Sunday, 28 July 2013

Mundane vs. Fantastical Science Fiction

In 2002 the idea of 'mundane' science fiction came to the fore, particularly in magazines such as Interzone. The basic idea is that much of SF is fantastical, meaning unrealistic and unlikely ever to materialize. Fantastical SF (which includes Space Opera) is also seen as escapism rather than facing our more likely (mundane?) futures, and hence, I guess, a little irresponsible.

What I write certainly falls into the 'fantastical' end of science fiction, so I thought I'd better look deeper into Mundane SF to see if I'm just 'all wrong' as a SF writer...

The central tenets of Mundane SF are as follows - with my 'take' on them added in italics.

  • That interstellar travel remains unlikely; that warp drivesworm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light travel are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future. Well, impossible now (as according to Einstein). But so much of what we take for granted today was 'impossible' a century ago (or even twenty years ago). Also, in my novels, it's not humanity who breaks the lightspeed barrier, but other aliens, who are more intelligent (Gary Gibson and many other SF authors do the same thing). 
  • That unfounded speculation about interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also viewed as unlikely. Although in the past few years we've been finding many more planets, some that will inevitably fall into the 'goldilocks zone'. The laws of statistics start to shift against this particular tenet. Big surprise: we didn't know before what we know now.
  • That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth. Maybe, but right now, there's a popular and powerful lobby movement on environmentalism, and we're all in the midst of a global a economic crisis. Meanwhile research on travel to the other planets has been massively cut...
  • That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. Although absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, it is considered unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can. I deal with this one in my first novel. The galaxy, as Douglas Adams famously said, is unbelievably big. Why would they come here, a backwater planet on an outer spiral? Also (Fermi's paradox), other civilizations might rise and fall in different epochs to our own pathetically-short existence (in galactic standards).
  • That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely. Again,  it can exist, it doesn't have to be galaxy-wide. 
  • That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens. Yep, someone will need to crack this one for sure, in terms of FTL communications (Gary Gibson once suggested to me that 'quantum tunneling' might be a contender). As for communicating with aliens, and how difficult it will be, that's at the heart of most of my writing, including short stories like Diplomatic Solution. This is something I think we should explore as writers.
  • That there is no present evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited. I agree with this one, actually. I'm not into 'Slipstream', though I'm happy to watch it as entertainment. But then again, Stephen Hawking seems to lend it some credence in 'A short history of time'.
  • That therefore our most likely future is on this planet and within this solar system, and that it is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous, and unprofitable. Why the obsession with profit? Tenuous yes - why would they be interested in us, except maybe for our resources (see my earlier blog - What would aliens want with earth? But, back to the point, if we took this approach, America would never have been 'discovered' (LOL), and the flat Earth society might have more members...
  • That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet. The most likely near future, yes. 
My favorite mundane science fiction would be 1984, by George Orwell, though many would not consider it SF. And I loved everything I've read by Philip K Dick. But the writers who enthralled me, who made me dream of possibilities, they looked to the stars, knowing it might take millennia to get there, but still they dreamt (Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, etc.).

The Collins English Dictionary sitting next to my desk defines 'mundane' as: everyday, ordinary, banal, relating to the world or worldly matters

Science fiction is defined as: imaginative literature that makes use of scientific knowledge.

Fiction is an invented story.

I think many of us also want something good to read after a tough day, or on holiday, and if science fiction, then something to make us think and dream. Mundane SF seems to limit that process, placing blinkers on our dreams. Of course it can still be great fiction and science fiction, but we need to dream.

Interestingly enough, the other day at our writers group session, a fiction writer (not SF) after reading my latest chapter, asked if what I'd written made any sense (triggering some laughter, including mine), that is, did it hold with current science and physics? One of my colleagues who is a scientist and a SF writer replied that the concepts were rooted, even if loosely, in current theories, though not everyone held to them. Actually, a fellow writer in the US, Mike Formicelli, reviews my work periodically and occasionally 'red cards' an idea, saying that such-and-such is a no-no. But he always comes up with an alternative that could work one day. 

