Science Fiction: What is it good for?

I was watching DAS RHEINGOLD by Wagner with my children, seeing the dark elfs and bright gods and lumbering giants and lambent nixies all conspiring to possess to posses and fearing the Ring of the Nibelungs, and lusting for the beauty of love and the glory of power; and I came to wonder what good science fiction and fantasy served.

Loki in the Underworld

Loki in the Underworld

One thing no science fiction writer inventing any future predicted was the future where science fiction replaced the mainstream literature.

It was foreseeable—mainstream fiction, after all, was never mainstream. So called mainstream literature is a modern and recent invention, and was meant to appeal only to a limited audience of limited taste, an audience with an artificially cramped and narrow view of reality. In the same way time casts down tall towers and crumbles empires to dust, so too it throws down artifices.

One of the artificial things that happened was that the literary mainstream decreed, as a matter of dogma, that matters fantastic and wonderful, the doings of saints and demigods and their wars with demons and dragons, and anything that smelled like Elfland, or even like adventureland, would be banished.

There would be no more flights to the moon on hippogriff-back, nor faces that launched a thousand ships, nor witches who turn sailors to swine, nor voyages to the land of the dead, nor wrestling-matches with man-eating Grendel, nor swords upheld from the bosom of the lake by arms clad in shimmering samite, nor three weird sisters prophesying the doom of kings.

And the matter of science fiction, Martian invasions and time machines and invisible men was exiled from highbrow literature. It is telling to note that this degree of exile fell during the years when the most daring prophecies of Jules Verne and his fantastic machines that swam beneath the sea or thundered through the air were just beginning to come true.

Human nature, for better or worse, always eventually comes to the fore again. And human nature likes and needs stories that are stories.

The artifice of exiling the fantastic in literature cuts against the nature both of story teller and story lover, since stories by their nature are nursery tales, concerned with simple moral truths and talking animals: and only as they develop do tales take on other tasks, such as to glorify heroes, and keep alive the memories of our forefathers and their deeds, and to celebrate the blessings bestowed on one’s people, tribe, and nation, and express wonder and gratitude for the gift of living in this gorgeous and dangerous world.

Does it strike you as odd, perhaps even insane, to hear the duty of a teller of tales described in this fashion? When is the last time you heard a story that told a simple moral truth, or even that took place in a universe where moral truths were true? When is the last time you heard a fiction that glorified Washington, or Jefferson, or Adams, rather than deconstructed them? When is the last time the wonder of the universe was the subject of a passage in a story or poem you read?

It is almost as if the tellers of tales think their duties is not to these things, but to undermine, question, satirize, mock and subvert these things. It is as if the tellers of modern takes think their duty is to unnerve the audience, unsettle tradition, and overthrow the American way of life, Christian faith and Western love of reason.

I will not dwell on this particular point further: you have perhaps yourself heard tellers of tales expressly say that their purpose is subversion. They cast themselves in the role of playing the Socratic gadfly, to sting the complaisant into questioning their values. But Socrates questioned things to learn the truth of things, that he might live the examined life, that he might know himself. And men who hold all truth to be relative, or to be a fable meant to uphold an unjust social order, have no purpose to their questions, except to erode the world.

Let us turn to the question of when and why this wrong turn happened. Others have written on this topic more fully than can I. I will mention only in brief that it became the fashion—and it was only the fashion of a season, not an irrevocable evolution as  claimed—to write and read stories about quotidian things, about drunks and adulterers and ordinary people suffering ordinary problems.

From the pages of glossy magazines were banished all pirate gold and secret passageways and secret societies run by masterminds called the Napoleon of Crime. The evil instead was quotidian, the treachery of philandering husbands or crooked businessmen, not the plundering of drug-maddened Voodoo cultists or berserk Vikings or the hordes of Tamerlane.  The good was quotidian as well, the bravery of farmers or housewives or clerks facing poverty or social injustice, and not the bold and chivalrous acts of a Paladin of Charlemagne or a lone Texas Ranger facing paynims or outlaws or painted savages.

Unromance was the order of the day: ordinary events happening to ordinary people, usually without much plot. You need drama to have plot, and drama requires the bold clash of starkest black and brightest white, heroes and villains both larger than life. When the emphasis is on realism, or what is called realism, the three-act structure of a plot, the setup and climax and resolution, begins to seem artificial. And in a world where there is no good and evil, and nothing worth fighting for, there is insufficient tension to have a satisfactory plot.

With no other occupation for their genius, the story teller of the storyless story then concentrates merely on technique, on wit, on telling of ordinary events, the tedium and small betrayals of ordinary life, with as much verbal pyrotechnics as possible, layers of allusion, riddles of words and unexpected contrasts of metaphor, or experimental techniques, such as writing without punctuation marks. And so step by step we descend into the plotless purgatory of works like ULYSSES by James Joyce.

Obviously no one of sound taste enjoys reading such a book. Its appeal is to those rare and sick minds that vomit up wholesome fare, who hate fairy tales and police dramas and love stories and Westerns and historical pageants. The sickness is a rejection, through ennui, of all that is romantic and splendid and heavenly and hellish and dramatic and grandiose and sublime both in this world and the next.

The mind that says the quotidian is all that there is or all that is worthwhile shies back from greater worlds. He is not seeking grandeur in everyday things (for that grandeur indeed is there, if you know how to seek it); he is seeking a darkness to destroy the grandeur. He seeks to strangle laughter with a sneer. Can anyone recall a single joke, simple and goodnatured, not an irony and not a witticism, appearing in ULYSSES?

