Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

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Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Alex Kane » Sun Mar 11, 2012 12:19 pm

Anyone read this essay/speech by Geoff Ryman? I gotta say, I really dig his argument and the direction he'd like to see science fiction take. I just finished Tobias S. Buckell's new book Arctic Rising, and reading this speech transcription a day later really hit home for me as a big fan of science fiction with conflicted feelings about the state of the literature. There's an enormous tension between the fairly dominant poles of SF, post-apocalyptic stories and space opera/military SF-with-alien.

There is a growing interest in post-cyberpunk stuff, which deals with posthumanism, A.I., et cetera, and also Paolo Bacigalupi's direction toward energy crises and genetic manipulation, which is also a very valid concern for the genre, but I find resonance in Ryman's dismay toward the pervasive tendency to have really fantastic elements in a literature that calls itself "science fiction." His argument for moving away from adolescent psychotherapy toward something less escapist is also pretty interesting.

Once I've had a chance to really gather my thoughts, I'm going to reflect on this further in a blog post, but...whaddoya think? Is realistic, "mundane" science fiction a movement that will grow in popularity once the steampunk craze loses momentum? Or is this a fringe genre that lacks appeal?

I, for one, see a lot of things to like about the concept. "Jenny's Sick" by David Tallerman comes to mind as one of the most affecting stories I've read in the past year or two, as does "Clean" by John Kessel.

Shall we help pave a new, more accessible road into the field? Or are the current trends sufficient?

Arctic Rising sure does seem to be getting a lot of big media attention...
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Fobok1 » Sun Mar 11, 2012 12:46 pm

I just read that. The way he dismisses all possible future science (that we'll *never*, not in thousands or even millions of years, figure out a way to travel more than 20 light years without ships breaking down or the like?!) reminds me of the way people used to say there's no way an airplane could possibly work, or the moon was untouchable. That no computer could ever beat a true master at chess. That there was no way that the internet would ever be fast enough to stream live video.

The very idea that all sci-fi should be like this is just... abominable to me. It's stripping the dreams out of sci-fi, the dreams that make it interesting.

However, that's not to say that there isn't room for some stories like this, a subgenre even. Look at Robert J. Sawyer. He doesn't really fit the 'mundane manifesto' entirely, but his work is a lot closer to it than most others, and it's fantastic. (His WWW trilogy is among my favourite sci-fi this decade.) It also brings in people that are leery of science fiction because of the snobbery it faces from the literary crowd, and he gets a lot more sales because of it.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sun Mar 11, 2012 1:01 pm

Anyone who has read any of my Tycho Under stories knows I love the near-space, near-future setting. I love to write it, I love to read it, and I wish there were more of it to read. One reason I got back into writing was because I wanted to add to that niche. In particular, I wanted to explore a sub-genre I call Blue Collar Space: ordinary people doing ordinary work and living ordinary lives... in space, in the near future.

But I think turning that into a Manifesto is a little much.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Strycher » Sun Mar 11, 2012 1:36 pm

I enjoy having a wide spectrum to read, and will be sad if all SF is at some point reduced to one flavor of SF, regardless of which flavor that is.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sun Mar 11, 2012 2:02 pm

Strycher wrote:I enjoy having a wide spectrum to read, and will be sad if all SF is at some point reduced to one flavor of SF, regardless of which flavor that is.


If I didn't think the market for it would be a little too narrow, I could turn that into a story that argued that if such a thing ever happened, rebel authors would go underground to produce other sorts of works.

Except I think that would be more history than fiction. Every time one style becomes the only "approved" style, it only tempts the rebels to break down the walls. It's beautiful, it is...
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Alex Kane » Sun Mar 11, 2012 2:48 pm

Strycher wrote:I enjoy having a wide spectrum to read, and will be sad if all SF is at some point reduced to one flavor of SF, regardless of which flavor that is.

I'm not advocating homogeneity. I'm just saying that an increased emphasis on the foreseeable future (which is what Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others thought they were doing), not with the intent to predict or change history as it will be, but rather as a vehicle for exploring the philosophical and ethical implications of plausible technology and environmental changes just over the horizon.

I also agree with fobok's notion that every scientific dream, or technological holy grail, has had its nay-sayers. It goes back to Clarke's quotation about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic; but that sort of revolution generally involves a fairly long timeline, or at least a sudden, unforetold or obscure innovation.

Some SF writers have said that an author should limit herself to a single unlikely facet to the premise or plot. Philip K. Dick mined this bit of advice his whole career, with a few exceptions (metaphysics for Dick were another matter entirely, so he's maybe a bad example).

