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The Problem With Mundane-SF

Perhaps I should rephrase my objection a bit and say, rather, “The Problem With Those Who Militantly Push Mundane-SF’. Over on the Mundane-SF blog, author ‘goatchurch’ has an anti-Michi Kaku rant, where he take Kaku to taks for his book Parallel Worlds and his occupation as an astrophysicist. Let’s have a look, shall we?


Let me start by first pointing out I now absolutely nothing about ‘goatchurch’, his (I’m assuming a he here) background or education. With that in mind, he says, speaking of Parallel Worlds: “it seems to be the source of a lot of SF speculation about Time, Space, and Multiverse travel which supposedly makes all of Mundane SF irrelevant.”

It makes mundane-sf irrelevant? Really? According to who? I know many people have taken the mundanes to task over their stance, but that’s more because of the mundane’s belief that SF should only be mundane and their no holds barred attitude toward proclaiming their belief. I don’t see Kaku stating that mundane-sf is irrelevant. In fact, I don’t see anyone saying that at all. It’s certainly a viable form of SF, and I happen to enjoy stories set in a mundane setting (see our Gradisil review).

Goatchurch then goes on to say, “Flicking forward, I can tell I’m not going to like this M-space stuff.” The implication here is that he hasn’t been exposed to M-space, but as it introduces non-mundane ideas into SF, he won’t like. Or, maybe he just doesn’t believe that the universe can be that weird. I don’t know. But this hints at what I think is the biggest issue I have with those who push Mundane-SF at the expense of all other types.

The rest of the entry is basically goatchurch haranguing Kaku for appearing on the BBC and being a popular scientist that many news agencies go to for interviews. Of course, Kaku likes to talk about big ideas: Kardshev civilizations, the Fermi paradox, and mankind moving out into the universe.

At the end, Kaku is quoted discussing his beliefs about how man can move on to become a Type I civilization, with a bonus ‘solution’ thrown in for Fermi. Goatchurch says:

(I lean over and weep into my hands.)

I pretty much agree with the particle physicist Martinus Veltman that astrophysicists are full of crap, which he explained in a lecture I blogged about in February.

These are dangerous ideas. Of the kind that believing you can fly off a cliff with a pair of cardboard wings is a dangerous idea.

So we get an ad hominem tossed at all astrophysicists, then an unsupported assertion about ‘dangerous ideas’, with no explanation about which ideas are dangerous, to whom, or why.

Is it not possible that Kaku, with a Ph.D in physics, and an author of many books on physics and superstring theory, just might know what he’s talking about? That physics does allow for the wild ideas that goatchurch seems to dislike? Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean its likely or even achievable.

This apparent dislike for the ‘big’ ideas in astrophysics leads me to my conclusion about the Mundane-SF pushers: a lack of imagination. Of course, it may be that they are against sense of wonder and fun too.

As I stated before, I don’t mind reading mundane stories, but their choice of setting limits the available stories and time/space scales to choose from. They have a built in limiter to their imagination. I say, if you’re going to dream, why not dream big?

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

18 Comments on The Problem With Mundane-SF

  1. Well put. Mundane SF does have its place, especially in relatively near future settings. However, a mundane distant future story can only reflect either an extreme pessimism (e.g. dystopic nightmares) or an utter lack of imagination (e.g. neo-pastoralism)that tend to emphasize the “mudane” aspect. Part of what makes SF great is that it inspires the imagination, mundane SF often fails in that. (That said, I do have a weakness for well-written dystopias like A Clockwork Orange and Handmaiden’s Tale, both of which qualify as mundane SF).

    P.S. I read Parallel Worlds a year or two ago and found it very interesting.

  2. Without giving too much away, I can assure you that ‘goatchurch’ is probably the only person with any right whatsoever to state whether or not Kaku’s work renders Mundane SF irrelevant … 😉

    I can see your overall point, but I think the power of one’s imagination doesn’t necessarily correlate directly to the restrictions you place on it, at least when applied to art. Like all literary manifestos, the Mundane Creed is bound to annoy adherents of the styles it proposes rebellion against, and for all I know may have been explicitly designed to do so.

    As far as I can determine, the core of the idea is that FTL, parallel universes &c are considered by Mundanistas to be a crutch for writers who refuse to deploy the scientific rigour that SF once (however falsely) laid claim to. So it’s a difference of opinion only – you see them as restricting their own imaginations to cover up a lack in that department, whereas they see writers of bells and whistles space opera as using a literary cop-out for the same reason.