Such was the mainstream. But notice, please, the earliest limit on what is rightly called mainstream. DAS RHEINGOLD by Wagner, if written these days, with its fables of pagan gods and giants, abominable gnomes and mercurial mermaids, would be accepted only by the science fiction and fantasy publishers, not by the prestigious mainstream printing houses.

The romances of Jane Austen and Margaret Mitchell may perhaps, if we stretch a point, be considered mainstream, but by their emphasis on the follies of love or the manners of the rich, or the tumult of war and its aftermath, the mood and tone is certainly antithetical to the realism beloved of this narrow school of writing I decry as mainstream. Romances belong in the popular mainstream, which is a different (albeit connected) stream from the literary mainstream.

I propose that the earliest writer properly called mainstream in both the popular and literary sense was Charles Dickens: and yet his earliest book, and the best remembered title is his A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which is a ghost story as much as is HAMLET, and a time travel story as much as anything by H.G. Wells. So even at this late date in history, the realistic and the fantastic were still Siamese Twins, two parts of the same body.

Notice that everything before that time, the work of Shakespeare and Dante and Milton and Aristophanes and Euripides and Homer and everything in between was not mainstream, or, rather, there was nothing outside the mainstream. Shakespeare would write about magicians like Prospero as easily as about kings like Richard or braggarts like Toby Belch. Aeschylus could write about Prometheus the titan as easily as about Cassandra the slave-girl. There simply was no division or demarcation between so called realistic and fantastic stories. All stories were realistic; all stories were fantastic.

What, then, was it that formed what we now call the mainstream? I say it was the Great War. The First World War crippled something in the consciousness of Europe, and in the intellect of the European Intellectuals, and our envious intellectuals in America, seeking for some reason approval from the genius of Europe which we fled here to avoid, followed along like dogs chasing a parade wagon.

I suggest that the mainstream was not a philosophy, but a feeling or a fashion, that is, an emotional stance that was never put into words. It was a deliberate rejection at first of only the openly fantastic things, dragons and invaders from Mars; then next it was a rejection of the things that are fantastic but which some people take as real, such as ghosts or the sunken continent of Atlantis; and finally a rejection of those things which are fantastic and wonderful in real life, the heroism of ordinary men, the saintliness of ordinary women, not one of whom is truly ordinary.

Not just men died in the Great War, but an entire social and political system, and, more importantly, a spirit of the nations, a vision and view of life which was their animating principle. Before the Great War, they believed in ideals like nobility and tradition, in the private ownership of property and the duty to serve the public weal. They believed in virgin maidens and faithful wives. They believed in private modesty as well as public pomp, kings and queens arrayed in gold and purple. They believed in the captains of industry and the captains of war, the silk hats and the tin hats.

Now, if you are a child of the modern age, you are already hearing a voice in your ear, whispering: that the Victorians did not actually believe in chastity, since they had more whores per squire mile of London than any era before or since. That nobility is merely the rich grinding the faces of the poor. That pomp is vanity. That industry is plutocracy. That war is hell, and Colonels are devils in hell. And on and on.

Did you hear it? I would be surprised if you did not. It is in the air we breathe, it is part of our unspoken cultural assumptions. It is the effluvia that rises like a mist from the words and idea of the mainstream literature, movies and songs and media in which we are immersed and drenched. It is the voice of accusation. It is the voice is division. It is the sneer of scorn.

The fundamental idea that died in the Great War was the idea of Christianity. That was when God actually died in the soul of European history. By the end of the Second World War, which was actually the second round of the same war, God and His law no longer had the majority influence in shaping the laws and institutions of the Europeans. They thought about other considerations first.

Let me be clear: these ideas were decades older than the Great War. That war was only the final point of no return, the point at which the ever steeper drop of the slope into darkness became a brink.

The attacks against the concept of the divine was as old as Lucretius, as old as Eden. But in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century these crackpot notions gained respectability, slowly won over the intellectuals, who lured the rest of society toward their simplistically elegant and simply wrong notions.

So, the artistic world is nothing but the concrete images that make real and solid the emotional and spiritual atmosphere of the age. The artistic world lost faith in romance and grandeur and adventure during and after the Great War because it lost faith in God.

The barren and roaring chaos of the universe presented to the imagination of him who regards God as myth is void and sad, filled with mindless violence and meaningless pain, and the Great War was as sad and meaningless, as truly horrible as any even in history.

This world view is not even tragic. Tragedy is cathartic. The empty events, the impact of dinosaur-killing asteroids, the broken legs of monuments of Ozymandias found in antiques lands, the sheer emptiness of the blind star-gulfs overhead where our ancestors thought the angels danced—all life in such a world is merely meaningless, a grain of dust lost in a desiccated desert.

So a movement started to expunge the gold and purple, the glory and the nobility, the gaiety and wonder, and most of all the miracles from art and literature.

No more paintings of the Creation on the Sistine Chapel; instead we have paintings of cans of Campbell’s’ soup cans. No more dragons nor knights, no more pre-Raphealites.  Instead, we have Picasso, and scrawls a baboon could make by ingesting paint, and splashing out colors by flinging his poop.

Ghosts and supernatural evils were, naturally, harder to expunge, since they are more in line with the emotional makeup of the empty and godless universe. Supernatural horrors are in keeping with the horrors of discovering life to be meaningless and love to be a sour joke: writers like Edgar Allan Poe, despite his connection to popular genres of detective and horror tales, retained his respectable place among in the eyes of the self appointed guardians of literature.

The mainstream maintained itself artificially. Whenever a book that started as a mainstream novel, such as, let us say, GONE WITH THE WIND or CASINO ROYALE, which had the fire of romance or intrigue, adventures in times long gone or in exotic locales across the sea, if its more fantastic and romantic elements caught the public imagination and other writers began writing in the same background, the novels were thereafter considered “genre” novel, love-stories or spy thrillers, and no longer of interest to the literati.

Science fiction preserved the exiled creatures of the fantastic through these dry years. Science fiction rather cleverly exploits a loophole in the whole worldview that rejects the supernatural. The loophole is that wonder still persists in the unknown, which includes other planets and future advancements. And where there is wonder, and where there is the unknown, the gods and giants and abominable dwarves can make their appearance again, disguised perhaps as Morlocks or Martians or Monolith-builders, higher power and lower monsters. And even, thanks to Anne McCaffrey  and E.E. Doc Smith, dragons can return once more, disguised as extraterrestrials from Pern or from the haunted planet Velantia.

Fantasy made a slower come-back, and at first even science fiction readers were wary of it. There were a number of fantasy worlds with all the tropes and props of medievalism and the supernatural, but set in space with the magic called psionics to give it the glamor of scientific respectability.

After Tolkien, fantasy slowly but steadily re-conquered the territory that the mainstream had usurped. Look at the top ten best selling movies of recent years, and odds are that eight or nine of them out of ten will be movies with some fantastic or supernatural element, from WIZARD OF OZ to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to STAR WARS to SUPERMAN to AVATAR.

When persons known for their allegiance to the self-anointed elite, pundits and pedants and the President of the United States, can make casual references to Jedi mind-powers or the One Ring from Mordor, then space opera and fantasy epic have sunk into the marrow bones of the popular imagination. When books that, in my day, a schoolboy would be chastised for bringing to class are now required textbook reading, and when South American writers can write science fiction and fantasy and have it be smuggled into the literary establishment by being called ‘magical realism’ — well, at that point, it is not premature to read the eulogy of the narrow literate fashion of the mainstream.

The term of exile is over.

Mainstream writers can write once again about fantastic things: love affairs with vampire, let us say, or science fiction dystopias who slay the children of the rural underclass in annual gladiatorial games.

STAR WARS, more than any one single cause, brought science fiction out of its ghetto and into the public eye. Now note this irony: since before the days of Michael Moorcock’s ‘New Wave’ of science fiction, writers of sciffy yearned for the aura of respectability surrounding the European literati and their New York epigones, the subversive and experimental writers who concentrated on style and ignored storytelling.

In order to play their guitars of seduction before the moonlit windows of the proud fair maidens of the elite, the envious science fictioneers attempting to play the songs that found favor in their ears. The attempt was doomed from the start, because the thing the elite disliked in the science fiction field was the field itself, that is, the sense of wonder, the belief in the future, the love of the fantastic, the glory of utopia and the horror of dystopia.

So it was not the adopted of the tropes of high literary style into our humble craft of telling stories about space princesses being rescued by loveable space rogues and poor but honest space farmboys who grow into space knights with Way Cool mind-powers, no.  It was a film, deliberately made to echo and glorify the most lowbrow and popular elements of that least literate branches of sci-fi, namely, the Buck Rogers style space opera, which enamored the public with a tale about a space princesses being rescued by loveable space rogue and poor but honest space farmboy who grows into a space knight with Way Cool mind-powers. The mountain, so to speak, came to us.

There were other factors, to be sure. With the flop of the Soviet Union, the elite’s dream about heaven on earth lost most of its magnetic and mesmeric force. There was also an inherent logical contradiction build into the nasty and narrow fashion of unfantastic fiction, because the same worldview which subverted all authority from God in heaven to the cop on the street corner, subverted the cause of virtue by enabling and magnifying the cult of the youth. Impulsive action, provided it was “authentic” or heartfelt, was glorified above self discipline, and the energy of youth was glorified above the justice and prudence and courage and temperance of age. Unfortunately for the cause of the unfantastic in fiction, youth is as naturally allured to the fantastic as they are to the idealistic.

They grew up continuing to like childish things, superheroes and space opera, and did not put their childish things away the they elite would have wanted. They continues to feast on tales of heroes: the childish things were also the noble things.

Young men want noble things, to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress, to help widows and orphans and win glory. Young women want even nobler things, to be rescued by a handsome prince on a white charger with a heart of fearless gold and a sword of peerless fire. And they want to win the kind of men who win glory.

Many a young man these days, poisoned by the venom of envy called feminism will deny this, and even more young woman. Then the men will go out and read paperbacks about spies or special forces officers who do what knights do, and the women go out and read paperbacks about heiresses kept as wards by scheming guardians who need to be rescued by brooding yet stalwart young barons.

It may inconvenient to the pretenses on which the modern unfantastical literary fashion is based to say that people like things that they have always liked in stories. But human nature will out.  For good or ill, for fair or foul, human nature will out.

And the young men (it was more men than women) found the principalities and the principles they sought in science fiction. And the young women (it was more women than men) found the princesses they sought in the field of fantasy.

The literary are still aghast at the popularity of authors like Robert Heinlein and Anne McCaffrey But he fed the imagination of the young, and told them how to be good rebels and statesmen in the American Revolution on the Moon, or how to be good citizens and soldiers and good starship troopers, or how to be naughty little messiahs from Mars and get all the girls. And she fed the imagination with the simple and simply satisfying formula of retelling the Cinderella fable over and over again, about the overlooked and ignored young heroine who grows into her greatness. Heinlein and McCaffrey appealed to the reader’s human nature.

Anyone who is unimpressed with sneering atheism will be unimpressed by the famous science fiction works by Margaret Atwood or the fantasy of Phillip Pullman and those of their ilk. Pullman was as blasphemous as Heinlein in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, but not as funny, and the ending of HIS DARK MATERIALS was dark indeed and unsatisfying (Pullman’s hero and heroine end up parted by a law of nature invented at the last minute by a lazy author, which decrees that persons of different earths in the multiverse sicken and die if they immigrate).

