Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mundane SF issue of Interzone

As most of you probably are aware: Interzone will be doing a ‘mundane SF’ issue, which is planned for May/June 2008. To be clear on this: it's a *special* issue, *guest-edited* by Geoff Ryman, Julian Todd and Trent Walters. Interzone has had guest-edited issues before, like the Infinity Plus special issue guest edited by Nick Gevers and Keith Brooke, and Australian special issue edited by Paul Brazier, and I might be overlooking some.

SF is broad, and Interzone is open to SF in the broadest sense. I enjoy SF in (almost) all its forms, but, like Bruce Sterling, I am a closet sympathiser for mundane SF. Not because I think everybody should exclusively write and/or read mundane SF — there is a huge palette of SF tastes, and you should feel free to sample from all of it — but because I think it’s been both underrepresented and underestimated.

To freshen your memory, read the guideles for the special mundane SF issue, the mundane SF manifesto at Wikipedia, and Geoff Ryman’s GoH speech at Boréal 2007.

Across teh intarwebs and the blogosphere, there have been a lot of cryouts against the mundane SF manifesto. These laments can be roughly divided in four (sometimes overlapping) categories:

  1. Readers (and writers) who greatly prefer their SF to be escapist and fun, and don’t want the intrusion of the real world into their dream worlds;
  2. Readers and writers who take offence to mundane SF’s claim that it will produce better SF;
  3. Writers (mostly) who argue against mundane SF’s exclusion of certain SF tropes;
  4. Writers (mostly) who think that the mundane SF manifesto limits their artistic freedom.
Let’s discuss this, point by point, preferably with a cool mind.

Point one: a great part of SF, both in the media and the written word, is purely escapist and fun (or at least intends to be). A huge amount of SF fans do not want to read SF that confronts today’s problems, often saying that they have enough problems in their daily lives as it is, and that they wish to be entertained in their spare time. Or, as someone had it:

And that is why you lose mundane SF you'll only take giant floating alien brains away from us when you pry them from our cold dead hands.”

Fair enough: if that’s what you’re looking for in SF, then enjoy it.

Personally, I like to think that one’s reading, like one’s food, should not be a monocultural exercise. Diversity is one of the keys to a healthy diet. So I would hope that one’s spare time reading (or TV watching, or gaming, or whatever) is not mindless entertainment alone, as that will most probably deaden the mind.

Make no mistake, I respect those who read SF for entertainment value, and get their serious brain candy from other sources like scientific magazines, newspapers, netfeeds, documentaries and what-have-you. It’s just that I can’t help but think that there are a lot of people out there, that work their day job (or jobs), raise their family, and fill their free time almost exclusively with mindless entertainment(1).

Now I suppose it would be a good thing if such consumers of innocent SF escapism would, once in a while, chance upon a work of SF that *does* tackle today’s problems in a highly intelligent and thought-provoking way, and be absorbing, unputdownable, even entertaining in its own way.

Let’s face it: it is quite hard to chance upon an SF book that takes a hard look on current problems plaguing the world, and multitudes easier to walk into an escapist dream world. So more mundane SF — along the rest of it — is a good thing, in my book.

Also, I can’t help but think that quite a lot of SF is like a frightened animal: it sees a lot of dangers, but instead of confronting them it either takes the flight forward, or worse, prefers to stick its head in the sand. I’ll get back to this.

Point two: quite a few people took offence at mundane SF’s claim that their declaration of principles will produce better works. Agree or disagree with them, but proudly proclaiming a manifesto that will lead to inferior works is rather pointless.

Also, their staunch belief in their own principles — check out their blog — infuriates some people. Well, while forwarding a manifesto with great reluctance, timidity and humility might be a more respectable way of doing it, it certainly won’t get it the attention it has been getting so far. Roughly speaking, notoriety is to be preferred over obscurity. And any manifesto worth its salt is controversial: otherwise, it’s doing something wrong.

So yeah, of course they think their way is superior: otherwise they wouldn’t waste our time by proposing it.

Agreeing to it is a different matter, but first you need to get the word out, and draw as much attention as possible. In this, the mundane manifesto works quite well, I would argue.

