Five Views of the Universe

The universe is a large and unwieldy object, and finding a proper spot from which to regard it in a good light is a problem, considering that the spot, the spectator, and the light are all part of the spectacle to be viewed.

Nonetheless, the universe is such a large, and, frankly, intrusive object that one cannot help but view it, and, since there is no such thing as a viewpoint from nowhere, one must have a viewpoint. The viewpoint will determine which aspects of the view loom large, which diminish with distance, which are hidden by obstructions in the landscape, and so on. Which viewpoint is best? Well, that depends, I suppose, on your viewpoint.

From my viewpoint as a science fiction and fantasy writer, I am particularly interested in the views of the universe produced by imaginative fiction, or speculative fiction.  So this is a question in two parts, the first describing what imaginative fiction is, and the second describing to what points of view it naturally lends itself.

As a science fiction fan, you have no doubt heard this topic discussed far past its sell-by date, but I must needs cover these well-worn tracks to reach the second and more interesting half of the question: so what is science fiction? What is fantasy?

Imaginative fiction differs from all other genres only in one respect. In addition to the elements of character, plot, theme, setting and style, which must indeed be handled with the same adroitness and craft as any mainstream yarn, the imaginative story of science fiction or fantasy must also have world-building.

Myself, I do not prefer the term “speculative fiction” first, because it is too hoity-toity for tales about scantily-clad space-princesses of Mars or even Mongo, and second, because stories of magic and monsters and the perilous realm of elfland do not contain any speculation properly so called, but such tales form one arm of the archipelago of imaginative fiction, even as science fiction forms the other.

World-building is that set of explicit or implicit laws of nature, be they magic or super-science, which defines what can and cannot happen in the plot or to the characters.  In order to be a fantasy story, the laws of nature must allow for the supernatural, for magic. In order to be a science fiction story, the laws of nature must allow for scientific or technical progress beyond the world of today.

By the laws of Middle-Earth, for example, donning the Ruling Ring bestows the power to dominate the world, but also inevitably corrupts anyone who uses it. That rule defines the action of the plot and the course of the character arc for our hero. The story could not be told in a Western, or a Love Story, or a Pirate Story, or a tale about the Spanish Civil War, simply because in none of those settings is does the law of nature allow for a ring to tempt and corrupt with a true promise of absolute power. The theme can be told in other genres — there are any number of stories about the temptations of power — but if the mechanism of the tale involves rules of how the world works different from this world’s rules, it is an imaginative story. In a fantasy story, the things that act like curses and act like magic in real life, can in that world be literal and palpable.

Hence, the imaginative story is not merely a matter of setting. TWILIGHT as well as HARRY POTTER takes place on this earth, our world in the modern day, but in areas of the world unknown to the general public, areas where different laws of nature apply.

A story that took place in space, such as APOLLO 13, but which did not involve laws or technology different from those we know today, would be taking place in the typical science fiction setting, but would not be science fiction.

A story that takes place in the future of necessity must involve at least some speculation about changes to science, technology, or society, and those changes of necessity involve some change in the rules of the world, or at least the rules of what the reader might legitimately expect. Even a future precisely like the present would involve at least some speculation—for it would take an imaginative leap to envision a world whose nature did not allow for progress, regress, or change, and to explain that nature.

The imaginative tale will not appeal to any reader unwilling or unable to make the leap of imagination from his own world to the new world with its new laws of nature.

Where the reader is willing to make the leap, questions can be addressed that mainstream literature can only reach metaphorically. A story with a robot as a main character, for example, can talk about the relationship of man to his Creator, or can talk about the nature of free will and necessity, which a Western, or a Love Story, or a Pirate Story, or a tale about the Spanish Civil War cannot embody in a cowboy, a lover, or a pirate.

Again, in time travel stories, effect can precede cause, and so plots can run in circles and knots. Because the laws of the world are open to speculation, all other elements of the story have a freedom which mainstream tales cannot know.

It also, by the way, requires some discipline on the part of the writer to avoid basic errors. It is easy to produce a Deux Ex Machina, or other artificiality in the plot motion or character growth, when the laws of the world are optional. The leap of imagination runs a greater risk of dashing the reader’s suspension of disbelief. It is harder to read a space opera than a soap opera.

The imaginative tale is very popular these days, but that is not because this hard element of the imagination has dropped out of the genre. Rather, it is because certain sets of these imaginative or unreal laws of nature have become so well-known and widespread, that the leap of imagination required for them is merely a hop.

Everyone knows vampires burn in the sunlight (or, at least, sparkle) and are turned back by the crucifix; everyone knows witches fly on brooms, have familiars, and use magic wands to cast their charms. No great leap of the imagination is requires to know the rules, and hence to know what to expect.

Everyone knows the in a galaxy far, far away, TIE fighters and X-Wings and so on make banked turns in space, engines roaring the vacuum, shooting out clearly visible slowly-moving bursts of laser light like tracer fire, and in all ways act like World War One fighter biplanes. No great leap of the imagination is requires to know the rules, and hence to know what to expect.

Jedi have psionic powers, so it comes as no surprise that in addition to being able to feel disturbances in the force and to speak cryptic words from beyond the grave, in the sequel EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the Jedi were also suddenly granted telekinesis.  As far as I know, no one in the audience was shocked out of his suspension of disbelief or even startled at the additional power, because, like being able to brew a love philter or turn a prince into a toad is a basic “given” for a witch, being able to move objects with your mind is a “given” for a psychic. It is part of the consensus background.

My point here is that to have spaceships move and fire they way they actually would move and fire in the conditions of space would require an explanation on the part of the writer and a leap of the imagination on the part of a tech-savvy audience, but in unimaginative imaginative story, no such leap is asked of the audience, and no savvy is required.

Likewise, the magic system in HARRY POTTER does not require any explanation, because we all know from Halloween what witches and wizards act like and look like; but the magic system in Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH does require an explanation and a leap of imagination (at least for those of you who have not played Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons).

We have many an unimaginative imaginative tale. In science fiction, the name for these is Space Operas (my own genre), where the setting of the science fiction tale is used, but the laws of nature are those from the shopworn conventions of two generations of science fiction serials, comic books, and television shows. There is no name for the shopworn and unimaginative treatments of fantasy tropes, most of which were popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien and Gary Gygax, but I propose the term “Elf Opera.”

Let me add two more points of terminology.

For the purposes of this essay, a book which otherwise would be shelved with Horror stories becomes part of Imaginative Literature if it requires a leap of imagination to world-laws unlike our own, involving ghosts or the living dead. Since most people know what ghosts are, the imaginative leap is small. Where the imaginative leap is large, such as when H.P. Lovecraft explains about alien inhuman gods that once ruled the Earth, where the worldview is markedly different from our own, the horror tale falls deeper into the territory of the imaginative tale.

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelly, under this definition, is solidly science fiction. It order to seem convincing, the audience has to believe, or to be willing to suspend disbelief, that since anatomists can galvanize dead limbs and make them jerk, a more complete understanding of electricity could restore dead limbs completely to animation, and if limbs, then why not organs, nerve, heart, brains? No ancient Greek, be he howsoever philosophically inclined, could comprehend the basic assumptions of the world where the tale of Frankenstein’s Monster takes place, because the ancient Greek world-view did not allow for the possibility of resurrecting the dead by means of electrical science. Without the science, there is no story.

Hard SF, so called ‘nuts-and-bolts’ science fiction, is the disciplined attempt to keep the speculation to a minimum, that is, to assume a technology that differs from the modern technology, while assuming the science, the basic laws of nature and how things work, is roughly the same.

To what point of view does the imaginative tale naturally lend itself?

One is tempted to say that science fiction and fantasy are naturally inclined to the imaginative point of view, that is, that the imaginative tale tacitly upbraids the quotidian, the bourgeoisie, the settled and self-satisfied viewpoint of the overfed burgher, and tacitly applauds the revolutionary, the visionary, the unsettling, the frontiersman. But a brief survey of the science fiction field does not show this. It is true with some approaches but not others.

For the purposes of this essay, let us divide science fiction history into five periods or movements:

The Victorians—Jules Verne and HG Wells and Olaf Stapledon defined the early science fiction genre. Verne’s works were what we would today call technothrillers or Hard SF.  Wells and Stapledon, however, writing farther afield from the fields we know, cast their tales across the immensities of space, to the Moon and Mars, or far down the dark corridors of time, to the rising glories of men like gods, and then to the desperate triumph of entropy and darkness. Their worldview was one of Promethean grandeur followed by Wagnerian downfall.  The near future was always one of technological triumphalism for Wells and Stapledon, and the far future was a vast and bleak abyss stretching to a cosmic emptiness, and either to no god, or, in the case of Stapledon’s STARMAKER, to a sadistic and uncaring one.

The period between the Victorians and the Golden Age is mostly filled with rubbish, with one or two stand-out authors who should be savored merely for their adventurous bravado of imagination: I mean ‘World-Wrecker’ Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Jack Williamson, and the author I take to be the exemplar of the whole era, E. E. “Doc” Smith.  Writers who wrote for the pulps but who achieved more lasting fame, indeed because they brought more craft and imagination to the task than most, include Abraham Merritt  and Robert E. Howard, who invented the Sword and Sorcery genre, HP Lovecraft, who invented the Cosmic Horror tale. I regard this as a transitional period, retaining many elements of the cosmic despair of the Victorians, and foreshadowing much of the exuberant optimism of the Golden Age.

The Golden Age—John W. Campbell Jr. gathered a stable of writers and encouraged others to write to a specific theme of optimistic technical progress, the supremacy of reason, and within the specific genre later called “Hard SF”, that is, a return Jules Vernes’ discipline of using real (or realistic) scientific principles and technological extrapolations.  Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are exemplars of this period, as well as the unfairly neglected A.E. van Vogt, who lacked the discipline of Hard SF writing, but certainly shared the optimism of rational man’s central place in the universe. The Golden Age can be best understood as the reaction of a sober adolescent wishing to be taken seriously against the playful boyish exuberance and undignified adventure yarn of the pulp era. The Golden Age writers dismissed the cosmic despair of the Victorians by simply not addressing the issue. The preference was for stories in the near future rather than the far. Ultimate philosophical issues, such as oppressed Wells or Stapledon, were dismissed as impractical.

Despite the obvious anachronism, I am going to list Arthur C Clarke’s CHILDHOODS END with the Victorian science fiction, as well as 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, because the vision of the future, particularly the far future, is much the same as that of HG Wells or Olaf Stapledon. Clarke’s vision in these two books was of apotheosis through science, a transcendence into some higher state of being which, not without melancholy, rejects human nature as it rejects human limitations. His other works are solidly within, and helped to define, what I call the Golden Age of Science Fiction. CITY AND THE STARS, for example, has a Golden-Age style optimistic ending: man achieves spaceflight once again, after aeons of neglectful cowering in utopia. That is pure Campbell. Contrast this with the final scene in CHILDHOODS END: the children of men are incomprehensible superhumans who destroy the planet and fly away as spirit-beings while the last true human left alive dissolves, more awed than frightened. That is pure Stapledon.

The first two volumes CS Lewis’ planetary trilogy (OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA) is a rebuttal to Wells, specifically to FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and to THE TIME MACHINE, in the same way that Arthur C Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END is a rebuttal to Lewis. They all take place within what I call the Victorian movement (which, unfortunately, is a very misleading term). Lewis and Wells and Stabledon and Clarke contemplate the ultimate end of man in a fashion that the more pragmatic Asimov and Heinlein (see below) never do. The Victorians  all place emphasis on the scope of what the scientific world shows: that man is a small thing indeed. For Wells, that is a source of ironic despair, whereas for Lewis, a source of Christian humility and even joy, and for Clarke, a combination of the despair and joy which I regard as akin to Gnosticism. I should mention that Olaf Stapledon’s DARKNESS AND LIGHT ends the same Gnostic way as CHILDHOOD END does, with evolution creating a nonhuman yet superhuman creature to replace man, as if that is a happy rather than tragic fate for humanity. (I place THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH by Lewis in a different category; it is more akin to Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR than anything else.)

The 1950’s saw the expansion of science fiction out from the pulp magazines and into the slicks and even into novels.  The addition of softer SF themes and the expansion to novel lengths allowed writers greater latitude to explore the human dimension of science fiction. Writers such as Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Hal Clement, Clifford Simak and Walter M. Miller can be listed as typical of this period, but this Silver Age was in philosophy and outlook at continuation and development of the Golden Age, and encompasses many of the same writers.

The New Wave—In the 1960’s and 1970’s Michael Moorcock and other experimental writers self-consciously attempt to bring the modern literary forms, or freer forms, from mainstream literature into the science fiction field.  Phillip K Dick, JG Ballard, Samuel R Delany and Norman Spinrad can be considered typical of this period. Cordwainer Smith and Roger Zelazny used the freer forms the New Age allowed, but did not seem to follow the New Wave message, so whether they are considered New Wave or not is a matter of debate. The New Wave is explicitly a reaction against the complaisant ‘establishment’ of the Golden and Silver Ages of Science Fiction, an attempt to subvert the Yankee individualistic optimism of writers like Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt in the more fashionable gloom and bitterness of European pessimism and collectivism. This movement was the Trahison de Clercs of the science fiction world.

The Pastoral Age—This is a period, or a movement, which perhaps only exists in my imagination, because, for the life of me, I can recall no other observer seeing it or commenting on it. In the 1970’s and 1980’s there were a number of books and stories which set in futures gentler than the harsh steel skyscrapers and soaring rocketplanes of the Golden Age, what one might call “Green” futures of eco-friendly anarchic utopias, usually aided by psionic powers, or in dystopia showing the opposite side of the question.  Ursula K LeGuin was the most skilled and famous writer who attempted such tales. Sherri S Tipper and Cecilia Holland, Dorothy Bryant, Marge Piercy, and Joanna Russ are typical of this period.  The Pastoral movement is a reaction against the materialism and gloom of the New Wave, as well as being antithetical to the factory-smoke clanging shipyard and militaristic materialism and optimism of the Golden Age.

(You might think it odd I can think of not a single male writer who wrote in this movement, and attribute it to a vast oppressive conspiracy of matriarchs excluding us from the genre. You might also think men and women are alike in all ways, biological, neurological, and spiritual, not just equal in the legal sense. Your thoughts would, in that case, be false and filled with resentment, no doubt encouraged by your poor choice of viewpoint from which to regard the universe.)

Cyberpunk— A second generation of science fiction was possible in the eighties, which made abundant use of the tropes and stereotypes of previous generations of writers, so that the future was imagined not as being different in one or two ways from the present, but in nearly every way. Cybernetics, downloaded consciousness, and various shades of transhumanism and subhumanism were the central concerns. William  Gibson,  Greg Bear, Walter Jon Williams, Bruce Sterling are typical of this movement.  Dan Simmons and Neal Stephenson use many of the same hyper-imaginative tropes, but without the message of despair. The movement is called “punk” because it glamorizes the dropouts and street thugs and grifters of an overcrowded and overpolluted society when humanity is being dehumanized. Cyberpunk rejects the gentle mysticism of the Pastorals, the angry collectivism of the New Wave, and the technophilic optimism of the Golden Age. It also lacks the grandeur of the Wagnerian conception of the cosmic despair of the Victorians, being content to despair about matters deeper in the dirty gutter, closer to home, and happening tomorrow.

As to the movements or period since that time, I cannot speak with authority, since my reading has been sporadic ever since I became a professional writer, and not enough time has passed for me, at least, to see matters in clear perspective or pick out a pattern. I also cannot speak with humility, since I am a member of the New Space Opera Renaissance, and I have a self-interest in promoting that school of writing, something that is a reaction against the herolessness and dinginess of Cyberpunk. So let us pass over the Nineties, the Naughts, and the Teens in silence. You, dear reader, no doubt know more about those times than I, and can speak more objectively.

And even this division into periods and movements is slightly arbitrary, since it simplifies matters dangerously: many of the most famous books typical of one period fall outside their period. I would say DUNE by Frank Herbert is the best example of a book from the ‘Silver Age’ wave, for example, and it was published in 1966, smack in the middle of what I identify as the New Wave.  So the taxonomy here lacks the precision of Linnaeus, but it is useful enough for our purposes, which is to identify points of view to which imaginative tales lend themselves.

Having covered Science Fiction in some detail, I will treat with Fantasy next: The Victorians among Fantasy included the writers from William Morris to E.R. Edison, who were the oddities and outliers of pre-Tolkien fantasy. Tolkien by himself was the Golden Age; Robert E. Howard was the Silver Age; and between them High Fantasy and Sword-and-Sorcery was born.

The Victorian Fantasy, the Golden and the Silver all held one idea in common, namely, that the Modern Age had lost something precious which the Middle Ages or the Bronze Age or the Stone Age had retained. Different authors identified the missing and precious thing differently, but they all agreed on their distaste for the dark, satanic mills of modernity, the claustrophobia of civilized behavior, or the incivility of modern behavior.

The main difference is that Sword and Sorcery feels nostalgia for the lusty barbaric freedom imagined by some Romantics to have existed before the meshes of civilization trapped and emasculated man. These are paeans to the myth of the Noble Savage. I would list Edgar Rice Burroughs in the same breath as Robert E Howard, but I am not sure if Barsoom or Darkest Africa technically are within the perilous realm of Elfland, or lay brooding in forgotten ages between the rise of the Hellenes and the sinking of Atlantis. But the myth of the noble savage is on full display, as if the sense that civilization is corrupt.

(I take it to be no coincidence that the romantic glorification of the healthy savage gained predominance in the years following the Great War, when all the West was traumatized by the betrayal of Victorian belief in endless progress in the muddy trenches of the Somme, or the sorrows in Flanders Fields among the poppies.)

Where the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis fall in this taxonomy is questionable. These novels treat fairyland not as the perilous realm or lost age but instead as a place where the same truths which rule our world are met in disguises (such as Christ dressed a lion) that the truth may be known without bias, even as a prince will disguise himself as a pauper to win a maiden’s hand. They have, for this reason, less of the nostalgia for antiquity as other Golden Age fantasies, but it can still be found, particularly since Mr Lewis, a medievalist himself, knew well what the Thirteenth Century, whatever its wants in other areas, did as well as the blood-soaked and totalitarian Twentieth Century did, or did better.

George RR Martin writes an as-yet-nameless a reaction against this unrealistic sentimentality about what were really somewhat dirty and despicable periods, by writing realistic fantasy with the blood-and-iron flavor of history. His GAME OF THRONES is not the only “Hard F” fantasy story, but at the moment it is one of the more famous. In stories like this, the mysterious missing element (which, as I say, depends on the viewpoint of the author) is not found in the antique world any more than in the modern. In such books the most noticeable rejection is of the elevated speech and sheer poetry of expression which characterizes works of the Victorians, or the Golden Agers.

There are a group of fantasy novels which otherwise defy classification but which have a family resemblance, a resemblance of philosophy, despite being written in different decades: A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay, AEGYPT by John Crowley, and THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman. These have the opposite approach from realistically grim fantasy, in that they seem to reject realism even as they reject the material world. They are idealistic, but Gnostic, it is a paranoid idealism that rejects all the basic assumptions of fantasy, both the Medieval flavor of High Fantasy, and the Blue Collar flavor of Sword and Sorcery. These are works reacting against and rebelling against the viewpoint of the Golden Age. They are works meant to subvert the dominant paradigm of the world-system. Mr. Pullman explicitly characterized his ‘Dark Materials’ book as being an Anti-Narnia.

Ursula K LeGuin in her Earthsea envisioned a sublime Taoist-flavored fantasy world, not one based primarily on Western models as Tolkien’s Catholicism or Howard’s Greco-Roman paganism, which should have started its own subgenre, but, to my knowledge, has not. This Oriental Fantasy, if I may give it a perhaps misleading name, agreed with the Golden Age that modernity was missing something, but disagreed as to where that something might be found. (That this one author is listed as the primary inspiration for two genres, one in fantasy and one in science fiction, is humble tribute to her genius.)

Lewis, Tolkien, Lindsay, and Pullman all have a defined system which informs the mood and atmosphere of their make believe worlds: LeGuin’s Earthsea is something more mystical, organic, and ineffable, world seeking equilibrium rather than seeking a goal. The worlds of Lewis, Tolkien, Lindsay, and Pullman are headed toward a Fourth Age; or a Last Battle; or a final burning enlightenment; or a final escape from Authority. Earthsea is seeking balance.

There are authors whose names I cannot recall, and whose books I have not read, which are akin to the cyberpunk of science fiction, whether set in modern urban settings or in sprawling sewer-age worlds filled with disease and corruption. I do not know what this genre is called. Perhaps it should be called Elfpunk. These are variously called Urban Fantasy and New Weird, but in terms of their viewpoint, they do not form distinct genres. They are the same in mood and reflect the same philosophy.  These worlds are worse than the modern world, not better.

You may be wondering what pattern, if any, is to be found in this rough survey of imaginative literature? Why do I propose these groupings and not others?

My hunch—I dare not dignifying it by calling it a theory—is that literature reflects life, and a man’s attitudes towards storybookland is roughly the same as his attitude toward life.

My hunch is that imaginative literature stands above and beyond mainstream literature in the same way that philosophy stands above and beyond all other disciplines of art and science, namely, it is the only genre that treats directly, not as metaphor, with the fundamental rules and laws of reality, precisely because it is the only genre where the fundamental rules can be changed, played with, contemplated, reversed, warped, and otherwise inspected. All mainstream tales take place in a world with the same metaphysical background as the intended reader’s world. Imaginative worlds can make the metaphysics a contrast with our own, or make concrete there what is merely metaphorical here.

If these two hunches are correct, this implies a third hunch: that the viewpoint of imaginative literature reflects the viewpoint, not of life in the material sense, natural life, but reflects the higher life of the spirit, supernatural life.

