Hugo Nominee Review: Transhuman and Subhuman Part I, Transhuman and Subhuman

The fine folks at Superversive SF have asked me to join them in reviewing this year’s nominated works in the run up to the Hugos. It’s hoped that these reviews will focus attention on the stories themselves so that Worldcon members can cast informed votes based on the works’ merits.

NB: there’s still plenty of time to register for Sasquan. A supporting membership grants you Hugo voting rights this year, nominating rights next year, and a voting packet containing all of the nominated works (subject to publisher participation). So at the very least, spending $40 on a supporting membership gets you over $100 worth of top shelf sci-fi and fantasy books. Plus, your vote expands the electorate and supports the Hugos’ heritage as SFF fandom’s most prestigious award.

I’ve volunteered to review Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truths by John C. Wright, which is nominated in the Best Related Work category. Having been among the beta readers who offered the author and his editor feedback on a pre-publication draft of the manuscript, this work seemed like a logical subject for my review.

Transhuman and Subhuman contains sixteen essays on topics ranging from SFF history, pop literary theory, moral theology, and classical and political philosophy to film criticism and beyond. Rather than deliver myself of a comprehensive review of the whole book at once, I will dedicate a separate post to each essay.

I’ll start with the titular essay, “Transhuman and Subhuman”, wherein Mr. Wright explains his mistrust of transhumanism’s ultimate aims by pointing out the deficiencies of modernism and citing works of popular fiction as evidence. This approach makes sense because all speculative fiction attempts to concretize an author’s worldview. Science fiction provides a view of the present from the lofty vantage point of a conjectural future. Fantasy views the mundane world from an ageless eternity.

Wright further categorizes sci-fi and fantasy into sub-genres based on their treatment of magic. High Fantasy, he observes, includes a holistic, Catholic economy of transcendent powers wherein “good magic” is at least implicitly miraculous and black magic is always demonic. The worldview embodied in high fantasy acknowledges and celebrates the philosophical trinity of goodness, beauty, and truth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories exemplify High Fantasy.

The second type of speculative fiction in Wright’s hierarchy is Sword-and-Sorcery. This sub-genre, which in the author’s estimation is informed by more Protestant sensibilities, regards magic as evil–the eldritch lore of Lovecraftian horror that leads to corruption and madness. Any beneficial effects result from interventions by ineffable forces. Heroes, who know better than to rely on such fickle powers, conquer evil with cunning and brawn. The world is founded on truth, but each character must discover it on his own. The works of Robert E. Howard depict this worldview.

Wright coins the term Sword-and-Magic-User for the third spec fic sub-genre. Here, magic has no moral dimension apart from its users’ ends. Rather than a transcendent power, magic is just another technology. This utilitarian bent estranges Sword-and-Magic-User fiction from serious consideration of matters spiritual. This sub-genre is represented by the writings of Michael Moorcock.

Last but not least, Wright discusses how Science Fiction eschews mystical trappings altogether and portrays its wonders as miracles of science. Yet the effects of these technological feats are no less astounding than the marvels wrought by sorcery in fantasy tales. Frank Herbert’s Dune universe is built on these assumptions.

“In Science Fiction the role of magic is ambiguous, and this reflects the ambiguous attitude of the modern age toward all things supernatural.” With this observation, Wright brings his commentary on speculative fiction to bear on his essay’s main thesis. The worldview enshrined in Science Fiction is modernism, and many moderns invest the same sort of cultish faith in science that their forefathers once reserved for articles of revealed or mystical religion.

Wright notes that this modernist faith brings the exhilaration of vastly improved worldly prosperity, but also the discontent that comes from the inescapable truth that no amount of technologically increased liberty, knowledge, technology, or wealth can satisfy our perennial human hunger for the transcendent.

Here the author introduces a recurring theme of his political philosophy: “…the four stages of a decay toward the nihilist abyss: the worldly man, the cultist, the occultist, the anarchist.” Like the four types of speculative fiction, each of these steps has its literary champions.

The worldly man discounts revelation and conflates truth with empirical fact. He demands license to indulge his preferred pleasures and respects his neighbor’s wish to do the same. Robert A. Heinlein’s work is a perfect example of the worldly stage.

The cultist embraces a hard form of the worldly man’s soft materialism while reacting violently against his perceived hedonism. Cultists believe that the optimal means of ordering human life can be deduced with absolute certainty from empirical facts. This unbalanced absolutism leads the cultist to reject virtue and embrace vice. The writings of H.G. Wells and Ayn Rand serve as examples of the cultist stage.

The occultist rejects the cultist’s materialistic dogmatism in favor of epistemic and moral relativism. This denial of objective truth limits the occultist to soft virtues, such as tolerance and kindness, to the exclusion of hard virtues like justice and charity. Ursula K. Le Guin’s works are the most prominent depictions of occultism in SFF.

Wright calls the final stage nihilism or anarchy. The nihilist denounces all of the previous stages and believes only one truth: that there is no truth. He despises all virtues and revels in destruction. To him, beauty and ugliness are equally meaningless. Referring to the categories of speculative fiction, nihilism is the antithesis of High Fantasy.



Blindsight by Peter Watts is a stark portrayal of nihilism. Wright argues that this book demonstrates what is lacking in a modern world dominated by nihilist sentiment. Lacking truth, goodness, and beauty, the only logical response to existence is to destroy everything, including oneself.

Wright answers that nihilists’ doubt in revelation is no less dogmatic than Christians’ faith. If they really exist, beauty and truth vindicate divine revelation because they spring from the same source. And as the perfection of revelation, Christ wields sovereign authority.

The errors of worldliness, cultishness, and occultism all stem from nihilism, and Wright points out that transhumanism’s ultimate goal of curing mortality is the logical extreme of worldly thought. The transhumanists’ a priori materialism makes Wright skeptical of their project’s success. If humans have a spiritual dimension, our nature cannot be perfected by purely material means. Any attempt to alter human nature must, by definition, produce something inhuman, and fallen beings given an eternity to perfect their sins would be indistinguishable from devils.

“Transhuman and Subhuman” by John C. Wright clearly presents the author’s skepticism of transhumanist claims through a categorical examination of speculative fiction.

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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.