Transhuman and Subhuman Part IV – Science Fiction: What Is It Good For?

science fiction: what is it good for?

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

The fourth essay in Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth sends a wake up call to readers of mainstream fiction, from whose beloved art form all traces of the fantastic, the romantic, and the wondrous have been methodically banished.

Those who look down on genre fiction may view the trend toward realism as literature’s triumph over schlock, but Mr. Wright counts the artistic cost of mundanity.

“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.”

By restricting their vision to the narrowest definition of what is real, authors of literary fiction blind themselves to the ways in which mundane reality mediates wonder and grandeur.

Indeed, consistent application of contemporary mainstream fiction’s arbitrary standards would dictate the expulsion of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Wagner, and even Jane Austen from the canon of literature.

What shriveled the Western imagination? Wright sees the start of the rot in the aftermath of the Great War. Europe’s wholesale disillusionment precipitated a soft ban on overt fantasy; then on the supernatural, and finally on heroism, in mainstream fiction.

Since art concretizes the spirit of the age, the ailment that afflicted Europe’s intellectuals in the Great War’s wake can be diagnosed as a spiritual sickness. Europe lost the faith in God that had raised and nourished it, and so Europe lost faith in itself. American academics were, as always, only too quick to follow their betters into the abyss.

Like city fathers walling off undesirables and untouchables, the gatekeepers of literary fiction maintained their artificial purity by segregating fantastic, romantic, and heroic stories within genre ghettos.

Thus, says Wright, science fiction preserved the banished elements of fantasy by exploiting a literary loophole: the sense of wonder evoked in even the bitterest cynics by the unknown.

Fantasy had a slower recovery, but under the captaincy of Tolkien, it has been marching from victory to victory. “…fantasy writers like Tolkien occupy the high position once held by Wagner and Shakespeare.

According to Wright, the end of science fiction and fantasy’s exile was decreed by the advent of a single film: George Lucas’ cultural juggernaut Star Wars. “When…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.

Having examined how genre fiction’s banishment came about, and how it ended, Wright turns to the questions of where sci-fi is going, and what it’s for.

Besides fables to instruct the young, epics to memorialize the great, ghost stories to remind men of our mortality, stories concretize spiritual realities. And the best stories–those that speak to the deepest longings of the human heart–serve to remind us that we don’t really belong here; that this world of sadness, injustice, and pain is not our true home.

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.

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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.