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September 22, 2007 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Geoff Ryman on mundane science fiction. [previously, via]
posted by brundlefly (82 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
A disclaimer: as a fan of sf literature that plays fast and loose with science, I don't necessarily agree with Ryman. I just thought it was an interesting speech.
posted by brundlefly at 1:03 PM on September 22, 2007


They've got a lot to learn about branding. Wow.
posted by delmoi at 1:10 PM on September 22, 2007


I'm actually quite pleased that an author as talented as Ryman has put some thought into this; too many contemporary sf authors have jumped on the dubious bandwagon of ubiquitous and convenient interstellar travel and other near-godlike technologies.

It sells as space opera, certainly, but it seems to me that most of the acknowledged 'greats' of the genre have been written with a much more limited palette.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:17 PM on September 22, 2007


So, even less interesting than 'Hard SF'. What do they write about, brushing their teeth in micro-G? Inter-office angst over air scrubbers?
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 1:17 PM on September 22, 2007


Maybe this is a slight derail, but it's interesting to muse as to why traditional, fantastic science fiction is popular.

It's popular because people like the idea of going and doing bold things, meeting strange people, of acting heroically, of the possibility that strong action and pure motive could affect the world in a positive way.

In other words, it's popular because it's escapist. Escapism is popular largely because the real world sucks. And why does it suck? Because it's been taken over by money-grubbing assholes who care nothing about anything other than how much lucre they can amass, other people and the planet be damned, which mostly gets used in order to try to amass more in what can only be described as a feedback loop.

Not all, but a lot of the desire to go out and explore space is a desire for the "good" old days, which really weren't often that good, when we had a sizable frontier through which we could forge trails and claim homesteads and such.

I haven't read any of it (but might now), but I would think that mundane science fiction's best attribute would be that it would be forced to recognize this and deal in ways in which the world could be improved. Is this borne up by you guys' readings in the genre?
posted by JHarris at 1:22 PM on September 22, 2007


I think that he undersells the potential of terraforming. Terraforming too-cold planets is probably not feasable, but too-hot planets like Venus might be remade with some clever organisms, which doesn't require a huge apparatus. Nothing would ever be just perfect like Earth, but maybe close. It so happens that the best bet for this in our solar system is unsuitable because of it's lack of an adequate magnetic field.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:23 PM on September 22, 2007


"Let’s agree: no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands."

I like mainstream "Big SF." I don't like scifi that makes the future mundane and boring. I concur that some scifi writers should do their homework and get their research right in order to stick a little closer to reality, because the best scifi is also "speculative fiction." However, they shouldn't do this at the expense of entertaining storytelling.

There was a time when it was believed impossible to break the sound barrier. It was presumed anything that reached the speed of sound would explode. Now we think that's the case with the speed of light. "Mass becomes infinite...It’s a mathematician’s way of saying something can’t happen." But the truth is that's just another form of speculative science fiction. We don't know. So scientists speculate that mass becomes infinite. We don't know what that is. It's never happened.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:25 PM on September 22, 2007


Also, I recognize that this would take tens of thousands of years. However, it's not something that requires constant intervention. Just check on it every hundred years or so, maybe toss in some new species, maybe kill some off. It's not like we're planning to die out in the next 20,000 yr.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:26 PM on September 22, 2007


Wait, wait, wait....we're not?? Why did we use all the oil!!? Shit. This is just like my four week trip to Vegas where I burned through all my cash by day 2.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:35 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


I haven't read any of it (but might now), but I would think that mundane science fiction's best attribute would be that it would be forced to recognize this and deal in ways in which the world could be improved.

Interesting. And diametrically opposed to the reasons I read fiction.

You're implying -- if I understand you -- that this form of fiction has some sort of moral duty. Which implies that readers are searching for answers to ethical questions (and hoping to find those answers in novels). Or that they SHOULD be searching -- and that novels should provide answers whether readers are asking questions or not.

I would never call this wrong, because it's a matter of taste, but I'm monumentally turned off by it. I don't read fiction for any sort of instruction -- moral or otherwise. I read for sensation. I read to be given (the illusion of) sights, smells, tastes, etc. that I don't normally have.

I don't really care whether or not the fiction is set in Raymond Carver's suburbs, George R. R. Martin's fantasy world or in some "mundane" fantasy world. I can get new sensation from a well-written paragraph about taking out the garbage (but it really has to be well written, which is to say EVOCATIVE).

I also read to encounter new minds. Not authors but characters. By "encounter," I mean learning what specific people do (or think) in specific situations. Again, it makes no difference whether or not these situations are far-out or ordinary. I've never been a sixteen-year-old girl in a coffee shop and I've never been an android on an asteroid. In either case, if the author has a strong window into people's souls, I'll have a strong experience.

To me, the main value of sci-fi is that it places humans (or beings with human-like psychology) into extreme situations.
posted by grumblebee at 1:38 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


I don't understand the idea that SF must defy reality to be entertaining. Is Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko" that boring to you?
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:40 PM on September 22, 2007


ZachsMind: Now we think that's the case with the speed of light. "Mass becomes infinite...It’s a mathematician’s way of saying something can’t happen."

It's technically physics; I won't bother to list all the discoveries that gave rise to the special and general theories of relativity since you are capable of looking them up yourself, but why don't you read about how faster than light travel or signaling breaks causality:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_relativity#Causality_and_prohibition_of_motion_faster_than_light

Stay in physics class, kids.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:43 PM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


grumblebee: No, not trying to imply that Mundane SF -need- to have a moral focus. I'm not trying to proscribe anything. I'm just saying, from the description, that it seems like it would naturally turn out that way.
posted by JHarris at 1:47 PM on September 22, 2007


The definition Ryman offers of literature is brilliant. I'm not sure I agree with it, but it most certainly gets at a truth about literature. Here it is:

Literature destroys innocence. It deprives people of childhood. It shows them the world as the writer honestly sees it. If it does show the reader something new, they have lost their innocence about it, and are now responsible for it.

It dovetails neatly with Hemingway's advice for aspiring writers. "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." Both of these have a moral aspect that's slightly uncomfortable, but I think that's my own ingrained prejudices.
posted by Kattullus at 1:54 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


I don't understand the idea that SF must defy reality to be entertaining.

All fiction, sf or otherwise, defies reality. I'm just of the opinion that sf shouldn't have to always follow contemporary scientific consensus. If the work is good, then the level of scientific accuracy is irrelevant.
posted by brundlefly at 1:59 PM on September 22, 2007


Personally, I have the utmost respect for writers of plausible science fiction. If a novel contains intelligent alien races, interstellar space ships, teleportation, psychic powers, etc.... well, it might as well be fantasy. A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and thus, there are many science fiction novels out there about wizards.
posted by tehloki at 2:02 PM on September 22, 2007


"All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." Both of these have a moral aspect that's slightly uncomfortable...

I guess it all depends on how you frame things. I see nothing moral in that advice (unless we're saying that all decisions are moral decisions, or something tautological like that).

