Thursday, April 14, 2011

Selective Science for Mundane Fiction

Checking out the most recent Mundane SF Blog, we see a nice little rant which, to my mind, exemplifies the very selective use of "science" in Mundane science-fiction.  The author, frankh, is reviewing Welcome to the Greenhouse, an analogy of stories about global warming, and he says:

What a welcome relief from all the wish-fulfillment and thumb-twiddling bullshit that regularly gets published as SF -- never mind the straight fantasy that now dominates.

During the Golden Age of SF, there was a consensus that atomic power and rocketry were big things in our future. It was just a matter of how the science and society would play out. Well, that has all pretty much played out, and sorry, we do not have a libertarian space age with unlimited resources. Now, as then, we need to make do with scientific reality. That reality now includes "climate change."

He's arguing that "atomic power and rocketry" have both "pretty much played out," which is a rather silly thing to say given that controlled nuclear fusion hasn't yet been achieved, plain nuclear fission reactor designs are still being greatly improved, and we're very obviously at the start of a major boom in both manned and unmanned spaceflight, with a dozen major national and private players in the field and several new types of spacecraft being launched a year.  But, nope, despite all the evidence "scientific reality" decrees that both these fields are "played out," and we have to agree with him because he's all Mundane and literary, so why would we want to listen to a lot of nasty grotty investors and planners and engineers and (ugh) scientists on the issue?

Furthermore, we don't have "a libertarian space age" (it's telling that he appends the political label to a human movement that crosses many political boundaries -- were the Soviets being "libertarians" 50 years ago when they launched Yuri Gagarin into space?  Are the Chinese "libertarians" now when they launch taikonauts?) with "unlimited resources."  And if we don't have it by now, we won't have it ever, because -- ooh, look, shiny metaphors and irony, pay no attention to the scope of history!  So we're going to have to deal with real issues, such as "climate change," which apparently science-fiction has never dealt with before (1).

Of course, a stickler for physical scientific reality might point out that if we decide that "atomic power" has "played out," we might find "climate change" coming a bit sooner rather than later, and in the direction of the Paleocene climatic maximum, since barred by Mundane edict from gaining energy from a chemically-neutral process such as uranium fission, we will instead have to gain it from the combustion of coal, oil and methane, all of which put significant amounts of carbon dioxide (and nastier things) into our atmosphere as part of their normal operation.  But hey, then frankh can crow about how he was right all along.  What's a little drowned real estate compared to the joy of going "I told you so?"

The larger issue here, of course, is that the Mundane science-fiction "scientific reality" is based on a very selective subset of "science."  Atomic power and rocketry are verboten, for no real reason other than that the Mundaniacs say that they are (and, truth be told, the banning of atomic power as a topic for discussion was neither stated nor even implicit in the original Mundane Manifesto, which shows how this sort of negativism naturally expands to blot out all light and happiness in one's futures).  For that matter, the original Mundane Manifesto didn't try to ban spaceflight, merely limit it to the Solar System (I suspect it's expanded to anti-rocketry because some slightly more astute Mundaniacs realized that if we can cheaply access the whole Solar System then we don't have "limited resources" from the POV of anything but the very far future).

It's not about being scientifically-realistic, because if it was then the Mundaniacs would happily herald the aspects of scientific and technological progress which promise to bring us precisely the "libertarian future" of "unlimited resources" about which frankh is complaining.  It's about being depressing (2), which is why the Mundane science-fiction writers and fans carefully pick and choose only those aspects of scientific reality which are unpleasant, rejecting those which offer felicitious solutions.

So it is that we must give up fossil fuel power generation, but not adopt atomic energy in its place, because if we did then we'd have lots of cheap energy which would get cheaper and cheaper as we developed more and more advanced and capable reactors.  No, we have to choose between any number of cackbrained, impractical systems (3), so that our power is expensive and unreliable, the better for us to suffer and mourn the passing of the old days of plenty  (4).  "Of what use is a newborn infant," Benjamin Franklin famously said of electricity, and the Mundaniacs add "... if we cut off its arms and legs!"

So it is that, if chemical rocketry won't give us the stars (and it, in fact, won't -- one needs nuclear or antimatter rockets for interstellar travel) we must settle for Just One Earth, forever.  The other planets of our Solar System are mysteriously useless to us, even though in real life we're discovering more and more resources on them.  Furthermore, we can never have anything better than chemical rocketry, even though in real life we're developing various kinds of ion and plasma drives, nuclear power plants, and the superstrong materials required for space elevators.  These technologies will never ever get anywhere, no matter how many decades and centuries and millennia we work on them.

