Mundane science fiction

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An artist's depiction of a fictional Mars colony, with solar arrays and underground greenhouses. Depictions of space travel within the Solar System is considered acceptable by proponents of mundane science fiction, because it is plausible within current technologies.

Mundane science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction; usually hard science fiction which is characterized by its setting on Earth or within the Solar System, and a lack of interstellar travel, intergalactic travel or human contact with extraterrestrials.[1] Mundane science fiction focuses on stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written[2] or which is a plausible extension of existing technology. Mundane science fiction works explore topics such as environmental degradation, robotics, virtual reality, enhanced genomes, nanotechnology, and quantum mechanics.

It rarely involves interstellar travel or communication with alien civilization. The genre's writers believe that warp drives, the use of wormholes, and other forms of faster-than-light travel are scientific fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future. According to them, unfounded speculation about interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with planets as hospitable to life as Earth, which encourages wasteful attitude to the abundance on Earth.[3]

Scientists have not uncovered any evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Although absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, mundane science fiction writers believe it is unlikely that alien intelligence will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can. As such, mundane science fiction writers imagine a future on Earth and within the solar system and believe it is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Alternative universes, parallel worlds, magic and the supernatural (including telepathy and telekinesis), time travel and teleportation are similarly avoided in mundane science fiction.

History[edit]

Precursor movements: 1950-1960s[edit]

Chris Nakashima-Brown's article in The New York Review of Science Fiction states that "[n]otwithstanding the scientific gloss on which science fiction seems to depend, a great deal of the genre concerns “fantasies about the escape from science — the escape from the subtly nihilistic dominion of reason in the post-Enlightenment West, into a generically unbound Jungian Disneyland...”.[4] In the Golden Age of Science Fiction, stodgy tales of space opera using "bland prose" and "formulas of planetary romances, über-robots, and cold equations" dominated. SF writer Thomas Disch says that the preference for weak, implausible depictions of science in sci fi is an “American aspect of our “lie-loving” culture” used by readers for escapism. That said, some Golden Age writers such as Theodore Sturgeon, Philip José Farmer, and Ray Bradbury had more of a gift for transcending these formulas and developing nuanced characters and stories.[5]

In the 1960s, "Disch, Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and others launched the New Wave [of Science Fiction]". "Stylistic experimentation" in the writing and new topics meant less formulas and cliches. The authors had a profound "skepticism about science and technology", and there was an examination of “inner space” (Ballard), "feminist...critiques, and ecology (Frank Herbert’s Dune).[6]

J.G. Ballard believed that the Golden Age of Science Fiction’s focus on advanced interstellar spaceships was “clichéd and unilluminating”, preferring to write stories about humans’ “next five minutes”, the “near future”, which is “immediately recognisable to us, but invariably with a pretty unpleasant twist or three.” [7]

“MSF stories already existed before the term was coined”; as such, its “naming” by Ryman “…only marks (and encourages) a high point in SF’s social and ecological consciousness and conscience.” Maddelena says that Ryman developed his idea of the MSF subgenre by examining “what works best” in science fiction classic stories and novels. She says setting MSF in the real world may help SF writers avoid having excess “explanation and exposition”, an issue that often plagues poor SF writing.

2000s[edit]

The goals of MSF were predated by sociologist Wayne Brekhus in 2000, who published “A Mundane Manifesto”, calling for “analytically interesting studies of the socially uninteresting.” He argues for a focus on the “mundane” because the “extraordinary draws disproportionate theoretical attention from researchers”, which weakens the development of theory and creates a distorted image of reality. He stated that he hoped that the humanities would also focus on the mundane.

As well, in 2001, the sci-fi website SF Futurismic: Near Future Science Fiction and Fact (http://futurismic.com) is against the traditional forms of SF, and instead calls for an examination of the impact of scientific discoveries on human society. Futurismic is against all “fantasy, horror, and space opera, as well as offworld SF, distant futures, aliens, alternate histories, and time travel”. Futurismic accepts fiction that is mundane, “post-cyberpunk sf, satirical/gonzo futurism, and realistic near future hard sf.” MSF describes a change “already in effect” and claims it has “ideological significance”.

