2015/06/24

Transhuman and Subhuman Part XI: Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith

Is science fiction inherently hostile to religion? John C. Wright attempts to answer this question in "Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith":

"...science fiction is the mythology of a scientific age," says Wright. Both explore the human condition by positing metaphysical changes to the status quo. The difference is that fantasy deals with supernatural interventions and science fiction concerns "...some aspect of a change in society or life brought about by a speculated advance in technology."

If scientists in sci-fi tales can achieve the same feats as wizards in fantasy yarns, where does the perceived tension between science fiction and the supernatural come from? According to Wright, SF fans want to read about the strange and exotic. Thus, they don't want stories about anything as familiar as Christianity. "...science fiction is inherently interested in the variables in human society, not the constants."

Wright points to the fabricated religion of Asimov's Foundation series as representative of science fiction's natural skepticism, which arises from fundamental dramatic needs. "Who wants to read about a benevolent Galactic Empire? We want to hear about Jack the Giant Killer. No one wants to hear about Giant the Jack Killer."

However, Wright notes that science fiction's hostility to religion is mostly superficial: "...every genre of science fiction except maybe for military SF deals more often with mythical or religious themes than with mundane or worldly ones. When is the last time you read an SF story about the danger of a Negative Balance of Imports or Deficit Spending?"

Consider the trope of the Chosen One, which perpetually recurs in both science fiction and fantasy. "...the only difference between science fiction and fairytales...is that the sciencefictioneers have to leave unsaid who chooses the Chosen One..."

Having weighed the evidence, Wright returns to his initial question:

...is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as a human institution? Yes, a little, and for the same reason there is an innate hostility to human institutions of business and government...in any story where the Big Guy is the Bad Guy. 
Is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as supernatural? No; the matter tends to be ignored by SFF and for the same reason that the supernatural foundations of the Church Militant do not come up in Westerns or in Samurai stories.
Science fiction writers are fond of saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but we make this distinction every time we call one book science fiction and another one fantasy.
Wright further contends that SF draws so heavily upon spiritual themes that asking whether science fiction is hostile to religion is no more valid than asking if science fiction is hostile to fiction.

"Most science fiction readers can tell the difference between science and fiction. The war between science and religion is fiction, and apparently an entertaining fiction indeed, as many who believe in it continue to do so."

2015/06/16

Transhuman and Subhuman Part X:The Golden Compass Points in No Direction


John C. Wright's criticism of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy hinges not on the books' atheist message (Wright was an atheist himself when he first read, and found serious defects in, the series), but on the sloppy and arbitrary handling of their plot.

"This book should have been an atheist book," Wright laments. "I mean a properly, openly, honestly, hardcore really atheist book." Such a book would have depicted a rationalist materialist underdog faced with the impossible task of overthrowing an all-powerful God whose tyrannies are established clearly and early. But instead of a compelling drama like Paradise Lost, Pullman's apparently ungovernable urge to mock his theological opponents results in satire more like L. Frank Baum's titular Wizard. The mixture proves tonally and thematically dissonant.

Further undermining the dramatic tension are a slew of such basic technical errors that Wright expresses bafflement at how a pro of Pullman's stature could have committed them. The plot turns on a series of unfired Chekhov's Guns and forgotten buckets.

The weapon prophesied to slay immortal God is never used for its stated purpose. A last-minute deus ex machina arbitrarily ruins two characters' chances of a happy ending.

Warnings against the dangers of putting message before story have been stirring up fandom lately. His Dark Materials stands as an example of how ignoring such sound advice places a story's plot in grave peril of death from loss of dramatic tension.

2015/06/10

Nethereal Is Now Available


My first novel, Nethereal, is now live on Amazon. For old school folks, the paperback is available from CreateSpace. Here's the description:
A woman like no other who longs for acceptance. A precision killer inspired by the dream of his captain. The last member of a murdered race, fighting to avenge his people against the overwhelming might of the Guild…and the dark powers behind it.
The Sublime Brotherhood of Steersmen holds the Middle Stratum in its iron grip. Jaren Peregrine, last of the Gen, raids across the fringe spheres beside Nakvin—a pilot whose relationship with her captain transcends the professional, apprentice steersman Deim, and laconic mercenary Teg Cross.
Hunted by the ruthless Master Malachi, Jaren and his crew reluctantly join an occult conspiracy to break the Guild’s monopoly with an experimental ship. But when its maiden voyage goes awry, the Exodus flies farther off course than its crew could have imagined.
Lost in a forgotten netherworld, Nakvin, Jaren, and their crew face mutinous officers, hellish riddles, and a stowaway necromancer whose mask hides more than his face. They turn to an exiled priest who discovers a secret incubating within the Exodus—an enigmatic evil with a startling connection to Nakvin.
When Jaren strikes a fiendish bargain, his bond with Nakvin is tested, Teg’s identity is imperiled, and Deim’s sanity is shaken. Only the Words of Creation offer hope of escape, but finding them means racing a demon lord to the mythical Place where old gods die and new gods emerge—whether for good or ill as yet unknown…

My sincere thanks go out to everyone who helped make this day possible, especially my brilliant editor L. Jagi Lamplighter, my cover artist Marcelo (you're a genius!), and the talented folks at Polgarus Studio.

