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science fiction and the mundanes

Here's something I haven't discussed here: "Mundane Science Fiction." Yes, I know that sounds contradictory, but some folks are trying to make a movement out of it.

Personally, I believe that SF embraces multitudes. It is not a genre that can live with constrictions or presciptions. SF is literature that needs to be free. It is dynamic, creative, and powerful, and IMHO still the best way to tell stories about what it means to be human. The only thing that the mundane SF adherents seem to want to do differently from the rest of us is to not rely on ideas that aren't proven via peer-reviewed scientific methodology. Okay, that's sensible and a great thing to teach new writers, but it doesn't feel like a new direction for the genre. Maybe I just don't get it (and I'm currently discussing this with blzblack).

If someone writes something that deals with the effects of change on the human condition and extrapolates into the past, future, or distant places, they're writing SF, pure and simple. You can subdivide it into subgenres, but no one subgenre has the right to claim supremacy over the others. SF readers and writers, especially, should know better than to condemn another neighborhood in the ghetto we all share and love.


EDIT: PS: The word "mundane" has been long denegrated by SFnal folks. It usually means the non-SF people who are incapable of viewing the universe outside of their little life's confines. Many of them fear and loathe SF. So what a strange thing to want to call your approach to SF!


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 1st, 2007 03:36 pm (UTC)
As a descriptive, it's ok; as a prescriptive it sucks.

That's right on the money! Well, unless a writer simply decides that he or she wants to use limitations to see what can be done within those constraints, like writing a villanelle instead of free verse or some hybrid form... or, to get back to the SF model, a hypertext page online.
May. 1st, 2007 09:54 am (UTC)
papersky has an interesting take on it.
May. 1st, 2007 12:36 pm (UTC)
I think papersky's interpretation of Ryman's position is fascinating and well worth considering. But I also find myself wondering, if that's what Ryman meant, why not just say that? Why do we have to retcon Ryman's comments? Why not be straight forward and say that science fiction has to go back to its roots, reexamine its approach, and start from scratch?

I can certainly agree with the premise that many contemporary science fiction writers may lean too heavily on genre tropes; people have been pointing this out—that tropes make the genre self-referential and raise some serious barriers of entry for new readers—for several years now. Sure. But why does the elimination of so much of what's come before need to be the solution? Seems to me that this approach could significantly limit our options as writers going forward.

This "Mundane SF" stuff also has irritated me from the start specifically because it seems to be taking task with science fiction for emphasizing the fiction part of the equation, which seems to me to be taking task with fiction as a whole and strikes me as a little silly.
May. 1st, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
I think you're right on the money: If the mundaners want to place limitations on their SF, fine, but then they're limiting what they can say and do in their work, and that seems like a bad idea - especially for SF, an arena where we get to do experiments you can't run in other genres.

I understood papersky's concerns, but don't think that's a reason to throw away tropes and ideas, and as I responded below, I don't think it's anything new to worry about the genre going downhill.
May. 1st, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's what prompted me to write this post. I responded to her with this:
I think your concern about "SF is becoming the work of the third artist" is the same concern every generation of writers feels about the current situation, so perhaps we need not worry over-much. Certainly, as Sturgeon pointed out decades ago, "90% of everything that gets published is crud," and when you're swimming in a cesspool, everything looks like crud.
Then the kernel of this post.
May. 1st, 2007 03:00 pm (UTC)

I mean... sure if someone want to do that, ok. I like a number of stories that I guess would fall into that category. But the whole thing creeps me out.

I've always thought of SF as being something that is "supposed" to expand the mind, not limit it. To show us our humanity by finding new angles, new perspectives.

The dogma indicates danger in imagined abundance and illusory speculation, but that seems like saying we shouldn't imagine ways to create better fuel because that will give people the idea that we can use all the gasoline we want.

I agree with kalimeg: descriptive, sure! prescriptive, ew. And double ew.
May. 1st, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
I hear you, and I agree: If SF doesn't expand the mind or open new perspectives, it's not doing all it can do. Limitations would only make it more likely to neglect one's duty as an SF writer.
(Deleted comment)
May. 1st, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
Yep, especially for SF. And as book publishing moves away from its current model, I wonder if we'll lose genres or rely on them even more.
May. 2nd, 2007 12:54 pm (UTC)
"driven by the big-box-store mentality of different shelves for different people"

"Bix-box-store mentality"? Pish tush. Bookstores have been sorting books into rough categories as long as there have been bookstores. This is because their customers don't want to walk in to find all the books stacked in a big heap in the middle of the floor.

