Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mundane Science Fiction

What follows is part of a con report on the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, from which I returned two days ago. The rest of the report is in a Word file which refuses to open. I will add it when I have dealt with Word's user unfriendliness.

There was a panel at the con on Mundane SF, a concept that came out of a Clarion writing workshop, apparently in response to SF which seemed escapist -- flying off the stars with FLT, when humanity is facing real problems here and now. Geoff Ryman listed SF tropes or gimmicks which he thought weren’t going to happen and should not be used in science fiction. FTL and nanotechnology are the ones I remember. Melissa Scott stared down the panel at him with amazement and said, “I am writing about the present. That’s what my novels are really about. Why can’t I have FTL?”

I had several responses. The two science news magazines I get talk about nanotech work that’s being done right now. It’s happening. People are creating teeny machines -- buckyballs and nanotubes that can be loaded with drugs for direct delivery to cells, atoms that spell out IBM, wee turning wheels and so on.

FTL seems impossible, but a lot is happening in cosmology and physics. Who knows what we will end with? In any case, FTL is a well established SF trope and lots of fun.

From its start, SF has used impossible science and technology. Think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The time machine is still impossible. The monster is becoming possible. But the point of the science was not accurate prediction, but setting up a thought experiment. What if we could make a being that other humans did not recognize as human? What if we could see evolution in action, over vast expanses of time?

Granted, the world is in trouble; and the next hundred years look hairy. I’m not sure how to get to 2100. I don’t think our current problems are technological or scientific. They are political and economic. Will we use the resources we have – extraordinary resources of wealth and knowledge – to save humanity, or will we not?

Don’t mourn, organize, Joe Hill said. Maybe I should write a novel about that.

The problem of the next 100 years should be attacked by science fiction writers, but I don’t think every writer has to limit herself to near and likely futures. I don’t want to write about the avian flu pandemic, and I don’t need to. Epidemiologists and journalists will.

I want to write morally serious SF and give people something they can use in real life. But I also want to give them a break from the pain and drabness and ugliness of much everyday life. So how can I write something serious, true, lovely, fun and morally uplifting?

I do the best I can.

Russell Letson told me he thought Ryman was objecting to sleazy, dishonest SF. Well, yes. SF comes in many varieties, including mass market crap, the opiate of the people. But a novel like Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man, which assumes FTL travel, is a very serious discussion of human sexuality and gender identity. I don’t think the FTL negates the sex/gender discussion.

Why have the FTL? Because the strange sexuality of Shadow Man is a result of a drug necessary in FTL travel. Liberation from Earth is also liberation from the female-male duality. To me, this seems like a neat conceit. You can have the traditional, rigid separation of humans into two sexes; or you can have the stars.

One could write a novel with a less fantastic conceit. The writer could say: you can have the traditional idea of men and women, or you can a solar cooking stove. I can imagine a third world novel with those alternatives. It wouldn’t even have to be science fiction.
But why not go for the big idea? And why not have many kinds of science fiction? Near future and far future, mundane and satiric and wide screen baroque?

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

4 Comments:

Blogger tate said...

Aweomely said! Brava!

8:16 AM  
Blogger delagar said...

I wasn't there, so I don't know what Ryman was trying to say, but clearly (heh -- watch out for the writer who says clearly!) SF isn't about the future or about some alien culture in the future: it's always about our world, and always commenting on our human culture, now. In which case, who cares whether FTL will exist in 2400 or they have nanotech then? These are metaphors we can use productively in our work, or they are not. (If they don't work, obviously, it's bad fiction, but that doesn't mean no one should use them, that means that's a bad story.) All of this just to say - hey! Don't take away my tools! (Not that I use FTL myself. But if I wanted to, you know.)

9:13 AM  
Blogger Sean M. Murphy said...

Elegantly put, Eleanor.

Delagar: Some SF is commentary on the here and now. Perhaps even most, though there's a good bit of gray area there. Some, however, is not. Some SF is merely a flight of fancy, a 'what if?' designed to expand our sensibilities about the universe, out notions of could and could not. Of course it must be germaine to the audience at hand--it must have impact and meaning for them--but that is not the same thing as what you are saying.

Yes, lots of SF has as its underpinnings commentary on modern social problems, extracted and woven into another place, andother setting, to set them up in a dynamic and allow commentary on them that will, hopefully, aid people in their interpretation of those issues. But not all of SF does that; this is an exceedingly varied field.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Tallgeese said...

Might I add, "Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend" and "Oppose Near-Future Book Workship". :)

2:04 PM  

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