Transhuman and Subhuman Part XIV: Childhood’s End and Gnosticism

Continuing from the previous post, we now consider the Gnostic foundations of Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke as demonstrated by John C. Wright.

“I say CHILDHOOD’ S END is ‘Gnostic’, a heresy of the Christians,” Wright explains, “because I do not see the attitude or mind-set of any other religion represented.”

Wright bases his case for Childhood’s End’s Gnosticism on the scene in the book where an alien device capable of looking into the past is said to disprove “all the world’s religious writings” and “all the world’s great faiths”. Clarke depicts everyone on earth abandoning religion as a result.

Pointing out that Christianity is the only major religion that claims its theology is based on concrete historical events, Wright concludes, “…there is only one religion under attack here, and it is misleading to pretend any religion but one is in the crosshairs. Like far too many atheist writings, this passage is not atheist, merely antichristian.”

The resemblance of the aliens who provide the time device to devils from Christian demonology is significant, says Wright, because the inversion of good and evil is a central Gnostic theme. Gnosticism teaches that the Christian God is a liar who must be cast down. As a science fiction story, Childhood’s End can’t literally portray God being overthrown. Instead it uses the exposure of his lies to prove that he doesn’t exist.

Wright calls the story’s conceit that images from an unsubstantiated alien source would drive the whole human race to atheism, “…a ridiculous idea, handled with ham-handed clumsiness that breaks suspension of disbelief.” In response to Clarke’s wishful thinking, Wright points out that, “Religion answers basic and deeply-rooted human emotional and psychological and intellectual needs.”

Even when he himself was an atheist, Wright “…thought religion would always be among us, and never pass away, any more than racism or warfare would ever pass away. I now believe religion will always be among us and never pass away, any more than true love or times of peace will ever pass away.”

In response to the line in Childhood’s End where men are said to have outgrown gods, Wright asks, “…what is the evidence that religion is not a development of intellectual effort away from a more primitive state, rather than the opposite?”

In real life, every regime that has attempted to eliminate religion for something more modern (The Revolutionaries of France, the bloody gangsters of Russia, China, and Indochina) always ushered in a rapid decivilization, a new barbarism. It is almost as if—heretical thought alert—atheism is a regression to a more primitive state, not an improvement.

Wright acknowledges that Clarke himself wasn’t a Gnostic. Why, then, did Childhood’s End turn out to be such a Gnostic work? “It is always the Judo-Christian tradition they plagiarize for ideas. No one bothers to blaspheme the Aztec Gods.”

The answer: “…if Clarke had written any other book aside from CHILDHOOD’S END it would not have been an answer to the question posed by the Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis.” Wright views Childhood’s End  as part of a dialogue among the great books of Western fiction about the final destiny of man, along with War of the Worlds and Out of the Silent Planet.

Wells started the conversation by asking readers to imagine what would happen if a race more highly evolved than man invaded earth according to merciless Darwinian principles. Lewis turned the tables by asking what would save a hypothetical unfallen race from fallen human space explorers. Wouldn’t it be better for violent, vicious mankind to remain earthbound?

Arthur C. Clarke answers C.S. Lewis with speculation of his own. ‘What if science can take the place of religion? What if evolution, the striving ever upward, can replace these primitive superstitions, and offer a transcendence that is real? What if it is not only good, but necessary, for us to venture into space?’

Why did Clarke frame his answer to Lewis in Gnostic terms? “Clarke could not help but give a Gnostic answer to the Christian challenge because, within the framework of Western assumptions about man and life and afterlife, there is no other answer.”

Within the confines of Western thought, there are only three possible answers to the question of man’s final fate. Either there is no God, and humanity is doomed to be surpassed by another species; there is a God, and humans are individually saved or damned according to his will; or–the Gnostic answer–each man is a god.

“By sticking with the Christian assumptions about ultimate destiny, but rejecting the Christian answer,” says Wright, “Arthur C. Clarke has no choice but to pen a naturalistic and science-fictional version of an old Gnostic myth.”

Wright concludes: “Either you glorify Man with the Gnostic and call God a liar, or you glorify God with the Christian and call Man to repent.”

