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.