I view fiction as escapism. I like true sentences (as in true to human psychology and sensual experience) because they're believable. If they're believable, they don't seem contrived. If they don't seem contrived, I don't think much about the author ("Oh, he wrote such a contrived sentence!"). If I don't think much about the author, it's because I'm caught up (escaping into) his world. Which is why I read. And why I like truth in fiction.


grumblebee: No, not trying to imply that Mundane SF -need- to have a moral focus. I'm not trying to proscribe anything. I'm just saying, from the description, that it seems like it would naturally turn out that way.


I don't see why. Mundane SF sounds like stories that have settings closer to those of, say, John Updike than Robert Heinline. (Though not really close to either.) In other words, they are set in pretty-much naturalistic worlds in which there are a few fantastic elements. So saying they turn out to be moral explorations is like saying that all naturalistic novels are moral explorations. An odd thing to say (unless -- again -- you're being tautological: all explorations are moral explorations).

I suppose there might be some odd quirk that ensues when you mix three parts John Cheever with one part Isaac Asimov that tends to produce moralistic fiction. But why?
posted by grumblebee at 2:06 PM on September 22, 2007


All fiction, sf or otherwise, defies reality. I'm just of the opinion that sf shouldn't have to always follow contemporary scientific consensus. If the work is good, then the level of scientific accuracy is irrelevant.

Amen. This strikes me as a trendy attempt to catch the coattails of the trendy Dogme-style self-limitation (the rules of which all genuine practitioners promptly violate).
posted by languagehat at 2:06 PM on September 22, 2007


ZachsMind writes "I like mainstream 'Big SF.' I don't like scifi that makes the future mundane and boring."

That sounds like a false dichotomy (if what you're saying is that SF which is not Big SF is mundane and boring). What I think is being advocated here is SF which is interesting and yet realistic. The "mundane" description is just a bit of tongue-in-cheek, in that "mundane" SF is mundane compared to the incomprehensibly silly stuff in Big SF. Like saying "Aquaman is weak". Well, yeah, compared to Superman and Wolverine, but he'd still kick the ass of pretty much any actual person.
posted by Bugbread at 2:07 PM on September 22, 2007


If the work is good, then the level of scientific accuracy is irrelevant.

To me, it once again comes down to a huge love of escapism -- which to me means believing that the fictional world is real (or, if you like, in -- for spans of time -- forgetting that it's fake).

I don't really care about scientific accuracy per se, but if there's a big scientific gaff, it may distance me from the world. I may not be able to help thinking, "Oh, the writer screwed up" or "he didn't do his research" or "but there's no sound in outer space!" In that last example, I would then think, "but this is a novel, not reality, and the author has added sound in outer space because it's more exciting that way." At which point I'm thinking about the author and about his world as a contrivance. And then I'm having less fun.

There are tons of ways around this. I enjoy well-written fantasy, even though it often deals with impossible things. The trick is to introduce the fact, very early and very artfully, that the "laws of physics" differ in from our world in specific ways. I'm not a Star Wars fan, but it doesn't bother me that, in those movies, there's sound in outer space. The creators establish, early on, that I'm their world is a fantasy world. But if, say, in a movie like "2001," there was all-of-the-sudden, half way through, sound in space, it would distance me.
posted by grumblebee at 2:12 PM on September 22, 2007


But the point of science fiction is how people react to the technologies and worlds, not the technologies and worlds themselves. That's why to me this sort of "mundane" attitude is baffling. With all of the great, speculative stories the point wasn't to show off the technology, but to explore human interaction and society through analogy. And this analogy doesn't have to be fantastic to be good, but it also doesn't have to be realistic to be relevant. A Dune or a Philip K. Dick novel may have crazy, impossible technology and settings, but that doesn't really matter. I believe that at its heart science fiction is social fiction, and that the technology is just a dressing for this. That's why I've always found "hard" SF to be bizarre and fetishistic. I don't want to read engineering journals in prose form. I want to see ideas explored, concepts introduced that make me think. That can be done, and extremely well, in a mundane way, but I don't understand the deprecation of the more grandiose SF.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:15 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


brundlefly writes "All fiction, sf or otherwise, defies reality. I'm just of the opinion that sf shouldn't have to always follow contemporary scientific consensus. If the work is good, then the level of scientific accuracy is irrelevant."

Yes, but there's the issue of suspension of disbelief. I'm ok with fantasy, because it makes no pretense of being anything other, but to my reading a lot of Big SF tries to shovel shit on top of the fantasy to make it believable, so, instead of a good and interesting fantasy novel, I get a good and interesting fantasy novel with a few shovelfuls of shit on every page unneccessarily. I realize that's not an absolute, and just a matter of my personal tastes, so I don't mean that as an indictment of Big SF or its readers, but just as a way to explain to folks who don't get what us hard SF fans like about hard SF.

Personally, I'm of the school of "break a rule if you want, but break only one and think it out". I don't only like realistic SF where nothing opposes my beliefs, but I like SF with little enough unbelievable stuff that I can suspend my disbelief.

That, or, of course, absolutely crazy acid-trippy SF where there aren't even any humans, and people are bred with hollow bones that allow them to be played as musical instruments. Stuff that knocks belief and disbelief into such utter submission that they don't even apply.
posted by Bugbread at 2:18 PM on September 22, 2007


It never ceases to irk that a writer as good as Ryman is the driving force behind something as stupid as Mundane SF.

Maybe this is a slight derail, but it's interesting to muse as to why traditional, fantastic science fiction is popular.

Well, it isn't really popular at all, it is a very niche interest.

No, not trying to imply that Mundane SF -need- to have a moral focus.

This is in fact the whole point of Mundane SF, it is literature as humanist religion.
posted by ninebelow at 2:18 PM on September 22, 2007


As for terraforming, I'm expecting that will be solved by engineers. Scientists determine what Mars and Venus don't have. Engineers will figure out how to change that. Could be as simple as finding something that Venus has too much of, collecting it, storing it, and transporting it to Mars.

"It so happens that the best bet for this in our solar system is unsuitable because of it's lack of an adequate magnetic field."

You just have to watch a couple episodes of "This Old House" to see that, once again, an engineer just needs to know what we do have and what we don't have and then he can fix it. Mars hasn't a suitable magnetic field? Engineers will figure out how to make a suitable magnetic field and then like renovating a victorian home, they'll just put it there and make it work.

May or may not look elegant. That's NOT an engineer's job. It'll work elegant, is my point. A future is only as good as the engineers who make it, and the imagineers who dream it up. This is only after the scientists figure out the present, so we have the building blocks upon which to speculate and build.

So I guess you could say I'm rooting for the engineers. They're the ones who will either make warp drives and wormholes and time travel possible or they will not. Geoff is claiming that these are improbabilities. That SF fans and writers are clinging to futures so extreme and out there that they can't possibly be real: hence the phrase sciense fantasy that some have begun using.

Flight was at one time impossible, before that fateful day on Kitty Hawk. Even then, the guys flew for like maybe eighteen seconds. Surely someone standing in that field that day woulda looked at that and laughed, presuming that liftoff didn't mean a century later business executives would treat the Mile High Club as passe.

