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Author Topic: Mundane Science Fiction
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How way leads onto way -- from research into Damon Knight's "daydream writing," which is a whole other topic, I stumbled onto a contentious debate about "MundaneScience Fiction" Wikipedia. Two dissenting consensus positions argue for and against superficial matters. Proponents claim science fiction is at its best when fantastical motifs are limited to probable sciences and technology. Opponents claim science fiction should be unbounded and use impossible fantastical motifs, more fantasy-like than pure science fiction, as if such a concept as "pure" exists.

"Mundane" as in earthly and probable near Earth accessible space: not as in dull.

My position lacks consensus confirmation; that is, science fiction of any category, any prose for that matter, ought best express commentary about a moral human condition and crisis struggle. Not limited to character emphasis, or setting and milieu, or event emphasis, commentary expressed about a moral human condition is as near universal as a prose feature can be: for publication success anyway.

The near global tendency of self-published works for daydream writing avoids accessible moral human condition commentary expression. That is my area of study currently: what constitutes daydream writing conventions. Not to claim daydream wrting has no place in publishing culture, only that daydream writing that glorifies a realized noble hero develops flat characters. Rounded characters have moral crises to satisfy as well as external crises.

The so-called writer surrogate is a product of daydream writing. The surrogate can do no wrong, overcomes crises like they are gnat burps in a cyclone, the cylcone no crisis problem either. These are self-idealization, self-efficacy, self-nobleness, and self-involvement to the point of what shrinks label control issue presentations for an assortment of personality conditions.

The surrogate will resolve any "conflict" through superior cleverness, strength, stamina, guile, wisdom, and intelligence. The "conflict" a contest of a theme-based motif, like an individual _versus_ the gods or "government," versus nature, versus public society, versus another individual, versus private society family, community, acquaintances, coworkers, versus science and technology, versus culture if culture is separate from society and science, and versus the self.

"Versus" is a key term. An individual may contend with a circumstance, though whatever circumstance is merely a superficial external action that is a moral crisis' wrapper. The outcome of the action may resolve the external "conflict," though for fullest reader effect satisfaction a personal moral transformation satisfaction is essential.

That moral contest then is a feature that avoids writer surrogacy and daydream writing. A necessary or probable struggle with a moral crisis leaves outcome in doubt until an agonist has satisfied a central complication; that is, one action from start to middle to end is completed. The agonist is rounded by a moral crisis satisfaction due to a struggle between wickedness' temptations and nobleness' hardships, compromises, self-sacrifices, and participatory social cooperation.

Perhaps "darlings" need not be killed outright (attributed to Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch On the Art of Writing, 1916), agonists ought as a best practice be flawed, frail, and morally complicated.

Whether science fiction ought be less fantastical, more probable if fantastical, is a moot argument, a matter of personal sensibility, sentiment, and taste. Any narrative need only be a moral struggle. Easily said. Yet portraying a moral struggle is one of the harder writing challenges writers face.

We are taught not to "make a scene," not to upset the apple cart, to be kind and nice, polite, courteous, to avoid "conflict" and public dispute and dissent, none of which are fertile fruit for prose. Agonists can be likeable enough from their flaws if they nonetheless be noble and struggle. Readers will pity their humanity in a fearful crisis even if awe and wonder of a contest takes place at a binary parasite's interstellar space in the Arachnid galaxy or aboard an Earth-Moon L5 habitat or down the street where imagined neighborhood boundaries might as well be castle walls.

[ December 02, 2014, 04:34 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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So what you're saying is that this "daydream writing" is to be avoided, or tempered with some more complex thought put into it.

I've seen a lot of "Mary Sue" characters---my experiences in Internet Fan Fiction practically guaranteed it---and I think some manage to surmount the problem.

I also think all fiction writers put a good deal of themselves into their fiction. Me, well, a lot of my own life experience pours into my characters---but my characters aren't me and I try to avoid strict autobiographical fiction in my writing. Even if it starts out as "me" as a main character (say, if I'm writing up a dream or, as you say, a daydream,) well before I'm done, I've changed it around so it's not "me" by then.

