“The Soul of Sci-Fi”: An Interview with John C. Wright

Janice Walker & Eleanor Bourg Donlon

The most widely attributed quote to John C. Wright (at least, in the realm of blogs and livejournals, to which he is a regular contributor) is, “If Vulcans had a church, they’d be Catholics.” This remark brilliantly encapsulates the nature of Wright the writer: a man deeply entrenched in the landscape of popular science fiction—a genre he once described as “one chamber in the sprawling, Gormenghastian pile” of fantasy and horror (and which this interviewer could not resist quoting as any sentence that uses the word “Gormenghastian” ought to be shouted from rooftops)—and gravely committed to the presupposition that “objective moral order” is the bedrock of all good literature.

A recent convert to Catholicism—by way of Lutheranism and atheism—Wright is a critically acclaimed science fiction author, most notably of the Golden Age and Chronicles of Chaos trilogies. He graduated from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at William and Mary and worked in both law and journalism before embarking on his career as a science fiction writer and commentator.

He recently allowed Dappled Things to pick his brain (and what a vivid sci-fi image that phrase inspires!) on the current battle for the soul of sci-fi, that genre’s unique ability to analyze and shape modern cultural mores, the writer’s responsibility to his conscience and his muse, and what Darth Vader has to do with Arthurian Romance.

—Janice Walker

EBD: We’re aware of the controversy regarding a response you wrote to the sci-fi channel’s recent announcement that it will participate in left-leaning social engineering with the introduction of sexually-deviant characters. What do you think this means for the sci-fi genre?

JCW: I think the announcement by the Sci-Fi channel is diabolical and cowardly. Diabolical, because it does the work of the unsmiling demons of the Lowerarchy that Uncle Screwtape serves to further demolish and erode rational and Christian notions of chastity and matrimony; and cowardly, because science fiction writers should be concerned with telling stories about rescuing Space Princesses from Space Pirates, not concerned with using their tales as a soapbox to sell their particular brand of political soap. By caving into the powers of Political Correctness, the heads of Sci-Fi Channel (or whatever they are calling themselves these days) have encouraged the self-appointed Thought Police, and discouraged those writers who write for art’s sake.

Artists serve the muse; propagandists serve the Thought Police. We now know whom the officers of Sci-Fi Channel serve: and it is not us, their audience, and not me, their fellow provider of SF entertainment. Need I tell you that this was once my favorite channel, back in the Farscape days, and now I do not watch it at all?

Sci-Fi Channel’s announcement is tantamount to a declaration that the proper use of art and entertainment is social engineering, also known as propaganda. That public declaration will have the effect, in some small but finite increment, of making it slightly harder for politically incorrect but artistically honest science fiction books to be written.

I do not begrudge the Sci-Fi Channel for running as many non-fiction shows or editorials or documentaries supporting any political position they see fit. But I am sick of propagandists imposing on my precious and limited entertainment time and my shrinking entertainment dollar to hand me an editorial on a topic of their choosing, when what I paid good money to see, or gave up time better spent elsewhere to view, was science fiction.

And I am certainly sick of actions like this which work silently to convince one or two more members of my potential audience to judge books (mine and others’) not on their merit but on the purity of their ideological and political loyalties.

Honestly, do you think larding your space epics with agitprop has no effect on the quality of the tale, or the size of your audience? Quality: The magical first novel of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was cheated of its great promise and drained of its magic by the time the awkward and incoherent third novel stumbled to a non-climax, because and only because the author stepped on his own tongue trying to fling out his message, rather than tell his story. Audience size: I stopped watching the remake of Battlestar Galactica despite the fact that it was the best show on TV—and I will say that again Battlestar Galactica is the best show, and not just the best SF show, on TV—because I could not stomach the hidden message that monotheists are all sinister and treasonous robots carrying suicide bombs. Perhaps I am merely reading too much into what is an innocent adventure show. Perhaps. Or perhaps the idea of the political Left that all their opponents are unthinking tools programmed with “false class consciousness” and addicted to the “opiate of the people” is an idea so deeply ingrained in Hollywood that portraying genocidal robots as Evangelical Christians seems natural to them. Now, if that kind of thing can drive away even lifelong fans of science fiction who not merely admire but love your show, then that kind of thing is not good for market share.

JW: We absolutely agree that “larding your space epics with agitprop” affects the quality of the storytelling and have seen evidence of that throughout all of the genres. (Some of the more egregious modern “war movies” leap to mind as examples…) Conversely, however, sci-fi has long been an invaluable means for exploring current and morally complex issues—rights of aliens, cloning, technological manipulation, racial tension—in the non-threatening environment of a “galaxy far, far away.” Do you think that sci-fi is uniquely suited for cultural discourse?