Ask Leonard Nimoy what he thinks about cellphones. Wireless communications were scifi half a century ago. Today? Passe. Who is to say that one day we won't figure out how to let a mother on Earth complain to her son on Gliese, in real time, that he never calls and never writes? Well, besides Geoff I mean. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 2:21 PM on September 22, 2007


Sangermaine writes "But the point of science fiction is how people react to the technologies and worlds, not the technologies and worlds themselves. That's why to me this sort of "mundane" attitude is baffling...That's why I've always found 'hard' SF to be bizarre and fetishistic. I don't want to read engineering journals in prose form. I want to see ideas explored, concepts introduced that make me think."

Perhaps it's that hard SF explores scientific ideas and concepts, while soft SF explores how people react to things. Personally, I see explorations of how people react to things in pretty much all representative fiction. TV, movies, books, plays. So while I don't dislike the "explore how people act and think" aspects of soft SF, I'm inundated enough that this isn't enough to hold my attention. I'm nowhere near as exposed to explorations of practical considerations of science in extreme cases, so I find that more interesting. Again, not saying hard SF is better than soft, just that perhaps it might give you a window into my "baffling" way of thinking.
posted by Bugbread at 2:24 PM on September 22, 2007


grumblebee: I see nothing moral in that advice

Well, I see the devotion to truth as moral. Essentially I see Ryman's definition and Hemingway's advice as different exhortations that literature hold a mirror up to the reader, making him see himself and the world anew and clearer. I feel that is a profoundly moral way of looking at literature. An ancient view, it's true, but certainly moral. What I find particularly striking about Ryman's definition is that it's anti-catharsis. It advocates not release as in renewal, but release from illusion, literature as a gate from childishness into adulthood. Reminds me of the Rorty essay discussed on MetaFilter way back in 2003.
posted by Kattullus at 2:34 PM on September 22, 2007


But hasn't history shown that what people consider absolutely true and irrefutable turn out to be less certain that they think, time and again? I'm not saying that this automatically means that every scientific concept is up for grabs, but it seems very limiting and dull to say, "Our understanding of things now is the way it is and always will be, and it's not really worth exploring anything else."

I'm inundated enough that this isn't enough to hold my attention. I'm nowhere near as exposed to explorations of practical considerations of science in extreme cases, so I find that more interesting.

See, to me, it's the exact opposite. If I want an exploration of relatively realistic, reachable technology, I can just go outside. I can read engineering studies and scientific journals. How would instant wireless communication affect the world? I can go out and look around. And even in hard SF, the technical details are less important than the impact on people, which is what you're really reading it for. You're not looking at pages of schematics and equations, you're reading it to see "if this advancement occurred, what would be the impact on the world?" I think all SF is "soft" in that sense.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:35 PM on September 22, 2007


Er, that last comment was directed at bugbread....sorry, was a little too post-happy.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:35 PM on September 22, 2007


I only have one novelette translated into French, from 20 years ago,...

i wonder why

"Let’s agree: no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands."

lets don't agree and say we didn't...
no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel?....ok, granted...for now...but there's still a LOT of fundamental physics we don't understand...(hello! dark matter!) I know, I've studied it. Isaac newton's 'principia' changed the world and how we see it and make use of it like no other book in the history of mankind, and yet, it was overturned at its fundament by the work of einstein, just 200 years later. who knows what the future of physics holds? besides, the space elevator will satisfy our exploration for a while, yet...

no aliens in the flesh?...maybe not, but if they're out there (and they probably are) we'll probably be able to definitively identify them in the next 5-10 years (all you need is to identify large quantities of oxygen in a terrestrial atmosphere...it's impossible w/o the presence of life) more here.

no immortality?...really? i give it 25 years, tops. open your eyes...look around.

no telepathy?...2(!) years, tops. dont believe me? (also, went to wired's nextfest last weekend and saw, personally, 3 other mind reading devices headed to market...the solipsists are going to be proven wrong, soon. (and if they're not, your opinion doesnt matter anyway ;D ))

no parallel universes?...last i heard the kids working with quantum computers were already making use of them...

no magic wands?...um...i have like 12...we call them 'remote controls' here in the future...

Sure, a lot of sci-fi today and in the past is just fantasy and cowboy stories with some window-dressing, but just because one washed up WRITER doesn't believe that new frontiers exist doesn't stop MILLIONS of scientists, engineers, philosophers, and artists from continuing to explore and discover new ones every. day.
posted by sexyrobot at 2:46 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.

I really enjoyed Cities in Flight. It makes an attempt to deal with interstellar trade while recognizing, to some extent at least, that distances are huge and travel and communications very slow and hard. Earth was like that at one time too, of course.. Bronze age trade carried objects across thousands of miles at walking pace..

There is certainly tons of room for exploration of the implications of light speed limited (i.e. real) universe.

I notice that he complete ignores Gibson..


Which implies that readers are searching for answers to ethical questions (and hoping to find those answers in novels).

Sci-fi has always tended this way though. Whether the dystopian cautionary tales which get (got?) accepted as literary science fiction, like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and so many others, or Heinlein-esque screeds, and even Dune. Sure, there isn't much Golden Path talk in the first book, but it is there, and all the later books are full of it

Personally, in a sense, it is what I like about Science Fiction, though I wouldn't use the word ethical. Science Fiction is anthropological, about humanity in the large, where modern literature seems to be individual and experiential. I think we've touched on some of this in AskMe, actually :P
posted by Chuckles at 2:51 PM on September 22, 2007


There was a time when it was believed impossible to break the sound barrier. It was presumed anything that reached the speed of sound would explode.

When was this? I'm sure a lot of people thought FTS travel would never practically work in the real world, but there was never any physical law against it. Bullets flew faster then sound before airplanes did. And obviously the planets move faster then sound. So we knew it was theoretically possible.

But there is no basis for any kind of theoretical FTL travel. The math could be wrong, but it's probably not.
posted by delmoi at 2:51 PM on September 22, 2007


sebastienbailard: "It's technically physics... Stay in physics class, kids."

Just last night I was going over some old videos of the articulate and world-renowned Julius Sumner Miller that are currently available over at YouTube. I highly recommend them. Miller is the most amazing penultimate geek ever in the history of anything.

Anyway he was doing this thing with a metal ball and a metal track that was shaped in a V and both sides were supposed to be the same height and he said if he lets the ball go down one side of the track, it won't be able to achieve enough velocity to go over the other side of the track, and with each pass, it'll lose kinetic energy until it rests at the bottom.

So he let it go, and it flew off the other side of the track. Why? One side was just a little higher than the other. My point is, physics isn't always right. There's always other parameters, relative to the ones that you know, which you don't know.

