Monday, May 30, 2005

Posted by Trent Walters at 9:11 AM
I haven’t answered every question raised, but this is surely long enough since I am but one lad and the complaints are many. I am grateful to all the science fiction luminaries who responded. And I’ll continue reading your work with great interest.

I suspect that many of these responses to Mundane SF (three more, including from Lou Anders and Chris Roberson) might not have occurred had they not been prejudiced by a prior misinterpretation (which were influenced undoubtedly by other misinterpretations, ad infinitum). Like it or not, what we take in does influence us.

In the discussion of how these magical SF tropes can lead a possibly false hope that unforeseen science gizmos will solve all our problems, someone intimated that art doesn’t influence people. I’m not sure how anyone involved with SF could suggest that the environment doesn’t influence people. That is in essence what SF is all about. What happened to SF’s vaunted claims to fame for leading kids to become scientists or influencing the direction of science? Besides, if art doesn’t influence people, then why have repressive regimes always been afraid of it? Why did Hollywood produce movies to convince people to go to war and keep fighting it (i.e. Casablanca, famously, but almost any WWII era movie devolved into encouragement to keep on)? Why did Isaac Asimov choose not to write about war after WWII? Why do people get upset with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation? After all, it’s just a movie. Why does John Kessel take on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game? Why do writers even have themes? In Argentina, a movie with a male character who did not wear an undershirt beneath his dress shirt caused the undergarment makers to take a big hit [Maybe someone can help me find the exact link to the story].

Art has influence. You can’t take the glory without the responsibility. Legally, people should be responsible for their own use of the arts, but that doesn't mean that artists can't be cognizant of the effects of their art. On the other hand, there ought not be a twinge of guilt for misinterpretation.

One of the first things a reader should do in interpreting any work of art--be it poem, story or essay--is to establish what the author’s tone is. If you missed the humorous term “girdle” in the manifesto’s first sentence, then maybe you picked up on these:

--The chastening but hopefully enlivening effect on imagining a world without fantasy bolt holes: no portals to medieval kingdoms, no spaceships to arrive to save us or whisk us off to Metaluna.

--Not to let Mundanity cramp their style if they want to write like Edgar Rice Burroughs as well.

--The harmless fun that these and all the other Stupidities have brought to millions of people.

--The harmless fun that burning the Stupidities will bring to millions of people.

--To burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring.

A few readers did think this was all a joke. But humor can be serious as well. And really, much of the philosophy hinges on the humor if a reader examined the careful nuance. The above comments have been rearranged to maximize their seeming contrast to create new meaning beyond the interpretations that have been over-simplified to distortion.

Compare the first two lines. The first says that magic is not allowed, but it also says Mundane writers can write fantasy if they so choose. Does it say anything about people who don’t consider themselves Mundane? One writer unwittingly sicked the ACLU on us by claiming we were "self-appointed censors" [link gone]. We have not been contacted by the ACLU presumably because we neither owned controlling interest in any publishing house nor threatened to end anyone’s freedom of speech. Maybe the ACLU recognized the tongue-in-cheek bravado.

Perhaps the author was concerned about all the statements about burning. People might have read it on a bad day or skimmed or were influenced by previously misguided commentators who took comments out of tone or context.

Let’s look at the burning. We talk of burning the Stupidities, but we also talk of burning the manifesto, the very thing that urged the burning (really, it’s odd that I even have to explain the joke. No wonder Robert Sheckley’s poignant humor is no longer appreciated). The burning is described as “harmless fun” but so were both status-quo SF and Mundane SF.

So I think Geoff Ryman knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the manifesto. It’s as much an anti-manifesto as a manifesto with some important speculative statements to make: What if Earth were all we had? The manifesto was designed to rile people up who don’t read closely. What Ryman couldn’t have known was how few would read closely. I suspect Ryman thought just the stodgy old-school would have their feathers ruffled but the many perspicacious in our genre would have thought, “Ha, ha. That sly dog,” chuckled, and went about pounding their way through whatever space opera or ten-volume fantasy they were working on.

