Monday, August 3, 2009
By Kate McKinney Maddalena
This article was originally printed in Task Newsletter # 2, July 2009.
As the ancient mythmakers knew, we are the children equally of the sky and of the earth.
—Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980
Sometime during the 10th grade, I first saw Peter Chung’s cyberpunkish cartoon, Æon Flux, on MTV’s Liquid Television. Soon after, I started a workout routine that would, I liked to imagine, prepare me to scale walls as a post-apocalyptic free-agent. To this day, I rarely set off on a morning run without thinking of Æon. The fantasy became a habit of mind, and it persists.(1)
But in the past year and a half, it seems like my secret, eccentric idea of “apocalypse training” is becoming more pragmatic. Gas costs over four dollars at the moment. News rhetoric delicately circumlocutes the potential collapse of our banking system. So I ride my bicycle to work every day. I grow my garden. I save seeds. There is an orange-handled, hardware store machete that hangs in my shed, and it has become a feature of my own imagined future. I’ll fashion a strap, and the machete will hang between my shoulders, prepared to whack at brush and predators as I pedal around the ruins of my town. My revised version of the apocalypse is something like the Mad Max movies with fewer punk-rock S&M fetishists (that is, something like Æon Flux with less technology, less fantasy, fewer supermodels and, yeah, fewer punk-rock S&M fetishists). Like both Max and Æon, you’ll have to live by your wits. You’ll have to crouch and jump and run a lot, after the apocalypse. You’ll have to depend on your body for survival. You’ll have to know that breathing slowly through your nose helps to calm you down and lower your heart rate. People who have bicycles and can ride them long distances might be at an advantage. People whose bodies metabolize food quickly and efficiently will survive, and people with diabetes will probably have trouble. So I still work out.
Not much of this resembles the sleek cartoon that planted the apocalyptic idea in my mind, of course, and other stories have come along that fit a dirtier, dustier, chronologically closer vision of the future: Bladerunner, Riddley Walker, A Canticle for Leibowitz, New Rose Hotel… An ecological frame has replaced my original escapist one. I remember reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash underneath my desk while we were supposed to be discussing The Grapes of Wrath in 11th-grade English. Hiro Protagonist’s slick world of superergonomic skateboarding is much like Æon’s — attractive, fashionable, “other.” But I’ve since realized that the near-futuristic landscape is more likely to resemble John Steinbeck’s dustbowl than any of Stephenson’s cities, material or virtual. A few lucky rich people may be able to afford the virtual escape, but the rest of are more likely to be harnessing mules to Hondas and heading north to escape the heat than logging on to our avatars in a mainframe. Except for the simple fact that The Grapes of Wrath tells about events that have already happened, Steinbeck’s mainstream classic would fit perfectly in the short list of classic post-apocalyptic stories I’ve given above. The revelation is both fascinating and frightening.
You’ll notice, of course, that the future I’m imagining happens within my own lifetime. You think I’m kidding, but I’m serious. I’m going to have to deal with whatever major upheaval it turns out to be in my own little body, in my own little house (which I will have to defend from hungry neighbors, or I may find a way to form a league of neighbors), and with my own little garden (which may be scorched by drought, or maybe the new climate will allow me to grow lemons). Oh, and my bicycle, for riding into town and scavenging. I won’t have Æon’s fancy leather boots. It looks like I won’t have Max’s gas-dependent hot-rod, either.
Well, Rick thought, in real life no such magic bells exist that make your enemy effortlessly disappear. Too bad.
—Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968
And I certainly won’t have a spaceship that travels along a time/space singularity with which to escape into a wormhole cleverly disguised as an asteroid orbiting earth designed to contain a limitless environment in which to restart the human species.(2) Though I wish I could, I know I won’t live long enough to see the United Federation of Planets. “Mundane” Science Fiction, ostensibly a movement, supposedly a school, and most certainly a pragmatist wake-up call in the form of a manifesto penned by Geoff Ryman, calls haute couture (self-indulgent fantasies like Tron and Æon) and space-centered Science Fiction — SF written mostly, he maintains, for the sake of imaginative and aesthetic escape — to task, in the truest sense of the phrase. A relatively complete explanation of his argument can be found on Mundane SF’s blog, in the form of a speech addressed to BORÉAL’s 2007 Science Fiction convention in Montreal.