JCW: Yes, sci-fi is uniquely suited for cultural discourse, because modern issues can be (1) disguised as the issues of another decade or another planet, so that the implications can be examined without the connotations clouding the picture—such as by making Christ a great lion in a magical land of talking animals. This is Aesop’s method, used by George Orwell in Animal Farm. And (2) the modern issue can be examined once magnified to large size, that is, from the point of view of a future where the trends to be examined “if this goes on” have been played out to their logical (or absurd) extreme. This is Plato’s method in The Republic, used by George Orwell in 1984. The role of science fiction is unique, because it is the only genre with the freedom to place plots in a realistic yet unreal setting. Such tales are always set in the lands off the edges of our maps. In the old days, the genre of sailor’s tales would serve to carry the reader to the land of speculation. These days, you cannot realistically set a story on the island of Utopia, or Lilliput, or Atlantis, because our maps show those places do not exist: and so Thomas Moore, or Jonathon Swift, or Plato, in order to write up the sober or satirical implications of their social commentary would have to find a bigger map, a star map, or perhaps a calendar, and set their satires on other worlds, or in the land of tomorrow, or in other parallel universes altogether, as writers like G.K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, or Phillip Pullman did when they wanted to visit their brave new worlds of Utopia, or Lilliput, or Atlantis, or, at least, their brave new suburb of Notting Hill.

EBD: Does the writer of science fiction then have an obligation to remain an impartial observer?

JCW: No, the science fiction writer has no obligation to be neutral or nonpartisan in any way, shape, or form. The only obligation is to be honest to your muse and honest to your audience. My objection is not to stories that have a point, even stories that have a political point, my objection is to sneaking little advertisements for your political or religious views into tales where they do not belong.

I do not think a single person ever picked up a novel by Ayn Rand without being well aware that he was about to hear a lecture about the virtues of Capitalism and the evils of Collectivism. Rand was honest to her audience. Her readers know exactly what they are in for. I do not think a single person ever picked up the lyrical, mysterious and gorgeous Aegypt sequence by John Crowley and thought it was nothing but propaganda for the heresy of Gnosticism—to be sure, the book takes place in a Gnostic universe, and the main characters are Gnostics, but the book was an exploration, nay, romance, showing us these characters and letting us fall in love with them, their virtues and flaws both. Crowley was honest to his muse. His readers do not have any idea what they are in for, but the portrayal of that Gnostic universe did not strike me as an argument in favor of Gnosticism: I have no idea if this is the artist’s own opinion, or merely an artistic conceit. The work stands on its own merit: it is not a tool in service to the Party Line. But I think many people picked up Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) without realizing that the wonder tale of secret conspiracy, magical spirit-animals, talking Polar bears in mystic armor, airships, Cossacks, gypsies, and witches from Lapland, would go off the rails and collapse into merely one more gnawing screed of anticlerical nihilism. He was not true to his muse, because his considerable powers as a story-teller were prostituted to his message of hopelessness and mealy-mouthed progressivism; nor was he true to his readers, because the story we readers were promised was dithered away in favor of a confused lecture lauding fornication. Whether the author is theist or atheist, the rules of story-telling are the same: you do not have your boy hero, armed with nothing but a knife, set out on the Miltonian quest of killing God Almighty, and then instead have God Not-So-Almighty be a senile version of Gollum who dies by falling out of bed and blowing away as dust in the wind. The ending was as unsatisfying as if you had Dorothy, upon learning the Wizard of Oz was a humbug behind the curtain manipulating a giant puppet-head, order her cowardly lion to tear the little man to shreds. Peevishness is never dramatic.

JW: Since good art must avoid propaganda, what role is there within the genre for a Judeo-Christian (or, at any rate, non-relativistic) outlook on moral quandaries? Some may assume that avoiding agenda-driven art would require the artist to attempt a sort of moral neutrality.

JCW: Science Fiction is an outgrowth, after the scientific revolution in the West, of the literary standards of those adventure tales and epics called Romances. I mean here ‘Romance’ in the older sense of the word, like the works of Sabatini or Sir Walter Scott. Romances grew in turn out of the medieval poem and tale tradition concerning King Arthur’s Round Table or the Paladins of Charlemagne. The enduring power of those tales was not merely their splendor and wonder, but their moral character, which is uniquely Christian. Modern notions of what constitutes a satisfying drama have not escaped (and should not escape) those roots: science fiction is basically in the genre of Arthurian Romances, except with Space Princesses from planet Mongo rather than Fairy-Queens from Avalon, Martian War-Machines rather than giant Ogres, Darth Vader rather than Mordred the Dark Knight. The last time I stepped into a bookstore, practically every genre fantasy I saw was either the Quest for the Most Holy Grail in disguise, or the Quest to destroy the evil One Ring retold.

The rules of drama presuppose an objective moral order. If you want to have a satisfying (if sad) ending to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, then you have your Prometheus figure, First Officer Spock, lay down his life for his friends, showing that love of which no man, nor Vulcan, hath greater. That is an article of objective morality, and perhaps even a type or shadow of Christ-like sacrifice. In the sequel perhaps you can have Spock resurrected from the dead on the Third Day, but it might annoy the politically correct film reviewers if you made the Christian parallels too obvious—as they were annoyed, for example, by Superman Returns.

