Friday, May 27, 2005

Muggle SF

The brilliant and talented Ian McDonald has started a blog, wherein he recently responds to the equally talented and brilliant Geoff Ryman's Mundane SF manifesto.

For those who came in late, the Mundanes hold:

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.

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.

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

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.

That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.

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.

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.

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.

That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.

Now while I applaud the Mundaners their laudable concern for our own little blue marble, I believe that it is way-dangerous to make predictions that close the book on hitherto undiscovered technologies. This seems naive even without having to invoke the famous Charles Duell patent office legend. Nor, last I checked, has the jury yet come in on the multiverse. (See, for instance, physicist & science writer Michio Kaku's recent work, Parallel Worlds.)

Leaving aside these quibbles, they are partially correct in their criticisms of past and contemporary "Wide Screen Space Opera," as Ian concedes when he writes, "Whatever kind of humanity makes it into interstellar space is not going to be like us. It’s needs and ecological niche will be very different."

Claiming that we can't make it into space ever, at all, in any way, shape or form, however, is very different from asserting that we can not make it as we are now. The Mundanders seem, then, to be arguing a focus on near-future extrapolation vs. far future vision.

But Ian further comments, "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?"


In the introduction to my 2003 anthology, Live Without a Net, entitled "Disengaging from the Matrix" I argued against what I perceived at the time as an apparent bottleneck in our speculative futures. I wrote then that, "one has only to read Wired magazine and Scientific American with any regularity to see that some form of that Gibsonian existence is barreling down upon us with ever-increasing speed. As advances in computerization, miniaturization, and neural interfacing are being made every day, it becomes increasingly hard for writers of speculative fiction to imagine near-future scenarios that do not contain at least some of the tropes of cyberfiction. "

Now, the anthology was a long time in the making, and I was really writing from a cusp-of-the- millennium perspective, talking largely about an American-only SF scene that seemed obsessed with VR simulations and post-cyberpunk and which had yet to embrace the New Space Opera, the full importance of the Vingian Singularity, the New Weird, et al. to the degree that swiftly followed. But I still hold that a restriction of imagination for whatever reason - whether internally imposed or externally compelled - is an undesirable thing.

Charles Stross makes the very good point in his comment wherein he says that "declaring that certain technologies are almost certainly not going to happen therefore we shouldn't consider the consequences of them is almost certainly about as wrong-headed as you can get..."

I think that the problem stems in part from the fact that science fiction has evolved to fulfill multiple roles, and each successive movement or manifesto that comes along seems to section off one of them in isolation from or opposition to the rest.

If I may...

Science fiction can serve as an actual communicator of science and the scientific worldview. As such, it may employ the rigorous application of current scientific principals, but it need not do so in order to communicate a general sense of the value of a rational (verses a superstitious) world view. (I would suggest that this is an increasingly-important function in America's current political climate. Intelligent Design anyone?)

Science fiction can serve as allegory, as social criticism, as a lens for examining the present by casting it in the future. As such it can employ loose or rigorous extrapolation, though it is not by any means obligated to do so and its extrapolation may be exaggerated for satirical effect. (Again, see parenthetical above as to the current importance of this aspect of SF.)

Science fiction can serve as predictor, as prognosticator of the future. As such it generally strives for rigorous scientific extrapolation, and as such, it is generally wrong. That it is often wrong is not the point. (And it is sometimes right!) But in that it serves as a community of forward-looking individuals in part dedicated to the idea that technology creates social change and to the examination of the ramifications of each new technological potentiality in advance of its actual development and implementation is value in and of itself. (A value which, one wishes, was paid more attention in light of the absurdity of certain Congressional debates on stem cell research and cloning. The work has already been done for you folks. If you only paid attention...)

Science fiction can serve as catalyst for the future. The number of SFnal devices that were later created by enthusiastic engineers and inventors is too numerous to list here, though examples range from Clarke's communication satellites to Captain Kirk's cellphone to Geordi LeForge's visor. The website Technovelgy is a good start for some contemporary examples. (In this regard, it seems clear that even bad science fiction can serve as the catalyst for invention.)

Finally, yes folks, science fiction can serve as entertainment. And that may be my most strenuous objection with the Mundaners. They seem to have forgotten that it's okay to have fun. (And in an age where science fiction literature is loosing rapid ground to its less-informed cinematic counterpart, sacrificing SF's entertainment value may be cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. It is certainly counter-productive to communicating one's message.)

I think I'm fine with any movement that seeks to describe one aspect of science fiction however they want, but I'm opposed to any movement that seeks to proscribe for the rest of us. And in closing, I want to summarize with a quote by Arthur C. Clarke who wrote, years ago, that "the limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible." Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, I think we should all strive to believe three impossible things before breakfast. Maybe by lunch, one of them won't look so improbable after all. And by dinner time, it might even be a reality. And if not, we were still guaranteed an interesting day.


razorsmile said...

Extremely timely and accurate post. It's like all the Singularitypunk is drawing from the same fifteen or so pieces of tech (Matrioshka this, strongly superhuman that).