“Mundane” means “of the world.” In the U.S., it’s more commonly a snobby way of saying “boring,” but we should ignore that — Ryman was born Canadian and now lives in England, so we can assume that his sense of vocabulary is more correct. The term “mundane fiction” is used by SF critics to describe “mainstream,” or non-SF, writing. The idea of “mundane SF” is oxymoronic, then, if you’re in the know. Ryman wants to apply the term to SF stories that take place in/upon the world in/upon which we live, a world which we recognize, relatively free of out-there technologies and completely free of entities from-out-there. No space ships that travel at the speed of light. No aliens. “[Faster than light travel],” says Ryman,(3) “encourage[s] an attitude of ‘Oh well, we’ll burn through this planet and go on to the next one.’ Oh really? How? There will be no FTL. Simple. Can we go back and start leaving all the tired old SF tropes out so that we can invent some new ones, and begin to look at futures we might actually have.” Stories that look at possible — even probable — futures might be the best way to define the “new” category.(4)
Ryman’s own prose(5) defies categorization but ranges from SF, fantasy, and satirical erotica to more realistic “mainstream” fiction, making him an ironic choice to propose the formal strictures of an artistic school. Ryman’s novel Was, a beautifully written metafiction about The Wizard of Oz, chooses a fantasy story as its focus, yet its action takes place in the “real” world. In The Child Garden, a hairy, hulking lesbian genetically enhanced for working in Antarctic mines writes and stages a holographic opera (Dante’s Inferno) with the help of an astronaut and his living, breathing (thanks to biological technology) spaceship — an unquestionably fantastic arrangement. And at the 2007 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Ryman was the guest of honor, I heard him read a short story told from the point-of-view of a social worker in a refugee camp. The story was well-written, harrowing, and compelling, and it didn’t contain an iota of SF or fantasy content. Several conference attendees stood up and walked out. It seemed that Ryman was trying to flout the conventions of those who proudly flout convention.
Ryman has a penchant for making people walk out, and also for telling stories to which lit-crit would apply the terms “feminist” and “postcolonial.” The main character of Ryman’s recent novel Air — a Cambodian woman who uploads and learns a new telepathic internet technology in order to sustain her fashion consultant business and introduce a textile-based cottage industry to her poor, agricultural town(6) — is an interesting SF treatment of economic and social problems in developing nations. Air could be required reading for agents of the World Bank and sustainable Fair Trade industry. This impetus to social conscience, among other things,(7) informs his proposed “rules” for Mundane SF.(8)
Considering the audience and rhetorical context of this short list, we can draw a few conclusions about the size of the balls (and perhaps the head) of its author. He’s saying these things to veteran SF authors — a crew that is, shall we say, passionately intellectually specialized, accustomed to being marginalized, and therefore territorial. The oft-repeated term “unlikely” doesn’t go over too well with SF connoisseurs; “unlikely” is their rebellious bread and butter. Moreover, here the offensive modifier is applied to their most precious clichés: interstellar travel, warp drives, worm holes, alien intelligences, and alternative universes. Add insult to injury with the unqualified, unapologetic tone of activist indictment — each “that” implies a “be it resolved” — not to mention content which evokes arguments “mainstream” fiction has made against SF in the past, and you’ve got grounds for a (very geeky)(9) shitstorm. Ryman and fellow Mundanists have provided their blog to serve as storm front — that is, to encourage discussion.
For decades, Multivac had helped design the ships and plot the trajectories that enabled man to reach the Moon, Mars, and Venus, but past that, Earth’s poor resources could not support the ships. Too much energy was needed for the long trips. Earth exploited its coal and uranium with increasing efficiency, but there was only so much of both.
But slowly Multivac learned enough to answer deeper questions more fundamentally, and on May 14, 2061, what had been theory, became fact.
The energy of the sun was stored, converted, and utilized directly on a planet-wide scale. All Earth turned off its burning coal, its fissioning uranium, and flipped the switch that connected all of it to a small station, one mile in diameter, circling the Earth at half the distance of the Moon. All Earth ran by invisible beams of sunpower.
—Issac Asimov, “The Last Question,” 1956
Discussion has been lively. I’ll try to cover some of the backlash point-by-point, starting with the least important. One I’ll leave out entirely (since I mentioned it above and will discuss it again): the “arrogance and conceit,” as author SM Stirling puts it,(10) of Ryman’s tone.
Firstly, some members of the SF community argue against the validity of the category itself—specifically, they maintain that there is already such literature with its own nomenclature that works just fine: post-apocalyptic dystopias/utopias, etc. Moreover, such literature is not technically SF at all. (My earlier reference to Mad Max in SF context, for example, caused these people to roll their eyes.) Ryman, then, in addition to making a personally embarrassing taxonomological mistake, is asking them to eschew their genre and to write mundane (apocalyptic, dystopic, or utopic) fiction. The SF community is used to such “mistakes,” and members slip quickly into a defense of their genre against “Literature” as a whole: you are asking us to write mundane fiction because you don’t understand our genre’s values. Dwellers in what SF authors John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly call the “ghetto of the fantastic”(11) have a pretty strong hometown identity. At conferences, SFers flash their own gang signs.
Sub-species of the categorical argument are endless, of course, since generic boundaries are always indistinct and permeable. People start bickering about what “qualifies,” since aspects of the mundane are ubiquitous. And these first “rules” say nothing about earthly eventualities that resemble magic, either. At that same 2007 IAFA conference, in a panel discussion about Mundane SF, an attendee asked Ryman if his own novel, Air, was good Mundane SF, even though it includes the “unlikely” technology of a wireless, ubiquitous internet that connects people’s brains. How was that so different, he wanted to know, from imagining a wormhole?
