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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...


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