I'll carry on writing space opera, because I love it and so too do a lot of people. I'll also carry on reading it (Reynolds, Banks, etc), with the odd smattering of 'harder' (Baxter) and even mundane science fiction, because to me it is all good. Whatever keeps us thinking about possibilities...

Friday, 19 July 2013

Eden's Progress

Some news on the Eden front...

Eden's Revenge is selling reasonably well, mainly in US and UK. The publisher and I are preparing the paperback for launch in November, though I hope to have some advance copies for when I go to the UK Writers' Festival in September (York University). I then plan to do another book launch in my home area (at Waterstones in Camberley) sometime in December.

The final book, Eden's Endgame is in progress, five chapters done so far. I know the end, but it's that pesky middle bit as usual that is the problem. Still deciding exactly who is left standing at the end of this series, though clearly my fans want a certain person seriously dead... I take a week off in a few week's time and will be in Hong Kong for tai chi, but when not training, I'll be writing, probably in Starbucks because it is air conditioned (Honkers in August is very hot and humid).

So far book 3 has good reviews, a couple of people had hoped it would be a true trilogy, but admit they are quite looking forward to having another book. Some don't want it to end at 4, and a few have asked for a Prequel (they like the Prologue in Eden's Revenge set in the 16th century), but I'm going to keep it to 4. I'm sure of it. Promise. Probably, LOL.

Cover art is being prepared for the final book (anticipated launch date April 2014) by artist John Harris, I should have some sketches in a month or so.

I interviewed Aliette de Bodard yesterday in sweltering Paris. She is a celebrated SF author and winner of 2012 Nebula and 2013 Locus awards for best short story (you can read it here) - very interesting - it will be published in Paris Writers News in due course as part of their 'writers on writers' interview series.

I'm also co-writing a book for work, which is non-fiction, which is interesting to do after writing mainly fiction for some years now. I'll try not to have any aliens or space-ships in that one (except Challenger and Columbia).

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Hit the ground running

A few weeks ago the beginning of a story popped into my head. I was working on two other chapters for my fourth novel and politely asked it to go away. That night I dreamt about it. The next day it just stayed with me, and I couldn't get any other writing done. Eventually I wrote it down just to exorcise it. Then I thought, hang on a minute, there's something here. I took it to my writer's group and they preferred it to the other stuff I'd given them.

So, here's a taster. It follows the adage 'hit the ground running', so that it starts with quite a punch. I haven't yet decided if it is going to be a long short story, a novella or a full-blown novel, but the title is clear to me: Last Human.

