Monday, June 27, 2005


Posted by Trent Walters at 11:43 AM
Scientific American has links to all things stem cells.

Joel Garreau's new book Radical Evolution, which sounds so enthusiastic as to border on non-Mundane, is reviewed on SciAm.

PhysOrg talks about high-temperature fuel cells, which have "an energy efficiency of over 90 percent" and physiadsorbtion of hydrogen for storage.

Lester Brown gave an excellent speech for City Arts and Lectures, informally discussing his books, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble and Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures. Two important figures he named were that while we take in 4 L of H2O/day, crops need about 2000 L/day; also that for every degree increase in temperature, crops will lose about 10% of its yield due primarily to the pollination period.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Mundane Debate Spreads

Posted by Trent Walters at 1:59 PM
Ian McDonald points out Margaret Atwood's well-circulated rethinking on SF, which has cooled some genre attitudes towards her. However, I'm certain McDonald meant for us to notice this:

For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.

We applaud her ideas, but we think she accidentally turned the terms around (follow links to definitions) or, since the term "science fiction" has been diluted by futuristic fantasies, she was trying to load a less well-known term with a new realistic meaning. We feel it's better to reintroduce the old term in its original package rather than bring in a more problematic term that would confuse the issue.

She continues:
The theological resonances in films such as Star Wars are more than obvious.

The theological resonances are actually throughout the genre, and I think it is exactly this spirit that raises the hackles of many against Mundane SF--not unlike fervent religious believers. Throughout these discussions you'll find anger that Mundane SF lacks faith or is agnostic or atheist. Now some of us are atheists or agnostics, but some are believers of one type or another that believe that dreaming up new sciences may or may not help. We don't mention God or gods because there is no proof for or against, so what's the point in bringing it up in a fiction based on what we can know?

A good case example is Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question," which is supposed to be hard SF and which, I believe, helped Gregory Benford understand our position. Essentially, a computer tries to answer the last question: Is there any way around the second law of thermodynamics? It fiddles around with the chaos implicit in the law, and yet, at the last moment, the law does not apply. The computer has found a loophole. How? Don't ask how. It's magic. It's faith. It's religion with its own pantheon.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with faith in the future of computers or science or any theology, but what happens if we put these ideas temporarily on hold? (Isn't that the classic SF question: What if?) This is essentially what science does. It doesn't say, God made them all. It asks, What can we know about the world without resorting to magic tricks? Since science's central proposition is seeking what is known about the natural without supernatural explanations, it cannot logically exclude the possibility of a viable theology. See Stephen Jay Gould's thoughts on the matter of science and religion.

After all, if SF readers are willing to embrace the old tropes based on possibly dubious science, why don't more SF readers embrace the most famous speculative fiction in the last century: creation science? It does what every other less probable SF does.


Matt Arnold has raised a lot of relevant points in defense of the Mundane. He takes on Gabriel Chouinard's complaint of the name (see definition of Mundane: by which we mean "characterized by the practical" and "of, relating to, or characteristic of the world" [Webster's]).

As I've said elsewhere, biological diversity/evolution is created by isolating a species and letting it flower. That's what we're up to. Isolate Mundane SF from science fantasies and see what new species arises. We haven't destroyed any SF. Again, we invite Gabe to reread the manifesto with its tone in mind.

Ken MacLeod misinterprets MSF as a gag, presumably, and essentially says, "FTL rulez!" Party on, Ken!

Paul F. Cockburn asks if cyberpunk is so good at fortune-telling, why doesn't it have mobile phones? Nobody said we were interested in prognostication, but in realistic futures--a different can or worms.

Matt-O-Rama implies that maybe we hate SF like Atwood (though she just now admits she sees its value, above). Most of us came into the genre enjoying its every embellishment, but we think that a new species of SF could arise if the genre were to make distinctions.


More debate to come.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Going a Ways Toward Explaining the Artistic Level of the Zeroth Mundane Order

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:08 PM
If Geoff means something else by the use of these writers, he can explain. Bruce Sterling in Mirrorshades gets away with calling Norman Spinrad zany and that’s all the explanation Sterling gives for Spinrad’s influence on cyberpunk. He doesn't have to explain that they didn't write cyberpunk, but that they influenced its development. Same applies here if we don't explain in detail a writer's influence.

J.G. Ballard strives for a completely specific accuracy in description, as if trying to capture the scene through verbal cinematic means:

“All day they had moved steadily upstream, occasionally pausing to raise the propeller and cut away the knots of weed, and by three o’clock had covered some seventy-five miles. Fifty yards away, on either side of the patrol launch, the high walls of the jungle river rose over the water, the unbroken massif of the mato grosso which swept across the Amazonas from Campos Buros to the delta of the Orinoco.” -- from Terminal Beach

This accuracy has a genre predecessor in Theodore Sturgeon’s “Killdozer,” albeit at times it goes overboard.

