Tuesday, January 08, 2008


I spent much of the year past working on The Quiet War, a space opera novel set on and around the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and I’ve just finished the first thirty pages of a similar project, Outer Dark, which moves the history begun in The Quiet War forward across some twenty-odd years. In the past couple of years, while I’ve been planning and writing The Quiet War, I’ve noticed during that time that a certain small-c conservative chill has crept across the SF field. The Mundane SF movement is one obvious symptom, but there are many others, adding up to a kind of retreat from SF’s usual concerns (most notably, as far as I’m concerned, a cynicism about the likelihood of colonisation or even human exploration of the Moon and other planets), and a crisis in self-confidence about the genre’s best-known tropes.

Has SF lost its grip on the future? Is so-called mainstream fiction making better use of SF’s tropes? Should SF be exclusively concerned with ‘reality’ and ‘realistic’ extrapolations - things that are possible from our point of view here in the last quarter of the first decade of the twenty-first century? As far as I’m concerned, maybe, no, and definitely not. I’m not against near-future ‘realistic’ SF (hell, I’ve written plenty), or the idea of Mundane SF per se, and I’m looking forward to the Mundane SF edition of Interzone guest-edited by Geoff Ryman. But I do have severe doubts about its claim that it is The Only Way Forward, and all other forms of SF are irrelevant, foolish or even dangerous.

Here are a few principles that have informed the construction of The Quiet War and Outer Dark:

1) SF’s principal strength is not realism; it’s one part internal consistency, two parts imagination, and three parts self-belief.
2) SF isn’t only about known knowns and known unknowns; it’s also about unknown knowns. Given that two hundred years ago most people in Europe were peasants relying on human and animal muscle power to get their work done, why do many SF writers insist that in two hundred years technology will not be radically different from present technology? Let’s face it, who in the SF field fifty years ago saw cell phones coming? Or the PC and the Internet?
3) The future will almost certainly not be dominated by the USA and freemarket capitalism.
4) Self-interest is a poor driver in any society, yet it’s the only motivating force for characters in too many recent SF novels
5) It’s possible to imagine SF heroes other than freebooting entrepreneurs. I mean, the dot.com boom is so over.
6) It’s possible to imagine a society where science is the dominant driving force of the economy and science and the arts are the main occupations of the population.
7) What will really happen if our children are smarter and kinder than us?
8) True AI is less likely than a manned landing on Mars.
9) Most moons in the Solar System are made of water-ice; with a little power, you have all the water and oxygen you need.
10) We know a lot more about closed-system ecosystems than we did in the 1970s, when O’Neill colonies were first proposed. And we have better vision of the architecture and material science of the future, too
11) Colonisation of space will not be driven by self-interest or the profit-motive.
12) History teaches us that history doesn’t teach us anything. Laboured comparisons between the present and past events are pointless. The future will have its own agenda.


Blogger Chris Roberson said...


January 09, 2008 12:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a somewhat confusing post. You say that SF should definitely not "be exclusively concerned with ‘reality’ and ‘realistic’ extrapolations - things that are possible from our point of view here in the last quarter of the first decade of the twenty-first century". And then go on to argue that the exclusion of lots of tropes of SF ought not to occur since for all we know these things are possible, in other words possible.

Argument structure-

SF should not be about what is possible from our point of view.
Our point of view when given proper consideration (e.g. when we consider that technology changes quickly) is one where popular tropes are possible.
SF should be about these tropes.
But these tropes are possible, so first premise was false.

January 09, 2008 8:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The more the Mundanes bang on, the more I want to write stuff they'd really hate. Looking forward to The Quiet War, in any case...

January 09, 2008 11:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keith, maybe I should have written 'things that we believe are possible' or 'things that fall inside the range of what we believe to be possible'. I didn't mean to suggest that we should believe six different impossible things before breakfast, or that SF should be about impossible rather than possible things.

But I definitely meant that SF should not be straightjacketed by what we currently know. Because, currently, we don't know everything.

Are you a Martin Amis fan, by the way?

January 09, 2008 9:09 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Oops, the above comment was me. My bad (blast this new blogger comment id whatsit).

January 09, 2008 9:12 pm  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Fine points, Paul, well-made.

The Mundanes' polemical stance reminds me oddly of many trad-sf responses when the New Wave broke across multiple shores forty or so (no! can't be!) years ago. SF is one thing, and can't be anything else; writers of the anythings else were putting SF at risk. (And there were risks -- you could take your life in your hands reading Malzberg too close to a Dorsai fan!)

Of course the real precursor to the Mundanes' adamance is John W. Campbell -- this is what SF is, and this is the only thing SF readers want (or should be allowed to have.)