For those who still don’t quite understand the tone: we don’t care what you write. We just want the public to know that some possibilities are more probable than others. Even if SF's science fantasies outweigh our science probabilities, so long as we know they are fantasies (i.e. create a space for fiction focused on future probabilities), then it won’t matter. We’ll read space westerns with aplomb, with one eye on entertainment and theme (myth, parable and whatnot) and the other keen eye on the knowledge that this SF is just another fantasy with a weak possibility of having future validity. Without this acknowledgement, society will continue believing that mystical science-hand-waving will save us: Never mind that petty accumulation of CO2, dwindling energy and fresh water supplies, not enough clean energy, booming populations, and the loss of habitats and species and soil: Here comes Superscienceman on his broomstick!

Lou Anders writes, “I believe that it is way-dangerous to make predictions that close the book on hitherto undiscovered technologies.” This is a misreading in two ways. First, we are not making predictions any more than any other SF makes predictions. We’re merely trying to give realistic science its moment in the sun to contrast against (not necessarily compete with) the more mythic SF, as Ian McDonald himself called it.

Second, we encourage development of undiscovered technologies--just nothing that disobeys the laws of science as we presently understand it. Yes, science will change but not necessarily for wilder ideas. Sometimes it actually limits what we thought we could do. For instance, we have no problem with nanotechnology but SF often comes up with nanomachines like the one Stephenson’s The Diamond Age that suddenly produces whatever your heart’s desire--forget about the laws of conservation (which is exactly what much of the world has been doing). No, we don’t claim to know what the future will hold--you certainly won’t find that claim here although you will find we already discussed that--but our speculations should in principle be more probable than those who prefer to dabble in the less probable. And no, we didn’t say that the future will be just like the present. It amazes me that people think the future or SF is lost if certain works pointedly do not write about space or time travel. Implicit in such tropes is the idea that we can simply abandon the mess we’ve made on Earth. Okay, so you can time- or space-travel: What makes you think humanity will treat those worlds any differently if they don’t learn to take care of their own?

Jonathan Vos Post writes, “Your opening up ‘Global Warming’ into a properly phrased admission that we don't know what will happen -- very good!” I don’t know that scientists involved with climate change would disagree but I’m sure they’d find this statement more than a little problematic. It strongly suggests that nothing may happen--true enough and I hope you’re right, Jonathan--but most scientific evidence thus far has shown the contrary.

Ian McDonald writes, “Will I then be co-opted against my will?” Absolutely not. No one has to buy into Mundane SF. We’re only interested in those who purposefully buy in or are open-minded enough to allow room for philosophies that differ from theirs. We welcome McDonald to write parables and myths or any kind of literary art. We most certainly will. But if he were a poet, would McDonald complain about the “tick boxes” of a sonnet or a sestina because he accidentally came close to writing one? The examples of writers who might have “accidentally committed Mundane SF” are all just a general idea of what we’re about. See this discussion of one work labeled as proto-Mundane.

One of the reasons I was first attracted to SF was that it seemed you could do anything: write in any style, write within any philosophy or politics, write about any subject matter. I mean, a group where a functional-prose man like Asimov could be chums with the vivid and idiosyncratic Ellison must be cool. All we ask for is a barstool or two along SF’s infinite counter space. Or is SF’s inclusivity just a delusion of foolish youth?

An observation that I’ve made of those who link or check out the site with interest is that readers on the edge of SF are attracted to the idea. A savvy marketer might want to exploit a whole new crowd of potential readers. But then we can always just fall back on the same old tropes and continue to spurn those who might want to try to do things differently.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Debate over a Mundane SF

Posted by Trent Walters at 2:36 PM
Ian McDonald responded to my request to hear about his perspective on Mundane SF. Charles Stross and Patrick Nielsen Hayden also responded. I'll respond at length as soon as time permits.