The eighth essay in John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman collection is a meditation on the merits of speculative fiction occasioned by SFWA making Gene Wolfe a Grand Master. “He is the greatest living author writing in the English language today,” Wright declares, “and I do not confine that remark to genre authors.”
“Sometimes in this life,” Wright says in regard to Wolfe’s accolade, “we see justice done.” If honors are rightly given to those who perform their duty, what obligations do SFF authors owe to their readers, to society at large, and to the truth itself?
Wright seeks the answer through a critical via negativa. What causes our disappointment–even outrage–when due honor is denied?
“You will frequently hear the complaint in science fiction circles,” says Wright, “that mainstream literature does not take science fiction seriously. This complaint is partly fair and partly unfair.”
SF fans’ complaints are justified when the custodians of taste and morality reject otherwise meritorious works on arbitrary, elitist grounds. If the guardians of culture go so far as to betray good taste and moral edification, “…we not only have the right to complain, we have the right to riot, to storm their Bastille, and haul the snobs off to the guillotine of public scorn.”
Wright follows this indictment of literary tyrants with these caveats: complaints that the custodians of literature ignore science fiction are not justified in the cases of hackwork, or when the works in question do in fact receive a public hearing–either despite or because of the gatekeepers’ vigilance. Anachronistic appeals to eras before science fiction conquered pop culture are likewise invalid.
What, then, is sci-fi’s proper use? Wright answers with the “divine irony” that “Fiction is untruth that serves truth.”
Wright acknowledges the obvious objection that SFF is mere entertainment; escapist distraction, and asks in response, “…from what do the readers of such tales seek diversion? From what must they be distracted?”
The answer, of course, is the mundane world with all its frustration, misery, and quotidian banality. Human beings don’t belong here. If we did, we wouldn’t long for other worlds separated from ours by oceans of space or time.
So the indignation that arises when a profound book is called shallow (or a shallow book profound) is due to the judgment’s brazen injustice. An honest reader can find that a book isn’t to his taste while acknowledging its worth as a great piece of literature. On the other hand, a Catholic who dismisses Paradise Lost because Milton was a Protestant, or a Protestant who denounces The Divine Comedy due to Dante’s Catholicism, commits a grave artistic injustice.
What duty do authors owe literature? That we can now answer in a word. Authors serve the truth. Nor the truth as they see it, not their truth or my truth or your truth. They serve truth. There are those who betray that service. This makes them traitors, but does not make them discoverers of a new truth.