Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Plea For Strangeness

I just read this in David Moles Chrononautic Log and of course it appealed to me greatly since I write mostly science fiction and almost none of it is interstellar. I don't remember hearing about Mundane SF (can I not have heard about it, or have I just forgotten?) But it seems to me that there's a lot of mileage left in interstellar galactic empires (which are never about interstellar galactic empires and are about all sorts of other things.) A Galaxy Spanning Empire seems to me a great place to talk about the difficulty of communication between cultures, about foreignness, about the impossible bigness of things, even, if you wanted, about watching a couple of billion people hurtle towards ecological disaster knowing that millions and millions would die of the ensuing climactic change.

(Side note to side comment after that post: I also now have a perverse desire to write a cool story featuring a white guy.)

I don't think using naturalistic techniques of characterization is a new thing in sf and fantasy. And, while there is a fair share of people writing, 'Would you like to have lunch, milady' genre prose, I think I'd like to see more stuff that was less like the way people I know speak and think. Patrick O'Brien wrote some really kick ass genre fiction about people who were astonishingly alien and who spoke in really odd ways, and they were just separated from us by about two hundred years. Which might as well have been 17 light years.

Since Geoff Ryman is one of the founders of the this movement, I know it is in fact far more interesting than it sounds in the Manifesto--The Child Garden is a book full of the incredibly strange. I would prefer to ask sf to be stranger, rather than more Mundane. I think that there should be a Strangeness Manifesto.

SF/Fantasy as a genre is, as much as anything about rocket ships and magic, about the tension between strangeness and the knowable about human nature. (Hey, a new definition of sf! Equally bad as the others, but useful for discussion.) Conventions allow readers to navigate the strange. Okay, this story may have dragons that speak telepathically, but it's also a coming of age story, and I know what that means. (Or a romance. Or a revenge story, although real revenge stories are not a strong part of our cultural baggage and so we tend to write really simple wish-fulfillment versions of them involving vigilante justice, probably because our stories are more about the restrictions a pretty functional social system of justice places on the need for personal satisfaction, rather than the ramifications of revenge in the more classic sense. But I digress.) Our appetite for strangeness is a little more jaded, probably because we've exposed so much that lots of things that used to be strange, like sexual subcultures, or postpartum depression, or the complex social life of meercats. (All of which are on television these days.)

I know that by asking for a Manifesto of Strangeness, I am in danger of misrepresenting this as the Manifesto for Mundane misrepresents the very strangeness of Ryman's stories and prose. I'm not going to write the manifesto. Because strangeness can happen in very mundane ways. Like seeing the little dirt floor dachas in Russia (the summer houses of the average person, not the big second homes of the elite) with bright red geraniums out front. Here I was, surrounded by a bunch of depressed people (this was the Soviet Union in the year it would end, when people in the north hadn't had meat for two years and the groceries had nothing in them but shriveled looking potatoes) speaking a language I didn't understand, all of them having pretty much nothing to do with me. I was on an AARP tour with my mother and fifty other elderly people (another strange situation.) The shocking thing was not those exotic little cottages with their careful trim, their lack of plumbing, their gardens, but the geraniums. It never occurred to me that there would be geraniums in Russia, which is of course in retrospect rather obvious. But the moment for me became very strange because geraniums were part of my life, and the culture of dachas isn't in my life, and yet, now the two had been brought together.

If that kind of every day strangeness (AARP, dachas, geraniums, the fall of Soviet Empire) can find its way in sf, fine. In fact, I guess a lot of time that's what I do. But what I want to read is White Queen by Gwyneth Jones, with its off stage interstellar empire. It's weird insect-symbiote ridden aliens. It's very blind and very human misreading of otherness. It was a cool book.


Blogger Beth Adele said...

I'm not writing any manifestos either, but I'll sign up for your Strangeness Non-manifesto.

I like magic. I like goats on Mars and paths that wander around the forest and houses that are bigger on the inside than on the outside. I want stories that turn me inside out.

Even the mainstream stuff I like best often features a lot of strangeness. The Cloud Factory in Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Things like that.

Not that I don't understand that this doesn't appeal to a lot of people, and that's fine; they can have their books if I can have mine. I just know what I like, and it's usually strange.

May 06, 2007 9:33 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

You know, when I first saw the call for submissions on TTA's website and read their little list of requirements, I thought it was kind of a cool idea. My first thought, actually, was of your own "Oversite." Anything that causes more stories like that to be written has to be good.

But then I followed some links and got into all the furrow-browed debates over philosophies and paradigms, Mundane SF vs. Magical SF (dear god, those awful names!), and I felt my enthusiasm drain. I think, sometimes, we talk about fiction too much. It reminded me of the poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer", by Walt Whitman:

"When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."

May 06, 2007 11:37 PM  
Blogger Stefan said...