    To be honest, as long as both sides write better books, and more of them, I couldn’t care less either way. 🙂

  3. I agree with Paul, as long as the story is good, who really cares?

    There is a lot of science today that is theoretical. From what I know about string theory (though I’ve never held a string in my hand…or have I?) it is a theory that currently has no means to prove it right or wrong (see Peter Woit’s interesting book and blog on this).

    Quantum computing is the same way. I wrote an article on quantum vs. classical computing, and was educated along the way (and sometimes taken to task) by a nice young MIT prof. who was constantly dismayed by what the popular press said a quantum computer could do (a lot!) vs. what was practical and potentially possible (targeted applications).

    But that doesn’t make it any less interesting for including in stories. After all, they are just stories. The classification of stories into categories is useful for marketing and where to put the book on the shelf. But doesn’t stop most readers from enjoying it.

  4. joshua corning // August 10, 2007 at 7:12 pm //

    As I stated before, I don’t mind reading mundane stories, but their choice of setting limits the available stories and time/space scales to choose from. They have a built in limiter to their imagination. I say, if you’re going to dream, why not dream big?

    I don’t know what i hate more….the mundane Sci Fi pushers or this.

    Although that whole bit about “These are dangerous ideas.” is pretty funny.

    But then again that crap about level 1 civilizations coming from a physicist is pretty damn hysterical as well.

    How many experience points do I need to level up my civilization? Do I get to roll for more hit points when I level?

    Yup important science going on there.

    =)

  5. joshua corning // August 10, 2007 at 7:21 pm //

    By the way putting limits and structure in works of literature has helped create some of the worlds most profound and beautiful works of art and its history is as long as the history of the written word.

    Hell the whole sub-section of literature known as poetry is based on it.

    That said I have to say that goatchurch eclectic choice in only reading mundane sci fi is a bit like choosing to read only German surrealists novelists who published between 1924 and 1929. It is an interesting choice but not something to base a movement on.

  6. Without giving too much away, I can assure you that ‘goatchurch’ is probably the only person with any right whatsoever to state whether or not Kaku’s work renders Mundane SF irrelevant … 😉

    Am I the only one completely confused by this statement? Paul, whatcha mean?

  7. M Theory resolved the issues that broke String Theory into 5 separate camps of feuding physicists and mathematicians, folding all of their ideas into a single model for which all five were special subsets, fully realized. If you want to learn more, I can recommend Steven Hawkings Myspace Blog on the topic as a simplified introduction. The Science Channel also ran a great special on it about six months ago.

    That being said, I have to put in my vote along with everyone else who said the story is the thing, whether mundane or SuperScience. I want to be rooting for a character, hoping they win out against whatever situation they find themselves in. I want fully realized people in an internally consistent world, where even the bad guy (or gal) has understandable and sympathetic reasons for doing whatever it is that makes the protagonists life miserable. And when I get to the end, I want to feel good about having spent my money and time. Because the author delivered on the implied promise to tickle my sense of wonder, gave me some new implications I hadn’t thought of for how a given scientific development might be used, and made me care about people and situations I would otherwise never have suspected. To all of those authors, Thank You!

  8. “Am I the only one completely confused by this statement? Paul, whatcha mean?”

    Me too. I take it that the username in question on the original site is some sort of Driving Force behind “mundane SF”.

    My biggest problem with mundane SF? That is an utterly stupid name. Come on folks, sex it up a bit. Put some juice into the name. Mundane SF? Blech.

    :O

  9. He’s Geoff Ryman, is he not?

    There are days I agree with him, and days that I don’t. What makes sense to me is that this sort of reaction stems from extremities taken the other way: I’ve mentioned elsewhere about my Mutually Assured Destruction theory of SF, in which each stupendously Big Idea has to be topped by the next guy. If you can’t come up with a cooler plot hook than Charlie Stross or Vernor Vinge, then don’t bother coming to the party. In some peoples’ eyes, pretty soon that means the absurdities are piling up. Hence, Mundane Manifestos.

    D

  10. joshua corning // August 11, 2007 at 5:06 pm //

    If you can’t come up with a cooler plot hook than Charlie Stross

    Stross novels have plots?

    I just thought it was two dimensional “good” guys and one dimensional “bad” guys running into opposite sides of the same wall….

    Oh wait, never mind, i am thinking of Westerfeld…The one Stross novel i read i can’t remember its name let alone if it had a plot…let me check…

    Ah…I read Singularity Sky.

