Yesterday evening I went to see Geoff Ryman and Amanda Hemingway (aka Jan Siegel) being interviewed by Pat Cadigan at the fifth anniversary of the monthly Borders evenings (every second Monday of the month, in the Borders on Oxford Street, London).
In the midst of a whole slew of fascinating topics which are best left for him to expound on himself (doing research for Was in Kansas, the inspiration behind 253, doing research for The King’s Last Song in Cambodia, the nature of small towns everywhere), Ryman briefly mentioned some of the thoughts and feelings on the science fiction genre that were behind his Mundane Manifesto. He skipped over the manifesto itself, and I will too, because, if I understand what he was saying correctly, the type of fiction it encourages is simply one specific way of manifesting Ryman’s real hope for the science fiction genre.
From what Ryman was saying last night, I took this message: science fiction too frequently engages only with its own history as a literary genre, when it should be engaging instead with the world.
The use of tropes such as faster than light travel, etc. (the kind of tropes the mundane manifesto wished to avoid in sf) is an indication that the writers who use such tropes are referring back to and “conversing” with earlier science fiction works which also used those same tropes. To choose to use such tropes is to choose to develop them in the context of the science fiction tradition. It is to choose to engage with science fiction as a self-referential literary genre. Whereas to choose to engage with the world, rather than with a genre, to engage with modern science and technology, and with modern lives and societies, well, if writers were genuinely engaging with the world around them then they probably wouldn’t still be turning up those well worn tropes. The issue is about what the use of different tropes signals about the overall approach, whether it’s inward looking or outward looking, not about whether you are or aren’t “allowed” to use those tropes.
I am increasingly looking for engagement with the actual world I inhabit in the fiction I read. I do find that this means that I’m not always that interested in reading some modern core science fiction, because some of it doesn’t seem to have to much to say about anything other than the literary genre it inhabits. I’m not particularly interested in following a heavily referential literary conversation, but I am interested in exploring the modern world through fiction. I find myself drawn to the science fiction that does actually engage with modern technology and modern culture (and I think Ryman’s fiction, a book such as Air, is a prime example of this).
I find that placing an emphasis, in reading, writing or criticism, on defining genres, on taxonomies, and in particular on defining genres according to their histories and their traditions, is a stifling practice, unless those definitions and taxonomies can be used as tools for looking beyond their own boundaries. I love science fiction, but I love it for what it can say to me about the universe I’m living in, not for its own sake.