Communion Of Dreams

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be.

I should pay more attention to the latest trends in SF.

Via MetaFilter, I came across something which I hadn’t heard about previously: Mundane Science Fiction. It’s a movement which can basically be summed up as “keep it real, kid.” There’s a long talk by Geoff Ryman here, which outlines his thoughts on this sub-genre and why it is superior to the more fantastic or escapist Science Fiction as seen in Star Trek, Star Wars, et cetera. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and there is a long discussion of it at the MeFi link that has a lot of interesting perspective, in and amongst the usual randomness and repetition you’ll find on any open forum.

Now, there’s a long tradition of SF writers who did more or less “hard science,” using the best scientific knowledge available and extrapolating out. Some of them were dark and moody, painting dystopian futures which nonetheless carried moral messages and interesting characters. Philip K. Dick did a lot of this, brilliantly. But even such stalwarts as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke dealt with these limitations and futures upon occasion, though they are perhaps better known for works which might well not be included in a “Mundane” canon.

Recently, there was a review of Communion of Dreams in which I was taken somewhat to task over an unrealistic time-frame for the book. My response:

…but it isn’t what I was doing with CoD. I specify early on that the novel is set in an alternate future for us, which branches off starting in 2000. And I wanted to write about what we could really accomplish if things went . . . differently. Somewhat how I see this is by looking back 50 years, to the hopes and dreams at the very start of the space age, and how things have actually turned out to be both more amazing and yet more pedestrian than the people of that time expected. We’ve got tech that those people never dreamed of . . . and yet we don’t have flying cars, or real space colonies, et cetera.

So, yeah, CoD isn’t realistic in the sense you say – but it was meant to be a glimpse into what might be possible, just maybe, if things were to be tweaked just so.

I’ve mentioned previously that I am a fan of the Paleo-Future blog, because I think that it is insightful to look at how people see the future before them. As with almost any other kind of literature or art, it reflects current expectations and values of the culture which produced it (to a greater or lesser degree – there will always be some variation due to the individual author or artist who created that piece). With Communion, I wanted to capture something of the early optimism of the 1950’s . . . balanced with something of the grim futurism I grew up with in the 70’s (think Soylent Green or Blade Runner).

I will be the first to admit that it is an odd mix. Why? Because I think that eventually, we will triumph over the adversity we face, that we will progress and evolve though that will come at a price. This isn’t just the basis for the setting of the book, it is also the narrative structure.

And to that end, I tried with Communion to keep the science solid, insofar as possible, while sticking with the SF trope of “how does a new invention change or challenge the characters in the story?” [mild spoiler alert] The operative element in Communion isn’t the alien artifact – the operative element is the new understanding of physics attributed to Stephen Hawking, which makes it *possible* for the discovery of the artifact as well as the revelations of what it means. That’s why I named the experimental ship after Hawking – it is a point back to the real prime mover of the whole plot: knowledge. It may not be obvious to the reader at first, but I think that if you consider it, you will see that the whole book revolves around this simple idea: knowledge changes our understanding of who we are.

Curiously, someone might well place Communion within the Mundane SF school, if the definitions were allowed to be a bit expansive. For me, I see it both literally and figuratively as a bridge between that school and the more ‘escapist’ or ‘outlandish’ or ‘unrealistic’ Science Fiction of Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. I start with about as grim and mundane a future as you might imagine, then open up the possibilities once again to include aliens and psychic abilities, starships and ansibles, and leaving the reader (hopefully) hopeful.

Jim Downey

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[…] Yesterday I wrote about the tension between visions of the future and the reality of scientific achievement. […]

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