Thoughts Sparked By Hearing Geoff Ryman Speak on the SF Genre

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.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts Sparked By Hearing Geoff Ryman Speak on the SF Genre

  1. Here’s what I want science fiction to do: Discuss the important things which nobody yet realizes are important.

    In the early 1950s, that would have meant British sf writers discussing the UK’s loss of major-power status. Not assuming that England would of course remain a major power on Earth and become one in space. (Yes, I meant “England” rather than “United Kingdom” there; the rest of the UK wasn’t worth mentioning.)

    It would have meant US sf writers discussing the Baby Boom. It was easily foreseeable that in the not-too-distant future, universities and colleges would have more students than they could properly handle; but so far as I know, no sf writers did.

  2. Could SF’s constant postmodern-esque self-referencing habit be due to the hunched-shouldered ‘no one else likes our genre, so we’ll all just go out to the back yard and eat worms’ ethos of fandom and the genre in general? Adam Roberts’ recent ‘History of SF’ provides some fuel for this particular fire, I think.

    SF as an insular community – now there’s a self-referential metaphor that needs exploring! ;)

    (Disclaimer – I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. Just kicking ideas around…I feel a post coming on.)

  3. But, increasingly, SF is the world and the world is SF. We live our lives surrounded by the tropes of SF. So engaging with SF and engaging with the world are becoming the same thing.

  4. As you know, I understood Ryman’s comments slightly differently. Yes, he wants SF to engage with the world, because SF should be looking to the future, and extrapolating possibilities – as Dan says above, discussing the important things. I differ in what he was saying about what SF is doing that he dislikes, I thought it wasn’t that it was engaging with its own history specifically, but there is lot of SF which takes the easy route (ie faster than light travel, no thoughts about the Fermi paradox) and uses technologies which are impossible. They’re not based in the world we live in, they’re something they use because it makes other parts of the storytelling easier, and the Mundane manifesto is an effort to get writiers to really think about it, find other ways round the problems which are based on current scientific fact, and not take the lazy way out.

    I think we’re saying the same thing but coming from different angles. It’s interesting that you mention Air, because while the social and cultural aspects are great, I don’t feel the technology of Air is drawn so much from modern technology, and I’m not even touching on the implausibility of the events at the end of the book.

  5. I’m all for avoiding laziness in storytelling, and the mundanes do have a point that the use of tropes such as FTL, etc, can be a lazy shortcut, and Paul’s probably right that it can be a consequence of sf’s cultural cringe.

    I have a slight problem with the idea that using tropes is somehow to axiomatically turn away from engagement with the world, though. I think engagement with the genre and engagement with the world are really independent variables. Which is to say that it seems to me there’s a difference between being engaged with the genre and being in thrall to it; I can think of as many books that are Genre+/World+ as I can books that are G-/W+, or G+/W- (or G-/W-).

    Much as it pains me to say it, look at Star Trek. Sure, there are plenty of episodes that revolve around meaningless technobabble and stock tropes and have no consequence–but equally, there are plenty of others where the stock tropes are used to illuminate some aspect of our contemporary lives.

  6. Dan: I don’t necessarily want or expect science fiction to be able to predict or grapple with issues that are or will be relevant, right now or in the near future. By engaging with the world I just meant grounding the fiction somehow in the human experience, any sort of human experience, rather than playing abstract conceptual and linguistic games with the traditional set of tropes. And this really is quite a personal desire – in the past I’ve enjoyed abstract games as much as the next man, but I feel that there’s a limit to what can interestingly be done with that, and that I personally am getting bored with seeing sf do it and would like to see more experiential engagement in the genre.

    Armchair Anarchist: I do think there is something of a cultural cringe factor going on, but I also think the tendency to engage more with the abstract concepts the genre has created for itself and less with our present life experiences is part of a general approach in sf that simply favours abstract concepts over physical lived experience. It’s a trend that’s always been around in sf – I think it’s what’s behind the traditional lack of characterisation, lack of exploration of human emotions/relationships, etc.

  7. Liz,

    I differ in what he was saying about what SF is doing that he dislikes, I thought it wasn’t that it was engaging with its own history specifically, but there is lot of SF which takes the easy route (ie faster than light travel, no thoughts about the Fermi paradox) and uses technologies which are impossible. They’re not based in the world we live in, they’re something they use because it makes other parts of the storytelling easier, and the Mundane manifesto is an effort to get writiers to really think about it, find other ways round the problems which are based on current scientific fact, and not take the lazy way out.

    I see what you’re saying, but my interpretation of what Ryman was saying is one level up from that. Why is using these tropes lazy? Why is this sort of laziness in storytelling a bad thing? Because it’s a failure of engagement with the world, and what are writers engaging with if they’re not engaging with the world?

    I think a book like Air does engage with the world, even if it’s not engaging with modern science. To me, it seems to be engaging with aspects of globalisation and culture and the social response to developments in technology and to change in general. You’re right, it’s not engaging with the technical aspects of the technology or with science, but it’s most definitely engaging with the modern world. (And that’s the lens I’m interpreting Ryman through: the lens of what he puts into practice in his fiction, rather than what the mundane manifesto lays out.)

    I think the laziness Ryman is ultimately talking about can’t be boiled down to the use of certain types of tropes and failure to use other storytelling techniques instead – it’s about a general approach. The mundane manifesto is just one way of embodying that approach (with respect to engaging with science in particular) but Ryman himself proves it’s not the only way, and as Niall says, there are ways of using the traditional tropes and engaging with the world.

  8. Do writers have to be engaging with anything at all? I guess this is the G-/W- case, that in not engaging with the world I don’t think they’re necessarily turning to the genre.

    No arguments about Air being engaged with the world in many ways. I’m just choosing to pick up on the science aspects, because as good as the speculation about the future is on the social and cultural aspects, it’s not quite as good on the technology.

    (I’ve also just read Ryman’s review of The Carpet Makers in Foundation 97, which is the book he was specifically criticising for using tropes like FTL drives and instant interplanetary communication. He calls it a “fairy-tale with spaceships”.)

  9. Liz,

    I think writers have to be engaging with something, otherwise why write?

    It’s true that not engaging with the world doesn’t necessarily mean engaging with the sf genre, though I do think there’s a strong tendency for sf writers to engage with genre tropes, sometimes to the detriment of engaging with other issues, so whether that’s a necessity or not is a moot point if it generally tends to happen.

    I’d whole-heartedly agree that The Carpet Makers is a fairy-tale with spaceships, and approaching in that vein, I read it as allegory more than anything else, and interpreted it as engaging with the world through allegorical means. To me, it wasn’t really about exploring the realistic implications of interplanetary travel, just as Air is not about the practical details of communications technology.

    You’re right though, that if that is Ryman’s position on The Carpet Makers, then I might be interpreting what he was saying on Monday wrongly, reading my own notions into what was said rather than hearing his point of view.

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