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OSC has stated (paraphrasing from distant memory, here; feel free to correct me) that he doesn't really consider his own stories to be science fiction, but fantasy in which the magic is technology. That's kind of how I approach my stories, too. I think of Philip K. Dick as well, who often introduced speculative elements with no explanation. People share hallucinations when they take this drug together. People connect psychologically with a guy named Mercer when they hold these handles. Time has reached critical mass and reversed itself, and now people are rising from their graves and aging backwards. How do these things work? They just do. Get over it and enjoy the ride of finding out what happens as a result.

Those are the types of stories I personally tend to enjoy most.

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I'm reminded of the 1939 James Thurber short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" when I reference daydream writing. The narrative is about a man who daydreams heroic adventures because he cannot cope with reality. Important people choose Mitty to save the day, heroically face inhuman odds and triumph, and he is celebrated and applauded for his accomplishments, though haplessly, heroically, stoically faces his demise at the end.

"The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word 'Mittyesque' have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not." ("The Secret LIfe of Walter Mitty" Wikipedia)

The 1947 Norman McLeod film starring Danny Kaye and the 2013 film directed by and starring Ben Stiller deviate from the short story's expressed commentary about the moral human condition cited above. The 1947 film's emphasis is a showcase of Kaye's acting, though Kaye is eventually effectual about satisfying a complication want. The 2013 film largely bypasses the irreality of Mitty's heroic daydreams as the point, instead, emphasizes Mitty's daydreams are a reflection of his superficial complication satisfaction.

The subsequent film media progressively waters down Mitty's ineffectualness and daydream heroics in favor of his complication efficacy for mass audience appeal purposes. Film!?

The short story is a classic Aristotlean tragedy; the films are Aristotlean comedies with happy, feel-good outcomes. Both films miss the dramatic complication appeals of the short story's expressed social commentary about a moral human condition: daydreaming as an unhealthy coping mechanism escape from reality.

The rich irony of the short story both films do not access. Mitty daydreams rather than taking effectual action to improve his condition. He wants and takes no action to satisfy his want. The ironies are of the verbal, situational, and dramatic types; that is, Mitty is unaware he wants change and is unchanged because he is unaware of his ineffectualness and his unawareness leads to his demise within his daydreams. Exquisite.

The films lack those layers of accessible ironies and the rich commentary expression about a moral human condition crisis.

Daydream writing realizes Mitty's heroic daydream episodes and misses moral human condition crises.

On the other hand, daydream writing and reading appeal to primary and middle grade and early young adult readers. However, moral authorities who gatekeep for those audiences require social acculturation features that express a moral human condition. A double bind, catch-22, paradox: appeal to the immediate audience and the proximal one though they be at contrary purposes. Such is writing.

[ December 02, 2014, 12:33 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Proponents claim science fiction is at its best... define "best?" We need to have common ground as to what purpose science fiction serves in order to properly answer that question. Is it to inspire? To entertain? To educate? To question? To preach? All of the above? Which has more weight?

Frankly, I prefer the more fantastic sci-fi over hard science fiction. The hard stuff tends to devolve into stories about the engines, not the people.

At the same time, though, the fantastic seems to more frequently fall prey to a parade of Mary Sues. Space Opera is lousy with books that feature the best ships with the best crews and the best captains, thrown into impossible scenarios that, because they are impossible, are solved with great rapidity so the reader doesn't dwell too much on them. I just read one where the crew was stranded on a planet with very aggressive microbial and fungal life that infected them almost immediately. I think they spent two chapters stranded, and after a rescue (why yes, it was the first time anyone was ever rescued from that planet; why did you even ask?) those serious, debilitating infections were cured in three paragraphs and never heard from again.

And that points to another problem with the fantastic side: it's easy to conjure up a solution to any problem. Don't have the parts to repair the ship after battle? Just replicate some new ones. A death ray is about to blow up Earth? Use setting 127 on the old sonic to stop it. As the song goes, "if we find we're in a bind, we just make some #$%& up."