It is the kind of thing one reads when a surfeit of happy endings leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and you need a swish of pagan vinegar to wash out all that Christian saccharine endemic to Western civilization. Everyone likes a vacation from happiness occasionally, I suppose.

But the miserable and empty universe of the pagans after the Gotterdammerung has slain the cruel but noble gods is a nice place to visit, but not place to set up a household and raise your kids.

The artistic images of the emotional world of the unfantastic fashion is like the melancholic world of the pagans, where fate is deadly and there is no escape, no, not even swift Achilles can outrun his doom, but without the bravery of a Conan who gaily curses great Crom, his god, even while praying to him, and without the dignity of a Horatio who proclaims the sweetness and decorum of dying for the ashes of one’s fathers and the altars of one’s gods.

Gods are as despised as fathers in the one-dimensional world of unfantasy, and nothing is worse than death, simply because the mindless biological process known as life is the only life that there is.

To live in a universe-sized concentration camp ruled by rough tyrants like Zeus and Crom is bad enough. To live in a universe-sized coffin without even a tyrant god as a tormentor is unimaginable.

And, to be sure, those who live in such universes do their best to banish the imagination from their stories, and to write make believe only about beliefs that require no making: fictional versions of newspapers and diaries.

The majority of human history and the three-dimension of human nature, spiritual as well as mental and physical, are lost on writers who are one-dimensional.

Lest I be misunderstood, or accused of overweening pride, let me hasten to say that Atwood and Pullman are admittedly skilled and worthy of the awards and plaudits they have won. This does not mean they are broad in their choice of subject and approaches. An artist can draw a picture of the rotting skull of a dead dog on a dungheap with maggots and blind worms crawling on its exposed brains with perfect perspective, shading, composition, and balance of light and dark , and yet it is still a picture of a dead dog.

Writers like Pullman and Atwood are like Mr A Square of Flatland. The spiritual and philosophical dimensions of reality are closed to them.

(Yes, I say these allegedly philosophically deep authors lack philosophy if they lack knowledge of the spirit. Philosophy without theology is a word game for bored schoolboys like Wittgenstein and for dull eyed egomaniacs like Nietzsche, not a method to tell men how to live and how to die; the modern attempts to draw out the implications of such philosophies have ended in paradox and pettifoggery, and have drawn modern philosophy into well merited contempt.)

Very well: let us now take it as given that science fiction is in the mainstream again, and fantasy writers like Tolkien occupy the high position once held by Wagner and Shakespeare and other writers who touches on fantastic things, or put gods or ghosts, Alberich or Caliban without a blush into their tales.

What now? Whither goes the future of science fiction and fantasy? What is it for? What purpose does it serve?

We know what purpose removing imaginative and fantastic elements from literature served: it was for the admitted purpose of subversion, to denigrate Western Civilization, which is another name for that energetic, frantic, and progress-loving and reason-loving civilization issuing from Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East which is animated by the spirit of the Christian Church, and which dies without it.

Are you surprised, O reader, to hear me call Christianity the spirit and soul of reason and progress? The words have been successfully subverted to refer to their mere opposites. Contrast, if you will, the gaiety and boldness of a civilization that eliminated the slave trade worldwide, despite the economic loss involved, with the grinding passivity of civilizations like those of Imperial China or caste-based India or the tyrannies of the Aztecs and Mayans, where the soul is scraped clean of hope, faith, and charity by a view of the world which promises an endless wheel of eternal reincarnations, without a creation, without a cessation.

Now imagine that same hopelessness without even the inhuman justice of Karma, without the promise of a next life, and you have the image of what a postchristian civilization would be like: rule by a caste of Mandarins without the honesty of admitting it to be a caste system, with as many human sacrifices as the Aztecs without the candor of calling the many victims human aborted in the womb or slain by the slow torture of dehydration in the sick bed of the terminal ward. Call that nightmare world what you will, but you cannot call it a fruit of progress or a scion of right reason without telling such lies as makes men lose their souls.

If to usher in the dystopia of a postchristian world was the point of removing imagination from literature, of removing the making from the make believe, what is the purpose of restoring the imagination?

Ah, one might as well wonder what is the purpose of wonder? What is the purpose of art?

The question has confounded and preoccupied wiser heads than mine, and yet the answer, or part of it, seems clear enough even to a humble inquiry. For if we imagine a world without imagination, we will see what it serves.

Picture if you will some inhuman race of Lunar insects or Martian mollusks or posthuman Morlocks as envisioned by H.G. Wells who are as rational as man, who can plan for the future and perform abstract intellectual operations as mathematics and science might require. They have all the virtues proper to beings of their condition, let us say, and let us grant that they are more admirable than mankind in this area, being more peaceful, perhaps, or showing more compassion for the poor.

But they tell no stories.

Let us say the Morlocks have news reports, and have also a faculty for distinguishing central elements to be left in the report with peripheral elements to be discarded. They can tell stories of things that really happened. But they have no imagination, no ability to mix and match elements from their history and environment and invent a realistic unreality. The Morlocks have no ability (as we Houyhnhnms call it) to “say the thing that is not.”

What would be lacking from their lives? Obviously the question can only be answered poetically, not literally. They would lack that oasis, and fountainhead, and wellspring where we mortal men seek waking dreams to refresh us. They would lack the waters of the Hippocrene that restore the soul or the wine of Bragi that elevates the spirit. They would lack for nothing but nectar and ambrosia.