Which leads us to critics’ next gripe — that pesky “unlikely.” The attack has three major variations:
1 Unlikely by whose standards? The “S” in “SF” stands for “science” and is understood to be speculative. If we extrapolate eventualities from theories that the la(R)yman might deem “unlikely,” well that just means the la(R)yman needs to hit the physics books. And where the hell does he get off saying that contact with alien life is unlikely? Hasn’t he read about the Fermi paradox?
2 Unlikely, sure — until SF points to a possible solution. Orson Scott Card invented the blog. William Gibson named cyberspace.(12) Arthur C. Clarke predicted everything that ever happened.(13) We are the imaginative link between hard science and technological design. Legislators will come to us as consults when they need to write policy concerning alien communications.
3 Unlikely, but so what? We write unlikely. Beyond its abovementioned pragmatism, it is our art: we use it to transcend earthbound analogies. We use it to “escape” the strictures of what you call a story. If you strive to prevent such escape, you sell human ingenuity short. You are, to borrow words from renowned fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien, “confusing the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”
Finally, say naysayers, the well-intentioned social conscience of the Mundane manifesto is just not clever. Numbers 2 and 3 of the rules listed reek of the “violent video games make violent kids” assertion, and warrant even less credence. Very often, SF stories about space travel use the setting of space to grant new perspectives of Earth and life on Earth.
The Mundane SF blog’s first function as forum for debate has lately taken up less and less comment space. The blog is also dedicated to following science in the media, particularly ecology-centered science (to spawn story ideas) and calling attention to existent Mundane SF (which is plentiful among the “classics”) and new Mundane SF as it is published (“mundane spotting,” as post-master “Trent” calls it). I seriously doubt that Ryman and his ilk have ceased to get under many hard SF buffs’ genetically enhanced, sun-resistant skin, but they have said their piece, and things are calmer. I do wonder why the manifesto itself is no longer available on the site (I lifted this version from Wikipedia, and Ryman’s name is not attached.) I wonder if the uproar was somehow chastening, and Ryman decided to let the term loose into the dynamic fluid of literary semantics. But if argument has dissipated, the concept has endured; the most recent issue of Interzone, a biannually published magazine of new speculative short fiction, was dedicated to Mundane Science Fiction, and Geoff Ryman was guest editor. Maybe his category has caught on.
“Natural science is not my bent. I’ll leave it to you younger heads.” [Dom Paulo] stepped back quickly to avoid being brained by a timber carried past by a pair of hurrying carpenters. “Tell me,” he said, “if by studying writings from the Leibowitzian age you can learn how to construct this thing, why do you suppose none of our predecessors saw fit to construct it?”
The Monk was silent for a moment ... “… you might say that the information is implicit in a whole collection of fragmentary writings. Partially implicit. And it has to be got out by deduction. But to get it, you also need some theories to work from — theoretical information our predecessors didn’t have.”
—Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1959
Before I argue against all of those abovementioned passionately intellectually specialized people, I should confess two things. Firstly, I think that their argument is a good one, and I make mine only in the Rogerian spirit of compromise. I like the idea of Mundane SF mostly because it fits my aesthetic and intellectual tastes better — it (well, it and fantasy completely unfettered by science — the “slipstream” inverse of Mundane) is closer to what I like to read and write. Secondly, and more importantly, I must confess to the hardcore SF fans that I am not really one of them. I only vacation on their planet. I am, by training, what many of them would call a “literature person” who returned to SF (it was cyberpunk — William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition; I remember it well) only after my homework was done. I’m currently reading John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius. There are some problems inherent to my perspective (I am under-read, SF-wise), and there are some benefits to my outsider status (I am not so defensive.)
To continue, in spite of impediments, an argument for Mundanity: Why set such limits? Why name a school within a larger one? One impetus behind Ryman’s manifesto is simple enough, though it may seem esoteric or even ignoble: within the tangential worlds of academia, publishing, and art, taxonomies benefit genres. In literary criticism, like in a fairy tale, naming something causes it to exist more concretely. Now, critics and writers can call SF that treats worldly rather than otherworldly eventualities, “Mundane SF.” Let’s introduce, says Ryman, a subgenre with which to better describe and differentiate our (SF’s) increasingly mature literary identity. Such differentiation is useful, since fantastic literature is coming into its own in academia. These days scholars place SF specializations more prominently on their vitae. And highfalutin “identities” be hanged — subgenres are niche markets, and the publishing industry follows trends.
SF is a very trend-sensitive corner of that trend-following industry. Trends are probably the most exciting ingredient of speculative fiction, and the strongest evidence of SF’s dynamic nature is the writing community’s strong focus on magazine publication.(14) I’ve often compared SF short stories to hip-hop/rap singles — everyone is always looking for the next big thing. It’s almost impossible to keep up. More generally, the way popular SF reflects popular culture — politics, design and fashion, and collective anxieties/obsessions — speaks to the fact that SF is truly living literature in a folkloric, mythological sense. Cyberpunk, the “new wave” of the ’80s, for instance, addressed excitement and anxiety surrounding the seemingly exponential acceleration of the abilities of computer technologies. The name naturally extended to “new futuristic” film and design. One high point of the cyberpunk new wave has passed, but speculation about potential technologies is a persistent SF motif. The same is true of ecology — our current anxious obsession — which is the next trend; it is perennial, recurrent, and real.
