6 Sci-Fi Books That Keep It Real

stross“Mundane science fiction” is a literary movement that seeks to reign in the “fiction” part of SF and promote the “science” a bit more. Its supporters bring a practical angle to their approach to the genre: why assume mankind will somehow ascend to the stars, colonize planets, encounter aliens, and reach a singularity when we can’t even guarantee we’ll be able to keep the lights on 50 years from now? These creators focus on the Earth and our immediate solar system and imagine marvelous things that can be done without breaking the laws of physics.

Rather than make stories less exciting, mundane sci-fi can generate incredible narratives that feel more powerful because of their probability. While the rules of what fits the movement vary, these six novels offer compelling SFnal stories that keep it as real as possible.

Air, by Geoff Ryman
Ryman is the first name in Mundane SF, and has been at the forefront of the movement since day one. His 2004 novel Air is therefore ironic, in that it violates one of the key tenets of mundanity: the technology that drives the story—the titular Air that allows everyone on the planet to network and communicate without a computer—isn’t very realistic. The rest of the story, however, confines itself to exploring the protagonist’s reaction to a failed test of Air in her poor, rural village, which kills some and leaves her forever changed. This sort of low-key, small-scale science fiction is in line with the other tenants of Mundane SF—and is worth reading no matter how you feel about the movement.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
At first glance, an attempt to terraform and establish a colony on Mars might seem beyond the parameters of a mundane story, but Robinson carefully imagines every bit of technology as plausible—in fact, as possible. Assuming humanity finds the will and the funding, Robinson’s scheme for making Mars human-inhabitable is a perfectly possible one, and the story of political conflict and revolution that follows is human-centric, if not Earth-centric. While some might argue that the focus on Mars means this can’t be a true “mundane” work, it fits every other category, and is, in any case, one of the best science fiction books of the past several decades.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
This remarkable novel has been hovering on the cutting edge of real-world science for a long time, with curative genetic procedures that remove disease and deformity always seeming just a few years off. Moon’s concept of a future where genetic flaws have been eliminated and inherited diseases are a thing of the past fits perfectly into the mundane philosophy: earthbound, focused on humanity and real-world issues, and involving plausible, if still futuristic, technology. What makes the story truly memorable is where Moon takes it, positing an autistic man who was born just before the genetic fixes were common who is offered a surgery that would “cure” his autism, but possibly change who he is as a person. The questions of identity and morality this simple premise opens up are deep veins that readers are still exploring more than a decade later.

The Martian, by Andy Weir
The central SF idea in this novel is that the human race will send a manned mission to Mars, something that’s already being seriously explored. When one of the astronauts is left behind and presumed dead, he must figure out how to survive on a planet that doesn’t support life, using only the left-behind materials and his own knowledge of science and engineering. While the bulk of the story takes place off of Earth, it’s a remarkably mundane concept, as almost all the technology described exists presently, or very well could, if someone had the money and desire to create it. With it’s focus on the human spirit, Weir’s book may be the best example of recent mundane SF.

China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh
Written long before mundane SF was codified, McHugh’s novel is often cited as an early example of modern mundanity, depicting a future world where the United States has experienced a communist revolution after a period of economic decline and China has risen to become the new global superpower. Although it includes plenty of SF tech, the novel’s true focus (and real pleasure) is exploring how the world may change culturally and politically in the coming years, offering up a reasonable future that has aged fairly well over the course of more than two decades.

Halting State, by Charles Stross
Some may consider a novel largely set in a virtual world as a bit of a cheat: when orcs and dragons are robbing banks, it’s obviously fantasy, right? But Stross imagines a virtual world that bleeds into and borrows from the very real one—a world where the United States is experiencing economic disaster and fighting “infowars” with other superpowers (sounds oddly familiar). Stross’ use of the virtual world is almost metaphorical, and the consequences of this very-possible technology are all real-world and practical. The high level of imagination and the literary skill Stross brings to the story make it a highly recommended read, even as the march of time threatens to outpace it.

What other “mundane SF” books are we missing?

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