Launch of movement[edit]

The mundane science fiction movement, inspired by an idea of Julian Todd, was founded in 2004 during the Clarion workshop by novelist Geoff Ryman among others.[8][2] Ryman claims that the MSF Manifesto was “jokey” and that it was not intended to be a “serious” statement. The authors of the MSF Manifesto, apart from Ryman, are anonymous. The beliefs of the movement were later codified as the Mundane Manifesto.[9] The authors of the Manifesto stated that they are “pissed off and needing a tight girdle of discipline to restrain our sf imaginative silhouettes”. Ryman explained the MSF Manifesto in a speech to BORÉAL’s 2007 Science Fiction convention in Montreal.

Writer Kate McKinney Maddalena states that the Canadian-born and now UK-based Ryman probably intends “mundane” to mean “of the world”, rather than “boring”, following the British sense of the word “mundane”. The MSF blog was first used as a forum for debate about the new subgenre. By 2009, blog participants were existent MSF from the SF literature, and looking for newly-published MSF (“mundane spotting”).

Ryman has contrasted mundane science fiction with most science fiction through the desire of teenagers to leave their parents' homes.[10] Ryman sees too much of regular science fiction being based on an "adolescent desire to run away from our world". However, Ryman notes that humans are not truly considered grown-up until they "create a new home of their own", which is what mundane science fiction aims to do.[10]

Mike Brotherton defines mundane science fiction as “science fiction that improbably anticipates no new discoveries or technologies and makes some narrow-minded assumptions that are unwarranted”.[11]

Publications[edit]

Published as subgenre[edit]

In 2007 the British sci fi magazine Interzone devoted an issue to the subgenre.[12]

The 2009 short story collection When It Changed: Science Into Fiction, edited by Ryman, is a collection of mundane science fiction stories, each written by a science fiction author with advice from a scientist, and with an endnote by that scientist explaining the plausibility of the story.[13]

Other works considered in line with subgenre[edit]

A review of the 1992 novel China Mountain Zhang noted that the story's world, while different, felt ordinary and believable.[14]


Reception[edit]

Science fiction writer Rudy Rucker wrote a response to the Mundane Manifesto on his blog. Rucker says he "prefer[s] to continue searching for ways to be less and less Mundane" in his science fiction. He points out that alternate universes are "quite popular in modern physics", and he says perhaps there are other worlds in other dimensions. He notes that fiction writers outside of sci fi use stories about time travel, so it is of interest to him to explore it in fiction, even though it is implausible.[15] While Rucker is somewhat aligned with the MSF, in that he too “rejects the “escapist” tendencies of science fiction”, and he calls for transrealism, an approach in which art “deal[s] with the world the way it actually is”, Rucker argues that the elements of SF that MSF advocates reject (time travel, parallel universes, and so on) are “symbolic of archetypal modes of perception” that are needed in SF.

In Jim Kelly's Asimov Science Fiction essay in January 2008, he wondered, “how was MundaneSF all that different from what had up until then been called hard science fiction?”. Niall Harrison argues that the collection of MSF stories in Interzone #216 does not devleop “a convincing case for mundane sf.” Linda Nagata says the term "mundane" has the "implication of "boring"? To me, the term is another marketing disaster."[16]

Hard science fiction author Mike Brotherton says he does not write mundane science fiction because he finds it “boring and uninteresting” and he does not like the Manifesto’s claim that “we know what is most probable”. While he agrees that faster than light travel is improbable, he says that interstellar travel and finding Earth-like planets may be possible. Brotherton disagrees with the Manifesto’s emphasis on avoiding depictions of an “abundance of resources”, claiming that Malthusian scenarios have not arisen.

The Mundane Manifesto has been called anthropocentric.[17] The concern in MSF about wasting the abundance of Earth is influenced by the "...moral climate that permeates North American and British nature writing". MSF is intended "more as compass than chimera". [18] Ian McDonald agreed with many MSF tenets on his LiveJournal blog, but he points out that a lot of existing SF qualifies as MSF; as such, he asks, what is the point of creating a new subgenre for content that already exists. James Patrick Kelly wrote about MSF in his column in Asimov’s Science Fiction, stating that he agrees with many of its elements.

