John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Mundane SF stands no chance against the New Space Princess Movement!

I was surprised to find out that I have been writing 'Singularity' SF when I wrote THE GOLDEN AGE. I had never heard the term before, and I certainly did not know that there were serious fans of 'The Rapture of the Nerds' (another term I had never heard) who are hoping within their lifetimes to reach the augmentations of post-humanity. I was just doing extrapolation.

Well, now I am similarly surprised to find out that there is a name for the kind of SF I write. It is called 'Mundane SF' --at least by one editor.

Today there is no --

  • Faster than light travel
  • Psi power
  • Nanobot technology
  • Extraterrestrial life
  • Computer consciousness
  • Materially profitable space travel
  • Human immortality
  • Brain downloading
  • Teleportation
  • Time travel

-- And maybe there never will be!

Again, I would have thought this is called 'Hard SF'. Good old Mark Shea over at Catholic and Enjoying It calls this 'It Ain't Going to Happen SF'

Do I have any quibbles with this list? Well, I would not be an intellectual if I did not quibble.

Myself, I think that 'materially profitable space travel' is a question of economics, not just of physics. In my short story 'Farthest Man from Earth' I posited the only thing I could think of that would make travel to another star profitable: the secret of eternal life. You don't think anyone who could do, would send an expedition to pick up Stroon from Norstrilla or the geriatric spice from Dune? The time in which to pay back the return on investment of the initial cost is expanded for the immortals. But notice I have to postulate one impossible (immortality) to explain another impossible (economic star travel).

Far more likely the only people ever to go to other stars are Jesuits. Life in a steel can for decades ship-time (or, more likely, in an inflatable mylar balloon) might be done to carry the Gospel to the E.T.'s -- because even a worldly Pope might think the Popes two thousand years from now will remember him for organizing the expedition. But for conquest or trade? Not likely. Emperors and merchants do not think in those timespans.

Extraterrestrial life seems to me to be a very conservative speculation. There is water on Mars and on Io; the number of extrasolar planets known to us has gone in the last ten years from 1 to 21. That is of nearby stars, very nearby. Indeed, a science fiction writer who posits that we are all alone in this huge bejeweled cosmos has to postulate (and make seem likely to the reader) some sharp deviation from the conventional understanding of the origins of planets and the origins of life. I am sure we will find evidence of non-earth microbes or even seaweed within my lifetime.

So, I would not put alien life on this list, which otherwise is a fair summary of speculations that only could take place if our fundamental understanding of the universe is totally wrong (time travel, FTL) or could not take place until our fundamental understanding of the universe is expanded to include a complete and technical understanding of things we currently know not even fact one about (brain downloading? computer consciousness? -- come on. We do not even have a definition of what consciousness is, much less what its physical, reproduce-able properties are.)

One last word on the nature of consciousness. I was surprised again to find out that the serious academic (or perhaps not so serious -- I have not read the book) uses the same speculation for the origin of consciousness as I use in my THE GOLDEN AGE, namely, that any sufficiently self-referential information system must perforce become self-modifying and hence self-aware (which is my basis for arguing against the Asimovian idea that intelligent robots could be programmed. Brainwashed, maybe; persuaded, more likely; programmed, no. You cannot program a self-programmable entity without its consent, my dear materialists. The 'positrons' will not stay in the patterns you put them in once the positronic brain starts thinking.) Anyway, consciousness as a  side-effect of self-reference (he calls it a 'Strange Loop') appears in this book:  I Am a Strange Loop By Douglas R. Hofstadter

Interesting new idea. Except that, as usually happens with new ideas: science fiction was here first. I also speculate how an organism gets to be self-aware: by philosophy, or, in other words, by the increasing complexity of its self-referential sense impressions and categories of perception. A bug might not need categories of 'me' and 'mine' to operate, but something like a bitch protecting her puppies likely does.

(Science fiction is often here first. Does anyone but me get the impression that the debate about the morality of cloning humans was something we fanboys were talking about 40 years ago?)

But back to the original topic: I rather admire the idea of 'Mundane SF' because it follows that hard-nosed extrapolation school of Jules Verne rather than the social extrapolation of HG Wells. Barbacane's cannon shell to the moon is perfectly feasible by Newtonian mechanics, albeit unmanned. Cavor's gravity-ignoring sphere is as realistic as Lessingham's chariot pulled by Hippogriffs flying to Mercury, or Cyrano's gunpowder-propelled grasshopper. Compare the realism of Wells' MEN LIKE GODS to the realism of the submarine of Captain Nemo or the aircraft of Robur the Conqueror. The submarine, the rotary engine, and the Clipper of the Clouds are here, or just like. Where is our nudist socialist utopia?

Nonetheless, as the founding member of the Space Princess movement, I have to issue my own list of the requirements for our very serious and somber literary school:

Today there is no --

  • Extraterrestrial Life
  • Evolved to human intelligence
  • Occupying the roughly same technological stratum as Earth
  • Except that they they fight with swords and rayguns and fly ornithopters or something
  • On a world with an oxy-nitrogen atmosphere & earthlike shirt sleeve environment
  • Not to mention dinosaurs, cavemen, robots, man-eating plants, undersea cities
  • But are ruled by evil imperial Monarch
  • Who just so happens to look like Max Von Sydow
  • whose daughter is a nubile, voluptuous babe of Total Hotness
  • In a skimpy, clinging costume
  • that exposes her midriff
  • who lusts after a clean-limbed fighting-man from Virginia

-- And surely there never will be! But we can dream --

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