Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mundanespotting January 2007

Posted by frankh at 10:42 PM
A few years back when I learned about this Movement I was attracted to the idea. But I thought, surely there is a reasonable amount of mundane sf being published in short form. It can’t all be time travel crap. I decided to try reading some of the magazines to look for such stories. In the past I was generally discouraged by the quality of magazine stories, and relied on the Best Of editors to filter the field for my occasional fix. But now I had a Mission, to see if there was really mundane sf out there like I thought. In the process, I actively bypassed the obvious fantasy or fantastic (my favored word for non-mundane sf) stories. Some of them might still be great stories but I wasn’t willing to spend the time finding out. Mundane sf was what I wanted to experience. I might just be another jaded fan without it.

So now, after a long break because I have had little time for fiction, I am at it again. I try to be pretty tolerant of different approaches to mundane sf. If it’s about something reasonably human on something that seems reasonably like Earth in the future, I’ll give it a chance. I have some biases, but for the most part I am looking for any kind of meaningful speculative experience. There’s plenty of high quality escapist fiction in my collection, so I feel no need to dig through the current sf magazines to look for more.

Finally, I have the excitement of the Sony PRS-500, the e-reader with the funky “ink” technology that you can read about elsewhere (readability and low power drain are the big hooks). It is my first e-reader and it has surprised me by being substantially better than expected (after I got over the initial quirks). I am using the “large print PDF” format from fictionwise (which itself is a quirky source, but generally an excellent way to go), in landscape orientation (half page at a time) at the highest available magnification (medium). Now if I read from a digest magazine it seems like such a dirty experience. Skipping over the non-mundane stuff is also relatively easy. This overall scheme isn’t particularly cheap, but the experience of having my own growing library in the palm of my hand is a new one that I am liking. Maybe in the next generation of hardware it will be possible to read a full-blown facsimile of a digest magazine page on one of these things.

For this first new round of mundanespotting I have read or skimmed through the nominal January 2007 magazines in e-form. I report below on the short fiction, sorted alphabetically by author. Although Analog is a double issue, a lot of its pages were devoted to articles and a serial. I was pleasantly surprised for the first time by the experience of reading it. I will see if I sour on it in the future.

Contents from:
F&SF January 2007
Asimov's January 2007
Analog January-February 2007
[na = novella, nv = novelette, otherwise short story]

— “The Face of Hate” by Stephen L. Burns (Analog): aliens
“Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy” by Jeff Carlson (Asimov's): sort of a whimsical chase story; very little speculation and thus perhaps a bit too safely mundane
“Café Culture” by Jack Dann (Asimov's): a decently edgy psychology-of-terrorism story complete with an Asimov’s brand disclaimer
“Double Helix, Downward Gyre” by Carl Frederick (nv Analog): a somewhat preachy chase story that is nonetheless mundane enough for me and a nice story to see in Analog
— “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman (F&SF): an otherwise mundane story with fantasy or fantastic elements; I stopped halfway through, though the story probably had more going for it than the Gerrold…
— “The Strange Disappearance of David Gerrold” by David Gerrold (F&SF): a Being David Gerrold Story with fantastic or fantasy elements; I gave up halfway through
— “Radical Acceptance” by David W. Goldman (Analog): some sort of fannish non-mundane story, I guess
— “Exposure Therapy” by R. Emrys Gordon (Analog): interstellar travel or aliens or whatnot
“Safeguard” by Nancy Kress (nv Asimov's): bio-political intrigue; not all that convincing but still a nice story
— “The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste” by Richard A. Lovett (Analog): FTL
— “Poison” by Bruce McAllister (Asimov's): overt fantasy
— “The Darkness Between” by Jeremy Minton (nv F&SF): generally traditional sf story about science and superstition in a fantastic future
— “Numerous Citations” by E. Mark Mitchell (na Analog): a somewhat mundane story with a bit too much unconvincing AI to make the cut; I would probably give this a mundane rating if the storytelling did not break down badly towards the end
“The Hikikomori's Cartoon Kimono” by A.R. Morlan (nv Asimov's): a really funky story about art and culture in an otherwise straightforward mundane setting; my favorite story of this bunch—worthy for any “Best of” collection—Recommended
— “Battlefield Games” by Games R. Neube (Asimov's): non-mundane military sf
— “If Only We Knew” by Jerry Oltion (Analog): generally mundane story with hint of fantastic or fantasy elements I was unwilling to forgive
— “The Dark Boy” by Marta Randall (F&SF): mundane non-sf with a thin veneer of fantasy
— “X-Country” by Robert Reed (F&SF): I’ll call this a contemporary fantasy; interesting, but not credibly mundane
“Super Gyro” by Grey Rollins (nv Analog): mundane sf power fantasy
— “The Taste of Miracles” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Analog): near Earth space story in a blatantly traditional non-mundane future
“Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling (na F&SF): distinctive Sterling story about Eastern Europe and consumerism and technology and stuff like that; could easily be bloated into a novel that would bore me; works well enough in this form and is mundane enough for my tastes
— “Trunk and Disorderly” by Charles Stross (nv Asimov's): I think this was supposed to be about a future sport in a non-mundane future; I didn’t try reading very far into it
— “Emerald River, Pearl Sky” by Rajnar Vajra (na Analog): blurbed and skimmed as some sort of far future non-mundane science-is-like-magic story

OK, so that’s 7 stories that made the cut, including a fair number of long and memorable ones. That would make a good-sized mundane sf magazine for January if there was room in the field for a periodical with editorial tastes other than “eclectic,” “fantasy” or “Analog.” I will optimistically move on to February, thinking that the field for mundane sf may be improving. The next batch won’t include Analog because of the double issue this time, but I will be reporting on Interzone (in actual paper form!) and Jim Baen’s Universe (JBU) for the first time. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Long Bets

Posted by goatchurch at 3:32 AM
Trent, put up on the right hand panel of important links, please.

This is so directly down our line that even Bet Number 1 about the Turing Test is consistent with MundaneSF. There is an interestingly phrased counterposition to this view. (My personal view is that the Turing Test is an utterly flawed exercise based on the fallacy of Behaviorism, but we'll let that slide.)

As if to prove the disconnect between the current state of conventional SF and this stuff, very few of the usual tropes appear in any form in that list. It would be really great if MundaneSF stories had to be associated to a long bet. If you aren't creative enough to invent one and submit it, just pick one and place some money on the other side.

In fact, that would be the way to get an exemption for using technology and laws of science that do not exist today -- you can only use them if you have placed a bet that it is so. For many people, having to put a token bit of money down behind their claim gets their attention and makes them think straight. So, you can have aliens beaming from outer space, only if you accept this bet. The discussion for that bet is also worth knowing.

There is a void in literature where no one is writing science fiction based on the laws of science, because it's too scary and difficult. Either an off-shoot of SF is going to colonize it, or someone else will, and we will be ghettoized permanently.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Make me want to read your story

Posted by Trent Walters at 10:24 AM
Whenever I enter a story, I am looking for a reason to read it. Usually, a story question--simple or profound--can do the trick. Sometimes, beautiful language works, but not the easy, knee-jerk pretty language that's trying to sentimentally tug your emotional strings by repeating gold, golden, gilded, silver, and such. Originality is the key.


"I've done a terrible thing." -- Robert J. Sawyer's Humans

This forces the reader to ask: "What terrible thing?"

"He found the flying mountain by its shadow." -- Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night

This is an SF sentence. The reader wants to know by what means the mountain flies--among hundreds of other questions opened up by such a simple question.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel

"'It's not like I'm using,' Case heard someone say." -- Neuromancer by William Gibson

Interesting, vivid imagery and language. Plus it evokes that old-time SF awe--an entire sky like TV. Mood-wise, there's something vaguely ominous about "dead" and even watching a sky that looks like a dead channel. He could have said that the channel was off the air.

Also, we wonder what drug the overheard character might be using. It turns out, though, that this drug usage is a joke in the Sprawl, which raises questions about the society that Case lives in ("What's a Sprawl?" a reader might also ask.)

Here is another example evoking that old-time SF awe:

"It was the most majestic series of structures David Collingdale had ever seen. Steeples and dome and polygons rose out of the ice and snow. Walkways soared among the towers, or their remnants. Many had collapsed." -- Omega by Jack McDevitt

Note that this also asks the question of why the structures collapsed.

In Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, he pops an SF sentence and follows it up with a question that is important to the protagonist:

There was razorstorm coming in.

Sylveste stood on the edge of the excavation and wondered if any of his labors would survive the night.

Now some speculative writers want to begin more in a literary mode. We still ask questions, but they should be driven to find out more about the characters:

"They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn't want ot be here, or one person who didn't want to and one who resented the other's reluctance."--Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain

"To get through the afternoons that wound into early evenings, driving a school bus along long country roads and driveways, Hud kept slightly drunk." --The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God by Timothy Schaffert

"Each of us has a private Austen."--Karen Joy Fowler's Jane Austen Book Club

Why are Kress' characters tense?

In Schaffert's, different readers might ask different questions: "How can such a horrible man be in charge of children's lives?" "What drove him to drink and risk other people's children?" "What will this quirky character get up to next?"

Karen Joy Fowler's is also more complex than it appears. It's a simple yet original philosophical statement that gets us to ask, how so? But there's also a narrator who is commenting on other characters, so that we end up (if we've read Austen) asking which books and what kinds of characters would define their lives by these books--apparently finding them worth living by.

