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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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