Hugo Nominee Review: Transhuman and Subhuman Part I, Transhuman and Subhuman

The fine folks at Superversive SF have asked me to join them in reviewing this year's nominated works in the run up to the Hugos. It's hoped that these reviews will focus attention on the stories themselves so that Worldcon members can cast informed votes based on the works' merits.

NB: there's still plenty of time to register for Sasquan. A supporting membership grants you Hugo voting rights this year, nominating rights next year, and a voting packet containing all of the nominated works (subject to publisher participation). So at the very least, spending $40 on a supporting membership gets you over $100 worth of top shelf sci-fi and fantasy books. Plus, your vote expands the electorate and supports the Hugos' heritage as SFF fandom's most prestigious award.

I've volunteered to review Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truths by John C. Wright, which is nominated in the Best Related Work category. Having been among the beta readers who offered the author and his editor feedback on a pre-publication draft of the manuscript, this work seemed like a logical subject for my review.

Transhuman and Subhuman contains sixteen essays on topics ranging from SFF history, pop literary theory, moral theology, and classical and political philosophy to film criticism and beyond. Rather than deliver myself of a comprehensive review of the whole book at once, I will dedicate a separate post to each essay.

I'll start with the titular essay, "Transhuman and Subhuman", wherein Mr. Wright explains his mistrust of transhumanism's ultimate aims by pointing out the deficiencies of modernism and citing works of popular fiction as evidence. This approach makes sense because all speculative fiction attempts to concretize an author's worldview. Science fiction provides a view of the present from the lofty vantage point of a conjectural future. Fantasy views the mundane world from an ageless eternity.

Wright further categorizes sci-fi and fantasy into sub-genres based on their treatment of magic. High Fantasy, he observes, includes a holistic, Catholic economy of transcendent powers wherein "good magic" is at least implicitly miraculous and black magic is always demonic. The worldview embodied in high fantasy acknowledges and celebrates the philosophical trinity of goodness, beauty, and truth. J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth stories exemplify High Fantasy.

The second type of speculative fiction in Wright's hierarchy is Sword-and-Sorcery. This sub-genre, which in the author's estimation is informed by more Protestant sensibilities, regards magic as evil--the eldritch lore of Lovecraftian horror that leads to corruption and madness. Any beneficial effects result from interventions by ineffable forces. Heroes, who know better than to rely on such fickle powers, conquer evil with cunning and brawn. The world is founded on truth, but each character must discover it on his own. The works of Robert E. Howard depict this worldview.

Wright coins the term Sword-and-Magic-User for the third spec fic sub-genre. Here, magic has no moral dimension apart from its users' ends. Rather than a transcendent power, magic is just another technology. This utilitarian bent estranges Sword-and-Magic-User fiction from serious consideration of matters spiritual. This sub-genre is represented by the writings of Michael Moorcock.

Last but not least, Wright discusses how Science Fiction eschews mystical trappings altogether and portrays its wonders as miracles of science. Yet the effects of these technological feats are no less astounding than the marvels wrought by sorcery in fantasy tales. Frank Herbert's Dune universe is built on these assumptions.

"In Science Fiction the role of magic is ambiguous, and this reflects the ambiguous attitude of the modern age toward all things supernatural." With this observation, Wright brings his commentary on speculative fiction to bear on his essay's main thesis. The worldview enshrined in Science Fiction is modernism, and many moderns invest the same sort of cultish faith in science that their forefathers once reserved for articles of revealed or mystical religion.

Wright notes that this modernist faith brings the exhilaration of vastly improved worldly prosperity, but also the discontent that comes from the inescapable truth that no amount of technologically increased liberty, knowledge, technology, or wealth can satisfy our perennial human hunger for the transcendent.

Here the author introduces a recurring theme of his political philosophy: "...the four stages of a decay toward the nihilist abyss: the worldly man, the cultist, the occultist, the anarchist." Like the four types of speculative fiction, each of these steps has its literary champions.

The worldly man discounts revelation and conflates truth with empirical fact. He demands license to indulge his preferred pleasures and respects his neighbor's wish to do the same. Robert A. Heinlein's work is a perfect example of the worldly stage.

The cultist embraces a hard form of the worldly man's soft materialism while reacting violently against his perceived hedonism. Cultists believe that the optimal means of ordering human life can be deduced with absolute certainty from empirical facts. This unbalanced absolutism leads the cultist to reject virtue and embrace vice. The writings of H.G. Wells and Ayn Rand serve as examples of the cultist stage.

The occultist rejects the cultist's materialistic dogmatism in favor of epistemic and moral relativism. This denial of objective truth limits the occultist to soft virtues, such as tolerance and kindness, to the exclusion of hard virtues like justice and charity. Ursula K. Le Guin's works are the most prominent depictions of occultism in SFF.

Wright calls the final stage nihilism or anarchy. The nihilist denounces all of the previous stages and believes only one truth: that there is no truth. He despises all virtues and revels in destruction. To him, beauty and ugliness are equally meaningless. Referring to the categories of speculative fiction, nihilism is the antithesis of High Fantasy.

Blindsight by Peter Watts is a stark portrayal of nihilism. Wright argues that this book demonstrates what is lacking in a modern world dominated by nihilist sentiment. Lacking truth, goodness, and beauty, the only logical response to existence is to destroy everything, including oneself.

Wright answers that nihilists' doubt in revelation is no less dogmatic than Christians' faith. If they really exist, beauty and truth vindicate divine revelation because they spring from the same source. And as the perfection of revelation, Christ wields sovereign authority.

