Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mundane Science Fiction

While wandering around in the Perez Art Museum in Miami, I stumbled over a quotation on the wall related to mundane science fiction, which I was easily able to find on the web. Mundane science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction that was of interest to a group of authors for about a decade earlier in this century. There was a manifesto generated at one point, which summarized the points of view held by the progenitors of the subgenre.

The manifesto said that much science fiction is escapism, revolving around a few magic items, such as faster-than-light interstellar travel, time travel, aliens, and interstellar instantaneous communications. It denounced, albeit in humorous language, these magic items and the distraction that they provided to the large numbers of fans of the novels and films made utilizing them. They felt that science fiction should rightfully focus on the Earth, hence the term ‘mundane’, used with the meaning ‘of the world’ as opposed to ‘boring’. They felt that the problems of Earth would be benefited by science fiction being used to describe them and also to describe, in a compelling way, possible solutions to them or consequences of them. In other words, there was a political activist tinge to the manifesto, stating that science fiction actually does help society understand how the planet and the civilizations on it will change with time, by providing some meaningful framework, with understandable characters and plots, that readers can use to interpret these changes. They listed a few technologies on the horizon or even closer than that which would make excellent contexts for changes in society and whose implications might not be obvious except for the spotlighting that competent science fiction writings can provide. It does sound a bit presumptuous, but good authors do deserve some applause for what they can do and have done.

The same criticism might be laid at the doorstep of fantasy writers, who seem to vastly outnumber science fiction writers, or at least outsell them. Fantasy, of the magical kind or the historical kind or the superbeing kind or any of a number of other kinds also serve to distract readers temporarily from the world they live in. The basic criticism that people are too much distracted and too little focused on the problems that the writers of the manifesto feel are most important applies most directly to these fantasy writers as well, but they were excluded in the manifesto. Instead of flying through space at superlight speeds, we have flying without power through the atmosphere, which is equally magical. It might even be more distracting, as it is more closely connected with our familiar social and physical environments. So the basic concept of too much distraction might be relevant, but it was not substantiated in any way. Are people, readers of these subgenres, likely to remain wholly disengaged with the world’s real problems, or the subset the manifesto’s authors singled out, or are they likely to be energized and optimistic about the future and therefore contribute to the solution of these problems? Without some data in this area, the conclusions of the manifesto authors are suspect.

Besides distraction, they objected to the use of magic in science fiction as it proposes to the readers that Earth’s problems might be unsolvable, but humanity can simply migrate to another Earth somewhere in the galaxy and start again, perhaps doing better this time. This was the second principal objection by the manifesto’s authors. This is like a second-order distraction, in that if some reader actually believed that new Earths would be found and migration would be possible, they would not be very interested in trying to solve Earth’s problems, but rather solving the problems associated with interstellar discovery, exploration and colonization. Further in this vein, if some readers felt that aliens might show up at any minute, thinking out how to deal with them might be more important that figuring out what to do about Earth’s problems.

The authors did not seem to be well-versed scientists who made a career change into science fiction writing and were incensed about the absurdity of these magic tricks, although perhaps one or two did fall into that category. The abasement of science to provide these wonders would have offended some scientists, but there was no indication in the manifesto or any of the writing that it inspired, over the course of a decade or so of interest, that this was a motivation for writing it. Instead, it appeared to be political activism, expressed in a very unique mode. Nothing can be said against the desire of the manifesto authors to motivate people to work on problems related to humanity’s continued existence here on Earth, but the method of motivation has a lot of missing details, both in the logic and in the supporting data.

Putting all that aside, the main idea of junking all this magic seems to be a good one. It is not going to happen, and the manifesto did not seem to have the slightest effect on curtailing novels and films being made exploiting it. As noted elsewhere in this blog, science fiction writers are in the business of writing what will sell the best, and utilizing the now-standard magic of FTL drives and other paraphernalia associated with it is a tried-and-true method of doing this. It is simply not going away until the readership tires of it, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, enthusiasm for such novels and films seems to be even increasing.

As for aliens, we can only agree that aliens can arrive here only after the most strenuous of voyages, and certainly can not do it for tourism. We cannot agree that studying aliens is a waste of time or a distraction, as understanding where they can live, how long they can survive, what their civilizations might be like, and how they might travel or communicate, can lead to insights about the very problems that they contend should be the principal topic of science fiction. Alienology, as defined here and in my book, is a subject with potentially signficant payoff in these areas, as has been detailed in this blog. In short, thinking about alien worlds allows one to consider variations of this one, which does lead back to understanding our own world and our own civilization better, from a different point of view. So, mundane science fiction has a couple of important overlaps with alienology, but at least one of them was completely missed by those who devised it.

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