Mundane SF 101

Author: 

Ritch Calvin

This 101 feature originally appeared as Ritch Calvin, “Mundane SF 101,” SFRA Review 289 (Summer 2009): 13–16. A PDF of this issue is available here.

What Is Mundane Science Fiction?

Much like cyberpunk, mundane science fiction is a form or subgenre of science fiction that is practiced by a small—though growing—number of science fiction writers. Just as the origins of (or codification of) cyberpunk can be placed with the publication the Mirrorshades anthology by Bruce Sterling, wherein he sets out the tenets or characteristics of cyberpunk and argues for the validity of the genre, the origins of (or codification of) mundane science fiction rests with Geoff Ryman, who "founded a small group of writers called the Mundanes" (Ryman, "Take" 1). The need for and the characteristics of mundane science fiction were codified in "The Mundane Manifesto" by Ryman and the Clarion West 2004 class of writers. They state in the opening line of the Manifesto that they are "pissed off and needing a tight girdle of discipline to restrain our sf imaginative silhouettes" (Ryman, "Mundane Manifesto" 4).

The Manifesto

"The Mundane Manifesto" was originally posted online, though it, contrary to all common wisdom about information made available on the Web, seems to have completely disappeared from cyberspace; only fragments of it remain. For example, a summarized version of it can be found at Wikipedia.com. Nevertheless, the Mundane Manifesto is reprinted in June 2007 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction (#226). The Manifesto is composed of four main parts. Part 1 asserts, in nine statements, that many of the familiar tropes, techniques, and technologies of science fiction are unrealistic, and therefore, should be avoided. The mundanes hold that faster-than-light travel, hospitable planets, intelligent aliens, interstellar trade, communication with alien species, and alternate universes all remain too far-fetched, too unrealistic to be of interest. Furthermore, the belief in, advocacy of, and employment of these devices lead us to turn away from—to escape from—the importance and immediacy of crises here on planet Earth. As they conclude, "the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet" (4). Although "mundane" is often taken to mean "banal" or "ordinary," it also denotes "of the world" (Ryman, "Geoff"; Kelly). Part 2, then, begins a list of "Stupidities" that have been created due to the improbabilities committed in part 1. The Stupidities include "alien invasions," "flying saucers," "devices that can translate any language," and slipping into alternate realities that differ from our own by small degrees. Part 3 acknowledges that the Stupidities have entertained and delighted many millions of readers and viewers; however, the mundanes assert that the destruction of those same Stupidities will be equally entertaining. Furthermore, they offer an "imaginative challenge" to science fiction authors to work from the standpoint that "Earth is all we have" (5). They contend that the (re)turn to the here and now will compel writers and readers to (re)awaken to the wonder and diversity of the Earth and to the dangers it currently faces. Lest the writer or reader think that such a move would eliminate the science from "science fiction," they argue that "robotics, virtual realities, enhanced genomes, nanotechnology, quantum mechanics" are all fertile grounds for mundane SF. Finally, part 4 sets out a number of "promises" by the mundanes. In these promises, they vow to create "a collection of mundane science fiction" that does not commit the "Stupidities" of science fiction, but to also have the freedom to write (stupid) science fiction, if they should choose to.

The Movements

Following the creation of the Manifesto, Ryman and others set out to make the case for mundane science fiction and to make it more visible. One strategy was to create a blog, Mundane-SF (http://mundane-sf.blogspot.com), which is subtitled, "Reviews and Science News (Caveat Lector: We Will Transform the Way You Think about SF)." Between November 2004 and June 2008, the blog was updated regularly. The posts by the five regular contributors to Mundane-SF consist of current science news (including news of the singularity, the antithesis of Mundanity); promo information on Ryman, mundane writers, and, especially, Interzone #216; analyses of the contents science fiction magazines, including Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, and others; and finally, defenses against attacks on mundane SF.

The Controversy

It should also be remembered that the trajectory and aims of mundane SF are not entirely new. For example, in 2000, sociologist Wayne Brekhus published "A Mundane Manifesto," in which he "calls for analytically interesting studies of the socially uninteresting." Brekhus continues, "I argue that the extraordinary draws disproportionate theoretical attention from researchers. This ultimately hinders theory development and distorts our picture of social reality. This manifesto paves the way for an explicit social science of the unmarked (mundane). It is hoped that a similar manifesto can be written for the humanities." Finally, he suggests, "Although there are many deviance journals to explicitly analyze socially unusual behavior there is no Journal of Mundane Behavior to explicitly analyze conformity." Thus, well before Ryman does so, Brekhus argues that the focus on the "extraordinary" shifts our focus away from the "ordinary" and, ultimately, blinds us to the immediacy of the here and now. Instead, he calls for an explicit turn to the immediate and the mundane.

