Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mundane SF

A local writer, Eric Scoles, has made me aware of an interesting controversy on the Internet (I'm never aware of anything on the Internet without outside assistance). Fueled in part by a GOH speech by Geoff Ryman, a group of writers and readers are advocates for "mundane SF." This is Sf that avoids many of our field's tropes, such as FTL and time travel and immortality, in favor of fiction that grapples with the reality that humanity's future most likely lies on Earth, amid the actual messes we make for ourselves here. Mainstream commercial SF, this argument goes, is mostly about an imagined past of derring-do and adventures transported to an unrealistic future with great tech.

What do I think about this? I think Geoff Ryman has a point, but I also think that it needs looking at more closely. A book like, to take one example, Ursula LeGuin's masterpiece THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS uses many of those "tired SF tropes:" FTL, aliens, a galactic federation. But they are not what the story is about. What it is about is the difficulty of seeing past our differences to connect with each other, and the costs that such connection exacts. It seems to me that "realistic" SF depends less on accurate depiction of the future than on accurate depction of human beings.

On the other hand, I like and have written near-future, Earth-based, alien-less stories, quite a lot of them. The category seems less important to me than the specific story.


Steven Francis Murphy said...


I don't get the whole sub category or manifesto issue anyway. I think a story should rise above any attempt to pigeon hole it or stick to someone else's notion of rules.

And yet, oddly enough, your own story, Beggars in Spain, fits many of the requirements of Mundane SF. I like it inspite of that.

S. F. Murphy

Unknown said...

This is exactly right. Thank you!

none said...

I've never understood why these issues are presented as either/or. Should Shakespeare be performed in the original, or should the language be modernised? Well, I dunno, why can't we have...both?

Nancy Kress said...

Touch one iamb of Shakespeare, varlet, and you'll feel my steel :)

Unknown said...

Well, in the case of Shakespeare it would be hard, or at least confusing, to do both at once.

The same can be said about SF. While I don't much care for categorization it is true authors write for a purpose and that purpose gets diluted when trying to do too many things at once.

So, yes, we can have both, but probably not in the same story, much like old and new language would get in the way if put in the same presentation of Shakespeare. It would become about the mix of language, rather than the story.

none said...

*ponders the distance between herself and the steel*

*decides not to risk it*

Modernise Shakespeare? Me?

Mr. JM said...

I couldn't agree more with your assessment of this ongoing debate, Ms. Kress.

A good story, to me, is far more important than any notion of category or tropes that need or needn't be present.

Good writing is good writing. Period. If you can do that, then who gives a damn what category it belongs in -- I certainly don't, which is why I continually return to your fiction, Ms. Kress.

It seems to me that your writing puts less emphasis on tropes or gimmicks, and more on characters, their evolution through the narrative, and the relevancy of the struggles those characters endure.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

I agree with BuffySquirrel on this one. I wasn't familiar with the speech in quesiotn so I Googled and found it. This quote rankled: "...avoiding old tropes and sticking more closely to what science calls facts."

Another way to say this would be "speculating as little as possible."

I think he's gone over to the Dark Side, right next to Margaret "I Don't Write Science Fiction" Atwood.

I say, if you don't want to write speculative fiction then don't, but don't knock those who do.

And the one thing he's leaving out is that for us, sitting here in the 21st century, to say certain things will always be impossible is a lot like the folks who scoffed at Columbus in 1492.

karen wester newton

bluesman miike Lindner said...

"Mundane" sf, Nancy? Contradiction in terms. If a fictioneer wants to write mainstream, more power to 'em. But mainstream--mundane, if you will--examines what we =are=. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But sf, at it's best, examines what we =can= be.

--Bluesman Mike Lindner

José Iriarte said...

Well said.

For me, what speculative fiction allows an author to do is isolate some question or issue, by creating the reality that brings that question to the forefront. With that in mind, the tropes are secondary to the issues raised through the use of those tropes.