    Yup…it does not have a plot.

  11. I don’t think the Mundane SF “pushers” want all SF to be Mundane (the manifesto explicitly says they don’t, at any rate), but they do insist, and rather dogmatically, that all Mundane SF be mundane.

    The main objection of Mundane SF against SF “crutches” like FTL, AI, nanotech, dimensional shifting and the like, is that these are traditional tropes that reduce the imagination needed to make something work in a futuristic context. I think that far-future SF could be Mundane, in the sense that it uses science responsibly (even if it contains AI, space travel, etc.), so long as weird and wonderful inventions are not used just to get us out of sticky problems, but are genuine, feasible, or at least imaginable and comprehensible, applications of physics (however speculative) that cause as many problems as they solve. Like most inventions.

    Remember than the core of the Mundane Manifesto is a call for more SF that faces up to our problems and responsibilities on this planet, rather than pretending that we can ignore global warming, overpopulation, etc. because Science will sooner or later come along and fix them all for us. The bloggers are sometimes more dogmatic than I would like, but you can’t fault that motivation.

  12. To Djibril-

    Instead of getting in to one long argument with you, I’ll link to this recent statement I’ve made regarding that movement.

    There is strong language involved, so I can’t guarantee that it’s absolutely safe for work.

  13. joshua corning // August 12, 2007 at 1:38 am //

    My biggest problem with mundane SF? That is an utterly stupid name. Come on folks, sex it up a bit. Put some juice into the name. Mundane SF? Blech.

    I nominate “Jerking off to IPCC graphs” for their new name.

  14. Dear B-Sharp,

    Okay, I can see you have strong feelings about this. 😉 Can I just make one observation about your post, however? 90% of your arguments are against (mostly unnamed) individuals rather than objections to the movement or Manifesto itself. That’s ad hominem. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re doing: I am not a Mundanista–though I am keen to see what comes out of their experiments–my only connection with them is having read the Manifesto. And occasionally glancing at their blog. The Manifesto is clearly not humourless, dogmatic, or scaremongering. It is a call for more experimentation in a certain, restricted area of science fiction.

    There’s nothing wrong with escapism. We all love that; it’s probably why most of us got into scifi and fantasy in the first place. But there’s also room in the genre for non-escapist, politically-aware and politically-motivated speculative fiction. Whether or not you agree with the politics and whether or not you like the writers.

  15. I’ve read the whole, entire Manifesto, and its website before it shut down, as well as a lot of internet wank start by the advocates of this movement, I’m not off the mark when it comes to this one. I’ve seen enough of these people have acctually said, and the written implication that sci-fi writers are somehow guilty of some mass environmental holocaust.

    And occasionally glancing at their blog. The Manifesto is clearly not humourless, dogmatic, or scaremongering.

    You obviously haven’t been paying attention to what they are saying. Occasional glances do not always amount to much.

    It is a call for more experimentation in a certain, restricted area of science fiction.

    True, but in the sense that if someone does not wish to do so, then they must not care about the environment.

    But there’s also room in the genre for non-escapist, politically-aware and politically-motivated speculative fiction.

    Not all non-escapist, politically-aware or motivated fiction counts as Mundane. Or should. The problem with the Mundanistas is that they are creating a false dichotomy-it must be written in the way they prefer, or it can’t politically relavent at all. You must be with them or against the environment. Which I consider to be nothing less tha complete bullshit.

  16. Without giving too much away, I can assure you that ‘goatchurch’ is probably the only person with any right whatsoever to state whether or not Kaku’s work renders Mundane SF irrelevant … 😉

    Why so coy Paul? Presumably goatchurch is Julian Todd and I’ve not read anything from him that isn’t completely retarded.

  17. It’s the militant aspect of Mundane that I hate. Using it as an exercise in creative restriction is fine. But saying that you can only write things which are possible (or however it’s put) is a bit crazy.

    For a start, half the “cool” theories, like M Theory are purely theoretical. As usual the theoretical physicists are out there making work for themselves, while experimental physicists make endless measurements that prove The Standard Model is correct, and of course look for the Higgs boson.

    So do you take theoretical physics as “possible” or only theories “proved” experimentally?

    And anyway, since when was the technology in Air mundane?

    Oh, and just to have a dig at astrophysicists, their accuracy is terrible. I mean, the Hubble Constant?! Ho ho.

  18. Just to add a bit of thought for discussion, I posted some comments on my blog. Feel free to comment.

    http://www.sheerspeculation.com/the_things_being_said

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