Mundane Science Fiction

Science fiction? Mundane? Well, for those who are not part of the glorious sciffy firmament (a loose starfield of blogs, newsletters, magazines and conventions), I report on an interesting development in science fiction. This development takes the form of the ‘mundane manifesto’.

In a nutshell, this manifesto is an explicit rejection of science fiction based upon technologies that, at present, suffer from logical problems (based on current physical theory) or huge engineering problems.

Here is the manifesto.

For your convenience, here is a brief snippet:

The Mundanes recognize:

That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.

That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence — however, it is unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.

That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.

Before I comment on this manifesto, it is worth noting that it has generated considerable interest in the web-sphere. Charlie Stross disagrees with some aspects of it. Mike Cobley has lampooned it. Ken MacLeod has some interesting words to say.

One of the mundane’s progenitors is Geoff Ryman. You can read some exposition about the mundane dogma here.

My own feeling about the mundane manifesto (from here I’ll use ‘manifesto’ rather than ‘dogma’, since the word ‘dogma’ seems to have self-doubt pre-installed) is not based upon encyclopedic knowledge of the science fiction literature. I have read and enjoyed the classics, particularly in my teenage years, but my reading is curbed by my recent habit of reading books on the basis of reviews and recommendations. I don’t pick up books simply because they are science fiction. So please bear in mind that any thoughts I have are the product of someone with a comparatively superficial knowledge of the literature.

I’m not attracted to space opera. I can’t say that I don’t like it because I have never read an example. I’ve been put off, I suppose, by Star Wars, which I’ve always considered to be something akin to the product of a formulaic ‘Hero’s Journey’ one-day workshop. When I hear about Faster-Than-Light drives, I get a little irritated, but I do not worry overmuch. The irritation builds when aliens are depicted as humanoid; when alien civilizations interact.

On the one hand, these flights of fancy are useful because the story would effectively collapse without them. Dramatic fundamentals such as time pressure, high stakes, and conflicts of interest would be almost unworkable if one took a hard-SF approach to large-scale events (i.e. those taking place across the huge distances of interstellar space). To this extent, I can deal with FTL drives, and trading between alien civilizations. These generate the wow factor and contributed to the sheer entertainment of the piece. These contribute to the epic.

On the other hand, I have an instinct – visible in my own writing – to look at the interaction between today and tomorrow. What do I mean by this? Well, I’ve always been guided by the star of Asimov’s comment, ‘Science fiction is the examination of the changes that face humanity’ (paraphrase). I am more interested in the transitional pains between the present and the future. To do this, I tend to work within the present or the near future and add small elements of science fiction. We now live in the future we imagined as children. Sure, we tend not to fly to work in our hover car, drink space-tea, or have a Klingon lodger who’s so grumpy we don’t get more than a “K’Pla!” if we meet on the stairs. But the pieces of future are scattered around us: wireless networks, cars with computers, cloning. Like an explosion in reverse, these will eventually form future technologies. How will mankind deal with them?

My own fiction is concerned with the nature of identity and issues surrounding the control of our actions. I don’t think I could do that on the macro scale of a space opera; I would like to do it within the smaller, but equally complex, realm of neuroscience. So I think I might be a mundane science fiction writer. But mundanities, properly spun, can contribute to the epic too.

That said, I would like to see a growth in mundane science fiction without a reduction in non-mundane science fiction (space opera is non-mundane, but so, of course, are many other sub-genres). And I certainly would like to read a space opera at some point. But the mundane fits, I think, the aspect of science fiction that has driven my interest in the genre for some time: the interface between life now and life as it will be.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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