Furthermore, an SF Web site called Futurismic: Near Future Science Fiction and Fact since 2001 (http://futurismic.com) also rejects out of hand many of the traditional forms of SF. The blog, like Mundane-SF, features science articles and essays on the effects of scientific discoveries on the human condition. According to the author guidelines, Futurismic rejects all fantasy, horror, and space opera, as well as offworld SF, distant futures, aliens, alternate histories, and time travel. Instead, they explicitly seek "mundane sf, post-cyberpunk sf, satirical/gonzo futurism, and realistic near future hard sf." So, as Abigail Nussbaum suggests, the changes demanded by the mundanes and occurring within other media are "aesthetic rather than ideological. [...] The Mundane SF manifesto [...] isn't spearheading a new movement in SF so much as describing a change already in effect and attaching ideological significance to it."

In the midst of these precursors and in the midst of larger changes, Ryman and the Clarion West writing class of 2004 produced their Manifesto. Just as cyberpunk, Mirrorshades, and Gibson and Sterling created a controversy, so too have mundane science fiction, Interzone #216, and Ryman. After the Manifesto was published, critics and criticism were swift and ranged from the well considered to the vitriolic. One of the first individuals to produce an extended commentary was Ian McDonald on his LiveJournal blog. There McDonald engages in a point-by-point response to the Manifesto, largely agreeing with many of the tenets (with occasional quibbles). His fundamental objection, however, much like Nussbaum's, is that a great deal of very good work (in a variety of media) is already being produced that fits the criteria of Mundanity, without any awareness of or need for a Manifesto. Similarly, in his column in Asimov's Science Fiction, James Patrick Kelly agrees with many of the tenets of mundane science fiction (MSF), but ultimately finds that too many of his favorites books and stories fall outside the tenets of MSF.

Rudy Rucker, on the other hand, is less sympathetic to the movement. Rucker produced his own "Transrealist Manifesto" in 1983, wherein, like the mundanes, Rucker rejects the "escapist" tendencies of science fiction. Instead, he argues for transrealism, in which "a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is" ("realism"). However, Rucker argues that the "Stupidities" of science fiction, namely "time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc.," "are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception, and, therefore, necessary components." In his rebuttal of the mundanes ("To Be or Not to Be"), Rucker also engages in a point-by-point refutation of the "implausibility" of FTL travel; he ultimately suggests that he is the antithesis of Mundanity. While writing a time travel novel well might be difficult (and too often falls into implausible traps), instead of rejecting it as an SFnal trope, Rucker "prefer[s] to continue searching for ways to be less and less Mundane" ("To Be" 19).

Nevertheless, the intent and purpose of the Mundane Manifesto was not the same as Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door, nor the same as Karl Marx's Manifesto. In fact, Ryman says that the Manifesto was "jokey" ("Third" 5)—though this was said three years later and after a great deal of vitriol—and never intended to be a "serious" statement, even though he considers writing fiction a "serious game" ("Third" 5). According to Ryman, if writers take up the challenge of Mundanity, if they are willing to adhere to its tenets and reject Stupidity, perhaps "something new [will come] out of it" ("Third" 5).

The Texts

The characteristics defined as mundane SF have long been around. In other words, SF that dealt specifically with planet Earth and the here and now existed long before the Manifesto. For example, Judith Merril's 1948 story, "That Only a Mother" focuses on a mother's love for her child and the near-future effects of radiation; Ann Warren Griffith's 1953 story, "Captive Audience," although set in 1984, extrapolates from advertising strategies, especially for women in the domestic setting. Furthermore, mundane science fiction also shares many characteristics with cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and near-future science fiction. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay suggests that cyberpunk "reverses the 'expansive mode' of a science fiction heading into outer space 'to show that human consciousness can contain the future'" (Botting 121). For example, William Gibson's novels depict a "near future urban" (Botting 121) landscape, and Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix represents (some of) the near-future effects of global capitalism. Not all cyberpunk, however, would fulfill the criteria of Mundanity. "Mozart in Mirrorshades" (1984), by Sterling and Lewis Shiner, postulates an alternative past reality and therefore would be excluded.

With both the British and the American New Wave, a core group of writers, publications, and texts could be identified. Certainly, people argued over that core, and some individuals and texts were included over protests and denials. Similarly, with cyberpunk, and core set of writers emerged over time. Again, some individuals were included by association, and some individuals denied their inclusion, but Sterling, Gibson, and Rudy Rucker (among others) were taken as givens. Mirrorshades, Neuromancer, and Wetware were considered canonical.

