Mundane Science Fiction – taking the fantasy out of the future

Books

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts are firmly in the Music or Music Therapy camps. However, I do occasionally venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books (you can see the latest of my quarterly book reviews here).

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full Mundane Manifesto blog, (which can be found here), a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The Beatles, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘removing the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

Ten guitarists who influenced my playing, in pictures

Music

This is one of those exercises / challenges which circulates around Facebook from time to time (much like the one which inspired a previous post about ten albums which inspired me). This one asked guitarists to post photographs of ten guitar players who had been the greatest influence on their own playing.

I find these thought exercises difficult – challenging is the perfect word! I feel like I could post forty pictures and still have missed out a key influence on my playing, yet here we are, in no particular order…

What do these players have in common? Some are strikingly different. The key characteristics I gravitate towards in other musicians are…

  • Tasteful or melodic solos
  • Blending of musical genres
  • Dazzling showmanship / inspirational technique

…and all of the guitarists pictured above have one or more of these traits.

As always, these are just my opinions. I may well delve into my influences in more specific areas in a future article. But what are your biggest guitar influences? Get in touch or leave a comment to let me know!

Want your music to be heard? Pick a genre!

Advice & Tips

I love artists who create works that cross the boundaries of genre, style, and in some cases, medium. Most people do.

Others, of course, are faithful purists to their favourite genre. But for the rest of us who take our influences from all manner of avenues, how do we categorise our music?

There’s a good argument that genres are only useful to music journalists and lazy audiences. Why should everything be boxed up and potentially limited by increasingly narrower definitions? However, the key argument for explaining how your music sounds is simple: to build an audience.

Pick a genre (or three)

Truth be told, there is strong chance that your music could probably be catogorised under one of these common genres:

  • Classical
  • Jazz
  • Rock/Pop
  • Soul
  • Hip Hop
  • Gospel
  • Country
  • World/roots
  • Metal
  • Blues
  • Indie

These terms are wide catch-all umbrellas, into which various sub-genres fall – just think of all the different kinds of Classical music or Jazz which exist! Try zooming out and imagining where you’d expect to find your music in a retail store. If you feel your music crosses between these larger genres, use more than one – but no more than three.

There exists another category, increasingly referred to as a genre, called singer-songwriter. This usually refers to a pop or indie artist performing acoustically. If that’s you, say so. If you’re in a band and you don’t know where you sit on the scale of rock to pop, and fear losing potential listeners, perhaps stick to the safe option, and go with Indie?

Of course, it can work the other way too. For every Gospel/Soul artist, there will be one solely residing in the musical world of Minimalist Math-Rock. In which case…

Find your niche

Picture credit: Fossbytes.com

The above image (from an interesting article you can read here) barely scratches the surface of the wide, weird & wonderful world of sub-genres.

You might worry about being too niche when describing your sound, but each of these categories has a huge number of fans around the world. If you insist on being ultra-specific when describing your music, you might as well to tap into existing markets such as these…

Remember: You don’t have to stay in one genre forever

The best artists started out doing one style, usually very well, and growing from there. The Beatles were a ‘beat’ group (guitar pop rooted in rhythm & blues), but they soon went far beyond this. Even the famously ever-changing David Bowie’s first few albums from the sixties were of the classic singer-songwriter + band vibe. Without a base to jump from, you can’t expect to get much further than where you are right now.

True, the music industry is very different now. Artists aren’t given the opportunity to find their voice over the course of several albums. But there is still the option of playing live* to an audience, as well as other bands on the bill.

(*or, should I say, there WILL be the opportunity to play live again once we are all out of lockdown – TH, writing in April 2020)

Regular gigging allows you to work on your songs and develop your sound with each passing gig. It should also bring you into contact with new fans, who will be able to describe your music (in terms of genre) much more efficiently than you may be able to yourself. You never know, they might even invent a brand new sub-genre just for you!