Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mundane Bioscience

There has been a bit of blog discussion this past week about Mundane Science Fiction, a SF sub-genre described by Geoff Ryman, Julian Todd and others. As Wikipedia puts it: "[Mundane Science Fiction] focuses on stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written." That means no faster-than-light travel, no aliens, and no alternative universes, among other science fiction staples.

Now you may be asking yourself, "What's the big deal about some SF writers wanting to focus on more realistic science in their fiction?" That's a good question. As far as I can tell, what irritates people a bit is that some of the Mundane proponents seem to think that that is the only way science fiction should be written. For example, here's Geoff Ryman in a 2004 interview with Infinity Plus:
"I hope the Mundane rules force Hard SF writers to focus on life on Earth lived by people and force humanists to get their facts right and to do some original SF speculation. The rules, not the group does the forcing, like a corset can feel great, liberating as well as confining, as it's more fun to play tennis by the rules."
The recent conversation started with a blog post by Rudy Rucker about recent article by Ryman in the New York Review of Science Fiction.
Mundane SF is to be about picturing possible futures, drawing on such sober-sided Sunday magazine think-piece topics as “Disaster, innovation, climate change, virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, and biocomputers that evolve.”
(Read the post for discussion of possible realities with FTL travel and aliens)

There's nothing wrong with those topics as the basis of science fiction. But what strikes me is that genetic engineering and "biocomputers" would have fantastically speculative topics 50 years ago. Perhaps brain downloading and human immortality or near-immortality* will be more scientifically realistic a few decades from now. And that is where I think some proponents of the mundane miss the point. For example, Mundane-SF blogger "goatchurch" writes about a recent interview with William Gibson:
There are some good quotes, which can be read with a Mundane-SF interpretation -- that the SF genre is being left behind by events and circumstances of the present day.

That's the diagnosis. The treatment is to either abandon the genre somewhat and simply report things as they are happening, because they are so ridiculous you cannot make them up. Or you can hypothesize that the problem is due to the pernicious weeds that have grown up within the genre, such as faster than light travel, aliens, brain downloads, etc. which strangle all other development. Gibson, below, mentions that he dropped the space travel and aliens in order to make his seminal book, Neuromancer. Mundane-SF suggests getting rid of the rest of the non-existent clutter and seeing how that works.
His solution is getting rid of the "non-mundane," but perhaps the fact that SF seems to be "falling behind" science is because today's authors don't think big enough. Biotechnology is moving very rapidly and keeping to "mundane" topics means that the science will be rapidly out of date.

But really what bothers me is the idea that it's the quality of the science that determines the quality of science fiction. A good author can use intelligent aliens, distant planets and fantastic science to provide insight into the human condition and present-day Earth. An example is Huxley's Brave New World, which had many non-mundane elements when published in 193 such as human cloning and genetic engineering. Today is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century.

While there is a place for the mundane in SF, I think it would be a less interesting genre without at least a touch of science fantasy.

* Interzone Magazine is looking for story submissions for a Mundane SF issue. Prohibited topics include : Faster than light travel, Psi power, Nanobot technology, Extraterrestrial life, Computer consciousness, Materially profitable space travel, Human immortality,Brain downloading, Teleportation, Time travel, Faster than light travel, Psi power, Nanobot technology, Extraterrestrial life, Computer consciousness, Materially profitable space travel, Human immortality, Brain downloading, Teleportation, and Time travel



DoubleW said...

This debate reminds me of the way some sci-fi readers/authors will write off fantasy as a lesser genre because it's not grounded in reality. This attitude, of course, ignores that a lot of what happens in many science fiction works -- even so-called "hard sci-fi" -- is implausible despite the science background, and that fantasy stories can have important messages about society, politics, the human condition and, yes, even science.

Some of these proponents of "mundane" science fiction should remember that we are talking about science fiction here. There is nothing wrong about trying to get the science right, but authors shouldn't be discouraged from letting their imaginations soar either. I suggest if they are so worried about the science being right above everything else, then they should stick to science non-fiction.

Peggy said...

I think that in the long grand tradition of science fiction most of the stories that are considered "classics" have many implausible elements. (How's that for a sweeping statement?) Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Niven, et al. frequently used scientifically implausible plot elements.

On the other hand, maybe so-called "Lab Lit" is closer to what the Mundane-SF movement is looking for.