In the case of mundane SF, however, the core and the canon are less clear. The signers of the Manifesto, with the exception of Ryman, are anonymous. Mundane-SF lists a numbers of writers who may have "accidentally" committed mundane SF. They include Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Gregory Benford, Michael Bishop, Pat Cadigan, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, George Orwell, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, and Gene Wolfe (though it should be noted that all of these writers have also produced nonmundane works). The list also includes "newer" writers, including Ted Chiang, Cory Doctorow, Maureen McHugh, and Geoff Ryman. While many of these writers are associated with earlier movements, at least some of their work fulfills, to varying degrees, the characteristics of MSF.

Developing a canon of mundane SF is also difficult. Certainly, Interzone #216 is intended to be a foundational text. In his introduction to the issue, Ryman reiterates and clarifies his vision for mundane SF. In her analysis of the special issue, Niall Harrison examines each of the stories therein and determines that on the whole, Interzone #216 does not make "a convincing case for mundane sf." According to Harrison, if mundane SF is intended to "reinvigorate our thinking about the future," then, ironically, Interzone #216 "isn't so much about looking forwards and thinking about change as it is about coming to terms." Nevertheless, Interzone includes stories by veterans such as Ryman, Élisabeth Vonarburg, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and relative newcomers Lavie Tidhar, Billie Aul, R. R. Angell, and Anil Menon.

One of the features on Mundane-SF was called "mundanespotting," in which "frankh" would—sporadically—examine the short new fiction published by SF magazines and read them for Mundanity. From "his" "mundanespotting" posts, a list of mundane writers (whether intentional or accidental) emerges, including John McDaid, Michael Burstein, Jeffery Kooistra, Susan Palwick, Bruce McAllister, J. R. Dunn, Jeff Carlson, Carl Frederick, A. R. Morlan, Greg Rollins, S. L. Gilbow, Jay Lake, G. D. Leming, Wil McCarthy, Charles, Midwinter, David Marusek, and Jason Stoddard. A number of established writers appear as well, including Maureen McHugh, Gwyneth Jones, Ben Bova, Jack Dann, Nancy Kress, Bruce Sterling, and Elizabeth Bear.

Finally, a number of novels fit into the mundane classification. In one of the earlier examples of MSF, and certainly written well before the Manifesto, is Maureen McHugh's 1999 novel, China Mountain Zhang. Nussbaum, commenting of several recent MSF novels, writes, "they take place on or around Earth, in societies largely the same as our own, and their scientific MacGuffins are suitably 'believable.'" The blogger Mandolin suggests that McHugh employs "many fascinating science fictional elements—future homophobia, America's loss of primacy as a global power, the colonization of Mars, people who can use technology to have flying races" that "function as the background in service to the main characters' more mundane problems. How can people learn to be happy with each other? How can a gay man, isolated and displaced, find his place in the world? The backdrops are Mars and a decaying future, but the problems are timeless." While much of the novel is Earth centered, the subplot of a Mars colony would compel MSF purists to discount the novel.

In 2004, or 0001 in the Year of the Manifesto, the mundane progenitor published Air; Or, Have Not Have. Although it is often categorized as such, Ryman himself contends that Air should not be taken an example of MSF. In an interview with Carolyn Hill, Ryman says that Air was begun before the articulation of the Manifesto (qtd. in Chiang 211). Instead, he calls it "Mundane fantasy" (211). Nevertheless, the novel does adhere to many of the MSF tenets. It examines the impact of a new technology on a small, remote village. While the novel does appear to be near future, and while it does appear to be Earth-based, the "Air technology" offered in the novel is not scientifically based, thereby rendering the novel outside the realm of MSF.

In Elizabeth Moon's novel Speed of Dark (2003), she examines notions of normalcy and modes of seeing the world. In a near-future setting, her protagonist is an autistic pattern recognitionist (shades of William Gibson). When a new technology enables a "cure" for autism, the protagonist ponders the effects on his self, his identity, and his way of apprehending the world. As the blogger Nyssa notes: "Moon's novel shows that there are many situations and issues that are relevant to our lives that can be explored. Even though Mr. Crenshaw is a cardboard cutout of the greedy businessman who has no regard for human life, the fact remains that people like him exists in reality who can cause real harm to real people."

Ian McDonald's River of Gods was first published in 2006. Set in the near future (2047, one hundred years after Independence), the novel posits the genetically engineered as part of a separate caste. In India, they struggle over access to natural resources (water) and struggle against the development of full AIs. In all of these elements, the novel seems to fit into the criteria of MSF. McDonald calls it "accidental" MSF, in part because he wrote the novel without any awareness of such a movement or manifesto.

