June 25th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Mundane SF

There's a mini-controversy rattling around science fiction these days around something called "Mundane Science Fiction." For those of you who haven't been following it, let me try to summarize it and put it in its context. Just like Harlan Ellison set out to create a new (anti-John-Campbell) science fiction movement called New Wave SF back in the 1970s (which I hated, mostly), and the way that the Mirrorshades Group created a movement that critic Bruce Bethke later labeled Cyberpunk back in the 1980s, and the way that Martin Greenberg and other editors created a market for (and therefore a fad of) alternate histories in the 1990s, some guy named Geoff Ryman and a couple of writers' groups are trying to create a new science fiction literary movement. Of the three examples, the way they're going about it most closely resembles the way Harlan Ellison conjured up New Wave: they're starting with a manifesto and trying to persuade editors to want to buy their stuff, practically sight unseen, because their ideas are better. Worse sin, and I think this is where most of the controversy comes from, is that they're not just saying that they think there's an untapped market for their stuff, they're saying that their themes are morally better than generic science fiction -- for political reasons that wouldn't go over well with a majority of Americans.

What they're asking for is for science fiction to return to what I think of as its roots in actual science. They point out, not unreasonably, that an awful lot of the clichés of science fiction are based on "science" that has been proven to be impossible for up to a hundred years now. They're calling for some editor to let them prove that there's a huge untapped market for science fiction that is set within this solar system, in the near-term future, based on reasonable extrapolation of current trends and known science. I really like this idea, myself, and not for their political reasons.

One: I'm sick and tired of the crap that editors and movie makers are currently selling me. I can barely remember the last actual science fiction book I bought. When I go to the bookstore these days, or look over the recent acquisitions shelf at my local county library, or even when I look over Glen Cook's convention dealer tables full of small-press, rarities, and imports, all I can think is, "Seen that. Been done. To death. Sick of it. Don't need to see another one."

Two: I can't shake the suspicion that authors return to these tropes over and over again for reasons that are both cowardly and intellectually lazy. For example, by now I'm sure that nearly all of you know that when Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek back in 1966, he wasn't talking about the 23rd century. Nor was he talking about the late-18th, early 19th-century historical fiction that he clearly borrowed a lot of the plot and characterization from. He was talking about 1966. Setting his stories in a distant future, involving aliens, meant that he could talk about race relations, or the Vietnam war, or the Cold War, or whatever without people taking it personally. Later authors, I suspect, copy his example not just for fear of offending potential customers, but because it frees them up from having to actually get any historical or political or even psychological details right, they can just make up whatever they want for history and explanations of it.

Three: An awful lot of my all-time favorite science fiction fits within the Mundane SF framework, and I miss that stuff, I wish there was a lot more of it. Even though I don't agree with the politics, I think Ernest Callenbach's 1970s Ecotopia is one of the best SF novels of political intrigue ever written, not really surpassed until Bruce Sterling wrote Distraction. Also back in the 1970s, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, John Brunner wrote this whole series of "disaster of the year" dystopian novels, all of which I at least liked and several of which I still love. I mentioned cyberpunk above; to me one of the things that I admired about cyberpunk was its willingness to confront current society and to explore the possible ramifactions of cutting-edge technology by sticking (mostly) to near-future extrapolation. And for that matter, to go back to the classics, the stuff that taught me to love science fiction in the first place, one of the things I loved the most as a kid about Heinlein's "Future History" short stories, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and several of his juveniles (like Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel), and about Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, was that I could imagine actually living in those futures.

And right in the middle of this controversy, news-parody website "The Onion," of all people, come up with a perfect example of what I mean. This week's The Onion is the June 22nd, 2056 issue. Not only is it a hoot, but it actually works as an anthology of science fiction short stories and short-shorts, perhaps the best such anthology I've seen in over a year. (And if that isn't sad, that political satirists are cranking out better science fiction than the science fiction publishing and film industries are, what is?) It's a perfect example of why I hope that the Mundane SF gang are successful in creating a market for their stuff; it's exactly the kind of thing I've been looking for more of, and it seems to have completely gone out of style decades ago.