All stories that are proper stories take place in the mental universe where the supernatural is possible. Even a perfectly worldly story like WAR AND PEACE  or THE BROTHERS KARAMOTZOV occur in a mental landscape where the miracles of saints or the visions of the dead might happen, even if they did not, in this book, happen, and the wonders and horror of wars that shake the world, or crimes that question the justice of God do happen.

Stories serve several quotidian purposes. I listed them above: they are fables to instruct the young and epics to preserve the memory of the great, and ghost stories to tell about campfires to give us all a sense of proportion and remind us (like the charioteers of Caesars during their triumphs and ovations) that all men are mortal. But there is something more that they serve, a purpose which is utterly unworldly, and utterly inexplicable to the Morlocks who have no imagination, and need none.

We sons of Adam are exiles here on this world. It does not suit us. We are not comfortable here, and those who say they are comfortable in this world of injustice and disease and death are not more sane and more well adapted to the environment than we who dream: they are merely inert in their souls, too dull to hear the horns of Elfland softly blowing.

We tell stories because we are homesick for heaven and afraid of hell. We make stuff up because we don’t know or remember what it might be like on the other side, the unspoiled side, of life.

Here in this world, justice loses, and beauty is weak, and truth is shouted down, and everything goes wrong. But we know, in our souls if not in our hearts, that we deserve better. We deserve and yearn for a world where justice triumphs, and beauty is all powerful and truth cannot be quenched by lies any more than insubstantial shadows can fly from earth to the center of the solar system and strangle the sun. So, remind ourselves of what he have forgotten, we talk about times in real life when justice triumphed, or the beauty was not marred, or truth could not be hidden. And for the same reason we tell tragedies when the truth destroys men like Oedipus or justice carries out a fearful vengeance on man like Agamemnon; and yes, again, we tell ironic stories, stories that grin like skulls, where all these things go wrong, and innocent men are buried alive or children die in their prayers and leering evil triumphs, and this reminds us that we do not belong in the world where these things happen. As I said above, these bitter stories of horrid and despair are a vacation meant to clear the palate, a sour lime and bitter salt after the tequila.

Even those of us who do not believe, in our heads, in other worlds beyond this world, and other lives after this life, show by the types of stories we take for our myths and legends and epics and nursery tales that in our souls that our dreams are better than our lives. If these dreams come from nowhere and for no purpose, then all dreams are vain, or are opiates, and the unfantasists are right to condemn and eschew them as escapism. They are as right to banish wishful fantasies of Arthurian knights and giant-slaying Jacks and Homeric heroes and shining Samurai as they are to scoff at fantastic nightmares of blood-drinking ghosts and haunted cities beneath the sea, monsters in the dark or in the cracks between the ulterior dimensions of timespace.

If the unfantasists are right, there is nothing before the blood of childbirth and after the mud of the grave, and what lies in between is the stingy happiness which pursuit of meaningless pleasure can find, or vain ambition, or love which is like a drowning couple clinging to each other’s warm bodies in a maelstrom, eager for one last kiss before the storms eat them, and no memory is left.

But if the dreams are echoes of the real primordial disaster that is still reverberating through the cosmos with the fall of Lucifer or the fall of Adam, or if the dreams are whispers through the crack in the prison wall of moral life from immortal lips outside, then escape is not only our joy, but our duty.

Science fiction looks to the future, or to the extraterrestrial wonders of the present, or to anything odd and above the merely quotidian to inspire and fire our dreams. It requires less faith in the unseen or supernatural than wilder stories told by Shakespeare or Milton or Virgil, because the skeptical imagination cannot be skeptical toward the idea that skeptical inquiry into the roots of nature yield technical and scientific advancements which, by definition, we cannot now, trapped in the present, know. Nor can the scientific curiosity be incurious about the curious things which curiosity might uncover. The very core of science fiction is the certainty that the future is uncertain, that things change, either in progress or regress or both at once, and even the most unimaginative imagination must admit that the future world and extraterrestrials worlds are unimaginable. It offers and escape from the everyday which even those who hate escapism cannot call escapist.

What is science fiction for? One might as well ask what a window in a jail cell is for, or what a magic mirror in a wizard’s cell is for.




  1. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    THIS should be required reading in college literature. It should be required also in high school literature class, but maybe in a summarized version. Anyway, I am going to re-read this essay more closely.

    I am confirmed as to why I could never ever read any set book in literature classes. I perused those dreary novels only when I was absolutely obliged to. My personal taste was for mythology and fairy tales and adventure. Apart from Jules Verne, which I liked, there is no good science-fiction in French. I didn’t know what was the best in English and it was not available in the libraries I frequented until after the advent of Star Wars.

  2. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Another very good, interesting essay. Your comments about why so much of so called “mainstream” literature is so dreary rings true to me. I too thought, before you mentioned him, that the origins of what might better be called “mundane” literature goes back to Charles Dickens. And, yes, I agree that the suicidal folly of WWI gave mundane literature a powerful boost. Your comment en passant about Washington, Adams, and Jefferson reminded me of how Poul Anderson gave a long list of great men whose thought he respected in OPERATION CHAOS. Some being Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.

    I’m also reminded of the hysteria and hostility so many mundane literature zealots had for THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And Tolkien repaid their contempt for him by not hiding his own contempt for the kind of literature the mundanes advocated.

    Sean M. Brooks

  3. Comment by Raphael:

    Hear, hear.

    There’s an essay (“Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy” by Don Elgin) that strikes me as being much in the same vein, though expressed in different terms. I jotted down some reflections on my blog a while back, for anyone who’s interested.

    Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy

    He parallels the tragic view, the “literary” novel, and the modern antagonism of man toward nature (including his own nature(?)), opposing them to the comic view, the fantasy novel, and the integration of man with nature. He sees these as the two basic forms of literature in our time, and the fantasy novel as the only way forward.

    Also of interest regarding what you say about the time when “real” writers like Dostoevsky had the freedom to include the extraordinary in their works is an essay by Flannery O’Connor, one of the only twentieth century “literary” writers whose works I thoroughly enjoy. Again in the interest of brevity I’ll just link to some quotes I jotted down.

    Flannery O’Connor on the Grotesque

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  5. Comment by Nostreculsus:

    You give insufficient weight to one of the most important fairy tale characters of all – the character usually named Jack. Or Hansel. I mean, of course, the character who is ordinary: not a god or a giant or a magician or a dwarf or a dragon or a Valkyrie (to run through some of the personae of Wagner’s opus). The singular qualities of these grand figures are better expressed when the story also includes what I like to call “the normal”.

    Mozart could write opera with both ordinary souls and extraordinary : Papageno and also the Queen of the Night. I pine for “the normal” in Wagner’s work. Or is Parsifal an attempt to depict a a simple naive soul?

    One of the many excellences of Professor Tolkien’s recent ring novel is that the plot hangs on the qualities of the most mundane creatures and not just the machinations of the grand.

    The failure of the mundane literature of our day is a double failure: they do not depict mages and heros and knights and imps but they also do not depict “the normal”. Here is what passes for “quality-lit” these days.

    “It’s science fiction of the highest order.” burbles a New York Times profile of the MacArthur “genius” writer George Saunders. The science fiction in question is Saunder’s short story “The Semplica Girl Diaries” that took him more than a dozen years to write.

    ” The Semplica Girls of the title are women from various third-world countries (Moldova, Somalia, Laos, etc.) who have applied to come to America and get paid to decorate the lawns of the wealthy, by being strung aloft, in flowing white gowns, on a microline that runs through their brains. Through them — through the acquisition of them — the narrator hopes to elevate his family’s status and bring his kids joy.”

    “In another story “Escape From Spiderhead,” the narrator is being held in a prison-research facility where he and the other inmates are being used as human guinea pigs to test the effects of new drugs The pharmaceutical names are pure Saunders: Verbaluce, for eloquence of thought and speech; Vivistif, for what you would imagine; and Darkenfloxx. ‘Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times 10. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx.'”

    Res ipsa loquitur.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      You make a good point, but I did indeed mention the ordinary Jacks portrayed by literature back when it included all stories. Nonetheless, the essay was about the fantastic elements in literature, not the ordinary elements, and so you are correct that this was not emphasized.

      I do agree, and I do think it worthy of emphasis, that the narrow literature of the unfantastic, called realism, is unrealistic portrayals not of ordinary people but of extraordinary subhumans; such is the final dead end of this kind of dreary tale. If you stop telling stories of Saint George rescuing maidens from a dragon, soon you find yourself no longer to tell stories of a fireman rescuing a woman from a burning highrise. The emphasis on the ordinary, when not illumed by the light of the supernatural which shows all men to be the image and likeness of God, darkens into a freak show of tales about drunks, idiots, perverts, and madmen.

      I was reading THE ONION GIRL by Charles De Lint and noticed that, in the midst of an otherwise perfectly serviceable urban fantasy about the mystery and wonder elfland impinging on the modern life, a whole chapter devoted to denouncing pederasty, and both the heroine and the villainness were sexually abused as children. When the Great Earth Mother Goddess comes on stage in dreamland in the climax of the novel, she talked like a modern therapist, not like the Demeter or Rhea I ever heard tell of, or chthonic Hecate, and showing none of the terrifying majesty that divine beings from the deeps of time must show.

      Now, I mean no criticism of a writer more skilled than I, and I recommend Mr De Lint’s books to anyone with a taste for fantasy and a yearning for elfland. He is brilliant. But I did not like and did not understand the freak show aspect. I did not find it brave or progressive or edgy or realistic. It did, however, strike me as being very much in the modern taste and fashion.

      • Comment by Raphael:

        …the narrow literature of the unfantastic, called realism, is unrealistic portrayals not of ordinary people but of extraordinary subhumans…

        The key word here is, I think, “unrealistic.” To tell the truth I’m drawn to writing about freaks myself. They come into my stories even when I try to keep them out. Perhaps that only shows the warped kind of world I inhabit. But I stand in good company, because Flannery O’Connor was drawn to the same thing. My favorite story of hers is “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” which seems to be a tribute to Thomas Aquinas, the apostle of nature’s goodness; it features a hermaphrodite at a carnival freakshow, and ends with the Tantum Ergo.

        As she says, though, you have to have a conception of the whole man in order to be able to recognize a freak, and that’s precisely what modern “literature” is so often lacking. Its portayals are unrealistic because (as you say) it’s discarded the normal and the natural.

  6. Comment by robertjwizard:

    That was an excellent read. Your timeline fits if you consider the works that came out after WWI. I have never been able to finish a Steinbeck or Hemingway work, or a Fitzgerald, I can’t stay awake for them. Joyce I can, but I then I can’t fall asleep during an autopsy either.

    At least I hope I can’t…

    • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

      Steinbeck doesn’t count. Steinbeck wrote an unironic King Arthur retelling.

      “One of us, one of us!”

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Be that as it may, my complaint in the essay is about books, not authors. I thought Jame’s Joyce’s THE DUBLINERS perfectly well crafted, for example. I can hate a man’s book and feel nothing but admiration for the man.

        So I would say that Steinbeck’s THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS was “one of ours, one of ours.”