That's where science fiction lives; in the I don't knows.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:53 PM on September 22, 2007


no telepathy?...2(!) years, tops. dont believe me? (also, went to wired's nextfest last weekend and saw, personally, 3 other mind reading devices headed to market...the solipsists are going to be proven wrong, soon. (and if they're not, your opinion doesnt matter anyway ;D ))

I wouldn't really call that stuff mind reading or telepathy. It looks like EEG/Brainwave stuff that's been around forever.
posted by delmoi at 2:54 PM on September 22, 2007


So he let it go, and it flew off the other side of the track. Why? One side was just a little higher than the other. My point is, physics isn't always right. There's always other parameters, relative to the ones that you know, which you don't know.

Uh, right. But if you plugged the actual measurements of the track into a calculator, it would have told you the ball would fly off the other side. There is a difference between incorrect data and incorrect formulas.
posted by delmoi at 2:57 PM on September 22, 2007


But there is no basis for any kind of theoretical FTL travel. The math could be wrong, but it's probably not.
delmoi
Not true. Just one example, but wormholes could theoretically be used, and work fine. There might be other ways, or maybe not, but the point is that it's not as open-and-shut as you make it sound. There are certainly very fundamental things about nature that science has yet to reach a consensus on (dark matter, as sexyrobot notes), and science has been wrong before. It's that kind of deterministic thinking that bothers me, because there really is room for speculation. It's not all mathematically cut and dry.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:02 PM on September 22, 2007


Sangermaine writes "See, to me, it's the exact opposite."

That's fine. I don't think you're wrong, I just think we have different tastes, and since you found mine (well, not specifically, but hard SF fans in general) baffling, I just wanted to give you a window into the thought process, help you see that while our tastes may differ, they're not incomprehensible, and it isn't necessarily an issue of fetishism.

Sangermaine writes "If I want an exploration of relatively realistic, reachable technology, I can just go outside."

Well, that's why I said "extreme cases". It requires no imagination to require the middling cases. You just open the window. But the really far end stuff requires a whole lot more thought and exploration, and this gives me that window. A non-SF, real-world example: as a kid, I could imagine that a nuclear bomb could wipe out my city, and that a lot of nukes could wipe out my country. The concept of nuclear winter, that a bunch of nukes could result in an ice-age, blew my mind. I never would have thought of it on my own, but when I heard about it on the news, it made sense. Similar kind of thing here: I can imagine the basics, but the extreme stuff is often really funky and neat (to me), and I wouldn't have thought of it on my own. I enjoy hard SF when it provides me with this neat and startling realizations within the frame of an interesting story.

Science journals, on the other hand, have no interesting story, spend far too long dwelling on the numbers, are nigh-unreadable, and are generally not written from the perspective of "let's find all the neat parts and bring those up, skipping the boring shit."

I'm a little scattered (it's 7:00 am at the end of a night shift), and I'm kinda contradicting myself. What I mean to say is:

Some hard SF writes about extremes of the physical world that I had not imagined, and, unlike a science journal, do it in an entertaining way. I like that.

Other hard SF doesn't focus on the interesting quirks of science, but just tells a people story, with a low enough amount of bad science that suspension of disbelief is possible. I like that, too.

Some soft SF is so fucking out there that you just turn off all realism processing, so "suspension of disbelief" is not longer an issue. It's more like abstract art or music with words. I like that, too.

Some soft SF is at this critical point where it's not far enough out there to overpower my logic-circuits, but the science is so bad that I can't read the story seriously. I don't like that. But that's a difference in taste, in the cutoff line for my suspension of disbelief, etc. It's not a problem inherent in the soft SF, nor a problem in me. Just different tastes.
posted by Bugbread at 3:07 PM on September 22, 2007


no telepathy?...2(!) years, tops.

Ya.. Fundamentally possible, though you are stretching language quite a bit. However, consider how difficult voice recognition is, because every individual is individual. Mind reading is going to be much harder than voice recognition. That doesn't mean there won't be tasks mind reading machines might be suited to, but "2 years tops"?
posted by Chuckles at 3:08 PM on September 22, 2007


ZachsMind writes "Anyway he was doing this thing with a metal ball and a metal track that was shaped in a V and both sides were supposed to be the same height and he said if he lets the ball go down one side of the track, it won't be able to achieve enough velocity to go over the other side of the track, and with each pass, it'll lose kinetic energy until it rests at the bottom.

"So he let it go, and it flew off the other side of the track. Why? One side was just a little higher than the other. My point is, physics isn't always right."


That may be your point (and your point might be wrong, and it might be right), but it isn't what the anecdote illustrates. If both sides were the same height, and it flew off the track anyway, then your point and the anecdote would have some relationship to eachother.
posted by Bugbread at 3:12 PM on September 22, 2007


There is a difference between incorrect data and incorrect formulas.

Don't go over emphasizing the formulas though, reality isn't a mathematical construct.

The problem with the anti-Mundane arguments here is, he isn't really saying that ALL sci-fi should be Mundane, just that Mundane sci-fi is worthwhile, should be pursued more often, and given more attention. He's right.
Ya ya, he makes some fairly categorical statements.. Rhetoric, you know..
posted by Chuckles at 3:20 PM on September 22, 2007


Literature destroys innocence. It deprives people of childhood. It shows them the world as the writer honestly sees it. If it does show the reader something new, they have lost their innocence about it, and are now responsible for it.

And how is that really incompatible with spaceships? How is that even incompatible with escapism? My favorite books - and there's many science fiction novels among them - offer both enlightenment and excitement. In fact, they achieve that enlightenment through the excitement.

The excellent speculative novel mediates between the finest artifices of the imagination and the cruelest acts of reality; it offers the reader a new view of the world, of its beauty and its terror - and offers, too, new ways of experiencing it, appreciating it, and even changing it. Understanding AND hope; experience AND imagination; the fantastic AND the mundane.
posted by Iridic at 3:24 PM on September 22, 2007


BugBread: "The "mundane" description is just a bit of tongue-in-cheek, in that "mundane" SF is mundane compared to the incomprehensibly silly stuff in Big SF. Like saying "Aquaman is weak".

VERY good example BB. Aquaman IS weak compared to not only Superman and Wolverine but most superhero characters this side of Ambush Bug and Brother Voodoo. I'm a DC fan from way back, but what made Aquaman weak wasn't his powers.

Compare him to his counterpart on the Marvel side, Prince Namor - now THERE'S a powerful guy. I'd wager Prince Namor, given ALL his resources, would give Supes a run for his money. Not on a straight-forward hand to hand fight perhaps, but much in the same way Luthor's always been a thorn in Kal-El's side. Namor fights dirty, and he's always been both a bad guy and a good guy simultaneously. Namor IS what DC's writers have always wanted Lex Luthor to be: a worthy villain who appeals to the reader's intelligence and compassion. I'm not a big Marvel fan normally, but I gotta give 'em props for Namor. He puts Aquaman to shame, and he's often been written well by whichever writer has their claws in him at the time.