Where films depart from the rules of Judeo-Christian romances, they tend to depart from what we in the West find satisfactory drama. For example, the movie Hero starring Jet Li was one of the most visually splendid films to grace the silver screen: but the ending was that the hero was sacrificed to serve the emperor, because the emperor’s ambition to unite the land under one iron scepter was just and necessary. This is a Confucian or Legalist pose, one with ancient and well respected roots in China, but to the eyes of Americans, the moral of the story was that Sauron wins. Washington surrenders to Cornwallis. Goliath crushes David. Palpatine suborns Luke into betraying the plucky band of rebels. It was not a dramatically satisfying ending to us souls shaped by the dramatic influences of Arthurian Romance.

Where films depart from the rules of objective moral order, they become merely silly. For example, there is a simply absurd scene in the third Matrix movie (I forget the name—Matrix Revisited? Matrix Rehashed? Matrix Regurgitated? Something like that) where Agent Smith, the Evil Secret Policeman of Evil, mocks and challenges hepcat ninja-Messiah Neo, asking him why he fights? Neo, being a hepcat postmodern ninja-Messiah figure, cannot say he fights for truth, justice and the American Way, as the superheroes of an earlier and healthier period could say (despite that Neo is quite obviously fighting for these things); he cannot say he is fighting for the woman he loves (despite that he obviously is, both during her life and in her memory); he cannot say, like an earlier Messiah, but one who did not use so much slick wirework Kung Fu, that he is fighting to bring the bread of heaven to men, to free the captive, to heal the sick and restore the dead to life (even though Neo has been freeing, healing and resurrecting like gangbusters during all three movies). No, his only answer, his sad and pathetic only answer, is to announce (amid a flourish of trumpets meant to sound inspiring) “BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO!” It is enough to make you spit your popcorn onto the floor in a flood of salty, butter-substitute dripping laughter. Well, if that is your reason, why not just choose not? It is, however, the modern subjectivist moral-relativist answer, and, unfortunately, even if moral-relativism were a true doctrine and not a heresy, it is an un-dramatic doctrine. It does not make for good theater.

(Let me hasten to add that there is many a true doctrine that does not make for good theater, and so writers of Romances ignore them. For example, every one from Milton to Alan Moore has portrayed Hell as an evil empire opposite to heaven, where the Devil rules supreme. This is unorthodox. Orthodoxy says hell is a prison, where the Devil is an inmate, not a ruler: only Dante got it right. And again, orthodoxy says that men and angels are two separate orders of being. The image of men turning into angels, and sprouting or earning wings, is a charming conceit in movies like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but this is an artistic conceit, not supported in Church teachings. C.S. Lewis when he portrays angels as ‘Eldil’ in his Space Trilogy, unseen beings made of subtle intellectual substance, is closer to orthodox belief. Both having the Devil portrayed as the Sultan of a Dark Kingdom, as Milton does, and having angelhood be an earned reward, as Capra does, is better drama.)

EBD: This all brings us neatly to a consideration of your story, “On the People’s Business,” which (along with Screwtape and Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross) seems to contradict the idea that doctrinally-inaccurate portrayals of angels are the more successful dramatic possibility. Appreciating that the foremost responsibility of the writer is to serve his muse and his audience—and to avoid proselytizing—how do your Catholic imagination and well-catechized intellect inform your work specifically?

JCW: To the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, the answer is: not at all. If I may borrow an adroit phrase from Hugh Lofting, I write stories as a cobbler makes shoes, looking over my materials and piecing together something serviceable, pleasing, and fit. If you asked a cobbler how his Catholic imagination informed or influenced his shoe making, he might be at a loss for an answer.

I suppose a shoemaker might have an icon of St. Crispin, the patron of cobblers, to inspire him. Well, I have a medal for St. Justin Martyr, the patron of philosophers, hanging over my computer, and a statuette of St. John, the patron of writers of books, under it.

While I am sure that my philosophy, faith, dogmas, and sense of life slips into my writing unawares (as it is and as it should be for all writers), and while I from time to time permit myself to impose on my patient readers a mini-lecture on some topic I find fascinating, such as the mechanics of solar fusion, or the Ricardo Principle of comparative advantage, I have yet to write anything that is specifically Catholic in imagination. Perhaps some day, perhaps if I ever am granted this well-catechized intellect you mention; in the meanwhile, when I want to spread the faith or proselytize my political opinions, I write an editorial. I was a newspaperman long before I was a novelist.

Janice Walker is a freelance graphic designer. She lives and works in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, an assistant editor for Dappled Things and the Saint Austin Review, is editing the upcoming Ignatius Critical Edition of Mansfield Park. Read more about and from her at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.