One of my favorite modes of story-telling is Geoff Ryman’s evocation of character and place through language:

“The municipal airport of Manhattan, Kansas, was low and brown and rectangular.”--from Was

The writer doesn’t always strive for specific detail, but the telling ones--the ones that are sensed through character, creating mood, place, and character simultaneously. You aren’t given the northerly direction of the wind sock, but the feeling you get from staring down at the airport as you come in for a landing. In ways this method gives the reader far more to think about.

“A woman all in black with a hat at an awkward angle was dragging a large trunk case. A little girl all in white stood next to her. The white dress sparkled in sunlight, as if it had been sprinkled with mirrors.”--from Was

Here, the details rub off on one another. The woman is all in black, so the reader might sense a mourning. She is disheveled [hat] and struggling with a large trunk, packing, perhaps, too much. The little girl is all in white belying the mourning of her companion, standing in stark contrast. Moreover, as if that weren’t enough to make the woman look miserable enough, the girl sparkles with mirrors.

Even when Ryman gets very specific, it’s only just sharp enough to capture the essence of the moment:

“The brakeman danced along the roofs of the train cars, turning brake wheels. The cars squealed and hissed and bumped their way to a slowly settling halt. The train chuffed once as if in relief.”--from Was*

Sturgeon, that chameleon of style, can also evoke character and place, particularly in “Poker Face” where he achieves a Forties period flavor--at least it feels strongly period, but then maybe someone who lived through the period might say that that’s only the cinema’s version (of course, it would probably largely depend on the place where one was during that period).

I picked Ursula LeGuin as a representative of Mundane artistic techniques. I haven’t found any commentary listing this particular virtue of hers, which is surprising since it seems rather transparent to me. She often employs an anthropologist’s clear and only slightly biased eye to societies, cutting more horizontally through a culture than a character with his own concerns might be capable of doing. We see the culture through multiple pairs of eyes:

Rosa said.... "How can we keep going on the True Way if we leave the True Way? How can we reach heaven by stopping on an earth?"

"Well, maybe we can’t, but we do have a job to do," Luis said. "They sent us to learn about that earth. And to tell them what we learn. Learning was important to them. Discovery. They named our ship Discovery.”

"Exactly! The discovery of bliss! Learning the True Way!"

In “Paradises Lost,” LeGuin shows how a generation-starship would be viewed quite differently by those feeling guilty--sending the voyagers off, trapped on a ship bound for the unknown--than by the voyagers content with their way of life. LeGuin cuts out of whole cloth a religion that fits its environment well. The plot hinges on this elaborate extrapolative genius--marred only slightly by the possible dubiousness of so many taking on a new religion in so few generations, but who knows what humans might do in such an environment? This story is well worth rereading and studying for its technique.

* (Side Note: I found myself reading Was after one of my favorite genre critics, Matt Cheney, panned it on SF Site. I was surprised to read that Ryman could have written so lousy a work. It’s hard to say where Cheney and I might disagree without taking time away from other projects though I am disappointed Cheney missed out on Ryman’s chief strengths, which makes me wonder if Cheney’s critical strengths lie more in certain works that stress the sounds of sentences, rather than their ability to evoke character (though I do consider Ryman a stylist--see my comments on Ryman’s Air [page down the article on style], both Cheney and Ryman might quibble). Maybe I’d feel the same as Cheney after finishing Was, or maybe Cheney has been spread himself thin by his many obligations, so perhaps I ought not to opine. Gollancz did feel strongly enough about it to list it as a masterwork and John Kessel thought it one of the best novels of the 90s, so I’ll leave it to them to duke it out.)

mundanespotting the 2005 Hugo Novel nominations (Ian McDonald)

Posted by frankh at 10:34 AM
I won't have time for quite a while to do the short form mundanespotting I set out to do, but at least I can take a dip in the pool with the 2005 Hugo nominations for novel:

-- The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks (Orbit) -- space opera
-- Iron Council by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan) -- fantasy
-- Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (Ace) -- [hard] space opera
-- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury) -- fantasy
-- River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Simon & Schuster) -- near future mundane set in India [P.S. the story is said to have time travel; if that is indeed true I'll have to add "with extremely fantastic elements"]

Ian McDonald doesn't, um, want to join the fun of the Movement, but sorry, he's still written a book that appears quite mundane (I'll keep using the lowercase "mundane" to describe stories that seem to follow the Mundane Manifesto, even for authors who disavow...) and I'm very interested in reading it. I don't say that about a new novel very often these days. McDonald also mentions his related novella "The Little Goddess"--the cover story of the June 2005 Asimov's. I've put that at the top of my e-reading list.


