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On Mundane SF

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.

27 Responses to “On Mundane SF”

  1. Alex Says:

    Your Hacker and the Ants is perfect Mundane SF right? It’s the first book of yours I read. It’s great and it’s the everyday “mundane” details of the lecherous divorced software engineer harrassed by realtors that I liked.
    I always disliked Star Trek (except maybe the First Contact movie) for it’s absurb science. And I’ve always felt we are alone and that aliens don’t exist. The Rare Earth hypothesis feels right to me.

  2. Kelson Philo Says:

    I’m going to show off my ignorance here (ak! it’s glaring…), but in regards to c) above, could not one of the possible states for the collapse to happen be in the past or the future?

  3. The Necromancer Says:

    Doesn’t most of the c-punk stuff qualify as “mundane” sci-fi? Gibson, your buddy Sterling, Pat Cadigan, etc…all wrote classic work that is only “mildly” sci-fi in terms of speculation. Maybe this is a historical thing — the old golden age stuff replete with FTL travel and intergallactic empires is now parodied to some extent. It’s a worthwhile argument, sure, but what it really boils down to is story. Is it good? Internally consistent? Does it bring the reader along? If all these are answered in the affirmative, it shouldn’t matter what “type” of sci-fi it is. N’est pas?

  4. Steve H Says:

    Some people say faster than light travel, human-alien encounters, time travel, alternate universes, and telepathy are impossible. Some people say true love is impossible, and John Grisham is a great novelist.

  5. Rudy Says:

    Yes, Hacker and the Ants is mundane, I suppose, Alex, thanks for thinking of that. Everything in that book could come true. My other Silicon Valley novel , Spaceland, is a notch less plausible in mundane terms, but to me it felt equally likely. I think SF should have big surprises happening. When I read one of Phil Dick’s non-SF books I always feel short-changed. Where’s the big suprise? Where’s the cool stuff!

    And, yes, Necromancer, really it’s about writing good stories, and not which chords you play.

    I guess the idea of Mundane SF makes me anxious because I worry that if I imagine an unsympathetic “plausibility censor” looking over my shoulder, it inhibits me. But I should let them do what they like and write on.

    Thanks, Steve H, for your continuing support and frequent encouraging comments.

    And, Kelson, I’d never thought of using quantum indeterminacy as a way to tunnel into the past—but it seems as plausible as tunneling to remote locations. I think an object’s uncertainty is indeed spread out in time as well as space. Maybe I’ll try using this as a story idea sometime!

    But not in HYLOZOIC, I’ve got enough ideas kicking around in there already, like a bag of kittens too cute to drown. Mutating into saber tooth tigers…

    We SF writers are fearful, touchy lot!

    Ursula Le Guin just published a funny rant“The Return of the Genre Zombie” mocking a critic who had chided Micael Chabon for “dragging the corpse of genre fiction from the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.”

  6. Ron Says:

    It’s not a novel but an example of time travel done right is the movie PRIMER

  7. Steve H Says:

    Ron, I’ve heard this is an excellent indie film, with a plausible time travel gimmick that results in people doubling and overlapping, made for about $7000.
    Rudy, what will the Mundanes do if the aliens land tomorrow and give us telepathy and teleporters and flying cars? Or the Singularity happens? Could Geoff write a mundane sf novel after he was uploaded to a computer? Charlie Stross could, but would he? I have nearly a gig of memory in my pocket and my phone is a camera; how mundane is life these days anyway?
    Questions, questions, questions, as Zappa would say, running through the mind of the concerned young person today. Ah, but it’s a great time to be alive . . .

  8. linus Says:

    by far the most mudane wavelength that I know of is the
    “classic” muzak repertoire over the last 50 years….errie limbo instrumental tunes that sound vaguely familiar and yet their actuall names remain entirely obscure…. the only tune that I know the name of is “Sleepy Shores” by Johnny Pearson….
    this can be heard on the cd complication “Music For TV Dinners” just google this cd and hear a sample and this errie mundane tune is immediately recognizable….

  9. Mac Tonnies Says:

    I really liked this post, and the illustration captions made me laugh. In the end, I want all of it — mundane and otherwise — provided it’s well-written and accesses some part of me I wasn’t previously aware of. “A book should be the ax to break the frozen sea within us,” as Kafka put it.

  10. rick Says:

    Well, without science, SF is just – fiction.

  11. Kelson Philo Says:


  12. Kelson Philo Says:

    Oh, that Le Guin essay is wonderful. Such a firecracker!

