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SF’s Own Star Wars

It appears a brushfire is heating up amidst science fiction writers over the direction of the genre. Disputes between and among SF fans as to what types of stories and novels fit within the genre and/or deserve recognition are nothing new. Take, for example, the debate over whether J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire should have been nominated for, let alone won, the Hugo Award, one of SF’s most prestigious awards, for best novel in 2001. What is intriguing about this skirmish is that it involves some of the field’s newer stars who likely can influence where SF goes.

The gauntlet was tossed down with The Mundane Manifesto, which arose from a discussion between author Geoff Ryman and a class at Clarion East, a science fiction and fantasy writers’ workshop at Michigan State. The term “mundane” does not come from writing SF that is ordinary and routine. Instead, the manifesto uses it in the context of the word meaning being of or related to this world. That is represented in the manifesto’s proposition that SF stories follow these rules:

  • No interstellar travel — travel is limited to within the solar system and is difficult, time consuming and expensive.
  • No aliens unless the connection is distant, difficult, tenuous and expensive — and they have no interstellar travel either.
  • No Martians, Venusians, etc.
  • No alternative universes or parallel worlds.
  • No magic or supernatural elements.
  • No time travel or teleportation.

The reasoning is based on the theory that such themes neglect the problems facing humanity. “Flying off to Barsoom provides quality entertainment, but fiction has far more unrealized potential if it seeks to challenge us and find solutions to the problems of our planet’s survival.”

Such a proposal could not, of course, go unchallenged. Ian McDonald, whose River of Gods is nominated for the 2005 Hugo Award for best novel, posted a lengthy broadside. After examining the validity of individual propositions in the manifesto, McDonald rejects it, asserting it stifles creativity.

It’s not just the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce the type of science-fiction it celebrates (one very very much worth celebrating, and that is due it’s time in the sun), it’s that the genre has a much richer palate of colours. It’s a poor manifesto that would venerate Verne (tech-speculation) but consigns much of H.G. Wells’ core texts to the “bonfire of stupidities” (interplanetary war, aliens, time-travel…). To me, one of the strengths of SF is that it is an allegorical literature: parables and myths of our age. That TV has appropriated and devalued many of them is tribute to their strength, not their weakness. To me, any literature that writes about the future (not all SF does by any means) cannot be realist…, to quote likelihood of a possible future is just hand waving.

What is intriguing about McDonald’s position is that River of Gods probably meets the criteria for Mundane Science Fiction. McDonald admits his book “may have accidentally committed MSF.”

Now Charles Stross has weighed in. And his stock is worth plenty today. Stross has moved from virtual unknown to almost dominant in SF shortlists. His Iron Sunrise is nominated for both the 2005 Hugo for best novel and the 2005 Locus Award for best science fiction novel. His The Family Trade is nominated for the 2005 Locus Award for best fantasy novel. Stross wrote two of the five finalists for the 2005 Hugo for best novella and one, the “Concrete Jungle” (available in The Atrocity Archives), received a similar nod for the Locus Awards.

Stross observes that, for whatever reason, about every 20 years, SF writers start “denouncing each other as running dogs over their iced lattes.” He expresses distaste for the manifesto’s “prescriptive, restrictive definition” of SF subjects.

I understand completely why the Mundane SF folks are lashing out against a particularly egregious bonfire of stupidities (hey, can I stick this effigy of George Lucas on top?). And I understand that the MSF manifesto is as much a provocation as a prescription. But I also agree with Ian McDonald about the undesirability of sticking creativity in a box and welding it shut. Mundane SF is a fine description of what a number of the better SF writers are currently writing in reaction against the perceived stupidities of the field, but it’s a lousy presription [sic].

More subtly, I think the targets of MSF — the sacred cows they seek to slaughter — are mis-selected. . . . . In going after the forms of bad SF, the MSF manifesto seems to have missed the substance of the problem — a form of fiction that has become increasingly detached from humanity.

It’s not for me to an issue a manifesto (although I’m okay about writing “this worked for me, here’s how to do it yourself” pieces), but if I was going to, I’d start by thinking about the values I want my fiction to reflect rather than obsessing over the calibre of bullet to load in my Browning.

Maybe occasional skirmishes among its running dogs lend vigor to any genre and help inspire them. As a fan of both traditional and “mundane” SF, I’m all for anything that sparks examination of ideas to strengthen the field. Still, it seems McDonald and Stross have a valid point. SF, like other fiction, need not have to help save the world to serve a purpose. There is nothing wrong with providing opportunity for pure entertainment and pleasure. More important, the effectiveness of a SF archetype depends immeasurably more on the creativity of the artist than the canvas he or she uses. Hopefully, the worst that will come of this is a couple spilled iced lattes with the up side being a debate that stimulates authors on both sides of the issue.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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