Monday, June 20, 2005

Mundane News

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:47 PM
Did you know that John Linnell of They Might Be Giants was one of the major players behind The Mundanes?

Japan hopes to build a moonbase manned by robots.

Oxygen may be yet another limiting factor for developing life on other planets.

Jared Diamond gave a great talk for City Arts & Lectures. He said he was Mundane material--that is, while he's not against space exploration, he thought that the money might be better spent on AIDS and malaria. (By the way, I highly recommend his books despite the minor critique of five pages.)

Tobias Buckell points out methane-powered airliners (the same fellow describes how to make biodiesel), ethanol-spiked gas in Brazil via sugar cane, and fluoride glass made in space that would provide better fiber optics.

Maude Barlow also had a great Chatauqua lecture on loss of fresh water resources.

Physicists uncover forces of nature at nanoscales.

Wind parks at sea can reduce costs of renewable energy. (This has the added benefit of allowing foolhardy fowl, that wander through the park, to be recycled as fish food.)

Climate change may affect speciation.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Case History (4th order trope-wrangling)

Posted by Trent Walters at 8:11 AM
This is an example of the fourth order of Mundane thought (there’s no hierarchy of people here--just an organization of thought). There’s a goddamn anthology of stories in this concept alone, never mind all the other tropes that need to be called into question.

Racism. A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. [Webster's]

The superman trope in genre. A belief that segments of the human race will evolve traits superior to the rest of the human race.

Do you still not want to question the genre’s use of tropes?

If that isn’t clear to you, consider the case history of John W. Campbell comforting Philip Klass at the end of WWII and the revelation of Jewish concentration camps that Campbell thought the Jews were homo superiorus.

Yeah, but--one might protest--the supermen are usually suppressed by the weaker. True, but isn’t that the reasoning of Nazis who thought themselves superior, that the weaker were financially suppressing the superior?

Do you still not want to question the genre’s use of tropes?

In defense of Campbell, it’s true that the human species has gone through a number of changes. The human brain has grown larger over a half million years, but then the Neaderthals had a larger brain than ours--assuming size matters (they also cared for the sick and buried their dead before we did--shouldn’t such an advanced species be more favored by survival of the fittest?).

Moreover, fifty-years later, a Pulitzer-prize-winning biologist still spoke in terms of superiority via survival of the fittest in a manner like Campbell’s, used perhaps to comfort the superior human species or to comfort the guilt of “inferior” humans:

“It’s easy to recognize two reasons why my impression that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners may be correct.... Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies.... [N]atural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably ben far more ruthless in New Guinea than in the more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more important.... [I]n mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners.”

--Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

I don’t accuse Campbell or Diamond of racism, but their reasoning is perilously problematic as their ideas continue to percolate through society (neither party claims his race superior, but that is unimportant in the above definition of racism; moreover, both attitudes still segregate qualities of peoples). Natural selection tends to select against unfit traits rather than for a trait (creatures taken by disease or the weakest culled by predators). Although some herd species reproduce only with the most fit male (albeit even with some less fit females), many other species simply pair up.

Since the loss of the New Guinea unfit due to wars and murder and hunger are Diamond’s principal methods of selecting for intelligence, I must express some dubiousness that poverty can be necessarily equated with a lack of intelligence. These examples, however, are examples of selection against the unfit.

The problem, of course, is this perpetual notion of progress: that we are superior to our parent’s generation; our SF is better than the previous generations’, our philosophy and religion is better than Aristotle’s and Jesus’. We know better because we’re alive and they’re dead (see? They were unfit).

We do have superior science and technology, but we seldom humbly recall anymore that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Since the intelligent in our enlightened society tend not to reproduce as often, one in favor Darwinian descriptions of human society might conceivably claim that Homo superiorus died long ago.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Classifying the Mundane Orders of Thought

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:31 PM
I just shared a discussion with Geoff on organizing the levels of thought involved in thinking Mundane, which may help explain why some works only seem or feel vaguely Mundane. I'm incorporating Geoff's thoughts with my own.