The errors of worldliness, cultishness, and occultism all stem from nihilism, and Wright points out that transhumanism's ultimate goal of curing mortality is the logical extreme of worldly thought. The transhumanists' a priori materialism makes Wright skeptical of their project's success. If humans have a spiritual dimension, our nature cannot be perfected by purely material means. Any attempt to alter human nature must, by definition, produce something inhuman, and fallen beings given an eternity to perfect their sins would be indistinguishable from devils.

"Transhuman and Subhuman" by John C. Wright clearly presents the author's skepticism of transhumanist claims through a categorical examination of speculative fiction.


Responses to Sad Puppies 3: The Five Stages of Grieving

The counseling profession identifies five stages of grieving. Someone who suffers a great loss will first deny what has happened, then feel anger (usually misdirected) and depression before attempting to deal with the situation through ultimately futile bargaining, before finally accepting the new circumstances.

Examining reactions to the 2015 Hugo Award nominees, I noted that many commenters reacting negatively to the broadening of the electorate and renewed diversity of the nominated works are speaking from positions informed by one of the first four stages of grief.

The Psych Central article linked above describes denial as a normal defense mechanism employed to block out facts and words that may cause painful emotions. Few descriptions of Isabella Biedenharn's hastily retracted Entertainment Weekly piece are more apt.

A time comes when denying the loss is no longer possible. This is when anger sets in--directed irrationally and often indiscriminately at friend and foe alike. The term "textbook example" is overused, but it describes K. Tempest Bradford's profanity-laden rant to perfection.

When anger has passed, the bereaved is confronted with his own vulnerability and insecurity. He may begin second guessing his and others' decisions in an effort to regain some semblance of control, or seek to make some kind of deal in the false hope of cheating fate.

Former Hugo winner John Scalzi's recent post chiding Brad Torgersen's alleged negligence for not warning all SP 3 nominees about the reprisals that Mr. Scalzi and his confederates are themselves causing places him squarely at the bargaining stage. Subtly urging the nominees  to renounce their nominations is a definitive symptom.

As for depression, the header image and emoticon which the esteemed George R. R. Martin uses in his initial post on Sad Puppies 3 say more than words.

What do all of these reactions have in common? They're all based on emotion rather than reason.

John C. Wright has pointed out that discussions of the nominated works' merits are few and far between. At this point, with nominations closed, the quality of the works chosen by the voters should be the main subject of debate among Worldcon members. Instead, most commenters persist in complaining about the manifest of a ship that's already cleared space doors and is cruising at warp speed.

Another observation: besides their common origin in grieving parties' emotions, every objection to Sad Puppies 3 amounts to one thing--voter disqualification. Those in denial disqualify certain Worldcon members as racists. Those motivated by anger denounce other members as sexists. Meanwhile, some offer acceptance in exchange for thwarting the will of members who voted for certain works. Saddest of all, some see the changes sweeping through fandom--see it broadening and deepening--and in despair, believe the calumnies hurled at their brethren.

Enough grieving. Let reason's cold bright light expose all comforting self-delusions and bring all to acceptance of the truth. This is the truth: the Hugos are awarded by the members of Worldcon, convention registration is the only requirement for membership, and Sad Puppies voters are no less members of Worldcon than those who grieve at their presence. Those who would disenfranchise new members; who would relegate them to second-class citizenship in their own convention, would be better served by recognizing and accepting the indelible change they've wrought.


Congratulations to the 2015 Hugo Nominees

The official list of nominees for the 2015 Hugo Awards have been announced!

I extend my sincerest congratulations to all of the nominees. And seeing so many luminaries who've toiled unrecognized for decades finally receive nominations restored some of my faith in the SF establishment.

Shortly thereafter, calls from supposed curators of culture and nurturers of artists to burn down the house rather than welcome new members from SF's vast fanbase precipitated my relapse into industry infidel status.

My fellow geeks, the price of defying SFF's self-appointed arbiters of propriety is a matter of public record. Nevertheless, reason compels me to note what my own senses and intellect report. The Hugo is awarded by popular vote of the Worldcon membership. The only criterion which those seeking the Hugo franchise must meet is paying the registration fee for a supporting membership. Prospective Hugo voters need not (yet) pass a literacy test confirming their conformity to Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Moshe Feder's notion of a true fan.

You pay your entry fee, and you're eligible to vote. Anyone who bought a supporting membership is just as much a member in good standing of Worldcon as the two gentlemen above are.

Sadly, a spirit of possessiveness is seeking to nullify the will of fans who judge works on merit. Such is the old guard's jealousy that they will even rob authors who write for their own companies, or whose works they themselves praise, of a chance at recognition that often took years to earn.

One way remains to prevent those who were charged with cultivating the SF field from burning it: use the democratic system they so clearly despise.

Voting memberships for Sasquan can be purchased here.

Become a member of this august institution. Read the nominated works and vote for whichever you think best. Show those who unjustly malign you that you're no less of a fan than they are. I ask nothing that I won't be doing myself.


SuperversiveSF Roundtable

SuperversiveSF and Sci Phi Journal editor Jason Rennie is hosting a contributor roundtable tomorrow at 10:30 AM EDT. Several authors of the superversive tales and articles featured in Mr. Rennie's projects have been invited--and a few Very Special Guests may show up as well.

The roundtable will take place live on Google Hangouts. Watch this space for the link.

Update: Jason managed to host seven SFF authors on the same live stream and wrangle the whole production into a rousing and remarkably coherent discussion. You can hear Ben Zwycky, David Hallquist, EJ Shumak, Joshua Young, L. Jagi Lamplighter, John C. Wright, and myself discuss Sad Puppies, SF fandom, the state of publishing, and more by clicking this link.