“Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning!” by Geoff Ryman
Being a Mundane boils down to avoiding old tropes and sticking more closely to what science calls facts. We believe that for most of us, the future is here on Earth.
I donít believe in starships. At least not the starships that turn up so regularly in Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc. The speed of the universe is c. Go faster than Ďcí and something catastrophic happens: mass becomes infinite. We have no idea what that means. Itís a mathematicianís way of saying something canít happen.
Yet mass-market SF still dreams of faster-than-light travel, through such tropes as warp drives. The Physics of Star Trek by Laurence M Krauss calculates that warp drives would consume energy equivalent to whole galaxies. This is his way of saying something canít happen without alienating the Star Trek fans who bought the book.
The cost of transporting terra-forming equipment and material 20 light years is likely to be prohibitive. Terraforming Mars may be a better bet than traveling those vast distances to terraform a rocky, radioactive wilderness. Both efforts would take tens of thousand years. What human endeavor has lasted tens of thousands of years?
Well, agriculture has lasted that long; and the rearing of children along with language itself. Staying home on the farm and raising kids seems to be just the activities most SF dreams of escaping.
Since the same physical restrictions will apply to aliens, at least aliens made of matter, I donít believe we are likely to meet aliens. We might be able to exchange some kind of messages with them at the speed of light. If we are picturing our future, itís a safer bet to imagine one without Mr Spock or even versions of cuttlefish who communicate with shifting skin patterns.
For most of us whose descendants will not be among those specially selected interstellar crews, for our children, for humankind as whole, the future is here on Earth.
I realized that I didnít believe in time travel either. We are part of the universe, embedded in it. If we travel in time, we have to take the universe with us. I donít think thatís at all feasible number one, affordable number two and number three: if everything around us is going backwards or forwards in time with us, would we even notice? How could we tell? Oh yes, we go through one of those wormhole loops. Thatís of real mathematical interest. You know my views on wormholes.
So a few kindred spirits drew up a list of things we didnít believe in like telepathy. Have you ever experienced it?
Immortality? Suns die, galaxies die, the universe dies. Nothing is immortal outside of Godís heaven. We will all die one day. Leaving Earth wonít stop it.
Brain downloads: transferring something that has four switches (up and down in both directions) to a system works through binaries?
Partly Mundanity was also the result of asking: whatís worked best in the past? My favourite SF authors such as Philip K Dick, J G Ballard, Samuel Delaney or Walter Miller tended to avoid those particular tropes. For a while naming writers who could be considered Mundane was quite a hobby.
We felt as if SF had accumulated so many improbable ideas and relied on them so regularly, that it had disconnected from reality. The futures it was portraying were so unlikely as to be irrelevant, if not actually harmful.
Julian Todd, a British SF writer, pointed out the moral problems as well. If we keep telling ourselves that faster-than-light travel will whisk us to scores of new Earths, then weíd feel better about burning through this one.
In really bad SF, like the movie LOST IN SPACE, environmental catastrophe is almost wished upon us, to justify the cost of interstellar voyages. Why, why the continual desire to escape our beautiful planet?
My particular bugaboo was the cheat of having faster-than-light travel without any relativity effects from different time frames. Mass market SF, the SF that most ordinary people think of when you use the phrase, commercial and media SF want to pick and choose from science, using only those things that will grant us our wishes and dreams.
We want FTL interstellar travel with no more inconvenience than a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier. Mom can ring us up from 30,000 light years away to have a real-time conversation about why we havenít married yet. Sheís still alive when we get back home. Everything is recognizable, comfortable. In Star Trek, we get to the stars without having to change.
Mass market SF doesnít imagine how different interstellar flight will make us. And I donít mean the usual posthuman stuff. I mean different culturally. I mean getting back home to find 200 years have passed and that everything we loved and believed in is gone. Yes, some SF has done just that, notably The Forever War. So why isnít the space pilot coming back from the distant past an SF stereotype? Answer: because thatís not what the SF wants.
Big SF, the stuff that sells hugely or is found in movies, is not really about the future; we know that. Itís also not about the present, though thatís our excuse when people point out that SF couldnít predict its way of a public restroom. SF, especially mainstream commercial SF, copies the past onto the future, to make it comfortably entertaining. The future will be just like the more exciting parts of the past only with better toys. Perhaps thatís because so many people now fear the future, rather than welcome it as a wonderland of possibility.
So I wrote a jokey Mundane Manifesto. It said letís play this serious game. Letís agree: no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands. Letís see if something new comes out of it.