Categories can be limiting, but at root, they exist because shoppers don't want to have to individually examine every single book in the store.

I'm entirely in favor of fiction that "gleefully jumps back and forth across the traditional borders," but there's nothing inherently revolutionary about it; doing this sort of thing is how genres maintain their health. It's not a blow against the empire.
May. 1st, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
I really don't have a problem with Mundane SF as described. It seems to me that what lies at the heart of it as an approach is a rejection of romanticism and especially techno-romanticism, which is itself just as much of a constraint as Mundane SF, especially when some of the major SF publishing houses explicitly proscribe non-romantic SF in their submission guidelines. How is A Hopeful Human Science-Positive Future™ any less limiting?
May. 1st, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)
I hear you - I disagree with any limitations on the genre. In fact, I think gadgety SF can be really mundane: At its extreme, you end up with Star Wars, which is only SF in its costumery. Take away the spaceships and aliens, and it's the same story, thus not really SF.

I think my greatest complaint about the mundaner's prescription lies in their assumption that it's somehow better, that there's something wrong with SF that allows for extrapolative physics, life-forms different from our own, and so on.

Real SF has no bounds. That means we need to accept things we don't like as valid and important, even "mundane" SF *g*
May. 2nd, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
The trouble with statements like "real SF has no bounds" is that every actual individual work has bounds-a-plenty. Eon signals right away to the reader that at no point will the story's resolution involve magical fairy unicorns. No "Honor Harrington" book is ever going to involve the heroine, crash-landed on a faraway planet, killing all her shipmates and then dictating her own suicide note into a voice recorder. The reader of We Who Are About To... immediately understands that this is not a story that will entail adorable alien companion creatures.

Also, while I've been an enthusiastic reader of SF all my life, I find that I wince at totalizing claims about SF like "Real SF knows no bounds," which, like "SF is the literature of ideas," make no actual sense either as a description of particular works of SF or as an attempt to explain how SF is different from any other narrative fiction. I find myself unable to agree that the works of Leo Frankowski and Joe Poyer have a boundlessness not found in Nabokov or Flaubert. I prefer the notion that really good writers will shamelessly use any trope, notion, gimcrack, or underhanded trick that serves their purposes, and SF is one of several libraries (in the sense that computer programmers use the word "library") of tropes, notions, gimcracks, and tricks.

The core insight of "Mundane SF" seems to me to be the observation that when everything is possible, nothing is interesting. Like Jo, I've been put off by the tone of their prescription, but I happily buy Jo's reworking of it into, not "you have to do it this way or it sucks," but rather "Wouldn't it be cool to try this approach?"
May. 2nd, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
I know what you're saying, and I didn't mean that any individual work of SF has no bounds; I meant that SF as a genre has very wide boundaries. If one writer wants to create a world where people live aboard wooden sailing-ships that float around inside a planet-sized buckysphere and light their own suns inside the sphere, cool! If someone else wants to have uplifted monkeys ride unicorns across a post-apocalyptic landscape, hunting those damned humans who poisoned their world, go for it! Mix magic and the far-future where the magic turns out to be superscience, why not? Even build hard limits to what the author wants to do, like no space travel or aliens or whatever else, great.

SF has room for all those things, that's what I meant. I even allow Star Wars into the genre, and in fact enjoy the spectacle of "sci-fi" quite a lot. It's just not something I try to emulate.

I agree that the notion of using a solid approach to researching SF is hugely valuable for authors. I also feel that sticking to possible science and technology makes for better SF, unless the whole idea of the story is to create a Borgesian or Marquezian (like those -ians? *g*) world for an SF tale, in which case trying to mundane-ize the tale would kill them.

So yeah, I guess I pretty much agree with Jo that it's interesting and useful - especially for teaching new SF writers how to write this stuff - but the prescrptive feel is what gets under my skin.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )