Geoff Ryman gave this Guest of Honor speech at BORÉAL 2007 SF convention in Montreal on 2007-04-29.
First off many thanks for the opportunity to give this talk. I think probably many people in this room have no idea who I am. Sometimes I wonder who I am as well. I only have one novelette translated into French, from 20 years ago, which saddens me.
I also founded a small group of SF writers called the Mundanes. Being a Mundane boils down to avoiding old tropes and sticking more closely to what science calls facts. We believe that for most of us, the future is here on Earth.
I understand that this translates into French as ‘Profanes’. I think this sounds a lot more exciting, as a movement.
As I’m sure you have all heard, the European Space Agency announced this week the discovery of an Earth-type planet outside the solar system. Other planets that we know of outside the solar system have all been like Jupiter or Neptune. It orbits the red dwarf star Gliese 581 about 20.5 light years from here. At temperatures from 0 to 40 degrees, it could have water, but we don’t know that. It’s gravitational pull would be twice that of Earth’s. Being 14 times closer to its dwarf star than the Earth is to the sun, it is probably also a radioactive environment.
This is life-changing news. Especially for me, because at 20.5 light years distance, it happens to be within my own personal limit for how far I think we can get into interstellar space.
I don’t believe in starships. At least not the starships that turn up so regularly in Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc. The speed of the universe is c. Go faster than ‘c’ and something catastrophic happens: mass becomes infinite. We have no idea what that means. It’s a mathematician’s way of saying something can’t happen.
Yet mass-market SF still dreams of faster-than-light travel, through such tropes as warp drives. The Physics of Star Trek by Laurence M Krauss calculates that warp drives would consume energy equivalent to whole galaxies. This is his way of saying something can’t happen without alienating the Star Trek fans who bought the book.
If there are wormholes or portals I see no way that something can travel through them without being converted into energy or crushed by gravitational forces. This is Geoff’s way of saying the starship gets wrecked.
Stephen Hawking says anti-matter engines are possible, and could accelerate to a reasonable percentage of the speed of light. They could get us to Alpha Centauri in 6 years. I accept that on his authority, but for me, that’s a best possibility, an upper limit.
Very fast sub-light speed would still impose a horizon on how far we get. I don’t have the tools to figure out that limit. If someone does please come and talk to me afterwards.
But if Hawking’s ship can go 4 light years in 6 years, then I my rough reckoning done before Gliese 581 is about a 20-25 light-year radius from Earth. It depends how long you think a starship can keep going without risking major malfunction and how fast an anti-matter driven starship could be. I reckon 30 years in its own time-frame, you may think more.
We won’t know til 2020 if Gliese has water or an atmosphere. I don’t think we’ve found a beautiful new Earth to inhabit. The cost of transporting terra-forming equipment and material 20 light years is likely to be prohibitive. Terraforming Mars may be a better bet than travelling those vast distances to terraform a rocky, radioactive wilderness. Both efforts would take tens of thousand years. What human endeavour has lasted tens of thousands of years?
Well, agriculture has lasted that long; and the rearing of children along with language itself. Staying home on the farm and raising kids seems to be just the activities most SF dreams of escaping.
Since the same physical restrictions will apply to aliens, at least aliens made of matter, I don’t believe we are likely to meet aliens. We might be able to exchange some kind of messages with them at the speed of light. If we are picturing our future, it’s a safer bet to imagine one without Mr Spock or even versions of cuttlefish who communicate with shifting skin patterns.
For most of us whose descendants will not be among those specially selected interstellar crews, for our children, for humankind as whole, the future is here on Earth.
I realized that I didn’t believe in time travel either. We are part of the universe, embedded in it. If we travel in time, we have to take the universe with us. I don’t think that’s at all feasible number one, affordable number two and number three: if everything around us is going backwards or forwards in time with us, would we even notice? How could we tell? Oh yes, we go through one of those wormhole loops. That’s of real mathematical interest. You know my views on wormholes.
So a few kindred spirits drew up a list of things we didn’t believe in like telepathy. Have you ever experienced it?
Immortality? Suns die, galaxies die, the universe dies. Nothing is immortal outside of God’s heaven. We will all die one day. Leaving Earth won’t stop it.
Brain downloads: transferring something that has four switches (up and down in both directions) to a system works through binaries?
Partly Mundanity was also the result of asking: what’s worked best in the past? My favourite SF authors such as Philip K Dick, J G Ballard, Samuel Delaney or Walter Miller tended to avoid those particular tropes. For a while naming writers who could be considered Mundane was quite a hobby.
We felt as if SF had accumulated so many improbable ideas and relied on them so regularly, that it had disconnected from reality. The futures it was portraying were so unlikely as to be irrelevant, if not actually harmful.
Julian Todd, a British SF writer, pointed out the moral problems as well. If we keep telling ourselves that faster-than-light travel will whisk us to scores of new Earths, then we’d feel better about burning through this one.
In really bad SF, like the movie LOST IN SPACE, environmental catastrophe is almost wished upon us, to justify the cost of interstellar voyages. Why, why the continual desire to escape our beautiful planet?
My particular bugaboo was the cheat of having faster-than-light travel without any relativity effects from different time frames. Mass market SF, the SF that most ordinary people think of when you use the phrase, commercial and media SF want to pick and choose from science, using only those things that will grant us our wishes and dreams.
We want FTL interstellar travel with no more inconvenience than a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier. Mom can ring us up from 30,000 light years away to have a real-time conversation about why we haven’t married yet. She’s still alive when we get back home. Everything is recognizable, comfortable. In Star Trek, we get to the stars without having to change.
Mass market SF doesn’t imagine how different interstellar flight will make us. And I don’t mean the usual posthuman stuff. I mean different culturally. I mean getting back home to find 200 years have passed and that everything we loved and believed in is gone. Yes, some SF has done just that, notably The Forever War. So why isn’t the space pilot coming back from the distant past an SF stereotype? Answer: because that’s not what the SF wants.
Big SF, the stuff that sells hugely or is found in movies, is not really about the future; we know that. It’s also not about the present, though that’s our excuse when people point out that SF couldn’t predict its way of a public restroom. SF, especially mainstream commercial SF, copies the past onto the future, to make it comfortably entertaining. The future will be just like the more exciting parts of the past only with better toys. Perhaps that’s because so many people now fear the future, rather than welcome it as a wonderland of possibility.
So I wrote a jokey Mundane Manifesto. It said let’s play this serious game. Let’s agree: no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands. Let’s see if something new comes out of it.
In a reference to The Bonfire of the Vanities, I called this the Bonfire of the Stupidities. That was what we call a joke, but jokes can be serious. I also said that we should burn the Manifesto when it got boring.
Some of the blog commentary went a bit angry. I have a better understanding of what I thought of as an invitation to play a game was so widely misunderstood. Essentially it suggested that we left the old tropes to one side, and focussed on more likely futures.
This January I read the introduction to The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. Written at the moment of Sputnik, Arendt was struck that mainstream newspapers said what science fiction had been saying: mankind was now free from Earth.
Science fiction is worth regarding she says, because it is a vehicle for mass dreams and desires. In essence it is a dream of escaping being human. We want to leave Earth, a free gift that gives us life, and substitute artificial environments that we have made. We wish to escape old means of reproduction. We wish to escape death. We want to become post-human.
"This future man... seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence
as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he
wishes to exchange for something he has made himself."
Fifty years after she wrote that, these themes are still with us. Indeed they have been with us from the beginning, and the beginning is Frankenstein in 1818. Science Fiction predates Darwin, has survived Marx and Freud and outlasted modernism and post-modernism. That mass dream it fulfils is no temporary fancy. That dream runs deep.
The dream only cares about seeing its wishes fulfilled. That explains why old, tired, improbabilities survive as SF regulars, while the storytelling innovations of The Forever War have not become genre stand-bys. Only those slim possibilities that help fulfil the dream survive to be re-used: wormholes, warp drives. Because the aim is NOT to write about a real future.
Arendt hints at some of the sources of the dream. For me personally, there is something in the nexus of Mother Earth, femininity, domesticity, women’s power over reproduction of that clump together in a kind of misapplied need to leave home. A real future will have an everyday life and a home just as domestic as the one the dream needs to leave. So it does not dream of a real future.
I think the sources of the SF dream are not culturally specific. I think they are psychological, perhaps even ultimately biological. That explains the incredible endurance of SF for rising 200 years. I suspect that the dream has something to do with how we as an animal are cared for, the length of time we are dependent, the length of time our parents must love us and have power over us. In other species, parents initiate the process of separation, pushing the fledglings out. In human beings, that process is initiated by the cubs. In order to leave adolescents become angry and resentful, and initiate the separation themselves.
The SF dream recapitulates this. I believe it’s a kind of extension of somewhat undifferentiated drive to leave home, and escape into adventure. The dream therefore belongs essentially to childhood and to early adolescence.
The drive to write and read big-market SF is not much different from the drive to write and read Peter Pan. You never grow up. You fly by magic away from home to Never-neverland. (Take the third star on the left.) It’s full of mermaids, pirates and native peoples, just like Star Trek. Something really weird is going on around the whole idea of mother and Wendy.
I like Peter Pan. I like watching mass market SF. It’s a holiday from being an adult. The fantasies that fulfil the dream may show us wonders, but they are very repetitive, stereotyped wonders. Less to do with real innovation and more to do with a sense of comfort.
To sum up, what I realised reading Arendt was this: I am a Mundane because I don’t share the dream. Not because I have such a peculiarly scientific imagination, and yearn to get out my calculator when I write. I am the last person who should be a Mundane, as I most of my work has some kind of magic in it.
What, I want to ask, is so un-wonderful about Earth? What is so unexciting about our future here? Disaster, innovation, climate change and virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, biocomputers that evolve.
Will cramped, smelly spaceships full of people who have been trapped with each other for twenty years, with terrible food, no light, drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out, is that really the most exciting thing we can imagine?
There is a case for saying that our distraction with outer space meant SF missed the information revolution until it was past tense. It had already happened and was on the street when we started to write about it. What are missing now?
What is so useful about dreaming things that are unlikely to happen? Have you not noticed that we are NOT going into outer space? In the Star Trek universe, the Federation has already been founded for nine years.
People who love space blame NASA, and say boldly let the private sector in there. Do they really think if there were fortunes to be made in space you could keep the private sector OUT? There are no silks, sandalwood, or myrrh to be brought back from space, no light, small, valuable things that will pay for the costs of the trip. You can’t trade with balls of frozen methane. There will not be a business case for space.
So, interstellar travel will be a prestige project using vast resources that really are needed elsewhere. I don’t think it will be democracies that get us into space, with their short-term priorities and their reliance on markets. I think it will be a command society that gets us halfway to the stars. It was the Communists and not the Capitalists who got us into space the last time.
I dream of a future here on Earth, a future that I hope continues to get better in some ways. We so face many unpleasant and pressing issues for which there will be no cheap, quick easy fixes. I enjoy reading books like Forty Days of Rain that look at these near future challenges. I’m not sure that democracies are equipped to survive this future either.
Mundanity is not just about a near future, but also a far future, one in which there are new wonders to take the place of the old ones. I dream of a future in which things really change. Post-human, possibly, if we do succeed in controlling our own evolution. These new humans won’t be us, and not because they have extra limbs or can photosynthesize. They will not be us because they value different things, speak differently, think differently, and respond differently in emergencies. They will be the end of everything we love and believe in. And the change will keep on going.
I dream of a science fiction that is literature, right up there with Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, and Jane Austen. There is no reason for it not to be. Forty years ago that was the project, and it seemed like we were going to do it. That was the age of New Worlds, Dangerous Visions, of Ballard, Delaney, LeGuinn, and Tiptree.
