TRANSHUMAN AND SUBHUMAN Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth.

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Here is the introduction by Mike Flynn, author of WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS, FIRESTAR, EIFELHEIM, IN THE LION’S MOUTH, and FALLEN ANGELS (with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle), along with other firmly grounded, scientifical tales of galactic empires, tunnels through space-time, immortal Danish madmen, and similar accounts.


The Wright Stuff

by Michael F. Flynn

Some of you, upon spying this collection, perhaps upon a remainder table in a cobwebbed bookstore or on a radhi-pile in the back alleys of Royapuram in Old Madras, may rightly wonder to yourself, “John Wright? Who he, hah?”

If you have been already enjoying his rants and essays on-line, no introduction is needed; so why are you reading this? But some have perhaps read what Publisher’s Weekly called his “ornate and conceptually dense prose” in the Golden Age or Orphans of Chaos trilogies or, more recently in his Count to the Eschaton sequence (It’s too late to call it a trilogy), and have picked up this volume out of curiosity.

Still others have wondered whether there is somewhere a non-medicinal remedy for low blood pressure.

Wonder no more. Some of these essays are guaranteed to raise your blood pressure sufficiently that blood will squirt from your eyes like soda from a shaken can. So read them carefully. And wear safety goggles.

If you agree with Mr. Wright, you will be taken for an entertaining ride. If you do not agree, I ask you to keep in mind Robert A. Heinlein’s dictum: “I never learned anything from a man who agreed with me.”

“Ornate and conceptually dense prose” will often carry multiple meanings. Mr. Wright launched into life as a lawyer and has the Way Cool mind power of laying out an ordered and orderly argument, something to which the Late Modern is so unaccustomed that he might dash his foot upon an unexpected syllogism and hop about in excruciating pain. But Mr.Wright is also quite able to rabble-rouse a jury and some of his polemics are pure entertainment, on the order of John Belushi writhing on the floor on the old SNL.

In “The Hobbit, or, the Desolation of Tolkien”, Mr. Wright is assaulted again and again by the Hammer of Stupidity, and recalls a poster for the movie:

“Upon seeing that odd poster, a spasm like biting with a tooth whose filing has worked lose onto a chip of ice wrapped in tinfoil and hot mustard jolted through my unwarned brain.”

He is more serious when marking the milestones on the road to perdition in “Transhuman and Subhuman” and discusses the path toward the

“…the four stages of a decay toward the nihilist abyss: the worldly man, the cultist, the occultist, the anarchist. … The Worldly Man is content to mind his own business and seek his own pleasures after his own fashion, and demands his neighbors do the same. The business he minds is to maintain the public peace (as in STARSHIP TROOPER) and to get laid (as in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND).

When Mr. Wright talks about “Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters” it will be well to pause and wonder what he’s getting at rather than succumb to a knee-jerk reaction to the literalist meaning of the title. Such reactions typically owe more to the make-up of the knee than to the substance of the mallet. (A hint: if a female character is relentlessly praised as “kickass,” what victory is it exactly that has been won over the masculinist values of the Patriarchy?)

Mr. Wright has been known to write namby-pamby fantasy with no anchor in reality, in contrast to my own firmly grounded, scientifical tales of galactic empires, tunnels through space-time, immortal Danish madmen, and similar accounts. But whether fantasy or science fiction, Wright shows a broad grasp of our genre. You will find here appreciations or critiques of Gene Wolfe, A.E. van Vogt, Keith Laumer, Ted Chiang, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip Pullman, and others. In each case, he takes one or more of their stories and analyzes what works or fails to work, why it resonates with us or not. Contemplating Snow White and her little woodland helpers, he writes:

If, like me, you have too much free time on your hands, you have probably wondered why Snow White, at least as Walt Disney portrays her tale, has small woodland animals to help her with her household chores, with bunnies and chipmunks scrubbing dishes, songbirds helping to sew and fawns dusting the furniture with their white tails. If, like me, you have too much education on your hands, you probably have used Aristotelian categories to analyze the question.

Few are the authors who could create an Aristotelian discourse out of Snow White. But Wright leads us to an intriguing thesis regarding the very different ways in which a) Snow White and b) Tarzan of the Apes interact with their animal buddies (“Whistle While You Work”).

Regarding Laumer’s The Glory Game, he looks at how noir sensibilities inform a certain subset of science fiction and where they lie on the hedonist-to-nihilist scale.

Noir stories are not nihilist stories, albeit they are cantilevered over the abyss of nihilism and dangle their toes.

He criticizes Pullman’s His Dark Materials (in “The Golden Compass Points in No Direction”), less on Pullman’s atheism than on the failure of his art, where he sacrificed story in order to preach a sermon. Authorial promises are made, but not delivered. Character arcs veer off course. “Chekhov’s gun” remains unfired.

Mr. Pullman started with a story, a Paradise Lost version where Lucifer was the good guy facing impossible odds by defying an unconquerable god; but he ended with a message, where there are no odds because there is no god, merely a drooling idiot. So all plot logic flies out the window…

We cannot close this introduction without some comment on Mr. Wright’s well-known stance on the shortfalls of the Late Modern Age. That he’s agin’ ‘em should elicit no calls for the smelling salts. He is an unapologetic devotee of logic and reason and Western Civilization, and in fact was so even years ago when he was an atheist. To some measure, this makes him a conservative as Late Moderns dice and slice the political psyche. But by other measures, he is a liberal of the old, romantic sort. (Recall Chesterton’s aphorism that while he still believes in liberalism, he no longer believes in liberals.) And by still other measures, he cuts crosswise to Late Modern categories entirely, being a refugee from an earlier age. The fault may lie in the wrong measures rather than in the Wright author.

So you will find here too faint echoes of the distant horns of elfland, sometimes in the most unlikely places (“Science Fiction: What’s it Good for?”). He actually believes in art and beauty and that even the hardest of hard SF is all about magic and myth.

“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.”

Neither does he make a secret where he locates the wellsprings of Truth and Beauty. His logic and reason dragged him by the neocortex toward the bosom of Mother Church. Reason wasn’t the only factor – there was another impetus as well – but he has often said that if Vulcans had a religion they would be Catholics. The Church too found much to admire in the old pagan Stoics. She just didn’t think it was enough.

The connection of reason and faith is so iron-bound that Mr. Wright can wonder whence comes the “Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith”? Science Fiction is, after all, full of the images and tropes of faith, and all stories that resonate with readers derive in one way or another from the “greatest story ever told.” Wandering too far from this core is not merely theologically unsound; it is bad art.

“Pullman was as blasphemous as Heinlein in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, but not as funny…”

On a personal note, I first met Mr. Wright at a Philcon several years ago, when we were booked to do autographing in the same time slot. He is a fellow of impressive stature, gentle and good-natured lest aroused, widely educated in the great books of Western Civilization – funny how often that leads to the Tiber – and an entertaining conversationalist.

The autographing session was scheduled around lunchtime and just before it was to start, the lovely and talented Mrs. Wright – L. Jagi Lamplighter – brought him his lunch, which she had secured elsewhere at the con. And then Mr. Wright did two remarkable things.

First, he divided his lunch in half and offered one half to me.

Second, he bowed over his lunch, crossed himself, and said grace.

You don’t often see both grace and grace together at an SF con.