2015/05/28

Transhuman and Subhuman Part VII: The Glory Game


Today I'm reviewing John C. Wright's review of Keith Laumer's short novel The Glory Game.

"The novel is well crafted, concise, without a wasted scene or word," says Wright, "and therefore has the clearest and most trenchant point of any tale I have ever read that is actually a tale and not a tract."

Indeed, the book's twist ending is incisively delivered in its last four words. Since The Glory Game was first published in 1973, this review will discuss the plot under the reasonable assumption that little risk remains of spoiling the final twist for long time sci-if fans. For those who are newly come to the fold, it's recommended that you read the novel before continuing with this post.

Of the book's characters, Wright notes that they are, "...rough sketches, painted in broad, energetic strokes, as befits an adventure yarn." Yet the story's driving conflict is moral; not military--the dilemma of a principled man told to violate his principles.

Due to the nature of its main conflict, its chandleresque style, and its dark tone, The Glory Game can rightly be called a noir story.
The point of a Noir story is that the world holds out nothing worth doing, but the tarnished knight, no longer unstained white, carries out his ideals, despite all this. [T]he ideals are dead but were not foolish, and a man lives up to them out of a sense of melancholy respect for their memory...like saluting the flag of a sunken Atlantis."
Wright examines the novel's three acts to show how efficiently the story structure serves the plot.

The prologue introduces two main characters: Commodore Tancredi Dalton, the main protagonist, and his fiancee Arianne Kelvin, the daughter of a powerful senator. The first act presents a microcosm of the whole story when Dalton intervenes in a nightclub brawl between servicemen and civilians. His refusal to play favorites alienates both sides, leading Arianne to question his political acumen. Dalton answers that one must do what is right, no matter the personal cost.

Following the nightclub incident, Dalton is assigned to a key position in a war game meant to intimidate the Hukk, a technologically inferior but highly aggressive race. He is courted by hardline and softline factions, both of which inform Dalton of their secret plans for him to take command of the fleet. The former want him to exterminate the Hukk, while the latter urge him to avert the massacre via preemptive surrender.

Dalton tells both sides that he'll think about it.

Considering the situation from the Hukk point of view, Dalton concludes that their raids on Terran assets are moves in the Glory Game--a pragmatic projection of military force that seeks to maximize territorial gains and prestige while minimizing loss of life and loss of face. He deduces that the Hukk will take advantage of the Terran naval exercise to launch an attack on Luna.

Dalton redeploys his ships to earth and bluffs the Hukk Grand Admiral into surrendering. The Terran fleet's commander orders him to wipe out the disarmed Hukk. Dalton refuses, invoking the set of double secret orders issued by the softliners that give him command of the fleet. This legal act of defiance alienates the hardliners but endears Dalton to the sofliners.

The victorious softliners make Dalton an admiral and ask him to perjure himself before Congress to support a treaty that will give the Hukk military and economic aid while dismantling the Terran fleet. Dalton testifies honestly, which turns the softliners against him. Universally hated, he is discharged from the military and sent to administer a naval junkyard on a backwater world.

Three months into his exile, Dalton chances upon secret plans for a Hukk invasion. The local bureaucrats dismiss his warnings as the self-aggrandizing ramblings of a has-been, so Dalton takes matters into his own hands. He single-handedly repels the Hukk, but only by letting the enemy captain save face: Dalton must swear to keep the failed invasion a secret.

Dalton gives his word never to speak of the invasion, though his silence leaves him vulnerable to ridicule and criminal prosecution. Laumer then introduces what seems like the story's twist ending: an undercover agent from Naval Intelligence sent to keep tabs on Dalton witnessed his heroics. He states his willingness to vindicate Dalton against his detractors and get him reinstated by the navy.

But this plot turn is merely a feint for the real twist. Dalton responds to the agent's offer of vindication and reinstatement with the story's four closing words: "I'll think about it."

Wright explains the stoic melancholy of the book's ending.
It means that the Naval Intelligence corps is no more to be trusted to protect a man’s conscience than it is the Senatorial staff, the bureaucrats, the State Department, or the Joint Chiefs who form the backdrop of corruption and compromise against which Dalton shines so brightly, and so alone.
It means there is no reward for virtue. None.
He then analyzes Dalton's decision in light of the four stages of civilizational decline outlined previously. Wright characterizes Dalton as a Worldly man flirting with Nihilism. "This is the point of view of a Western man, raised in a culture seeped  with Christian notions of chivalry and fair play and equality and nobility, but who has lost confidence in the center."

