Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Interzone's upcoming mundane issue: does this movement have any clothes?

Pretty amazing how a month and a half can slip by when you're distracted by details like work and parenthood and such. I've written a lot of beautiful long posts in my head and not bothered to sit down and type them in. So here's one I'm actually writing.

I noticed that Interzone has a forthcoming issue on mundane sci-fi. Though I am not interested in being restrained by any of the mundanistas' rules, I think this is a good thing. I also think it is fair to treat this as a bit of a put-up-or-shut-up moment for the movement. Or as Uncle Walt from Minnesota once put it, "Where's the beef?"

Imagine someone who knew nothing about genre fiction were to come along to me and say "I've heard that there is this movement called Singularity in science fiction. What's that all about?" I'd say, "Oh, check out Charles Stross' Accelerando, or anything by Vernor Vinge." What about that cyberpunk thing back in the '80s and '90s? Start with Gibson's Neuromancer, then move on to Bruce Sterling and Snow Crash. What about urban fantasy? Try Neil Gaiman's Nevewhere and China Mieville's King Rat. Slipstream? Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet has a whole new anthology out. Paranormal romance? Anne Rice would be the prototype, and I suppose Laurell K. Hamilton the modern exemplar, for better or worse. By reading one or two books from any of these authors you could very quickly get an idea if a movement of fiction interested you or not.

And, my subgenre exploring fantasy friend might ask next, what is this mundane sci-fi movement about? Well, I'd respond, there's this Wikipedia entry, see? And a blog. I think you can see the problem here.

From the bottom of the wiki page I linked to a magazine titled "The Courier - A Mundane SF ezine", to find a blog with three entries and a hit count that makes mine look good by comparison (that's bad). I scrolled down the mundane blog, which is actually a very good blog, to see if goatchurch has any references to any stories I should read. The first post (and only recent one that was about a story) referred to a novel by a woman named Sarah Hall, who won a recent literary prize with a near-future "literary" novel, that fits the mundane rules no doubt by accident. But he is not actually saying this is an exemplar of mundane sci-fi, but rather a warning of what could happen if people don't start writing the way he wants us to.

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.

Based on the description of Hall's novel, it would be fair to point out that it seems to occur within an already existing subgenre of literary fiction, the feminist dystopia/utopia that has been explored, among others, by Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time and of course Atwood in Handmaid's Tale. So goatchurch might be just a little alarmist about this.

But if he's not, and mundane sci-fi is the only thing that can save the whole genre, it's about time that we saw some stories to show for it. The Wiki says the movement was started in 2004, by Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd. I can't find the link for it but I understand this was the aspiration of the Clarion class from that year. That means an entire cohort of Clarion alumni has had more than three years to work on this concept by now. We should see mind-blowing mundane stories shooting up like fireworks left and right. I'm not saying they're not out there, but I haven't seen them.

Curiously enough, as it happens, I found a story that seems so far to fit all the mundane rules in one of the least predicted places, the opening of the January/February Analog. I think I got this back in October, according to their usual schedule (hey, it is a magazine about the future), but only forced myself to read it recently because I didn't have anything better to look at. In truth, Analog has a lot of stories that fill all the mundane checkboxes, which isn't surprising for a manifesto that is really just a string of negations. This story, "Marsbound" by Joe Haldeman, is about a family that is going to Mars because they won a lottery.

But I don't recommend that goatchurch run out and make the link just yet. In the first twenty pages of the three-part series, here's what happens: the narrator, a college-age daughter of the family, rides to the space elevator with her parents and brother. The kids secretly sneak some beer. The pilot of the spaceship that will be flying them there talks to the narrator, and he might be hitting on her, but probably not. She sees the earth from space. They play penny poker. A micrometeorite strike makes a small hole in the elevator ribbon, but it's okay because it gets fixed by ribbon repair robots (not nanos - check!). She starts to feel weightlessness. And lots of people have conversations about how space elevators work that are incredibly mind-numbing even for a geek like me. Let me just point out, as a person desperately trying to get the interest of a book agent, that if an unknown like myself sent an opening like this in a query it would get sent back with a form rejection so fast I wouldn't have to step away from the mailbox to pick it up, and rightfully so. Can anyone who is reading this really wonder why Analog's subscription rates are plummeting?

In the opening of Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City there is also a space elevator scene. But by the tenth page the cable gets blown up by a nuclear bomb, and the car's about to shoot off into space, leaving the hero to make a desperate escape. As believable? Hell no. More fun to read? Damn straight.

"Marsbound," of course, should not be taken as representative of mundane SF, since as far as I know Joe Haldeman has nothing to do with the movement. But until we start seeing some good stories under the movement label soon, stuff like this will be all they have. Within half a year or so, we'll see if the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out that the Courier only opened their doors a couple of days ago. I didn't look to see when the journal started, so that wasn't fair. My apologies.


Mary Robinette said...

In fairness to the Courier, they did just open their doors for business yesterday.

But I hear what you're saying.

D.N. Drake said...

Yeah, just opened shop.

In regards to your post, I personally think a lot of Mundane SF sympathizers are too harsh on non-mundane SF. I do think, however, that you are confused as to what mundane SF is.

Anthony Burgess and Philip K. Dick are two GOOD examples of mundane-sf (not all of their stuff, obviously). When they wrote it, it didn't have a name - does it need a name? maybe not, but it does have one now nonetheless.

Also, when I write, I don't always write Mundane. I often write surrealistic fiction, magical realism, and non-mundane SF. I like a lot of different styles, but Mundane SF seems like something worth investing some time into. I do believe this genre is going flat - just look at Baen's. The more I see of Anne McCaffrey and John Ringo the more I wish that stuff was classed under a different name.