Now are either Namor or Aquaman feasible when it comes to science? Hardly. They wouldn't survive against 'mundane' dissection. The humanoid shape is clumsy (compared to other living shapes that actually evolved in the sea) in even shallow waters so Atlanteans would never evolve to look like us. Namor's parents would have to have been VERY kinky. Even if Atlantean physiology could withstand the pressures of greater depths, a human/atlantean hybrid could not. At the very least, Namor's eyes should bug out, but then he wouldn't look cool, and the Invisible Woman woulda never had a crush on him.

Aquaman's weak because of the storytelling surrounding him. The science or lack thereof was secondary. He's never been given a fair shake. In the hands of Hemingway maybe he woulda fared better. In the hands of this Geoff guy, he'd never get outta drydock.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:29 PM on September 22, 2007


ZachsMind,

Either you missed my point, or you got it, and are just having fun with the example. If it's the latter, yeah, that's cool. If it's the former, just in case, my Aquaman example just meant: "The guy isn't saying that SF should be truly mundane, just mundane compared to the really extreme stuff out there. Like Aquaman isn't truly weak, he's just weak compared to the super-superheroes that surround him."
posted by Bugbread at 3:42 PM on September 22, 2007


BugBread: "That may be your point (and your point might be wrong, and it might be right), but it isn't what the anecdote illustrates. If both sides were the same height, and it flew off the track anyway, then your point and the anecdote would have some relationship to eachother."

Yes yes and yes that was not the point Sumner was illustrating. He was talking about speed and gravity and momentum and kinetic versus acoustic energy and all kindsa stuff. He was talking about the parameters he could sense and calculate.

But my point is Sumner DIDN'T KNOW that he'd shiv'd the one side just a little too high. He knew he shiv'd it cuz he had to before the cameras started rolling. He was trying to make the two sides level and the table he had it on was not level but see there were all these factors some of which he DID know about, some of which he THOUGHT he knew about, and some he didn't know about at all. What if he set it up before the cameras rolled and it was perfect, but maybe someone walked by the table seconds before and tapped it just enough to move the shiv a bit?

Einstein once said God doesn't roll dice. Hawking countered that saying not only does God gamble, but the dice often fall places we can't currently see. That doesn't mean they're not there. We just don't know those parameters yet.

Geoff disses things like Star Trek as if they're bunk. As if they're so improbable they shouldn't be called science fiction.

It's perfectly reasonable to assume that someone will come along some day and come up with a Heisenberg Compensator; something that resolves the engineering complications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, utilizing discoveries and parameters we can't possibly fathom yet. That seems outrageous now. Laughable. Impossible.

Orville and Wilbur were BICYCLE REPAIR MEN for crying out loud!

You gotta look at both history and fiction fourth dimensionally. One often becomes the other, given time.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:43 PM on September 22, 2007


Orville and Wilbur were BICYCLE REPAIR MEN for crying out loud!

It's BICYCLE REPAIRMAN!

*BEND*

*INFLATE*

*ALTER SADDLE*

See how he uses a spanner to tighten that nut!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:47 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


BugBread: "Either you missed my point, or you got it, and are just having fun with the example."

I'm enjoying this thread so I must be having fun. Points missed or gained? I'm not keeping score. *smirk*

"..he's just weak compared to the super-superheroes.."

I understand what you're saying, but what I'm saying is that we perceive Aquaman to be weak compared to those other heroes, because that's what we're shown by DC's writers. The truth is Aquaman's the king of the sea. He should be just as powerful as Namor is in the Marvel universe.

He's not. He's a lame duck. That's not the fault of science or physics or mathematics. It's faulty storytelling.

What is storytelling? It's a craft. It's putting pieces of a tale together before your audience and weaving it so that they can see the fabric of it. Storytelling is engineering, or as Disney coined the phrase; imagineering.

Geoff's argument is that scifi's writers need to 'play the game' of being less speculative and less grandiose. I say that's not the problem. They need to 'play the game' of writing better. They need to put the pieces of science and history and a thousand other things together better for their audiences, so people like Geoff won't have room to complain.

In the wrong hands, tales of the king of the sea will suck seamonkeys. In the right hands, they can thrill millions.

In the wrong hands, a tale about a robot with a soul would fall flat. In the right hands, you wouldn't be asking whether or not a soul in a robot is feasible. You'd be contemplating what IS a soul.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:14 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Just last night I was going over some old videos of the articulate and world-renowned Julius Sumner Miller that are currently available over at YouTube. I highly recommend them. Miller is the most amazing penultimate geek ever in the history of anything.
What, he's the most amazing next-to-last geek ever? There will only be one geek after him?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:27 PM on September 22, 2007


no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands

Except maybe for the "parallel universe" thing, a lot of P.K.Dick's oeuvre would fit most of those buckets.

And depending on how you define the Metaverse, I think Snow Crash would.
posted by gimonca at 4:30 PM on September 22, 2007


gimonca writes "Except maybe for the 'parallel universe' thing, a lot of P.K.Dick's oeuvre would fit most of those buckets."

He's mentioned in the article, actually, as an example of an author who the article author thought did things well.
posted by Bugbread at 4:32 PM on September 22, 2007


In the wrong hands, a tale about a robot with a soul would fall flat. In the right hands, you wouldn't be asking whether or not a soul in a robot is feasible. You'd be contemplating what IS a soul.

This is the whole point, I think. Well written sci fi is one of the greatest media for really exploring some of the big questions, since you have a lot more creative freedom with your characters and plot lines. Getting bogged down in technical plausibility is missing the point. MSF seems like a useful way to keep authors from getting lazy, but if you can tell the story with aliens and ansibles and warp drive, and it works that way, why would you limit yourself?
posted by gephyrophobia at 4:34 PM on September 22, 2007


That was a challenging and provocative essay about a subject I love. Thanks, brundlefly, nice post. I'm glad to have missed the backstory that has S.M. Stirling's claws out in the first comment, but the essay was a good one; there's stuff I agree and disagree with. I'm not so sure Ryman's right here, for instance:

There is a case for saying that our distraction with outer space meant SF missed the information revolution until it was past tense. It had already happened and was on the street when we started to write about it. What are missing now?

I mean, Islands in the Net (to take just the first example that came to mind) was published in 1988. Had the information revolution really "already happened" by then? Still, I don't see how anyone could seriously argue he's not at least partly right about the easy escapism of most of the technological impossibilities that drive a lot of science fiction, and he nails the technophilia:

The future will be just like the more exciting parts of the past only with better toys.

Who can argue with that? It's dead on point for a helluva lot of mainstream sf, Wired, much of BoingBoing-style futurism, etc. The quote from Hannah Arendt is perfect, too - we keep expecting something for nothing, a dream of liberation from ouselves, which is perhaps not the best base to build fiction upon. That's hardly an outrageous claim, although saying it out loud is guaranteed to annoy fans who think they own the genre because they masturbate to its more fun escapist elements.

There's nothing wrong with calling for more than easy escapism when scifi has potential to be much more - and he does give at least a few examples of the kind of thing he'd like to see more of: Ballard, Delaney, Le Guin, Tiptree, et al aren't known for being "scifi that makes the future mundane and boring" - but the bottom line is if you read science fiction just for escapism, he's not talking to you. Simple as that.