  7. Ping from What My Little Ponies Can Teach Us About the New Evangelization |

    […] rooted in an objective reality. (Science fiction author John C. Wright, in a recent blog post, identifies the First World War as the major precipitating factor of this cultural amnesia, which seems about right to […]

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    […] Science Fiction: What is it Good For? – John C. Wright […]

  9. Comment by Mary:

    I grumbled in my blog about fantasy gods who act like a badly brought-up three-year-old and are markedly inferior to the humans. More than once I get the commenter who claims that they were really like that in ancient myth. To which I retort that no they aren’t — even when they behaved badly, they didn’t act like that — and anyways what sort of superiority is it, to be better than a badly brought-up three-year-old

  10. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    fantasy slowly but steadily re-conquered the territory that the mainstream had usurped. Look at the top ten best selling movies of recent years, and odds are that eight or nine of them out of ten will be movies with some fantastic or supernatural element

    This can’t be an unalloyed Good Thing, can it??

    I find the steady parade of superhero after superhero, vampire after zombie after werewolf, anonymous alien citykiller after anonymous alien citykiller, endlessly recycled, to be one reason why I no longer even bother to look for recent films to rent.

    “Realism” does not imply “mundanity” – good and evil can be demonstrated, tension created and resolved, far better in a “Casablanca” or a “Schindler’s List” or a “City Lights” or a “High Noon”, than in the latest $180 million 3-D adaptation of a comic book.

    Pardon me now while I chase those damn kids off my lawn.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      Indeed ‘realism’ does not imply ‘mundanity’. And neither of those things imply ‘quality’. You compare the very best of non-fantastic films with the very worst of fantasy films. I could equally say this:

      Good and evil can be demonstrated, tension created and resolved, far better in a ‘Lord of the Rings’ or a ‘Star Wars’ or an ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ than in the latest no-brow comedy full of F-words and fart jokes. If you can complain about bad superhero films, I can complain about Adam Sandler. The whole argument reduces in the end to Sturgeon’s Law: ‘But 90% of everything is crud.’

  11. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    You are not alone in seeing the first World War as the tipping point between what was and what is, a comparison which does not favor the latter.

    Question for discussion: All things considered, would it have been better if the British had stood aside and let von Kluck march through Belgium and France unmolested?

    • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

      Sure, let’s just let the folks who loved the Kulturkampf have their way, and see how much more civilized life will be!

      The Kaiser really was an evil totalitarian dictator. Being a nicer totalitarian dictator than Hitler doesn’t mean he was good, noble, and healthy to have around. And not resisting totalitarianism means either that a) you’re totally okay with the totalitarians invading your country or b) you’re totally okay with your homegrown variety taking over your country.

    • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

      Sure, let’s just let the folks who loved the Kulturkampf have their way, and see how much more civilized life will be!

      The Kaiser really was an evil totalitarian dictator. Being a nicer totalitarian dictator than Hitler doesn’t mean he was good, noble, and healthy to have around. And not resisting totalitarianism means either that a) you’re totally okay with the totalitarians invading your country or b) you’re totally okay with your homegrown variety taking over your country.

      My German relatives came to this country to get the heck away from the wonderful Bismarck system, so you can see why we’re not fans around here.

      • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

        If you believe as I do, that nearly everything that screwed up the twentieth century originated in 1914-19 (counting Versailles almost as much as the war itself), then a repeat of 1870 does not necessarily seem like the worst possible conclusion.

        Fair enough if your family experience gives you a different point of view, that’s true of us all.

        But I really don’t think that the way the British treated the Boers and the Belgians treated the Congolese gave them much of a moral high ground vis-a-vis Wilhelm II.

        • Comment by Tom Simon:

          The Germans treated THE GERMANS that way — and treated everyone else worse. Read up on Ludendorff’s ‘War Socialism’ some time. You’ll find a system of slave labour in the German-occupied territories, with a planned death rate of up to 10 percent per year among the slaves. The Nazis used it as the basis for their slave-labour system with little modification.

          Still feeling like there is no moral high ground?

          • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

            and treated everyone else worse

            Worse than the Congolese rubber trade in the 1890’s??
            Please post a citation or two. I would like to verify.

            I don’t have to be an admirer of Wilhelmine Deutschland to suggest that the two principal products of WWI – Nazism and Leninism – were at least an order of magnitude worse.

            • Comment by Tom Simon:

              The first thing you need to bear in mind about the Congolese rubber trade is that it was not ‘the Belgians’ who treated the Congolese that way; it was the King of the Belgians, operating as an absolute monarch in the Congo. The worst conditions obtained during the period of his personal rule, 1884–1908, when the Belgian parliament had no legal authority in the colony. King Leopold was a monster by any standard — but he was not Belgium. Once the personal rule of the King was ended in the Congo, it reverted, approximately, to being a typical badly-run African colony — misgoverned, to be sure, but not governed by massacre. Judging the morals of the Belgian nation by events in the Congo in the 1890s is therefore logically improper.

              • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

                Leopold, of course, never visited the Congo. Those Belgians who killed and mutilated en masse in his name can, I suppose, claim the Nuremberg defense.

                But that’s a side issue. What you stated up-thread was that what Germany did in the territories it occupied 1914-18 was worse. I’m still waiting to hear about that.

                And yes, I am well aware of the burning of Louvain, the killings at Tamines and at Dinant. There is no evidence I am aware of in such cases which points to anything other than a few sadistic field officers making horrific spot judgments. Those atrocities (and I totally agree they were such) were not centrally planned and directed from Wilhelm’s palace; they did not persist after the front had stabilized; and they were falsely multiplied a hundredfold by propagandists, in an effort first to bring America into the war, and later to justify the punitive Versailles settlement.

