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Tag Archives: Science Fiction

AI, Academic Journals, and Obfuscation

A common complaint about the structure for publishing and distributing academic journals is that it is designed in such a way that it obfuscates and obscures the true bleeding edge of science and even the humanities.  Many an undergrad has complained about how they found a dozen sources for their paper, but that all but two of them were behind absurd paywalls.  Even after accounting for the subscriptions available to them through their school library.  One of the best arguments for the fallacy that information wants to be free is the way in which academic journals prevent the spread of potentially valuable information and make it very difficult for the indirect collaboration between multiple researchers that likely would lead to the fastest advances of our frontier of knowledge.

In the corporate world, there is the concept of the trade secret.  It’s basically a form of information that creates the value in the product or the lower cost of production a specific corporation which provides that corporation with a competitive edge over other companies in its field.  Although patents and trade secret laws provide incentive for companies to innovate and create new products, the way academic journals are operated hinders innovation and advancement without granting direct benefits to the people creating the actual new research. Rather, it benefits instead the publishing company whose profit is dependent on the exclusivity of the research, rather than the value of the research itself to spur scientific advancement and create innovation.

Besides the general science connection, this issue is relevant to a blog like the Chimney because of the way it relates to science fiction and the plausibility and/or obsolescence of the scientific  or world-building premise behind the story.

Many folks who work  in the hard sciences (or even the social sciences) have an advantage in the premise department, because they have knowledge and the ability to apply it at a level an amateur or  a generalist is unlikely to be able to replicate.  Thus, many generalists or plain-old writers who work in science fiction make use of a certain amount of handwavium in their scientific and technological world-building.  Two of the most common examples of this are in the areas of faster-than-light(FTL) travel (and space travel in general) and artificial intelligence.

I’d like to argue that there are three possible ways to deal with theoretical or futuristic technology in the premise of  an SF novel:

  1. To as much as possible research and include in your world-building and plotting the actual way in which a technology works and is used, or  the best possible guess based on current knowledge of how such a technology could likely work and be used.  This would include the possibility of having actual plot elements based on quirks inherent in a given implementation.  So if your FTL engine has some side-effect, then the world-building and the plot would both heavily incorporate that side-effect.  Perhaps some form of radiation with dangerous effects both dictates the design of your ships and the results of the radiation affecting humans dictates some aspect of the society that uses these engines (maybe in comparison to a society using another method?)  Here you are  firmly in “hard” SF territory and are trying to “predict the future” in some sense.
  2. To say fuck it and leave the mechanics of your ftl mysterious, but have it there to make possible some plot element, such as fast travel and interstellar empires.  You’ve got a worm-hole engine say, that allows your story, but you don’t delve into or completely ignore how such a device might cause your society to differ from the present  world.  The technology is a narrative vehicle rather than itself the reason for the story.  In (cinematic) Star Wars, for example, neither the Force nor hyper-drive are explained in any meaningful way, but they serve to make the story possible.
  3. A sort of mix between the two involves  obviously handwavium technology, but with a set of rules which serve to drive the story. While the second type is arguably not true speculative fiction, but just utilizes the trappings for drama’s sake, this type is speculative, but within a self-awarely unrealistic premise.

 

The first type of SF often suffers from becoming dated, as the theory is disproven, or a better alternative is found.  This also leads to a possible forth type, so-called retro-futurism, wherein an abandoned form of technology is taken beyond it’s historical application, such as with steampunk.

And therein lies a prime connection between our two topics:  A\a technology used in a story may already be dated without the author even knowing about it.  This could be because they came late to the trend  and haven’t caught on to it’s real-world successor; it could also be because an academic paywall or a company on the brink of releasing a new product has kept the advancement private from the layperson, which many authors are.

Readers may be surprised to find that there’s a very recent real-world example of this phenomenon: Artificial Intelligence.  Currently, someone outside the field but who may have read up on the “latest advances” for various reasons might be lead to believe that deep-learning, neural networks, and  statistical natural language processing are the precursors or even the prototype technologies that will bring about real general/human-like artificial intelligence, either  in the near or far future.

