Mundanezone

iz216coverIn Elisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Invisibles” (translated in collaboration with Howard Scott), ecotastrophe has become a story to be faithfully retold every Christmas. Told for most of its length as an utterly absorbing second-person narration, it describes a future in which extreme climate change has driven humanity into domed cities, and is one of those rare short stories that fully creates the future as another country. The technological innovations, such as “integrated circuits” grafted into peoples’ hands, are sufficiently worked-through that they are explained almost entirely by the ways in which they are used, such as built-in Oyster cards. It’s groundwork that frees Vonarburg to delve into the characters she (or her narrator: the story eventually resolves into the first person, told by an observer) wishes to imagine, and the sights they see. Or the things they hear, since “The Invisibles” is a story in which sound, or its absence, plays as much of a role as more visual stimuli; early on we’re told that “silence, nowadays, is the rule”, and there’s a sense in which it’s the wheezing of the public transport or the bubbling of a fountain that grab the attention, not the sight of the dome above. The story itself, which imagines the journeys of two individuals “unmoored by circumstances” from familiar to unfamiliar regions of the domes, is a convincing portrait of loneliness, uncertainty and alienation. For my money, it’s the standout story in Interzone 216. The only problem with it — and you may be ahead of me here — is that Interzone 216 is a special issue devoted to mundane sf, and the strengths of “The Invisibles” are largely incidental to its mundanity.

“The idea,” says Geoff Ryman, in his introduction, referring to the prohibitive tone of the original mundane manifesto, “was that Mundanity would work like the Dogme school of film-making to create a space for different kinds of sf. It was about what we didn’t want. Here’s what we do.” A cynic might point to his statement later in the introduction that “if [mundane sf] gives itself some slack on the science, it does so to open up a new possibility” as a cleverly-inserted get-out clause (aha! We’re not as dogmatic as you thought!), but perhaps it would be fairer not to hold mundane sf’s advocates to their past words too strongly, and just take this as what the publicity splurge obviously positions it as: a relaunch. The adversarial tone of the manifesto — which, tellingly, is no longer online, although you can find traces of it in discussions scattered across the sf blogosphere and beyond, or a complete copy in Vector 245 — ensured that the original launch of mundane sf as a concept, way back in 2004, was comprehensively bungled; much hot air later, from both pro- and anti- camps, and you can’t blame anyone if their first reaction to a whole issue of Interzone devoted to the stuff is hostile, and about the only good thing you can say is that the “movement” outlived expectations. But it remains, to my mind, a perfectly reasonable ideological position about sf, for two reasons that Ryman articulates: one, that stories about the future should make “an effort in good faith to show a future” (i.e., and not be fantasy in drag), and two, that a lot of sf’s strength derives from originality (i.e., and tropes that are “tired” can end up being, among other things, inadvertently consolatory, rather than the challenging literature that sf, I think many would be comfortable saying, should aspire to be). Whether or not it’s actually the “best possible” sf is basically irrelevant: taking the idea that it might be as a provocation isn’t the worst thing a writer could do.

What it comes down to, I guess, is whether you agree with the mundanes’ implicit argument that in the contemporary field the pendulum has swung too far away from sf that focuses on the probable, and too far towards wild speculation. There’s evidence either way. You could look, for example, at awards shortlists. Certainly, on this year’s Hugo shortlist for Best Novel, only one nominee — Charles Stross’ Halting State — is unarguably mundane, having explicitly been written to meet mundane constraints. (Alien communications buzz out Rollback, while parallel worlds see off Brasyl and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) On the other hand, arguably only one nominee — John Scalzi’s The Last Colony — is meaningfully anti-mundane, in its cheerful use of many familiar tropes from sf’s history; and this year’s Clarke Award shortlist drew some fire for, among other things, basically being too mundane. Another way to approach the question, though, would be to look at content. It would be fair, for instance, to ask where the climate change stories are. Stross once charmingly described the singularity as the unavoidable turd in the punchbowl of sf, but you could easily argue the the turd should be climate change, or at least the confluence of climate change and peak oil. But, with a few exceptions — Kim Stanley Robinson is the obvious one — the stories aren’t there, certainly not in the numbers that post-singularity tales now are. A reasonable number of works have climate change as a backdrop, but very few engage with it as an issue that could define our next fifty years.