For that very reason, MSF is a good addition to SF taxonomy — not just a movement or manifesto. Designers would say that a pattern of content came before concept, and scientists in biodynamics would call it marking a trend of organic emergence. MSF stories already existed before the term was coined. MSF’s recent “naming” only marks (and encourages) a high point in SF’s social and ecological consciousness and conscience. Says Ryman of the idea’s inception: “Partly, Mundanity was also the result of asking: what’s worked best in the past? My favorite SF authors — such as Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Samuel Delany, or Walter Miller — tended to avoid those particular (hard SF) tropes. For a while, naming writers who could be considered Mundane was quite a hobby.”(15) Moreover, MSF’s boundaries overlap those of other tropes. Issues of technology and identity — motifs that permeate cyberpunk — are very much of this world and therefore, I would argue,(16) Mundane. Take Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner for (albeit tired) example. Space travel and access to “Off-world” is a luxury reserved for the rich, a class issue, and on-world resources are thin. The same goes for Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a postmodern poem of a novel written long before cyberpunk or MSF became buzzwords. I personally think Dhalgren ranks Delany with Samuel Beckett; I would teach it as a Nouveau Roman alongside the work of Duras and Borges. Cormac McCarthy’s(17) most recent novel, The Road, owes much to Delany. The Road is MSF. And it’s a great book. In fact, many SF books I think of as plain old good books are Mundane.
But please, let’s leave the world of generic definitions. If wormholes do exist, I’m sure you could find one there. I’ve just deemed some books “good books,” and I’m dancing slowly toward the subject of some books being better than others. I’ll venture that one warrant — an underlying assumption — behind the Mundane argument is that high value should be placed on artistry. Beauty and efficacy. Good design. Were I writing this piece for an SF audience (and I don’t think I would dare — have I made that clear?), they would grumble about my condescending comparisons of SF stories to “mainstream” literature. Delany himself, who I just compared to Beckett, says that SF should be critically considered with its own lens, completely separately from “literature.”(18)
But I am writing for designers, and designers think in terms of form and function. Ryman considers “what works best” in several SF classics and finds a Mundane pattern.
I submit that Mundane form often functions to deliver good writing for two reasons. The first is that stories that don’t fly fast and far from our collective identities and interests are more likely to endure — their themes are more likely to be universally resonant. Consider Greg Bear’s Naderites. After this election season? NOT universally resonant! (Bear might well assert that universal resonance is not a value of the kind of books he writes.)
In addition to thematic/content-based resonance, well written Science Fiction has incredible potential for aesthetic resonance. Speculative stories often become beautiful filters through which to observe our own lives. Cyberpunk, again, serves as an excellent example. The genre’s imagination is so adept and agile that it has, at least for me, artistically energized the transition between present and future. For readers of cyberpunk, that sometimes grey crepuscular cusp is rarified and golden. We live, for moments, in a once-imagined future. I sit here typing on my computer with which I periodically access the collective mind. My machine and I are assemblage; I am cyborg essayist. The idea fills me with glee. This scenario has been imagined. This story has been told. Mundanity also takes advantage of this “cuspy” potential. As I bicycle to work to avoid paying for gas and polluting the air, as activists push for simplified lifestyles with smaller circumferences, I see hints of the crossover between present and (dystopic/utopic/postapocolyptic) future.
The second reason that Mundanity “works” artistically is a nuts-and-bolts creative writing issue. Setting a story on this world and making it address some worldly problem, even if the problem and solution are bizarre extrapolations, helps writers avoid inelegant amounts of explanation and exposition — an infamous characteristic of “bad” SF. The world of the story is much more immediate and compelling when an author throws me into a situation and expects me to learn as I go; the design analogy here is user intuition. Kessel calls this thrill a “game”: “SF readers enjoy the kick they get from being forced into a perspective from which things they consider natural are unnatural, and vice-versa.”(19) The same could be said of any novel reader, any voracious absorber of stories, I think — when I read Shakespeare and James Joyce, when I watch Æon Flux, language, narrator’s perception, and setting throw me into a new place in which I must learn new rules. No matter what I read or watch, I want to be forced to see differently. In SF, the “difference” is often too reliably what I see, rather than how I see it. Riding in a ship that travels faster than light is gonna look different, for sure — but can you describe it with a voice worthy of its difference?
Of course, you can write beautiful prose about spaceships. Poetry, too. My favorite poem is written from the perspective of an alien — a successful SF experiment with this very concept.(20) But closer — Mundane — content might make it easier to focus on subtleties of voice and perception instead of the precise alignment of events and science that “justify” the eventuality the author is imagining. Again — this is a matter of taste. I would guess that the hard SF habit of lengthy, Victor Hugo-esque description of setting and situation is some readers’ favorite part. For those of us who read for story, exposition alienates (pardon the pun. I didn’t mean it. There isn’t a better way to say it).
