A Procrustean Approach to Science Fiction

A few years back, a group of science fiction writers announced the Mundane SF philosophy. It aimed to take the overly fantastical out of science fiction. Among the common SF tropes it decried were interstellar travel, contact with aliens, alternate universes, and the like. Mundane SF was to focus on life in and around Earth. As Geoff Ryman, one of the movement’s founders, put it,

OK, SF content is the future, but the function of most SF seems to be about avoiding the future. So much of the inherited tropes are actually highly unlikely. Take faster than light travel… there is a ghost of a possiblity there, but people have run away with it. This is because they like it. It seems to open up horizons of adventure. It also conveys the message, we can burn through this planet and escape to the stars. I don’t think we can. I think we’re stuck on Earth. I want to write stories that are stuck on earth and throw out the unlikely tropes.

I didn’t pay too much attention to Mundane SF. Geoff Ryman may have written one of my favorite books of all time, but I didn’t need his permission to enjoy non-Mundane SF. Besides, if the Mundane SF movement resulted in good novels and stories, all the better.

Today Andrew Wheeler brought the mundane SF blog to my attention, specifically a post on spotting Mundane SF in the January issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Analog. There are two sections I want to pull out.

A few years back when I learned about this Movement I was attracted to the idea. But I thought, surely there is a reasonable amount of mundane sf being published in short form. It can’t all be time travel crap.

“Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy” by Jeff Carlson (Asimov’s): sort of a whimsical chase story; very little speculation and thus perhaps a bit too safely mundane

He’s dropping stories on an iron bed. If they’re too fantastic, he chops off their feet; if they’re too mundane, he stretches them.

Look, artistic manifestos are great for giving artists constraints under which to operate and a warm and fuzzy feeling of virtue for having hewn to them. Ones like the Mundane SF that focus on trappings and tropes are terrible for choosing what to read. When you say, “I’m going to read science fiction,” you’re already limiting yourself to certain conventions of the genre. When you say, “I’m going to read mundane SF,” you’re limiting yourself even further. And you’re not even making your decision in terms of quality. You’re making it in terms of furniture.

It’s like my friend’s review of the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice. She noted the movie’s surprising gritty realism, the avoidance of clichéd period tropes, and the actors’ solid performances. She concluded her review as follows: “And while the two-hour movie necessarily reduces the scope of the original plot, all the essential themes are present and very little, overall, is missing. Except for Colin Firth. Zero stars.” What she meant as a joke, this blog entry is taking seriously. “This story has time travel. Zero stars.

Every time you draw a circle around literature and say, these are the genres I like, you’re excluding great books. As you draw the circle smaller and smaller, you exclude more and more great books. If all you read is Mundane SF, then just within the wider world of SF you’re going to miss a lot. Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Jack Finney’s Time and Again. Charles Stross’s Accelerando. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, for goodness’ sake!

You want to encourage Mundane SF? Great. But don’t limit yourself to just reading it.

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4 Comments

  1. Joyous
    on June 22, 2007 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I’d much rather read a good story than worry about whether it’s “mundane” enough. 😛 If the writer can make me *believe* in aliens and FTL travel, they’ve done their job.

  2. James Nicoll
    on June 23, 2007 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    What makes the Mundane SF worse for me is that the people involved clearly don’t have the basic knowledge to write the stuff. The post-oil, spring-loaded world was just agonizing to finish.

  3. on September 21, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Good entry.

    For good mundane Sci-Fi I’ve been hyped about Cory Doctorow’s stuff lately. I don’t know much about him other than internet rumour (he’s more powerful than cthulu, wields a copyright hammer of justice and flying shoes of internet publishing)

    I just read Cory Doctorow’s Fiction About An Evil Google (wonder if that link will work) and it falls into the mundane sci-fi category. However, I agree with your premise, that every time you exclude some sort of writing as “not good enough” you miss something potentially great.

  4. Omar E. Vega
    on October 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Once upon a time, science was full of fantasy. The phylosophers’ stone, the four elements and Aristotles physics had all to be forced out of racionality, before that branch of human thought could grow and mature.
    Today, the same childish playing with fantasy has flood especulative fiction, to the point more serious works can’t be seen above the crowd. It is time some define well what is really especulating with scientific facts, rationality and reality, and what are only childish tales for adults.
    Verne would be proud of “mundanes”. I bet.

    Omar Vega

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