ianmcdonald (ianmcdonald) wrote,
ianmcdonald
ianmcdonald

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Heads down, there's going to be incoming...

This is going to be long, so bear with me, o best beloved.

So, who is Ian McDonald and why is he saying such terrible things about ‘mundane sf’? (Such a bloodless title for something that purports to be about producing ‘better science fiction’. At least cyberpunk sounded funky, and the New Weird automatically begs the question, what was wrong with the Old Weird? Does weird have a half-life?)

I presume this suggestion that perhaps I don’t sufficiently understand the dogme stems from my talk at the BSFA AGM. Now, as then, all I can do is base my comments on the Mundane Manifesto. Now, this may be misguided of me, perhaps MSF (not Medecins Sans Frontieres) is based as much upon the Ulama as the Koran.

Now, first up: I have no intention whatsoever of slagging offJeff Ryman, one of our most inspiring, thoughtful and graceful writers. If he wants to start a movement that shifts copy, fair play to him. Dammit, I wish I’d thought of it first (is it too late to start a high-profile parallel movement called something like ‘World-Sf’ that will sell by the store-front?)

Certainly, most movements in SF are born out of reaction, and I welcome the this-worldly focus of the MSF manifesto as the antidote to big-fuck-off-spaceships-with-lots-of-windows SF and (much worse) military/imperial sf with its creative taproot deep in Gene Roddenberry. As Wide-screen space opera (to use Gardner Dozois’ phrase, which is clunky but no one’s come up with a pithier one) was a reaction to end-phase wannabe cyberpunk.

Here’s the dogme:

That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.
(No argument from me on that one)

That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.
(Doesn’t logically follow: cart before horse argument.)

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.
(Couldn’t agree more. Use up this planet, throw it out and move on to another.)

That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence -- however, it is unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.
(Why is this ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ than not applied to the quantum effect point below?)

That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.
(Quite agree. Whatever kind of humanity make sit into interstellar space is not going to be like us. It’s needs and ecological niche will be very different –so, alas, no Polesotechnic League, no Firefly, (I’ve always had an intellectual beef with Interstaller Traders –what commodity could be so valuable as to justify the cost of shipping it across parsecs? Norman Spinrad, of course, had it right –drugs) no Imperial Star Destroyers. (dammit)

That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens.
(So, mathematics is not a universal language? )

That there is no evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited.
(See above. Depends on your interpretation of quantum theory (see David Deutsch The Fabric of Reality for a robust statement of the many worlds interpretation) –any one of the major three approaches means the universe (or multiverse) is stranger than we can imagine. And unlikelihood is the very essence of quantum theory. Further, I await the outcome of experiments to superpose viruses. )

That therefore our most likely future is on this planet and within this solar system. It is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous, and unprofitable.
(Fully agreed)

That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.
(Depends how far forward you look. And this, along with the first statement, is an a priori of sf as essentially a realist genre concerned primarily with the short-term future that can be extrapolated from current trends. The near future is increasingly the area in which I find myself writing It’s the differences, that interest me, the unlikelihoods, that make it interesting. If we confine ourselves only to the most likely near-future, does MSF run the risk of becoming almost a shared-world anthology, a future history?

A little thought experiment: if this manifesto had existed in the 1950s,how closely would its SF resemble the world as it exists today (if it had existed at all, remembering that the Post-nuclear holocaust story was a major sub-genre –though not one for which I had much time)

Then there’s the question of cut-off –at what point does the likely future become so clouded that the manifesto fails? Twenty years, fifty years, hundred years? Ten years, five years?

Certainly, MSF’s firm focus on evolving technology and geopolitics as they are happening now is to be cheered and ticker-taped, and the whole idea of what this means to a life, to a person, to people.

All this is here:
*'A new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.
The awakening bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate the beauties of this Earth and its people and what will happen to them in time.
The relief of focusing on what science tells us is likely rather than what is almost impossible such as warp drives. The relief will come from a sense of being honest.
An awakening sense of the awesome power of human beings: to protect or even increase their local patrimony ... or destroy it. '
(Amen to that. )

So what’s my complaint?
This:
The number of great writers or movies which independently work within these guidelines, indicating that the Mundane Manifesto produces better science fiction.

Now, of course this is grit in the oyster and it’s always good to stimulate debate , but I can argue against it from the inside.

Because I may have accidentally committed MSF.

I have a book out at the moment River of Gods, from Simon and Schuster/Pocket (funky mass-market cover, looks like an Indian Underwear ad). It’s set in near-future India (2047, hundredth anniversary of independence), it’s been kindly received by all you good good people and got some award nominations, including, gob-smackingly, a Hugo nomination. Most readers would agree that it ticks the boxes of Mundane SF. Even more so my recent Asimov’s spin-off story The Little Goddess.

But I wrote all this without knowing of the Mundane Manifesto, let alone that such a movement existed, and certainly without having read a single word of the dogme. If I had, it would have been much worse a book for it. For at one level you can call such a dogme creative constraint. At another it’s box ticking. Ignorance, in my case, was bliss. And I wish I was ignorant again, because I don’t want those boxes there, to either have to tick or ignore. The real creative freedom is the constraint of writing the book you want to write, nothing more. And that can be very very hard in as small and communicative a world as SF

Will I then be co-opted against my will, like being converted to Mormonism after your death? (How unfair is that? Now you really can’t win).

It’s not just the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce the type of science-fiction it celebrates (one very very much worth celebrating, and that is due it’s time in the sun) , it’s that the genre has a much richer palate of colours. It’s a poor manifesto that would venerate Verne (tech-speculation) but consigns much of H.G. Wells’ core texts to the ‘bonfire of stupidities’ (interplanetary war, aliens, time-travel…). To me, one of the strengths of SF is that it is an allegorical literature: parables and myths of our age. That TV has appropriated and devalued many of them is tribute to their strength, not their weakness. To me, any literature that writes about the future (not all SF does by any means) cannot be realist…, to quote likelihood of a possible future is just hand waving.

I tend not to write about big space-ships, interstellar travel (in my work, it tends to be uncomfortable and very very slow) or aliens. In this way, my work may seem to fit the Mundane Manifesto. But when I need to, I will use those colours to make the allegorical point I want. In Sacrifice of Fools I used the alien Shian in a pastiche of the movie Alien Nation (great premise, shit movie –just another stupid drugs film, eventually) because they were the most effective tool to satirise my own country of Northern Ireland. Had I applied the dogme of MSF, I fear it would have become a dull, tendentious, grim and worthy chunk of urban grime. (of course, you may very well think this about SoF anyway)

Finally, we all know that we rarely invent anything new, but when we do, it should be celebrated. It seems to me that MSF isn’t doing anything that John Brunner didn’t do thirty years ago in Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Jagged Orbit and the Shockwave Rider. Cyberpunk gave us a new vocabulary and interior décor –if in the end it subsided into self-parody, such is the way of movements. MSF inherently seems reactionary (reactionary against a reactionary sub-genre, Wide Screen Space Opera) but also that it isn’t telling us anything we didn’t know already.

SF is a rich repository of mythic types, including its ‘stupidities’. SF is developing into a global literature –I’m excited by new Indian and Chinese writers and the collision between our existing tropes –all of them—and these rapidly developing societies promises a richer (better) SF than one tied to the dogme of MSF.

Basically, my experience has been that the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce better science fiction. World-SF, anyone?
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