Dalton does in fact insist on right conduct without compromise or hope of reward, but inhabiting as he does a science fiction story, which by tradition gives short shrift to a transcendent source of moral authority, he can give no ultimate rational justification for the philosophy he lives by.
Even as all math is based on principles not themselves open to mathematical proof or disproof, even as all physics is based on assumptions no physical experiment can prove or disprove, the worldly man when he realizes the simple truth that all nature is based on the supernatural, only then can restore God to the central place in his life and in his society. Only then can that man have a rational view of life that does not idolize rationality.

2015/05/25

Transhuman and Subhuman Part VI: Swordplay in Space

"Why is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire the sword?" John C. Wright tackles that question in the sixth part of his essay collection Transhuman and Subhuman.

Following the premise that a man's attitude toward war and death reveals his outlook on life, Wright examines a selection of great science fiction books for the answer to why authors attempting to imagine the future so often employ archaic conventions.

Wright posits five basic views on war.

  • The hopeful place faith in supernatural justice. Though not blind to the horrors of war, their belief allows them to face death with chivalry and joyful abandon.
  • The noble don't rely on supernatural faith; nor do they ignore the brutality of war. But they strive for worldly justice and laud self-sacrifice for a worthy cause.
  • The ruthless put stock in neither divine nor human justice. They are consequentialists who believe that war is inevitable and should be fought with no quarter asked or given. This ruthlessness serves paradoxically utopian aims founded on the belief that it will usher in the perfection of human nature and eliminate all conflict.
  • Idealists are the polar opposites of the ruthless, though they share their antipodes' utopian vision. Idealism exalts human nature to the extreme of presuming that all conflicts are based on misunderstandings and that violence is never justified.
  • The despairing embrace a nihilism that scorns utopianism, nobility, and hope alike. They value nothing but their own pleasure but will gladly let others, whom they deride as fools, fight and die for them.
According to Wright, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, with its focus on patriotism, virtue, and valor, embodies the noble view of war.

Forever War and Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman represent the ruthless and the idealistic view, respectively. The former tells of soldiers who make terrible sacrifices for what turns out to be a meaningless war. The latter proposes empathy as the solution to all conflict, without reference to the wars waged over greed, fear, ambition, and honor.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is the only great science fiction book that Wright places in the "hopeful" category. "...its realism about the horror of war is absolute, but also its hope in salvation even of souls bent, broken, and ruined by war is absolute."

Though Wright admits his aversion to books in the despairing category, he cites works by Kurt Vonnegut, and notes that stories of this type are growing in popularity.

As for why the sword is the standard issue weapon of soldiers in the Galactic Empire,
...the easiest way for an author to summon up images of grandeur, either godlike or Oriental or barbaric, or images of chivalry, is to hearken to the past; and a sense of things both half-familiar and hauntingly romantic is most easily achieved by such archaisms.

2015/05/19

Transhuman and Subhuman Part V: John C. Wright’s Patented One Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction


"I am eager to share my trade secrets," says John C. Wright in his essay on writing mechanics--the fifth in his Hugo-nominated collection Transhuman and Subhuman. "...more science fiction writers means more science fiction readers, a larger field, and more money in the field."

Step 1: stare at a blank page for four hours.

"If you want to be a fiction writer, you must learn to stare at a blank page with nothing but your name on the top without flinching, without weeping, without getting up to get a beer to fortify your faltering courage."

How does one fill the empty page? Wright asserts that the answer is a matter of craft.

First, every work of fiction begins with a conceit--a make-believe idea. Wright dismisses the cliche of asking where writers get their ideas, since no one really knows, and ideas are abundant anyway. The difference between wannabes and pros is that pros write down their ideas.

The next item of business is revealing the plot. Every plot consists of someone who wants something having to overcome obstacles to get it. There are two entry windows for any plot: at the beginning, or in medias res. Getting readers engaged in the plot requires a "hook"--a hint of what's to come that entices the audience to read on.

Wright identifies the most powerful hook as curiosity and notes that it is capable of sustaining the entire mystery genre. The key to maintaining curiosity is giving readers sufficient time to ponder a question before providing the answer.

Humor, says Wright, is a vital lubricant that helps readers slide into the story. A writer must make a sustained effort to help readers suspend their disbelief. In works of speculative fiction, setting elements that differ from the primary world must also be introduced early and with care. Here, demonstration serves better than exposition.

The same rules for establishing setting apply to characters. Readers should be given clues to deduce character traits; not told them straight out.

