Monday, May 16, 2011

Damon Knight and the Conceptual Ancestry of the Mundane SF Movement

"Damon Knight and the Conceptual Ancestry
of the Mundane SF Movement"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


As those of you who've been following this blogzine may have noticed, I love both space opera and planetary romances, and have a deep contempt for the Mundane science-fiction movement.  In "The Fear of Boundlessness" and "The Promise of Boundlessness," I discussed the conceptual origins of the movement in an implicitly pre-Copernican cosmology, in which the Earth is the only "really real" place, eternal home to human actions, and the "Heavens" are a spiritual place, literally above gross human concerns; and discussed the fear of the true scale of the Universe in space and time, as revealed by modern astronomy and astrophysics.  In those articles, and again in "Selective Science for Mundane Fiction," I demonstrated in detail that the Mundane movement, far from being rooted in "hard science," operates by ignoring those aspects of "hard science" which would render the limitations they propose on the human future to be silly, short-sighted and absurdly parochial in a vast Universe. 

Recently, I discovered a forty-year old article, "Goodbye, Henry J. Kostkos, Goodbye," by Damon Knight (1922-2002), in Clarion II (1972), which demonstrated even older roots to this attitude, way back in the American branch of the late New Wave.  Knight shows in this essay both a greater grasp of science than the modern Mundanes (though he makes a major error in his understanding of cultural evolution) but also more nakedly displays the hatred of humanity which lies at the core of the Mundaniacs, and for this reason the article is highly interesting.

I. Donald A. Wollheim's Cosmogony of the Future

Damon Knight starts by explaining that he no longer can take the old space operas and planetary romances seriously and thus cannot derive as much pleasure from them as was once possible.  He says that the reason why is that there has been a fundamental shift in the attitude of science fiction, in which he has shared, from what we would today call one paradigm of the future to another.

The "old" view, as he terms it, was famously outlined by Donald A. Wollheim (1914-1990) in The Universe Makers (1971).  Summarized, Wollheim's "Cosmogony of the Future" divides the likely human future, as explored by science fiction, into a number of "stages," as follows (reprinted and summarized by James Gunn and Thomas Seay here:

First we have the initial voyages to the moon and to the planets of our Solar System. In this sequence we also include stories of the contact of man with intelligent species elsewhere in this system—Martians, Jovians, Venusians, if any. Stories of the first efforts to set up terrestrial bases on such planets. Stories of the first colonies of such worlds, their problems internal and external, their conflicts with the parent world, their breakaway or interplanetary commerce, spaceship trade lanes, space pirates, asteroid mining, the weird wonders of the Outer Planets, and so forth.

Second, the first flights
to the stars. The problem of whether science can ever exceed the speed of light: a very important one where the problem of colonization is concerned. Starships, ships that must travel centuries and contain generations, descended from the original crews. Other planets of other stars. Intelligences on such planets and our problems with them or against them. Human colonies on other starry systems. Contact with Mother Earth, independence or dependence. Commerce, exploitation or otherwise.

Third, the Rise of the Galactic Empire. The rise of contact and commerce between many human-colonized worlds or many worlds of alien intelligences that have come to trust and do business with one another. The problem of mutual relations and the solution, usually in the form of treaties or defensive alliances. Implacable aliens in the cosmos who must be fought. The need for defense. The rise of industrial or financial or political powers, the eventual triumph of one and the establishment of a federation, a union, an alliance, or an autocratic empire of worlds, dominated usually from Old Earth.

Fourth, the Galactic Empire in full bloom, regardless of what form it takes. Commerce between worlds as established fact, and adventures while dealing with worlds in and out of the Empire. The farthest planets, those of the Galactic Rim, considered as mavericks. The problems of aliens again outside the Empire, and outside our own galaxy. Politics within the government setup, intrigues, and dynasties, robotic mentalities versus human mentalities. "Terra-forming" worlds for colonization. The exploration of the rest of the galaxy by official exploration ships, or adventurers, or commercial pioneers.

Fifth, the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire. Intrigue and palace revolt. Breakaway planets. The alliance of worlds strained beyond its limits by rebellion, alien wars, corruption, scientific inability to keep up with internal or external problems. The rise of restless subject worlds. Decline, then loss of contact with farthest worlds, crumbling of commerce, failure of space lanes, distrust, finally worlds withdrawing into themselves as the empire/alliance/federation/union becomes an empty shell or is destroyed at its heart.

