SF Signal had the opportunity to interview science fiction and fantasy author John C. Wright through email. Mr. Wright is the author of the highly acclaimed trilogy The Golden Age, which is made up of THE GOLDEN AGE (finalist for the 2003 Locus Award for first novel and finalist for the 2003 Campbell Memorial Award), THE PHOENIX EXULTANT and THE GOLDEN TRANSCENDENCE. His newly-available novel, THE LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS, begins the high fantasy sequence called The War of the Dreaming.
SF SIGNAL: Before you became a professional writer, you were an attorney and a newspaperman (whatever that means). Why the switch to writing? Why the science fiction genre? Is there anything you miss about those other professions?
JCW: Do you actually not know what the word newspaperman means? News·pa·per·man n. one who is a newspaper reporter, writer, or editor. (I have been all three, and political cartoonist to boot.)
The question is mildly misleading. In no real sense did I “switch” to writing; since age twelve I have written science fiction and tried to sell it. It is merely that, until recently, my output was low, and my sales rate even lower. I am not now a full-time science fiction writer. I still have a day-job to pay the mortgage.
The second question could be read in two ways. Do you mean, why do I write Science Fiction as opposed to, say, Westerns or Mysteries or Vampire Samurai Techno-Thrillers? Or do you mean, why do I write genre fiction as opposed to, say, manage a warehouse, run a pharmacy or hunt artic whales?
The answer to the first question is that science fiction is more all-embracing than other genre fiction. There is no story (in my humble opinion) that cannot be improved by the introduction of fantastical and unearthly elements, or opening deeper questions of the future of the universe and man’s place within it. Science fiction always has one eye on the cosmic context in which a tale takes place. The loss of a sense of context is a modern innovation. In the ancient and medieval world, no poet worth the wine that went to pay him would tell a saga or epic without some reference to the gods and monsters that ruled or ravaged the world. In the modern world, the mechanistic world-view eliminates divine things as a source of inspiration or edification; therefore we have only the future, the Men Like Gods foreseen by H.G. Wells (or the men like monsters foreseen by George Orwell), to engage our poets. Science fiction allows for greater scope than other genre writing.
Modern literature outside of genre writing or historical novels is, of course, ugly rubbish. In this respect I am a snob of Philistinism, proud of my taste in tastelessness: I would rather read Maxwell Grant or World-Wrecker Hamilton than James Joyce. The clean and honest heroism absent from the world-view of modern literature can be found only in genre writing.
The answer to the second question is that I am not inclined by nature or upbringing for honest work. I cannot be a soldier or policeman, carpenter or factory hand, but at least I can offer hard-working men a mild entertainment for their leisure time. A harpist cannot slay the dragon, but he can sing the praise of the knight who does.
There is nothing I miss about those other professions. I rise every morning at dawn, don my festive garb of bells and motley, and dance a madcap tarantella of joy to the Great God Finuka, hoping by my leaps and hops to express the my gratitude that I need not see the inside of a law office or newspaper bullpen again.
Do not misunderstand me: eight out of ten lawyers are honest men, who help increase the justice and harmony in society by putting criminals behind bars, or, through the simple act of getting everything in writing, by smoothing out misunderstandings before they bloom. Two of ten are employed for the opposite purpose, to stir up controversy, feed the envy of the negligent, blackmail businesses, and free the human animals that prey on us. Likewise, one out of ten newspapermen are honest men, crusaders for truth and justice, helping to bring dark secrets to light; and only nine of ten are men who tell lies for pay. Both, despite the disesteem it is fashionable to heap upon them, are honorable professions. Neither has any use for an idle dreamer like me.
SF SIGNAL: You mentioned some of the characteristics of science fiction. What is your own definition, then, of “science fiction”?
JCW: I should mention that being a science fiction writer awards no special qualifications to answer this question. Henry Ford need know nothing of economics.
Having announced my disqualifications to answer the question, here is my answer:
Science Fiction is the mythology of the scientific age.
A myth is a story, or account, which tells the truth untruthfully, which is to say, by figures and images rather than literally. For example, the skeptical Greek probably doubted the tale of Icarus was literal, but he knew that ambition, flying too high, caused downfall, especially so in their world of petty tyrants and turbulent democracies, war and betrayal. The tale of the Athenian disaster at Syracuse is just as instructive, but has less story-telling power, than the image of Icarus head high, eyes on the blazing sky, not noticing first one feather work free from its softening wax, then another, lightly floating down the dizzying abyss separating him from the wine-dark sea below.
The scientific age began when ideas of the common man were captured by the findings of science: creation was replaced by evolution, the Ptolemaic universe was made first heliocentric and then (with Relativity) into a cosmos possessing no special center, belief in possession by devils was replaced with belief in possession by subconscious neuroses. Supernaturalism, once the central pillar of the intellectual edifice of the system of the world, was moved to the fringes.
God Himself was demoted to a watchmaker or a caretaker of a complex but inanimate machine-universe, or banished altogether.
The scientific age also began when the common man became aware that the technological progress of the sciences guaranteed (or threatened) that the lives of his children would differ from his own, due to wondrous inventions like the horseless carriage, the submersible boat, the land ironclad, and heavier-than-air flight. Once his curiosity about the future was piqued, speculations and tales about wondrous inventions and flights to other worlds could be written and sold to him.