[Btw, Ryman mentions The Forever War and its "storytelling innovations" twice, which intrigued me. Without spoiling the plot, can someone clue me in as to why Ryman has such a hardon for that book? Thanks.]
posted by mediareport at 4:37 PM on September 22, 2007


Your preferred amount of science in your fiction sucks.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:42 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


gephyrophobia writes "Well written sci fi is one of the greatest media for really exploring some of the big questions, since you have a lot more creative freedom with your characters and plot lines. Getting bogged down in technical plausibility is missing the point."

It's "missing the point" only because you've declared by fiat that since sci fi is good at exploring big questions, that the point of it is therefore exploring big questions. I don't see evidence for that. The guitar is one of the greatest instruments for playing metal. That doesn't mean that if someone likes to listen to folk, they're missing the point of the guitar. It just means "Guitar is great at metal. It's also great at folk. If you're listening to folk and not metal, you're not listening to one of the things it's good at, and are listening to another thing it's good at."

Ditto with sci-fi. It's great at exploring the big questions. It's great at exploring science. Enjoying one more than the other doesn't mean you're missing "the point", because there is no sole point.
posted by Bugbread at 4:44 PM on September 22, 2007


Geoff's argument is that scifi's writers need to 'play the game' of being less speculative

Really? That's what you see in his essay? Yeesh. If anything, he's calling for a *more* speculative approach to cultural changes. Anyway, Ian McDonald's take from a few years back, linked form the Wikipedia page, was worth reading.
posted by mediareport at 4:51 PM on September 22, 2007


mediareport writes "Yeesh. If anything, he's calling for a *more* speculative approach to cultural changes."

Actually, he's probably off to the side: he isn't saying "be more speculative", or "be less speculative", just "be speculative in a different way". More "speculate based on probable things" and less "speculate based on improbable things".
posted by Bugbread at 4:59 PM on September 22, 2007


I mean, Islands in the Net (to take just the first example that came to mind) was published in 1988. Had the information revolution really "already happened" by then?

It hadn't, and it even moreso hadn't happened in 1975 when The Shockwave Rider was released.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:21 PM on September 22, 2007


Your preferred amount of science in your fiction sucks.

It's not clear what you're referencing with that one-off comment, blue_beetle, but the "preferred amount of science" isn't really the contested issue here. I love good biology in my fiction (the tantalizingly plausible ice organisms on Pluto at the beginning of Stephen Baxter's Vacuum Diagrams are one of my favorite science fiction creations ever, e.g.), and I don't see anything in what Ryman said that asks up to give up lots of science, *or* that requires us to focus on hard science at all. What he seems to be asking us to do is simply this: to try to give up our deep desire for easy technological fixes that will somehow magically free us from the realities of the possible futures that await humanity.

I know, I'm not a big fan of manifestos, either. But there's definitely a point worth discussing in what Ryman suggests.
posted by mediareport at 5:27 PM on September 22, 2007


bugbread,
Don't know if you're still reading the thread, but I had to run out on an errand and having gotten back, wanted to thank you for your measured response. It does help me understand your point of view better.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:30 PM on September 22, 2007


Okay, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that, but, c'mon, what's the point of science fiction? Seriously. Is real life that boring, or writing fiction so difficult, that the laws of reality (and realism) have to be broken or reinvented to get people to read?

Perhaps it's like Louis Armstrong's statement about jazz: If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand.

But what's so damned interesting about the planet Zardax, which can only be traveled to in hyperspace on a methanium-plated X-ship powered by a protofakium speed-drive?

Is real life that boring?
posted by John of Michigan at 5:39 PM on September 22, 2007


Jesus, John. That's an almost unbelievably dumb way to frame what could have been an interesting question. Just walk on, scif sucks, you're right, there's no point to imagining alternate futures, real life is all we need. Have a nice day.

I suppose I should thank you for articulating the worst possible parody of Ryman's position, though. That counts as something.
posted by mediareport at 5:53 PM on September 22, 2007


John of Michigan writes "c'mon, what's the point of science fiction? Seriously. Is real life that boring, or writing fiction so difficult, that the laws of reality (and realism) have to be broken or reinvented to get people to read?

"Is real life that boring?"


There are 57 comments above yours. Most of them consist of people from one side or the other of the science fiction spectrum arguing that what they enjoy about science fiction is the best part. The answer is already there 57 times. Is reading so difficult?
posted by Bugbread at 6:01 PM on September 22, 2007


It's popular because people like the idea of going and doing bold things, meeting strange people, of acting heroically, of the possibility that strong action and pure motive could affect the world in a positive way.

In other words, it's popular because it's escapist.


Well, I dunno about that. If it's purely escapist you want, there's plenty of stuff out there that's escapist and not remotely related to sci-fi.

I think the not-strictly based in reality stuff is popular because it helps us think outside our current paradigms, and helps us think of things that might be possible. Gives us something to aim for.
posted by Zinger at 6:21 PM on September 22, 2007


Something bothers me about the Mundanes: our universe is made of (more of less) 70% dark energy and 25% dark matter. That's a lot of matter and energy that we don't know much about. Why write only about the 5% we know?
posted by bru at 6:32 PM on September 22, 2007


I have a friend whose son refused to read fiction as a child. Teachers would send a reading list home of books he was being asked to write a report on. He only had to pick one book, but he'd refuse to, because none of them were real. He only wanted to read about history and geography and things that weren't made up. This kid was like in fourth grade when this was going on.

My friend went back and forth with the teacher on this. The teacher insisted it had to be a book on that list, but of course my friend sided with her child - why should he waste time reading about something he had no interest in? Something he knew wasn't real?

Eventually she figured out that one of the books on the list was a fictional account about a real historical figure. So as a compromise she got her son to read that one, but her son also went to the library, read up on the actual historical figure's life in resources he believed to be more accurate, and the paper he wrote essentially detailed every instance in the book which didn't mimic actual history.

I didn't have the heart to tell my friend, or her son, that nonfiction 'history books' are often just as pseudo-dependable as fiction. A lot of it is hearsay, eyewitness testimonials. Documents or other media verifying events and actions can be forgeries. In all honesty, there really is no way to tell the difference between what is real and what is made up. We tell ourselves there is so that we can sleep at night. Who knows? We might even be right. However, we tell ourselves all this: we could just as well be making it up.

After all, we may no longer be able to say this planet is flat. We may technically be unable to call it spherical because due to weight, pressure, gravitational pull, and momentum, it's more of an oblong kinda shape, but we can at least be accurate in saying it's "round" ...right?
posted by ZachsMind at 7:40 PM on September 22, 2007


I spare not a single unit of thought on these cybernetic simpletons! I speak of none but the geek that is to come after him...

Joakim Ziegler!!