And of those that do engage with it, plenty take the same approach as “The Invisibles”, and lose sight of any connection with our world. I’ve already said Vonarburg’s story is fine work, but there’s not a thing about it that couldn’t have been achieved equally well using a domed city on another planet. This is, if you like, a problem of affect, and it rears its head again in IZ216’s other major climate change story, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s “Endra — From Memory”, except that this time it’s actively to the tale’s detriment. We’re a bit further into the future this time (I think), and the tale is mostly told through the memoirs of one Melizan kem Gishcar-Shwy. He — sex is never specified, but the name sounds male to my ears — is a “Trading Monitor” for Lavrant City, which means his job is to arrange inspections of ships’ cargo when they arrive and leave, and he’s fascinated by one particular arrival, the charismatic Captain Endra YuiduJin. (I’m not actually convinced Endra is portrayed as charismatic so much as she is repeatedly described by Melizan as charismatic; but I’ll let that lie, because my main issue with the story is elsewhere.) Through Malazin’s recollections, we learn a bunch of stuff: that this Earth has become a waterworld; that the waters are still rising; that the population of Earth is now estimated to be half a billion, and declining; and that Endra is in search of a lost city, where the legends have it that “all the treasures lost to the rising waters remain pristine and perfect; where all men love knowledge and peace; where there is no hunger, no injustice, no cruelty, and sadness has been forgotten”. She sails away in search; she returns briefly, two years later; and then is never seen again. It’s a perfectly reasonable story of its type, but I can’t treat it as a good-faith attempt to engage with the future of our planet because it does absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished in a secondary-world fantasy setting, and a pretty cosily romanticised one at that. There isn’t much injustice or cruelty visible in Lavrant City, so Endra’s search seems a little pointless. In his introduction, Ryman notes that many of the stories that ended up in the issue were surprisingly hopeful, “at a time when the future looks so dark”; but to my mind, the future of “Endra — From Memory” isn’t so much hopeful as thoroughly domesticated.

Two stories which aspire to be a bit more thorny are both set in near-future America. R. R. Angell’s “Remote Control” is narrated by a US army private stationed on the Mexico/US border; his assignment is to monitor the “Atco-Johnson Perimeter Stations” that keep the border clear. They’re solar-powered gun turrets with webcams, essentially, and any patriotic American citizen can pay five dollars to log on and take control of one for a ten-minute stint. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to pop off some shots at illegal immigrants. This is, or should be, harsh stuff, and certainly has some nice touches — “Like the training says, if someone breaks into your house and you kill them it is self-defense; a homeowner has the right to do that. They call it the Castle Precedent, and it changed the way we do everything. Only Americans patrol our borders. It would be illegal otherwise” — but the military banter that drives the story is tiresome (even if deliberately parodic), and the ending, in which the system is effectively subverted, feels like a cop-out. You’re left thinking of the much better, because more committed to the logic of its premise, version of the same story that someone like Paolo Bacigalupi would write. More ambitious is Billie Aul’s “The Hour is Getting Late”, in which a critic provides commentary on “Woodstock 2044″, a VR-enhanced tribute to the spirit of the sixties (or, more accurately, what people in 2044 imagine the spirit of the sixties to be), while trying to avoid being manipulated back into marriage by her artist ex. Aul’s problem, in a sense, is the opposite to Angell’s. She does follow the logic of her concepts, for the most part — there’s the simple cynicism with which relationships are treated, for instance, or the glimpses of the lives of “Fare folk” living behind the “Manhattan wall” that keep popping up on news bulletins:

Jessica was amused by how much the hippies resembled the Fare folk. Hopefully the Fare folk were only looking for “three days of peace, love, and music”. Whatever they wanted, they were going to end up back on their farms. They should know how lucky they were to have that. There were countries where people like them were just locked up in camps to starve to death. If you couldn’t do work a robot couldn’t do, why should you be allowed to put your carbon footprint on the planet at all?

The suggestion of complexity here is, to my mind, very efficient; you get the issue, what people think about the issue, and an idea of where the issue comes from, all in one paragraph. (Similarly, though pop culture is a notoriously treacherous area for sf, Aul manages to make the scene of 2044 feel like it has a little depth, that it’s not just about aping the stuff we’re familiar with.) But the telling doesn’t have the vigour that it needs to make these concepts really bite; it’s just sentence after straightforward, unadventurous sentence. I suspect it’s intended to embody Jessica’s lack of interest in and understanding of the world beyond her horizon — in the story’s final paragraph, the Fare folk attack the Wall, and she wonders, deadpan, “what in the world they thought they could accomplish by doing that”. But, unfortunately, for the most part it is simply leaden. The story is worth reading — something I’m not sure I can say about Angell’s effort — but it’s in spite of this blankness of attitude, not because of it.

And, despite the implicit argument that mundane sf should be a way for sf to renew itself, I can’t say that either Aul’s story or Angell’s really recharges my imagination of an American future. More interesting is Anil Menon’s “Into the Night”, in which an Indian father travels to visit his daughter, and finds that he can cope with changes in the world but not changes in the people he knows — although the father’s resistance to genetics and evolutionary biology comes across as arrogant ignorance on his part, when I suspect we’re meant to read it as a failure of communication on hers. But the most provocative stories in the issue, from a mundane standpoint, are those that top and tail it, by Lavie Tidhar and Geoff Ryman, respectively.

