Winter 2007 Volume One Issue One
Laying Down the Rayguns: The Mundane Manifesto - Alasdair Stuart
A little over two years ago, a collection of science fiction authors produced the Mundane Manifesto after spending time together at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop. Led by Geoff Ryman, best known for the seminal piece of internet literature 253, the group argued that science fiction was being held back by tropes that were approaching fifty years out of date and that it was past time to move past these and look to the future. The manifesto lists the following as its core beliefs:
-That interstellar travel is unlikely
-That the illusion of easy interstellar travel can in turn lead to the illusion of a universe abundant with life
-This in turn can lead to a wasteful, laissez-faire attitude towards life on Earth
-That there is no evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. While this absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the prospect of contact with intelligent life is unlikely
-That conversely, interstellar trade and war are unlikely
-That even if other civilisations were discovered the distances involved would make communication all but impossible
-That there is no evidence that the Quantum Uncertainty Principle applies on a macro scale, meaning that there is no evidence for the existence of alternate universes
-The most likely future therefore is one where humanity exists on Earth and within the solar system
-That the most likely future is simply us and the planet
The original document (Found at www.mundanesf.com - ed. note: this site seems to be defunct) is articulate, well argued and often very funny. The authors involved take great pains to point out the problems that lie at the heart of both SF and the very concept of a manifesto and the whole thing is presented with an unusual combination of eloquence and humor.
That humor, however, serves to offset the massive scope of the manifesto. Looked at in isolation, it effectively kills almost every sacred cow of modern science fiction. No aliens, no interstellar travel, trade or war, no alternate universes. Just us, the world we live on and how we live on it. It is, in fact, a remarkable and extremely brave piece of dogma that forces anyone trying to write work that adheres to it to approach their stories in a far more pragmatic, humane way. In short, the manifesto instructs science fiction to lay down its ray guns and look closer to home for ideas. The effect it had, and continues to have, was instantaneous.
However, before examining that effect, it's worth spending some time focusing on Ryman himself. One of a small group of authors who can genre-jump with ease and commercial success, Ryman is best known for 253. A hybrid novel and website, 253 is the story of the 253 people on a London Underground train in the final moments before it crashes. Each passenger is given a seat, and their stories--little more than essays--interact in small but often significant ways. The hypertext version is particularly interesting, allowing the viewer to move through the novel in any 'direction' skipping entire carriages if desired. This version won him the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award in 1998. Earlier works netted him the British Science Fiction Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, among others. Ryman works freely in both science fiction and 'literature' and approaches each with the same ambition and success. The Mundane Manifesto is clearly not the work of a man who fails to understand the field he's discussing. Why then, attack what so many view as staples of the genre? Ryman himself explains in this interview with Kit Reed:
"Well the word Mundane means 'of the world.' So by and large Mundane SF sticks to Earth or the nearby solar system. For example if we can't get to the stars, aliens can't get to us. Quantum uncertainty works only at the micro level. Parallel universes are unlikely. So two years ago, out of Clarion a bunch of young writers decided they wanted to limit themselves to the most likely future. This meant facing up to what we know is coming, dealing with it and imaging good futures that are likely." (http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/intgr.htm)
It becomes clear, based on Ryman's own views then, that mundane science fiction is a distillation of two other, more established sub-genres. By definition, cyberpunk fiction has always been a street level sub-genre, dealing with how its protagonists survive in a world where finance and technology consume the individual while hard science fiction, certainly in its early years was fascinated with the challenges presented by humanity moving out into the solar system to live and work. Elements of both of these genres feed into mundane SF and become something rather more grounded and pragmatic as they do so. The fascination with technology and cynicism that lies at the heart of a lot of cyberpunk fiction becomes genuine concern with how society can be changed for the better and is married to the nuts and bolts approach of hard SF. The most compelling line of the manifesto is, after all, the last one. No future apart from us and the planet.
So mundane science fiction is at least in part an evolution of established science fiction genres and tropes. However, just as those movements were a reaction to their time, so, to a lesser extent is the Mundane Manifesto.
Six years into the twenty-first century, long lauded as the future that would see science fiction become science fact, it's clear that the most interesting and revolutionary technological advances are all relatively close to home. Advances in communication, transport and health have all brought their fields to unparalleled heights of development while advances in more traditional science fiction fields, such as space travel, have all but ground to a halt. The successful launch of SpaceShip One aside, traditional science fiction has had precious little to chew on so far in the new century.