That can be forgiven pretty  easily, since the real precursor to AI is sitting behind a massive build-up of paywalls and corporate trade secrets.  While very keen individuals may have heard of the “memristor”, a sort of circuit capable of behavior  similar to a neuron, this is a hardware innovation.  There is  speculation that modified memristors might be able to closely model the activity of the brain.

But there is already a software solution: the content-agnostic relationship  mapping, analysis, formatting, and translation engine.  I doubt anyone reading this blog has ever heard of it.  I would indeed be surprised if anyone at Google or Microsoft had, either.  In fact, I only know it it by chance, myself. A friend I’ve been doing game design with on and off for the past few years told me about it while we were discussing the AI  model used in the HTML5 tactical-RPG Dark Medallion.

Content-agnostic relationship mapping is a sort of neuron simulation technology that permits a computer program to learn and categorize concept-models in a way that is similar to how humans do, and is basically the data-structure underlying  the software “stack”.  The “analysis” part refers to the system and algorithms used to review and perform calculations based on input from the outside world.  “Formatting” is the process of  turning the output of the system into intelligible communication–you might think of this as analogous to language production.  Just like human thoughts, the way this system “thinks” is not  necessarily all-verbal.  It can think in sensory input models just like a person: images, sounds, smells, tastes, and also combine these forms of data into complete “memories”.  “Translation” refers to the process of converting the stored information from the underlying relationship map into output mediums: pictures, text, spoken language, sounds.

“Content agnostic” means that the same data structures can store any type of content.  A sound, an image, a concept like “animal”: all of these can be stored in the same type of data structure, rather than say storing visual information as actual image files or sounds as audio files.  Text input is understood and stored in these same structures, so that the system does not merely analyze and regurgitate text-files like the current statistical language processing systems or use plug and play response templates like a chat-bot.  Further, the system is capable of output in any language it has learned, because the internal representations of knowledge are not stored in any one language such as English.  It’s not translation, but rather spontaneous generation of speech.

It’s debatable whether this system is truly intelligent/conscious, however.  It’s not going to act like a real human.  As far as I understand it, it possesses no driving spirit like a human, which might cause it to act on its own.  It merely responds to commands from a human.  But I suspect that such an advancement is not far away.

Nor is there an AI out there that can speak a thousand human languages and program new AIs, or write novels.  Not yet, anyway.  (Although apparently they’ve developed it to the point where it can read a short story and answer questions about it, like the names of the main characters or the setting. ) My friend categorized this technology as somewhere between an alpha release and a beta release, probably closer to alpha.

Personally, I’ll be impressed if they can just get it reliably answering questions/chatting in English and observably learning and integrating new things into its model of the world.  I saw some screenshots and a quick video of what I’ll call an fMRI equivalent, showing activation of the individual simulated “neurons”* and  of the entire “brain” during some low-level tests.  Wikipedia seems to be saying the technical term is “gray-box testing”, but since I have no formal software-design training, I can’t say if I’m mis-uderstanding that term or not.   Basically, they have zoomable view of the relationship map, and when the program is activating the various nodes, they light on the screen.   So, if you ask the system how many legs a cat has, the node for cat will light up, followed by the node for “legs”, and maybe the node for “possession”.  Possibly other nodes for related concepts, as well.  None of the images I saw actually labelled the nodes at the level of zoom shown, nor do I have a full understanding of how the technology works.  I couldn’t tell anyone enough for them to reproduce it, which I suppose is the point, given that if this really is a useable technique for creating AIs, it’s probably worth more than the blog-platform I’m writing this on or maybe even all of  Google.

 

Getting back to our original topic, while this technology certainly seemed impressive to me, it’s quite possible it’s just another garden path technology like I believe statistical natural language processing to be.  Science fiction books with clear ideas of how AI works will work are actually quite few and far between.  Asimov’s Three Laws, for example, are not about how robot brains work, but rather about  higher-level things like will AI want to harm us.  In light of what I’ve argued above, perhaps that’s the wisest course.  But then again, plenty of other fields  and technologies are elaborately described in SF stories, and these descriptions used to restrict and/or drive the plot and the actions of the characters.