Transhuman and Subhuman Part XIII: The Fourth of the Big Three of Science Fiction

Expanding on a a point from last time, we turn to John C. Wright’s examination of Arthur C. Clarke, and why he shouldn’t be included among Campbell’s Big Three.

“I submit,” says Wright, “that Arthur C. Clarke has…a broader vision, and yet it is a darker vision, of man and his ultimate fate in the universe which is in keeping with H.G. Wells and alien to Campbell.”

Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and A. E. van Vogt wrote of pragmatic characters solving problems in a relatively near-future setting, with science and determination in a spirit typical of American optimism.”On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells are haunted by a sense of the true magnitude of time, and while some of their stories…are near future tales, they are most famous for those who go to the end of mankind and beyond.” The latter two authors’ characters usually face conflicts produced by cold, blind evolutionary forces, and are almost always outmatched.

According to Wright, “…the clearest expression of this theme of deep time is CHILDHOOD’S END.” In this novel, Clarke posits the intervention of advanced alien overlords who conquer the earth to prevent man’s nuclear annihilation and impose a ban on human space travel. Over two centuries of enforced peace, humanity loses self-determination, religious faith, and collective self-preservation. Children are born with psychic powers and a revolting lack of humanity, heralding the next and final step in human evolution. At last, the incomprehensible post-humans destroy the earth and merge with a sovereign space Overmind, leaving the invaders who served as cosmic midwives stuck in an evolutionary dead end.

“Now,” says Wright, “I suppose an utterly bloodless intellectual with no great love for mankind…might regard the theme of transcending into posthuman inhumanity as a noble or hopeful one, but that is not the message of the book.”

There are strong Wellsian themes in the story of Childhood’s End. “To fly off as disembodied minds in the train of a cosmic Overmind is a fate as disquieting as that of the Eloi or Morlocks, but if these creatures were at the same time as superior as the vast, cool, unsympathetic intellects of Mars.”

Wright makes no secret of his preference for Campbellian tales over Wellsian tales. In regard to Childhood’s End, he gives numerous reasons for this bias.

  1. Having superior invaders confiscate mankind’s nuclear weapons and spaceships like alien nannies is heavy-handed and annoying.
  2. It’s absurd to think that everyone everywhere on earth would surrender without a fight.
  3. The story takes for granted the ahistorical idea that native populations always die off after prolonged contact with more advanced peoples.
  4. The part where the overlords abolish bullfighting is a brazen authorial conceit that unnecessarily dates the story.
  5. “…the idea that religion would simply…disappear is stupid. If anything, the stress and pressure of being confronted by alien overlords would encourage religion. Someone would start worshipping them, if nothing else.”
  6. Depicting the post-human supermen as discorporate psychic beings is lazy. “It is…just a vague pink cloud labeled ‘The Superman’ with nothing in it.”
“What,” asks Wright, “was Arthur C. Clarke trying to accomplish in this book? I suggest that he was trying to tell a myth rather than a story, and that he succeeded brilliantly.”

Myths are about religious notions. The notion here was that science, or the purely materialistic and naturalistic world view, the cold and dull and empty world without God, could somehow find in its remorseless grind of blind evolution something as interesting and dramatic as damnation and salvation.

As a scientific myth, Childhood’s End falls short in one respect. “The core idea of seeking for religious transcendence in the dead cosmos of materialism is an incoherent idea, a self-refuting idea. The mythical image produced is one of beings of immense power and retarded capacity for love…”

Transhuman and Subhuman Part XII: The Big Three of Science Fiction

The twelfth essay in Transhuman and Subhuman by John C. Wright corrects the popular misconception that the third member of the Big Three Campbellian authors, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, wasn’t Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury, but A.E. van Vogt.

Wright points out that neither Clarke nor Bradbury were Campbell authors. “…Arthur C. Clarke is from an older tradition of science fiction than Heinlein and Asimov, and is an heir to H.G. Wells…” Bradbury, meanwhile, “…was a man before his time, and fathered a younger tradition. He was ‘New Wave’…years before the New Wave was new.”

