The New X - Issue 245
Morning Children, by Graham Sleight.
I don't think there's been a movement in sf with which I've had more sympathy than 'Mundane Sf', or which seems to me more doomed. To summarise the Mundanes' arguments: sf should work with tropes which can be directly derived from our present state of knowledge, since the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet. That's a proposition which, in some moods, I could see myself getting behind. There's a serious political agenda in the Mundanes' thinking: as a species, we face global problems in a way we've never done before; science fiction is uniquely placed to articulate solutions to those problems; it amounts almost to a kind of immorality to dodge those problems and write the kind of escapist claptrap that has gummed up the genre for too long.
The Mundane website went live in December 2003, and over the next eighteen months a variety of people in the sf community set out their objections—including Ian McDonald, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Ken MacLeod, and Charles Stross. McDonald is a particularly interesting case, as his fine recent novel River of Gods could arguably be seen as Mundane. His original LiveJournal posting made very similar arguments to his piece in this issue of Vector, about the restrictiveness of the Mundane prohibitions on what is appropriate for sf. Or, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden put it, one objects to 'art as tick-box': the debate is about whether the aesthetic or the political should take priority in sf. I don't want to get into a detailed discussion of the pros or cons of the Mundane argument, but to make a different point: that the speed of the response to the manifesto, and the extent to which the debate has already percolated through the world of sf, is something pretty new. And this is why I think the movement is doomed.
Every one of the responses I mentioned above was published online, in the authors' blogs or LiveJournals. All of these authors have comment sections in which others can and did join in the discussion instantly. This is a huge step from the previous 70 years of sf as a self-conscious genre, in which debates were conducted via the letters pages of magazines and fanzines (including this one). For a start, an exchange of letters in a paper magazine could take three or four months per response if you were lucky. Secondly, there was always a gatekeeping function: you couldn't guarantee that your letter would be the lucky one to appear in print. It's pretty difficult to get your comments barred from an online forum unless you overstep basic bounds of courtesy. Lastly, once a debate happens online, it remains available (technical glitches permitting) to anyone who wants access to it. You don't have to subscribe to anything, or to choose to do anything beyond clicking on a link, to see it. You just need a computer and a modem—which, these days, pretty much everyone in English-language sf does except Howard Waldrop.
So debates happen more quickly and more publicly, and remain on record for all to see. (This is also true of the 2003 TTA Press discussion board thrash about the 'New Weird', though it disappeared into the ether due to a server glitch.) Put another way, the sf community gets to make its mind up about a new proposition, to arrive at a version of conventional wisdom about it, with a speed and thoroughness that are wholly new. (And I don't think it's unfair to say that the conventional wisdom about Mundane sf has pretty rapidly settled into the view that it's a dead letter: too restrictive, too specific, not enough fun for us wacky sci-fi types. Individual authors, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, may continue writing work which meets the mundane criteria, but that's different: all movements have to cope with cases of people who are doing what they prescribe but weren't in the initial affinity group.) Of course, conventional wisdom in a field as wilfully contrary as sf isn't going to be homogenous. But one can, I think, usefully talk about currents of opinion.
Anyhow, if the lead-time for debate has radically shortened, writing and publishing lead-times haven't. This is the other side to the effects of the internet. Movements in sf have tended to go through a particular life-cycle. Ian McDonald suggested that it looks something like this: origins, core text, manifesto, theme anthology, wannabes, poor imitations, rediscovery fifteen years later as 'retro'. The core point is that emblematic works are written, published and recognised as part of a movement that is still alive. That takes time: consider, for example, cyberpunk. When you date its public origin is a matter of taste, but you could choose 1981, when Gibson's first Sprawl story 'Johnny Mnemonic' appeared, or 1983, when the first edition of Bruce Sterling's pseudonymous polemical zine Cheap Truth appeared. Defining events of its course would include the publication of Neuromancer (1984) and Schismatrix (1985). If you want to point to events suggesting that cyberpunk was for its founders a completed subject, you might look at Michael Swanwick's ground-mapping essay 'A User's Guide to the Postmoderns' in 1986, the death of Cheap Truth in the same year, or Sterling's canon-forming anthology Mirrorshades in 1987. Personally, I'd date its end as 1988, when Mona Lisa Overdrive closed down Gibson's Sprawl series. Certainly, by 1991, core movement writers like Sterling and Shiner were referring to themselves as former cyberpunks, and were looking back on the movement as something that was no longer to do with them. Sterling's column 'Cyberpunk in the 90s' (Interzone 48, June 1991) is an almost perfect articulation of what happens when revolutionaries storm the castle and find the halls empty, the throne vacant. Nowadays, to borrow from Tennyson, cyberpunk has become a name, an adjective lazily applied by marketing departments to any sf featuring computers.
Any movement, I'm arguing, has only a limited time in the air before it gets either assimilated into the mainstream (cyberpunk) or shot down. If it's going to have meaning and influence, it needs to achieve some of the things that, say, cyberpunk did. It needs to have a novel or two published which are identifiably part of the movement and meet with acclaim. (Although influence doesn't necessarily require broad popular acclaim: as Elizabeth Hand has suggested, Hope Mirrlees's enormously influential Lud-in-the-Mist was like the Velvet Underground's first album--only a thousand people bought it, but all of them started bands.) Movement-themed anthologies are also a touchstone for influence, provided they come out when the movement is still live. Pat Cadigan's The Ultimate Cyberpunk (2002) is a far more balanced survey of the movement than Sterling's Mirrorshades; but because the Cadigan came out a decade too late, the Sterling is the book everyone refers to. Time is always short for movements; what I'm arguing is that the internet has compressed the timescale for movements' lifecycles so radically that in future it's going to be difficult for them to put down any achievements—which in this field means books—before gravity pulls them down. As China Miéville said in Matrix 169,
"New Weird not only will become cliché, it already has started to become cliché. Without turning my back on it, this is partly why I'm not going to talk about New Weird any more (as I explain in the forthcoming Nebula Anthology). You can already see books which are second generation riffs on some of the stuff that's been coming out over the last five years. And it doesn't mean they're all bad—standing on the shoulders of what's gone before is part of what we all do. But the point at which it becomes a mannerism, and we're like 'Oh god, another fantasty-sf-hybrid-with-dark-gothic-grotesque-lovecraftian-monsters, yawn,' fine—then, time to write something else: history's moved on."
History moves on more and more quickly, but writing and publishing take the same amount of time. In thinking of the influence the internet has had on our genre conversations, I find myself remembering the character in Gardner Dozois's story 'Morning Child' who ages from boyhood to senescence in the course of a day and then wakes the next morning as a child again. When the cycle is so accelerated, it's hard to get things done, particularly when they require sustained effort. (There's also a tendency to repetition of the same patterns, and I admit to getting kind of frustrated at endless internet debates rehashing, say, the aesthetics of sf from the ground up without any reference to the work that Knight or Delany or Russ did on this in the past. That's why gatekeepers are sometimes useful.) Anyhow, to return to Mundane sf, I reserve the right to be surprised if Trent Walters and his colleagues get a new burst of inspiration. In many ways, I hope they do prove me wrong: what they're arguing for is too important to fall by the wayside. But when argument can happen so much faster than achievement, I doubt that they—or many other proponents of movements—are going to leave a mark behind.
This article first appeared in Vector 245. Back issues of Vector are available from