As a result of this, the changing geopolitical climate and the rise of the green movement, its hard to argue with the mundane credo of "only us and the planet." There seems to be a clear line of thinking behind the desire to solve any problems on world before even thinking about off world. In short, the Mundane Manifesto appears to be a well-argued, reasonable piece of critical thought which has clear roots in the history of the genre.
It's surprising then that the movement has been met with such critical suspicion and in some cases outright hostility. Authors ranging from Ian McDonald and Charles Stross to Lou Anders and Patrick Nielson-Hayden have all chimed in on the subject as have many others and the end result has been a clear delineation between those who believe in it such as Ryman, those who are interested by it and those that view it as a direct attack on the sacred cows of science fiction.
McDonald seems to be leading the charge for the interested and has pointed out on several occasions that the Manifesto has both a great deal of merit and several major problems. First and foremost amongst these, as far as he's concerned is the fact that the Manifesto isn't actually needed in order to produce good stories that conform to it. As he pointed out online recently, McDonald himself has 'committed' mundane science fiction by accident:
"I have a book out at the moment River of Gods, from Simon and Schuster/Pocket...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."- (http://ianMcDonald.livejournal.com/2378.html)
McDonald goes on to make the point that one of the greatest attractions is science fiction is how broad a church it is. Interstellar space opera can sit comfortably next to intimate character studies, dystopian thrillers and yes, mundane science fiction. The Manifesto not only isn't needed it actively constrains authors who choose to follow it and that, in McDonald's eyes, is a real problem. He's made it clear he's fascinated by the Manifesto and what it does but it's equally clear that he has major doubts about it's relevance.
Charles Stross' concerns are more strongly expressed and highlight different problems. Where McDonald is focused on the potential problems the Mundane Manifesto presents to creativity, Stross is concerned with the thinking behind it. Specifically:
"...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..." (http://ianMcDonald.livejournal.com/2378.html)
He makes an excellent point. Time and again, the major scientific advances of their day have been made by pushing beyond the edge of accepted wisdom. The most literal example is the US Air Force's X-Plane program and the attempts to break the sound barrier. Along similar lines, the Apollo project staff found themselves, time and again, called on to effectively build required technology from scratch.
Of course, the mundane argument would be that both those breakthroughs have had major financial and (in the case of supersonic flight) economic and ecological effects on the world and that citing them as examples of scientific exploration and endeavor proves that the manifesto has some weight to it. That's true, but it also reveals the kernel of the conflict between mundane science fiction and established science fiction, beautifully summed up by Stross, "What I read the MSF manifesto as is a rejection of sense of wonder SF." (http://ianmcdonald.livejournal.com/2378.html)
This seems to be the central problem many people have with mundane science fiction. The immense spaceships, magic interstellar travel and humanoid aliens of popular science fiction have been with us for decades now and the reason they still exist, fundamentally to entertain the reader. It doesn't, in the end, matter whether the science behind the story is fundamentally right only that the story itself is entertaining and internally consistent. Comic writer Warren Ellis has talked before about the "mad and beautiful" ideas that power the best pulp fiction and there's a strong argument for the continuation of those ideas in contemporary science fiction. It's this point that McDonald and Stross are both moving around and this point that lies at the heart of the vehemently anti-Mundane camp.
Lou Anders in particular, sums up the anti-camp's thoughts perfectly. Acknowledging both Stross and McDonald's points he goes further, pointing out that by limiting science fiction we potentially limit science itself. Countless films, books and TV shows have provided the impetus for real world technology, with the most obvious example being the debt cellphones owe to Star Trek's communicators. Anders argues that science fiction needs to be as wide a field as possible, not only for the good of the genre and the reader but for the good of science itself. It's a romantic notion but an extremely attractive one.
Ultimately, the Mundane Manifesto has already succeeded. It won't start a literary revolution, won't change the way the public views science fiction, and by the authors' own admission is being followed only until they all get bored with it. However, what it's already done is made authors and readers alike think about why science fiction is important to them, what makes genuinely great science fiction tick and how the genre can be moved ahead into a future which no author has predicted. It may be called the Mundane Manifesto but in the end its effects may be extraordinary.