No matter what you think a science fiction or fantasy story is about, it is actually about God.

Admittedly, this is an overly dramatic way of saying it, but the reader’s eyes are no doubt glazing over by now, considering the length of this essay, so I wanted to say something dramatic to startle you.

(Come now, my dear groaning agnostics! To expect a Christian not to draw everything back to God is like telling an infatuated lover not to talk about his beloved. God is the fundamental reality from which all things come and the final destination drawing all things ultimately to Him, so any discussion on any topic that ranges above the quotidian and dull reality of daily life has one foot on some rung, high or low, of the ladder of Jacob.)

But even if I do not startle, or I say it more gently, please consider this: the stages or movements I listed both for fantasy and science fiction follow a similar pattern. It is a pattern we might recognize from the Gospel, from the four or five basic viewpoints around which Jews tended to gather at the time of Christ.

First, the Sadducees were collaborators, friendly to Rome, men of pragmatic character, less concerned with ultimate questions and more concerned with the here and now. They did not believe in the afterlife. The kind of man who thinks religion is a private matter, and should be kept out of the public square, who mistrusts organized religion, he would make a good Sadducee. The attitude of Campbellian authors in the Golden Age of Science Fiction mimicked this. The Ultimate fate of man, which so depressed the Victorian authors, they ignored. The Hard Fantasy of authors who take grim history as their model might be the parallel in the fantasy world.

Second, the Zealots were angry rebels, the opposite of the pragmatic Sadducees. This is the New Wave among the Science Fictioneers, and the Gnostics among the Fantasists. They wish to subvert the dominant paradigm.

Third, the Essenes were retiring mystics seeking inner purity. The method was the opposite of the Zealots, a feminine and nonconfrontational method. This would be our Pastoralists among Science Fiction, the Mystics among Fantasy. (Admittedly, a small group in both cases, but then again, the Essenes were a small group.)

Fourth were the Pharisees. These were the ultimate conformists, who believed entirely in men’s laws, and had very little concern for true righteousness, or none at all. The hypocrites. These would be the nihilists who write imaginative literature, putting great effort and meaning toward the message that tells the readers that all effort is futile and no meaning is meaningful. Do not be deceived: such writers pretend to be nonconformists, but their code of speech and conduct and thought-control is more exacting than any hierarchy. Cyberpunks, Urban Fantasy, and New Weird do tend to sneak ever closer toward the brink of the abyss of this Phariseeism of nihilism, but none of the books I mention above are wholly loyal to nihilism.

Of course, by its nature, one only can be partially loyal to the concept that no truth is true, and no action worth doing. Likewise, no Pharisee can be a perfect Pharisee because no hypocrite can be a perfect play-actor. No man is fake all the way to his roots. Some real part of him is putting on an outward show for some real inner reason, merely not the reason shown to the world.

There is, of course, a fifth viewpoint which is older and logically prior to all of them, from which they derive, and against which they rebel, the orthodox viewpoint. Ironically, the orthodox viewpoint of literature is that literature is not meant for its own sake, as the romantics say, nor is it meant for entertainment, as the pragmatists say, nor does it offer crystal revelations into sublime truth, as the mystics say, nor is it nothing but a propagandistic ‘narrative’, as the nihilist say.

The orthodox ergo correct opinion is that art serves to augment the glory of God. He allows us, in small, to create as He Creates in large. We are his only creature who can do so. Every sublime work of art praises the universe as if with a silent shout of joy, and all the stars in heaven sing.

Fantasy, by its nature, is more concerned with the beauty and terror of the world than Science Fiction, when tends by its nature to be a little more dry and intellectual. What genre in Science Fiction and Fantasy would be the viewpoint toward nature which corresponds to the Orthodox viewpoint toward supernature? It would have to be, in both cases, a work which pointed at something beyond itself and for which it was made.

Alas, I can think of only four stories which seem to fit this property of pointing to a higher reality than themselves, books written for a purpose deeper than art or entertainment or pelf or propaganda. NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell; A BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley; THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING &c by J.R.R. Tolkien; THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER &c by Gene Wolfe.

Oddly, both Science Fiction novels I list here are nightmarish dystopias, warning as stern as anything written by Jeremiah or terrible as the Apocalypse of St John; and both the Fantasy novels are dreams of mingled light and dark that end as with a dawn, when the maimed Ringbearer is sent to the Gray Havens and thence to the paradise of the Uttermost West, and the lame Autarch is sent to the elevated universe of Yesod to revive the glory of the dying Sun.

As for why that should be, alas, dear reader, I have no theory, hypothesis, nor hunch.


  1. Comment by WyldCard4:


    If anything, your conclusion seems to imply something rather dark, does it not? If the works that point most towards the infinite have darkness within them, might it imply that the infinite has darkness within it? Not a Catholic philosophy of course, but it seems rather implied. At the least it might imply that the shadow, separation from God, is required to view light, to recognize light as something separate from darkness.

    Interesting essay. I rather enjoyed it.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Thank you for the comment, yet forgive me, because I do not see that implication. I would have thought the implication was that fantasy was more realistic than science fiction, or that science fiction naturally lends itself to a tragic and melancholic worldview, much as the Greek worldview was tragic and melancholic.

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Dear Mr. Wright:

        I know this makes me sound like a one trick bore, but your otherwise interesting essay was marred by making no mention of Poul Anderson. Many of the ideas and themes you discussed can be found in Anderson’s work: classic space opera like ENSIGN FLANDRY and THE HIGH CRUSADE, cosmic speculation as vast as Olaf Stapledon’s in TAU ZERO, and use of ideas like downloading human personalities into artificial information storage units can be found in his “Harvest of Stars” books and stand alone works like GENESIS.

        And my mention of ENSIGN FLANDRY above reminded me of how much more CONVINCING Anderson was in depicting how a naval battle in space would actually be fought than the nonsense we see in Star Wars.

        Anderson’s work cover the entire period from the late Golden Age of SF (from 1947 on) to the very beginnings of the New Space Opera movement at his death in 2001. And, unlike Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein, he did not become a bore in his later SF books.

        And Anderson also wrote admirable Fantasy: works as dark and grim as THE BROKEN SWORD and books both serious and light hearted as THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS. And I like how he speculated on how magic could be a “science” in works like OPERATION CHAOS and OPERATION LUNA.

        Apologetically, Sean M. Brooks

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Poul Anderson is a mainstream Golden Age writer firmly in the Campbellian school. There is no need to mention him for the same reason I did not mention Clarke Ashton Smith or Larry Niven.

          • Comment by Sean Michael:

            Dear Mr. Wright:

            Understood! A fair point. I feel about Poul Anderson the way you do about A.E. van Vogt, I believe.

            I did wonder if you were too dismissive of the Urban Fantasy branch of that form of imaginative literature. S.M. Stirling, in his Shadowspawn books, certainly is aware of the moral dimensions his characters, good and bad alike, find themselves in.

            Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              Again, I apologize for the awkwardness of the labels I was using. In no way did I denigrate fantasies that take place in urban settings or the modern day. I have written two such books myself. I was denigrating books that believe that truth is relative and hope is illusion. There are a sizable percent of such books floating around, usually starring ladies in leather miniskirts who hunt vampires between copulating with them. I was not making a comment on authors like Charles DeLint, whom other people call ‘Urban Fantasy’ but who does not fall into the Elfpunk fantasies of which I spoke.

              • Comment by Sean Michael:

                Dear Mr. Wright:

                Again, thank you. Now I understand better what you meant by “urban fantasy.” Certainly the trashy vampire stuff you referred to does not belong on the high level set by S.M. Stirling, even when, superficially, he uses some of the same tropes. I have no interest in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” kind of junk!

                You would need to write a whole book setting out your views and thoughts about SF and Fantasy with the kind of detail needed to correct the awkward terms you feel forced to use. (Hint hint!) (Smiles)

                Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by wedge:

      If anything, your conclusion seems to imply something rather dark, does it not? If the works that point most towards the infinite have darkness within them, might it imply that the infinite has darkness within it?

      I think this is an enduring theme in Christian thought. The master of the theme, Dionysius the Areopagite:

      Supernal Triad, Deity above all essence, knowledge and goodness; Guide of Christians to Divine Wisdom; direct our path to the ultimate summit of your mystical knowledge, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty.

      Let this be my prayer; but do, dear Timothy, in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.

  2. Comment by David_Marcoe:

    George RR Martin writes an as-yet-nameless a reaction against this unrealistic sentimentality about what were really somewhat dirty and despicable periods, by writing realistic fantasy with the blood-and-iron flavor of history. His SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is not the only “Hard F” fantasy story, but at the moment it is one of the more famous. In stories like this, the mysterious missing element (which, as I say, depends on the viewpoint of the author) is not found in the antique world any more than in the modern. In such books the most noticeable rejection is of the elevated speech and sheer poetry of expression which characterizes works of the Victorians, or the Golden Agers.

    I’m tempted to call Martin’s brand of writing Sub-Realistic or Cynic Fantasy. I find that, for all the granularity of detail that Martin brings to the history and culture of Westeros, a real-life society that suffered under that much dysfunction would just come unglued. Yes, one might point to a historical source like Thucydides as justification for such a portrayal, but where Athens suffered under a deadly plague while a bitter and protracted war with a rival power, one gets the impression that what we see of Westeros is typical for it under most conditions. If we look at similar or worse cases of upheaval in the real world–Maoist China, Cambodia, atrocities in Africa, etc.–we find the best and worst of humanity co-mingled, and that extraordinary conditions are usually the cause of such tragedies. Westeros, by comparison, is undergoing fairly common dynastic change and war of succession.

    But more than that, I think it is a failure of imagination. Where Martin and others like him want to show what the real world “really” was, I think Tolkien’s response would’ve been something like, “These are descendants of the myths that ancient peoples told themselves, embodying the ideals they aspired to. No one argues that they lived in a rough and sometimes bleak world, but they had vision enough to glimpse higher things.” Or to quote Lewis on Nordic mythology (in his essay “First and Second Things”):

    The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. ‘I am off to die with Odin’ said the rover in Stevenson’s fable, thus proving that Stevenson understood something about the Nordic spirit which Germany has never been able to understand at all. The gods will fall. The wisdom of Odin, the humourous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder, will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.

    I think either Lewis or Tolkien would’ve been too gentlemanly to point out that they had lived through more personal tragedy and civilizational upheaval than Martin and many of the latter-day Cynic Fantasists have ever experienced.

    In attempting to hold up their interpretation of mundane history as a counterargument to mythic stories, the Cynic Fantasists miss the whole point of mythology and its revival in High Fantasy. It is Modernity’s ironic blindness to the noumenal, the very thing that Tolkien and Lewis sought to address.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “Cynic Fantasy” is a very good term for it.

      Because I see it as analogous to the contracted cosmic vision of the Golden Age writers versus the Wagnerian scope of the Victorians, I called it “Hard Fantasy.” (I would have called it “Hard-Assed Fantasy” but there are ladies present.)

      “I think either Lewis or Tolkien would’ve been too gentlemanly to point out that they had lived through more personal tragedy and civilizational upheaval than Martin and many of the latter-day Cynic Fantasists have ever experienced.”

      Hear, hear.

      “In attempting to hold up their interpretation of mundane history as a counterargument to mythic stories, the Cynic Fantasists miss the whole point of mythology and its revival in High Fantasy. It is Modernity’s ironic blindness to the noumenal, the very thing that Tolkien and Lewis sought to address.”

      Amen to that.

    • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

      Westeros’s constant upheaval isn’t that different than, say, the Warring States period of China. Or the Shogun era of Japan, so there is real-life precedent for that kind of continual chaos. Or the Hundred-Years war in France and England, for that matter.

      • Comment by David_Marcoe:

        You’re missing the point. I wasn’t arguing against a portrayal of societal turmoil. I was arguing that (1) Martin goes too far in one direction with his portrayal and (2) it’s implied that the culture of Westeros is in its normal condition, regardless of what is happening in society. Martin is portraying a set of conditions that usually require more desperate circumstances than what we’re supplied with in the story’s backdrop.

        • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

          And since it’s pretty clear that the first book at least (all that I could stomach) is the Wars of the Roses with different names, and since the Wars of the Roses were not anywhere near as bad as all that (especially since all English participants were trying not to disrupt trade, as it’s no fun to be a pretender who destroys his own potential tax base), it was really pretty stupid as an attempt to do fantasy history.

          Beyond that, I gather that Martin did try to diversify matters by including every single historical atrocity from various eras, but I don’t really need to find out because I’m never going to waste another precious second on this series of his.

  3. Comment by David Meyer:

    Fascinating literary hunches.

    One of the difficulties in identifying works of science fiction with an orthodox point of view is that orthodoxy has an affinity with tradition in its various forms where science fiction tends to focus on the results of progress, on the new, and rarely consider tradition unless it’s as an obstacle to progress.

    I understand that a science fiction author of orthodox outlook doesn’t necessarily write stories with an orthodox outlook. However, though such stories are rare I can think of a few examples I am surprised you didn’t include in your essay. Specifically, C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Those are four novels that glorify God in some way.

    Or did you consider those books and reject them for some reason?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “One of the difficulties in identifying works of science fiction with an orthodox point of view is that orthodoxy has an affinity with tradition in its various forms where science fiction tends to focus on the results of progress, on the new, and rarely consider tradition unless it’s as an obstacle to progress.”

      A good question, but I respectfully disagree. I am admittedly using a bad terminology in my article, but I plea that I cannot think of a clearer one.

      I was not talking about “orthodoxy” in the way you are using the term; I was talking about the proper viewpoint to have toward supernatural things, which is, namely, that they both transcend and form the fundamental base of natural things.

      I was then trying to identify what would be analogous to this combination of the transcendental and fundamental in imaginative literature in the same way that Campbellian Hard SF was “Sadducee” and New Wave was “Zealot.” I was not speaking of Christian literature. I was not talking about books that glorify God.

      Granted, my terminology is misleading, so the fault is mine and not your for me not being clear.

      There is nothing about “orthodoxy” in any sense of the term which is traditional; to the contrary orthodoxy is wild and radical almost to the point of madness, since it challenges all the fundamental assumptions of the mundane and material world, and it makes the devils, paynims and liberals quake in fear.

      Likewise, there is nothing about science fiction, aside from the experimental New Wave writers, which necessarily aligns itself with newness or progress. Half the stories in science fiction are warnings about the dangers of progress, from Mary Shelly onward. Or, to be more precise, of the genres I list, only the Golden Age writers are optimistic about progress; cyberpunk is cynical, pastoralism rejects untamed progress as patriarchal pollution, and the New Wave is openly against civilization, and regards ‘progress’ to mean whatever regresses us back to barbarism. The older Victorian stories of Verne and Wells and Stapledon, and including later writers in their tradition, Arthur C Clarke and CS Lewis, are at best neutral about the notion of scientific progress, since it ultimately leads to something either posthuman or inhuman.

      Of those stories, they are told in the conservative fashion, using the time honored techniques of plot, character, and journalistic language.

      But since you asked: Miller is clearly within the Golden Age tradition, and CANTICLE is written according to the tropes and expectations of a Golden Age writer. The presence or absence of a religious element does not change the philosophy of literature being employed. CS Lewis’ planetary trilogy is a rebuttal to Wells, specifically to FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and to THE TIME MACHINE, in the same way that CHILDHOOD’S END is a rebuttal to Lewis. They all take place within what I call the Victorian movement (Which, again, is a very misleading term). Lewis and Wells and Stabledon and Clarke contemplate the ultimate end of man in a fashion that the more pragmatic Asimov and Heinlein never do, and the Victorians (I must find a better word for them!) all place emphasis on the scope of what the scientific world shows: that man is a small thing indeed. For Wells, that is a source of ironic despair, whereas for Lewis, a source of Christian humility and even joy, and for Clarke, a combination of the despair and joy which I regard as akin to Gnosticism.

  4. Comment by deiseach:

    I’m tempted to call “A Song of Ice and Fire” the ‘Mud, Blood and Squalor’ or Monty Python sub-genre of Fantasy.

    I’m going by the snippets I’ve read and the reactions from genre fans, but I haven’t either read any of the books in full (I was burned out on doorstep fantasy volumes by “The Wheel of Time” and the initial extracts I read were not to my taste) nor any of the television show, so I am open to correction on any points.

    Agreed, the reaction to a more ‘realistic’ version of High Fantasy pseudo-Mediaevalism probably was due, merely from the amount of watered-down sub-sub-Tolkien churned out. Martin is taking the Low Fantasy, picaresque road blazed by Fritz Leiber’s “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser”, but with a lot less cynical humour and a lot more mud, blood and squalor – including some very abusive treatment of women sexually.

    The romantic re-imaginings of the Middle Ages such as Morris and the early Pre-Raphaelites indulged in were probably very short of the mark regarding the real Middle Ages, but I submit that Martin’s version is just swinging the pendulum to the opposite arc and in its way as unrealistic.

    Stop me if I’m wrong, but the late and very unlamented young King Joffrey had his fiancée Sansa Stark beaten by his guard for his amusment? This is not the behaviour a mediaeval king would indulge in; he might have a wife locked up to keep her from interfering in politics, but such gross and crass mistreatment would have enraged his barons – or at least, given them an excuse to rise against him – especially since Sansa Stark is a member the Stark family, a family of their rank. Mediaeval kings did not have unlimited power, as the forcing of King John to agree to the signing of Magna Carta demonstrates; the barons were a very powerful class in their own right and across Europe there were constant struggles between monarchs attempting to consolidate and centralise power and the nobles who wanted to retain their independence and almost separate fiefdoms.

    A king, whose family has only lately arisen from the barons itself and taken the throne by force, who is in the middle of various wars for possession of that same throne and who needs all the allies he can get, will not behave in such a manner to one of the families of rank. Yes, Joffrey was probably crazy, but the minute he had a hand laid on Sansa, he would have lost everything. Think of the Tudors in England, who arose out of the Wars of the Roses and had a very shaky claim to the throne (which is why Henry VIII was so desperate for a male heir to cement the dynasty), it was only late in Henry’s life that he started acting as a despot and yes, he had two wives beheaded, but he would never have attempted such public disgracing of them as Joffrey did to Sansa.

    So if one version of fantasy went too much to the high, noble, knightly version of the Middle Ages, Martin has gone too far to the opposite and created a society much too coarse and bloody.

    • Comment by deiseach:

      And in case that sounds like gratuitous George R.R. Martin bashing, let me say I really liked his vampire novel “Fevre Dream” and enjoyed his SF novel “Armageddon Rag” (though I considered his nostalgia for the counter-culture of the 60s to be blind to its flaws; the money-grubbing ethos of the 80s was objectionable, but the remnants of hippiedom clung onto by the hero were well past their sell-by date).

      I did anticipate the original “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels with expectation, but did not find the extracts I read encouraged me to buy them. I don’t know, I probably have too much of a rose-coloured glasses view of the period he’s using as inspiration to like what he’s doing with it (hey, my favourite centuries are those from the 8th-13th!)


      • Comment by John C Wright:

        George Martin is a genius. His GAME OF THRONES books are brilliant. I hope I made that clear in my article. Just because a painter chooses to paint a dark and tragic picture does not mean he is himself a dark and tragic man. It does not say anything about his other paintings either.

      • Comment by bear545:

        I started reading Game of Thrones and made it about half way through. I think the “hard fantasy” elements are what stopped me. It reminded me of the ‘realistic’ writing of many of the modern writers I ran into in the university. If something was harsh, or drug addicted, or dysfunctional, it was real. Happy, good people were a mere fantasy. Such attitudes are the work of Uncle Screwtape and other devils, designed to bring us to despair. I stopped reading A Game of Thrones when I realized I didn’t care about any of the characters, or what happened to them.

    • Comment by David_Marcoe:

      The romantic re-imaginings of the Middle Ages such as Morris and the early Pre-Raphaelites indulged in were probably very short of the mark regarding the real Middle Ages, but I submit that Martin’s version is just swinging the pendulum to the opposite arc and in its way as unrealistic.

      They were only drawing on the highly romanticized material of the Arthurian and Carolingian cycles. Granted, they probably took those stories more literally than the medievals themselves did, but again its a total failure to see that body of literature in its proper context.

      • Comment by Mary:


        It feels a little odd to have someone describe the original romances as “romanticized.” (All right, all right, probably romanticized from the source material, but still.)

        • Comment by David_Marcoe:

          It depends on what you mean by “original.” If you mean the best known stories, they draw on earlier material, which draws on still earlier material, which draws on still older myths, which mythologize events that lie distant in the mists of history. It is tapestry woven of many threads. So, call it embroidered, if that suits.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          It feels a little odd to have someone describe the original romances as “romanticized.”

          Odd? it is a tautology. Romance is romantic. Cynicism is cynical.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      My opinion is that each movement in writing is a rebuttal of the previous movement, so we tend to have a generation of over-romanticism followed by a generation of over-cynicism, and so on. Readers eager for novelty, like the girl swinging her legs on the swing to make the amplitude higher, accentuate the process.

      When I am speaking, in rough terms, about the philosophical viewpoint each movement in literature embodies, I am, of course, listing only one prevailing wind blowing a the ship of literature. There are currents and counter-currents, lunar and solar tides, and many other causes and influences acting on the ship.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Medieval moral to the story of patient Griselda: see what happens when you marry above your station? Sure, it seems nice, marrying a lord when you’re a peasant, but what it means is that your family has got no clout, and he doesn’t have to care whether they will be offended by what he does to you.

  5. Comment by David Mowry:

    Mr. Wright, I wanted to thank you for providing a lucid explanation for how my love of philosophical investigation, especially in metaphysics, could be connected with my dear affection for the stories of Tolkien, Lewis and Lucas. I discovered Aristotle in college and was forever changed by the meeting, and I re-discovered Tolkien at almost the same time. Ever since I have marveled that I could find joy both in the exploration of Reality in philosophy and in the unfolding of Fantasy through the craftsmanship of fiction. I never could have articulated so well a connection between them both resting within man’s desire to understand the world and his place in it.

  6. Comment by David_Marcoe:

    Agreed, the reaction to a more ‘realistic’ version of High Fantasy pseudo-Medievalism probably was due, merely from the amount of watered-down sub-sub-Tolkien churned out.

    That’s an interesting observation. It seems to me that there were no real heirs after the Inklings. Until Rowling came along with Harry Potter, the closest was Madeleine L’Engle, and the field was otherwise left fallow. The fact of the matter is that Christians have done little to cultivate a latter-day literature that has any real impact on the culture, or seeks to constructively engage it. When we do get a Christian author who shows real and consistent success, what do we do? We condemn them for using “magic.” You’d think that would be a Protestant thing, right? No. I’ve encountered at least one Catholic who condemns the Harry Potter series outright and have heard that some Catholics think the series is anti-Catholic, despite the fact that it makes heavy use of medieval Christian symbolism. It’s like we take pains to actually render ourselves culturally irrelevant.

  7. Comment by LorenzoCanuck:

    As someone who has read the Song of Ice and Fire in its entirety, I hope you and your readers do not mind if I offer a brief defense.

    It is true that the world of Westeros, as the book depicts it, is a nasty and brutish sort of place, but it that was the only thing going for it then I would have stopped reading a long while ago. The thing is, the chaos of Westeros is mostly a result of the upheaval of the old order caused by Robert’s Rebellion. Many Targaryens, including the last Targaryen king, were indeed mad, but often they were brilliant (like the lamented Prince Rhaegar) and in any case they kept the peace. The loss of peace due to social upheaval and the primacy of order, duty, and obligation are very medieval themes that undergird the entire story, even if it is usually through their marked absence. Note that many of the problems in the story are due to characters obeying their passions as opposed to their obligations (Cersei and Jaime, Daenerys’ actions in Astopor, Tyrion and his slavery to his own lust, and perhaps even R+L). There is a real moral universe beneath the filth, even if it is made explicit through its violation.

    And that’s not all. One of the themes of the story is the resurgence of magic and the mystical, the inward incursion of Elfland through the cracks of gloom. The crippled Bran, for example, is slowly becoming a Greenseer, a sage who can communicate through the trees and assume the forms of animals (and humans!) through soul projection. In fact, most of the Stark clan possesses some degree of this ability. Our dear Mr. Wright has earlier mentioned the priests of the fire god and their miraculous healing abilities.

    Another thing I noticed is how Martin likes to completely reverse our expectations of certain characters. Sandor Clegane begins as a brute but as time passes we get a glimpse of his inherent tenderness which has been muffled and suppressed by years of abuse at the hands of his evil brother (demonstrated several times when he defends Sansa from various assailants; the TV show makes this even more explicit). Tyrion is wise-cracking cynic who, as all cynics usually are, possesses a dormant streak of idealism (once I read the part about his childhood fascination with dragons I knew from there that he was marked for destiny). Jaime tries to reform himself after his encounter with the idealistic and unambiguously heroic Brienne. Even Cersei gets this treatment: her vileness is a result of years of abuse which has left her emotionally compromised, and she becomes more an object of pity than contempt.

    I cannot say more without getting into the finer details of the plot, but I can say that through my readings that I can see, by the little hints the author has dropped, that the story is leading towards a rather epic conclusion. The fact that there is some kind of teleology beneath all the cynicism (which is really only a plot device) is what makes me confident in the rest of the books.

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Westeros is thin gruel compared to the historical Middle Ages. One thinks, for example, of the free towns, powerful guilds, industrialization made possible by camshaft and waterwheel. One gets the sense that there is no economic infrastructure whatever in Westeros. It is like an evil clone chanson du geste, with better characterization.

      I agree the human dimension is very well drawn, if one reads it as the utter collapse of civil society.

      • Comment by LorenzoCanuck:

        ” It is like an evil clone chanson du geste, with better characterization.”

        An apt description I would say. You are also correct about the lack of an economy in Westeros (the Iron Bank of Braavos notwithstanding), though given how long a single volume of the series is already I wonder how Martin would have even been able to fit that all in.

        I suppose one other reason that I’ve kept up with the series until now is because I’ve already had to endure real, in-the-core cynicism elsewhere (“Watchmen” comes to mind, as does the ending of “The Departed”) so the more facetious ‘cynicism’ of SoIaF is a bit ‘refreshing’, ironically enough.

        • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

          Well, the point of an economy is that one’s ability to push evil, or passions, on one’s subjects, or to get their agreement, is somewhat limited.

          For example, why on earth would any guard or group of guards who aren’t idiots, consent to beat up a noble lady with family and friends? Where do they live, and their families live, and all their kinfolk live, that they think open or secret retribution won’t be visited upon them ever? If there’s lots of social disruption and kings deposing kings, why would you throw all your life’s eggs into the basket of a king who’s just renting the throne and keeping it warm for the next guy? How much are these guys being paid, and where is their earned money kept, that it’s worth their while to obey but not worth their while to skip town and tell on this nutbar king?

          It’s not dark and gritty. It’s silly and nonsensical. The people in this universe don’t matter unless they become characters, and the characters all are brainless. Including the supposedly Machiavellian ones. This is why I spent most of the first volume being either bored, or pondering the Mack-truck-sized plotholes.

        • Comment by deiseach:

          That’s a good point – if Westeros is more or less a self-sufficient continent of its own (I get the impression that there’s not much trade between it and the East), then if all the noble families are merrily murdering one another, how on earth are they keeping going? Who’s growing the crops and ensuring the supply of ore for the blacksmiths and selling the wool and weaving the cloth?

          It sounds to me less like the Wars of the Roses and more like the struggle between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, when “Men said openly that Christ and His saints slept” – and that was only a two-sided affair.

          But from the little I’ve read and seen, my attitude is “It’s a pity they can’t all lose”. I don’t see any one of them I’d like to see sitting on the throne, and my expectation would be for an ending where the Easterlings sweep in and mop up after the chaos (whether or not Danaerys survives to be a puppet Queen).

      • Comment by Darrell:

        This particular criticism seems a bit unfair. I can’t think of any popular fantasy series that does a great (or even good) job describing a realistic economic system or any book or books that effectively compare to the rich tapestry of reality.

        When thinking back on Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS, Gene Wolfe’s LONG SUN and NEW SUN, or Orson Scott Card’s ALVIN MAKER series I feel as if the same argument could be successfully made and yet I would argue all four series are brilliant. That said, Martin’s Westeros novels are by far not my favorite fantasy novels as they are too relentlessly downbeat — though not to the almost self-parodying degree that Abercrombies are.

    • Comment by David_Marcoe:

      My argument wasn’t about it portraying upheaval, it was about the book series overshooting even the real world on that account. If it leads somewhere, and if Martin actually finishes the series, then I might revise my evaluation. I made it through the first book. I couldn’t make it into the second. And reading detailed plot summaries subsequent to that hasn’t made me want to go back and finish.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        I made it to the end of the third book, and all I can say is that it gets worse. Much worse. The last straw, for me, was the incident in which a well-connected noble family arranges an alliance by marriage with the Stark pretender, and then murders the groom at his own wedding, along with his mother and their entire entourage.

        In a world where marital alliances mean anything in politics, a move like that would instantly put the offenders right outside the circle of society in which marital alliances can occur. They wouldn’t be able to marry their daughters off to the local headsman or the village idiot. And in a world where marital alliances don’t mean anything, the whole setup would be meaningless, and therefore, would never have been set up. Either way, Martin loses — and I was bounced permanently out of the book, and the series.

        It didn’t help that by that time every single character I liked, except one or two of the younger Stark children, had been brutally murdered in appallingly pornographic ways, and I was expected to identify with viewpoint characters chosen from the stomach-churningly evil House of Lannister. (The incestuous brother-sister couple from the first book, who threw a four-year-old child out of a high tower to avoid detection? Yeah, they’re ‘heroes’ by the third book. And up to the point where I stopped reading, they had never suffered any consequences at all.)

        Meanwhile, as these tales tend to do, the story had gotten out of hand, sprawling over more and more pages to get shorter and shorter distances with more and more trivial subplots — and getting, so far as I could see, no distance at all with the main story.

        • Comment by Darrell:

          If I recall correctly, the nobleman Frey (whom I believe wasn’t all that well connected but held an important ford) murdered Robb Stark, Robb’s bride, and a good portion of Robb’s army because Robb had married another woman AFTER pledging to marry one of Frey’s daughters thus breaking the oath/deal he had with Frey after securing what he wanted from Frey. Robb was killed at one of his bannerman’s wedding — not his own.

          Following the “Red Wedding” the Frey were political outcasts and if I recall correctly lost many of their family in retaliatory murders and, even worse for them, the Lannister’s intended to take the Frey’s holdings as “justice” (actually political posturing for a very unpopular crime) once the war was concluded.

        • Comment by Darrell:

          Thinking about this further, Walder (spelling?) Frey the septuagenarian noble who orchestrated the massacre may not have been directly threatened with confiscation of his lands — I think the Lannister plan was to demand that he find a “conspiracy”among members of his family that organized the massacre and publicly execute a suitable number or have his lands confiscated. At any rate, my point is that my issue with Martin’s novels is not really one of no political or social or moral repercussions to characters actions (that is almost the whole of what happens in the novels) but rather that it seems that if Martin shows the reader a lovely and rare flower it is only so that an army can be shown tramping it into the mud.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Not only do I most expressly not mind, I am somewhat chagrined that my article spawned any sort of SONG OF ICE AND FIRE-bashing.

      It was not my intention to hold Mr Martin up to scorn. I have admired his work ever since I stumbled across his ‘Dying of the Light’ (aka AFTER THE FESTIVAL) in Analog some years ago. I think him a genius. I rank him a step below Poul Anderson, but above Gordon R Dickson or Fred Saberhagen, which is pretty his praise from me.

      Indeed, I am a little bewildered. The only point I was trying to make was that he is a predominant member of a realistic movement in fantasy, realistic here meaning unromantic and unglamorous, in much the same way Heinlein, Asimov and Arthur C Clarke added realism when compared to pulp, and gave us an unromantized and unglamorized view of science and space war when compared to Space Opera.

      SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is ‘Hard Fantasy’ that is, it smells of the blood and grit of realistic historical dynastic struggles in the same way that ‘Nuts and Bolts’ science fiction smells of the machine oil and iron of realistic technology. It is The War of the Roses set on the borders of a particularly nasty section of Elfland where the creaking ancient kings of winter live. They have wisely put up a wall between themselves and the Perilous Realm.

      I don’t think I was saying SONG was “cynical therefore bad” or even “cynical therefore unrealistic.” Good heavens, I regard history as little more than the crime report coming from a place we Christians charmingly call the Vale of Tears in the Shadow of Death.

      After choking on all the creampuffs and cotton candy of the Elf Opera Tolkien-lite drool I read in the 1990’s, coming across a story with a little backbone and substance to it, where the warriors are badasses who make war, not Ralf Nader in elf-drag, I was delighted at the contrast. I flung up my hands and cried, “At Last!”

      Is SONG OF ICE AND FIRE going to turn out to be too cynical for me taste? I expect that it is. I am a romantic. I like tragedy, but not nihilism. But that is a matter of my personal taste, nothing against the books: I read many history books, but I often give up on them in glum disgust before the end. I try to reread Thucydides every few years, but I usually “get the shakes” at about the Melian Dialogue, and turn my eyes away in revulsion.

      I was not trying to give personal opinions or book reviews in this essay, only give a Linnaeus-like classification on how the groups of authors tend to clump together based on worldview or viewpoint. It is pretty clear that I was pretty unclear. I am a little dissatisfied with the essay and may revise it at some point. The Internet allows for that in the way print medium does not.

  8. Comment by Stephen J.:

    As always with sweeping essays of definition, the urge to nitpick may be one worthy of condemnation as something that misses the point, so I’ll plead guilty to that particular sin if charged.

    Nonetheless I am genuinely curious about one type of tale where the practice of the genre does run up against your own definition of Fantasy: the story set in an explicitly secondary world which yet features no incidences or evidences of the supernatural beyond those seen in our own. The two examples I am thinking of that may be most well known are the Richard Adams novels Shardik and Maia, which are set in the fictional realm of the Beklan Empire on a world which clearly has no Earthly content, yet for flora and fauna and human nature might as well be Earth. Guy Gavriel Kay has been nudging closer and closer to this as well; though his quasi-historical fantasies usually feature at least one explicit intrusion of the numinous and supernatural into his characters’ lives, these appearances played less and less role in the actual character arcs and plot resolution for each novel.

    Do these stories deserve the name of “Fantasy”? The default publishing tactic is to market them so, but they do not fit the definition as advanced above; their essential motif (as explicitly admitted by Kay, at least) seems to be the telling of historical-type epics of a certain period and flavour without being bound to the details of actual history. I would certainly characterize this as imaginative fiction, but I am unsure how to fit it in with the rest of the criteria sketched out above.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      In the same way that any story set in the future is science fiction, even if there is otherwise no other science fictional element present, I would venture to say that any story set in a fantasy world is fantasy, even if there is no magic. I have not read SHARDIK and cannot speak to that specific example. You see, genres operate not by definitions but by family resemblances. If you are in the mood to read SHARDIK right after reading a story about Elric or Frodo or Conan or Cugel the Clever, then the shared mood allows SHARDIK to be called fantasy in the same way an anchor baby, born in America, gets to invite his family members to join him.

      Awkwardly enough, in such a case the secondary world feels like it operates by different rules, feels like magic, even if there is none. But the world and the history are different, so the expectations of the world are different.

      I doubt my definition is clever enough to cover all the cases and exceptions we might find. For example, alternate history is also speculation, and also takes place in a world that never was. Is this fantasy? Science fiction? I am not sure. But it does require at least some imaginative leap to enter a parallel timeline.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        A number of alternate histories employ a specifically fantastic or science-fictional trope as part of their “divergence point”. Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South diverges when modern Soviet time travellers give the Confederacy of the Civil War automatic weapons; a lot of “Hitler wins the war” stories rely on this as well, I think.

        Does anyone know of good alternate histories where the divergence point is a purely mundane one — something that could plausibly have happened in real life sheerly by chance?

        • Comment by Darrell:

          It’s been many a year since I read GUNS OF THE SOUTH, but I thought that the time travelers were South Africans not Soviets.

          • Comment by Stephen J.:

            Thanks for the correction; I think I must have glitched on the guns of the title being AK-47s. (Or was I wrong on that too? Man, my memory these days…. what was I talking about again?)

            • Comment by Darrell:

              As I recall most, if not all, of the guns were AK-47s. I believe that the South Africans were based on a real-life fascist group that operated (perhaps still operates) in South Africa at the time and the premise was that Apartheid had collapsed and the group thought that by traveling back in time and aiding a CSA victory they would create a natural ally for Apartheid and so prevent its collapse.

              For some reason Turtledove is one if those authors whose books I want to love but for some reason they never (as opposed to their premise) really capture my attention — Dean Koontz is another such author.

              • Comment by Sean Michael:

                Hi, Darrell:

                I used to like Harry Turtledove’s work a good deal. Especially his Basil Argyros stories. And I think his books are worth reading once. But I’m no longer a buy on sight fan of his work. Certain stories, like “Under St. Peter’s” have made me rather cold to him.

                Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

                • Comment by Darrell:

                  I’ll look to see if I can find any of his Argyros stories. As I said, I really do want to like his books as they often have a (to my mind) fantastic premise but thus far I’ve only successfully completed (if success is counted by skimming many pages) THE GUNS OF THE SOUTH and failed miserably with his IN THE BALANCE and INTO THE DARKNESS. I have thought about repurchasing INTO THE DARKNESS and trying again as it took me several attempts to appreciate Bob Dylan and I feel like I should like Turtledove’s books.

                  I’m unfamiliar with the St. Peter’s story you allude to. Is it overtly anti-Christian or just a final breaking point for you?

                  • Comment by Sean Michael:

                    Hi, Darrell:

                    Thanks for your comments. As I’ve said, SOME of Turtledove’s work is worth reading. I mentioned the Basil Argyros stories, so I suggest trying to find the collection called AGENT OF BYZANTIUM for those works.

                    Your question about “Under St. Peter’s” forces me to be more explicit about why I’m now rather chilly towards Turtledove. I did NOT appreciate finding a story where Benedict XVI is taken deep below the known crypts of St. Peter’s to discover that Our Lord was a vampire. And to have this vampire feed off Benedict XVI. So, yes, that seemed anti Christian to me.

                    In addition, I found some POSSIBLE traces of anti Catholicism in some of Turtledove’s “Worldwar” books. But so faint that it wasn’t until “Under St. Peter’s” that my attitude definitely hardened against him.

                    I actually hope Turtledove sees this or similar comments and responds! Only fair to get his side of the story, after all.

                    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      As an ex-atheist, the idea of Christ as a Vampire is one I came across as a nasty jest in role playing games among my friends. The blasphemy seems to me neither shocking nor interesting, merely because it has always been obvious from the first that the WHOLE POINT of Vampirism was that it was a fell spirits from Hell mocking certain aspects of the sacrament, drinking the sacred blood, and so on. Since there are supposed to be parallels between vampires and Christ, they are opposites, to make Christ a vampire is perhaps the least imaginative insult to the faith I can imagine. It would be like saying Superman is Mighty Mouse or saying James Bond is Maxwell Smart. You cannot mock someone by saying he is the thing invented as a mockery of him. (Or, you can, but the mockery lacks wit and penetration. It is just stupid.)

                    • Comment by Sean Michael:

                      Dear Mr. Wright:

                      I grant the points you made about Our Lord and vampirism. But, “Under St. Peter’s” was the first time I ever came across the idea of Christ as a vampire. And thus I still found this story and theme gravely offensive. To say nothing of how much it lowered my opinion of Turtledove.

                      Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      Oh, I have no doubt the tale is gravely offensive.

                      I did not mean to imply that it was not offensive. I only meant to point out that it is offensive AND unimaginative ergo stupid, because any educated person, and by that I mean a Christian (Leftists are not educated, they are indoctrinated) especially someone who read SFF, would know where the vampire myth came from (Catholic Eastern Europe) and what it was about vampires that made them creepy: Namely, that they perform the opposite of the Eucharist (they drink our blood rather than giving us theirs, and they steal life rather than give it).

                      I have no doubt it was meant to be gravely offensive. Mr Turtledove got a pathetic but sadistic thrill out of spitting in your face as a reader. That was his point.

                      Trampling the crucifix is the way the grayhaired adolescents of Political Correctness have of telling themselves they are progressive and brave. The PCist bully weak targets that will not fight back, such as Christians and Jews, and cower and fawn before Islam and Communism and anything that is a real threat.

                      The PCists operate by two principles: the unreality principle, which says that it is wise and brave to deny reality, and bold and progressive to believe in make-believe; and the slander principles, which says that they are our moral and mental superiors, and the way to prove this is by applauding sexual perversions and displaying childish and stupid sentimentality.

                      I merely sorry that Mr Turtledove is infected. I have not read the story. Perhaps he has only a mild case.

                      Michael Moorcock wrote a much more offensive story called BEHOLD THE MAN, where Our Lady is a whore and Our Lord a retarded bastard child, and a nebbish time traveler who crash-lands is accidentally is mistaken for Jesus, and his use of modern psychotheurapy to cure demonaics is mistaken for miracle cures, and medical students steal the body leading to the myth that he reincarnated after his crucifixion. Like most Jesus-was-a-fraud stories, it assumes everyone in First Century Palestine, and everyone but the writer and his pals, was a drooling halfwit and as gullible as, well, as a Moorcock.

                      Oh, and the incoherent snarling piece of vomited-up crap-log story won Nebula Award for best novella in 1967. Or maybe that was PISS CHRIST or THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

                    • Comment by Sean Michael:

                      Dear Mr. Wright:

                      Thank you for what amounted to a short and interesting essay about the ideas in the background of Mr. Turtledove’s “Under St. Peter’s.” I really should have thought of the points you made on what makes vampire stories creepy: their origin in Catholic Eastern Europe as the negative or reverse image of Christianity. And I agree with what you said are the principles (sic) which motivates anti Catholic writers.

                      I certainly hope Mr. Turtledove has only a mild case of this disease. There is enough which is good or interesting in his other work to make me hope so. Despite my disappointment at him for writing “Under St. Peter’s” to spit in the faces of readers like me.

                      It would be good if Mr. Turtledove sees this or similar comments and responds!

                      And what you said about Moorcock’s “Behold the Man” does not make me want to read it. Thanks!

                      Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

                    • Comment by Sean Michael:

                      Hi, Darrell:

                      I’ve been wondering if you saw my comments about Turtledove’s story “Under St. Peter’s” and Mr. Wright’s own remarks? I would be interested in knowing your own thoughts on this issue. But only if you are not too busy to comment!

                      Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

                    • Comment by Darrell:

                      Mr. Brooks

                      I’ve been wondering if you saw my comments about Turtledove’s story “Under St. Peter’s” and Mr. Wright’s own remarks? I would be interested in knowing your own thoughts on this issue. But only if you are not too busy to comment!

                      I’m hesitant to comment with any great specificity on either the Turtledove or Moorcock stories that were mentioned as I’ve read neither. I have read about BEHOLD THE MAN before this discussion and am slightly surprised that I didn’t read it when I was an atheist as it sounded (and sounds) exactly like the sort of “clever” twist that I would have been attracted to. As it stands today, I feel as if I’d find the novel deeply offensive and sacrilegious but I could be quite wrong on this. I say this because the tone and sense of authorial voice might impact my judgment — Roger Ebert described what I have in mind as, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

                      I have little sense that I’d find UNDER ST. PETER’S offensive because your description of it didn’t make it sound as if Turtledove was intentionally trying to be scornful of Christianity (while the converse is true of what I’ve read of BEHOLD) but was aiming for an ingenious twist on a trope but that strikes me as neither ingenious nor interesting. That said, I haven’t read either so my opinions aren’t particularly informed.

                      This discussion did cause me to reflect on the question of whether I have ever actually been morally offended by a work of fiction because my reflex was to say that I haven’t. I should probably elaborate. Just as I imagine that I would be morally offended by BEHOLD THE MAN, I imagine that I would be so offended by Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS or other novels or short stories that are inspired by the muse Scorn. But this is all an imaginative exercise because I haven’t seemed to have read any of them.

                      I’ve read many books (and not finished reading many more) that I thought were terrible — anything I’ve read by L. Ron Hubbard, a Magic: The Gathering novel I desperately tried to read on a trip once, ANGELS & DEMONS by Dan Brown (that he is a best selling author has to be some sort of elaborate joke), THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST by Robert Heinlein, etc. — but wasn’t morally offended by them. There are also a number of fiction authors that I have it on good authority to be quite excellent — Harry Turtledove, Dean Koontz, John le Carré, and George V. Higgins spring readily to mind — that I appear to be constitutionally unable to enjoy but I don’t find to be of any particular moral offense. In fact I can only think of one work of fiction that I am morally offended by and it is attributed as non-fiction. That book is Erich von Däniken’s CHARIOTS OF THE GODS.

                      Quite possibly more than any other cause, CHARIOTS led me to become an atheist. Not, as you might suspect, because I thought that it was true but because I had thought that it was true and felt that I was spectacularly duped when I found out that I’d been lied to. That I am quite possibly being unfair to Däniken does not in the slightest impact my sense of moral outrage this some thirty years later. My point, such as it is, is that only two things tend to morally or deeply offend me. Lies, which are somewhat difficult to effectively realize in fiction, and deliberate scorn — which most authors that are capable with their craft can at least place a coat or two of varnish on to obscure the ugliness of their intent.

                      By the bye, thank you for the Turtledove recommendation, I’ve placed it in my wish list for some future purchase. To pay in kind, I suggest without reservation THE GIFT by Patrick O’Leary — he wrote the, “Nobody Knows It But Me” poem read some years ago by James Garner for Chevrolet truck commercials.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      Hm. So he says he was writing his own version of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, just a tale about a man who tries to live Christ’s life.

                      Do you take Mr Moorcock at his word that he did not think portraying Our Lady as a whore and Our Lord as a retarded child, and having everything in the Gospels be a foolish mistake, was not meant to be offensive to Christians?

                      Or do you think by “not intended to be offensive” he means that he did not give a tinker’s damn whether we were offended or not, and he did not “intend” it because he never gave our honor a second’s thought?

                    • Comment by Darrell:

                      Mr. Wright

                      Aside from not being certain if it is really Mr. Moorcock, I’ve always assumed that the story (which, again, remains unread by me) was intended as being offensive. That, I again assumed, was part of its “charm” so to speak as the book sounds so overtly and over-the-top opprobrious how could it be intended as anything other?

                      I found it interesting that (again assuming the “reviewer” is in actuality Mr. Moorcock) he might not have intended, or foresaw, offense and that if he did that he’d be bothered to comment otherwise. It all seems at right angles to the character that I imagine Mr. Moorcock to have. It piques (there’s a word I imagine people spelling peaks or peeks ) my interest to read a foreword or background analysis for the story.

                      I am somewhat loathe to attribute authorial motives to, especially, works of fiction as I think you yourself on occasion noted when people attempt to psychoanalyze you via your fiction that they often fall short of the mark. Still, I can’t see myself seeking out to read this novel in the near to mid future as there is so much out there that has value and I have so little time.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      I am hoping that I am not saying anything about the author’s intent. The book is objectively offensive to the honor of Christians, a blasphemy.

                      I would be willing to believe an author of such a work if he told me he was merely thoughtlessly callous and contemptuous of Christianity rather than actively filled with malice and hatred. I would believe, because sin blinds us to the obvious, he had used his considerable intelligence to make himself stupid in this one area. That is the way sin works, which is why the smart people are usually not just stupid but overwhelmingly, blindingly, jaw-droppingly stupid when it comes to matters where they are trying to suppress their conscience and their good sense.

                      The atheists who really deeply hate Christianity often end up converting. The lukewarm who are merely indifferent and filled with contempt for Christianity don’t have enough spirit to convert their spirits.

        • Comment by The OFloinn:

          The time travelers were South Africans, not Soviets.

          Harry also wrote How Few Remain, in which a Confederate courier does not lose Lee’s general orders and so McClellan loses to Lee’s invasion of the north. Lee takes Philadelphia and dictates a peace and (fast forward) a second war breaks out in the 1880s between the USA and the CSA.

          In “Quaestiones super caelo et mundi,” I used the fortuitous discovery of John Philoponus’ commentary on Aristotle’s physics by the translator Gerard of Cremona, which sets up an earlier skepticism of Aristotelian physics and a scientific revolution in the early 1300s.

          In “The Iron Shirts,” I had the Paleoindians domesticate the horse instead of exterminating it, enabling a shipload of them to find their way to Ireland in 1224.

          In “Lee at the Alamo,” Lee is still in charge of the Dept. of Texas when the secessionists press their demands that he turn over the arsenal to them. Lee resists.

          Poul Anderson’s “In the House of Sorrows” takes place in a world in which the Jews disappeared from history during the Babylonian Captivity.

          • Comment by David_Marcoe:

            I played around with a scenario of having the Library of Alexandria survive Caesar’s fighting in Egypt, to be transported to Constantinople when Constantine came to power, along with the Library of Caesarea, leading to the development of universities centuries earlier.

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              It would also have to survive plenty of other fires. The Museum itself perished in the wars of reunification, when Aurelian took Alexandria from Zenobia of Palmyra. The entire palace district was razed by fire. Then there was a notorious tidal wave that scoured the spit on which the town was then located. In fact, there is no present-tense evidence of the Royal Library’s existence after the reign of Ptolemy Physkon. The scholars had sided with his rivals in the civil war and were purged following the victory, fleeing (with the books) to Athens and elsewhere.

              • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

                That one rich Roman general guy’s library was better, anyway. And it was open to the public (or at least, to any of the public in the resort town where he lived, or any guest at his mansion). He had original mss of the great philosophers, partly by buying and partly by acquiring the library of some Persian king….

                Ack! Totally losing the guy’s name.

              • Comment by David_Marcoe:

                Just read “Quaestiones super caelo et mundi” (or “Quaestiones Super Caelo Et Mundo”…at least that’s the title Analog has on their website). Have you considered spinning it out into a series? It would be a perfect excuse to have something like a space-faring order of knights, as a kind of Catholic, chivalric version of Starfleet. Seems to me that it’s pregnant with potential.
                To add: A space-faring Ottoman Empire might make the perfect rivals. I don’t know how you would handle the Reformation, but the divergences in philosophical and theological history might be enough justification to have it not happen.

              • Comment by David_Marcoe:

                I read “Quaestiones super caelo et mundi” (or rather “Quaestiones super caelo et mundo”…at least that’s what Analog has on their site as the title). Have you considered spinning out into a series. I was just thinking of the potential. It would a perfect excuse to have a space-faring order of knights, a kind of chivalric version of Starfleet. And the Ottomans might make a good space-faring rival. I don’t know how you would handle the Reformation, but you might be able to justify it not happening with divergences in theological and philosophical history.

  9. Comment by johnmc:

    Where does Terry Pratchett fit in?

  10. Comment by Curubethion:

    I might note that your idea of Oriental Fantasy rather corresponds, at bare minimum, to the films of Hayao Miyazaki; his entire philosophy is, after all, very much about a “return to balance”. I haven’t read much that the Far East puts out in fantasy (for instance, the original book behind Howl’s Moving Castle), but I figure there should be some of it out there. It doesn’t seem to have taken much root in the West, though.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I should have called it “Taoist Fantasy” because nothing in Buddhism nor Hinduism strikes me as being in the mood or the world view of LeGuin’s Earthsea, and certainly it is not Confucian, which is rather legalistic and rigid. The ‘glebbeth’ or shadow-version of Sparrowhawk, born of his pride, in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA is reconciled and reabsorbed, not overcome. Again, I could have called it “Esoteric Fantasy” and contrasted it with the “Exoteric Fantasy” of Tolkien and Robert E Howard.

  11. Comment by Dirigibletrance:

    I wouldn’t skip over the 90s, aughts, and 20-teens (the current time). You named yourself part of the same movement that characterized that era: “New Space Opera.” There’s been load of Space Opera, and military Sci-Fi in general, published over the last two decades. Jack Campbell, Harry Turtledove, Elizabeth Moon, and David Drake crank them out all the time, and they fly off shelves. Even very thoughtful authors like Karl Schroeder have found that they enjoy (and sell more of) this sort of fiction. There’s also the countless Warhammer 40k novels, which despite originally being a tie-in franchise meant to sell more copies of a board game, have instead taken on an a life of their own. You could also refer to the latter as “New Space Pulp”, as it’s main goal seems to be to take the reader on a wild, chaotic, frightening roller coaster ride of combat and explosions and bizarre alien monsters in each book.

    I also think you cannot ignore the impact that interactive media has had on the Scifi genre and increasing it’s popularity and general public awareness of it. Just take a look at Mass Effect, for example. I can’t go into public wearing my N7 Jacket without getting commented on it multiple times, or having strangers address me as “Commander” without prompting.

    By the way, you should get one of those and try that some time. It’s quite fun.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      When I said you know more about it than I, I was not kidding nor putting on a false air of humility. I have not read a single book by any of those authors, even though ‘Jack Campbell’ (not his real name) is a friend of mine — I promise myself I must read his books, and buy them to help him out. I have never played Mass Effect.

      I have books to write and I have a day job and a family, not to mention a blog. It takes me a month to read a short novel it used to take me half an afternoon, back in the unhappy days when I had no novels to write, no job to do, and no family to raise.

      So, I should ask you: what is the ‘viewpoint’ or unspoken philosophy behind the New Military SF movement? The new pulp? Is it a return to the carefree days of the old pulps?

      • Comment by David_Marcoe:

        With Drake, at least, a lot of his stuff features stories about burden of empire or libertarian-flavored critiques of the Left. Harry Turtledove probably leans toward the libertarian end of the spectrum, in the Heinlein band somewhere. Elizabeth Moon is probably a fair bit like Drake. I haven’t read her sci-fi, but her fantasy is vanilla good-versus-evil and solidly written. Don’t know about Campbell. Mass Effect was a riff on 80s sci-fi. Philosophically, it’s a mixture of Victorian, Golden Age, and Cyberpunk, with a large dose of PC. To those who haven’t played it, it’s a game best known for its blue space lesbians.

        • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

          Actually the game is best known for telling an epic, galaxy spanning story in which you save mankind from annihilation at the hands of ancient god-machines, while commanding a crew of some of the best and brightest officers to be found anywhere. The “space lesbians” bit is such a tiny part of the game (and entirely optional, you cannot even access it unless you follow a particular conversation path) that it’s not even worth mentioning.

          It also never felt very PC to me. The Reapers are unequivocally monsters, they have no redeeming qualities and nobody tries to portray them in any kind of sympathetic light whatsoever.

        • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

          For some reason, I seem to be unable to reply to this comment. Or at least, the replies are not displaying after I post them.

          Regardless, though, I think you are incorrect in your assessment of what Mass Effect is most known for. It’s known for being an epic, galaxy-spanning space opera in which you save mankind from destruction by ancient god-machines.

          • Comment by David_Marcoe:

            Qualifying clause. ——–> “To those who haven’t played it…”

            What you’re recounting is how many who have played the game series felt about it, but a lot of people didn’t play it. I played all three games multiple times and even I wouldn’t praise it that highly. There are lines of dialogue that made me cringe and philosophical turns that were just boneheaded. I think the narrative meandered where it didn’t have to and zigged where it should’ve zagged. It’s far from a bad series, with some real high points, but it doesn’t rank among the sci-fi greats.

            • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

              Neither do most, or any, of the Space Opera/Military Sci-Fi that’s been published in the last few decades. But still, it’s part of that movement and it’s quality entertainment. Like the other works during this same recent period, it’s mostly free of the sort of heavy-handed preaching that characterized Scifi during previous years, something that I’m grateful for.

              A good story should be a good story, it annoys me when it’s used as a vehicle to send some kind of political message.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            Please be patient. Comments are held for moderation. I work two jobs and have a family. Do not expect me to clean my spam filter more than once a day.

      • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

        Much of it seems focused on adventure. Calling it new pulp wouldn’t be a bad descriptor. Most of the conflicts in it are pretty recognizable good vs evil. The kind of cynical deconstructionism you would have found in earlier decades is largely absent, or when present, reduced to a mere footnote.

      • Comment by Mary:

        His real name, for the curious, is John Hemry. If you find the Stark and the Paul Sinclair books he wrote under it in the bookstore now, you will notice that they now have “Jack Campbell” on the cover, too. (They’ve been reissued.)

  12. Comment by LorenzoCanuck:

    I am wondering how C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy fits into your schema, though understandably the series defies easy characterization.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Interesting question. Someone else asked it as well, so I will add a paragraph to the essay to explain: The first two volumes CS Lewis’ planetary trilogy (OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA) is a rebuttal to Wells, specifically to FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and to THE TIME MACHINE, in the same way that Arthur C Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END is a rebuttal to Lewis. They all take place within what I call the Victorian movement (which, unfortunately, is a very misleading term). Lewis and Wells and Stabledon and Clarke contemplate the ultimate end of man in a fashion that the more pragmatic Asimov and Heinlein (see below) never do. The Victorians all place emphasis on the scope of what the scientific world shows: that man is a small thing indeed. For Wells, that is a source of ironic despair, whereas for Lewis, a source of Christian humility and even joy, and for Clarke, a combination of the despair and joy which I regard as akin to Gnosticism. I should mention that Olaf Stapledon’s DARKNESS AND LIGHT ends the same Gnostic way as CHILDHOOD END does, with evolution creating a nonhuman yet superhuman creature to replace man, as if that is a happy rather than tragic fate for humanity. (I place THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH by Lewis in a different category; it is more akin to Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR than anything else.)

  13. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    Theodore Sturgeon would seem to have been one of the Pastoralists. I would add Simak, but he CREEPS ME OUT, and only looks kinder and gentler and pastoral-er from a distance.

    I think one should draw a line between true Elf Punk/urban fantasy and paranormal romance/urban fantasy, because romantic love and unromantic sex take a much bigger role in the latter than the former. Also the latter tends to believe that consenting adults should discard their brains and common sense before getting up in the morning.

  14. Comment by Carbonel:

    Just a quick point of order: Lovely essay, and will need to think about it more. Until then you might want to edit the graph that begins “Imaginative worlds can make the metaphysics a contrast with our own, or make concrete there what is merely metaphorical there.” so as to change the final “there” to here. Next, the graph that begins “If these two hunches are correct, this implies…” so that you insert a “but” after “natural life” viz: “not of live in the material sense … but the higher life, etc.”

    Two critical paragraphs, it seems: one doesn’t like to obscure the sense.

  15. Comment by Carbonel:

    A higher realisty: How about High House for fantasy or many of Cordwainer Smith’s short stories for SF, such as “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”? Also anything by Madeline L’engle in any genre whether soap opera (A Live Coal in the Sea) or SF (A Wrinkle In Time)? Other authors that come to mind (but I’m not sure if they fit your schema are Joy Chant, Nicholas Stuart Grey (short stories) and some of the Zilpha Keatly Snyder books.

    In my salad days I called these the “magic” books, because: they cast a kind of spell on the spirit so that one wanted nothing so much as to turn around and read them again immediately, no other book seemed worth reading afterward, and the world “outside” the story seemed new (and yet familiar) and strange. I don’t know if the phenomenon was a function of childhood, as that type of story seems very rare now, or if it’s just that the schools of education and the venues of popular media storytelling (T.V., books, movies, etc.) have worked so tirelessly to stamp out anything that might taste of Heaven.

    Oh–and add to the Pastorals Suzette Hadin Elgin (in both SF and fantasy, though her fantasy, in the end, turned out to be SF in disguise, like the old Nightlands Game. ), Sylvia Engdahl, A.M. Lightner and quite a bit of Andre Norton (again both in SF and fantasy). I never had a name for “the kind of SF I liked as a teenage girl,” but the category did exist and I still sort for it now

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I would have added ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS to the Pastoral group had I thought of Sylvia Engdahl.

      Cordwainer Smith and HIGH HOUSE certain have a eye toward a higher reality, and that sets them apart from the space operas and elf operas around them.

  16. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    The Pastoral Age (…)

    You might think it odd I can think of not a single male writer who wrote in this movement

    Iain Banks, perhaps, with his novels of the Culture? Admittedly he tends to concentrate on what happens when the anarchic post-materialist utopia is forced to go to war, but then again le Guin also sets her tales of Earthsea in times of upheaval and chaos, when the power of Roke has been broken and there is no king in Hafnor. Also perhaps Poul Anderson! Not as the mainstay of his prodigious output; but one of his methods was to take some particular planet of his Terran Empire and give it a peculiar culture for his protagonist to figure out, react against, or otherwise interact with. Usually he portrayed such a culture sympathetically. The one I’m particularly thinking of, whose name escapes me at the moment, has an anarchically individualist and apparently low-technology culture fighting a city-based, industrial one, with the Merseians meddling because the industries might form a naval base on an important border march. So the protagonist, an agent of the Empire (not Flandry, which perhaps is why I cannot track the story down) ought to be sympathetic to the industrialists. In fact he ends up engineering a victory for the forest people. He dealt less sympathetically with the same theme in “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, and ambivalently in his stories of the Maurai.

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      Hi, Dr. Andreassen:

      As the resident Poul Anderson geek, I can supply answers to what you are trying to remember. The story you have in mind is “Outpost of Empire,” and the chief viewpoint character is a scholar and “xenologist” named John Ridenour. And, actually, he has sympathy for both of the cultures on the planet Freehold. The fact that Freehold is a relatively metal poor world meant that when the industrially based infrastructure of the city based culture was destroyed by the non industrially based culture made it too costly to attempt rebuilding. Ridenour’s role was to find the basics of a settlement tolerable to the Empire, the “anarchic” culture and what was left of the old city based system on Freehold.

      Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I have only read one book by Banks, and I would say it glorified technology with a “New Space Opera” feel to it, rather than have every live in the woods at one with nature. The Ringworlds (note the plural) of anarchist socialists ruled by godlike supermachines did not remind me of the anarchist socialists of, say, THE DISPOSSESSED, who were more countrified. So the political outlook was the same, but there is an haunting note of mysticism in something like FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS or LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS which I do not see in Mr Banks.

      Indeed, if I may be so foolish as to extrapolate an opinion based on merely his one book I’ve read, I am tempted to say he is as unmystical and rigorously doctrinaire as Ayn Rand, even though his are the opposite doctrines.

  17. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    so what is science fiction? What is fantasy?

    Increasingly, “fantasy” is what is crowding out the shelves labeled “science fiction” at my bookstore and library, to my near despair.

    I dropped a forty year membership in the inaccurately named “Science Fiction Book Club” due to the onslaught of vampire and zombie drivel, pathetic “Elf Opera” (I absolutely love that coinage) written by Tolkien and Peake wannabes, and the nonstop churn of TV and movie spinoff books.

    Thank you for allowing me to get this off my chest.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Well, I also write fantasy, but I have yet to write an Elf Opera. I tend to copy Jack Vance and Roger Zelazny and John Crowley and Lovecraft in my approach to fantasy (and I wish I could copy Gene Wolfe) and I leave pseudo medieval and Beowulfian quest epics to others. I will no doubt someday try my hand at it. Every author wants to try to write everything at least once.

      I was in the bookstore for a booksigning last week. Mine was the only book on the SF bookshelf, the only one I could see, that had a honest-to-gernsbeck SPACESHIP on the cover. What has happened to our beloved readers of our beloved Space Operas and Hard SF? They flee from us! They flee!

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Dear Mr. Wright:

        Don’t despair! You can sometimes still find books with spaceships on the covers in the SF section at bookstores! The 50th Anniversary reprint of Poul Anderson’s THE HIGH CRUSADE shows Baron Roger and some of his men at arms looking hard at a new landed spaceship (at the Barnes and Noble I go to).

        And, btw, I got a copy of your book THE HERMETIC MILLENNIA. I plan to read it after I finish Poul Anderson’s mystery novel MURDER IN BLACK LETTER. The man was a genius–Anderson seems to have tried his hand writing in EVERY genre.

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  18. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    Most of what I really dislike appears to be the end product of a sort of Fantasy Mad Lib.

    “Young Rufus, a (menial job title) in the small village of Kumquat, learns that (he or she) is actually of the bloodline of the (plural title of nobility) of Sylvania.”

    “Under the tutelage of the elderly Zeppo, a wandering master of (magical job skill), (he or she as above) learns the arts of (magical job skill) and (medieval combat skill) and begins the search for the lost (medieval weapon) of (name of a virtue), in order to defeat the (negative adjective) and (negative adjective) (title of nobility) Trentino and bring (name of a civic virtue) back to the land.”

    “Volume one of a series of (cardinal number from three to six).”

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