Mundane science fiction means:
- telling stories of exploration and discovery that dig deeper instead of pushing outward — exploring ourselves and our relationships in a future bound to this planet.
- a new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.
- a speculative fiction where the speculations deal more with social sciences like anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, than physics, engineering, or chemistry.
Mundane science fiction began with Geoff Ryman’s 2004 “Mundane Manifesto.” It began by asserting that faster-than-light travel seems like a fantasy, “[t]hat magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth,” and “[t]hat this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.” It asserted that other alien life would face the same obstacles, and so travel or communication between alien worlds seems unlikely, that traveling through alternate universes seems unlikely, and therefore “the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Some science fiction authors consider this all as boring and strait-jacketed as the name “mundane” would seem to imply, though the manifesto points to works like 1984, Neuromancer, and Blade Runner to make the argument that “the Mundane Manifesto produces better science fiction.”
The Mundane Manifesto explicitly calls for “[a] new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.” The Fifth World explores a science fiction in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin, George R. Stewart, or Walter M. Miller, Jr., where the speculations of speculative fiction deal more with social sciences like anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, than physics, engineering, or chemistry.
Neil deGrasse Tyson says that when NASA stopped launching missions to the moon, “we stopped dreaming.” Maybe he has a point, but maybe we’ve simply stopped believing in that dream — the colonial dream that imperialism can go on, beyond the boundaries of the earth, to conquer the stars themselves. Critics of the mundanes say that it seems depressing to think that we have no more frontiers, nothing else to discover, nowhere else to explore. But how can we take such a criticism seriously? So many wonders surround us that we have only begun to explore, literally right beneath our feet. We have so much still to discover in the places that seem so familiar, and even in ourselves. The Fifth World deals with discovery and exploration as much as any other science fiction, but it deals with the discovery of the places we’ve always lived in, and the exploration of the places where we dwell, our own selves, and the web of kinship of a more-than-human world.
Of course, the Mundane Manifesto also ends with a directive to “burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring.”
The Earth — human, nonhuman, more-than-human, posthuman — is pretty remarkable. Science fiction can find a footing here and a relevancy. It can ground-truth our present becoming our future.