manage this smooth delivery of the infodump? Well, probably not, and in event, everyone’s personal infodump tolerance is different. But it’s what I aim for.