Now, I’m not even sure what I meant by literature then, or what I mean by it now.
But here’s a Sartrian stab at it. Literature destroys innocence. It deprives people of childhood. It shows them the world as the writer honestly sees it. If it does show the reader something new, they have lost their innocence about it, and are now responsible for it.
In making them more responsible, literature makes them more powerful. It can’t be literature if recruits or propagandizes. It can’t be literature if it dupes people or panders to them. And it can’t be literature if it is fundamentally dishonest, if it says its doing one thing, when actually doing another. It can’t call itself science fiction and have nothing to do with science.
Entertainment leaves innocence intact. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it won’t make you more powerful or help you to grow up.
Nothing in our human culture is more adult than science. It doubts and tests our lies, half truths, fond hopes, and unsorted dreams by testing its hypotheses. Science could be working hand in hand with fiction to deliver the greatest possible literature.
The Institute of Ideas is staging the Douglas Adams Debate on May 3rd this year in London. The topic is From Star Wars to the Battle of Ideas: Is science fiction good for public debate? On the distinguished panel are two astronomers, a curator for the Science Museum of the exhibition ‘The Science of Aliens’, a consultant in reproductive medicine who worked on the film Children of Men, a physics teacher, but not one science fiction writer.
Here is a quote from the description:
"Writers and film makers often take their inspiration from science and ask ‘what
if’ but when it comes down to it, they have few qualms about ditching scientific
accuracy in favour of gripping narrative. Does it matter how much actual science
gets into sci-fi, as long as it gets people talking? Do writers and director
have a responsibility to make their science accurate, or even
"Should ‘proper’ sci-fi deal with hard science rather
than ‘issues’? Or should we just enjoy it?"
Hard science rather than issues. That strikes me as a very weird opposition. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to get some measure of any issue than to find out what the science says about it. I find the equation of ‘issues’ with entertainment not what I would expect either. All I can say for certain is that whoever wrote the blurb is thinking in entirely different terms from mine.
Plainly, by science fiction they don’t mean books that we as SF fans and writers value most. Film, directors... they are thinking of Science Fiction as what is called in French une marque du grand surface, the big movies and TV shows.
They mean the stuff that most people think of when you say sci-fi. We have to accept that that is how we are seen. The question for me then is partly, what if anything do I do about that? How do we change people’s views about what it is?
And of course, why no SF writers on the panel? In a debate named after one? I’m trying to avoid putting this down to snobbery. That’s what SF folk usually say when we are excluded. Who’s to say we were excluded? Maybe they tried to get an SF writer and couldn’t.
But let’s also consider the possibility that the scientists wanted to have a debate amongst themselves without us there. Most commercial SF is scientifically out to lunch. Would it be all that surprising if scientists were concerned with that? It is the centre of their lives. What, the debate may be asking, can we do about the lies science fiction tells?
And should there be an element of contempt in this for some kinds of SF; are we sure that it’s entirely unjustified?
If there is an estrangement between science and science fiction, then it should be possible to do something about it. It can only be fruitful.
A small press in Britain has asked me to edit an anthology of stories that are based on research that SF has largely ignored or wildly mis-represented. The aim is to commission these stories and then join up the SF writer with a scientist in that field to advise or co-author the piece.
If anybody here has a suggestion for a field of research that could form the basis of one of these tales, or would be interested in taking part either as a scientist or a writer, please email me.
I’m also guest-editing a Mundane issue of Interzone. If you are interested again please contact me. We have a website up to accept electronic submissions and give some guidance. Please visit http://www.freesteel.co.uk/cgi-bin/mundane.py
And for more information about mundanity, visit http://mundane-sf.blogspot.com/
I’ve spoken a bit about the dream that underlies SF as being essentially adolescent. But there is one aspect of the dream I’ve left out. Surely the urge to leave home and escape everyday life finally ends with the child making a home of its own and becoming adult. There is room in the SF dream for growing up, accepting the mundane. That’s the part of the dream my fiction will try to fulfil.
It’s never too late to grow up.