A week ago a poster over at SFConsim-l, Gregory Muir, raised an interesting question: 'What has changed in your assumptions about SF and when did it change? Which changes surprised you?' The resulting thread is one excuse for my having been remiss in posting here. (Thanks to Yahoo! Groups' wretched threading it is hard/impossible to follow in full, and parts have drifted into all too typical Internet political debates. You've been warned.)
Rocketpunk Manifesto is, in effect, my endlessly extended rumination on just that question. I gradually became dissatisfied with the SF setting I had created over decades (but never really did much with). It had one bit of para-prediction that looks good in retrospect - the Fall of the Terran Empire as crash of an interstellar real estate bubble. But on the whole it was a generic space opera setting, complete with FTL and Wild West planets. Bat Durston rides again!
On formal grounds All That Stuff is pure fantasy element, right up there with dragons and magic swords. And on one level, creating an essentially operatic universe and then belaboring the technical details of fusion torch drives is an exercise in missing the whole point.
There is a valid counterargument. Most fantasy has non-fantasy elements, and the general modern consensus is that these more realistic elements ought to be done 'right.' If people are going to fight with swords, some of them may be magical, but they should still be functional as swords. In a pinch, if all else fails, you should be able to skewer someone with it.
Likewise, if your starship has to travel a few AU in normal space before the lady singing in Welsh can have her desired effect, it is reasonable and appropriate to equip it with a credible torch.
All the same, the thread at SFConsim-l points to a growing dissatisfaction with the consensus tropes of SF. Why go boldly where Firefly already went? This dissatisfaction has been building for a while; 'Mundane SF' emerged to challenge the consensus back in 2002, and without quite intending to I jumped on the Mundane bandwagon by launching this blog.
But the full picture strikes me as more complicated and textured than simply Space Opera v Mundane SF, and it goes to the tensions inherent not just in SF but in the broader genre of Romance. In SF we (usually) imagine futures, though experience suggests that our best efforts to realistically portray the world of 2100 will, by 2100, be as laughably or charmingly retro, or both, as the future of 1900 seems to us. Or for that matter the future of 1950 with its circular astrogation slide rules.
Future shock is not confined to SF. Jane Austen, circa 1800, 'wrote what she knew,' about young women of the minor English gentry - a world that would likely seem commonplace to any young female (distant) relative of the Tooks or Brandybucks, but is thoroughly fantastical to us.
So I will re-pose here the question asked at the start of this post, along with a related one: Where is SF now, where is it going, and where should it be going?
Related Posts: From the earliest days of this blog, ruminations on Romance, and a couple of looks at the retro-future.
The image, as often, is swiped from Atomic Rockets.