Subgenre of the Week: Mundane SF

17 Aug

Sub-genre of the Week: Mundane SF

Last week I discussed High Fantasy.  This week, I’ll be doing a bit of a 180 and investigating a new sub-genre of SF.  Not only is it lacking in the fantastic as found in High Fantasy and its SF counterpart: Space Opera, but it’s an artificially created genre, formed by a cabal of writers in response to the recent popularity of Spacer Opera in the mainstream.  And while it strives to be as realistic as possible and eschews some of the flashier trappings of speculative fiction, I still enjoy it, both for its strict adherence to its own rules, and for the creative space it opens up in genre literature.


Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction characterized by a belief in the implausibility of FTL travel and alien contact.  It avoids alternate realities, and treats the future as solar-system-centric and focused on humanity and its future on earth.  It strives for a lack of escapism absent from almost any other speculative genre.  It could be considered a sub-genre of Hard SF.


Mundane SF was founded in 2002 by a group of writers including Geoff Ryman.  In 2007, it had grown enough for INterzone magazine to devote an issue to it, and it continues to grow as new writers adopt the ethos, and old writers come into the middle of their careers.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Mundane SF is characterized by a solar-system-focused future.  It lacks such common and unlikely tropes as FTL and universal translation.  It lacks tropes of extra-terrestrial life and alien encounters.

Genre Crossover

Mundane SF, by virtue of its limits, rarely crosses genre boundaries.  It could be argued to cross-over with Hard SF, assuming you view it as a separate genre.  It does also have some cross-over with near-future SF.


As new as it is, there have been few examples of Mundane SF in non-print media.  It could be argued that the anime Planetes falls under the Mundane SF umbrella, but it could just as easily be bog-standard near-future SF.

Future Forecast

No doubt Mundane SF will continue to grow, albeit slowly, as SF writers become aware of it, and some few of its readers become writers.  I don’t see any omens of fantastic growth of a glutted market any time soon.

I’m afraid I can’t give you an recs for this one, as there aren’t really any 100% clearly Mundane SF novels.  The goodreads page is mostly books re-classified as Mundane SF that were written before the publishing the of Manifesto that sparked the movement.  Do check out Interzone #216 for some short story examples, though.

Goodreads list of Mundane SF

Next time: Sword and Sorcery


Posted by on August 17, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week


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5 responses to “Subgenre of the Week: Mundane SF

  1. Arlee Bird

    August 17, 2013 at 4:43 PM

    Looking at the Goodreads list and using that as the guideline, I’d have to say I have a preference more toward the mundane. I like a good fantastical story, but on the other hand they’ve gotten a little boring for me. I like more realism and feet on the ground sort of stuff. Things that seem more likely to happen and require less suspension of disbelief.

    Wrote By Rote

    • atsiko

      August 17, 2013 at 4:50 PM

      Some of the stuff on the list really isn’t Mundane SF, but I definitely enjoy a lot of novels that share similar tropes. I enjoy softer SF, too, but I like many of the constraints of Mundane SF.

  2. Spencer

    November 22, 2014 at 10:01 PM

    I’m wondering, would you categorize the Gundam franchise as mundane scifi?

    Because Gundam was the one of the few science fiction works I really got into as a teenager it is almost a scifi standard or norm to me (alongside the star wars/trek/gate group), so a “recently created” genre that goes against the status quo did not really seem to fit at first (seeing as Gundam has been around since 1979). But after looking up and reading the Mundane Manifest I think it might be a pretty good fit.

    The Gundam franchise takes place almost entirely on or in orbit of Earth, and are always about a militaristic war between humans in the distant future (except for Gundam 00, which takes place only 300 years in the future). No interstellar travel, no aliens, no parallel universes, no time travel, etc. (although some elements are borderline supernatural) And I do think they have Mundane SF’s supposedly “new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings,” because despite its focus on giant robots it usually has a good serving of politics, ethics and character stuff too.

    It is also very apparent that the creators of Gundam aim for a high degree of realism. As a response to the super robot genre, Gundam opted for mechs or robots as simply a type of military armed vehicle, thereby pioneering the so-called “real robot” subgenre of the Japanese mech genre. Unlike the super robots that use the power of friendship to defeat evil, these mechs run out of energy and ammo and are able to malfunction. The technology is well explained and mostly based on real science. Gundam supposedly even has certified engineers in the mech design teams that decide on the general placement of the internal components and stuff.

    The main caveats I can think of that might go against the spirit of the Mundane SF movement is that military organizations often entrust their most expensive and experimental armed vehicles to teenage pilots, and the occasional near super human feats (one pacifist character could stop small conflicts by singlehandedly disarming dozens of mechs), and that in most series some of the main characters are have reached a “new stage in human evolution” which comes with heightened mental capabilities. Often plausible stuff like superior spacial awareness and reaction times, and the ability to intuitively “sense” another pilot’s intentions through their piloting and body language. But sometimes they flat out resemble psychic powers such as telepathy (which was in one series explained with “quantum brainwaves”). And that this new stage in human evolution is purposely left mysterious and unexplained only makes it look more supernatural.

    Oops, sorry for the wall of text. In an attempt to be complete enough that people unfamiliar to Gundam can understand I might have been a little TOO complete. Anyway, my guess is the Gundam franchise probably has a bit too much spectacle and borderline supernatural stuff to be “mundane”, but I think the similarities are striking nonetheless.

    • atsiko

      November 22, 2014 at 10:24 PM

      At this point in time, I don’t think the technology allowing for the Gundams to work is realistic enough to qualify as Mundane SF. I do agree the franchise shares many other traits of the genre, and it’s one of my favorite anime franchises.

      I think you might argue that recent studies on brain changes due to our increased interaction with technology could almost support the neurological changes necessary for piloting Gundams effectively. It’d be an interesting area of research.

      I think the franchise definitely pulled the mecha genre more towards the area of hard SF, which is the super-genre I personally think Mundane SF most fits in.

      This was an interesting suggestion, though, and I really enjoyed thinking about it.


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