In 2004, Geoff Ryman and his Clarion West SF Writing Workshop students proposed a “Mundane SF Manifesto.” It’s no longer online, but the Wikipedia Mundane SFentry gives part of the manifesto, as well as some links to further discussion. The main current info source is the Mundane SF blog.
A rude person might imagine one of the Clarion students’ thought processes to be as follows: “I’ve always wanted to write like Henry James or John Updike or Jane Austen — don’t you just adore Jane Austen? But, frankly, it’s so hard to break into mainstream writing that I figured I’d try a genre first. And then I thought, why not be a science fiction writer! Only, then, when I start looking at sci fi a little bit, I find out that a lot of it is written by nutty loners, and it’s full of science and crazy ideas, and it’s not like Jane Austen or John Updike at all. So I’m thinking, why not get rid of all the weird icky science and write stories about people’s emotions and about the kinds of problems you read about in the newspaper?”
[Doin’ a Lindee on Mamma Mundane.]
I started brooding over Mundane SF again this week because Geoff has reprinted the manifesto in the latest edition of the (print only) New York Review of Science Fiction along with a thoughtful essay based on a talk he gave at the Boréal SF con in Montreal this April.
[What, no dinosaurs?]
The basic idea of Mundane SF is to avoid the more unrealistic of the classic SF tropes—or power chords, as I like to call them. Geoff feels that faster than light travel, human-alien encounters, time travel, alternate universes, and telepathy are absolutely impossible. He feels that if we draw on these unlikely power chords, we are feeding people wish-fulfillment pap.
[No more second-hand God!]
Like me, the Mundanes would like to see SF as real literature. They feel that real literature mustn’t use fundamentally false scenarios. By the way, Ryman has very good lit chops, he has a cool modernistic novel 253 online—it’s in the form of a subway car full of people!
[Sketch-on wormhole conduit.]
Mundane SF is to be about picturing possible futures, drawing on such sober-sided Sunday magazine think-piece topics as “Disaster, innovation, climate change, virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, and biocomputers that evolve.”
[Why let the Pig’s media propaganda condition your practice of Art?]
I have so many objections!
I don’t think SF is necessarily about predicting possible futures. I’ve always felt that SF is more like surrealism. The idea is to shock people into awareness. Show them how odd the world is. Whether or not you draw on realistic tropes is irrelevant. But my personal practice is to allow really strange kinds of things to happen. This said, I do always to try and make the science internally consistent. Part of the fun of SF is making up explanations for your effects.
[A crystal-magic BS filter.]
Let it be said that futurism and SF are quite different endeavors. A rude person might say that futurism is about feeding inspirational received truths to businessmen and telling them it will help them make more money. SF is about unruly artistic visions.
Writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring. The thing is, science really does change a lot over time. Compare what we’re doing now to what we were doing in the year 1000. A Mundane SF writer of year 1000 might want us to write only about alchemy, the black plague, and the papacy.
[Laundering my manuscripts.]
Not that Mundane SF really has to be stuffy. Come to think of it, my early cyberpunk novel Software was thoroughly mundane—everything in it could well happen—and it was pretty lively. Maybe that’s why I don’t see Software showing up on any lists of Mundane SF. Can serious literature be dirty and funny? Of course!
[Mundane writers are big winners!]
Despite my sniping, I do understand, for instance, Charlie Stross’s relish in accepting the Mundane strictures and writing a Mundane SF novel. Why not. It’s a form, like a sonnet or one-square-meter canvas. And, of course, clever Mundanes like Geoff Ryman know this. A manifesto needn’t be a universal strait-jacket. But maybe some forms are self-defeating. Like a novel that doesn’t use the letter E. Or a piano piece that doesn’t use the black keys. Or a painting with no red or yellow.
[Evidence of alien contacts mounts!]
Personally I’ve been growing less constrained from novel to novel—I keep trying to get further out into space. I was mundanely stuck on the Moon for a long time! I think it’s an interesting intellectual game to find valid scientific ways around the specific strictures suggested by Mundane SF.
[See the saucer?]
I agree that careless writers sometimes create logically inconsistent stories when using things like faster than light travel. But that doesn’t mean nobody should write about FTL at all.
Yes, FTL travel is hard. But I know of at least four ways to travel very rapidly. (a) The traditional way is to do down into the subdimensions and take shortcuts. And, no, you don’t have to do this via wormholes. Nor do you need to travel in large steel cylinders. Science finds new things.
[Sta-Hi Mooney teleports to the Crab Nebula.]
(b) A simple method that I’ve discussed in Freeware and in Saucer Wisdom is to send your personality as a zipped up information file and have it unzipped at your destination. This doesn’t go faster than light, but it goes at the speed of light, and seems to the traveler to take no time at all. Charles Stross used a weaker form of this in Accelerando, where people’s codes are packed into a ship the size of a soft drink can that travels at near-light speed. But, yes, when you get back home, a lot of time has elapsed.
[Scientist David Deutsch can prove any damn thing you want is possible.]
(c) Teleportation, based on quantum indeterminacy. There’s a finite (small) chance that I’m on planet Pengö near the Great Attractor as well as here. It’s not hard to imagine that coming improvements of quantum computation will make it possible to amplify the indeterminacy and collapse it so that I do the trip.
[A nicely broken-in yuncher can be found on the ceiling in this tenderloin crash pad.]
(d) The yunching technique described in my Frek and the Elixir (cf. also the Bloater Drive in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero). You wind some of your strings to get really big, then step across the galaxy, then shrink back down.
[What, no alien bar scene?]
As for aliens, perhaps they come via one of these rapid travel methods. But perhaps they are already here. Living in the subdimensions. What are the subdimensions? A power chord from the 1930s. Whatever is going on below the Planck length. We have no idea. Why not assume it might be interesting? Maybe aliens are those flashes you see out of the corner of your eye sometime. Maybe they’re aethereal protozoa in the atmosphere.
[Definitive proof that psi powers are real!]
When trying to justify telepathy—don’t forget that only a tiny fraction of our universe’s mass is the familiar visible matter. Most of it is dark energy and dark matter. As Nick Herbert has remarked—maybe some of that dark stuff is consciousness.
[Nevada is an alternate universe.]
Alternate universes are quite popular in modern physics. Something is going on in all those extra dimensions. Why not other worlds? Looked at in a certain quantum-mechanical way, each conscious being lives in a different parallel universe. Why should we settle for consensus reality?
[John Shirley among the Cro-Mags.]
Implausible as time travel is, it may be the SF power chord most commonly used by non-SF writers. If even the almighty “literary” writers get to use time-travel, can’t we lowly SF writers use it too? I’ve always wanted to write a time travel book and get it right. Surely this can be done. Rather than throwing up my hands, I prefer to continue searching for ways to be less and less Mundane.