It's Almost Obligatory: Mundane SF

The following is a translated, reduced, and slightly reshaped extract from "Dogme 2005: Geoff Ryman and the Mundane SF Manifesto", an article I recently contributed to The Tenth Dimension, the Israeli SFF Society's quarterly. A large portion of the original article was concerned with introducing the reader to Ryman's new movement, which I assume online readers would already be familiar with (but if not: here is the manifesto and an Infinity Plus interview with Ryman in which discusses Mundane SF. Here are a few reactions to the manifesto and movement). Also removed is some discussion of the books and television series mentioned in the extract.
Ryman's stated goal--encouraging readers and writers to think of the Earth as a precious and limited resource, not to be squandered in the vain hope of an easily available replacement--is hard to object to, and yet there's something about the manifesto's wording and ideology that is troubling. What to make, for example, of the Manifesto's recognition of "The relief of focusing on what science tells us is likely rather than what is almost impossible such as warp drives. The relief will come from a sense of being honest"? What, beyond the emotional sort of honesty which hardly requires a doctorate to be able to gauge, does honesty have to do with the writing of fiction? There's something troubling about the use of such a loaded term to describe what is ultimately groundless speculation. Even more troubling is the manifesto's underlying assumption, that unlike all other literary genres, science fiction has an ideological agenda. Ryman's social platform is commendable, but it fails as a yardstick for literary quality.

The Mundanes seem to oppose the use of SFnal tropes as metaphors for contemporary social phenomenon. They define science fiction not as a forced allegory but as a plain-spoken story about futuristic technology. There seems to be an attempt here to penetrate the definition of science fiction--how much weight do we give each side of the equation? To emphasize science is to reduce the genre to a series of exercises in future-prediction. To concentrate on fiction, on the other hand, is to transform SF into technological fantasy. I see these two opposing concepts as two sides of the same coin, neither of which can exist without the other, but the Mundanes' decision to prefer one is not simply an expression of personal preference. They've attached moral values to 'science' and 'fiction', and determined that the former is better, more honest, more useful to society. Those who don't embrace this approach can produce, at best, "harmless fun".

I can't accept the underlying principles of the Mundane SF movement, and yet when I examined my reading habits over the last few years I discovered to my surprise that most of my favorite science fiction--the books that have interested and excited me--have fallen rather squarely into the Mundane SF camp: books such as David Brin's Kiln People, Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark, Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, and Ryman's own Air: Or, Have Not Have. To a one, they take place on or around Earth, in societies largely the same as our own, and their scientific MacGuffins are suitably 'believable' (although we might stop here to talk about a certain heroine's stomach-pregnancy and esophageal birth). Outside the literary medium, there's been a drift towards science fiction that's been denuded of its identifying characteristics, whether its Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the best film of 2004, or television's naturalistic Battlestar Galactica taking over from the operatic Farscape (yes, I know that Galactica doesn't answer all of the Manifesto's requirements, but it comes closer to doing so than any televised SF in the last decade or more).

Whatever significance Ryman and the Mundanes might attach to them, I see these changes as aesthetic rather than ideological. I define science fiction as literature that concerns itself with two questions: how will technology alter our lives? And how will we use technology to do the same things that human beings have been doing for millennia--love, hate, start families, and dream of the future? I've ceased to feel the need for the accouterments of the genre--spaceships, funny aliens, far-off worlds--so long as these questions are being addressed in a thoughtful, original manner (not that I find any or all of those accouterments are inherently objectionable). The Mundane SF manifesto, to my mind, isn't spearheading a new movement in SF so much as describing a change already in effect and attaching ideological significance to it. In all likelihood such an agenda was far from the intentions of the creators of many of the works we might now classify as Mundane, but which might more accurately be described as subtle.


Anonymous said…
You're defining kiln people as believable?!!!??!!!????!!!!????!!!! (I loved that book by the way, but I'd hardly define it as mundane sf).

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