Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth. By John C. Wright, Castalia House, 2014.
Some critics have argued that science fiction is an inherently atheistic genre, but there are many people who completely disagree with that perspective. John C. Wright is one of the most outspoken and eloquent proponents of the opinion that great science fiction can express religious themes, especially Christian, particularly Catholic perspectives. Wright came to writing science fiction after careers in journalism and law. A longtime atheist, Wright converted to Catholicism after a period of exploring major questions, followed by a supernatural experience. There is no better person to explain this process than the man himself: Wright’s personal account of his conversion can be found here: http://www.strangenotions.com/wright-conversion/.
Wright writes with force and conviction, and speaks as a man who is firm in his opinions and has little patience for the foolish and intellectually dishonest. The anthology Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth is a collection of pieces, many of which are revised from postings on his blog (http://www.scifiwright.com). Transhuman and Subhuman is a collection of sixteen essays, most of which address science fiction themes, with special stress on spiritual and theological matters.
The famous science-fiction Arthur C. Clarke’s book Childhood’s End features a scene where aliens show humanity a series of “revelatory” images on a television screen, and the supposed truths of these images convince humanity to give up on religion completely. In “Childhood’s End and Gnosticism,” Wright pours scorn upon the puerility of this scenario, noting that it the situation that Clarke describes would be hardly enough to destroy the faiths of a planet. He writes:
“It is with a sensation of unutterable disbelief that I read a passage saying one or two days of looking at a picture on a screen provided by the “magic” produced by creatures who look like devils, (whose mission, remember, is to facilitate the extinction of mankind), would be believed without reservation or complaint by everyone from Moscow to Bombay to Lhasa to Rome to Mecca. In the world I live in, people are stubborn and cantankerous. Some have faith that will not be swayed and some of us are nuts.”
In order to believe that faith is so fragile and easily destroyed, one must have a very poor understanding of how many people come to embrace religion. Throughout these essays, Wright attacks the view apparently held by many science fiction writers that people of faith are sheeplike buffoons, or that faith itself is inherently a form of mental weakness. Wright addresses another blithe smear against Christianity in “Storytelling is the Absence of Lying.” In that essay, Wright takes on the story “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang, a tale describing a world where pure faith leads to physical maiming and the abolition of free will. Wright writes:
“Am I reading too much into it? I think I am not. 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?
I will say again, the story is well written. I will say again that Mr. Chiang is a gifted writer, touched with divine fire. The sorrow of a widower, or the wild rides of the angel-chasing truckers, make for memorable scenes. But the story itself is a misrepresentation, nay, a defamation.
Christians say virtue is its own reward; they also say to love God is good; they also say heaven rewards virtues not rewarded on earth, and martyrs are glorified. They propose the paradox of an omnipotent God who grants man free will. So all Ted Chiang does is propose an omnipotent God who removes a character’s free will, and martyrs him, cheating him of any glory, but without rewarding him either on Earth or in heaven. Oh, the irony! The girl born crippled was able to stir men’s souls back before she was touched with bliss, because, once blissful, the heavenly creature knows no suffering or empathy for suffering. More irony! (And we all know the Christians believe God never became flesh and never suffered, right? Of course right!) Virtue is its own reward, so the one virtuous man is stuck in Hell forever, and he is the only one to whom it is a torment! Irony upon irony! Yuk, yuk, yuk, and ain’t the Godbotherers stoopid?
Well, as a matter of fact, no. They may be wrong or right, but the theology is not simple, and what Chiang proposes is not what the Christians say. Or the Mohammedans, or the Jews, or the Pagans, or anyone else, for that matter. Chiang is trouncing a straw man.
That was what offended me when I first read it, by the bye. Back then I was a hard-core Xtian-bashing atheist and was therefore on his side, so to speak, but the blatant propaganda of the story nonetheless offended me. (I am less offended now that I believe in God: I figure He can take care of His own reputation.) My reaction back then was: Does he even know any Christians? Doesn’t he know what they say? The story reads like it was written for an audience of utter ignoramuses, who have never read a word of Christian theology, and never cracked a history book.”
It is important to note that Wright does not attack certain fictional works simply because they promote an antireligious perspective. Wright does not condemn writers just because they disagree with his faith, though he does not hesitate to disparage the ideas and worldviews, not the writers themselves. Philip Pullman, a critically lauded writer best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy, often seen as an atheistic rebuttal to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, is very well regarded in any circles, but in “The Golden Compass Points in No Direction,” Wright lambasts Pullman, not for atheism, but for poor storytelling:
“The first rule of storytelling is the same rule every child learns in kindergarten, every merchant learns when generating customer good will. Abide by your contracts. Keep your promises.
There is an unspoken contract between a writer and his readers. Plots and characters and themes make promises. Prophecies in epic fantasy stories are blatant promises. When you are told that there is a prophecy that one and only one knife can kill Almighty God, and that one little boy is the one to do it, it breaks a promise to have God turn out to be a drooling cripple who dies by falling out of bed.
Character development makes a promise. If you start your series with a selfish little girl who tells lies, the climax of her character arc must be when she either gets a come-uppance for being a liar, or when she reforms and starts telling the truth. If you give her a magic instrument that only she can read called an Alethiometer, a truth measurer, it breaks a promise to have simply nothing at all come of this.”
Arguably the funniest essay in the collection– and my personal favorite– is “The Hobbit, or, The Desolation of Tolkien,” where Wright voices his abhorrence of the second movie in the recent The Hobbit trilogy, due to its divergence from the source material and striking gaps of logic. Wright writes with the disgusted fury of a Tolkien fan who is blindsided– even enraged– by Hollywood’s treatment of the source material. Midway through the movie, Wright responds to the many changes, additions, and ridiculously tacked-on action scenes, writing that:
“Well, things go from bad— no, excuse me, they were already WAY past bad. This dial had been cranked up to eleven when the meter only goes to ten— things go from inexcusably stupid to indescribably stupid. I should not attempt to describe it. The pain… the pain…. And yet I must! It is my penance for having spent real money on this turkey and inadvertently aided the forces of brain-gag by rewarding them for this craptastic jerktrocious smegbladder of a film. My money crossed their palms! Peter Jackson went out and bought himself a Starbucks cup of coffee with the four bucks he got from the forty dollars I spent on tickets! Forgive me, O Muses! I MUST SUFFER! (And you shall suffer with me, dear reader).”
Wright is one of the sharpest and most interesting cultural commentators working today, but he does more than just comment on other people’s work– he creates work of his own, reflecting his ideals of what constitutes good writing through fiction, and addressing issues of society and religion through his non-fiction essays. People might not expect to gain a better understanding of religion through science fiction, but Wright shows how God is always present, even in the writings of people who deny that He exists.