So, ultimately, the problems in fantastical sci-fi cannot be practical in nature. In order to be interesting, they have to be internal, fundamental to the characters themselves, where a pill or machine or ascended beings can only complicate matters, not solve them.

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Proponents of Mundane science fiction claim "best" is probable if fantastical science and technology motifs that appeal by their awe and wonder stimulations and are close to real-world likelihood if futuristic or contemporary, not per se "hard" science fiction, which is fantastical physical sciences. Soft science fiction's fantastical social sciences are no less sciences for being "soft."

Since the Digital Age crushed many belief superstitions and humans became more or less empircial in beliefs, the world lost a large portion of mystical awe and wonder. A very human need seeks a sense of belonging to a more mystical and larger culture group than those of everyday alpha routines. Science began as a mystical pursuit and has become akin to a religious belief system in the vein of skepticism toward the mystical mysteries of the past.

Likewise proponents and opponents of Mundane science fiction's advocacy for supremacy over fantasy science fiction and vice versa claim a function of science fiction genre generally relates to young adult or older adult wants for forging a place away from the natal creche homeworld as a reflection of young and older adults' desire for independence from parental and guardian and authoritarian oversight. The narrative category functions as a coping mechanism for the frustrations of familial detachment and social stratification marginalization processes. Both sides argue that destination from opposite approaches. Mundaneans as closer to contemporary scenarios. Fantaseers as closer to flights of impossible invention. The faster than light aysmptote boundary underlays the division.

An argument can be made Mundaneans are more "grounded" than Fantaseers. Likewise, an argument can be made Fantaseers are more creatively inventive than Mundaneans. Which prevails is irrelevant. Lively, vigorous life needs both. It takes a village to form a lively and satisfying community. Mundaneans are needed for persistence of normality. Fantaseers are needed for outside-of-the-box invention.

Is an asteroid mine meaningfully different from a terrestrial mine, is a case on point for Mundaneans. Possible, yes, not yet, though. Why then place a mine across the great light-year distance divide if an asteroid mine suits the human condition crisis on point. If the far away location is intrinsic to the plot, that's an answer. Though if the milieu is extrinsic, the mine might just as well be terrestrial as extra-planetary or extra-solar.

An asteroid mine's agency might be unique to near Earth influences from, say, how such a mine might upset the global precious metals economy. A sudden influx of vast gold, silver, and platinum quantities would be highly problematic initially, for example. For electronic circuit uses gold is superior to copper. Titanium is superior to aluminum for airship and spaceship chasis and hulls. The factions would align along a denial of change and a favor for change axis, the former wanting to preserve their ascendent status quo, the latter wanting to upset the status quo for personal ascendancy. That would make an asteroid mine operation agency contentious based on greed vices, maybe wrath, maybe sloth, gluttony, pride, envy, and lust, one or more of the seven fatal vices as a moral human condition crisis to be satisfied.

Likewise, a tap to mine Earth's molten metal core would be about the same: on Earth and not even beyond the planet. A fantasy or even mundane science or technology might derive a method for extraction of precious metals dissolved in seawater and not even go beyond the biosphere.

An extra-solar mine operation's moral human condition commentary might invent a likewise vice crisis, say, want for precious metals to trade for advantage over precious metal-poorer and adversarial beings who cannot mine precious resources for themselves though possess an ability humans do not, say yet faster than light travel. Climb Mount Everest because it's there; travel to other galaxies to find amenable friendships, as if.

"Best" can be defined though only in subjective terms: personal sensibilities, sentiments, and tastes. Best for me is narrative that expresses commentary about a moral human condition and its crisis struggle. I've yet to read a successful narrative or watch a successful film or play that doesn't. Successful: persuasively appeals to a proportionately adequate audience quantity.