I've been frustrated time and time again by comments that science fiction has lost its appeal, its creative momentum. I long to see it brought back into fashion, and even made "new" again. Part of this lies in widening the scope of the genre as a publishing category. Plenty of novels aren't labelled as science fiction that, quite plainly, are (The Road, Rant); or, on the other hand, there are plenty of SF novels that would be right at home alongside classic works of literature (A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Anyway, I hadn't seen the speech before and thought it had a lot of valuable insights, however radical, gutsy, or even offensive they might seem to the genre at large. To me, anything that makes SF more inclusive is a great thing. And that includes a healthy dose of optimism, which is something I was pleasantly surprised to find in abundance throughout Arctic Rising.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sun Mar 11, 2012 3:25 pm

Alex Kane wrote:I'm not advocating homogeneity. I'm just saying that an increased emphasis on the foreseeable future (which is what Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others thought they were doing), not with the intent to predict or change history as it will be, but rather as a vehicle for exploring the philosophical and ethical implications of plausible technology and environmental changes just over the horizon.


Ironically, though, the extrapolative "idea stories" of Clarke, Asimov, et al. led directly to one of the earlier "great manifestos", the New Wave. The members wanted to be more literary and less literal. The more things change...

Some SF writers have said that an author should limit herself to a single unlikely facet to the premise or plot. Philip K. Dick mined this bit of advice his whole career, with a few exceptions (metaphysics for Dick were another matter entirely, so he's maybe a bad example).


That was John W. Campbell's rule, and I think a very good rule for plausible extrapolative stories. I always tried to fall back on that rule, and I got frustrated with SF stories that veered too far from it. When too many unlikely things happen at the author's convenience, the reader can feel cheated. As one friend described it to me, these are "'Pull a weapon out of your ass' stories". The story loses tension when the author can just invent a new gimmick to rescue the hero from every crisis.

Yet to my surprise recently, no less august a person than Campbell's modern successor Stanley Schmidt made me rethink that rule. In The Coming Convergence: Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future, Schmidt argues that most of our most astonishing technological developments and their social consequences arise when development proceeds in parallel on multiple "streams", and then those streams unexpectedly merge to produce something new which wouldn't have been predicted from one individual stream. Schmidt then gives copious examples, tracing the history of how today's modern technological wonders have roots in many different streams that converged in unexpected ways.

This has me really rethinking the Campbell rule. Maybe there are some really great extrapolative stories to be discovered by supposing a small handful of changes, not just one, and then imagining how they might intersect. These would necessarily be closer to old-fashioned "idea" stories. (They might also -- dare I hope -- be more appealing to an editor who wrote that book...)
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Strycher » Sun Mar 11, 2012 5:46 pm

Alex Kane wrote:I've been frustrated time and time again by comments that science fiction has lost its appeal, its creative momentum. I long to see it brought back into fashion, and even made "new" again. Part of this lies in widening the scope of the genre as a publishing category. Plenty of novels aren't labelled as science fiction that, quite plainly, are (The Road, Rant); or, on the other hand, there are plenty of SF novels that would be right at home alongside classic works of literature (A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).


While I agree with your sentiment, I think that genuinely hard SF attracts a narrow minority and I doubt that most people who are open to the genre casually will be enthralled by a resurgence of hard SF.

Though, you're right that there are a lot of people who don't know that they are consuming SF. CSI comes to mind, particularly for hard SF. Technology that currently exists, but that operates at a rate of efficiency that greatly exceeds our current abilities, but will probably come to those levels of efficiency in the near future is what drives that show. It is SF. It has a huge audience of people who probably don't even realize that they are SF fans.

At the same time, when you're targeting a broad audience, I think that Space Opera has had the most success. Star Wars, obviously, but Avatar is another good example. There are fantasy elements, that goes along with Space Opera, but it is still SF and they managed to get everyone to watch it. It caused the buzz that you seem to be asking for.

It is an interesting conversation that you've brought up.

For me, I think that the story comes first. Different stories require different settings. Saying that you will only write in one type of setting means that if there are certain stories that are necessarily told in a setting that you don't use, then you don't get to write them. For some people there may be a coincidental draw to a particular type of setting. I tend to write all over the board. The idea that the genre might constrict in such a way that will prevent me from selling the variety of stories I like to write terrifies me. (This is why I'm kind of in love with the Daily Science Fiction. They buy everything.)

Martin - I hadn't heard that before, but it makes an amazing amount of sense. When there is significant change it is normally because of several coexisting technologies advancing in sync. Tablets, Cell Phones, the Internet, TVs, and home Computers all benefit from each others' advancements, and at this point, they are so intertwined that they are becoming indistinguishable. (Consider 60 years ago when your phone and your TV where absolutely distinct from each other.)
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sun Mar 11, 2012 6:14 pm

Strycher wrote:Martin - I hadn't heard that before, but it makes an amazing amount of sense. When there is significant change it is normally because of several coexisting technologies advancing in sync. Tablets, Cell Phones, the Internet, TVs, and home Computers all benefit from each others' advancements, and at this point, they are so intertwined that they are becoming indistinguishable. (Consider 60 years ago when your phone and your TV where absolutely distinct from each other.)