The Zeroth Order of Thought (Geoff calls this Aristotlean Mundane--works which "share certain, hazy, extemporised parameters"):

These are a list of writer methodologies for achieving a realistic or Mundane SF. They tend to have very realistic spaceships that grind slowly through space. OR very good scientific reasons for something else. They tend not to have aliens. They tend to stay on earth:

Gregory Benford who tends to work at realistic and semi-strict Hard-SF though Mundane SF is not necessarily restricted by the hard sciences

J.G. Ballard who was concerned mostly with a literary realism

Philip K. Dick who spent most of his effort on what it would be like to unravel a problematic world

Ursula LeGuin who often has "aliens" who are often humans evolved (albeit, more for thematic purposes), and who focuses on how we might believably live in a world, even if that world isn't Earth--a fact which unfortunately makes her less Mundane and approaches a more Status-quo SF

The First Order of Thought:

Simply follow the manifesto.

The Second Order of Thought (Geoff calls this the "Likely Lads"):

The second order asks of the first, "Why should we follow these rules?" The Mundane writer chooses the probable science over less probable speculations.

This is for people who know their science and feel that SF should privilege the Likely over the convenient or dramatic Unlikely.

The Third Order of Thought or the Moral/Political Mundane:

The third order asks of the second, "What happens if we follow improbable speculations and turn our backs on the probable as just not fun enough?"

Answer: Potential racism, wasted energies and resources, etc. This strand feels that imagining a universe in which we burn through one planet and hop over a long weekend to another encourages a wasteful attitude to planets that we can ill afford.

The Fourth Order of Thought or Deconstructing/Wrangling with the Tropes:

The fourth order asks of the third, "If the scientific field is in disagreement, how do we know that some speculations are more improbable?" Here, we'd speak of evidence for theory. On equivocal theories (AI?), the Mundane story that wants to deal with the equivocal should probably spend time (amount of time unknown--just so long as it ain't dull) wrangling with the different ideas on the field. This might involve (say the writer were interested in a story about space) debate over whether there is a need to go into space and how far. Or over whether life-supporting planets and aliens could exist, which leads one to wonder whether contact with aliens is possible, taking into account communication problems.

The fourth order doesn't necessarily trump the third order, but can be seen as another, equally valid approach. The orders all overlap, especially since racism is uncovered by examining the superman trope.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Science News & Friends

Posted by Trent Walters at 6:10 AM
(Still working on post re:evolution--see Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, pg 20-25)

Speaking of evolution, here's a facinating poster on stellar/planetary evolution (PhyOrg & original University of Missouri poster).

More humor from Non-Sequitur on the Anti-Mundane theory of science.

How do we pick out certain images from a crowd? (PhysOrg and source article)

PhysOrg reports on the projected impact of climate change on Africa.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Oh, the Boredom of Real Science

Posted by Trent Walters at 8:31 AM
Bacteria have been recruited to--not only consume pollution from contaminated water but to--continuously provide electricity. They form spores so that these hardy critters can be turned back on when needed. I hope the sense-of-wonder-only-thru-FTL-ships crowd can wake back up after that boring bit of scientific reality.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Turn-About Is Fair-Play

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:33 PM
I got no end of ribbing this weekend about Mundane SF this weekend (online and off), so here are a few of mine:

The cartoon-version of the Anti-Mundanes (courtesy of one of the best cartoons running these days, Non-Sequitur).

Hal Duncan's biting satire of the Anti-Mundanes (you--maybe he--thought he was mocking the Mundanes? Au contraire).

S.M. Stirling finds life without starships and light-sabres unendurable. He visits the mailbox in a Cylon suit. (I'm just joking. He's valiantly defending his right to space operas and such, which is fine by me.)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Real People, Real World, Real Science

Posted by Trent Walters at 8:38 AM
Charles Stross asked for a description of Mundane SF instead of a prescription. The title is a riff off Gregory Benford's essay on Hard SF in Hartwell and Cramer's The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF
: "Real Science, Imaginary Worlds."

I'm shipping out over the weekend for a workshop. Meanwhile, here's a fun thought experiment. When you poke at tropes for their weaknesses, you make interesting discoveries. Ponder how John W. Campbell arrived at his conclusions in a seemingly benign comment to William Tenn, and ponder this essay on evolution. I've held back on commenting about this since I'm not sure it's fair to make accusations against people who are misinformed. I have no problem with the judicious use of the trope as a science fantasy, but anyone who uses it ought to be very cautious. Perhaps the clear example of Campbell (and no doubt others) believing speculative social myths about Darwin's theories will demonstrate a need to reexamine our tropes. Is it only with our questioning tropes that we discover problematic tropes? It is no coincidence that we discussed evolution since our style of SF will not be looking backwards. But it may be more powerful if people make the discovery on their own.

If you don't figure it out on your own, I'll explain after the weekend. Have a Mundane weekend!