In contrast to the sci-fi stories that preceded his influence on the genre, which “were mostly boy’s adventure stories set in space…Campbell established a new type of story, less about weirdness and wonder and more about what we now call ‘Hard’ Science Fiction…”

Hard science fiction, says Wright, “consists of two elements…first, a social or philosophical commentary about man’s place in the universe…second, a fascination with the nuts and bolts of legitimate speculation into the near future of technical advance…” Campbell was the first to popularize stories combining both elements.

Describing the definitive mood and spirit of Campbellian tales is difficult these days, Wright contends, because they were “an extension of the scientific optimism and classical liberalism of the time.” A further characteristic of Campbell’s stories was “…a touching childlike faith in Theory, and, for conservatives (in the brilliant words of William Briggs) ‘Love of Theory is the Root of All Evil.'”

Wright goes on to take issue with the prevailing definition of hard SF, observing that this classification is based on only one story element: world building.

…[T]he common consensus is that ‘Hard SF’ is any story whose core revolves around some real science…and that ‘Soft SF’ is any story whose core revolves around the humanities or some less rigorous discipline…[T]his is insufficient, since…the grouping of certain tales and novels into sub-genres should also tell you something of the other elements of the story, including the plot, character, and theme.

Besides world building, Wright asserts that Campbellian SF can be recognized by similarities in plot, characterization, and theme. He cites van Vogt’s “The Black Destroyer” as the first of these stories. “The tale contained in embryo the elements of the typical Van Vogt tale: superhuman powers…the interest in psychology and parapsychology, the scope of action, and the breathless pacing…” Slan and World of Null-A also stand as conspicuous landmarks of Campbellian SF.

“…[M]ost of these stories,” Wright points out, “are not very ‘Hard’ at all…replete with unscientific gobbledygook as mindreading guns, time travel, teleportation, and the transfer of human memory from clone to clone.”

Wright identifies three philosophical underpinnings of all Campbell stories: malleable human nature that is open to advancement through technology, lead characters who solve problems through intelligence guided by a properly calibrated moral compass, and finally, the optimistic theme “which said that men were moral creatures who…could become large enough in their time to conquer the stars.”

“For Van Vogt, the larger brain of the Martians of H.G. Wells, or the cold remorselessness of the superman imagined by Nietzsche were of no account if not also wedded to a greater moral sense.”

“This,” says Wright, “was not Arthur C. Clarke’s view…that man would eventually evolve into something glorious in its own way but ultimately inhuman, and certainly not Ray Bradbury’s view, which was…more interested in the joys of home and hearth and the mysteries of the woods beyond the backyard…”

It isn’t due to any nuts-and-bolts realism of that van Vogt merits his title as the third of Campbell’s Big Three. “…’Hard SF’ is not just any story that puts technology at its heart,” concludes Wright. “The heart of Hard SF is this cynical optimism, the paradox of men whose feet are firmly planted on the ground, and yet whose hands reach for the stars.”

Transhuman and Subhuman Part XI: Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith

Is science fiction inherently hostile to religion? John C. Wright attempts to answer this question in “Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith”:

“…science fiction is the mythology of a scientific age,” says Wright. Both explore the human condition by positing metaphysical changes to the status quo. The difference is that fantasy deals with supernatural interventions and science fiction concerns “…some aspect of a change in society or life brought about by a speculated advance in technology.”

If scientists in sci-fi tales can achieve the same feats as wizards in fantasy yarns, where does the perceived tension between science fiction and the supernatural come from? According to Wright, SF fans want to read about the strange and exotic. Thus, they don’t want stories about anything as familiar as Christianity. “…science fiction is inherently interested in the variables in human society, not the constants.”

Wright points to the fabricated religion of Asimov’s Foundation series as representative of science fiction’s natural skepticism, which arises from fundamental dramatic needs. “Who wants to read about a benevolent Galactic Empire? We want to hear about Jack the Giant Killer. No one wants to hear about Giant the Jack Killer.”

However, Wright notes that science fiction’s hostility to religion is mostly superficial: “…every genre of science fiction except maybe for military SF deals more often with mythical or religious themes than with mundane or worldly ones. When is the last time you read an SF story about the danger of a Negative Balance of Imports or Deficit Spending?”

