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The Difference Between Hard Science Fiction and Mundane Science Fiction

January 25th, 2008

Jim Kelly’s essay in Asimov’s this month is about “mundane science fiction.” Mundane science fiction is, according to wiki:

Mundane Science Fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction. Inspired by an idea of Julian Todd, the Mundane SF movement was founded in 2004 by novelist Geoff Ryman among others.[1] It focuses on stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written.

The central ideas are:

  • That unfounded speculation about interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also viewed as unlikely.
  • That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.
  • That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence — however, it is considered unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.
  • That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.
  • That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens.
  • That there is no present evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited.
  • That therefore our most likely future is on this planet and within this solar system, and that it is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous, and unprofitable.
  • That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.

Geoff Ryman has contrasted mundane science fiction with regular science fiction through the desire of teenagers to leave their parents’ homes.[2] Ryman sees too much of regular science fiction being based on an “adolescent desire to run away from our world.” However, Ryman notes that humans are not truly considered grown-up until they “create a new home of their own,” which is what mundane science fiction aims to do.[2]

By 2007 the mundane science fiction movement was noteworthy enough that Interzone decided to devote an issue to the genre.[3]

In his Asimov’s essay, Jim Kelly wondered, “how was MundaneSF all that different from what had up until then been called hard science fiction?”

Well, as a self-proclaimed “hard sf” writer I have an opinion.   Let me start off by saying I don’t write mundane science fiction in general because I find it, on its own merits, boring and uninteresting.   At least to me.   One example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Red Mars, which isn’t a bad book, but didn’t surprise me enough in particularly good ways or provide enough sense of wonder to read the others in the series.   I’d seen the technology one place or another, and the speculation was so probable that I was bored through stretches.

Mundane science fiction also offends me by the notion that we know what is most probable.   We don’t, in my opinion, and some (but by no means all) of the conventions it rejects are not at all improbable.   I agree that FTL should be off the table and don’t use it in my own novels.   But that doesn’t mean that interstellar travel won’t happen, and it does seem that planets are abundant.   We’ll have the technology in decades or less to even identify Earth-like worlds with life (e.g., through detecting O2 absorption signatures).   SETI has barely scratched the surface of parameter space and we sure haven’t been looking very long.   And so what if vast distances “vex” interstellar communication?   I don’t get that.   That would still be cool as hell and assuming we don’t go extinct what are centuries?   And this business about abundance of resources…all the quantitative evidence historically has indicated that Malthusian disasters are very overrated.   The abundance we have in the 20th and 21st centuries would boggle the mind of the richest people on the planet in   previous times.

In short, I find it narrow, uninspiring, and unlikely from some perspectives.

What I write, and define to be “hard sf” is science fiction that doesn’t stray into the impossible.    I have aliens in my stories.   I have interstellar travel.   I have tenuous connections over vast distances.   I have a future of abundance.   It’s a mix of preference and what I see as probable.   And on the science issues I strive for as much accuracy as I can muster.   I have pages and pages of calculations to justify some events and physical structures in my novels.   Some of it is simple, some is complex, and some my readers will never notice.

So to summarize, mundane science fiction is science fiction that improbably anticipates no new discoveries or technologies and makes some narrow-minded assumptions that are unwarranted, while hard science fiction merely limits itself to avoiding scientific error and impossibility.

I know which one I prefer.

They both suffer from unfortunate, sucky names, don’t they?

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