In 2007, Charles Stross published his novel, Halting State. According to an interview on SciFi.com, Stross contends that "the novel started off as a piece of stunt writing, but he found it fit in within the 'mundane' definition of SF" (Adams). Stross continues, "That is, [it's] only got one piece of not-currently-existing tech in it, and it's one in which large amounts of research money [are] being spent right now because it is actually possible" (qtd. in Adams). Also set in the near future (2012), the economic machinations and power struggles are all too familiar, and the technological innovations are all predicated on current scientific research.

Geoff Ryman makes it clear the he and the mundanes never intended for MSF to completely supplant SF. In the original Manifesto, they pledge "Not to let Mundanity cramp their style if they want to write like Edgar Rice Burroughs as well" (Ryman, "Mundane Manifesto"). Rather, the Mundane Manifesto sets out a number of strategies and criteria that signal a (re)turn to Earth and to the here and now. In this, MSF shares traits with both the New Wave and cyberpunk. MSF taps into the political, social, scientific, and literary zeitgeist and creates a set of aesthetic criteria (though I would disagree with Nussbaum and suggest that the aesthetic is grounded in ideology). The extent to which Mundanity affects the larger field of SF remains to be seen. After all, the mundanes themselves vow "To burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring."

Works Cited

Adams, John Joseph. "Halting State Is Mundane." SciFi.com. 30 Nov. 2006. 10 June 2009. http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?id=39000.

Brekhus, Wayne. "A Mundane Manifesto." Journal of Mundane Behavior. 2000. 3 June 2009. http://www.mundanebehavior.org/issues/v1n1/brekhus.htm.

Botting, Fred. "'Monsters of the Imagination': Gothic, Science, Fiction." A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. David Seed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 111–26.

Chiang, Ted. "Is Air Mundane?" Extrapolation 49.2 (Summer 2009): 211–13.

Futurismic. 2009. 2 June 2009. http://futurismic.com.

Griffith, Anne Warren. "Captive Audience." The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Third Series. Ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954. 197–212.

Harrison, Niall. "Mundanezone." Torque Control. 23 May 2008. 2 June 2009. http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/mundanezone.

Kelly, James Patrick. "On the Net: Mundane." Asimov's Science Fiction. 2007. 2 June 2009. http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0801/Onthenet.shtml.

McDonald, Ian. "Heads Down, There's Going to Be Incoming..." LiveJournal, 27 May 2005. 1 June 2009. http://ianmcdonald.livejournal.com/2378.html.

———. River of Gods. New York: Pyr, 2006.

McHugh, Maureen. China Mountain Zhang. New York: Tor, 1999.

Merrill, Judith. "That Only a Mother." Women of Wonder: The Classic Years. Ed. Pamela Sargent. San Diego: Harvest, 1995. 65–73.

Moon, Elizabeth. Speed of Dark. New York: Ballantine, 2003.

Mundane-SF. 2008. 1 June 2009. http://mundane-sf.blogspot.com.

Nussbbaum, Abigail. "It's Almost Obligatory: Mundane SF." Asking the Wrong Questions. 2 November 2005. 2 June 2009. http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/2005/11/its-almost-obligatory-mundane....

Nyssa. "The Speed of Dark and Mundane SF." Nexus Archives. 7 May 2008. 10 June 2009. http://nshadowsong.wordpress.com/2008/05/07/the-speed-of-dark-and-mundan....

Rucker, Rudy. "To Be or Not to Be: Mundane SF." New York Review of Science Fiction 230 (October 2006): 18–19. Also available, with illustrations, at. http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/2007/07/15/on-mundane-sf/.

———. "A Transrealist Manifesto." A Writer's Toolkit by Rudy Rucker. 2 June 2009. http://www.rudyrucker.com/pdf/transrealistmanifesto.pdf.

Ryman, Geoff. Air: Or, Nave Not Have. New York: Griffin, 2004.

———. "Geoff Ryman Interviewed by Kit Reed." Infinity Plus 1 June 2009. http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/intrg.htm.

———. "Interview." Front Row BBC Radio 4. 2 May 2008. http://www.freesteel.co.uk/pdf/mundanefrontrow.mp3.

———. "Mundane-SF." Interzone #216 (June 2008): 6.

———. "The Mundane Manifesto." New York Review of Science Fiction 226 (June 2006): 4–5.

———. "Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning!" New York Review of Science Fiction 226 (June 2006): 1, 4–7.

Sterling, Bruce. Schismatrix. New York: Arbor House, 1985.

——— and Lewis Shiner. "Mozart in Mirrorshades." Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Ace, 1988. 223–46.

Stross, Charles. Halting State. New York: Ace, 2007.