What about those who read (and write) for science? Some say that science is at least equal to story, according to SF values. This brings us to the “Unlikely according to who?” argument, which addresses Ryman’s indictment of SF’s overly zealous extrapolation of scientific theory, specifically quantum physics and Unified Field Theory. Of all the issues involved here, I am least qualified to comment on this one. But consider a few things: Ryman’s concern, namely that curiosity about capability trumps responsibility, is a recurrent argument in both the science world and the SF community. UFT, the current craze, is, like the SF that employs it, fascinating but ephemeral. In his essay “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,”(21) David Berlinski(22) argues that though religion and theoretical physics claim vastly different cosmologies, the structure of their ontologies — specifically their willingness to overlook lack of evidence — is disturbingly similar. The singularity, in this light, is the Holy Grail. Prolific and disgruntled SF author Thomas Disch(23) accuses SF of irresponsibly bad science, calling our love of SF (both disdainfully and affectionately, as I read it) a typical American aspect of our “lie-loving” culture. Too often, Disch also argues, the tropes SF uses to “escape” mundane mindsets simply reify existing power structures. Alien life forms in Star Trek and Star Wars, for instance, become allegorical representations of minority ethnic groups. So much for being the genre of the underdog.
In much the same way that a Mundane focus might avoid excessive exposition, it might also avoid irresponsible scientific generalization. Moreover it might — consider this! — bend many intelligent imaginations toward immediate problems that need solving. A designer-friendly way of seeing things, indeed. Ryman’s urge to social conscience in MSF isn’t stylish in currently PoMo-obsessed “literary” circles — all art, it seems, now shuns “shoulds.” But actually, the idea of story with social purpose evokes the beginnings of the novel and the canon beyond: Balzac, Austen, Sinclair, Twain, Wright…and I should continue, Clarke, Miller, Dick — you see what I mean?
Designers understand the way the conceptual informs the pragmatic and vice-versa: the self-reflexive interplay of container and contents. Calling attention to one or the other perpetuates the perennial process of revision and refreshment: what modernists called “making it new.” And modernism is an appropriate reference here, since the Mundane movement is, in fact, “remaking new,” a modernist new wave long accepted as the birth of contemporary SF(24) that focused on the container. What Mundanists mean to do (I think) is to turn the lens back to content without losing a now well-honed skill at conceptual design — that is, story craft. We should try holding some of our good stories accountable to good science. An exercise — to prepare for the apocalypse.
In order to correct [the “defects” in A Brave New World] I should have to rewrite the book — and…I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also such merits as it originally possessed…I prefer to leave both well and ill and to think of something else…If I were to now rewrite the book, I would offer Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity — a possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a community of exiles and refugees from the Brave New World…
—Aldous Huxley, Foreword to the New Harper Edition of A Brave New World, 1946 (first published in 1932)
But in most cases, the artistic community is right to shun “shoulds,” and so maybe the tone of Ryman’s manifesto is as unfortunate as some of the defensively closed ears it has encountered. By avoiding equivocation, Ryman’s tone seems to shoot past its mark.
And what “should” not be forgotten or disdained or discounted is the hopeful energy of a community that inhabits the limina between possible and impossible. Perhaps the closest we will ever come to exploring parallel universes is to imagine our own future(s). We imagine them even as we constantly begin to inhabit them; a weird waterlike Donny Darko trail follows our intention forward, and our imagination shapes that intention. The work of the SF community — a community of “exiles and refugees” that includes the new punk aesthetic and the 21st-century bike-riding, chicken-keeping Foxfire throwbacks as well as the techno-utopians and the cyborgs who escape their bodies in the Net — is to make sure that intention is well and thoroughly imagined.
I call myself a moderate; I see amongst all of those possible futures a real one, what Huxley calls a “sane” one…if we practice. We must constantly try to hold them all in our minds for as long as possible without committing to one. ✕
1 I have developed more escapist Science Fiction “reasons” for exercise, as well. I took a racquetball class in college and thought of Tron the whole time; if my computer ever sucks me into a world in which I have to defend my life by playing games, I am partially prepared.
2 Greg Bear, Eon, 1985. Bear even includes a whole wormhole-dwelling culture that deifies Ralph Nader. But I’m being unfair — technically, the protagonist of that book never makes it “home,” and “escape” is arguably framed as a sort of exile.
3 In a Chronicles Network interview in 2006.
4 Though Ryman is wrong to call the conceit behind Mundane SF “new.” But I’ll address that later.
5 The Warrior Who Carried Life, novel (1985); The Child Garden, novel (1989); Was, novel (1992); Unconquered Countries, novella (1994); 253, hypertext novel (1998 print version); Air (2004); The King’s Last Song (2008).
6 Here’s a new game: try to summarize the content of your favorite SF novel in a concise clause. Try it. It’s fucking impossible.
7 Another, unmentioned impetus is personal glory. Naming/starting a literary school could make him famous.
8 The digital remnants of what was once called “the Mundane Manifesto”
9 I often use this term to identify myself. That is to say, I use it with respect and affection. Here it means something like: “passionately intellectually specialized, accustomed to being marginalized, and therefore territorial.”
10 It is really worth visiting the blog to read this discussion and its valiant mediation. The thread is like Fleetwood Mac “Behind the Music.” What fun. Stirling has actually “committed” MSF, he just doesn’t like what he reads as Ryman’s holier-than-thou attitude.