  13. Sean Says:

    Rudy says that his novel Software is Mundane SF and wonders if it isn’t on the Mundane SF list because it’s lively and funny. From what I’ve heard of Software, it’s about downloading minds into artificial brains, conscious robots and so on. These themes are all against the Mundane Manifesto, which I imagine is why they aren’t on the list Rudy mentions.
    (I’m referring to the very concise version of the Manifesto which appears on the Interzone MSF submission page:

  14. Rudy Says:

    Oops, Sean, I didn’t realize copying my software into an intelligent robot body is a Mundane no-no. So maybe The Hacker and the Ants is my only Mundane book…and it may well be there’s something “wrong” with that one too.

  15. Steve H Says:

    Most SF with any hint of thoughtfulness or literary worth recognizes that Man brings his unique jungle-evolved problems along with him on any journey, even a journey to the future with no time machine. If we get orbiting space colonies or domed cities on gas planets, they will have jails and somebody will be in those jails for wife-beating or child molesting or bank robbery. This is a known quantity, that Man is not good but can be; it’s a story written over and over in poetry and prose, in song and story, and maybe even in video game format. We know how it goes: imprisoned within the bony prison of our skulls, we struggle to express our thoughts well enough to gain some advantage. Then we throw ourselves under a train(a mundane one). No more to build on there. A story about Man’s inhumanity to Man or one about infidelity and commitment are going to be very similar whether the setting is a ghetto in 1930 or the planet Xok in 2330, if that’s all the story is about.
    SF tries to change the equation a bit, see if we’d be better if things were one way or another, but even a hard-boiled detective story puts its characters in hot water(hard-boiling them) to see if they float or sink. I don’t read many detective stories, because I know too well how they will come out. I read a lot of SF and fantasy, because they aren’t always predictable.
    Oh, and there’s a robot in HACKER AND THE ANTS. Not mundane enough. Sorry.

  16. Julian Todd Says:

    I once went to the national museum in Bankok. They had a lot of statues in bronze and stone and brick, all different sizes. After the fourth room it began to dawn on me that every single, hand-made statue sourced from all corners of Thailand over the centuries was of the Buddha in one of three different postures.

    Now, I am sure the artists and craftsmen and devotees could see the subtle variations and style of the one entity worthy of building a statue of. But to my foreign eyes, there is so much else. If I had been king of Thailand I would have passed a law that for one week a year all artists had to make statues that were not of the Buddha. Wouldn’t that have been something?

    To me, so much SF looks like those Buddha statues. Repetitive rehashing of the same themes in a limited number of ways, subtle variations that are of no consequence to an outsider. Why not broadly categorize what’s being done, and demand something else for one week a year?

    What’s being done is escaping. Consistently, SF is about breaking physical laws, getting saved by aliens, downloading our brains into cyberspace, in order to avoid the future that Science tells us is likely to occur.

    There is undoubtedly a big void in the area. Stories in which the future comes and big things happen, and there is no lifeboat which lets us sneak away unscathed. The popular Science Fact books are at this place (such as Jared Diamond’s), but there’s little fiction present.

    Now, you can either spawn off a tiny off-shoot of SF to occupy the space, or you can leave it empty for some dumb literary mainstream author to make his seminal mark there.

    Which would you rather happen?

  17. Rudy Says:

    Julian, that’s the most cogent defense of Mundane SF that I’ve seen. Point taken.

    I think I myself prefer writing escape literature. And I feel I am taking care to make NEW kinds of Buddha statues.

    I don’t view it solely as escape, though. As I discussed in my own manifesto years ago, “The Transrealist Manifesto,” I view the SF tropes as tools for delving into the human psyche. Objective correlatives for archetypal truths. (You can find the Transrealist Manifesto on my Writing page.)

    The really likely and bummer futures just aren’t something I want to think about or write about. My sense is that all the news I hear is already about those things, and I do, yes, want to escape from it. I always have a sense that bad news is a way for the government to control me by frightening me. Like the popes with Hell, or Bush with terrorism, but on a continuing perennial day to day scale. My sense is always that there is so much more to day to day reality than newspaper topics.

    But I grant that it could be well worth while for some SF-trained authors to go there. And hopefully come up with something wonderful and surprising. Not just more bad news.

  18. Rudy Says:

    New outrage: Discover mag attacks SF!

    It’s an article saying SF is obsolete and “has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter.”

    Imagine my fury!

    The essay is lame BS by a professional pontificator who doesn’t actually read SF—other than Michael Crichton.

    He went to a SFWA gathering, got creeped out by our looks and the cheap venue (generic hotel room with bean dip buffet) and he decided the field is dead.

    His reasoning: (a) SF is for proposing ideas about the future in fictional form, (b) fiction doesn’t matter anymore, as people prefer putting their opinions into pontificating essays and blogs, (c) our technology is changing so fast that predicting the future is impossible.