He woke up running, though he didn’t see how that was possible. He stumbled, but something told him to keep going, not to look behind, so he regained his rhythm and stared straight ahead, arms and legs pumping away, as if he was a pro track athlete. Mustard cones of light sprayed down from the ceiling every ten metres or so onto the slick floor, reflected in oily puddles, while grey soot-encrusted pipes snaked their way along the low ceiling and walls of the grimy corridor, toward a distant yellow glow he somehow knew was his destination. No sound, except the pounding of his feet on the floor, distant thuds and squelches. The air was acrid, a smell like burned matches. There were other noises, he realised, muffled cries, shouts, screams maybe, and something else he couldn’t place, a shrill whine, like a deranged synthetic laugh. Each time he heard it, it was followed by a shout – no, a scream – then more shouting.
            Part of the wall up ahead on his left exploded, pipes and wires spilling into a mound in his path. Instead of slowing down, his stride lengthened and he vaulted it – hurdled it – and landed hard on the other side. As he did so, something popped in his ears, and he could hear again. He wished he couldn’t.
            “Keep going, Sir, we’re right behind you, but they’re closing. We’ll hold them off as long as we can. You’re almost –”
            That short whine, followed by another voice, cursing. He increased his speed, the glow getting larger, though he still couldn’t see what it was. Glancing upward he counted ten lights, so he knew it was about a hundred metres to go. A figure of 12.4 seconds flashed into his head, from younger days. Gunfire erupted from behind him, more shouting, more of that grating whine. He burst into a sprint. More screams. Seven lights to go. Wind from an explosion behind him nearly threw him off his feet, and he realised he didn’t know his own name, who he was, who was behind him, and who or what was behind them. The only thing that mattered was running, reaching that glow. His chest felt like it had a brace around it, making it harder to breathe. The air was also getting thicker, and he battened down an urge to cough. He pumped his arms harder, fingers pointing dead straight, stabbing the air. Five lights to go. Several pairs of footsteps were close behind him. The whining noise, and a scrabbled fall. Two pairs of footsteps now, one slowing, turning.
            “Okay, take this you motherf –”
            The desperate cry was buried under a sound like a jet engine, cut off by that whine. One pair of footsteps. Three lights to go. He could see the source of the glow now, a hatch opening into a small cushioned cell. It looked sturdy. Two lights.
            “Run Mr. President, you’re almost there!”
            He nearly fell at those words, but the whine and a gurgled cry kept him going. One light. He felt he could almost touch the hatch. Pain exploded in his right thigh, stopping it from working; whoever they were, they wanted him alive. But he kicked off hard with his left foot and, using his momentum, crash-rolled towards sanctuary, hurling himself through the hatch, his right shoulder slamming into the cushioned interior. A clunk shut off all external noise as the hatch sealed automatically, followed by a female voice.
            “Welcome aboard Mr. President. Emergency evac in progress.”
            The single-occupant escape sphere spat away from the corridor. Trembling and grimacing from the burn on his leg, gasping for his breath, he moved to the hatch porthole, only to see that he was in space, had been on one of the new star cruiser models, but it was in bad shape with ripped, blackened metal all over its hull. A pulsing, fluorescent blue mass was attached to the fore-section of the ship; it clearly didn’t belong there, reminding him of a leech. He tapped the porthole viewer to maximum zoom, focusing on the exit to the corridor. Twisted and dismembered corpses flushed into space. But one shape stood at the entrance, a giant, square-headed beast on three spindly legs. He couldn’t make out eyes, but he was sure it was staring at his escape pod, maybe his face at the porthole, even at this distance.
            The sphere banked hard to port, and he saw Earth. He slumped onto his knees. Thousands of gelatinous blue amoeba-like ships circled Earth, which was being consumed by rivers of fire, its crust gashed open. It would boil in its own lava.He turned away, sat on the floor with his back to the hatch. President. President of what? But his mind switched to the men who had died trying to save him. They could just as well have saved themselves, they might have been more useful alive than he would ever be. He had the feeling he wasn’t a religious man, but he pressed his palms together and uttered a short prayer for their souls, and all the others on Earth.        

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Science Fiction Quiz

Here's a scifi quiz. The prize is one of my three books. If you want to enter, let me know your answers and an email address, and which ebook you'd like (Eden Paradox / Eden's Trial / Eden's Revenge). Otherwise, just enjoy the questions...

1. Which word completes the following line from the famous scifi film 'The Forbidden Planet'? 
"Creatures from the ..."  (a)subconscious (b) id (c) WC

2. Which is the first 'culture' novel of Iain Banks?
(a) Use of Weapons (b) The Player of Games (c) Consider Phlebas

3. Who leads the expedition to Eden in the book 'The Eden Paradox'?
(a) Micah (b) Blake (c) Pierre

4. How many dream layers are there in the film 'Inception'?
(a) 2 (b) 3 (c) 4 (d) 5 (e) 6

5. In the Legends of Dune series by Frank Herbert's son, who works out how to use spice to transport heighliners across vast distances in the blink of an eye?
(a) Norma Cenva (b) Xerxes (c) Xavier Harkonnen

6. What is the correct technical term for a four book series?
(a) Tetralogy (b) Quadrology

7. Including the latest 'Into Darkness' film, how many official Star Trek movies have there been?
(a) 11 (b) 12 (c) 13 (d) 14

8. In the book 'Do androids dream of electric sheep?' what does Rick Deckard dream of owning?
(a) a Porsche (b) a Nubian goat (c) a hover car (d) an Arabian dagger

9. In the TV series 'The Big Bang Theory', who gets to be an astronaut?
(a) Leonard (b) Sheldon (c) Penny (d) Howard (e) Raj

10. In the world of Quantum Mechanics, who famously said "God does not play dice"?
(a) Heisenberg (b) Hawking (c) Einstein (d) Planck
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