First, apologies for the late posting of this review, but I didn't notice that my subscription had run out… This is a special issue of the British SFF magazine, which as well as including the usual news and reviews, focuses on "Mundane SF". For the benefit of those who haven't been keeping up, this is the new term for SF which remains within (or close to) the boundaries of known science. So, no FTL starships, matter transmitters, time travel, alternate worlds, aliens or psionic powers. That's most of SF disposed of, then.
Of course, stories using such a restricted palette have always formed a strand of SF, including classics such as Wells' The War in the Air, Orwell's 1984 or Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. What has drawn recent attention is the claim of its proponents (notably Geoff Ryman, who features in this issue) that Mundane is intended to make SF "the best it can be". Sorry, but I don't buy that. Any viewpoint which regards as second-rate the themes of the vast majority of SF, including most of the works esteemed as among the best in the genre, is somewhat skewed, to put it mildly. An analogy has popped into my mind, prompted by the fact that the Olympics are almost upon us. Mundane is rather like the walking races; the athletes are effectively hobbled, and although they can produce some impressive performances within their artificial rules, they will all be blown away by those free to run. It also might help if they chose a better name: one of the definitions of "mundane" in my dictionary is "ordinary: dull: banal".
And so to the stories, which are all supposed to comply with the Mundane rules.
How to Make Paper Aeroplanes by Lavie Tidhar: A collection of brief items of information, narrative sections and conversation, all building up a picture of some westerners working in a remote group of tropical islands, apparently in the present day. Quite cleverly done in establishing an atmosphere, but not a lot happens and I can't see why this is categorised as SF at all.
Endra – from Memory by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: A more traditional tale, concerning the relationship between a harbourmaster and an exotic female sea captain who occasionally visits. The milieu features a general background of cities lost to rising sea levels, sailing craft with wind-powered generators for auxiliary power, and with most people's horizons being very limited. It is not clear whether this is set in our future or on an alternate world or even another planet altogether, as none of the place names or languages mentioned is familiar. Again, quite strong on atmosphere, but it has more of the feel of fantasy.
The Hour is Getting Late by Billie Aul: Definitely in our future now, with a re-enactment of the Woodstock pop festival run both live and as a virtual-reality experience, with presenters mixing the two with film of the original event for transmission to a world-wide audience. The plot concerns the will-they-won't-they interaction between a formerly married couple, one of them performing, the other editing and mixing the VR transmission. A look at some possible social consequences of our developing technology.
Remote Control by R R Angell: An intriguing and uncomfortably believable premise: the southern border of the USA is guarded by a string of unmanned watchtowers, each carrying sensors and remotely-controlled guns. For a fee, any US citizen can spend time controlling a turret over the internet, watching out for illegal immigrants and shooting any they see. As well as saving the staff needed for monitoring, this is so popular that it funds the whole exercise. I can almost see that happening…Almost my favourite, but pipped at the post by the next one.
The Invisibles by Elisabeth Vonarburg: definitely into familiar SF territory here, in a future in which humanity lives in cities within sealed, protected bubbles. There are various zones for different purposes, linked by public transport running through tunnels. Two separate individuals make routine journeys only to discover that they end up in entirely different and unknown places, and they subsequently find that their world is not quite what it seemed. My pick of the collection, and the only one I might feel prompted to re-read.
Into the Night by Anil Menon: an elderly, recently-widowed Indian travels across a future world to spend his remaining time with his daughter. The story is about cultural displacement, in the clash between the father's traditional beliefs and the social effects of the advanced communications technology that his daughter and friends constantly deploy.
Talk is Cheap by Geoff Ryman: yet another rather elderly recently-widowed (it appears) man, whose job is monitoring the environment of a fragile future ecosystem, and who tries to establish a relationship with a woman from a very different background. Advanced communications also feature, but there is a more optimistic ending than in the previous sad tale.
It should be clear by now that if there is a linking factor, is that these tales are mostly concerned with relationships and atmosphere rather than plot. They are not bad by any means and I enjoyed reading them, but I wouldn't want my SFnal diet restricted to this fare for more than a minority of the time.