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Background SF critiques

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background critique

Critiques focusing on the background of a story, that is, focusing on the combination history and context that supports or deepens the setting and/or provides a backdrop for the action.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)


"As you know Bob"

"As you know Bob" is a pernicious form of infodump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as "Rod and Don dialogue" (attr. Damon Knight) or "maid and butler dialogue" (attr. Algis Budrys). (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

edges of ideas

The solution to the "Info-Dump" problem (how to fill in the background). The theory is that, as above, the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important: all that matters is the impact on your characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don't need info dump at all. We just need a clear picture of how people's lives have been affected by their background. This is also known as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
The places where technology and background should come onstage: not the mechanics of a new event, gizmo, or political structure, but rather how people's lives are affected by their new background. Example of excellence: the opening chapters of Orwell's 1984. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

Earth is but a pale shadow

"Earth is a but a pale shadow of the wonders of this world" is a worldbuilding technique in the vein of call a rabbit a smerp where things are described in terms of earthly creatures, features, and objects, but they are much more "beautiful / ugly / deadly / or some other combination of superlatives". For example, "the reptiles filling the room ahead of me were snake-like but so much more deadly than their earthly counterparts that if I had set foot in that room I would have been dead in seconds".(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

eyeball kick

Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF background. One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Attr. Rudy Rucker) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
An 'eyeball kick' is perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image. (Rudy Rucker) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)


Piling too much exposition into the beginning of the story, so that it becomes so dense and dry that it is almost impossible to read. (Attr. Connie Willis) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


"Heinleining" (or incluing) is when information is worked unobtrusively into a story's basic structure named for the SF author Robert A. Heinlein, who is considered a master of this technique. Contrast with infodumping. -- (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )(Updated by: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

iceberg exposition

Iceberg exposition is an alternative term for exposition that takes the form of incluing, or, at least, it is very similar. Contrast with infodumping. (e)


Incluing is a technique for world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the writer is building, without them being aware of it.
This in opposition to infodumping, where an undigested lump of background material is dropped into the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called As you know, Bob conversation.)
Both incluing and infodumping are forms of exposition and are frequently used in science fiction and fantasy, genres where the writer has the task to make the reader believe in a world that does not exist. Writers in other genres have less use for these techniques, as they can often depend on the reader's familiarity with the "real world".
Incluing can be done in a number of ways: through conversation between characters, through background details or by establishing scenes where a character is followed through daily life. The most famous example of incluing is the door irised open, a phrase created by Robert A. Heinlein and used in several of his stories and novels. In real life, few if any doors do iris open; by mentioning it offhandedly without explanation the reader gets a picture of something both familiar and strange, without calling attention to its strangeness. (Attr Jo Walton) (Source: incluing at Wikipedia )
Jo Walton defines incluing as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information." (e)


Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Infodumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the writer assumes center stage and lectures. Infodumps are also known as "expository lumps." The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as "Kuttnering," after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure, this is known as "Heinleining." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )(Updated by: Fritz Freiheit)
Alternatively called: exposition dump, expository lump, plot dump (e)

"I've suffered for my Art" (and now it's your turn)

A form of info-dump in which the writer inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story. As Algis Budrys once pointed out, homework exists to make the difficult look easy. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

keyhole curiosity

Similar to the edges of ideas keyhole curiosity is when the writer weaves the background into the story in such a way that the reader sees only partial aspects of the background, as if they were looking through a keyhole into a mansion, glimpsing only a fraction of the possibilities.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)


The use of brief, deft, inoffensive infodumps is known as "Kuttnering", after Henry Kuttner. (e)


A more specific form of monoism, this form authorial laziness is where the physical setting has a single environmental characteristic, particularly at the planetary level. Examples include the jungle planet in Alan Dean Foster's Midworld or the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

nowhere nowhen story

Putting too little exposition into the story's beginning, so that the story, while physically readable, seems to take place in a vacuum and fails to engage any readerly interest. (Attr. L. Sprague de Camp) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

ontological riff

An 'ontological riff' is a passage in an SF story which suggests that our deepest and most basic convictions about the nature of reality, space-time, or consciousness have been violated, technologically transformed, or at least rendered thoroughly dubious. The works of H. P. Lovecraft, Barrington Bayley, and Philip K Dick abound in "ontological riffs." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

sense of wonder

Frequently invoked in discussions of science fiction, the "sense of wonder" is an experience unique to the genre. It is an emotional reaction to the reader suddenly confronting, understanding, or seeing a concept anew in the context of new information. John Clute and Peter Nicholls associate the experience with that of the "conceptual breakthrough" or "paradigm shift" (Clute & Nicholls 1993). In many cases, it is achieved through the recasting of previous narrative experiences in a larger context. It can be found in short scenes (e.g., in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, it can be found, in a small dose, inside the line "That's no moon; it's a space station.") and it can require entire novels to set up (as in the final line to Iain M. Banks's Feersum Endjinn.) -- (Source: Sense of wonder at Wikipedia ) (e)

space western

The most pernicious suite of "Used Furniture" where every Martian or Jovian town looks and sounds like Dodge City (Lewis Shiner). The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


Stapledon is the name assigned to the voice which takes center stage to lecture. Actually a common noun, as: "You have a Stapledon come on to answer this problem instead of showing how the characters resolve it." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
A character prone to holding forth, at length and without interruption, while various info dumps are unloaded on the helpless reader. Often surrounded by sycophantic peripheral characters whose lines are generally limited to, "Why, it certainly seems so, Socrates. No man of sense could dispute that." (Lewis Shiner) (e)

used furniture

Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let's just steal one. We'll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we'll call it the Empire instead of the Federation. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
A background out of Central Casting, often chosen by a writer too lazy to invent a good one. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

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