Led by Geoff Ryman, the subgenre known as Mundane-SF was recently showcased in the June issue of Interzone Magazine. The short stories published there follow the program for SF laid out by Ryman’s Mundane Manifesto (no longer online), which, at first sight, seems like little more than a tirade against space opera (no interstellar travel, no extraterrestrial life, no alternate dimensions) and a conservative turn toward the ‘science’ in science fiction (sustainability, genetic engineering, biocomputers, virtual reality). Sadly, much of Ryman’s SF reform movement builds off of a conception of the genre as escapist and childish, as growing out of “an adolescent desire to run away from our world.” Ryman chides, “it’s never too late to grow up.”
In a response to the Mundanes, Ian McDonald writes, “A little thought experiment: if this manifesto had existed in the 1950s, how closely would its SF resemble the world as it exists today?” Does the general lack of rigor Ryman locates in SF extend back to the genre’s earlier days? Should all fiction dealing with interstellar travel and its moral, political, and religious repercussions be dubbed ‘childish’ even though the possibility of a space-faring society was the hard SF trope for at least thirty years? McDonald: “It’s a poor manifesto that would venerate Verne (tech-speculation) but consigns much of H.G. Wells’ core texts to the ‘bonfire of stupidities’ (interplanetary war, aliens, time-travel . . .).” Mundane SF highlights a tension that has existed between the genre’s two poles since its beginnings, between Stanislaw Lem and Robert Heinlein, between Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry. If anything, the concerns of the Mundanes at this moment seem to confirm a science fictional projection by Lem in his 1973 essay “On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction”:
I believe that the existence and continuation of the great and radical changes effected in all fields of life by technological progress will lead science fiction into a crisis, which is perhaps already beginning. It becomes more and more apparent that the narrative structures of science fiction deviate more and more from real processes, having been used again and again since they were first introduced and having thus become frozen, fossilized paradigms.
While Mundane SF seems to respond to this crisis, an intervention at the level of form would be more welcome then a condemnation of the content of the entire genre as childish escapism.
My reservations aside, the results in this issue of Interzone are mixed. The stories tend to foreground objects, the more successful of which weave them into the everyday life of the characters, the less successful merely listing them like an inventory (“plastic cubes for currency, long cheese, textiles, copper and gold wire from Ormud, wine and distilled wine from Karpat…”) A narrative focus on objects is in itself nothing new, a classic example of this being Maria Irene Fornes’s play Mud in which a set of objects that will be set into motion in the coming action is ceremoniously placed on the mantle at the opening of each scene.
One odd similarity between these stories, with the possible exception of Élisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Invisibles”–an amazing account of, impossibly, becoming lost in isolated bubble cities with five districts, one for each finger–is the relative ease of orientation into the story worlds. Part of the distinct pleasure of reading SF is the process of cataloging those initial elements of narrative noise in the story or novel’s opening pages, the neologisms–“I can’t keep in mind at all times which inertials are following what teep or precog” (Dick)–or oxymorons–“east european steel” (Gibson)–that the reader saves for later assemblage into a coherent world system. Immersion into the Mundane stories is, well, mundane. The transition from our world to that of the story is not very stark, save for its fancy proper nouns: “The distance from Sola to the island of Ureparapara is approximately three hours by boat with an outboard motor, assuming the sea is calm” (Lavie Tidhar, “How to Make Paper Airplanes”). “It was a bright chilly day when the ship came into the harbor, turned gracefully as her sails were lowered while she slid into the end of the dock, her flotation out-riggers nudging up to the tarred wood” (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, “Endra-From Memory”).
This sense of familiarity, of orienting the stories within our own world, is most successful in R.R. Angell’s “Remote Control,” where a sysadmin watches over a MMOG. Gradually, we realize the avatars of these players or “riders” exist in physical reality. The movements of the riders control “Web-Cam-Servo-Rifle” robots that patrol the US-Mexico border, and players pay for the privilege of logging on and shooting at Mexicans as they attempt to cross. Newbies are harassed for merely maiming the “sheep,” who adapt by crossing en masse and hoping for the best, since the machines can only hold so many bullets. The story is punctuated by the sysadmin’s repeated appeal–“don’t touch my screen!”–pointedly drawing the line between fantasy and reality in the tactility of the first-person shooter genre. Users get ten minutes or three shots, whichever comes first, and players who happen to spawn into an overheated robot must painfully endure “looking around without being able to shoot.” This is simple, effective, classic “what if” SF.
If Mundane SF is to have any significance, it will not reside in a mere shift of locus from outer space to bioterror; it will not be in an attenuation of those themes that have always marked SF as SF (although cross pollination between ‘mainstream’ lit and SF as well as other genre fiction has been very important in the fiction past 10 years–see Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and collections of McSweeney’s Astonishing Stories). This significance could only be located in what SF has always done best not with its content but with its form, by estranging the flow of everyday life, by seeing its processes through a totality of links with the past.
When Ryman writes, “If there is an estrangement between science and science fiction, then it should be possible to do something about it,” he seems to be pointing toward the perceived atrophy in SF’s ability to imagine probable futures through a significant engagement with current science and technology. The problem seems not to be that “the future is now” and therefore SF has no more purpose, or that our contemporary moment is more science fictional than any work of SF could possibly imagine. The problem as I see it resides with the completeness and speed with which the new is immediately appropriated in contemporary culture. Our blindess to the future is a byproduct of an amnesia toward our technological past. “Cyberspace” is a prime example of this. The internet and its rapidly expanding infrastructure is not some singularity borne directly out of the pages of SF, rendering the genre obsolete and exceeding it in ways that the genre could never hope to encompass (here I’m thinking of William Gibson’s recent, reactionary forays into the present tense). The internet and its thoroughly televisual architecture is an intensification of the same at the price of imagining anything differently. If there is no other configuration of the web thinkable by SF today, then why not?
A true revolution in SF would engage with the possibilities of the form outside of traditional genre fiction boundaries. What do I mean by this? Al Gore’s speeches ten years ago on the “information superhighway.” Advertisements for gadgets that have the ability to prefigure our ineteraction with that technology before it is released. Fiction like Chabon‘s and Lethem‘s. Media theory that uses close readings of SF as jumping off points or inspirations for its own speculative inquiry (see N. Katherine Hayles and Fredric Jameson).
This is the great danger of Mundane SF: that in its misguided emphasis on finding new content for the genre (even though one story is basically the plot of Waterworld, and another is bad cyberpunk), it will forget what the form is capable of. Their use of the term “mundane” itself seems to forget that this word was used as a counterpoint for SF critics in the 60s and 70s. Mundane comes from the latin for “world,” and these critics (esp. Samuel R. Delany) used the term to set SF apart from fiction located in our world. SF would “poise in a tense, dialogic, agonsitic relation to the given” (Delany). While conceivably the term “Mundane SF” could be used as an oxymoron or a program for deploying science fiction’s cognitive estrangement much more closely to the given world (as do Lethem and Chabon who recently won a Hugo), there is little evidence to support this idea. Instead, Ryman glaringly and repeatedly misspells Delany’s name in his writings outlining a program for Mundane SF. In its fetishization of the new at the level of content, Mundane SF forgets the heritage of its own namesake and risks propagating the very historical (and speculative) blindnes it wishes to critique.