11 In Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Slipstream, a generic contemporary, converse, and complement to Mundane SF, deserves an article of its own. It includes much that Mundanity’s limitations necessarily exclude.
12 With Ender’s Game and Neuromancer, respectively.
13 Not really. But close.
14 OMNI, Analog, Asimov’s, Heliotrope, Paradox, Interzone…the list is huge.
15 From an interview published in Locus, January 2006.
16 Some would definitely argue not. And some stories are not. Cyberpunk does tend to ignore number 3 and dream beyond earth in the other “dimension” of technology. But on the other hand, writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson often juxtapose their slick, sleek virtual landscapes with a “real” earth that is overpopulated and ravaged.
17 I don’t think I could choose a more quintessential representative of contemporary, mainstream, “Literary” fiction.
18 In “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ — or, the Conscience of the King,” reprinted in Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, 1984. A black man making a “separate but equal” argument. Strange. But then, we are in a strange place here.
19 From “Uncle Henry, Uncle Zorp, and Crazy Cousin Bingo,” in Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply their Craft, 1996.
20 “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” by Craig Raine. And my other favorite poem, “The Horses” by Edwin Muir, is MSF/post-apocalyptica.
21 From the book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, reprinted in Harper’s Magazine, April 2008.
22 I should tell you that Berlinski is skeptical of Darwinism, and that’s a little dumb; but he’s still smart—and his argument in this essay is very smart.
23 In The Dreams our Stuff is Made of, 1998.
24 Kelly and Kessel, in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, place this movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and mark it with increased attention to story craft: “stream of consciousness, fragmented narrative, cinematic techniques, intense concentration of the sensibility of the protagonist, psychological ‘realism.’”
Where are you right now, why are you there, and what do you spend your time doing? How is it different than your life in the city?
I’m in a small town 2.5 hours north of Minneapolis named Deerwood. For the longest time I’ve been questioning the patterns and habits of my work life so when the opportunity for something different came up my partner Nicole and I decided to give it a go. We’re moving to England in the fall so we thought our unused family cabin would be a way to test out life in the “ sticks.” It’s really secluded here. You can even hear the trees—something I forgot you could do.
As for city life, it couldn’t be more different here. Aside from the obvious stuff like seclusion, lack of interesting food, access to media and a host of others, the biggest change is the total lack of BS in my life. The city has a way of turning tiny annoyances into long term stresses. Like, why the hell was I ever stressed out that my neighbor used to bang his door every night when he came home from work?
How much upkeep does your digital type foundry require to continue running? Could you ignore it for an extended amount of time and it would still be operational? What would happen to it if you ignored it for a year?
I suppose it depends. On some days the upkeep is nothing. The web aspect of the business is set and largely maintenance free. On other days, it seems like customers have lined up to call and ask questions. That said, I bet it could go a few weeks without really pissing anyone off and maybe up to a year without any major maintenance.
Past a year though, it could get shady. Assuming I kept up with the hosting bills, I’d give it two years before the word spread that we’d left town. But forget the reputation stuff. If it could run for ten years I’d have an amazing stack of junk mail with titles like “ Cia_lus” and “ R olex Store” that would overload our web host and I’d probably develop some sort of withdrawal syndrome. I love the foundry. It’s my child so I miss it when I’m away. I feel like we fit well together.
What about “ the patterns and habits” of your working life were you questioning?
Well, type design is pretty repetitive so there is always a tendency to fall into work routine habits. I suppose the challenge is to keep producing but stay fresh. Past that though, design (graphic, product etc.) is inherently tied to the location of clients. My work is fairly portable and less tied to regional clients so I thought I would try to work more like a writer. Get out and see things I suppose.
In your daily life, how does typeface design fit in?
It’s what I do 10 hours a day. I guess that’s not 9 to 5. How does 8 to 6 sound?
Online sales may be relatively maintenance free, but the development of typefaces is altogether a different thing. 90% of my time is spent either developing new typefaces or working on custom typefaces for clients. It’s certainly a full time job. Analogous jobs might be writing fiction or family farming. Both are brutally labor intensive, largely solitary, but ultimately very satisfying if everything goes well.
What kind of upkeep on your foundry are you doing now, out in the woods?
As usual, lots. I’ve got a large sans in the works, a few others on the back burner and then our new website. We’re trying to find a way to better display our type through online testers and PDFs while also making the whole system easier to update. In modesty, I must say we haven’t found the answer to that yet.
Has your type foundry ever surprised you?
Almost everyday. It’s an honor to have people license and use my work so I’m always pretty surprised. I say surprised because right now is a great time to be in the market for type. Within the top tier, the level of quality is devastating. Just stunning. There are some really great typefaces to choose from.
But, easily the best surprise came two years ago from a individual that sent me a series of PDFs showing my typeface Bryant in a branding campaign that he had just completed. It was done, printed, delivered and in use. His question was simple. How much would I charge him for just the six letters and two numbers that he had used? He felt that since the final product came out so smashingly that he should at least throw me a bone and pay for the characters he used from the typeface he stole. I suppose I should have sensed something was up seeing as he repeatedly used the term “ bro” in his email to me.