Science fiction writer Claire L. Evans called it a “controversial recent sub-genre” in 2009.[19] and she calls the Manifesto a “much-attacked” text. She calls MSF a “useful category for an already-existing genre of science fiction (that heady triad of postapocalyptic/utopian/dystopian” fiction. Evans disagrees with Ryman’s use of word “unlikely”; she says “[o]ften, it’s the wildest, least likely prognostications that come to pass”. As well, she says, mundane SF does not use the “massive time-scales” used in regular SF, which can be “humbling” and “perspective-shifting” for readers. She says Ryman “disrespects [SF’s] tradition” of creating prophecies, in which SF works interact with the real world by imaging the future, thus influencing real life, which she says means he “completely misses the point of [science fiction]”.[20]

In 2009, science fiction writer Kate McKinney Maddalena called MSF “a movement, supposedly a school, and most certainly a pragmatist wake-up call. She says that Ryman has a track record of “trying to flout the conventions”, “making people walk out”, and exploring feminist and postcolonial approaches. She says his MSF Manifesto uses a “tone of activist indictment” full of what sci-fi writer S.M. Stirling calls “arrogance and conceit” which created a “very geeky…shitstorm” and a “backlash”.

Maddalena argues that the “science” element of science fiction is generally “understood to be speculative” extrapolations. She says that futures that seem “unlikely” have been predicted by authors such as Orson Scott Card, William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke. Maddelena acknowledges that MSF’s limits help to create a taxonomy, which could benefit the SF genre, as it assists academic critical work and it may stimulate publishing, because the industry is very trend-following, always looking for the “next big thing”

Even if a writer creates “unlikely” scenarios, Maddalena argues that this is an artistic technique used to transcend Earth-based analogies; as such, she says MSF “sell[s] human ingenuity short”. She says the “well-intentioned social conscience” of MSF is not clever, as she says it uses the argument fallacy that exposure to a concept in fiction causes the fictional depiction to occur in real life.

Maddalena claims the “near-futuristic landscape is more likely to resemble John Steinbeck’s dustbowl [in The Grapes of Wrath ] than any of [Neal] Stephenson’s cities, material or virtual” in his novel Snow Crash. She says that “[s]tories that look at possible — even probable — futures might be the best way to define the “new” category” of MSF. As well, she says MSF has an “impetus to social conscience”.

Some writers called Ryman’s MSF idea invalid on the grounds that there was already a category for the type of near-future writing he described: “post-apocalyptic dystopias/utopias”. Other writers argued that Ryman’s MSF was “not technically SF” (science fiction), calling MSF an “embarrassing taxonomological mistake”. Maddalena says that SF connoisseurs disagreed with MSF’s call to avoid “unlikely” technologies or futures, as these speculative futures are sci-fi writers’ “rebellious bread and butter”.

Roger Luckhurst, a professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at London’s Birkbeck College, says the MSF movement was developed because writers did not want “…to imagine shiny, hard futures [but [rather] give a] sense of sliding from one version of our present into something slightly alienated”. [21]

A critic from Fantastic Worlds, a sci-fi journal, criticizes the “very selective use of "science" in Mundane science-fiction”. One MSF advocate criticizes depictions of rocket flight in mainstream SF, saying rocket flight is “pretty much played out” in real life technology; the Fantastic Worlds critic points out that in 2011, there are a dozen competitors in rockets in the “major boom” in spaceflight. The goal of MSF seems to be to paint a “depressing” view of the future, so MSF advocates “carefully pick and choose only those aspects of scientific reality which are unpleasant, rejecting those which offer felicitous solutions.”[22]

Science fiction writer Kay Kenyon calls MSF “a useful handle for sf stories of their type”, but he criticizes the large number of “crappy Mundane SF”, its claim that stories set outside the Solar System create “a wasteful attitude toward Earth”, as there are “environmental cautionary tales” set in other planets outside our Solar System. He disagrees with the MSF claim that writers will tell better stories about “dreams, hopes and feelings” if they are set on Earth with humans. Kenyon argues that fictional aliens are an “extended metaphor on the human condition.” [23]