Strycher,

It adds to examples Heinlein mentioned once. Though he wasn't really discussing convergence, he cited two examples of unexpected consequences that were never designed into the technologies:

1. The impact of the automobile on human mating habits (i.e., readily available mobility and at least minimal privacy).

2. The way many people take a food storage system (i.e., a refrigerator) and use it as a family message board and art gallery.

(I think those examples were both from Heinlein, though I can't find the source right now.)

Schmidt adds convergence to this basic concept of unexpected consequences. He cites the examples you gave, and then also examples from medicine, entertainment, and more. It really has me thinking how to write a convergence-extrapolation story. The trick would be to subtly introduce two or three new innovations, and then show them interacting in unexpected ways. Edward M. Lerner did that effectively in Energized (serialized in Analog last year and due out this summer), and I hope I can learn from his example.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Alex Kane » Sun Mar 11, 2012 6:37 pm

Yeah, one of William Gibson's major techno-cultural theses in his essay collection Distrust That Particular Flavor is that, despite whatever specific purposes a particular device or technology was intended for, human behavior and cultural change will dictate its true functions through usage over a certain period of time.

He admitted that the major flaw of Neuromancer and the rest of his "Sprawl" fiction is that he completely failed to foresee the advent of the cell phone and, more importantly, the "smart" phone. As a result, he reflects that in a hundred years, the word "computer" will be as meaningless any; that our refrigerators, spectacles, and automobiles will all be so interconnected with computational functions and wireless data exchange -- to say nothing of augmented reality technology's growing ubiquity -- that we'll have no need for a desktop computer, or even a laptop. We may have keyboards, if we're old-fashioned enough, but the specifics of physical devices and their interfaces will continue to evolve such that we'll have little hope of predicting the aesthetic one might expect to see even three decades from now.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Strycher » Sun Mar 11, 2012 7:02 pm

How long will it take for your living room window to replace your TV?
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Alex Kane » Sun Mar 11, 2012 7:06 pm

Strycher wrote:How long will it take for your living room window to replace your TV?

Dude, Minority Report is my favorite movie.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Strycher » Mon Mar 12, 2012 5:43 am

Alex Kane wrote:
Strycher wrote:How long will it take for your living room window to replace your TV?

Dude, Minority Report is my favorite movie.


I know, right? Love that movie.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby Isto » Wed Mar 14, 2012 11:18 am

[quote="Alex Kane"]Anyone read [url=http://mundane-sf.blogspot.com/2007/09/take-third-star-on-left-and-on-til.html]this essay/speech by Geoff Ryman[/url]? I gotta say, I really dig his argument and the direction he'd like to see science fiction take. I just finished Tobias S. Buckell's new book Arctic Rising, and reading this speech transcription a day later really hit home for me as a big fan of science fiction with conflicted feelings about the state of the literature. There's an enormous tension between the fairly dominant poles of SF, post-apocalyptic stories and space opera/military SF-with-alien.

Once I've had a chance to really gather my thoughts, I'm going to reflect on this further in a blog post, but...whaddoya think? Is realistic, "mundane" science fiction a movement that will grow in popularity once the steampunk craze loses momentum? Or is this a fringe genre that lacks appeal?
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My first response to the piece was "lighten up".
My second (as, myself, a writer of near science fiction) was to object to the description 'mundane'. Sounds too much like 'snooze' to me. Not sure I'd want to pick up a book that strived to be merely mundane. After all, that's what fiction is supposed to rescue us from. There is absolutely nothing wrong with space. Look at the original Star Trek. Would he scoff and say we'd never talk to our computers let alone have them talk back to us? Would he say you'd never have a phone without a cord or do surgery without cutting a person open? Just because we haven't discovered it or imagined it, doesn't mean that no one will. That IS what science and science fiction is all about. Saying the world isn't flat then proving it. (or are we back to saying it's flat again?)
My third thought is that he has a point about the bias against near science fiction or literary science fiction or (choke) mundane science fiction. My focus isn't on the gadgets but how man abuses those gadgets or how society reacts to that abuse. How does humanity survive against the future we build for ourselves? Anyway, I'd sure like to know how to market a novel that doesn't have an alien or spaceship anywhere in sight.
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Re: Mundane SF, Near-Future SF, Buckell's Arctic Rising

Postby tetru » Fri Mar 16, 2012 8:36 am

SciFi's golden era is just around the corner. I think there are going to be a truck load of subgenres.
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