Friday, November 30, 2007

It's Mundane but not SF we know it

Posted by goatchurch at 6:17 AM
I read the news today, oh boy:
Sarah Hall has won the 2006/7 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which celebrates the best fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama from the UK and the Commonwealth, with her third novel, The Carhullan Army, a tough portrait of life in a near-future Britain after the oil runs out.

The novel presents itself as the statement of a detained woman prisoner, and follows a narrator, known only as "Sister", as she escapes her regimented life of tinned food and rationed electricity to join a separatist female commune on the Cumbrian moors.

According to Hall, one of the inspirations for such a timely book was "the flooding in Carlisle, where I live". In January 2005, when many of Cumbria's biggest towns were devastated, "you didn't have to imagine [the breakdown of society] any more".

Hall, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2002 for her second novel, The Electric Michaelangelo, did not feel duty-bound to engage with the contemporary issues - climate change, fanaticism - that sit at the core of The Carhullan Army. Rather, she said, they were impossible to ignore. "You can't get away from all this stuff on the news. As a writer I feel like a tuning fork - you're picking up vibrations of things going on around you. You can't be impervious. But the duty of a writer is to write a good story, a f--ing good story"

The chair of the judges, Suzi Feay, hailed the strength of all the entries on the shortlist, calling them the books that "stuck out" amid the blur of the 120 books the judges considered. "We could remember even the weather in the shortlisted entries," she said. The shortlist revealed the strength of women's fiction - "for a while we thought we were judging the Orange prize".

She praised the courage and importance of the winning novel. "Sarah Hall's fierce, uncomfortable story of a radical dissident group holed up in the far north after the total breakdown of society seemed to all the judges to be the book that tackled the most urgent and alarming questions of today," she said. "The quality of The Carhullan Army was simply unignorable. We need writers with Hall's humanity and insight."
This is exactly what I've warning you about, boys and girls. Mainstream literature is doing an end-run around the outside of SF to connect with the real future of life as we will come to know it. Clearly the world is ready for this kind of thing, even if most SF writers are incapable of such imagination. What it is going to do is leave SF behind playing with its 1950's dated tropes of space ships and little green men like plastic children's toys stuck in a time-loop, never able to move forward beyond worn-out dreams we once had.

Without a tactical embracing of Mundane-SF, the genre will be dead within 30 years, cut-off like many other forms of literature, because it remained entrapped within its short-list of false tropes that permanently blinded it from the real story.

So it goes.

9 Comments:

Anonymous JB Dryden said...

You were building up to something that I would have agreed with before you made your massively hasty generalization about "Science Fiction" as a collective unit.

Sure there are over-used standards and stock footage used in science fiction these days, but a lot of other genres and story types have their won set of such things. I think what you fail to accept is that there is a huge collective of science fiction out there that isn't Mundane but doesn't use your "tropes" you speak so highly of. Not all near-future science fiction is Mundane, and it shouldn't be because we're allowed to speculate as science fiction writers - that's part of that whole idea behind 'creativity'. 'Soft' science fiction has, for years, been very different from what you see as rehashing of Golden Age science fiction. Not everything is a rehash; not everyone is writing about aliens and lasers.

What I think Mundane SF - as a movement - fails to understand is that fiction is entertainment foremost before it is educational. If people want to learn about global warming, they pick up An Inconvenient Truth; they don't go out and find a science fiction book that writers about global warming. The idea that all other writers of science fiction are harming the rest of society by not writing about what is going on or what might happen in regards to real-world events is pretentious and close-minded.

11/30/2007 08:08:00 AM  
Blogger D.N. Drake said...

JB, I write Mundane SF for entertainment value only. What you fail to understand, apparently, is that some people don't find John Ringo books entertaining -- some people prefer to read (or write) about a plausible future. I'm not writing about global warming for your benefit, I'm writing about it for my enjoyment.

http://dndrake.blogspot.com/

12/04/2007 08:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I think your tone is too alarmist, however. If mainstream writers go mundane SF, and spaceship SF falls out of favor, then people will read mainstream SF that went mundane.

If spaceship Sf writers go mundane, and mainstream writers go mundane, it still means that spaceship SF will go away, so what's the difference?

In either case, I don't buy it, nor do I care. I love mainstream litfic, soft SF, hard SF, and mundane SF.

The most important quote to me in that article was that the writer should be able to "tell a good f--cking story." That's the big shift. For a long time, litfic writers have let genre writers worry about stories and they experimented with narrative that made their work tedious and pedantic.

Now the litfic folks are finally figuring out how important story is to most readers. I think this is the result of the plot craftsmanship that genre writers have dedicated their careers to.

I welcome this development. A good story is a good story, and you can tell the truth about people whether you put them on a spaceship, or a dinghy with a tiger going across the ocean.

12/07/2007 07:12:00 AM  
Blogger The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

I've got to ask.

Why bother writing SF of any kind of mainstream literature is "outflanking us?"

Hell, I may as well send my stuff to the New Yorker then.

Tactical embracing of mundane. Whatever.

12/07/2007 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger D.N. Drake said...

Even though I'm a Mundane SF supporter, I would tend to agree with both the anonymous poster and Pondering Tree. I enjoy the whole Mundane SF concept, but I don't buy into the alarmist "30 years till' SF kicks the bucket" (and If I may ask... why 30 years)?

I DO think, however, that SF is currently choking on it's own regurgitations. For the most part, I'm seeing the same stories over and over again, just with different characters and titles. There are some excellent writers still out there, but I think that SF needs some fresh ideas to pull the needle off the skipping record. Mundane SF is not NEW, per se, but it is new in the sense that it now has a name, a clear and defined layout, and a growing number of supporters.

I DO NOT believe, however, that Mundane SF needs to be tactically embraced by ALL sci-fi writers. There will be other SF movements that will breath fresh air into the genre's lungs... believe me. It is not necessary to belittle non-mundane stories based on the fact that they are not mundane (if they suck though, thats a different story).

Overall, I think Mundane supporters need to tone down the elitism, and anti-Mundaners have to be more accepting.

http://dndrake.blogspot.com/ (a mundane SF ezine)

12/07/2007 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

Well, tactical is the wrong word to use in this context anyway. Tactical implies a change in individual writing habits within the context of story execution.

I believe what the blogger really meant was a "strategic" embracing of the Mundane Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water Credo.

In any case, I dissent virulently, regardless of whether it is a tactical or a strategic matter.

12/09/2007 08:05:00 PM  
Blogger goatchurch said...

Great comments. What will be will be, but we have to be think about how the genres work.

As a radically different future has begun to open up to us in the last 20 years, it creates a space where nut much fiction is present.

I believe that mainstream fiction is blocked from it by the habit of not writing about the future, and SF is blocked by its baggage that is difficult to shed. Whichever genre overcomes its barriers first and spawns off a subgenre in this area will take the prize.

I have never wanted to suggest that all SF stories that are not Mundane suck. But what does suck is if no one in SF ever writes the occasional good Mundane-SF story, just to fill the place out.

When the dominant mainstream literature finally breaks through into the Mundane-SF arena, wouldn't it be good if we already had some of our stuff there to welcome it?

12/10/2007 11:40:00 AM  
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