Do you ever design type when you’re drunk?
Are they that bad? Kidding! No, I don’t drink.
Why and when do you choose to ground your type design in type history? Do you approach these models in terms of improving upon them, mutating them, subverting them …
With regards to Maple, definitely mutating. Maple was both my last hurrah with a historically inspired typeface, and an attempt to push the grotesque model past the edge of reason.
In some ways I have a split personality when it comes to typefaces. Maybe once a week I have a soft spot for something like Maple while the other six days are spent looking forward. The two can coexist, but I’m focusing on the six forward looking days now. If I was an architect I wouldn’t spend my time building colonial revival style homes so the same goes for type—most of the time!
Do you have a certain faith in the appropriateness of typefaces in particular situations?
Allow me to be pluralistic and dodgy. It depends on the audience. I have not a shred of evidence other than my own speculation, but I’ve found that some people are perfectly oblivious while others (like myself) get into a twist over typeface choice.
I can only speak for myself, but since I’m a fan of fiction, it seems necessary for the greater good to point out the phenomenon of moderns (Bodoni, Walbaum etc.) used for setting books. On many levels, the choice makes sense. A new style of writing could benefit from a modern looking face. Fair enough, but the results are maddening. Have you actually read a book set in a modern? I can’t do it. Recently, to use a mainstream example, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay was set in a modern. I only made it halfway through. I should add, only because my sister-in-law claimed it was really good. Otherwise the affair would have never started.
You mentioned how there are some great typefaces out there right now. Are there some type designers out there that interest you?
In America, Cyrus Highsmith is pretty fantastic. He’s able to get away with some things formally that I would never give a second thought to.
I guess I’m most interested in designers that are nothing like myself. For this reason, I like calligraphy or writing quit a bit. It’s nearly impossible, kind of like Origami.
There are others, but following my criteria for someone unrelated to my tastes, I’d say Fred Smeijers is pretty much without parallel. He’d be my number one.
Do you prefer designing a typeface to meet a specific need, or designing a typeface for general use?
If I had my way, I’d love to do both. Maybe due to the unusually clear criteria, I find custom typeface work really relaxing. When I make typefaces for myself, the entire range of options can be overwhelming and stressful.
Which was the most difficult typeface to design?
I have a new one in development that’s an easy shoe in for the most difficult. It’s that option problem I mentioned above. I tend to consider all of the “ what if” situations. I think if a business manager took a look at my work habits they’d either fire me or quit. I’m always re-doing or re-considering work.
Do you have a typeface you are most happy with the way it turned out?
Stratum. It’s funny too because it was very easy to make.
What is your best selling typeface? The worst?
Klavika is a our best seller largely because it can be used for so many different applications. It’s pretty extensive too so users can pay attention to the finer typographic details with alternate figure styles and small caps if they like.
The worst is probably Kettler. The market for monospaced fonts is pretty limited.
Have you noticed your faces being used heavily in certain fields, like Stratum in architecture, Bryant in education?
I suppose. Fortunately many of my faces seem to have a niche—which is great. They could also have nothing and I could be a waiter at night! Bryant and Klavika are pretty hard to categorize but through it’s use in Metropolis, Stratum has become associated with architecture. Which I love, because outside of typeface design, architecture is my passion.
Your typefaces are omnipresent in the design/art scene in Minneapolis. It seems that everywhere MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design] students go (and you go) they take the faces with them: the Walker Art Center (where you worked), the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, Intermedia Arts, the Soap Factory . . . Sometimes I see pieces with your typefaces and I know immediately that the designer is from Minneapolis—do you think you have benefited from being entwined with a school and having an influence on the students (where you taught)?
It’s hard to measure, but I’ve certainly benefitted from the association. I wouldn’t know which typeface to point to, but I feel like my typefaces have something very Minneapolis about them. To some extent, designers seem to have picked up on it. There’s also something very Minneapolis about BluDot but I would be challenged to put a finger on it so maybe I’m imagining things.
As for the MCAD association, the credit has to go to Kindra Murphy. She started using my typefaces very early on and things spread from there. She’s a bit of a cult figure with the students so that helps too!
What is your take on the recent press highlighting Minneapolis as The Design City?
You mean the Newsweek article right?
Obviously I think it’s great but it’s also time for the awareness of Minneapolis design to have some shelf life. Maybe it’s a function of the press, but over 100 years later the Walker is often still mentioned as a new museum! That’s crazy. Minneapolis has a deep (sometimes whisper quiet) pool of design talent that figures into the national and international design scene. It’s ebbed and flowed, but it’s always been around. I mean, Ralph Rapson is in his 90s so it didn’t start with an addition to a museum.
How do you design your life?
Starting a company was very deliberate and designed on my part. After I left the Walker I knew I wanted to make typefaces full time so I rearranged everything to do it. At first the sacrifices were financial, maybe even a little nuts. I went back to working construction (something I did in college and high school), temping and later teaching so I could fund the enterprise. Fortunately the risks paid off, and now it’s all I do.
