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.


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