Emmet Byrne and Susannah Schouweiler call MSF the Dogme 95 of science fiction, a reference to the film manifesto launched in 1995. [24] Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, created the "Dogme 95 Manifesto" and the "Vows of Chastity" (Danish: kyskhedsløfter). These were rules to create films based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology. It was supposedly created as an attempt to "take back power for the director as artist", as opposed to the studio.[25]

Barry Kirwin argues that science fiction has, since its inception, “explor[ed] what was conceivable, and not necessarily what was thought possible.” Kirwin is against MSF’s stricture to only write about “what we know today”. Kirwin defends SF set on “strange, alien environments”, because it allows SF authors to explore how people might react to such as setting, thus examining "human psychology, the human condition, and potential human futures.”[26]

Authors[edit]

Authors who have written fiction considered as MSF, either long after the creation of their oeuvre (as with George Orwell) or at the time their works were create, include:

Novels and stories[edit]

A reviewer from ‘’Boing Boing’’ calls Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora the “…most significant novel in the mundane science fiction form.” Aurora is about a generation ship on a multiple century journey to another Earth-like planet in the Tau Ceti system, which takes 150 years. [27]

Judith Merril’s 1948 story, “That Only a Mother” described the effects of radiation. Ann Warren Griffith’s 1953 story, “Captive Audience” is about advertising strategies.

MSF shares “characteristics with cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and near-future science fiction”. William Gibson’s novels show a “near future urban” world Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix depicts the impacts of global capitalism. With MSF, the “core and the canon” works are “less clear” than with cyberpunk.

Films and television shows[edit]

Films such as Gattaca, about a society based on genetic testing and ranking, and Moon, about a lonely mining operation on the Moon, "fit the Mundane Manifesto’s interest in near-future realism, even if they don’t directly deal with the beauties and heartbreaks of the Earth". Other examples are "French filmmaker Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil or the film version of Children of Men, from P.D. James' novel, which shows a "heart-wrenching film of a grim, near-future Earth". [28]