[ December 02, 2014, 04:23 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Space Opera is lousy with books that feature the best ships with the best crews and the best captains, thrown into impossible scenarios that, because they are impossible, are solved with great rapidity so the reader doesn't dwell too much on them.
Wev'e discussed this on Hatrack before, but this is a weakness of genre fiction in general. When a reader enters a narrative, the question they ask isn't, "Will the protagnoist win?", but "*How* will the protagnoist win?" We always knew Luke Skywalker and Neo would triumph at the story's conclusion. We just didn't know what route they'd take to that triumph.

I took a different approach in my most recent novel, and most characters don't last long. Anyone can do the same, but selling prose like that becomes more difficult because readers want to read about someone who wins in the end. George R.R. Martin kills a lot of his characters off, but there are still enough characters that have lived through all of his books that readers are able to grow attached to someone. Otherwise, minds will tend to wander.

Most science fiction I've read uses technology as magic. One exception that comes to mind is fiction by Ted Chiang, who used to be a computer scientist before he started writing. His short stories are driven by science, and they simply can't work without the science and technical explanation.

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Robert Nowall
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We always knew Luke Skywalker and Neo would triumph at the story's conclusion.
Do we always know they'll win? Part of the joy of fiction---good fiction, that is---is that this doubt remains with us while we're reading---unless we've skipped ahead and read the ending, or somebody's already told us. We don't know that Frodo's quest will succeed and the forces opposing Sauron will triumph; right until Sauron falls it looks like he might win.

I'd like to mention The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in this context about what we know about things while reading, and what assumptions we make about what we're reading, but I'm afraid it would be a spoiler. Pick it up, it's pretty good.

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Film audiences demand central agonists who viewers associate with or at least recognizable agonists who survive until an end's outcome is revealed, and hope for wins that resolve a "conflict." Film has a surrogate role too, though different from a writer surrogate. An audience surrogate is a character with whom readers identify and who fulfills viewers' needs for accessing the action and happy outcomes.

An audience surrogate is not necessarily a protagonist or antagonist or agonist, may be an influence-less objective character, objective in the sense of an observer character, not per se objective in the sense of reliable and unbiased.

Film separates a surrogate of this type from written word's observer character roles of narrator and agonist. The surrogate is often a foil, as are Dr. Holmes, Samwise and Merri and Pippin, Chewbacca and Leia, and Matrix's Oracle to varied degrees at times.

Written word though, an audience surrogate is easily a narrative's strongest attitude holder, the persona who reacts most emotionally strongly to the action. Film personas are difficult to distinguish who's the strongest attitude holder due to numerous characters by turn react emotionally when the camera frames them for close-ups.

I had no doubt Luke Skywalker and Neo, Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan, etc., would succeed at their overt purposes, their superficial complications. Where outcome doubt for me in those and other narratives keeps me engaged is how the action satisfaction results in their personal moral transformations. I'm unsatisfied if a novel or short story takes me on an expectation journey and no or an inaccessible personal moral transformation results.

Personal moral transformation must take place and be proprtionate to a narrative's complication magnitude. Otherwise, a narrative is a mere anecdote about an engaging though superficial event sequence.

A simple plot, as in Aristotle's definition: straightfoward complication satisfaction without revelation or reversal, marks a personal moral transformation-less narrative.

A complex plot, as in Aristotle's definition: revelation and reversal features keep outcome in doubt until a bitter end, marks a persuasive (artful) personal moral transformation narrative.

Luke Skywalker, for example, encounters revelations and reversals; however, he develops no alteration of personal moral character. He's the same personality from start to middle to end. Annikin, though, does transform.

Bilbo and Frodo realize personal moral transformations due to their moral crisis clashes. Potter does to a degree. Neo doesn't. Holmes doesn't. Poirot doesn't. Katniss doesn't. Bella Swan doesn't. Not to an accessible and appreciable degree proportionate to their superficial complications.

Life teaches that personal moral crisis struggles come at a great personal cost no matter whether a complication is impersonally overt or personally covert and result in rewardable personal transformation, maturation growth more often than decline, though at equally great transformation denial and external responsibility reassignment. Otherwise, life would be meaningless and dreary and life would languish and die from perpetual bliss or at least easy self-satisfaction.