Sixth, the Interregnum. Worlds reverting to prespace-flight conditions, savagery, barbarism, primitive forms of life, superstition. Worlds taking to barbarian raids on defenseless isolated planets, hastening the downfall of knowledge. Fragments of space flight, fragments of empire, some starships, some efforts to revive. Thousands of years of loss of contact. Humanity in this period becomes indigenous to most of the habitable planets of the galaxy, forgetting origins. Evolutionary changes may take place. Alterations of form to fit differing world conditions—giant men, tiny men, water-dwelling men, flying men, mutations.

Seventh, the Rise of a Permanent Galactic Civilization. The restoration of commerce between worlds. The reexploration of lost and uncontacted worlds and the bringing them back to high-technology, democratic levels. The efforts to establish trade between human worlds that no longer seem kin. Beating down new efforts to form empires, efforts which sometimes succeed and revert to approximations of the previous period, with similar results. The exploration of other galaxies and the entire universe.

Eighth, the Challenge to God. Galactic harmony and an undreamed-of high level of knowledge leads to experiments in creation, to harmony between galactic clusters, and possible explorations of the other dimensions of existence. The effort to match Creation and to solve the last secrets of the universe. Sometimes seeking out and confronting the Creative Force or Being or God itself, sometimes merging with that Creative First Premise. The end of the universe, the end of time, the beginning of a new universe or a new time-space continuum.

(from Wollheim. The Universe Makers. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.)

Now, there are a few points I would make about this outline.

A.  It is very generic, as it has to be to fit many different science fiction universes.  For instance, it specifies neither the sorts of technologies being used for interplanetary, interstellar or intergalactic flight or colonization, nor does it specify the governments which administer these future human polities.  It merely states what technologies and governments and situations might appear at the various stages.  It also says nothing about how long each stage lasts, save for the occasional "centuries" or "thousands of years."

B.  It makes one very big assumption:  namely, that the human race will survive long enough to colonize the other worlds.  In general, science-fiction futures may be divided into "optimistic" or "pessimistic" based on whether or not they assume that high-tech humanity will survive long enough to colonize other worlds.  (The third option, that high-tech humanity will simply live on Earth and only Earth forever, makes very little sense, unless "forever" is a very short time even on a species timescale).

C.  Given the assumption that high-tech humanity survives long enough to colonize other worlds, it is difficult to argue against the fundamental premises of this "cosmogony of the future," because they are firmly rooted in historical reality.  Humans do expand into any and all available environments, they do found colonial empires, and their civilizations do rise and fall with some regularity.  Of course, this sequence could at any point be aborted by the extermination of the human race at any stage, as mentioned under "B" -- though the human race would be the more difficult to exterminate the more widely they colonized, for obvious reasons.

So, given the strong logic underlying Wollheim's outline, what logical arguments does Knight advance against this scheme?

He doesn't.  Instead, he advances a set of feelings:  and feelings of a nature highly-relevant to the later Mundane SF Movement.

II.   Knight's Feelings About the Cosmogony of the Future

Knight first points out that Wollheim analogizes humanity to mold in a petri dish.  Wollheim had written:

Let us watch what happens next ... The several spots grow.  They begin to touch each other's borders.  There is a brief period of stasis, then they grow around and into each other.  In time the petri dish is one solid surface of mold life and no untouched part of the nutriment can be seen.  The mold flourishes.  It grows dense.  It grows tall.  It then flowers -- it begins to form spore balls.

Assume that the lid of the dish is taken off.  The spore balls reach maturity -- they burst and send out into the atmosphere millions and millions of new spore seeds to float away.  After this flowering the mold forest begins to diminish.  The nutriment of the dish is being exhausted.  Some of the mold begins to dry up, to die away ...

Knight considers this analogy somehow detrimental to Wollheim's point, but actually it's an excellent one:  this is a good description of how self-replicating entities (like life forms, or cultural entities) behave.  They expand until they encounter an obstacle, then (if this obstacle is somehow surmounted) expand further.  An area which they have thickly inhabited for long tends to die, because the local resources have been exhausted.

This is of course, an argument against trying to live on Just One Earth forever.  The longer we live in only one tiny spot in the Universe, the greater the risk of local resource exhaustion.  The mold culture would not have benefitted had the lid of the dish remained on forever -- it would have died.  Likewise, a humanity confined to one world, for the rest of its existence, will die out sooner than if it expands to many worlds.

Knight then asks:

But what is the basis for this almost universal belief that it is good for us to explore, colonize, and annex new worlds?

He clearly considers this a rhetorical question, because he never answers it.  But the question is answerable.  We believe this for two cultural-evolutionary reasons, one Darwinian and the other Lamarckian in nature. 

The Darwinian one is that cultures which do not "explore, colonize and annex new worlds" are very quickly relegated to the sidelines in competition with other cultures, if they do not wind up so weak in comparison with other cultures that they are casually and with ridiculous ease "colonized" and "annexed" by those other cultures.  Consequently, we inherit our beliefs overwhelmingly from cultures which do so expand.

The Lamarckian one is that humans, being sapient, are quite capable of seeing that cultures which fail to grow will die, and thus want their own cultures to keep on growing, that they may last as long and rise as high as possible.  Consequently, save in very sick cultures, most thinkers consider expansion and growth to be good things in and of themselves.

Knight then parenthisizes:

(I call it "almost universal," because there are some few non-believers -- the American Indians, for example, the black people of Africa, etc.) 

which is a hilariously-condescending and historically-ignorant statement.  In point of fact the American Indians and Black Africans did consider expansion and growth to be good things, and repeatedly demonstrated this by producing and trading things and warring against their rivals.  These native peoples simply lost out in competition to Western cultures.  Today (and in 1972 for that matter), they are rising again, in part because they have adopted superior Western attitudes and in part because the West is no longer hostile to them.

Knight again asks rhetorically:

Wouldn't it perhaps be better to stay on this planet, clean it up a little, and reduce our numbers to some reasonable figure, so that we don't have "to dry up, to die away?"

Again, this is a question that is far from rhetorical, but instead deserves some analysis and answer.

First, note that this is a clear "false dichotomy."  Knight assumes that we must either overpopulate the Earth and then spill out to other worlds, leaving a ruined planet behind us, or utterly avoid expansion beyond the Earth's surface.  He ignores the obvious possibility that we might "clean up" the Earth while colonizing other worlds, which would of course be a more desirable outcome than either of Knight's offered choices.  Even more fundamentally, he ignores the possibility that access to the resources of other worlds might make it easier to "clean up" the Earth, rather than the effort of such colonization making it more difficult.

Secondly, the implicit assumption underlying this false dichotomy is the belief that, if we have the OPTION of colonizing other worlds in our future, we will be much more likely to ruin the Earth.  And, of course, this is one of the exact assumptions of Mundane SF, namely:

That this dream of abundance [from colonizing other worlds] can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

But it's also interesting to examine the dichotomy on its own terms.  If we were limited to the choice between ruining the Earth and expanding outward, or not ruining the Earth but also not expanding outward, which would be better for the human species?  Logically, the first one (ruin the Earth while expanding to other worlds) because that would render us as a species independent of the fate of any one planet.  (Of course, wrecking the Earth would be stupid, but I did specify limitation to the false dichotomy for the duration of this paragraph).

But Knight misses an even larger point.  There is no one leader which can decide for the whole human race whether or not we will stay home or expand outward.  Just because (say) America, or Russia, accepts Knight's argument does not mean that (say) China, or India, or for that matter Lockheed-Martin, will accept this argument.  Inevitably, those human groups which choose to expand offworld will gain control of greater energies and territories and consequently wealth and power than those who remain at home.

And even if such a leader existed, he could not make the decision for all time.  Leaders are mortal, ideologies are mortal, civilizations are mortal.  If, for instance, China became the Universal State of the Global Civilization, and decided to not only not expand outward but to violently prevent everyone from doing so, then Man would be confined to the Earth -- for the duration of the dominance of the Chinese Global Empire.  But the Chinese Global Empire would be unlikely to rule humanity forever, and a successor state might very well adopt a different policy. 

Even an immortal Emperor could not hold on to power forever.  All things pass, and the only way in which the decision could be truly final would be if the human race was annihilated at the same time that the Emperor fell from power.  This is of course possible, but hardly necessary, or even likely.

Knight then says that Wollheim

can't see that the same goofy idealism that made us welcome the atomic bomb (because it would lead to the world state and Utopia), urbanization, the federal highway program, and so on (Progress) will lead us to still greater triumphs of stupidity and greed if, God forbid, the program of interstellar conquest he cherishes should ever be carried out.

(emphasis mine)

To begin with, it is hardly "goofy idealism" to welcome any or all of the list of technological advances.  The "atomic bomb" was part of the general unlocking of the power of the atom, which among other things has given us nuclear energy.  Even the specifically-explosive aspect of nuclear energy turned out to be beneficial:  it ended the Pacific War and prevented the Cold War from developing into World War III.

"Urbanization" (which began thousands of years ago, and is thus hardly a recent development even from the POV of 1972) has enabled craft specialization, the development of markets and intellectual cross-fertilization on a very large scale.  Were it not for urbanization, we would not have developed general literacy, and there would be no forum within which Damon Knight could make this argument!

It is debatable whether the US Federal Interstate Highway System (which is of what Damon Knight speaks here, at the time of writing the enabling Act was only 16 years old) was an optimum solution to the problem of interstate cargo transportation and passenger travel (in point of fact it was meant as a solution to the problem of interstate military mechanized mobility, but like the Roman roads of two millennia earlier turned out to have many other useful applications), but it certainly was a solution.  The interstate highways make long-distance personal travel much easier, and today carry about 24 percent of all our highway traffic.

So all three strike me as mostly-good things, and if these be "stupidity and greed," make mine a moron miser sandwich!

But the real money line is

 if, God forbid, the program of interstellar conquest he cherishes should ever be carried out.

Aside from the assumption that human expansion through the Universe would necessarily constitute "conquest" in some evil militaristic sense, which is debatable and would also obviously depend on the motives and actions of some undetermined number of alien civilizations we might encounter, note that he's saying here that he doesn't WANT humanity to expand beyond the Earth.

And here we've arrived at the meat of the later Mundane SF Movement.  Damon Knight, coming from a more intellectually-rigorous era (and one with a fandom who on the average had a far better understanding of science), accepted the inevitable technological possibility of interplanetary and interstellar expansion:  it's built into the laws of physics.  Knight's error is that he imagines that the human race can decide not to do something, and make this decision stick for all humans and all time.  Geoff Ryman, who lives in a less intellectually-rigorous era and is dealing with far less well scientifically-educated fans, imagines expansion beyond the Earth to be made impossible by his personal fiat:  he does not understand that (and indeed gets cranky, in both senses of the word, when) the laws of physics do not support his emotionally pre-Copernican worldview.

There is also a general hatred of humanity at work here.  Why does Knight assume that human expansion to other worlds would logically be worse than those worlds remaining uninhabited, or inhabited by aliens, or expanded onto by aliens (the other options)?  The assumption operating here is that Nature Unspoiled is better than human colonization, and that alien colonization is better than human colonization, and at no point does he explain why, other than that we have been known to make mistakes.  Why should he assume that aliens wouldn't make the same mistakes -- or different and worse ones?

Damon Knight then goes on with a rant in support of "the new science-fiction writers" against the presumed assumptions of "old guard" science fiction, which is not well-justified either by the actual literary corpus or the logical demands of extraterrestrial expansion:

What the new science-fiction writers are telling us is precisely that a culture can't keep on growing geometrically forever; that Bigger isn't necessarily and always Better; that the quality of life is more important now than the quantity,

I have, in fact, read rather a lot of the "old" science-fiction, and I can assure you that not all (or even most of it) argues that a culture can "keep on growing geometrically forever" (indeed, much of it is precisely about the way in which growth is limited by available habitat, namely colonizable worlds), nor that "Bigger is necessarily and always Better" (more commonly, it argues that smarter is necessarily and always Better), nor that the quantity of life is more important than the quality.

and that we are faced with a whole congeries of unanswered and mostly unasked question about ourselves:  who are we?  where have we come from?  where are we going?  what is a man?  and how should he live?

Science fiction has mostly been primarily about just such questions since H. G. Wells modified it into its present form, some seventy-five years BEFORE Knight penned this critique.  Indeed, in part Wollheim's "cosmogony of the future" was written in answer to such questions.  Just because Knight didn't like the answers doesn't mean that the question hasn't been posed and answered many times already.


Well, we all know what happened.  The New Wave ended, and space opera came back strong, especially in science fiction novels.  To some extent the "new writing" dominated the magazines, though, and I believe that it is partly in consequence of this that the short story format has been dying out. 

I've noticed a prevalence, especially since 2000, of self-consciously "literary" short stories in the annual anthologies.  These stories tend to have gaping logical or scientific flaws and (in the worst cases) no discernable plot or even point to them, and it's easy to see why they are unloved by the fans.  So in this venue the "New Writers" indeed did win, though they don't seem to be having much joy in their triumph.

Meanwhile, space opera grows as a genre and spawns multi-book series and doorstopper books.  Among the practicioners who rose to prominence after 1972 have been Alan Dean Foster, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and David Weber.  Also, among the "Killer B's," Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin, all of whom had important publications before or around 1972, but whose careers didn't really take off until the 1970's and 1980's.  All of these have written futures which can clearly be fit into Wollheim's cosmogony, and all of them are wildly popular.

It may be relevant here that Damon Knight was one of the founders of, and Geoff Ryman a product of, the Clarion Writers' Workshops.  In a very real sense the Mundane SF Movement was founded to try and revive Knight's dream of a science-fiction future without space colonization -- and thankfully, it seems to be going the same way as the movement of the "new writers."

And science fiction marches on.


  1. I don't understand how Hamilton rose to prominence. I read one of his books; it was maybe 600 pages of setup for 10 pages of plot. If even that. I may not have finished it; I don't remember there being a plot at all.

  2. Not at all sure which book you mean, so I can't reply. In general, Peter Hamilton became popular because he did sprawling stories in imaginative space opera futures, though his first trilogy was about a telepathic detective in a near- to mid-term future England which had thrown off a socialist yoke.

  3. It was the Reality Dysfunction.

  4. Space opera includes Lois McMaster Bujold. That is enough to justify it right there.

    The worship of one's own conspicuous virtue is at the heart of this widespread misanthropic turn: real people continually fail to live up to the standards of the conspicuously virtuous. This trumping of "standards" over people is a moral attitude of frozen adolescence, but all the more seductive for that.

  5. You have a point about The Reality Dysfunction: what's more, that book was part of a trilogy. The story rambled a bit. On the plus side, it had interesting characters (including a deconstruction of the "lovable rogue") and a really imaginative concept (interstellar civilization threatened by an invasion of dead souls). Its more standard space-opera technology and other concepts were well-handled.

  6. Lorenzo, I totally agree with you about Lois McMaster Bujold, who has some of the best characterization and simultanously touching and funning plots ever written -- while still seriously speculating about the influence of advanced biotechnology on human societies. And it is definitely space opera: the heroes travel to many worlds and even fight in blazing space battles.

    I think there's a link between the anti-human, anti-progress sentiments expressed by Damon Knight in the 1972 article, the similar sentiments expressed by the Mundane Science Fiction, and your concept of "status beliefs." The Mundanes are ostentatiously renouncing all the "fun" in their futures and nobly accepting the burden of "healing the planet," unlike those silly immature people like me who are (presumably) "destroying the planet" because we just want to throw the Earth away and move to Eden II or something like that.

    Which is why the Mundane vision is so conspiciously lacking in logic when examined in detail: it wasn't established for anything like logical reasons. It has to make very specific scientific assumptions to prohibit spaceflight in a Unvierse where (unlike the Aristotlean model) the Earth is not a "special" place: it's just a planet at the bottom of a fairly steep gravity well (admittedly, one some of whose environments we are well adapted to live in (*), which we should therefore value highly). That gravity well is an obstacle to travel from or to the Earth's surface, but the obstacle is demonstrably not insuperable.

    Note also that this act of renunciation is no real sacrifice for the Mundanes. They've already concluded that they won't personally benefit from human expansion into space (we don't yet have the technology for large-scale exploitation of off-planet resources), so what they're basically arguing for is the sacrifice of some of our future to make themselves look good.

    Those who imagine that we are well adapted to live on the whole Earth should consider how much survival gear they'd need to be even remotely comfortable in the High Antarctic, a tunnel two miles beneath the crust, or the top of Mount Everest.

  7. Yes, it was part of a trilogy, but I still shouldn't have to reach the second book before I get some story. Thing is, I didn't get to the zombie apocalypse and I stopped caring about the characters and the technology.

  8. You have inspired me to re-read Hamilton's first two Intersolar Commonwealth novels (Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained). These are set in his other space opera universe, the one with the planetary-surface wormholes and the interstellar railroads. After I re-read those, I'm going to start on the three more recent works he wrote in that universe. So far I'm finding it excellent both as space opera and as pure science fiction.

  9. I don't think I can put myself through any more Hamilton.