Sad and, sadly, limiting -- the one thing serious SF writers should never have to face. Particularly when those limits are clearly derived from a world-view that, whatever its appeals and, um, limitations, remains just that: this is the way we see the world, so this is the only way that the world, even imagined ones, can be seen.

You put it well in your lovely list of areas you're exploring in the next Quiet War novel: "The future will have its own agenda."

As will those who write about it, each of them, whatever school or sect or cult or movement they belong to. Or don't.

January 09, 2008 11:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul, 17 then a double top to finish.

Still not sure about the rewording. I think that strictly if we believe that lots of SF tropes are possible (and I think you make a good case for that being precisely what we should believe) then SF is still concerned with realistic extrapolations if it writes about such things. If I interpret the spirit of what you are getting at correctly then the complaint is not that much of current SF restricts itself to realistic extrapolations, rather it restricts itself to conservative extrapolations- extrapolations that only predict minor changes in technology, or changes in technology that follow an already established pattern. If that is the concern and it is correct then I think that definitely is to the detriment of SF.

January 10, 2008 10:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see science fiction as being two things. The common form of SF is entertaining genre fiction that I judge by comparing it to the best story writers. Second, but rare, is science fiction that attempts to be speculative fiction, which I judge by logic and science.

I’m currently reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. It makes no attempt at speculation, and thus I judge it by comparing it to Starship Troopers, The Forever War and Ender’s Game. When I read something by Kim Stanley Robinson, I judge it against reality.

I prefer science fiction to be speculative fiction, but it’s not practical to always be that. I expect all fiction to be entertaining and well written. In recent years literary fiction that incorporates science fiction and fantasy is setting a much higher bar for genre SF. Now genre fiction has to compete with The Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas and Never Let Me Go. Tough competition.

Jim Harris

January 10, 2008 3:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Applause, Paul!
I think that your ideas about social and humane aspects of SF are very interesting.

January 12, 2008 4:15 pm  
Blogger Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

The Mundane SF "movement" seems to be less about defining SF than complaining that SF isn't taken seriously, so maybe if we strip all that wacky stuff out...

Nah. It'll never happen. I predict that the "movement" will collapse faster than the New Wave and have a lot less impact.

On the other hand, I absolutely cannot wait for The Quiet War to come out. Plus anything from that Reynolds fella...

January 15, 2008 1:11 pm  
Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Let’s face it, who in the SF field fifty years ago saw cell phones coming?

Heinlein, in Between Planets.

January 21, 2008 6:33 am  
Blogger Ted said...

4) Self-interest is a poor driver in any society

Depends on what you mean by "poor." I think self-interest is a very effective motivator in the short term, but the long-term effects on the society can be devastating. If it were less effective in the short term, it might be less harmful in the long term.

January 21, 2008 9:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well at least there is an opinion against mundanism. thanks.

I think Geoff R is having good fun with the idea, BUT many others are following it as creed and forgetting the tongue in cheek bit.


January 21, 2008 2:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, an apology:

I posted a link to this entry, then noticed that you ask people to ask permission to use any content from your blog. I've deleted the link.

May I post a link to this entry, using a sentence from it as a teaser?

February 06, 2008 5:02 am  
Blogger Dan Goodman said...

"Let’s face it, who in the SF field fifty years ago saw cell phones coming?"
Martin Wisse got this one.

Or the PC and the Internet?"

Murray Leinster; "A Logic Named Joe," 1946.

Dan Goodman

February 07, 2008 5:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't agree that "mundane SF" is conservative. Although I hate the movement's name, I like the writing. Take a look at its ancestors: people like Philip K. Dick and, sometimes, Octavia Butler. Is Frederik Pohl less conservative than Dick because he has aliens? Hell no! What about Ballard? Is Crash conservative because it doesn't have faster-than-light travel? I don't think so.

I don't disapprove of aliens, time-travel and so forth but they really do tend to bore me.

February 07, 2008 4:26 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

James-N - a bit tardy, by all means link. I didn't mean that people couldn't. Maybe I should modify the copyright notice to a fair usuage deal...

February 07, 2008 8:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Screw the small minded. I'm going to keep thinking big and writing visionary books with a sense of wonder.

You've been hanging out with and listening to the wrong people and indeed should be speaking out about this if it's really so pervasive.

February 08, 2008 10:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't think you would mind but the language seemed to cover what I had in mind.

I am somewhat literal minded. As a kindergartener, I once spent three hours circling the block my school was on because my parents told me that I could walk home alone as long as:

1: I didn't talk to strangers.

2: I didn't cross the street on my own.

The only way to walk alone and obey those rules was if there was some path that didn't involve crossing the street.

February 09, 2008 4:50 pm  

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