Further though, I’m always questioning my habits and work patterns. Again, why do I live in the city? How about the sticks for awhile? I’m worried, even scared, about drying up someday, so I’m very conscious of my workspace, music, furniture and even food. Jeez, I sound nuts but I think these things have an effect and can be “ designed” for the positive. How many 50 year old graphic designers have you bumped into recently? Probably not as many as you’d like for an industry that’s been around for several generations.
:: 2 years pass ::
Since we last spoke you moved to England, released a new face called Seravek, created a customized typeface for the New York Times Magazine (named Sunday), moved back to Minnesota, and started and retired a popular modern architecture blog . . . do you ever yearn for simpler days by the lake in the woods?
Yes, and a shoulder rub too! We’ve just hired a consultant and a few contractors to help with a project so the simple days are certainly over.
You said earlier that you found designing custom typefaces relaxing due to having specific criteria to work with. Was this the case for Sunday? How did you feel about the idea of combining two of your own faces?
I suppose this was the case with Sunday. It’s not so much that two faces were combined, that would be an easy job, but rather the attitude of the two were joined. The typeface was drawn from scratch and refined over time with input from the art directors of the magazine.
Who is Will Steger.
When I was a kid I saw him speak just after he finished the unsupported dogsled trek to the North Pole and was pretty blown away by how raw and humble he was. He and Bob Dylan are Minnesota to me.
Photos: Deerwood, Minnesota, courtesy Eric Olson
Originally published in Task Newsletter #1
There’s this great game out there. It’s a card game with its own deck, à la Uno™, called “Set”™. Each card bears an image of one of three simple shapes that can vary in one of three ways: number (1-3), color (green, purple, or red), and fill (opaque, shaded, or empty). Players are required to find “sets” of three cards that are uniformly alike or uniformly different, in terms of any given variable. “If two are and one isn’t,” the instructions say “it isn’t a set.”
The set in which no variables are alike—each card portraying a different number of different shapes in a different color with different fill—is the hardest one to find. That’s because Set™ capitalizes on an instinct we have for coherence, particularly aesthetic coherence. (Or perhaps it isn’t an instinct—remember “one of these things is not like the other” from Sesame Street? Perhaps we have only been socialized to categorize. What’s the difference, anyway, between instinct and intellectual exercise, in an organism defined by its singular mental ability?)
Aesthetic coherence is the primary feature of elegance. Elegant objects, elegant images, elegant collections, elegant faces, elegant rooms, elegant mathematical proofs, elegant prose—all of these are somehow coherent. Some unity can be found. Even the divergent “set” from the eponymous game described above is ultimately unified: its parts are each the same size, the same style, printed on the same paper, and easily categorized as coming from the same place. Aesthetically, it easily pleases. This coherence is the reason simple objects with simple (though often multiple) functions are elegant.
Eclecticism is not elegant. I’m speaking of pure eclecticism here. The set (not the Set™ set, now, I’m saying any set, a group, an object, face, collection, room, proof…you see my meaning) that does not cohere. The eclectic is awkward and off-putting, uncentered and de-centering, unconsidered and endearing. For this reason, eclecticism is adored by postmodernity; the eclectic set is deconstruction’s aim and end. Moreover, eclecticism implies cohabitation and borrowing; though an eclectic collection may be “original,” its components are not—they come from somewhere/somewhen else (think of Paris and Lisbonne, think of Madrid, think of ancient buildings amongst hypermodern transit systems). Aren’t such compromises to time, to the accumulation of ideas, simply symptoms of saturation and aesthetic entropy? Isn’t that what deconstruction is: philosophical entropy?
But elegance is fascist. Not to mention unreasonable. In the postmodern age, we must travel unblinking between aesthetic, functional, and philosophical contexts. Existing in one plane, though psychologically luxurious, would leave us socially and culturally stymied (oh, the poor, poor rich). And the same entropic cohabitation, a symptom of decay, is also a sign of boisterous, tenacious life (think of the Museo de la Reina Sofia: Miró on the walls of a medieval monastery).
And eclecticism is false. We construct unity; we impose it like Sesame Street taught us to. Little, once used and interpreted, remains truly eclectic. One could even call the perceiving mind—the eclectic set’s common filter—a unity, itself. Because we are able to construct unities, eclectic sets are just as much constructive exercises as they are deconstuctive product. If anything, they teach us to quiet ego, to stop our busybody meaning-making, to sit back and perceive.
But we have to be careful of our constructions. My 8th grade Social Studies teacher (who taught me all about rhetorical coherence) said “let yourself get too broadminded, and you end up with a flat head.” Our eclecticisms, whether ideological (“I oppose abortion because I value human life above all else, but I support the death penalty”), functional (“this gadget is a camera, a phone, a computer, a calendar, a coffee-maker, a screw, and a screwdriver”) or aesthetic (the “bohemian chic” that hit runways last season), while sometimes necessary, are also potentially (hideously!) ugly. The secret, I would venture, is to be sure that each component of the eclectic collection is individually, undeniably elegant.
© 2007 Task Newsletter. All rights reserved.