Point three: quite a lot of people, both SF writers and readers, rail against mundane SF’s exclusion of certain SF tropes.

Let’s quote from the mundane SF issue guidelines:


Today there is no --

· Faster than light travel

· Psi power

· Nanobot technology

· Extraterrestrial life

· Computer consciousness

· Materially profitable space travel

· Human immortality

· Brain downloading

· Teleportation

· Time travel

-- And maybe there never will be!

The adverse reaction to this comes down to: ‘you can’t predict what *can’t* be invented in the future’. That is basically true: it’s impossible to predict what will be invented 10, 50, 100 or 1000 years from now.

However, the flipside to this is that a huge part of SF assumes but all too easily that certain things — see the above list — *will* be invented, and as soon as possible. The point is that a lot of authors use these future inventions because they’re convenient: with these inventions the world, c.q. the galaxy at large can remain mostly as it is; that is the future will not be inherently different from the world as it is today.

That is what I think the mundanistas really meant by issuing that list: most of those ‘not-yet-but-sometime-soon-to-be-invented’ tropes facilitate the ‘easy way out’ approach, semi-magical remedies that — quite often — merely address the effects, and not the root causes of a problem.

Still, a lot of authors and readers hate it when you tell them that some things may not be invented, diving back in history to make their point, as Rudy Rucker did by stating that:

Writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring. The thing is, science really does change a lot over time. Compare what we’re doing now to what we were doing in the year 1000. A Mundane SF writer of year 1000 might want us to write only about alchemy, the black plague, and the papacy.

(I fervently disagree that writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring, but I’ll get back to that later on in this post.)

This comparison is off for several reasons. For one, I’m not even sure if anybody was writing something that could be called ‘science fiction’ in those days, and if a few did — which I doubt — then it certainly wasn’t as visible and popular as it is today. For another, the problems of those days were significantly different from those of today, due to the simple fact that the entire world population in the year 1000 was approximately 310,000 — compared to the six billion+ it is today. In those days, humanity wasn’t a threat to biodiversity and life in general of the planet, like it now is.

And that is — if I understand the mundanistas correctly — one of the main points of their manifesto: for the first time in history, humanity is at a crossroads: shall we learn to live sustainably on this planet, or shall we carry on depleting its natural resources at an increasing speed?

Roughly speaking, if an SF writer of the year 1000 in Europe was speculating about a vessel sailing to India by going West — surmising that the Earth was round rather than flat — then this proposed trip would not seriously impact on the environment of his home place (that it would seriously impact the Native Americans is a different story. But life on the planet at large would be OK(2)). Now, in the 21st Century, one might seriously wonder if the inventiveness and creativity wasted on creating wish fulfillment worlds might be put to much better use in trying to find innovative solutions for today’s problems — problems that *do* have a huge impact on life on the planet at large.

Which brings us to:

Point 4: a lot of writers think that the mundane manifesto limits their artisitc freedom too much.

Or, as Paul J. McAuley said on the old TTAboards a few years ago: “Don’t fence me in!”

Of course, the artistic process works differently for everyone. Some produce good works under pressure, others don’t. Fair enough.

Nevertheless, I thought that writers liked a challenge. Increasingly, I’m not so sure.

Example 1: F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder mentioned — not sure where, possibly during a workshop, or otherwise on the Nightshade Books boards — that he (tried to) refrain from mentioning that he hated stories with elves. The reason being that writers liked a challenge, so would be trying to prove him wrong by writing a story with elves that would win him over (and indeed he has published a rare story with elves in F&SF: exceptions often confirm the rule).

Example 2: in the Focus — BSFA’s magazine for writers — of six months ago I challenged writers to send me stories that show how things in the near future change for the better. Results so far: none (feel free to prove me wrong in the upcoming November email reading period, people!). Of course, I’m not in GVG’s league, and only a limited number of people read the BSFA’s Focus.

Nevertheless, now there’s a big amount of writers who protest that the mundane manifesto — or the guidelines to the special mundane SF issue — are straightjacketing their imagination.

Well, I see it as a challenge: can writers — if just for one time only — try to write a story to mundane SF’s requirements? No need to become a convert, or pledge allegiance to their cause: but try it, purely as a challenge, just *once*.