In fact, the beginning of fiction is only just the beginning of getting the reader to ask questions. If you tell the reader that today is an ordinary day, that the character lives in an ordinary apartment, that the character is just like everyone else you ignore on the street, the reader will wonder why he's being asked to read this.

Keep this in mind when submitting your stories. Why are you telling this story? What's interesting about starting in this place? If you don't have something worth saying at the beginning, you can't expect the readers to want to read further.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More oily editorial updates

Posted by goatchurch at 3:01 PM
For those who want a video to watch, here is Robert Newman's A history of oil. For a conflicting story of oil there's this article from Armed Madhouse -- a very fine book which I am now reading. It's full of all kinds of short stories and vignettes on every page. It matters naught whether they are true; the stories are believable... it you are able to swallow the idea that our rulers now are no better than many of the rulers we know from ancient history.

Among the story submissions for the MundaneSF issue of Interzone are some rather apocalyptic visions about the end of oil in which all of society collapses and there's no longer anything to buy at the malls and people are reduced to living off weeds in between bouts of starting at their dead TV screens.


Think about it.

Humans were operating great European empires in the 1700s entirely without gasoline, satellite navigation or access to modern materials (plastics). You can be sure that when the gas runs low, every man and boy will be rounded up and put to work, doing the labour that used to be done by powered machines. We, our muscles, like horses, will once again be needed. It is very likely that society would become more integrated and interdependent than it has ever been before. Only with cheap oil do we have the luxury of going it alone and living our own isolated worlds, which is much more inefficient way of life.

In the future we might start living our entire lives near our parents, as humans always used to do till we got into the habit of splitting to the far corners of the globe. For many a modern person these days, this might seem unbearable. But maybe if we lived with our parents it would stop them becoming so eccentric; the world would be a better place if the older generation were prevented from becoming insane.

The quality of writing in the submissions is very high, which makes thinning them down jolly difficult for a novice editor like me. Unfortunately, no one is giving me any big ideas.

In 50 years time the world is going to be utterly unrecognizable to what it is today, and it won't be due to brain downloads or time travel.

If you can sum up your story in one sentence at the beginning, do so, and then get on with telling me about the big world beyond.

The key to the future is in the past. The old ways of doing things will come back, except it'll be different. It'll be like going back to grade school when you are grown up and 40 years old. Could you do it, go through the motions? Would it be very easy?

In some parts of the world the past is coming back. Here is a Carnegie Council podcast about North Korea. One of the worst famines of the twentieth century happened there in the mid-1990s and nobody noticed. This in a small country totally isolated from the world and apparently able to manufacture nuclear reactors and missiles. This ought to be impossible.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Old Science Made New

Posted by Trent Walters at 11:02 AM
Wireless Energy! (Scientific American)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Mundanespotting 2007

Posted by frankh at 9:38 PM
After a long absence, I am going to try to do some reading and blogging again. I have some time, finally, to work with, and have stockpiled lots of fiction. To start off, I will be looking for (my idea of) mundane sf in the major periodicals with a nominal 2007 publication date. I've got Analog, Asimov's, and F&SF from fictionwise on my Sony ereader, and most exciting of all for this side of the Atlantic, I have an active Interzone subscription plus a giant pile of back issues (darn if I can't find 196 or 200, though). Also, I've got the first year of the Baen ezine and I might give that a look and maybe resubscribe. Stay tuned.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Spacetravel and nanobots

Posted by goatchurch at 2:47 AM

Anyone who knows my other blog will be familiar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute which is -- very worryingly -- taken seriously by many U.S. policy-makers. The problem, as I.F.Stone famously put in words, is that:
All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.
But this is not the blog for political ranting. I'm here to show you the following relevant excerpt from the CEI after-dinner speech where Fred the Director speaks from a space-ship in the year 2107 having gained immortality after his body was retooled by nanobots.

He's gives his usual spiel, that I won't pass comment on, that this glorious future somewhere away from planet Earth was finally made possible by the abolition of government regulation -- as if laws of physics and ecology were imposed by the government.

The point I'm trying to make is that this art-form -- the broadcast from the bright and better future -- used to be common currency. Now it's very rare and looks horribly dated. I think there is an important anthropological message here.

Or maybe I've got my observations wrong, and there is a whole slew of such videos on YouTube I am not aware of. If anyone locates any, I'll post them up. All contemporary views of the future are important to this project.

Often such stories are politically motivated. The defining characteristic is that it's a story about what will happen if we follow the policies that they are advocating, as opposed to a horror story of what will happen if we do not implement the policies. Do people propose positive arguments anymore?