In 2019, UK television critic Hugh Montgomery identified MSF television series and films which are set in the near future and which use plausible technologies; his list includes Black Mirror; The Handmaid’s Tale (a dystopian drama set about five years in the future in a country with a totalitarian, misogynist theocracy); Osmosis (about a dating app that requires a bodily implant for users); Years and Years (a family drama set over the next 15 years, in a world challenged by ecological disasters); and the film Children of Men, set in a world torn apart by terrorism, refugee crises, and ecological catastrophes.[29] [30]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Walter, Damien (2 May 2008). "The really exciting science fiction is boring". The Guardian.
  2. ^ a b "How sci-fi moves with the times". BBC News. 18 March 2009.
  3. ^ Charlie Jane, Anders (14 December 2007). "Controversial SciFi Realist Tells io9 Why Warp Drives Suck". io9.
  4. ^ Instead of Suns, the Earth BY CHRISTOPHER COKINOS JULY 15, 2010
  5. ^ Instead of Suns, the Earth BY CHRISTOPHER COKINOS JULY 15, 2010
  6. ^ Instead of Suns, the Earth BY CHRISTOPHER COKINOS JULY 15, 2010
  7. ^ As startling new drama Years and Years follows a British family over the next 15 years, Hugh Montgomery explores TV’s current fascination with what lies directly ahead for our planet. Hugh Montgomery, 14 May 2019
  8. ^ "Geoff Ryman: The Mundane Fantastic: Interview excerpts". Locus. January 2006. Retrieved 2007-09-23.
  9. ^ Cokinos, Christopher. "Instead of Suns, the Earth". Orion Magazine.
  10. ^ a b "Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning" by Geoff Ryman, New York Review of Science Fiction, June 2007.
  11. ^ Mike Brotherton The Difference Between Hard Science Fiction and Mundane Science Fiction, January 25th, 2008, Mike Brotherton: Hard SF Writer http://www.mikebrotherton.com/2008/01/25/the-difference-between-hard-science-fiction-and-mundane-science-fiction/
  12. ^ "Interzone 216 published on 8th May". TTA Press. 3 May 2008. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  13. ^ Material World, BBC Radio 4, 28 Oct 2009
  14. ^ Jonas, Gerald (March 15, 1992). "Science Fiction". The New York Times. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
  15. ^ http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/2007/07/15/on-mundane-sf/
  16. ^ It's time to start reading hard science fiction again. Linda Nagata, 11/14/13 2:12PM https://io9.gizmodo.com/its-time-to-start-reading-hard-science-fiction-again-1464532911
  17. ^ Instead of Suns, the Earth BY CHRISTOPHER COKINOS JULY 15, 2010
  18. ^ Instead of Suns, the Earth BY CHRISTOPHER COKINOS JULY 15, 2010
  19. ^ Not What If: What If Not, September 6, 2009 by Claire L. Evans, TaskNewsletter.jpg http://urbanhonking.com/spacecanon/2009/09/06/not_what_if_what_if_not/
  20. ^ Not What If: What If Not, September 6, 2009 by Claire L. Evans, TaskNewsletter.jpg http://urbanhonking.com/spacecanon/2009/09/06/not_what_if_what_if_not/
  21. ^ As startling new drama Years and Years follows a British family over the next 15 years, Hugh Montgomery explores TV’s current fascination with what lies directly ahead for our planet. Hugh Montgomery, 14 May 2019
  22. ^ Fantastic Worlds, April 14, 2011 Selective Science for Mundane Fiction http://fantasticworlds-jordan179.blogspot.com/2011/04/selective-science-for-mundane-fiction.html
  23. ^ The Mundane and the Metaphorical: Much ado about Mundane Science Fiction. https://www.kaykenyon.com/2007/08/23/the-mundane-and-the-metaphorical/
  24. ^ https://walkerart.org/magazine/julian-bleecker-design-fiction-the-future-never-gets-old Julian Bleecker: The Future Never Gets Old, Emmet Byrne and Susannah Schouweiler, Oct 17, 2012
  25. ^ Utterson, Andrew (2005). Technology and Culture, the Film Reader. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-31985-0.
  26. ^ Kirwan, Barry. Science fiction and the limits of imagination http://www.blog.barrykirwan.com/2015/02/science-fiction-and-limits-of.html
  27. ^ https://boingboing.net/2015/11/02/kim-stanley-robinsons-auro.html
  28. ^ Instead of Suns, the Earth BY CHRISTOPHER COKINOS JULY 15, 2010
  29. ^ Feature: 101 Mundane SF 101, Ritch Calvin, SFRA Review 289 Summer 2009 Science Fiction Research Association http://www.sfra.org/resources/sfra-review/289.pdf
  30. ^ What Does Not Exist, Paul Kincaid, NOVEMBER 7, 2014 https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/exist/

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, John Joseph. “Halting State Is Mundane.” SciFi.com. 30 Nov. 2006. 10 June 2009. http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?id=39000.
  • Brekhus, Wayne. “A Mundane Manifesto.” Journal of Mundane Behavior. 2000. 3 June 2009. http://www.mundanebehavior. org/issues/v1n1/brekhus.htm.
  • Kelly, James Patrick. “On the Net: Mundane.” Asimov’s Science Fiction. 2007. 2 June 2009. http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0801/Onthenet.shtml.
  • Knabe, Susan; Pearson, Wendy Gay. "Introduction: Mundane Science Fiction, Harm and Healing the World". Extrapolation (pre-2012); Brownsville Vol. 49, Iss. 2, (Summer 2008): 181-194,179-180.
  • Nussbbaum, Abigail. “It’s Almost Obligatory: Mundane SF.” Asking the Wrong Questions. 2 November 2005. 2 June 2009. http:// wrongquestions.blogspot.com/2005/11/its-almost-obligatorymundane-sf.html.
  • Nyssa. “The Speed of Dark and Mundane SF.” Nexus Archives. 7 May 2008. 10 June 2009. http://nshadowsong.wordpress. com/2008/05/07/the-speed-of-dark-and-mundane-sf/.
  • Rucker, Rudy. “To Be or Not to Be: Mundane SF.” New York Review of Science Fiction 230 (October 2006): 18–19.

External links[edit]