What people keep forgetting is that there have always been and will always be movements; one after the other after the other, eating each other's entrails and releasing the resultant droppings into the wild.

It's just not as big a deal as the manifesto types are making of it.

Lou Anders said...

I think cynically that it won't be a big deal at all outside of a very small pool. Imagine for a moment what a different world if Speilberg & Lucas et al. spent their time working up manifesto's to impact the genre and improve the world...

Hal Duncan said...

"...if Speilberg & Lucas et al. spent their time working up manifesto's..."

Lucas? If only. Maybe it would stop him from spending his time pissing all over my childhood dreams.

Lou Anders said...

Heading out to see him piss later today.

Trent Walters said...

Lou, I responded here:

Lou Anders said...

Hi Trent,
FYI - I was aware of the aspect of humor in the manifesto, but as you point out, humor can be serious....

For what it's worth, I'm enjoying all this discussion.

Daniel said...

This manifesto has got me rattled. Is hard sf the only real sf? These types of arguments get to me cause I can't tell hard sf from anything else anymore. I think Neal Asher is fun, but is he completely off the mark with his stuff? And do you have to have a degree in science to write an entertaining sf story?
My incoherent thoughts on this on my blog.
By the way Lou, I've been meaning to pick up Live Without a Net for sometime now. At the risk of sounding stupid and insulting, do you consider the stories to be Hard SF?

DWBarker said...

They aren't dead serious about this. They promise to "Not to let Mundanity cramp their style if they want to write like Edgar Rice Burroughs as well" and "To burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring." Anything yet?

But it's still silly. College residence common room, rabid Mac users thinking too hard, just plain silly.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Daniel,
One reviewer called Live without a Net "pure quill SF", and I find myself using that description repeatedly. Not everything in the anthology is hard sf, though the majority of it is. I'm very proud of it though, so if you do pick it up, please let me know your thoughts.

Lou Anders said...

although they are tongue-in-cheek in their manifesto, their subsequent postings etc... invite a more serious response.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic thoughts on the genre and the manifesto! I found your blog by googling your name after reading that great interview you did with China MIÉVILLE.

I agree with so much of what you've written. My only quibble is to put the 'entertainment' point first. When I pick up a book, if it looks like it's going to be a fun read, I read it. Sometimes I'll slog through something that's not so entertaining, but generally I save the hair shirt readings for nonfiction.

You're hope that the ripping yarn can be mixed with the social commentary ala Moby Dick is exactly right on and renders these manifestos irrelevant in my opinion. That said, my opinion ain't worth much. The Dogma manifesto lead to some interesting work. Anything that is done by people passionate about the genre can probably only serve it in the long run.

I see these manifestos and countless other opinions about what SF should be the same way I see religions. If it works for you, then by all means, write some kickass SF that follows every rule you make for it. If it doesn't, then write something entertaining and compelling that breaks the rules. As a reader, I don't care what you're doing, just as long as you have reasons for what you do and they make the story good.

Lou Anders said...

Hey Sean,
I'm pleased you liked the China interview. I'm doing another interview next week with musician Robyn Hitchcock, though I don't have a pub. date from the Believer for that one yet.

I put "entertainment" last partially because it's so subjective (though vital). Sometimes, immersing myself in dry, academic discussions of SF is great fun. I do think China is just about the most important genre writer to come along in decades. He himself has said to me that he finds movements are always described after the fact, not by those in the heart of them, though he said this before he and M. John Harrison proclaimed the "New Weird." Personally, I've always suspected that was a joke that ran away from them. And I'm not unmindful of the tongue-in-cheek nature of some of what the Mundanes are saying.

Again, setting goals for your own writing, great. Setting limits on someone else's. Not good.

Daniel said...

Robyn Hitchcock? Saw him in Toronto a few years ago with the reunited...Soft Boys? He's an entertaining guitarist. His fingers are always dancing on the neck, even when not hitting any notes.
Lou, like I said I would, I FINALLY picked up Live Without A Net. Only 4 or 5 stories in so far and it's flooring me. Honestly, I feel it should be required reading for aspiring SF writers. Another title could easily have been "Think outside the box". Eventually, once I'm done, I'll probably post some thoughts on each story on my blog. I know the books been around for 2 or 3 years, but... I got a Blog, might as well use it. Maybe someone will read it and check out the book.


Lou Anders said...

First, I'm very gratified you are enjoying Live without a Net. By all means tell me if you do post, and let me know your final thoughts either way. I'm very proud of the book and glad that it is continuing to send out ripples.

Second, yes it was indeed the Soft Boys. I missed that tour, so have not seen him reunited with his old band for the first time in 20 years and am way jealous. I have seen Hitchcock (with or sans the Egyptians) about 20 times, in LA, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco) though, and he's always amazing. I used to live just outside of (LA-standard) walking distance from Largo on Fairfax in West Hollywood, and Robyn would play there (often unannounced) with friends. Those shows, when he wasn't pushing a CD and was just goofing off, were among the very best.