I mention the common man here, because while isolated intellectuals may have been aware of the promise and threat of scientific progress as far back as the time of Roger Bacon, not until the ideas and assumptions of the scientific world-view percolated into the collective consciousness, could one sell a scientific romance after the fashion of Verne or Wells.
Let me emphasize that science fiction deals with the myth of the scientific world-view, not the facts of science. John W. Campbell’s stable of writers added accurate science to their flights of fancy for the purpose of lending verisimilitude, but it is the mythical image, the figures of science, not the facts, that make a tale SF.
Stories with Time Machines and Faster-Than-Light drives are science fiction, not fantasy, even though the current science rejects the possibility of such inventions. Likewise, ghost stories are fantasy, even if scientific research into ghost sightings is neutral on the matter. The point here is that a ghost story could have been told in Shakespeare’s day, or Homer’s, because a ghost is a literary device accepted by the audience for the sake of the tale as real, i.e., as realistic. Likewise, the time machine or FTL drive is accepted by the science fiction audience as realistic, even if not real: fantastic inventions are part of the myth of the scientific age.
On the other hand, when Ariosto or Dante or Lucian includes a flight to the moon, they picture a magical voyage to a changeless and spiritual sphere of heaven. The idea that the moon was an orb like Earth, made of rock, perhaps inhabited by material and living beings like us, had to wait for the scientific romances of Wells and Verne to popularize. The idea simply did not exist in the pre-scientific era.
A hard science fiction tale centers its plot on the science or technology; a soft science fiction tale assumes the scientific world-view in the background, and concentrates on other story elements; a space opera is an adventure taking place in a science-fiction-flavored background. Stories with spiritualistic elements are science fiction to the degree that such elements are treated scientifically rather than anthropomorphically. Hence, a psionic boy with telepathic powers due to his mutation is a science fiction character; but a prophet who reads the unspoken thoughts in the hearts of men due to a blessing from the elf-queen, is a fantasy character.
A story is not science fiction that does primarily emphasize the scientific world-view, in the same way that a story is not a western that does not take place primarily in the old west. An SF story with junk science in it (such as the movie DAY AFTER TOMORROW) is still science fiction, even as a story with an historically illiterate portrayal of the Old West is still a Western (such as the movie WILD WILD WEST).
I say “primarily” because a story that had one science fiction element or invention in it would only be slightly science-fictional: the James Bond gadgets do not make him a science-fiction character, because such high-tech gizmos are part of the mythology of the super-spy: the audience is supposed to accept for the sake of the tale that the Pentagon and Kremlin have such gizmos in their secret labs, or SPECTRE or THRUSH on their hidden islands. The WWII and Cold War history of radar, rocketry, the atomic bomb, is how super-science entered the mythology of the super-spy.
Those who wonder where their flying car might be, now that we live in the futuristic year of 2000 AD, overlook that a flying car is no more than a mythic symbol of futuristic wonder-science. The JETSONS and BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II can immediately portray to the audience their futuristic setting by having a car fly by.
Such fantastic inventions will never literally come to pass, any more than high-speed electronic calculation machines will be able to send motion pictures or lines of text from one hand-held radio-telephone set to another: the size of the vacuum tubes needed, if nothing else, would be prohibitive.
SF SIGNAL: Speaking of mythology, your fist novel, THE GOLDEN AGE, which made quite a positive splash in the SF field, used mythological figures. Can you describe the origins of the story and how you brought it to life?
JCW: Creative impulses come from a supernatural source, which is to say, we know not from where they come. Modern men speak of the impulse coming from the unconscious mind (not noticing the oxymoron involved in speaking of an “unconscious consciousness”); the ancients spoke (more understandably) of inspiration from the muses. Hence, while I can try to retrace or reconstruct the thinking of the muse or the unconscious inspiration that lead to the result, my conclusions cannot be taken as authoritative.
All stories begin as combinations of images and ideas, and develop as the implications of the ideas are explored.
The GOLDEN AGE began with an image of a golden ship, greater than all the other ships of man, designed for such immense velocities that she must be streamlined; and streamlining is an absurdity in the near-vacuum of space. Another early image, and, indeed, the first scene I wrote, depicted a sober young man standing before a window, with Pandora’s box in his hand, with his hope hidden at the bottom of it, beneath a layer of evils he would release if he unfastened the lid; a lid on which it was written OPEN NOT ME.
My original idea was to run a space-traveling role-playing game with my circle of friends. I thought it would be interesting to have the player-characters suddenly discover that someone, some rich and eccentric uncle, had built the world’s only working star-ship, and that they would suddenly find themselves inheriting her ownership.
The implication of the idea was that there could be a society in the future advanced enough and rich enough to allow one man to build a starship, but decadent enough that only one man would be interested in the project. What could make all humanity turns its back on star travel?
Arthur C. Clarke’s CITY AND THE STARS has a similar story-premise: an advanced civilization, peopled by immortals, but utterly without the adventurous impulse needed to reach the stars. His explanation was that the adventurous elements of the society had already left the planet, and that the immortals merely suffered from a spiritual weariness, or a blind spot of mass-psychology, making adventure impossible for them. I rejected this reason as unrealistic for my purposes. A small community (like his city of Diaspar) might have one shared psychological flaw, but a whole world could not be so uniform; or, more specifically, if it were so uniform, no individual would arise to be so devoted to his dream as to sink the wealth needed for such a project into building a star-ship.