The problem is, I suspect, that the challenge is too great.

Yes: you read that right. I think a lot of writers are chickening out. Trying to write about today’s problems and — even more challenging — trying to come up with a solution is immensely hard. So daunting, that quite a lot of writers don’t even care to try.

This is why — I surmise — the mundanistas don’t want to see stories with FTL, nanotech, ESP, ET, AI, human immortality, brain downloading, and time travel(3):not because these things might not be invented at any time, but because they’ve been part and parcel of almost every’s SF writer’s toolbox for decades or longer. In a genre that likes to proud itself on being able to think outside the box, they’ve become clichés, the unquestioned, lazy assumptions of bog-standard SF.

What mundane SF proposes — or, at least, what I think they’re trying to propose — is to abandon those modern limitations (or clichés mistaken for inventive thinking), and attack today’s intricate problems not with placebos or panaceas, but with truly new multilevel ideas. Not simple, single-minded approaches, but — to paraphrase Voivod — ‘macrosolutions to megaproblems’.

Which is about as daunting as it gets, and why I think quite a few writers don’t wish to burn their fingers on this extremely hot topic. It’s why a lot of SF writers like interstellar travel and civilisations on other planets: it gives them the opportunity to take *one* of the many problems that plague us today, set it on an isolated place (a different planet), and look at it via those semi-laboratory circumstances. Metaphorical freedom. Well, that doesn’t work: no big problem is an island, but an emergent phenomenon from a highly complex society that interacts on every level. Hence it’s pointless to metaphorically isolate it: intricate environmental influences form part and parcel of its structure, and need to be considered.

It’s probably too hard for most of us, but what I sincerely hope is that there are plenty of you out there that prefer to fail spectacularly rather than not trying at all. The ones who really like a challenge, an incredibly tough challenge that is.

It’s also why the lament that the mundane SF manifesto is too limiting for an author’s artistic freedom falls a bit flat with me. Because there are thousands upon thousands of people that work under neigh-unbendable constraints, day in day out, and quite a lot of them get highly creative results nonetheless. These people are called ‘scientists’, BTW.

So why should SF writers (remember where the ‘S’ stands for?) always be exempt from restraints? Shouldn’t they — if only *once* — show that they can be creative despite strong limitations? Or do they want to have a free pass all the time?

I’ll formulate it more bluntly: imagining galaxy-wide space operas with unlimited resources is (relatively) easy. Imagining plausible solutions for today's highly complex problems is much, much harder. Or, which writer should I admire more: the one who soars to the stratosphere (and beyond) through the neigh-unlimited use of limited resources and hyper-fanciful tropes, or the one who, like a modern day Houdini, escapes from a neigh-inescapable deathtrap with very limited resources and sheer genius?

There’s the gauntlet: anyone care to pick it up? Only the truly brave need apply.

OK: after this buildup, where this closet sympathiser comes out of the closet, I’m going to wind down. I do enjoy SF in the broadest sense of the word, and hope we at Interzone will continue to see SF stories in the broadest sense of the word (including mundane SF).

It’s just that for this one issue I hope that writers will try their damnedest to write a superb mundane SF story, as there aren’t quite enough of them. I hope Trent, Julian, and Geoff will receive a plethora of great stories, and will have a real hard time making a selection. Finally, I hope our readers will get an issue that is both highly thought-provoking and entertaining(4).


(1) I even chanced upon comments against mundane SF’s stance where people said that they had *local* problems enough so couldn’t be arsed to worry about problems elsewhere in the world. Problems outside their immediate environment were not their concern.

What can I say to such ostrich ‘head-in-the-sand’ ideas? I can only ask such commenters to check where the clothes they are wearing have been made: quite probably their jeans in China, their training shoes in Pakistan, their shirts in India (and don’t mention the labour circumstances in which these clothes were made). OK: I’ll put myself up as an example: I had bought Eddie Bauer jeans the last time I was in the US (because they were much cheaper than in Europe), and noted that they were made in China; my Ecco shoes were made in Denmark, the coffee I’m drinking is from Kenya (through Fair Trade). The chocolate I’m eating has sugar from the Philippines and cacao from Bolivia (also through Fair Trade). The melon I had earlier on was from Brazil. The company I’m working for has been taken over by a Finnish company, and the helpdesk for IT is in India. And so forth.
In short: globalisation is a fait accompli. The choices you make — as a consumer, as an employee, and more — have global effects. Everybody who thinks this is not true is still living in the 20th Century, and the early parts of it.

(2) Obviously, someone in the middle of a black plague or bubonic plague epidemic would strongly disagree. And while these had a huge impact on human life, their impact on life on the planet in general was minimal.
[irony] Also, this might be the reason why nobody wrote SF at that time: they wrote about mundane speculations, that were called ‘literature’ in those times. [/irony]

(3) I suppose “materially profitable space travel” is a misnomer: satellites have been making money shortly after Sputnik was launched, 50 years ago. I suppose they meant “materially profitable *human* space travel”.

(4) Indeed, I fervently disagree with Rudy Ruckers’ assumption that “Writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring.” It seems to come forth from the idea that SF needs a ‘sense of wonder’ (no argument from me here, as I edited a special ‘sense of wonder’ issue of Interzone), and that subsequently ‘responsible writing about socially important issues’ automatically excludes this ‘sense of wonder’.
The latter is nonsense: a huge part of SF aficionados seem to think that sensawunda only comes in the sledgehammer variety; namely that if it doesn’t hit the mind with an impact of meteoric proportions that lets the whole body resonate like a bell, then it’s not sensawunda. Obviously, the more subtle sensawunda, the type that crawls up on you after one or more rereads of an incredibly intricate story is wasted on these people, while it’s exactly that sort of ‘sense of wonder’ that could be called ‘literature’.

Mainspring Review -- Short Version

There will be a much longer one later in the week. But here's the short one, the less-than-400-words one that succinctly summarises everything I'll expand on later.

Here goes:

Mainspring is a fast-paced, gosh-wow, adventure and exploration fantasy novel one might call preordained clockpunk.

In a literal clockwork Universe God’s work is so eminently visible that atheism is not an option. Earth and the planets are cogs adorned with equatorial gearwheels that run in a gargantuan mechanism of orbital brass tracks. Clockmaker apprentice Hethor Jacques is visited by the archangel Gabriel, and instructed to find the Key Perilious and rewind Earth’s Mainspring. The quest is on, and events follow each other in a frenzied, often phantasmagorical sequence.

The quest, complete with romantic interest and mysterious message to be deciphered, and its various plot coupons (village boy exposed to big town politics: check; innocent boy becomes hardened navy veteran on ultracool zeppelin frigate Bassett: check; air battles with batmen: check; escape meshing of godlike gears with milliseconds to spare: check; and so forth) doubles as a literal coming-of-age parable where the clocknerd Hethor (initially pronounced ‘heffor’ in my mind) gradually becomes He-Thor: the son of Odin, that is, God.

The Jesus angle becomes inescapable as all the narrow escapes and coincidences are happening because he is predestined to succeed. Lake not only breaks the old no ‘God-in-the-Box’ rule, but trashes it to a papery pulp and then wipes his arse with it. But does he get away with it?

Well, with tongue firmly in cheek, he tries, bombarding the reader with dazzling action sequences, engaging character developments, various culture shocks, and grand hypnotising vistas. One could either see Mainspring as a rootin’-tootin’ adventure, and suspend disbelief through the pure thrill and fun; or as an attempt to be the definite clockpunk novel, where all the sleight-of-hands and deus ex machinae are part and parcel of the setup.

Such a conjurer’s trick works only once: in the sequel Lake should either come up with a much better excuse for his ‘I-don’t-need-no-damn-plotting’ writing, or — gasp — plot decently. Furthermore, it takes away all the tension as you know that Hethor will succeed, and this made the final parts — Hethor’s descent into the depths of Earth’s inner clockwork — rather undramatic and anti-climactic.

I can't help but think that if he would just plot carefully, so that it approached his intense imagination and sharp stylistic adroitness; then he might write a novel that would set the fantasy world on fire. But Mainspring is not that novel, unfortunately.