Consider the trope of the Chosen One, which perpetually recurs in both science fiction and fantasy. “…the only difference between science fiction and fairytales…is that the sciencefictioneers have to leave unsaid who chooses the Chosen One…”

Having weighed the evidence, Wright returns to his initial question:

…is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as a human institution? Yes, a little, and for the same reason there is an innate hostility to human institutions of business and government…in any story where the Big Guy is the Bad Guy.

Is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as supernatural? No; the matter tends to be ignored by SFF and for the same reason that the supernatural foundations of the Church Militant do not come up in Westerns or in Samurai stories.

Science fiction writers are fond of saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but we make this distinction every time we call one book science fiction and another one fantasy.

Wright further contends that SF draws so heavily upon spiritual themes that asking whether science fiction is hostile to religion is no more valid than asking if science fiction is hostile to fiction.

“Most science fiction readers can tell the difference between science and fiction. The war between science and religion is fiction, and apparently an entertaining fiction indeed, as many who believe in it continue to do so.”

Transhuman and Subhuman Part X:The Golden Compass Points in No Direction

John C. Wright’s criticism of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy hinges not on the books’ atheist message (Wright was an atheist himself when he first read, and found serious defects in, the series), but on the sloppy and arbitrary handling of their plot.

“This book should have been an atheist book,” Wright laments. “I mean a properly, openly, honestly, hardcore really atheist book.” Such a book would have depicted a rationalist materialist underdog faced with the impossible task of overthrowing an all-powerful God whose tyrannies are established clearly and early. But instead of a compelling drama like Paradise Lost, Pullman’s apparently ungovernable urge to mock his theological opponents results in satire more like L. Frank Baum’s titular Wizard. The mixture proves tonally and thematically dissonant.

Further undermining the dramatic tension are a slew of such basic technical errors that Wright expresses bafflement at how a pro of Pullman’s stature could have committed them. The plot turns on a series of unfired Chekhov’s Guns and forgotten buckets.

The weapon prophesied to slay immortal God is never used for its stated purpose. A last-minute deus ex machina arbitrarily ruins two characters’ chances of a happy ending.

Warnings against the dangers of putting message before story have been stirring up fandom lately. His Dark Materials stands as an example of how ignoring such sound advice places a story’s plot in grave peril of death from loss of dramatic tension.

On Worldcons and World Cups

Normally it is considered foolish to insult customers. But others do it, so why not me too? Like others, I do foolish things from time to time, not least when honestly stating my point of view. However, I try to back those views, no matter how outrageous, with objective data. Today I want to discuss who belongs to the supposed mainstream of science fiction ‘fandom’, and who sits on the periphery. I will do this whilst presenting data about the World Science Fiction Convention, the group that hands out the Hugo Awards.

Anybody who objectively looks at the Worldcon data can easily distinguish Worldcon’s notion of a mainstream SF fan from the rest of humanity. The distinction does not lie in the fan’s gender, race, sexual orientation or political beliefs. The difference is their nationality. If the claims are correct, and Worldcon represents the mainstream of science fiction ‘fandom’, then it is dominated by citizens of the United States of America. Every other nationality is on the margins, if it is represented at all.

Please forgive that I put the word ‘fandom’ into inverted commas. I do so to draw attention to an important fact. The people who decide who belongs to fandom – and hence who is excluded – are the people who are already members. Unlike most language, the correct use of a word like ‘fandom’ cannot be influenced by the great mass of humanity. On the contrary, the word is defined by a clique. In turn, the word defines who belongs to that clique, creating a circularity which cannot be penetrated by outsiders. To have an opportunity to influence the meaning of the word, you must join the clique. Everyone else is excluded from the conversation.

These may seem like extravagant claims. But I want you to think of the following words, and what they mean: Alinsky; Fox News; Gamergate; and Limbaugh. These are some words that I have seen repeatedly used by people who feel ire towards the Sad Puppies. They are often used whilst trying to depict the Puppies as a faction which opposes diversity. But none of those words are commonly used outside of the USA. Many intelligent, educated English-speakers will have little or no idea what these words refer to. And yet, without any sense of irony, people who say they want science fiction to be more inclusive keep using uniquely American cultural references to describe their point of view.

To further illustrate, I googled very recent posts that support Irene Gallo. Here are snippets from those posts, written by people who honestly believe they want to make the science fiction community more inclusive.