"This is the awe-inspiring universe of magic: There are no atoms, only waves and motions all around. Here, you discard all belief in barriers to understanding. You put aside understanding itself. This universe cannot be seen, cannot be heard, cannot be detected in any way by fixed perceptions. It is the ultimate void where no preordained screens occur upon which forms may be projected. You have only one awareness here — the screen of the magi: Imagination! Here, you learn what it is to be human. You are a creator of order, of beautiful shapes and systems, an organizer of chaos."

- The Atreides Manifesto, Bene Gesserit Archives

May 07, 2007 5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll sign up for your non-manifesto, too, Maureen. What you are talking about, too, in a sense, is the animating moment in fiction--that moment when you feel as a reader that the writer has tapped into something greater than the writer's self, that the writer him- or herself isn't quite sure how that element got in there. I love that when I read.


May 07, 2007 9:00 AM  
Blogger Beth Adele said...

P.S. (Now that I've actually followed your links to read the Mundane SF manifesto:) Just because something's not likely, why the hell shouldn't we write about it? [confused]

May 07, 2007 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Deborah Roggie said...

That description of Mundane SF reminds me of the century-old call for writers to restrict themselves to writing realistic fiction. Ugh!

May 07, 2007 10:23 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

This is what I tried to do with the Fortean Bureau and will be trying to do if we relaunch. Which we may be doing this year.

May 07, 2007 10:39 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Mundan SF sounds so much more dire than it is. If there is anyone who is full of the strange, the magical, that moment that JeffV describes, it is Geoff Ryman. The Manifesto isn't actually a call for deadness.

Stefan, I love that quote. Herbert was writing about art, he just thought he was writing about the beliefs and practices of the Bene Gesserit. (Or maybe he knew he was writing about both.)

Nathan, there was a point in writing "Oversite" that I thought the story was just too flat. That was when I described Renata's paintings. I thought whatever 17 year old runaway Renata painted had to crack the story open, had to work like poetry. When I read the sentence that opens the section that describes what she paints, someone in the audience usually gasps. The sentence is "Renata paints pictures of girls hit by cars."

But now I'm still thinking I want to write a galactic empire story...

May 07, 2007 10:43 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Two classic techniques for cultivating the urges that produce great, fresh, strange fiction:

1) Taking trope baggage you've numbly inherited from your literary ancestors and interrogating it rigorously, raising your bar for suspension of disbelief. Whether as in "would that *really* work, given physics?" or as in "would that *really* work, given human nature?" or as in "what is this actually *saying* politically?" or whatever.

2) Getting pissed off at Rules for Writing and vowing to do the opposite.

Thus the Mundane's Manifesto is a way of creating strangeness.

As is getting pissed off about the Mundane's Manifesto.

May 07, 2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Ben, you're right, of course. But I'm not really pissed off about the Mundane Manifesto, just the way it sounds. I guess my complaint is a marketing complaint.

May 07, 2007 5:50 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I suspect the reason we haven't heard about the Mundane Manifesto is that it was put together by Clarion students, who--- assuming they weren't doing it for a lark--- haven't yet had much of a chance to impact the marketplace. The only thing that gives it gravitas is that Ryman signed on.

(The =other= possible reason we haven't heard of the Mundanes is that we're totally unhip, but that can't be true.)

I found that writing about a galactic empire gave me the opportunity to write about class issues, privilege, fundamentalism, and the way that power changes hands in a society free of 18th Century political theory. I also got to blow stuff up good.

This strikes me as the best of all possible worlds.

May 08, 2007 4:20 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

One of the aspects of the Mundane Manifesto that I find appealing is the notion of the primacy, in writing, of the mundane detail.

You can write about the Galactic Emperor if you want, but it's not the number of space squadrons and legions and palaces that make the character live, it's the closely-observed details of the character's life. The way the character holds his teacup, or interacts with a child, or enjoys a piece of music can tell you a lot more about a character than details about the number of X-ray blasters in the broadsides of his flagship.

The details that make a character come alive are, almost by definition, mundane. But why that should exclude the fantastic is, to me, not quite clear.

May 09, 2007 7:40 PM  
Blogger A.R.Yngve said...

I believe that manifestos only have an effect (not always the intended effect) when combined with a good example... i.e you lead a "movement" by writing a particularly good or original work.

(For example: NEUROMANCER was the "leader" work of Cyberpunk -- try to imagine the "movement" without that seminal novel!)

Geoff Ryman's AIR, combined with the Mundane Manifesto, may create an unintended movement toward SF stories where extraordinary change is described from the P.O.V. of people in the "unglamorous" periphery of change: the poor, the illiterate, the uninformed (the non-WASP).

And why not? AIR would have been much duller if it described a technical revolution from the P.O.V. of some research lab in Silicon Valley. I find it inspiring, and will try to write more SF from that viewpoint.

May 11, 2007 1:37 AM  

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