If anyone does have any books recommendations that do get into the details of how AI works in the story’s world,I would love to read some.

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Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.

 

First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.

 

There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.

 

There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Fairytale Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Fairytale Fantasy

Last week, I discussed Near-future SF.  This week, I’m going to talk about a newly re-popularized genre of fantasy: fairytale re-tellings.

Definition:

Fairytale fiction is a sub-genre of speculative that revolves around re-tellings of fairytales in new settings, with new characters, or from the perspective of a previously non-perspective character, and also fairytale style stories.

History

Fairytale retellings have been around for as long as there have been fairytales, but in the past decade or so, they’ve come together as a commercial genre.

Common Tropes and Conventions

The same as those for fairytales: secret royal birth, HEA endings, marriage into a royal family, something dangerous in the nearby woods, etc.

Genre Crossover

Fairytale fiction is unique among fantasy genres for generally having very little crossover.  The specifics of the stories usually preclude it.  It’s certainly possible to create high or epic fantasy out of fairytales, but people usually file off the serial numbers if they do so.

Media

Robin Hood has always been popular in film, and Snow White has just recently received multiple adaptions.  No doubt there will be more in the future.

Future Forecast

Fairytale fiction will no doubt continue to be popular for the near-future.  Although the most popular stories now have four or five major retellings, there are plenty of lesser known stories still awaiting a re-imagining.

Recommendations

1.  Enchanted series by Gail Carson Levine

2.  Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

3.  Beastly by Alex Flinn

4.  Princess series by Jim C. Hines

5.  Rapunzel’s Revenge series by Shannon Hale

6.  Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

7.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

8.  Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey

9.  Beauty by Robin McKinley

10.  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Goodreads list of Fairytale Fantasy

Next week: Cyberpunk

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Near-future SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Near-future SF

Last week, I talked about Portal Fantasy.  This week, I’m going to tackle another tough to categorize genre.

Definition:

Near-future SF is a sub-genre of SF dealing with science fiction stories and concepts just the other side of contemporary.  I’ll limit it to the next fifty years for the purposes of this post.

History

There can be no true history of the genre, since what qualifies changes as time passes.  But the concept originated as a sub-genre in the 90s and grew to its present size and description in the late 2000s.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Besides the fifty-year time frame, there are few major tropes and conventions.  There’s a tendency towards exploration of the solar system, biological advances, punk themes, climate change, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, occasionally fusion reactors and green energy.

Genre Crossover

Near-future SF crosses over with dystopian fiction, Mundane SF, and social science fiction.  It may also share traits with some hard sf.

Media

Near-future SF rarely gets attention in video media, due to its often lack of flashy technology.  It does come up now and again in anime and manga.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a print genre.

Future Forecast

By definition we’re going to have more of this.  The popularity of near-future SF and its related genres has gone up quite a bit since the post-cyberpunk movement and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

Recommendations

1.  Dagmar series by Walter John Williams

2.  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

3.  Halting State by Charles Stross

4.  The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

5.  Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

6.  Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

7.  Air: or Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

8.  India 2047 series by Ian McDonald

9.  Anime: Planetes

10.  Anime: Dennou Coil

Goodreads list of Near-future SF

Check in next time for a discussion of Fairytale Fiction.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Dystopian

Sub-genre of the Week: Dystopian

Last week, I talked about Epic Fantasy.  This week I’ll be discussing one of everyone’s favorite genres: Dystopian (Science) Fiction.  It also happens to be one of the most commonly misunderstood.  Hopefully I can clear things up a bit.

Definition:

Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that involves a societal structure argued to be a utopia by its administrators, which in fact suffers from some fatal flaw, such as authoritarianism or over-surveillance.

History

Dystopian fiction has a very distinguished history.  Samuel Butler first published Erewhon: or, Over the Range in 1872, detailing a country in which the sick are criminals while criminals are considered sick.  It could be argued to be a satirical utopia, as it comments on many aspects of Victorian society, and here we come across the first ambiguity of dystopian fiction.  However, whichever way it is categorized, it was certainly an influence on later works.