*thunder rolls*
*dramatic chords*
*prairie dog turns around*
*not necessarily in that order*
posted by ZachsMind at 7:58 PM on September 22, 2007


I disagree with Ryman, in that I don't think that it is the silly FTL and mind control and phasers-set-on-stun technologies that are the problem with SF. Those are just props, like confining a story to the limited cast of characters on a sailing ship, or saying, what if the husband gets caught having an affair? The problem with much, perhaps most, of mass-market SF is that the focus of the story is on the props, rather than on the characters. In these books, FTL and intergalactic wars between aliens do not become opportunities to explore how people interact in difficult circumstances, or how someone can make moral choices in an immoral situation, or how love can last when so often it doesn't. Instead, FTL and the alien wars become the entire story -- the technology is not only the fetishized object, but also the focus of the whole endeavor.

Rare counter-examples, like Ender's Game and Dune and the best of LeGuin and Dick and Heinlein, stand out because they are so rare. You would have to slog through dozens, probably hundreds, of "Book Five of the Mercenary Alien Battlefleet Starship Interworld Quest Series" to find the occasional gem that has characters who are first and foremost characters -- people (or aliens, I suppose), rather than appliances who operate the starwarp drives and have stilted "once more into the alien breech!" conversations as required to move the plot forward.

So this call for "mundane" fiction misses the boat entirely if what it produces is a set of near-future, limited-science stories... that are still more about the technology than about the people. I'm all for wacky and weird settings -- alien battleships, magical faerielands, and worse -- if it becomes a chance to actual think (and write) about what it means to be human.
posted by Forktine at 9:18 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


[Btw, Ryman mentions The Forever War and its "storytelling innovations" twice, which intrigued me. Without spoiling the plot, can someone clue me in as to why Ryman has such a hardon for that book? Thanks.]

The Forever War is about a war fought between humans and an alien race that takes relativistic time dilation into effect. Therefore, though the hero only ages a few years over the course of the book, the war is fought over the course of millennia in Earth time. By the time it's over, everyone he knew has been dead for a long, long time and the world he grew up in is changed beyond recognition.

It's not a bad book, although it's kind of dated in places (particularly the revelation that EVERYONE IS GAY IN THE FUTURE!) I suspect Ryman likes it because it's one of the few high-profile SF novels to really take dilation into account.
posted by EarBucket at 10:04 PM on September 22, 2007


So, anyone else here read Fredrick Pohl? The MidasWorld stories, are, to me, the essence of "mundane sci-fi."

god, I need to re-read those books.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:31 PM on September 22, 2007


midas world
posted by Afroblanco at 10:32 PM on September 22, 2007


also, along the same lines, the Space Merchants and the Merchants War.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:36 PM on September 22, 2007


he isn't really saying that ALL sci-fi should be Mundane, just that Mundane sci-fi is worthwhile,

But he is saying Mundane SF produces better SF. They sensibly deleted their manifesto since it was so fucking stupid but it read in part:
The number of great writers or movies which independently work within these guidelines, indicating that the Mundane Manifesto produces better science fiction.
If it was just Ryman saying "this is the sort of fiction I am interested in and this is what I am going to write" no one would have a problem. However he goes on to suggest that Mundane SF is the One True Path and those who don't practice it have a moral defect.
posted by ninebelow at 12:04 AM on September 23, 2007


ZachsMind - your friend's fiction/non-fiction anecdote sounds like it belongs in the autism/asperger's anthology.

Also, re: FTL/FTS, prior to the invention of the railroad, it was thought that humans would asphyxiate at speeds higher than 60mph.
Also, the physical law is not that superluminous speeds are impossible, it is that accelerating to FTL speeds is impossible. Tachyons are still theoretically possible (although useless for FTL communication - AFAIK, IANATP). There are likely to be other as yet unheard of things that may one day make interstellar/FTL travel possible.
posted by bashos_frog at 6:50 AM on September 23, 2007


Wow, thinking of Venus made me look up Colonization of Venus, which is totally awesome as a proposal.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:58 AM on September 23, 2007


I would like to say that Geoff Ryman is a brilliant writer (and this thread is reminding me that I really need to read more of his books), but I would also like to point out that my favorite of his books has a character change sex by magic because it is important to the development of the story and the themes (The Warrior who Carried Life. In another of his novels, suposedly science fiction, people photosynthesise, men bear children (though not easily) and sentient polar bears write operas (The Child Garden), and the novel is about love and intolerance. It's stunning, and moving, and had nothing to do with what is or is not reasonable in science - half the time it seemed that his science was little more than metaphor. (It has been some time since I read it, and I am not that scientifically literate myself - but really it seemed like the world in the Child Garden was shaped by poetry, not science, and it worked wonderfully).

So in otherwords - his work doesn't even fit this mundane manifesto (and a good thing too). And the manifesto reminds me why I read so much more fantasy these days than science fiction.

There is lots of science fiction which is about science. I don't actually read any of it, but people tell me it is interesting.

And then there is the vast majority of the genre, where the "science" functions just as myth and legend do, to create metaphors and situations which explore the human condition. If using an alien planet can produce such good writing on slavery as Ursula K. LeGuin's Four for Freedom, I'm all for it. Sherri S. Tepper has written about worlds being taken over by sentient plants which unite everyone into some kind of hive mind (Sideshow) - and it's really about violence, and humaness, and whether what we are is really worth preserving. Asimov's Foundation Series hits many of the same points about preserving or not preserving civilisation and humanity, including the question of whether complete peace (in the form of a world mind) is desirable or not, if it means surrendering individuality.

Nor are fantasy novels about majic - Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, a fantasy novel, isn't about curses or kingdoms, though that's what the plot is about - it's about openning yourself up to the divine. The sequel is about learning to live and to love, and to move beyond pain. Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawney Man series are all about fate and choices and love and sacrafice - they may be set in an invented land with strange magics and seers, but they really hit all the same themes and questions as an epic novel set in nineteenth century England might - you could substitute farmers and families for kingdoms and dynasties and you have a novel of the "family story" genre. Or maybe change the names to those of Russian noble families, and call it literature.

(Yes, I do recommend all of the aforementioned books.)

As for all SF&F being escapist - balderdash. Romance novels - now those are escapist (I know, I've read lots when I felt like escaping). There is some escapist science fiction, and again, I read it when I feel like escaping. Science fiction and fantasy include the whole universe of literature within the genres - from the light and entertaining to the thought provoking to the heart breaking. We read it as we do any other form of literature - to move beyond ourselves, to explore the experiences and thoughts and feelings of others, to imagine worlds beyond our own lives - whether those worlds are contemporary and "realistic" or imaginary futures or pasts which have never been.
posted by jb at 5:16 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sorry - I just reread the escapist comment, and I would like to say that I misunderstood. I was thinking escapist in the human beings acting unrealistically and always having a happy ending sense.

I actually do agree with you, JHarris, that people like SF&F because they like to imagine worlds where people are capable of "going and doing bold things, meeting strange people, of acting heroically, of the possibility that strong action and pure motive could affect the world in a positive way." (You said it much better than I could have).