And thanks again to all of my beta readers and everyone who supported this project. We may have seen the first glimmers of what lies over the horizon.

Follow me on Twitter: @BrianNiemeier

2015/06/08

Transhuman and Subhuman Part IX: Storytelling Is the Absence of Lying


"A slow man is telling a fast man how to run a race," John C. Wright warns readers of his essay on "Hell Is the Absence of God" by the redoubtable Ted Chiang. After issuing this caveat, Wright notes that "even a slow runner can tell when a faster one has gone seriously off the track."

How did Chiang, whom Wright acknowledges as his literary superior, send what is arguably his most famous short story off the rails? In Wright's judgment the story, which deals with theological matters, "reads like it was written by someone who never met a Christian, or read anything written by a Christian."

The story's faults don't lie in its craftsmanship. Wright praises its characterization, structure, and pacing. Rather, the work's main demerit is the crude and dishonest way in which it slanders religion--specifically Christianity.
There is no point to the story if it is not a criticism of Christianity, a topic fascinating to the dominant section of the SF audience, who are skeptics from the West, i.e. from Christendom. Criticism of other religions would be of marginal interest to the expected audience. When is the last time you heard someone blaspheming Thor?
In "Hell Is the Absence of God", Chiang presents us with an all-powerful God who removes characters' free will, a cripple deprived of empathy upon gaining beatitude, and a righteous man condemned to hell. Wright points out that "what Chiang proposes is not what the Christians say." It's worth noting that Wright took immediate exception to Chiang's straw men, even though he was a staunch atheist when he first read the story.

The conceit which Wright finds most irksome is the heavenly light that both blinds and destroys the free will of characters who see it. "...[I]n this loopy interpretation, faith is not an act of the will, but an absence of will."

Wright advises honest atheists to argue against Christian theology with observation and reasoning according to an objective standard of truth; not by invoking fictional effigies. By resorting to the latter method, Chiang actually undermines atheist argument.

Drawing an analogy to The Wizard of Oz, Wright points out that misrepresenting the wizard as an evil tyrant isn't the proper way to disabuse someone of the delusion that the wizard is real. "You do not uphold a standard of truth by telling a lie."

2015/06/01

Transhuman and Subhuman Part VIII: Gene Wolfe, Genre Work, and Literary Duty


The eighth essay in John C. Wright's Transhuman and Subhuman collection is a meditation on the merits of speculative fiction occasioned by SFWA making Gene Wolfe a Grand Master. "He is the greatest living author writing in the English language today," Wright declares, "and I do not confine that remark to genre authors."

"Sometimes in this life," Wright says in regard to Wolfe's accolade, "we see justice done." If honors are rightly given to those who perform their duty, what obligations do SFF authors owe to their readers, to society at large, and to the truth itself?

Wright seeks the answer through a critical via negativa. What causes our disappointment--even outrage--when due honor is denied?

"You will frequently hear the complaint in science fiction circles," says Wright, "that mainstream literature does not take science fiction seriously. This complaint is partly fair and partly unfair."

SF fans' complaints are justified when the custodians of taste and morality reject otherwise meritorious works on arbitrary, elitist grounds. If the guardians of culture go so far as to betray good taste and moral edification, "...we not only have the right to complain, we have the right to riot, to storm their Bastille, and haul the snobs off to the guillotine of public scorn."

Wright follows this indictment of literary tyrants with these caveats: complaints that the custodians of literature ignore science fiction are not justified in the cases of hackwork, or when the works in question do in fact receive a public hearing--either despite or because of the gatekeepers' vigilance. Anachronistic appeals to eras before science fiction conquered pop culture are likewise invalid.

What, then, is sci-fi's proper use? Wright answers with the "divine irony" that "Fiction is untruth that serves truth."

Wright acknowledges the obvious objection that SFF is mere entertainment; escapist distraction, and asks in response, "...from what do the readers of such tales seek diversion? From what must they be distracted?"

The answer, of course, is the mundane world with all its frustration, misery, and quotidian banality. Human beings don't belong here. If we did, we wouldn't long for other worlds separated from ours by oceans of space or time.

So the indignation that arises when a profound book is called shallow (or a shallow book profound) is due to the judgment's brazen injustice. An honest reader can find that a book isn't to his taste while acknowledging its worth as a great piece of literature. On the other hand, a Catholic who dismisses Paradise Lost because Milton was a Protestant, or a Protestant who denounces The Divine Comedy due to Dante's Catholicism, commits a grave artistic injustice.
What duty do authors owe literature? That we can now answer in a word. Authors serve the truth. Nor the truth as they see it, not their truth or my truth or your truth. They serve truth. There are those who betray that service. This makes them traitors, but does not make them discoverers of a new truth.