                • Comment by Tom Simon:

                  Again, I ask you to look up Ludendorff’s ‘War Socialism’. It was not on the Western Front, but on the Eastern, that the populations of German-occupied territories were conscripted en masse to serve as slave labour. The tyranny imposed on the Eastern populations by means of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was Hitler’s explicit model for his treatment of the ‘Eastern Question’ after 1941.

  12. Comment by danurdan:

    This read like an essay by Chesterton. Well done, sir. And speaking of GKC, he was quite the fantasy writer in his own right. The Man Who Was Thursday is a spy/detective story replete with an international evil organization, bent on world conquest and residing in fantastic villain hideaways. The Ball and the Cross opens with a dizzying flight aboard the amazing airship of Professor Lucifer over the rooftops of London. Both novels capture the joy and rapture of the Christian faith and are as hilarious as they are thrilling. I recall a particularly rough flight to Denver while reading The Ball and the Cross. I don’t think our pilot let us remove our seatbelts once during the turbulent flight. People were terrified, the plane pitched and dropped and during the entire flight, I sat in my seat laughing my fool head off. I’m sure the other passengers thought me a madman. Chesterton has that effect on one. I joined The American Chesterton Society after catching the great program “The Apostle of Common Sense” on EWTN. The program weekly deconstructs the societal nonsense we, as you put it, “simmer in” every day. Chesterton helped me to recognize just how much society in general and university in particular turned me into one of those that would sneer at joy and happy endings. Chesterton brought me back to my Catholic faith and gave me the “cheat codes” to recognize how the game of life is currently rigged against the splendor of truth. Now, when I hear the same, tired cliche’s about the supposed regressive, oppressive, Church of Rome, I smile and patiently explain to anyone who will listen how utterly wrong they are. The examples are endless and I don’t want to belabor my already long reply, but I will share just one. After sitting quietly through a diatribe by my ill-informed friends about how the Christians “caused” the Crusades, I patiently took them through a long history lesson of hundreds of years of rampant, unchecked, Muslim aggression that finally culminated in the sack and slaughter of Jerusalem. In short, the Muslims started it. The Holy Land had always been open to Christians and Jews under even the most vile, inhuman, Muslim conqueror, but under the Turks, Jerusalem had been sacked and pilgrims expelled. It was a final straw and Pope Urban was more than justified in calling for good Christian men to take back the Holy Land. My friends knees began to jerk at this tale so I appealed to a higher power, lefty historian Will Durant. Durant clearly lays the blame for the Crusades at the feet of the Muslims. Naturally, this caused the other, predictable knee jerk response of “well, what about Galileo?” Never mind that we are skipping ahead 500 years and way off point. It all comes down to Galileo and The Crusades with most people. Try to point out some facts and explain the nuance of judging others by our current social mores is a harder task than that undertaken by Sisyphus. Usually at this point in the dinner conversation, I clam up and get back to sipping my wine.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I also recommend NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL and MANALIVE. Chesterton has that rare talent of telling a story set in the ordinary world as if it is a remarkable fantasy that operates by the dreamlogic of fairyland.
      I would be remiss if I did not also mention his Father Brown mysteries.

  13. Comment by Eric:

    This article seems to combine the best elements from C.S. Lewis’s SURPRISED BY JOY, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ON FAIRY STORIES, and Arthur Machen’s HIEROGLYPHICS.

    I agree with Silvie. College literature classes can only benefit by making this required reading.

  14. Comment by David McKinnis:

    Shouldn’t that be “Science Fiction, UGH! What is it good for?”

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      It seems I uttered some common sense.
      But reading that bill project, I find a caveat: beware of continuing to fuel the myth of Progress. Progress with a small ‘p’ is a licit purpose of science and technology, but if there is no proper philosophy of nature, we fall again in the religion of Progress. I have no extensive knowledge of science fiction literature, but this myth seems to be generally underlying hard science fiction. To me, it is very obvious in Star Trek and in some novels I read.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      The only science fiction I never enjoyed reading was what was assigned to me in school. I cannot think of a faster way of killing off interest in SF.

      • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

        Well, that’s true. Not so good an idea, after all. But it may depend on several things: the choice of books, for example, or the fact they are imposed and not offered among a number and you don’t have to read the lot. I never had one novel in French, English or Spanish in high school or college that I enjoyed reading (I liked only classic plays and some poetry); my daughter, however, had some novels she liked.

      • Comment by Mary:

        Yes. Bad books should be assigned in school so that good books do not suffer from being taught in English class.

  15. Comment by Darrell:

    I don’t recall being assigned any SF to read in school — though I selected a few SF books for book reviews — though I am sympathetic to your view and am somewhat leery of legislating books that all students are required to read. I suspect making a reading course (not necessarily literature) a requirement every year from elementary through high school might go a long way in inculcating a love of higher learning even with out a focus on SF.

  16. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    I don’t think that people intrinsically hate reading good books in school. I was very fond of my schools’ reading books, for example, because they had pretty good stories and illustrations in them. And of course there’s no fun like a reading course in Old English and Middle English.

    The problem is when we get to literary analysis and the teacher is not someone who makes it fun to study recipes and cooking; or when the match of books to readers is not particularly happy. Unfortunately, this is true of a lot of assigned reading in junior high, high school, college, etc. Also, a lot of teachers stink.

    I had pretty good English teachers, luckily for me, and they were tolerant of my quirks, which was luckier. But I seriously burned out on Dickens and many other major writers in junior high/high school, and honestly couldn’t be bothered with them. (While maintaining an extremely rigorous reading list in sf/f, poetry, and the non-assigned classics, plus stuff that my English teachers suggested.)

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