Ryman’s “Talk is Cheap” offers a richer world than anything else in the issue; or perhaps just denser. In its few pages, it packs in cultural comment, weak AI, social recategorisation, water shortages, photosynthetic skin, self-heating paint, and much more, a world where “Reality is a tiny white stable dot in the middle of all this info,” and “Everything else, all the talk, is piled up sky high, prioritised, processed and offered back.” It’s not a new conception of the future, but the seriousness with which it is treated is enough to make the story stand out. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the technical aspects of the story — the way Ryman filters all this information through the present-tense perspective of one cranky old guy, whose job it is to go places in the real world and check their environmental qualities against records — are more interesting than the emotional aspects, or the world itself. It’s more of a good-faith attempt to portray the experience of living in a highly textured future than it is a good-faith attempt to portray that future for its own sake; but it’s so effective at that portrayal that it feels churlish to complain. (As it would be to question whether all the ideas that Ryman works in are, strictly, mundane.)

Tidhar’s “How to Make Paper Airplanes”, meanwhile, is a brief piece set on islands in the Republic of Vanuatu. The first half of the story is pure tour-guide, a series of facts and figures about the islands that establish their separateness to the lives of us rich Westerners, despite being on the same planet; the second half introduces us to four Americans (I think) working at a small base on one of the islands, three of whom are carrying out various kinds of research, and one of whom (the narrator) is a shop-keeper. I like Lavie Tidhar’s short fiction, and this has the precision of setting and emotion that I’ve come to expect; but neither half of “How to Make Paper Airplanes” is science fiction. The story’s place in the magazine is justified, presumably, by the story that one of the researchers is writing, and the comments the others make about it:

“I’m writing a science fiction story about us,” Sam Friedman says. “It has no aliens in it, no commercial space travel, no telepathy.”

“You’re a fucking alien,” Jimmy Morgan says.

“I can tell you how the story ends,” Sam says, ignoring him.

I say, “How?”

“One night,” Sam says, and the candle makes his eyes twinkle, “one night we get drunk and mix up all the experiments together. Ben uses my self-fermenting coconuts for his kava-pop experiment. Jimmy hooks up a generator to power things up –“

“It’s not that simple–” Jimmy starts.

“And then,” Sam says, again ignoring him, “the whole thing explodes. It’s a huge fireball. It makes a crater the size of Sola. But we all survive anyway, I’m not quite sure how yet.”

Sounds more like infernokrusher than mundane sf, right? And the proposed story doesn’t get any more plausible: it turns out that the source of the explosion is “a revolutionary new fuel”, which launches a Vanuatu space programme. This despite the fact that Sam later argues that sf isn’t a license to make up anything you want. The story-within-a-story is a striking contrast to what we actually see of the islands, and the comments made about which technologies are actually useful for their situation, and how contact with the West has really affected the islanders. (One particularly effective exchange reports the remarks of an islander, untranslated but dotted with words such as “virus”. The point is painfully obvious.) Sam is, in other words, the sort of sf writer that mundane sf wants to get through to: the sort who don’t see the world around them as a rich enough prompt for stories.

Which brings us back to the central question raised by this issue of Interzone. It’s not a bad issue — Vonarburg’s story is very good, and the stories by Ryman, Tidhar and Aul all have something to recommend them — but does it, as a whole, make a convincing case for mundane sf? Ironically, it’s probably Tidhar’s story — which isn’t sf at all — that best articulates the value of what something like mundane sf could offer, which is the value of extrapolating from the world as it is, and not as we imagine it to be, or would like it to be. Too many of the others don’t engage with their futures with the specificity that I’d hope for; with the exception of Ryman’s story, and possibly Aul’s, it’s not hard to see how the same points could have been made by translating the stories into, say, space opera. But perhaps the most telling indication of the failure of these stories to reinvigorate our thinking about the future is to look at who they’re about. In terms of where they’re from, the protagonists are a fairly varied bunch; in terms of how long they’ve lived, not so much. Yarbro’s story is written by an old man recalling his youth; Menon and Ryman deal with old men trying to live with the future they find themselves in; and while technically the narrator of Vonaburg’s story is relatively young, the two subjects of the narrator’s imagining are both elderly. Which means that mundane sf, on the evidence of Interzone 216, isn’t so much about looking forwards and thinking about change as it is about coming to terms; a stance which to my mind harnesses neither the best, nor the most challenging, aspects of sf.

2 Responses to “Mundanezone”

  1. Jonathan M Says:

    Awesome review Niall.

    I particularly agree with the suggestion that writing about a kind of near-post-apocalyptic America arguably isn’t the best way to show-case the new-shiny approach to writing SF.

  2. Chrononautic Log 改 » Blog Archive » Second guesses Says:

    [...] also think there might be something interesting to be found by juxtaposing Cheryl’s post with Niall’s review of the Interzone Mundane issue, though I’m still too jet-lagged to find it [...]


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