Regarding tone, Wright advises, "Selecting tone is a matter of judgment. The only general rule is that the tone should reinforce the general tone of the story. Don’t start a horror story with a joke; don’t start a joking story with a horror." Due to the often subjective nature of humor, writers must exercise consistency and good judgment when setting tone.

Because so much of storytelling relies on nudging readers' imaginations to paint the images the writer intends, using stereotypes is inevitable and indispensable.

"What the reader wants not to do is to be asked by the writer to use the stereotype in his head in a tired, trite, shopworn, or expected way, because then the reader notices, and is rightly put off, by the trick being pulled on him."

Wright thus counsels authors to employ two contradictory stereotypes to describe each character. Bilbo Baggins is a retiring country squire and a supremely accomplished burglar. Kal-El is both mild-mannered reporter and Superman. The tension between these contradictions creates depth.

All of the aforementioned mechanics converge on pacing. Wright likens proper story pacing to a striptease or a magic trick. The author entices readers with a question, but makes sure to pose another question before answering the first--and then only partially. The key is balancing the interval between asking and resolving questions to maintain reader interest.

"It is a simple pattern with many variations: question, distraction, second question, first answer, second distraction, third question, second answer, and repeat. The longer the pause between question and answer, the longer the reader is kept lost at sea."

Of course, the question of whether the hero will attain his goal must be asked in the first chapter, and the full answer must be saved until the last. How long a reader can stand being left in suspense depends on his genre preferences.

"Science fiction readers...like the sensation of being lost at sea and not knowing what is going on, and will wait with the patience of Job to be allowed to figure out the unreal reality, provided, of course, that you play fair with them, and actually have a real unreal reality to figure out."


2015/05/17

Nethereal Cover

Because God has sent me a cover artist far better than I deserve, it humbles me to announce that this is the cover for my upcoming SF/horror novel Nethereal:



Thanks, Marcelo!

Special thanks are also due to my learned and gracious editor, L. Jagi Lamplighter-Wright for helping with the back jacket text.

2015/05/15

Transhuman and Subhuman Part IV - Science Fiction: What Is It Good For?


"Human nature, for better or worse, always eventually comes to the fore again. And human nature likes and needs stories that are stories." --John C. Wright

The fourth essay in Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth sends a wake up call to readers of mainstream fiction, from whose beloved art form all traces of the fantastic, the romantic, and the wondrous have been methodically banished.

Those who look down on genre fiction may view the trend toward realism as literature's triumph over schlock, but Mr. Wright counts the artistic cost of mundanity.

"When the emphasis is on realism, or what is called realism, the three-act structure of a plot, the setup and climax and resolution, begins to seem artificial. And in a world where there is no good and evil, and nothing worth fighting for, there is insufficient tension to have a satisfactory plot."

By restricting their vision to the narrowest definition of what is real, authors of literary fiction blind themselves to the ways in which mundane reality mediates wonder and grandeur.

Indeed, consistent application of contemporary mainstream fiction's arbitrary standards would dictate the expulsion of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Wagner, and even Jane Austen from the canon of literature.

What shriveled the Western imagination? Wright sees the start of the rot in the aftermath of the Great War. Europe's wholesale disillusionment precipitated a soft ban on overt fantasy; then on the supernatural, and finally on heroism, in mainstream fiction.

Since art concretizes the spirit of the age, the ailment that afflicted Europe's intellectuals in the Great War's wake can be diagnosed as a spiritual sickness. Europe lost the faith in God that had raised and nourished it, and so Europe lost faith in itself. American academics were, as always, only too quick to follow their betters into the abyss.

Like city fathers walling off undesirables and untouchables, the gatekeepers of literary fiction maintained their artificial purity by segregating fantastic, romantic, and heroic stories within genre ghettos.

Thus, says Wright, science fiction preserved the banished elements of fantasy by exploiting a literary loophole: the sense of wonder evoked in even the bitterest cynics by the unknown.

Fantasy had a slower recovery, but under the captaincy of Tolkien, it has been marching from victory to victory. "...fantasy writers like Tolkien occupy the high position once held by Wagner and Shakespeare."

According to Wright, the end of science fiction and fantasy's exile was decreed by the advent of a single film: George Lucas' cultural juggernaut Star Wars. "When...the President of the United States can make casual references to Jedi mind-powers or the One Ring from Mordor, then space opera and fantasy epic have sunk into the marrow bones of the popular imagination."

Having examined how genre fiction's banishment came about, and how it ended, Wright turns to the questions of where sci-fi is going, and what it's for.