What's especially stupid and insulting about the Mundane Movement is its denial of anything but the shallowest sort of time.  They assume that anything that we can't build out of off-the-shelf components, right NOW, can never be built.  We actually have the science, and most of the technology, needed to colonize Luna and Mars, right now, but we just haven't deployed it yet in the form of actual spacecraft.  Thus, we never can in the future -- but if you read the Mundane Movement's "futures," you'll find that they are either (1) just a few decades into the future, or (2) set after civilization has permanently fallen to a lower level of technology.  These assumptions are necessary to the Mundane vision-- even a very slow level of technological and economic progress, compounded over (say) five centuries, would be enough for us to plant thriving human settlements all over the Inner System out to at least the Asteroid Belt, if not farther.

You'll notice this if you discuss the possibilities of space colonization with them.  They'll start off by saying something like "We will never ..." (colonize the Moon, colonize Mars, develop cheap orbital launchers, etc.), but if asked to explain now, they will proceed to produce arguments to the effect that we can't do so NOW (or at best, within a decade).  And if called on their sudden shift of tense, they will either ignore one's argument, or condescendingly explain that it's "unscientific" or "immature" to speculate about anything other than the deployment of existing technology, or technology very similar to existing technology.  Which, if true, would of course negate the whole point of science-fiction.

I've discussed this issue at greater length in my "The Fear of Boundlessness" and "The Promise of Boundlessness" on this blog, but I'm glad I located the Mundane Blog.

It gives me something to laugh at, and my audience can share in the general merriment :)


(1)  What, do you protest Last and First Men or Fallen Angels?  "Climate change" does not imply "soon" or "hotter," it just implies a changing climate, in some direction over some period of time.  Not being a Mundaniac, I'm able to think flexibly in terms of deep time.

(2) I won't dignify Mundane SF with the term "tragic," because "tragedy" should be reserved for unavoidable collisions between hubris and nemesis.  This isn't Achilles meeting his fate in battle, this is Achilles deciding to beat his head aganist a rock until he suffers irreversible brain damage, just "because."

(3) Some of which are perfectly practical as auxiliary power systems, granted.  It's just that they don't work well as primary grid sources, because they are either low-density, intermittent, or geographically very limited.  Which is why the Mundaniacs love them.  Brownouts are good for the soul!

(4) Think I'm exaggerating?  Here, from the wiki summary of the Manifesto: "
  • That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.
In other words, we must not even dream of "abundance," lest this tempt us to waste what we have.  Right.  And when you send a kid to college, you drum it into him that he's preparing for a minimum-wage job at McDonald's.  That will make him work hard and take like seriously, won't it?

Oh, and by "abundance that is here on Earth," they mean "sufficient for everyone to live like a Third Worlder, for at least a few centuries."  Apparently the future will consist of meals of Ramen noodles with vitamin supplements, forever.


  1. Here's a recent atomic power book, not quite SF.

  2. Fallen Angels as in the one about SF authors saving the world from global cooling and global warming is a cover for global cooling? Really?

    Also, Hothouse is climate change over billions of years, not man-made climate change.

    1. Your description is more than a little offbase. There is a scene where science fiction fans, including at least one Air Force officer, helping an astronaut return to a forbidden space station.
      There is global cooling period going on, and the irony of anti-global warming efforts having had accelerated the process, but I don't recall any discussion of anyone saving the entire climate system, or even that the cooling was more than an inconvenience.
      Did you read this book, or were you just sneering for the joy of sneer?

  3. To James Aach:

    Looks interesting! I do think that the future of nuclear power is not really dependent upon this or that accident, though of course accidents can delay its adoption. The basic reason why is the extreme long-term superiority of nuclear forms over chemical forms of power generation: right now, this is masked by our huge heritage of fossil fuels, but the fossil fuels would run out long before the nuclear ones even if we generated a whole 50% of our civilization's energy by nuclear means.

    Another reason is that nuclear power is by no means a mature technology: it's only been in existence for less than a century, and reactor designs are still greatly improving. All the serious accidents have historically involved designs from the 1950's. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the more recent designs are unsafe even under extremely adverse operating conditions.

    Finally, there is more than one competing Power in the world, and in consequence there is (thankfully) no way for energy decisions to be undertaken on a global scale. Some Powers will build more and some less nuclear reactors, and as the technology continues to improve, eventually the reactors will displace chemical power generation as the primary contributor to the grid.

  4. To Andrew Marston:

    As I pointed out in the original post, and as you might have noticed were you reading better for content,

    "Climate change" does not imply "soon" or "hotter," it just implies a changing climate, in some direction over some period of time.

    I'll also point out that, in the real world, we don't know for sure in what direction the climate is changing, nor how fast, nor do we know how far it will go. I've read scientific estimates all over the place, including some which argue that if we do experience a major climatic excursion, the result will be an oscillation followed by the coming of the next Ice Age. Estimates also range widely as to how long significant climate change will take: some argue that it will be only decades, others, centuries.

    In general, the greenhouse Earth story is just a subtype of the climate change story, and the climate change story a subtype of the disaster story. Science fiction has been doing disaster stories, including climate change disaster stories, from its beginning. There are greenhouse future stories from the 1930's, and climate change stories in general from Late Victorian times. That is why I made fun of frankh's notion that this was something new.