I was recently fortunate enough to hear Steven Amsterdam talk about his novel Things We Didn’t See Coming. The novel itself is nominally a discontinuous narrative, a projection of short stories into the near future anticipating a world where Y2K actually did occur and began an onslaught of natural and unnatural disasters. However, Amsterdam’s focus is more on his central protagonist, and the catastrophic world is only glimpsed in the periphery; the character is the story, in effect.
Amsterdam mentioned at this talk how he read a disheartening review that described his novel as ‘mundane science fiction.’ What he then discovered was that this wasn’t a criticism, it was in fact acknowledgement of a recently established sub genre.
Mundane science fiction takes a more grounded approach to traditional sci-fi, quite literally basing many of the sub genres stories on Earth in a future where there isn’t really an abundance of technological marvels so much as a disappointment in where the future has left us. It abandons interstellar narratives and technology-inspired worlds for stories that reflect a growing disappointment that the future has not quite turned out how we expected it to be.
Canadian author Geoff Ryman helmed a Mundane Manifesto back in 2004, at a Clarion Workshop set up for new and aspiring science fiction writers. The Manifesto springboarded off the idea that nobody wrote about oil or ecology in science fiction anymore. In short, terrestrial narratives were disappearing in favour of extra-terrestrial narratives. Ryman and others established ideas like:
The dream of an abundant future has lead to a wasteful earth.
There is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe.
It also lists a series of SF tropes that are to form a ‘bonfire of stupidities’, including aliens, flying saucers, Area 51, translation devices, radio communication between star systems and so on. These stupidities are to be ‘set alight’. It’s all a bit of fun, acknowledged in the Manifesto, but simultaneously the authors are calling for a more realistic science fiction, akin to the disappointment a teenager feels upon leaving home for the first time and discovering responsibility, and conflict, and a world full of broken ideals.
This type of mundane science fiction isn’t new, though. 1984 clearly evokes many of the ideas and sentiments of the mundane, even if it didn’t appear so when first published. What has become fascinating actually, with 1984, is how unerringly realistic it becomes with every passing year, even if it didn’t make its deadline.
Books like Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Children of Men are clearly in the mundane vein, in that similarly to Amsterdam’s book, the science of the science fiction is pushed to the edges of the story. However, this is where I think the Mundane Manifesto becomes problematic.
These books and others – Never Let Me Go also comes to mind – clearly fulfill the obligations of what constitutes mundane SF, but they are just as likely to be called dystopian fiction, speculative fiction, post-apocalyptic, or even just straight soft-SF.
Have we got too many genres? There does seem to be an incessant need to label books, to classify them so that we know what box they belong in. And generally I’ve got no issue with that, but the mundane science fiction seems one step too far. From the texts mentioned above, and others either referenced in the Manifesto or implied by its standards, all of them could quite easily fit into pre-existing genres or sub genres. It’s not needed.
What it works really well as, though, is a descriptor. As in the science fiction aspect of the novel was really mundane. It’s still SF. It’s just SF that focuses on the mundanity of life, on the everyday, situated in a different day, a future day, an interstellar day, and so on. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is just about as mundane as it gets, while still essentially being straight SF. And Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky is, well, look at the title! (Both of these have been adapted by into excellent science fiction films that eschew the style and substance of ‘typical’ science fiction cinema.)
So where does that leave mundane science fiction? Necessary? Useless? There has been a trend – particularly in cinema – towards a more sombre, unimpressive science fiction lately, but perhaps that’s just the current sentiment. Genres typically reflect the psychology of the society, and we are living in one continually on edge about what the forecast may tell us. It makes sense for our fiction to mimic, explore and develop our fears and concerns into wondrously effective narratives.
I’m just not sure we needed another label.