For example, it greatly influenced Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where society is divided into five major castes, raised in creches and assigned their roles in life.  The novel is often considered a response to Huxley’s visit to Imperial Chemical Industries’ Brunner and Mond plant, and is an extension into the future of many of the principles of the Industrial Revolution, and represented many people’s fear of losing their individual identity.  A further influence on Huxley was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, written in response to the authors life in Imperial Russian in the early 20th century, which reflected on the mass collectivization of labor.

The next major dystopian novel was George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, which represented the increased uncertainty with government surveillance, the rise of communism, and gave rise to the popular icon “Big Brother”.  Other famous dystopian novels include Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

More recently, we have Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a sickeningly accurate prediction of a more modern version of the Big Brother surveillance state.

And finally, we arrive at Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series of novels, which spawned a vast tide of YA “dystopian” novels.  The Hunger Games recalls Koushun Takami’s 1999 nove, Battle Royale, the story of a class of Japanese teenagers iset on an island for a game of survival where only one can remain.  It remains to be seen whether this new wave of dystopian fiction can match up to the old giants of the genre.  So far, I’d say it hasn’t.

Common Tropes and Conventions

A “perfect: society with one major flaw, generally the rampant suppression of a group or social freedom we take for granted today.  Otherwise, not much else has to be in common.

Genre Crossover

Dystopian strongly crosses over with apocalyptic fiction, especially in the new wave coming out in the wake of The Hunger Games.  It can also cross over with near-future SF, such as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl.

Media

Many dystopians, from Soylent Green to The Hunger Games have graced the big screen.  They’re also common in Japanese manga and anime, such as Deadman Wonderland, where a privatized prison has become the new Disney World.

Future Forecast

The new wave of YA dystopia is still going strong, and looks to keep on going for quite awhile.  Whether adult dystopias will make the same comeback is uncertain.  But the genre looks to be in no danger of slowing down.

Recommendations

1.  1984 by George Orwell

2.  Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

3.  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

5.  The Giver Quartet series by Lois Lowry

6.  Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

7.  The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

8.  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

9.  Movie: Soylent Green

10. Anime/Manga: Deadman Wonderland

Goodreads list of Dystopian fiction.

Check in next time for a discussion of Portal Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Social Science Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Social Science Fiction

Last week I talked about Sword & Sorcery.  This week we have something of an odd duck.  Social Science Fiction is not a regularly accepted genre, but perhaps it should be.  It lacks common conventions and tropes, and yet the focus on society, sociology, and anthropology makes the books within it distinct from others they may share some genre classifications with.

Definition:

Social Science Fiction is a genre of SF revolving around the exploration of alternate societies, anthropology, and sociology.  It’s a rather broad umbrella.

History

There’s no real history to this genre, since it’s not an established sub-genre, but rather a collection of disparate works that often appeal to the same group of people.

Much of it was published around the New Wave in the 60s and 70s.  For example, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote most of her Hainish series during that period.

Common Tropes and Conventions

There are none, really, except that focus on the social sciences and possible future societies.

Genre Crossover

Pretty much any genre.  Space Opera for The Hainish Cycle, Military SF for Starship Troopers.  Near-future SF and Dystopia.  (I argue that Dystopia is worth considering separately.)

Media

There have been adaptions of many shorts stories and some novels, such as Flowers for Algernon and Starship Troopers, but otherwise firmly in the realm of print.

Future Forecast

Hard to say considering it’s not a cohesive body of work.  It’s certainly likely that more will be published in the future, as near-future SF is still pretty popular.

Recommendations

1.  The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin

2.  Earthseed series by Octavia E. Butler

3.  Canopus in Argos series by Doris Lessing

4.  Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

5.  Blindness by Jose Saramago

6.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

7.  Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

8. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

9. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

10.  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Goodreads list of Social Science Fiction.

(A lot of stuff on the Goodreads list is actually Dystopian, which I distinguish from Social SF.)

Check in next time for a discussion of Epic Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Mundane SF

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.

Definition:

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.

History

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.

Media

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.

Recommendations
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

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

 

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