Besides fables to instruct the young, epics to memorialize the great, ghost stories to remind men of our mortality, stories concretize spiritual realities. And the best stories--those that speak to the deepest longings of the human heart--serve to remind us that we don't really belong here; that this world of sadness, injustice, and pain is not our true home.

"We tell stories because we are homesick for heaven and afraid of hell. We make stuff up because we don’t know or remember what it might be like on the other side, the unspoiled side, of life."

2015/05/11

Transhuman and Subhuman Part III: Whistle While You Work


The third essay in John C. Wright's Hugo-nominated collection Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth tackles the enduring question of why small animals help Snow White with her housework.

Yes. It really does.

The author formulates his answer in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics.

No, I'm not kidding.

Wright first explains the four basic answers to any "why" question--the four Aristotelian causes:
  1. Final cause - the sake for which something is done
  2. Formal cause - how something is put together
  3. Material cause - what something is made of
  4. Efficient cause - the causal chain that produced the event in question
Applied to the question "Why do squirrels, chipmunks, and bunnies help Snow White clean the dwarfs' house?" each cause yields the following answer:

  • Efficient cause - Walt Disney wanted it that way.
  • Material cause - Snow White is a fairy tale, and housekeeping animals are fairy tale-stuff.
  • (Secondary world) final cause - She used the animals as labor-saving devices.
  • (Primary world) final cause - Housekeeping bunnies make the story charming and memorable.

As Wright notes, neither the efficient, the material, nor the final cause provides a satisfying explanation for Snow White's undomesticated domestics.Therefore, what we're really after is the formal cause. "We want to know what about having shy and wild deer befriend and love a virginal maiden appeals to any audience whose hearts are fit for fairy tales."

That Snow White's animal helpers remain undomesticated is what separates her story from the tales of noble savages like Tarzan, who also receive aid from beasts, but who tame them in the process.

Likewise with science fiction. The absence of a naturalistic explanation for the animals' behavior grounds Snow White firmly in the realm of fantasy.

Still, Wright affirms, every story in which humans befriend animals--be it a fairy tale, the adventures of a noble savage, or The Island of Doctor Moreau, is appealing because human nature includes a deep longing to be reconciled with the rest of nature. "There is something out there we all want to embrace, and to have it talk to us."

How, then, does Snow White attract forest creatures to aid her? Wright identifies the reason as her innocence.

"Snow White can cajole the beasts of the wild to aid her housekeeping because she is an image of sweetness and innocence; and one of the most powerful images of innocence, the innocence of Eden, is the image of Nature herself blessing and loving and aiding the unfallen innocent."

Thus, the author sets out the reason why those with hearts fit to hear fairy tales find Snow White's animal friends so appealing: "We yearn for the blessing of Nature and communion with her, and this yearning, for reasons only Christians can explain, is a nostalgic one."

2015/05/04

Transhuman and Subhuman Part II: The Hobbit, or, The Desolation of Tolkien



"My wife had to stuff a wide handful of popcorn flavored food substitute into my face, in order to smother the broken, wretched burbling — shoot him … with … an elf arrow." —John C. Wright

Newer blockbusters may have driven the second Hobbit movie from the popular consciousness, but John C. Wright deftly uses The Desolation of Smaug as an object lesson in how even great works can suffer in the hands of artists who don't understand them.

"The Hobbit, or, The Desolation of Tolkien" is the second essay in John C. Wright's Hugo-nominated anthology Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truths. This essays features a lighter tone than its predecessor, but proves no less enlightening.

Though he professes to have loved the first Hobbit film, Mr. Wright found its sequel sorely lacking in artistry, internal consistency, and basic intelligence. A recurring motif of his essay is the "stupidity hammer", from which the author felt himself subject to repeated blows of increasing viciousness throughout the film.

Whether due to Legolas' Mary Sue-style antics, the tacked-on dwarf-elf romance, King Thranduil's inexplicable, villainous heel turn, Gandalf's solo expedition against Dol Guldur, or Bilbo's failure to seal the barrels holding his friends before dumping them in a frothing river, the stupidity hammer's desecrations leave precious little of Tolkien's beloved masterpiece unspoiled.

Wright mentions a scant few grace notes: the majesty of Thranduil's throne room, the visual perfection of Mirkwood's canopy filled with black butterflies.

Sadly, Peter Jackson's bizarre reliance on the stupidity hammer impedes his potentially excellent craftsmanship. From the pure gold of Tolkien's venerable tale, he forges a hyperactive, incoherent series of video game cinematics tarnished with political correctness.