Postulating immortality solved two problems: I did not need to assume a faster than light drive (an assumption I dislike) if the people at home are long-lived enough for the crew to go to a distant star and return in one lifetime. Second, a society that had achieved some type of immortality, a machinery of resurrection, but one whose range only extended across the Solar System, of course, would be very conservative. Even if the first generation of immortals were as willing to risk death as we mortals, soon all non-risk-averse members of society will have been weeded out. From this line of thought the character of Daphne Prime arises.
The society had to be organized along economically sane and economically literate principles, or otherwise the capital needed for large-scale private projects would not exist. The assumption here is that one man controls the wealth on the scales of the modern-day national budgets of nations and empires.
Obviously, immortals would not adopt the policies of Keynesian economics: for, in the long run, they are not all dead. (Keynes was an economist who answered the criticism that his capital-eroding policies would only work in the short run with a witty quip, telling his listeners only to worry about the short run, as in the long run we are all dead. For those of you who haven’t read Keynes, his policy boils down to inflating the currency to cheat the workingman of the benefits of a nominal wage rate, i.e. consuming your seedcorn. We who live in the generation after him, still paying the bills his policies ran up, have no reason to admire that quip.) Economically, the society would have to be “liberal” in the old and honest sense of the word, what is now called libertarian, a civilization with private ownership and control of property, and such restrictions as minimally needed to preserve liberty, security and trade.
The main tension and conflict of the plot now immediately suggests itself: an idealistic individualist opposing a liberal but conformist society. Even a libertarian society would have to have in place some mechanisms to encourage conformity, since no society exists without such a self-preservative mechanism. A purely libertarian society would need to encourage conformity without initiating coercion: but there are many ways to influence the behavior of others without striking a blow, committing fraud, or expropriating a man’s things. From this line of thought the character of the opposition, the College of Hortators, arises.
(I have read comments by some readers who dismiss my imaginary commonwealth of the future as not “really” being libertarian, since there are monopolists, like my Peers, or groups organized to bring non-coercive measures to deter dissent, like my Hortators. With all due respect, I opine that such readers have not thought through the implications of the libertarian axioms.)
The second tension springs immediately from the idea of using brain-recordings as a system of immortality. If recording, why not editing? Obviously, in a society that allowed the government to edit the thoughts of its subjects, a nightmare beyond imagination would become inevitable, even if the original permission were given for the best and most limited of reasons. The example of the Silent Oecumene is a natural thought at this point.
Also, we might speculate that a conservative and risk-adverse utopia might have need of bold men from time to time. Well, if you can create human personalities to order, then you can create the perfect soldier, or the reckless engineer, whenever a problem of war or natural disaster requires a bold solution. The character of Atkins suggests itself from this line of thinking.
Or if you yourself wish you had a braver version of yourself? Have a son designed to be what you would like. Of course, since the son would be braver than you think wise, no matter how well you designed him, to you he would seem reckless. The character of Helion naturally suggests itself from this line of thinking.
Again, only the most rigidly principled and liberal civilization could be trusted with such power: a utopia, a Golden Age. I could not set such a tale in a more realistic background, or an age close to our own. The story would have only been half a page long if a government run by modern standards were in charge: either the Military Police, or the Public Welfare and Kindness Officer, would have stopped by Phaethon’s house with a warrant, announced that his project was dangerous to the public weal, dazzled him with the flashy-thing from MEN IN BLACK, and edited the desire for space travel out of his brain. Problem solved.
The setting now suggests itself as remarkably far in the future, on what we might call an Olaf-Stapledonian scale. Some reviewer unfortunately assumed my story is set between ten and seventy thousand years hence, and that figure was repeated. This is much too short a time-period. Some of the characters are stated as having ages older than that: communication at light speed between Sol and Cygnus X-1 takes over ten thousand years one-way. To picture a society that has the ability to edit each other’s thoughts but has no members morally lax enough to do so, I would say half a million years of progress is an optimistic estimate: two hundred million might be closer the mark.
A mythical motif naturally suggests itself at this point. The only way to suggest remoteness in time is to hearken back to the remote past (This is why the toga is still the preferred dress and the sword the preferred weapon, of the Galactic Empire).
But even in a near-perfect, highly principled and liberal society that had the art of brain-editing, one still could not trust one’s memories. One would not know whom to believe. One’s wife, father, best friend, or even oneself, might turn out to be someone other than he first appears.
At this point the book is practically writing itself: we have a protagonist and his antagonists, a major and a minor plot tension, and a mood or atmosphere of pervasive masquerade-like paranoia, set against the background of an otherwise free and remarkably pleasant and well-ordered society: as close to utopia as reality allows.
The philosophical implications of assuming the art of thought-editing is possible are also interesting. If the construction and reconstruction of human thought can be reduced to an exact science, this implies that the contents of human thought must have an innate and objective structure. For example, if the moral sentiments can be reduced to an algorithm, this means morality is as open to demonstration as mathematics, or any other science that can be reduced to first principles. Whether such a thing is true in reality or not, I leave to philosophers to debate. For the purposes of my story, since I had to postulate a highly moral society, one which should be able to create minds to order, I had to assume that morality and creativity and other spiritual aspects of human thinking could be reduced to an algorithm, i.e., they were objective. Please note that, without this assumption, the mind-creators and mind-conditioners would have no system, nothing aside from their own whim, to dictate how to use this science wisely. Wisdom itself, if wisdom is not based on objective reality, would merely be one more series of mechanical impulse the thought-scientists could add or subtract from their own brains or the brains of others as whim guided them. C.S. Lewis in THE ABOLITION OF MAN wrote an essay on this topic, which he later novelized into a fairy-tale called THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.
SF SIGNAL: The follow-up novels, THE PHOENIX EXULTANT and THE GOLDEN TRANSCENDENCE were originally planned as a single volume, but were released as two books. Was this an evil attempt by the publisher to extort money out of fans?
JCW: Yes, if by the word “evil” you mean specifically that act of prudence which causes one who sells a good or a service to satisfy the greatest number of customers possible, so as to benefit them in the fashion most pleasing to them; and if by the word “extort” you refer to a mutually voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange delightful and profitable to all involved. I realize these definitions of the word “evil” and “extort” are fashionable, but it is not a fashion I follow.
I just sold a third story to Tor books, called ORPHANS OF CHAOS, and I suspect Tor would not have had the money to pay for this sale, or to print and distribute this next book, if the profits on the GOLDEN AGE trilogy had not been maximized. Readers can signal to me that I am not writing enough by being willing to pay more if the publisher asks for more, or signal that I am writing too much by not being so willing. Customers ultimately decide the price of all things. All sellers do, is try to estimate as closely as possible where the customer’s priorities are.
Had Tor printed up a seventy-five-dollar eight-hundred-page-plus bug-crushing monstrosity by an unknown author, I doubt you would be interviewing me now, since only my Mom would have bought a copy, and she would have had to borrow money from me to do it.
Splitting the book into three volumes also allows certain critics to speculate over the evolution in my writing style, a speculation that would be closed to them if they knew I wrote the whole thing at one go.
However, the free market can be all things to all people: if you want to have the whole trilogy in one cover, the Science Fiction Book Club is selling a handsome edition with an almost perfectly accurate illustration by Chris McGrath of Phaethon on the front. You can get a fair estimate of the size of his ship, if you assume the illustration is showing the Phoenix Exultant, not hovering over the city, but beyond the atmosphere in low-earth-orbit, rising just ahead of the sun.
SF SIGNAL: After the critical success of THE GOLDEN AGE trilogy, you turned to fantasy with the recently-released THE LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS. Do you have a personal preference to writing fantasy over science fiction, or vice versa?
JCW: Maybe that answer was a little too brief.
There is no harm in personally preferring brunettes to blondes, or burial to cremation, since these are personal matters. Writing is professional.
I am writing to satisfy both the divine muses and an earthly audience, hoping adequately to convey the inspirations of the first to the second. In that respect, my role is like that of a pack-mule, who has little concern about the matter of his burdens, provided they are carried in a balanced load in a timely fashion. Or, if you prefer, my role is like that of a fisherman. I go to waters where I hope the story-ideas are biting, and throw out lines of thought hoping for a nibble. Now, a fisherman can always throw a catch he doesn’t like back, but, ultimately, no matter how cunning and patient a sportsman he is, what ends up in his creel is really up to the fish.
SF SIGNAL: How did the story of THE LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS originate? What are the similarities and differences between writing science fiction and writing fantasy?
JCW: This story struck me like a thunderbolt one day while I was at the office doing some trivial and boring work (Bates stamping or something of the kind).
One moment, nothing. The next moment, fully-grown and intricately detailed, I saw in my mind the final and solitary guardians protecting the sane universe from the unearthly dream-horrors of the ulterior dimensions. I saw giants wading in the deep, and the mounted chivalry of Kelpie-knights with spear in hand rising from the pits beneath the ocean, blood streaming in black clouds behind them.
Again, stories begin with images and ideas. The image in this case was of a young man waking from a dream to see the moon shining on the dark waves pounding on a sea-cliff below his window. The idea was that an immortal and timeless foe could simply out-wait any mortal watchman standing guard against his approach. The idea of a loyalty, a faithfulness that would stretch across generations was quite striking to me: something a medieval man would understand and a modern boy of the MTV-generation would not.
The second image was of a windswept, fork-bearded and eagle-eyed man of craggy features, huge and solid, wearing boots and an Inverness cape, next to his wife, a diminutive and elflike waif with a strange and unearthly smile. The idea was a moral question: would you kill an innocent stranger to save the life of your wife?
Raven, the Son of Raven, and his wife Wendy the Pendragon’s Daughter are actually characters invented by my wife for a role-playing game she ran years ago. She writes under the pen-name L. Jagi Lamplighter. My darling wife will hardly complain if I steal a few inventions from her: the novel she is currently selling stars seven or eight characters I invented for an earlier role-playing game I ran. Neither one of us feels any impulse to write up ideas from games we have moderated; we both are happy to write up the ideas of the other.
The first fantasy I ever read was by H.P. Lovecraft and the last by John Crowley. If EVERNESS seems like a story where the family from the fairy-haunted from Edgewood Mansion in LITTLE, BIG is charged with defending the earth from the monsters from DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, that seeming is not a coincidence.
The similarity between writing science fiction and fantasy is that both emphasize an ultra-mundane reality. Each invites the reader to look up from his daily task (Bates stamping or something of the kind) and gaze at the moon just rising, luminous and wonderful, above the Western sea, and bids him ask what lies at the far end of the road of gold the moon lays down across the waves.
Science fiction says it will carry you to the moon in a space-vessel made of cavorite, the anti-gravitic metal, to meet the lamp-eyed insect-men of a socialist utopia; fantasy says it will carry you to Mercury on the back of a rainbow-winged Hippogriff, to behold the wars of witches and demons, their battles made endless through the intervention of the capricious gods who dwell beyond the mountain-peaks unclimbed, save by one most noble prince, whose icy ramparts guard immortal Zimiamvia. In a word, science fiction is extraterrestrial and fantasy is unearthly.
The difference between writing them is that it is easier to make mistakes in science fiction, where the readers will not tolerate if your invented physics contravene known facts. (I made an astronomical error in GOLDEN AGE, which was not discovered until the first volume had already been printed.) In writing fantasy, the wording should be more lyrical and poetic, because the mistake to be avoided here is a mistake of mood, rather than fact. The readers will not tolerate if your invented pantheons and magic spells, or acts of your knights-errant, humble farm boys or proud demigods contravene the established dream-logic of the fairy tales of our childhood, or the epics and sagas from the childhood of our race. I say “established” rather than “known” because these things are felt rather than seen.
The tolerance of the readership depends on the severity of the genre. There are gaffs readers will forgive in a space opera, whose heroes can make the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs, unforgivable in hard SF, whose ringworlds are unstable (as simple calculus-level equations in orbital mechanics will show).
Ursula K. LeGuin points out in her famous essay on poetic language in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” that fantasy has similar constraints. She points out that, in high fantasy, a hero, even a Deryni, cannot be heard to say “I told you so”; for heroes are too noble to voice such thoughts. If I may add to her observation, however, that fantasy has its own version of the space-opera genre, which we might call elf-opera, where Dungeons-and-Dragons-type characters trudge through a politically correct yet allegedly medieval background on yet another quest against yet another Dark Lord. In an elf-opera, the readership is forgiving of anachronisms and banality, provided the author can keep the action thundering headlong at a hell-for-leather gallop.
SF SIGNAL: Are there any specific messages you try to get across in your writing?
JCW: Yes. The message is please buy my books. My wife and my creditors need the funds.
SF SIGNAL: You have been accused of trying to preach your own views of economics, politics and the opposite gender through your writing. How do you respond to that?
JCW: Pedantically, as I respond to everything: the word “gender” refers to a part of speech. You mean the opposite sex.
Beyond that, my response would depend on the wording of the accusation, and the evidence presented to support it. A mere gratuitous assertion can be just as gratuitously denied.
If the assertion was merely that all authors, by the nature of our craft, express ourselves in a fashion not inconsistent with our own personal philosophy, outlook, and sense of life, the answer is: of course, obviously. Only newspapermen ever pretended to be objective, and that pretense was dropped a generation ago.
The question ought to be whether the philosophy that comes across in my books is a natural and unconscious part of the background of the narrative, or if it is a strained, unnecessary and unwelcome interruption. I invite the readers to read my books and decide for themselves.
Different authors allow different levels of personal philosophy to intrude into a tale, with varying degrees of awkwardness or craft. Let me give examples from most awkward to least:
I read a book by Leo Frankowski, a perfectly enjoyable time-travel story, where a young communist engineer from Poland is sent back to the Middle Ages. Whether intended by the author or not, the logic of the story required the young Pole to act like a capitalist: to buy and sell and trade and build. Suddenly, for one whole chapter, the action of the tale is put on hold, and the narrator gives a speech in favor of socialized medicine. The points in the speech have nothing to do with the issues raised by the plot, or were even antithetical to them.
In ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand, the plot stops for some enormous speech by John Galt, but the speech at least is related to the theme of the book, so Mrs. Rand shows more craft than Mr. Frankowski.
In STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein, often the characters will suddenly find themselves in a classroom, or speaking to a crusty and wise old curmudgeon, and one will lecture the other, but in a fashion less abrupt. His lectures are usually related to his plot: the young military man hears the justification for civic militarism before he goes off to war, for example. Mr. Heinlein is still intruding, but the plot is not stopped, and it is not clear that the author agrees with every particular spoken by his characters (though I suspect he agrees in general tone and approach).
In the Lensman series by E.E. “Doc” Smith, the actual number of Heinlein-style lectures is very small, but the philosophy of the author comes across quite clearly. The Lensman universe is one where the supreme moral and practical value in life comes from the rational mind: clear thinking, thought that displays scope, drive, force and power, thought able to examine every idea in its every application, in an utterly remorseless and unemotional fashion; this is the paramount good to be sought by a Lensman. Moral qualities, such as mercy, are secondary compared to mental qualities, the positive portrayals of Worsel of Valentia and Nedreck of Palain Seven will attest: these characters are inhumanly merciless and un-squeamish, but their breadth and penetration of thought make them heroes by Lensman standards. This philosophy hangs in the backdrop of the stories, and is mentioned once or twice, but without intruding even once into the breathless action of the plot.
In BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES, Ursula K. LeGuin, one of the masters (or, rather, mistresses) of our craft, tells tales with great insight, skill and depth, and never has any awkward interruptions for speeches or lectures. The Hainish Ekumen is a universe where the roles assumed by the sexes in any number of extraterrestrial human societies are utterly arbitrary social conventions not tied into any biological, reproductive, or psychological reality. The paramount good is tolerance and diversity. It is a universe where the distinction between perversity and wholesomeness is utterly without meaning. This philosophy hangs in the backdrop of all the stories, unmentioned, and forms the common theme.
In a Darkover novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, I recall a scene where a spaceman from Earth is talking to an aristocrat from the pre-industrial native culture. The aristocrat complains that the earthmen are controlled by a bureaucracy where no one is responsible, no one is in charge and no one has a sense of honor that will force him to give his word and stand by it. One can almost hear trumpets blowing in the distance, calling us into the greenwood of the younger days of the world. The earthman allows the criticism of the aristocrat, but mentions that Earthmen do not murder each other in duels, or spill blood over petty disagreements. Touch?. I have no idea, nor do I wish to know, the author’s personal opinion in this matter: she has laid out both sides convincingly and fairly, and both characters enjoy greater verisimilitude because each believes in the laws and ways of his world. Here, there is no intrusion at all: it is pure story-telling.
Let me dwell on the LeGuin example for a moment. Here we have a great writer who wrote an exquisitely well-written book I could not bring myself to enjoy. Her philosophy hung in the background like a bad smell: I could not suspend my disbelief when it came to her false-to-facts anthropological assumptions. She postulates one planet where all marriages consist of foursomes, with two heterosexual and two homosexual pairings. All one need assume is that the men of that world are equally attracted sexually to women as well as men. If this attraction is a cultural artifact, I would have liked some history to support it. Obviously it cannot be a biological artifact: even if the Hainishmen interfered with the genes of their ancestors when the colony was founded, it is not a trait that would breed true. Because the author did not supply any rationale for her unreal science, my sense of reality was broken.
Note this paradox: had the author had the characters stop, give a lecture and say, “As we both know, Shevek, we live on a planet with a peculiar customs for this-and-that reason?” her world could have seemed more realistic to me. Since they did not stop to lecture each other, the story as a whole felt like a lecture: as if the author were insisting I accept, without argument, her dogma that biological reality is a cultural artifact.
To return to the question: if the accusation was that I was nearer the Frankowski side of the spectrum than the Bradley side, I would hotly deny it, red-faced with both fists in the air, until someone pointed out that I stop the action of my plot in GOLDEN AGE, to have Phaethon give a lecture on Ricardo’s Principle of Comparative Advantage. Everyone wants to have a lecture on economics in the middle of a space opera, right? That is why Darth Greenspan is everyone’s favorite character in STAR WARS. The stunning revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father was matched by Greenspan’s equally stunning announcement that cutting galactic interest rates may have in indirect effect on the employment rates across the Empire as new businesses are encouraged by the easy-lending policies to borrow and invest in capital stock: well, how could anyone forget that gripping moment! It was almost as breathtaking as C3PO’s analysis of the affect of automation on the manual labor market during the famous chase through the Asteroid Field.
Ahem. Seriously, since it is a clich? of the science fiction genre that super-intelligent machines would either be (at best) indifferent to, or (at worst) hostile to merely-intelligent (and comparatively moronic) humanity, I had to give a reason to explain why the super-intelligent and merely-intelligent have a natural harmony of interests. Without that lecture, I do not see why readers should accept my Oecumene any more than I can accept LeGuin’s Ekumen. When the natural assumption in the audience is that men and machines couldn’t get along, the author needs to explain under what circumstances they could.
If anything, I regret not adding at least one MORE lecture: one reader has scoffed at the idea of a stable island of elements in the transuranic reaches, an unexplored extension of the periodic table of elements: this is an idea that has an old pedigree, and is by no means the most wild of speculations by physicists, but because I did not know my readers would not know this, I missed the chance to give my speculation more verisimilitude. It would have been easy. “As we both know, Gannis, you and I are part of the same individual that discovered certain artificial atoms are stable when extremely high numbers of nucleons are packed into the core. The reason for this is?”
SF SIGNAL: You mentioned a few already, but what things do other writers do that annoy you as a reader?
JCW: I beg your pardon, but if you read my answers carefully, you will see that I did not express any annoyance with any writers or their writings. About the harshest thing I said was that one writer wrote excellently, but did one thing not to my taste, and another wrote delightfully, but had one awkwardly-placed chapter.
My greatest annoyance is with Mr. Gene Wolfe. He does not write as many books as he should, nor put them out as frequently. I have similar misgivings about Jack Vance. Both men should be required by the universal outcry of all science fiction fans to double or treble their output.
SF SIGNAL: Whom do you acknowledge as the greatest influences in your writing?
