Controversial SciFi Realist Tells io9 Why Warp Drives Suck

Most science fiction movies make jumping to other star systems look as easy as stepping out for a bagel. But scientists think it'll never be that easy. So science fiction author Geoff Ryman (Air) invented a new school of writing called Mundane Science Fiction, which avoids faster-than-light travel, time travel or parallel universes. Why is he such a buzzkill? We asked him.



You've said that optimistic, planet-hopping science fiction leads people to believe we can abuse the Earth as much as we want, because we can just colonize space. Why is that?

Are you sure planet-hopping SF is optimistic? I find a lot of it escapist and genuinely despairing. I'm thinking of commercial SF, say movies like Lost in Space, where a destroyed environment is simply the spur to get us hopping across star systems in search of a beautiful new planet. To me that's a counsel of despair. We'll destroy this planet, it seems to say, so we need to find a nice new one.

An optimist, at least this optimist, feels that reducing carbon output and finding ways to bind it are just the kind of problem that human beings are good at solving. We can and we will strike a balance with the rest of this planet. How good we are at it will determine how many of us will die and how much of our culture we get to take with us.

But most science-fiction fans are often the greenest people around. They all drive hybrids!

I have no doubt your friends are green. They are probably just the people to be able to understand the chemistry behind global warming and to believe that the future can be very different from our comfortable life now. I'm sure they also know that you can't approach the speed of light without time dilation effects and that faster-than-light travel is highly unlikely. And as SF fans, they probably read the better SF novels.

But the better SF novels are not the SF that actually plays a perceptible role in society. The SF that has impact and that performs a powerful social function is media SF. Media SF continually and relentlessly shows large sections of society that it will be easy to fly to new green habitable worlds. This may be the wrong message when there's a strong chance that we only have this one planet.

Isn't it too soon to conclude that planets like Earth are rare in our galaxy?

Of course it's too soon. But it's way too late not to acknowledge that we may not get very far into the galaxy. That will limit the number of Earth-likes within range. The best we can hope for is anti-matter drives that get us up to a good percentage of the speed of light. That puts, by my rough reckoning, a horizon on how far we can get. I'd say about 30 light years at the outside.

And the term "Earth-type planet'' does not mean one in which there is oxygen, abundant water etc. It means a planet that has rock, is likely to be within a range of temperatures and which may have water and has gravity within a certain range. In all likelihood, it means a planet that needs terraforming. Let's consider the cost, difficulty and time needed to terraform Mars. Imagine having to do that across a 20 light year gap. It would make terraforming Mars the better option.

So why does so much science fiction cling to the faster-than-light drive?

Various reasons, many of which simply have to do with ease of storytelling. FTL gets you places faster, saving plot time. Lots of lovely green worlds give you an assortment of exotic locales. It absolutely makes sense to have galaxy busting spacecraft jumping all over the galaxy if all you want to do is write a fun story.

It sounds like you want to tell SF writers to eat their spinach. Is there any way to describe "mundane SF" that stresses the exciting story possibilities instead?

It's only spinach for writers. You have to be original, and there are fewer magic wands to get you out of plot difficulties. But the theory is, that once we get cooking on the new tropes, we'll have new and different futures to show. I'm co-editing the Mundane SF issue of Interzone with Julian Todd, and it does seem that our next step is to stop saying what we don't use, and start to pointing towards the fiction we're aiming at.

That issue has some neat near-future stories and some far-future stories, particularly a good one from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It's also got a story from Elisabeth Vonarburg, and work for some relatively new authors as well. One of the stories I wrote for the issue was a far-future Mundane story, which I liked, but it was too long for the issue at 15K.

What topics are you hoping to see mundane SF stories cover?

I'd like to see far- as well as near-future Mundane stories. I'm very hopeful given the range of stories we got for the issue. We did get a lot of climate-change or pandemic stories. But we also got a lot of speculation on the impact of technology on religion, genetics, psychology and psychotherapy. We got sailing stories, closed environment stories, lots of post-cyberpunk stories.

There also seems to be a link between writing mundane and being more concerned with gender issues or material of interest to women. I have no idea why that would be, but it's good to see.

What are some examples of mundane science fiction that you recommend?

Charles Stross' novel Glasshouse is self-identified Mundane. Ken MacLeod's next novel is self-identified mundane. I don't know if it's out in the States, but Anil Menon's first novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is mundane SF. The line we take is this: authors aren't mundane but stories are. This leaves authors free to write something else. The only person who can say if its author was playing the mundane game is the author him/herself. So it is kind of fun to spot stories that might have been Mundane, but unless the authors agree, well, it's not Mundane. My own personal might-have-been-Mundane favorite is Gattaca. Also lots of Philip K Dick, Samuel Delaney and J G Ballard.