[ December 09, 2014, 01:41 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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I've noticed that in murder mysteries (I've been reading a lot of Agatha Christie lately,) that along the way to the solution to the murder, a lot of side issues are raised. These side issues are often earth-shaking revelations that are likely to devastate and change the lives of those involved---even when they're not the murderers. Often the detective simply moves on.

In some of the later Ellery Queen mysteries, Ellery Queen the detective finds the solution to the problem, but this solution brings him no joy, no sense of triumph, nothing but bad feeling for him and all concerned. I think it might be indictative of emotional growth in the form of the mystery novel as puzzle problem. But I do not know how often this is practiced.

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Mystery's whodunit puzzle solution convention shapes the category narrative features and reader effects. The formula generally relies on readers' emotions to be upset by a crime in an exposition act and emotionally satisfied by an end act.

Of course, part of mystery's appeal is figuring out the puzzle before the denouement reveal. Readers like to feel smarter than what they read. My mystery reading, generally I expect I know who the culprit or culprits are early on, and read on to confirm my expectations.

Even Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd sets up whodunit early on. I guess part of my expectation of outcomes is informed by contemporary investigative science and crime drama, both of which have advanced significantly since the novel was published and the heyday of mystery narratives. Behavioral science, too, has advanced and informs my expectations.

The novel is an exceptional example of artful withholding and worth study for that literary method. The narrator-agonist withholds knowledge and has a persuasive motive to do so; however, nonetheless reveals cues of the withheld knowledge. That's an exceptionally artfully constructed withholding technique, otherwise widely deprecated, well worth burning a midnight study candle.

Emotional contexture for mystery narratives orient around how safe readers feel in their alpha reality routines. The reader emotional effect is a want to see a puzzle problem solved so they feel safe. As personal dramatic complications go, much of mystery's are implied and tension orchestrated by the personal implications.

On the other hand, mystery easily most often creates an aesthetic distance a little more remote than is ideal. The detective is usually only peripherally invested, has little personal complication directly related to the puzzle. Crime solving is for a detective a job, a passion, a need to solve a puzzle, or a want to display an intelligence.

Detective narratives where the detective has a personal investment develop closer distance and stronger appeals. For example, a relative of a victim, a victim her or himself, or a detective who has a personal stake in the outcome. Many detective puzzle narratives skip the personal involvement criteria. And that to me is a major shortfall of the category overall.

As an example, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer has an implied stake and want for those type of detective novels. Hammer wants to take down corrupt, attractive, powerful, intelligent women in positions of authority. His threatened "manhood" requires him to use, abuse, and demote such women to their "proper" station. He is not markedly personally transformed by his struggles, though, only satisfied and confirmed his moral authority is "proper."

That aesthetic would not work today, though Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels turn that sex card 180 degrees and do exactly that: a woman who takes down corrupt men who threaten her "womanhood." The vein of Spillane's "sexist" appeals develop in Evanovich's novels as parallel and opposite "sexist" implications. In that way are Hammer and Plum static agonists though fully rounded dimensional characters,

Those implication features, whether or not they appeal to niche audiences and offend other audiences, exhibit what I mean when I assert moral human condition crises are an essential narrative feature, if not the essential feature. And, that how a moral crisis transforms a central agonist and others is crucial no matter a narrative's length, proportionate to the moral crisis's magnitude and narrative length.

All the other content is packaging suited to the moral crisis struggle: tangible though superficial. Which is why I find the Mundane science fiction debate about which tangible features make for a "best" narrative mostly irrelevant except for their packaging necessity and credibilty for narrative authentication and reality imitation's purposes. Otherwise, the message and moral could more easily just be stated straightforwardly: told directly, instead of shown.

Whether a narrative requires a moral and message is as equally moot to me. Successful narratives express moral and message no matter whether intended or not or acceptable or refusable. Refuse one rhetoric and another takes its place.

[ December 09, 2014, 01:36 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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