But I don't think it is because people dislike their lives or their world; I know many truly content SF&F fans, doing work they love, living in happy families. I think the appeal of SF&F is because the unrealistic settings naturally "raise the stakes" - that is, everything can be so much more important. I had a playwriting/acting teacher who always used that phrase - the higher the stakes, the more the audience will hang on the drama of what is happening on stage, and the same is true in literature.

It's why Shakespeare set most of his plays either in the past or in far off exotic locals like Italy. Romeo and Juliet wasn't about the children of two London merchants who weren't allowed to marry (though I'm sure that happened), they were the children of two great Italian families who would stage violent battles on the street with blood and cousins flying everywhere. (Whereas in a realistic English setting, perhaps the families might have been engaged in a cut-throat civil suit, but somehow lawyers submitting bills and answers in Chancery don't have the same flair as fencers in town squares).

(I would also include all historical novels and exotic settings into the notion of "unrealistic setting", not because they aren't realistic but because pasttimes can fuction in just about the same ways as imagined worlds).

Sometimes the exotic SF&F setting acts this way - as a means to raise the stakes. Sometimes the same stories could be told in realistic contemporary settings, but maybe the fate of the kingdom/planet/universe might not be at stake. Other times though, the metaphical possibilities of both the science fiction and the fantasy genres can work like magic realism in allowing the author to reify issues which might otherwise simply be ideological or theorectical. (For example, the universal tension between individuality and social harmony becomes literal in the world-mind stories of Asimov and Tepper).

(Actually, it is very funny how the completely unexplained magic of magic realism is accepted so easily by the literary establishment, but the parallel traditions of fantasy and science fiction literature are so apparently distasteful. I never did find any difference between them.)
posted by jb at 5:51 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


In the wrong hands, a tale about a robot with a soul would fall flat. In the right hands, you wouldn't be asking whether or not a soul in a robot is feasible. You'd be contemplating what IS a soul.

This bears repeating. (Great way of saying it.)
posted by jb at 6:10 PM on September 23, 2007


Rare counter-examples, like Ender's Game and Dune and the best of LeGuin and Dick and Heinlein, stand out because they are so rare. You would have to slog through dozens, probably hundreds, of "Book Five of the Mercenary Alien Battlefleet Starship Interworld Quest Series" to find the occasional gem that has characters who are first and foremost characters -- people (or aliens, I suppose), rather than appliances who operate the starwarp drives and have stilted "once more into the alien breech!" conversations as required to move the plot forward.

Maybe I've just had really good luck lately, and I admit that I'm not a big consumer of recently published SF&F (I don't buy much, until I've sampled and liked the author), but I have to say that every SF or F book I've read recently has been one of your "rare counter-examples". Even the cheesy novels of Anne McCaffrey (I love her, but damn they can be so cheesy/predictable) are first and foremost character novels. The most egregious example I can think of for characters acting as backdrops for plot action isn't SF at all, but Bernard Cornwall's Sharpe series (some are great, but some of them are really just battle diagrams come to life - Sharpe's Waterloo, I'm looking at you. But hey, at least you weren't as bad as the movie.)
posted by jb at 6:21 PM on September 23, 2007


Ryman gets it wrong in a bunch of boring ways that a lot of other people have gotten it wrong before.

Among other things, Geoff's "favorite" science fiction writer spells his name Delany, not Delaney. If this is the kind of care Ryman brings to things he truly, deeply cares about, I'm glad I haven't bothered reading any of his novels.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:47 AM on September 24, 2007


ikkyu2, this appears to be a transcript of a speech.
posted by brundlefly at 2:17 AM on September 24, 2007


ikkyu2 - It really is worth it to read Ryman's novels. Like I pointed out (in the first of my overlong ramblings), he doesn't actually follow his own restrictive rules. He's not an easy writer to read - I would never take one of his books on a plane. But they are amazing and powerful novels, beautifully crafted and heart-wrenching.
posted by jb at 4:34 AM on September 24, 2007


I'd like to rescue "escapist" from its connection with "frivolous." Yet I understand the pairing. Sure, some people have painful lives and use stories as a sort of drug -- something to fill their brains so they don't have to think about whatever is upsetting them. Like most people, I do this from time-to-time.

(I suspect that many people have low opinions of "escapist" stories because they associate such stories with happy endings. And they class happy endings as lower than sad ones. Why is this? Maybe because the market forces writers to tack happy endings onto stories. These happy endings -- and the stories that contain them -- are often contrived and trite. At best, they are forgettable bits of fluff. But that doesn't mean that happy endings -- per se -- are bad. Strong, well-written happy endings are really really hard to write. My hat is off to any writer who can achieve one that's believable and feels earned.)

But this is not chiefly what I mean when I say that I'm an "escapist" reader. This should be clear, when I admit that I often -- more often than not -- escape to worlds that are WORSE than they one I live in. I read "King Lear" to escape.

And it's not the case that when reading a depressing story, I'm somehow uplifted because I'm glad the hero's problems are not my own. No. I'm a very emotional reader, and I tend to identify heavily with characters. I feel their pain.

"Escape" may not be the best term for what I do, because who purposefully jumps from the frying pan into the fire? But I can't think of a better word. I'm an escapist reader, because I read for sensation and emotion (often tumultuous emotion), not for intellectual, moral, or political edification. To me, reading fiction is more like eating or listening to music than attending a lecture. I guess I'm escaping IN-to rather than escaping FROM.

This begs the question (and, by the way, I think the colloquial use of "begs the question" is legitimate and evocative) of why one would choose to escape into sorrow. I wonder about this all the time. I do know that I get off on a certain roller-coaster-like thrill that involves pushing my emotions. But more than this, I NEED fiction for catharsis. I'm sure some people don't. Alas, I'm pretty pent up and repressed. Sometimes something deeply disturbing can be going on in my own life, yet the only way I can cry about it is to watch a movie -- or read a novel -- about someone else going through the same thing. I'm escaping into my own emotions.
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 AM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


Quick note: FWIW, I think Craig DeLancey will have a story in the December Analog that's precisely about trading with aliens around a gas giant. (I think that's the one. I know he's got one. And the trade scenario actually does make sense.)
posted by lodurr at 1:33 PM on September 27, 2007


I find the Mundane Manifesto fascinating, and I'm really sympathetic to its aims -- Ryman's comments about wish fulfillment really hit home for me -- but I'm afraid it would make for some really dull SF in the hands of most currently active writers.

That said, I'm getting damn sick of all the "new space opera" stuff and all the comedic post-singularity pastiche. (I sometimes think there should be a licensing test to see who gets to be allowed to publish humorous SF pastiche. So much of it is so lame, it taints the good stuff [e.g., Charlie Stross's "Trunk & Disorderly"].) "New Space Opera" seems to me to have become a kind of cop-out to let people get away with bad speculation. Jsut as I suspect "mundanism" would be a cop-out to let them off the hook for speculation.

The bottom line is that someone as skilled as Bacigalupi or Ryman or Gibson or Stross or Rudy Rucker can write Mundane and make it interesting. In most hands, I think it will probably just be kind of meh.
posted by lodurr at 1:39 PM on September 27, 2007


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