I picked up Hugh Howey’s Sand earlier this month and, apart from enjoying it immensely, noticed a convenient tactic he employs to expound upon the setting without really adding to the text. One of the more egregious faults of any poor work of fantasy or science fiction is to interrupt the narrative with a long-winded explanation concerning an article of the world in which that narrative is set. To lace the same information into the narrative without doing so requires a great deal of effort and skill, which (depending upon the complexity of the article) can sometimes seem impossible. Take it from one who knows; I have more failures to my name in this regard than I can count or would want to count.
Gene Wolfe has for a long time employed footnotes and glossaries to provide quick elucidations of archaic terms or in-setting terminology without stopping the story. This is, however, often justified by the way in which he writes. The Latro novels, which I highly recommend, are pseudo-historical fiction narrated in the first-person by a Roman mercenary in Hellenistic Greece. The Book of the New Sun, also highly recommended, is likewise narrated in the first person and is rife with unexplained titles and terms native to the post-apocalyptic society in which the story is set. These instances are readily justified. Sand, however, is the first I’ve seen a third-person novel use footnotes to clear up questions over terms, as a narrative technique rather than an extension of the story’s immersion factor (a la Wolfe).
Some of the appeal inherent in reading Wolfe lies in being taken into a world you do not fully understand – and won’t, if you keep yourself from flipping to the glossary. It’s mystifying, intriguing. The reader is pulled into the narrative as through a window that only looks on one part of the courtyard at any given time. That is also the intent of the stories in which he employs the technique. Howey’s use of footnotes in Sand gives an answer to any author struggling to convey their world in passing, using omniscient voice and without devoting pages and pages to dry exposition. Certainly, if every speculative fiction author starts relaying the details of their world or universe in this way, the tactic starts to smack less of judiciousness and more of laziness. But that’s how it bears out with anything in the creative field. No matter how pioneering, from the tiniest introduction of footnotes to the imagination of a genre, any can become commoditized and tasteless. Still, we might as well jump on the train while it’s in station and see how comfortable the seats.