Friday, September 6, 2013

Mundane Doesn't Have to Mean Boring

I just read a REAL mundane SF novel online.

Our sister blogger over at The Galaxy Express, Heather Massey, recently posted a review of a science fiction romance set on current day Earth, Red Shoes for Lab Blues (  Despite its initial presentation as what looked like a contemporary romance with a medical setting, Red Shoes, Heather discovered, is a “mundane” SFR—and a good one.

Ah, but what, you ask, is a “mundane” SFR?  And how boring can that be?  The very definition of “mundane”, after all, according to my Oxford American Dictionary, is “lacking interest or excitement.”  However, the second meaning is “relating to the physical world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.”  And, that is closer to the meaning the SF world has always given it.

Stories set on Earth, rather than in space; stories set in the present day or near-future, rather than in the far future; stories using known technology or technology that can be readily extrapolated from known technology; stories focused on humans, rather than aliens or monsters (though aliens may show up, typically as the bad guys)—these are generally thought of as “mundane” science fiction. 

This, though, is only the broad, or rather, the diluted, definition of mundane SF.  The original hardcore definition was posited by Canadian SF author Geoff Ryman at a Clarion (California) writer’s workshop in 2004.  In his Mundane Manifesto, Ryman argued that many of the tropes of traditional science fiction—time travel, interstellar travel, intelligent aliens, habitable planets and so on—were in fact “stupidities” and outside the realm of possibility.  Despite their ability to entertain, they should be avoided in favor of the idea that “Earth is all we have.”  Plenty of ideas—artificial intelligence, scientific advancement, genetic manipulation, virtual reality, global warming—exist on this planet to provide fodder for the writerly imagination.  Thus mundane SF should only concern itself with such concrete subjects.

Wow.  That’s harsh, man.  It’s bad enough that NASA has pulled humanity (well, at least Americans) out of space.  Now the Mundane Manifesto argues that science fiction—the last resort of space dreamers—should do it, too.

“Mundane” was never the best term for a subgenre of science fiction.  Most people are going to equate it with that first definition I gave you and think “boring,” especially when you think that it’s an old term among SF/fantasy fans for “those not in the know”.  Harry Potter and friends may have used “muggles”, but I think “mundanes” was the original term for those without magic used by the wiccans.

So, given all this, I really think we need a fresh term for SFR that is set on Earth, or close to Earth; is set in the present day, near-future, or an indeterminate time; deals with current or easily extrapolated technology and focuses on humans.  When you think about it much of the best of New Wave SF could be described in those terms—classics by Zenna Henderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison and others.  Think of the best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, of FRINGE, of THE X-FILES.  Think of 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaiden’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451.

The one thing that stands out when I name these classics is that hard science is not prevalent in them.  People—relationships—are prevalent.  Maybe that’s just my preference.  Maybe you could find just as many titles that fit the criteria and put science first.  I doubt it, though.  Science fiction has been dominated by physicists and astronomers, not biologists or doctors, who tend to write medical thrillers.

Still, the point is, we need a new moniker.  Home-based SFR?  Small-circle SFR?  Grounded SFR?  Familiar SFR? Everything I think of seems so limiting.  Help me out, y’all.  We don’t fit the mundane straitjacket, not sure we want to. But we are different from our startrekking cousins.  We just need to tell everyone that adventures can be had close to home, too.

Cheers, Donna


  1. My first thought on seeing Mundane was Piers Anthony and the Xanth books - pretty sure those who lived outside the magical Kingdom and had no powers were Mundanes. Terran SFR? Closer-to-home? Near Earth? Terrestrial SFR (since aliens are regarded as EXTRAterrestrial)? Terrestrial has a nice SF ring to it.

  2. Wow, you are right, that label has got to go. ANYTHING would be better.

    I like Pippa's "Terrestrial SFR."

  3. Terrestrial SFR has a nice ring to it, though it sounds like we're primarily involved with terraforming. But you're right, Sharon, ANYTHING would be better than mundane!

  4. I think Earth-based SF or SFR works well. Totally agree I don't like the "Mundane" moniker. It sounds...well, boring, plain, not exciting, and most of the Earth-based SFR I've read is anything but.


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