    Rebuttal: (a) SF is an ecstatic visionary art form akin to surrealism and the primary goal is to understand the present, (b) independent art is more important than ever as a last stand against psychic McDonaldsization, (c) in the face of change, we need wild and demented SF as the best possible way for conceptualizing what’s happening around us.

    Shorter rebuttal. The guy is saying “I don’t read SF anymore, therefore it doesn’t matter.”

    Still shorter and non-vocal: The Finger, followed by turning my back and walking away.

    I don’t think the Discover attack bears directly on the to-Mundane-or-not-to-Mundane discussion, though. Either camp could argue that their approach is the most likely to produce SF likely to stem the abuse by morons like the Discover essayist. I’d say, let’s all keep writing SF any old way! Solidarity against the tyranny of consensus reality!

    SF isn’t dying. It’s only just starting.

  19. Steve H Says:

    Rudy, that wasn’t a writer, it was the editor of SPY magazine. He and BS were separated at birth, but have a happy reunion every time bean dip is served. I bet with a little searching you could find the wiki article he cribbed to drop names like Edward Everett Hale until he got to his buddy Crichton. The point of the article seems to be that people who write SF don’t even bother to wear thongs and Spock ears and he’s not down with that. Actually, last time I looked, SPY was dead and SF was doing fine (didja notice that EVERY new tv show for Fall is either SF or fantasy?).

  20. Bruce Says:

    Viva Rudy!
    Down with mundane SF!

  21. Kelson Says:

    “The present-day composer refuses to die!” -Edgard Varèse

    Be they pitchforks or harps or SF writers or other musicians of various and sundry sorts.

  22. Kelson Says:

    Oh, just to throw a odd bit of synchronocity out there, but i threw Varèse’s quote into google and find a vid, and sure enough, it’s FZ mentioning pitchforks. With what appears to be dutch subtitles.

  23. PK Lentz Says:

    Just came across this blog while searching out the debate on mundane SF, and really enjoyed the post. I don’t know if it’s necessary to take sides, since IMO there’s room for any number of sub-genres. I’ve “committed” (as they say) mundane SF by accident rather than design, and submitted to their issue of IZ, but I personally wouldn’t endorse any “manifesto” for writing. Even if I made rules for myself, I’m sure I’d break them at least once.

    One trap I don’t think opponents of mundane SF should fall into is defending why FTL/aliens/AI etc *might* be possible. That just lets the mundanes say, “Hey, look how wacky they are, talking about teleportation while we talk real science.” It doesn’t matter if those things are plausible because, as is wisely noted here, SF isn’t really about predicting the future.

  24. D.N.D. Says:

    I agreed with a lot of what was siad on this blog. I am a mundane sympathizer, but I also write non-mundane sci fi. I also agree with PK Lentz in that “there’s room for any number of sub-genres”.

    I would also like to clarify that nowhere do Mundaners say that FTL/aliens/AI is impossible, they just say its very unlikely. Overall, though, I think SF is about the fiction more than the science, and thats the way its always been. It’s important to remember that its all just entertainment.

  25. FutureNerd Says:

    I think what old SF escaped from was a padded world. This Mundane thing has me thinking about books I’ve liked and wondering whether old SF ideas really have become padding by now.

    Rudy, you say, “I’ve always felt that SF is more like surrealism. The idea is to shock people into awareness.” My feeling is that SF takes you to unfamiliar territory and then rubs your nose in something, and the particular SF trippy zing effect happens because it’s a real something, however mapped. Some connection to reality or realism-attitude gives the author a grip on your guts and your brain.

    I’m not sure realism per se, relevance, responsibility and predicting the future are the right astringents, but still it’s a scary question whether SF is imperceptibly or inadvertently giving up that particular grip, authority, magic.

  26. M.G.M. Says:

    Rudy, you need to read “Summa Technologiae”, a treatise by a Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem. He proves conclusively that sending a COPY of your personality (or otherwise teleporting) will not give YOU the experience of having traveled anywhere. Making a copy, or many copies, of yourself “somewhere else”, and destroying the original “here”, at the same time or later, is an expensive way of committing suicide, according to Lem. The only way I can imagine to sidestep this roadblock, is to prove that self-experience is tied to the quantum state as a whole. I doubt that it is possible to prove it one way or the other, but let’s say it is, for the sake of argument. We could teleport the quantum state such that consciousness is not lost in the process. Would you volunteer for such an experiment? By the way, if it doesn’t work out, no one will know that you have died, and a copy, or copies, have taken your place…

  27. Task Newsletter Says:

    Years later, and we’re STILL talking about Mundane SF:

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