JCW: Whom am I copying, you mean? Practically everyone I can. A.E. van Vogt has the greatest vision and sense of wonder; Keith Laumer the leanest and most muscular style; Jack Vance has the most elegant style, the best vocabulary, the tightest plots, the driest humor; Gene Wolfe, the most wisdom. Homer taught me men suffer; Milton, that fallen angels do also. C.S. Lewis taught that there is a place beyond the shores of the world where the tears of those who suffer are wiped away, and joy as bright as sunlight burns.
There are other writers I admire for other reasons. Maxwell Grant (Walter B. Gibson) cranked out about a novel a month, to the sum of three hundred books or more. Stand well back, O reader, from the monument, and open your mouth in awe. Piers Anthony makes his deadlines, and writes what he says he is going to write to the length he says he’ll write it. That, sir, is professional work.
SF SIGNAL: What are your favorite science fiction books and science fiction movies?
JCW: Here are my top 30 favorite books:
HARVEST OF STARS by Poul Anderson, and its immediate sequel; SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe, and all the related New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun books; If he ever writes a series called the Old Sun, Blue Sun or Borrowed Sun books, I will read all of them with pleasure as well; EMPHYRIO by Jack Vance; The Planet of Adventure series by Jack Vance; the Demon Princes series by Jack Vance; WOLRD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt and its sequel PAWNS OF NULL-A; SLAN by A.E. van Vogt; THE WEAPON MAKERS by A.E. van Vogt; THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH by C.S. Lewis; The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien; HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL, by Robert Heinlein.
I enjoy many science-fiction flavored space operas, and Buck-Rogerish fantasies, but I can only think of four films that are sufficiently true to their premise to be honored with the name “science fiction films”: DARK CITY by Alex Proyas, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL by Robert Wise; TIMESHIFTERS by Mario Azzopardi. I also very much liked MINORITY REPORT.
I admit I am cheating by listing TIMESHIFTERS. It was written and produced by a friend of mine, based on a story idea that I gave him, an idea he executed brilliantly. A reporter begins to notice that the same man, the same face appears in all the background photographs of the world’s greatest historical disasters, the sinking of the Titanic, the wreck of the Hindenberg, and so on. He begins to suspect it is a Time Traveler, one is who careful never to interfere with the past, but who is doing what Time Traveler Tourists would naturally do–go look at the pain of the past. The reporter glances across the aisle when he is on an airplane, and sees the man sitting there…
As for the rest, my tastes are typical for any science fiction fan. I thought WRATH OF KHAN was the best Trek film, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK the best Wars film.
2001 SPACE ODESSEY: best portrayal of outer space in any film, marred by a meaningless ending.
AI: tearjerker, but why not simply build a robot mom for the boy so they could live in meaningless happiness forever?
MATRIX: best chop-socky action ever, but by what scientifically explainable means, established carefully in the film, exactly, does the dead hero spring to life at the end again?
THE SHADOW: very good looking film. Now, if they had only read the pulps it was based on. Lamont Cranston, the most iron-willed and ruthless fighter of crime pulpdom has ever produced started his career as a druggie? Oh, puh-leese.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS: So Aragorn simply LETS the three-foot-tall hobbit walk all alone into the Dark Land for what reason, clearly established by the character development in the film, again, exactly? If the self-doubting version of Aragorn is the best the Lords of the West can produce, heck, I agree with the pointy-eared guy who looks like Agent Smith: place no hope in Man.
SF SIGNAL: What RPG games do you play? What’s your opinion on the Open Gaming License? Is this a good thing for the RPG community?
JCW: I have not bought a commercially produced game in twenty years, preferring to invent my own settings: I mean, c’mon, professional science fiction writer here.
When I play, I like super-hero type games, because they typically allow for greater latitude in character creation. I prefer spending points on stats rather than rolling them randomly. For dice mechanics, the Chaosium Sytem is best (RUNEQUEST, SUPERWORLD, a few others). Everything is based on percentile dice, and instead of a THACO, you have a percent change to hit, to parry, and successful parries of successful hits do damage to the defender’s weapon. Nice, simple, intuitive: it amazes me that this is not a more popular system with a more devoted fan base.
For diceless games, while I have several trenchant complaints about Erick Wujcik’s diceless Amber system, the system itself is so elegant, simple, and portable that the game recommends itself to anyone who can find a trustworthy moderator. I add that caveat because rules are usually meant to protect players from arbitrary moderators; where the moderator is fair-minded, rules can be pared back. (This principle holds true in politics as well). Most of my complaints are that Mr. Wujcik MUST have had unimaginative play-testers who did not hunt for every loophole–if you want to find the flaws with a system, play with law students. When major ambiguities could have been corrected with minor and simple clarifications to the rules, this is bad rule-writing. (Fiction writers take note: if your story has ambiguities that could have been cleared-up with a simple paragraph, or even a sentence, this is bad writing.)
Everway by Rubicon Games has an interesting approach, but the politically-correct anti-Western flavor of the background leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Read Robert Pressman’s GATES OF FIRE and try to imagine playing one of those characters in the imaginary background of Roundwander, and you might take my meaning. Also, the distribution of the stats by Aristotelian elements, rather than by game-need, leads to some under-used stats. The point in generating game rules is to balance playability with authenticity.