…it’s no more unfair to characterize the Puppies by their leaders’ statements than it is unfair to characterize Republicans by the positions of George Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

That’s a move straight out of the Breitbart playbook.

There was an episode of “All In The Family” — where an argument got out of control.

Just how much cultural awareness is needed to appreciate that an argument about the Worldcon awards will not be improved by endless references to American politicians, American news websites, and American TV shows? Are people who express themselves this way serious about wanting a genuinely inclusive community, or do they only want to include people who already share their opinions, experiences and culture?

Here come the stats about Worldcons. People who are sensitive about diversity may want to look away.

The number of Worldcons to date = 72
The number of countries in the world = 196
The number of countries which have hosted a Worldcon = 7
The number of Worldcons held outside the USA = 19
The number of Worldcons held in the USA = 53
The proportion of Worldcons in the USA (so far) = 73.6%

I went to Loncon3, reportedly the Worldcon with the most members and the second-highest attendance. Even holding an event in the UK does not stop an extraordinary American domination of ‘fandom’. 38.6% of Loncon3 members were from the US, only a sliver behind the number of Brits who took part. But as an outsider, what really shocked me was the selection of speakers. I had assumed British SF is relatively healthy compared to that found in most nations. There are many British authors whose work I have enjoyed. And I imagined I might be introduced to a wider range of authors, from around Europe and nearby regions like North Africa and the Middle East. But few Loncon3 panels could muster more than one token non-American. Some panels were staffed solely by Americans.

Perhaps the organizers of Loncon3 deserve no blame for this state of affairs. Perhaps they attracted the best people available. But what does that say about the science fiction community, and how inclusive it is?

Look also at who is nominated for Hugo awards. I do not believe I should vote for awards, because I would never read enough to feel justified to have an opinion. In addition, all art is a matter of taste, so the primary purpose of awards is to generate a marketing buzz, and to signal who belongs to an elite that sets tastes for others. If you and I are both free-thinking mature individuals, then my idea of the best will rarely match your idea of the best, so it is daft to argue about what is best. Nevertheless I read all the short stories that were nominated last year. This is what they were like:

  • Chinese people written about in a way that panders to American tastes;
  • Thai people written about in a way that panders to American tastes;
  • Scots folklore and Arab descendants written about in a way that panders to American tastes; and
  • Dinosaur sings on Broadway after being called a fag and a towel-head.

I did not like these stories, but as I already stated, there is no point arguing about taste. And I understand why writers have every right to prosper by pandering to American tastes; these stories were primarily sold to American customers. But do the fans who liked these stories see nothing lamentable about this selection? Call me old-fashioned, but surely an audience keen on science fiction will notice that none of these stories are set in space. Seemingly they all occur during the present day. There is not even a hint of science in any of them. And they all affirm the values of the American readers they were written for. In other words, whilst these stories refer to places and cultures outside of the USA, the characters exhibited little diversity of thought or opinion, even though none of these stories conform to traditional expectations about SF culture.

Diversity entails a degree of friction. Customs clash, and compromise is hard. Nobody can win every battle, if they really accept the full range of human diversity. I read science fiction stories in the hopes of being challenged by them. But the truth is that ‘fandom’ is easily embraced by people who say they want diversity, but who loathe to be challenged. They want to be amongst people who think like them. The point of ‘fandom’ is to share a mutual love, which puts it into potential conflict with any outsiders who represent real diversity. So the Chinese gay guy ends up with his true all-American love. And the selkies escape to Colorado to live and love each other in peace. And the shemale dinosaur is the subject of the supreme cliché of love, elicited via a deathbed. And literally everything in Thailand turned out the way it was lovingly destined to be.

Brad Torgersen wrote something relevant about Worldcon, and I suspect many people who read it missed one of the points he made. So let me help, by adding some additional emphasis.