This January I read the introduction to The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. Written at the moment of Sputnik, Arendt was struck that mainstream newspapers said what science fiction had been saying: mankind was now free from Earth.
Science fiction is worth regarding she says, because it is a vehicle for mass dreams and desires. In essence it is a dream of escaping being human. We want to leave Earth, a free gift that gives us life, and substitute artificial environments that we have made. We wish to escape old means of reproduction. We wish to escape death. We want to become post-human.
"This future man... seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence
as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he
wishes to exchange for something he has made himself."
Fifty years after she wrote that, these themes are still with us. Indeed they have been with us from the beginning, and the beginning is Frankenstein in 1818. Science Fiction predates Darwin, has survived Marx and Freud and outlasted modernism and post-modernism. That mass dream it fulfils is no temporary fancy. That dream runs deep.
The dream only cares about seeing its wishes fulfilled. That explains why old, tired, improbabilities survive as SF regulars, while the storytelling innovations of The Forever War have not become genre stand-bys. Only those slim possibilities that help fulfil the dream survive to be re-used: wormholes, warp drives. Because the aim is NOT to write about a real future.
A real future will have an everyday life and a home just as domestic as the one the dream needs to leave. So it does not dream of a real future.
I think the sources of the SF dream are not culturally specific. I think they are psychological, perhaps even ultimately biological. That explains the incredible endurance of SF for rising 200 years. I suspect that the dream has something to do with how we as an animal are cared for, the length of time we are dependent, the length of time our parents must love us and have power over us. In other species, parents initiate the process of separation, pushing the fledglings out. In human beings, that process is initiated by the cubs. In order to leave adolescents become angry and resentful, and initiate the separation themselves.
The SF dream recapitulates this. I believe itís a kind of extension of somewhat undifferentiated drive to leave home, and escape into adventure. The dream therefore belongs essentially to childhood and to early adolescence.
The drive to write and read big-market SF is not much different from the drive to write and read Peter Pan. You never grow up. You fly by magic away from home to Never-neverland. (Take the third star on the left.) Itís full of mermaids, pirates and native peoples, just like Star Trek. Something really weird is going on around the whole idea of mother and Wendy.
I like Peter Pan. I like watching mass market SF. Itís a holiday from being an adult. The fantasies that fulfill the dream may show us wonders, but they are very repetitive, stereotyped wonders. Less to do with real innovation and more to do with a sense of comfort.
To sum up, what I realised reading Arendt was this: I am a Mundane because I donít share the dream.
What, I want to ask, is so un-wonderful about Earth? What is so unexciting about our future here? Disaster, innovation, climate change and virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, biocomputers that evolve.
Will cramped, smelly spaceships full of people who have been trapped with each other for twenty years, with terrible food, no light, drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out, is that really the most exciting thing we can imagine?
There is a case for saying that our distraction with outer space meant SF missed the information revolution until it was past tense. It had already happened and was on the street when we started to write about it. What are missing now?
What is so useful about dreaming things that are unlikely to happen? Have you not noticed that we are NOT going into outer space? In the Star Trek universe, the Federation has already been founded for nine years.
I dream of a future here on Earth, a future that I hope continues to get better in some ways. We so face many unpleasant and pressing issues for which there will be no cheap, quick easy fixes. I enjoy reading books like Forty Days of Rain that look at these near future challenges. Iím not sure that democracies are equipped to survive this future either.
Mundanity is not just about a near future, but also a far future, one in which there are new wonders to take the place of the old ones. I dream of a future in which things really change. Post-human, possibly, if we do succeed in controlling our own evolution. These new humans wonít be us, and not because they have extra limbs or can photosynthesize. They will not be us because they value different things, speak differently, think differently, and respond differently in emergencies. They will be the end of everything we love and believe in. And the change will keep on going.
Nothing in our human culture is more adult than science. It doubts and tests our lies, half truths, fond hopes, and unsorted dreams by testing its hypotheses. Science could be working hand in hand with fiction to deliver the greatest possible literature.
Iíve spoken a bit about the dream that underlies SF as being essentially adolescent. But there is one aspect of the dream Iíve left out. Surely the urge to leave home and escape everyday life finally ends with the child making a home of its own and becoming adult. There is room in the SF dream for growing up, accepting the mundane. Thatís the part of the dream my fiction will try to fulfill.
Itís never too late to grow up.
– some interesting stuff in there… definite food for thought.