Thursday, December 6, 2007

PKD mundane?

D.N. Drake of The Courier: The Mundane Science Fiction Ezine responded in my comments to my previous post. I was happy to get any readers at all, and he was quite polite about my unfair dismissal of his just-created journal. He did suggest that I was "confused as to what mundane SF is." He also suggested that Anthony Burgess and Phillip K. Dick were examples of two good mundane sci-fi writers ("not all of their stuff, obviously.")

My first snarky response to the suggestion that I was confused about what mundane is would be to say "and until I actually see an example of it, how couldn't I be?" But Drake's comment was very measured and civil, and I'd like to be as well.

I think that part of what Drake meant, perhaps, was that mundane sci-fi is not just "a list of negations," as I overheatedly put it. The idea behind mundane sci-fi also involves a very strong social consciousness. Mundane sci-fi should at least suggest at ways to live on our planet into the next few centuries if warp drives, nanotech and personality uploads don't bail us out. Regardless of my aesthetic judgements, I couldn't agree more that we need to start thinking about how to live responsibility with the technology we have rather than expect that some future tech will come along and save us. For example, we continue to irresponsibly blow the tops off mountains for coal and drive 17 mpg three-ton behemoths around, assuming it will be okay because nuclear fusion and fuel cell cars are just around the corner. Only problem is, those technologies have been twenty years down the road since the late '50s, and the goalposts keep retreating.

I think the social consciousness issue is why Drake suggested PKD as a possible model for mundane sci-fi. (I don't think it's fair to draft dead authors into your movement, except in the sense of "we want to write like x.") It can't have been primarily about "the rules," so to speak. Clearly Dick's deskside toolchest featured a number of mundane no-nos, including strong AI, alien intelligences, interstellar travel (FTL is never specified, but Palmer Eldritch travels to faraway places too fast for it to be any other way), and flat-out unapologetic psychic-power mumbo-jumbo. A lot of the other mundane taboos, like personality uploads or nanotech, hadn't really been thought up back then, but if they had I'm sure he'd have toyed around with them too. When he wrote a story that contained none of these, it was probably more of a coincidence than a conscious decision. Technical implausibility, a major deal-killer both for mundane sci-fi and in the sci-fi world in general today, just wasn't really that important to Dick (or a lot of other great authors in his time). He was thinking more in the classic spec-fic mode of "what would people act like if we could do x?"

But, and this is where he was different back then, PKD chose to write about the Starship Academy rejects, the losers left behind on the wreck of the planet after eveyone else had hopped off to stars unknown. And he made it very clear that by then we'd have f***d the place up but good. The world of "Androids Dream" is so radioactive people have to wear lead underwear to keep their sperm alive, while in "Three Stigmata" the world is prophetically overheating (and this as far as I know is years before anyone mentioned the greenhouse effect).

So one could argue that he had a very mundane POV even when his stories weren't technically mundane. Which is fair enough, but if you're going to do take that attitude you might have to expand what mundane sci-fi is about, and make it less a list of things you can't do and more about what you're trying to do with your story.

I agree with Julian Todd & Geoff Ryman that sci-fi today needs a kick in the ass. But they seem to feel that it's because most sci-fi authors today see a problem and wave their artifically intelligent nanotech time-travel magic wand and fix it. It's true that really bad authors do that. But any really good authors understand that new tech fixes some problems and creates others. For example, the issue of the rights of replicants in "Androids." In Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitors universe, nanotech fixes a lot of problems, but it also makes possible the horror of the Melding Plague, forcing many people to abandon it.

There's plenty of examples of that in the real world. The success of antibiotics against bacterial infections would have seemed like science fiction a century ago. But as a result of overuse we're getting antibiotic resistant bacteria. The availability of food today, at least in western nations, means that even the poorest people in countries like ours won't die because they can't get enough calories. But as a result many poor people end up being both overwieght and malnourished from bad diets, while being slender is something that wealthy aspire to. If PKD had been alive a few centuries ago, I could see him having predicted this.

So what kind of new injustices would we have if we did have interstellar travel, or personality uploads? It wouldn't be mundande sci-fi, but it could be just as socially conscious. Look at how H.G. Wells turned imperialism on its head with "War of the Worlds."

And if mundane sci-fi has a carrot as well as a stick, perhaps its proponents could shift the emphasis. Maybe more people would want to write mundane stories if there was more talk on what the stories should be about, and less about what they shouldn't. I think I would.

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