…Or maybe just be wholly transparent and call it White American Liberals Con — An inclusive, diverse place where everyone talks about the same things, has the same tastes, votes the same way, and looks at the world through the same pair of eyes…

…Because the ultimate question in a polyglot society — or a polyglot field of the arts — is whether or not you (and your tribe) can make room in your hearts and minds for the people from the other tribes. Are the other tribes really dangerous? Or are you simply worried that by letting the outside tribes mingle with the inside tribe, you will lose the authenticity and flavor that you believe makes your tribe special? How much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve your culture, versus allowing your culture to mix with others, and blend? We know these fears. They perk up every time a new wave of immigrants comes. Doesn’t matter if its Irish, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, or Mexican. People become very upset with the idea that the new tribe is going to wash away everything about the old tribe. Can the new tribe be assimilated? What if they won’t assimilate, what then?

Perhaps some failed to notice this nuance within Torgersen’s argument because Torgersen is also American. But who else should make an argument about the insular national character of SF ‘fandom’? Kenyans? Saudis? Me? Doing so is counterintuitive and bad for business. Who wants to struggle to join an insular group in order to upset the prospective customers they meet there, by telling them their tastes are narrow? (Apart from me, that is.)

If Worldcon members want diversity, they could do a lot more to appeal to the inhabitants of other countries. Forget arguments about changing how to vote for the Hugo. The method of choosing where to host Worldcon is much more broken than the awards are. The choice of Worldcon location is the most obvious and negative influence on who belongs to ‘fandom’, and it contributes to the insular nature of the Hugo Awards.

People are selfish. They choose what is easiest and best for themselves. But if Worldcon members want the real diversity that comes from extending the SF market to the hundreds of millions of English speakers in countries like India, Nigeria and the Philippines, they need to take Worldcon to those countries. They should not sit on their haunches, waiting for foreigners to become so enamored with an inward-looking American subculture that they literally beg for Americans to come and lecture them about storytelling.

The Worldcon could learn a lot from the World Cup. (If you do not know what I am referring to when I discuss the World Cup, you are already too culturally isolated to be helped.) Science fiction should be a global culture. Football is a global culture. Anyone with legs can kick a ball around, whether a boy or girl, black or white. Anyone with imagination can dream of fantastic scenarios in faraway places. So why is the ownership of SF so narrow, when the whole world rejoices in the World Cup?

(And note, in the culture of my birth, like most cultures, the sport is called football. For once, I am not going to indulge American cultural quirks any more than I have to.)

The World Cup has been going longer than Worldcon, but because it is held every four years, there have only been 20 tournaments so far. But unlike Worldcon, the World Cup has been hosted by 16 different countries! Moving beyond its traditional bases in Europe and South America, the World Cup has been held in Asia, Africa and North America. This magnificent accomplishment has occurred even though the top football administrator, a Swiss man by the name of Sepp Blatter, is a corrupt old white guy who said women footballers should wear tight shorts and gay fans should just refrain from having sex in countries that ban homosexuality!

And yet, that corrupt old white man has succeeded in promoting much more celebration of international diversity than Worldcon has. In fact, part of the reason Blatter has held on to power so long is because he has pushed for the World Cup to be taken to new places, like Africa, East Asia and the Middle East.

What stops Worldcon from being taken to new countries? It is not language. Lots of Africans are fluent in English; there are 83 million English speakers in Nigeria alone. Many educated Asians speak English as well as you or I. In Pakistan, 65 percent of salaried professionals speak English because it is crucial to career advancement. In total, 92 million Pakistanis have learned English, and 24 million are fluent. In the Middle East, English is the lingua franca for educated people because of the difficulties caused by having multiple dialects of Arabic and large numbers of Asian expatriate workers. 300 million Chinese are learning English. And yet, when 758 members of Loncon3 voted on where to hold Worldcon74, 651 preferred Kansas City. Only 70 voted for Beijing. The population of China is 1.36 billion, of which 11.5 million live in Beijing. The population of the USA is 317 million, and Kansas City is home to just 467,000. Which location is most likely to increase the diversity of SF ‘fandom’? Which host would do most to expand the SF market?

I do not believe that language, or inertia, explains the failure of SF ‘fandom’ to broaden their international horizons. It would certainly make good business to promote the grass roots of SF around the world. And any cosmopolitan would be happy to see the art form they love being appreciated in other nations. I think the real inhibition is that few in the existing mainstream want to tackle the uncomfortable challenge of broadening the SF market to accommodate contrasting cultures, and alternative tastes. It is easy to talk about wanting diversity amongst the audience, but that is unlikely to be realized unless there is also a willingness for producers and gatekeepers to compromise on matters of opinion and taste.