I have no opinion about Open Gaming License because I’ve never heard of it. For a moment, I thought I was going to send the needle on the geek-meter to the pin, but it seems I can happily maintain my reputation as an out-of-it old square. You notice the games I mention here are ten and twenty years old.
SF SIGNAL: On what projects are you currently working or planning?
JCW: I am writing one of the most original ideas for a book ever invented: one where aliens invade the earth! Perhaps I will call it WAR BETWEEN THE WORLDS, or something like that.
Ahem. Seriously, I am writing a spacewar saga. The first part of the tale concerns an invasion of Earth by five alien races. My ambition is to portray the aliens to be as alien as possible: unalike men in biology, environment, gravity, temperature, organization of consciousness, sense-impressions, time-rate, and psychology as the limits of good story telling will allow. After the general defeat and surrender of mankind, the heroine seeks to infiltrate a civilization unknown and utterly strange to her. She must learn how to overcome immense communication barriers and persuade the alien minds to help her assassinate their leadership. Readers with exceptionally good memories might recall my first short story ever published “Farthest Man From Earth” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, April 1995.). This book takes place in that background.
If successful, I hope to spin this out into a series of ever-escalating scale:
It is my personal attempt to try to portray something the size and scope of the Civilization-Boskonia war portrayed in E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, but taking place at slower-than-light speeds over immense tracts of time, and using some recent discoveries about the clusters and superclusters of the large-scale universal structure. Did you know, for example, that the Milky Way is going to ram the Andromeda galaxy?
I also have the first few chapters written of planned sequels to my Everness and Chaoticist books, and an outline for a haunting fantasy called IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY. I should be going over the copy-edits for MISTS OF EVERNESS right now, instead of talking to you.
SF SIGNAL: And we appreciate that! If you were to write a non-fiction book, what would it be about?
JCW: Philosophy. Since college, I have had a working title: HOW BEST TO LIVE. I propose it as a Socratic dialog between my old hardcore-atheist self and my recently-minted Christian self. I am the only writer I know entirely sympathetic to both sides of the argument. I don’t have anything written up for it yet, but I have a few notes.
SF SIGNAL: Well thanks for your time, Mr. Wright. Is there any final thought with which you’d like to close this interview?
JCW:It was my pleasure, and you are welcome.
Final thoughts? Well, I would urge all my fellow science fiction fans out there to enjoy the genre while it lasts. I do not think SF will last forever.
Science fiction depends for its appeal specifically on that sense of wonder (or terror) which comes of contemplating technological change. If the pace of technological change is constant, folk will begin to accept it as a given, as ordinary, and the ideas of technological change will simply pass into the main stream of literature, and no longer attract any special note. Certain techno-thrillers have already done this.
During the Industrial revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, the form of the modern novel appeared, and, during this rational age, the novel did not welcome elements of the fantastic and extraordinarily with open arms (except when seen in satire, as in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). Fairy stories were banished to the nursery. When science began to promise that the future was a country as strange and wondrous as fairyland or as fearful as the cave of the Cyclopes, a literature of the fantastic emerged in a new guise, dressed now in the robes of scientific speculation.
Now, it is a principle of the cosmos that natural things can only be supported by the supernatural: in this case, purely naturalistic literature, robbed of its ghosts and elf-kings and soothsayers, fell away from HAMLET and MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S DREAM and JULIUS CAESAR and wandered into the sterile gasping wasteland of James Joyce and Upton Sinclair. Poets stopped writing about the heel of Achilles and started writing about the proximate erection of Leopold Bloom.
Heroism in literature died at about the same time Nietzsche announced the death of God, or Sartre the death of Reason. Unknown to the mainstream, heroism and reason (as well as the sense of wonder reason inspires), like the sacred river Alpheus, re-emerged from subterranean obscurity in the most unlikely place imaginable: the pages of common rags with names like THRILLING AIR WONDER STORIES. Simplistic and childish at first, scientifiction recaptured the simplicity and child-like innocence the mainstream had lost. Need I remind readers that “innocence” does not mean “naivety”; it means “not guilty”? Mainstream literature of the Twentieth Century is by no means innocent.
(Myself, I hope the perpetrators will be haled before nine goddesses of Mt. Parnassus, and tremble as they hear their dread sentence pronounced. It beggars the imagination to find words fit to express the enormity of the crime: all the beauty of the world was sucked away for three generations or more.)
So our little beloved side-stream of science fiction is doomed to remerge into the stagnant main waters of literature, one hopes, to sweeten them. Scan a list of the top twenty best selling movies of all time, world wide: nineteen of them are science fiction or contain some strong element of the fantastic. But not one of them is serious thinking-man’s science fiction: we merely are reaching an age when the wonder and mystery which belongs naturally to story-telling is now presented, without explanation, in technical garb, as once it was, in days of old, garbed as pagan gods and goddesses or as elves seen by moonlight.
As progress becomes commonplace, science fiction elements will be introduced into mainstream stories merely as other elements, romance or mystery or tragedy, is introduced; and become commonplace as well.
The other option is more terrible: there are many societies and civilizations, and there are all groups living outside civilization, who place no value on scientific progress, or condemn it as an evil. Should our enemies prevail, should our civilization go the way of the Roman Empire, the Paynims and Vandals who come after us will have no delight in our science, and no use for the dreams it inspires.