If Worldcon was hosted in South Africa, it might have to deal with a culture where one in four men confess to being rapists. If Worldcon went to Malaysia, it would find itself in a culture where the majority of Muslims believe leaving the faith should be punishable with death. Qatar is scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup, and they are nearing completion of one of the largest convention centres in the world, with a view to becoming a hub for global and regional events. But if Worldcon went to Qatar, its members would have to engage with a society where homosexuality is against the law, many women choose to cover their faces, and expatriate workers have inadequate legal protection, leading to their mistreatment.

If you have strongly-held progressive beliefs, you should want to go to places like South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar; nobody changes opinions by avoiding those who disagree with them. And dealing with weighty real-world issues might discourage some of the sound and fury that taints arguments about how to vote for a book award. The people who say they stand with Gallo believe themselves to be principled, even though comparing the Sad Puppies to Nazis is idiotic, insulting and counterproductive. Let them show how principled they are, not by using the internet to express solidarity for a New Yorker employed by a publishing company, but by meeting the remorseless diversity of humanity in person. If they did, they might discover extremes that put the actions of people who voted for a book award into some useful context.

Torgersen is right about Worldcon and the awards it hands out. It is an event for Americans, by Americans. Everybody else assimilates, or is excluded. Worldcon might promote an American industry to customers overseas, but reveals little appetite for international diversity within that industry. That would imply more competition for American writers and American businessmen, and it would also mean more competition amongst ideas.

I like my science fiction to be challenging, and I find the world to be a challenging place. Not everyone is like me, and not everyone shares my tastes or opinions. It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. So I must expect that some will prefer to observe the world whilst wearing blinkers or rose-tinted spectacles. They have a right to free speech, even if they only use it to talk amongst themselves. If it makes them happy, they should continue as they are. But nobody should pretend that the members of Worldcon aspire to realize the greatest, most diverse potential of the SF market. They may refer to their event as Worldcon, but this ‘fandom’ retreats from the world at large.

Ray Blank is not a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

Transhuman and Subhuman Part IX: Storytelling Is the Absence of Lying

“A slow man is telling a fast man how to run a race,” John C. Wright warns readers of his essay on “Hell Is the Absence of God” by the redoubtable Ted Chiang. After issuing this caveat, Wright notes that “even a slow runner can tell when a faster one has gone seriously off the track.”

How did Chiang, whom Wright acknowledges as his literary superior, send what is arguably his most famous short story off the rails? In Wright’s judgment the story, which deals with theological matters, “reads like it was written by someone who never met a Christian, or read anything written by a Christian.”

The story’s faults don’t lie in its craftsmanship. Wright praises its characterization, structure, and pacing. Rather, the work’s main demerit is the crude and dishonest way in which it slanders religion–specifically Christianity.

There is no point to the story if it is not a criticism of Christianity, a topic fascinating to the dominant section of the SF audience, who are skeptics from the West, i.e. from Christendom. Criticism of other religions would be of marginal interest to the expected audience. When is the last time you heard someone blaspheming Thor?

In “Hell Is the Absence of God”, Chiang presents us with an all-powerful God who removes characters’ free will, a cripple deprived of empathy upon gaining beatitude, and a righteous man condemned to hell. Wright points out that “what Chiang proposes is not what the Christians say.” It’s worth noting that Wright took immediate exception to Chiang’s straw men, even though he was a staunch atheist when he first read the story.

The conceit which Wright finds most irksome is the heavenly light that both blinds and destroys the free will of characters who see it. “…[I]n this loopy interpretation, faith is not an act of the will, but an absence of will.”

Wright advises honest atheists to argue against Christian theology with observation and reasoning according to an objective standard of truth; not by invoking fictional effigies. By resorting to the latter method, Chiang actually undermines atheist argument.

Drawing an analogy to The Wizard of Oz, Wright points out that misrepresenting the wizard as an evil tyrant isn’t the proper way to disabuse someone of the delusion that the wizard is real. “You do not uphold a standard of truth by telling a lie.”