John C. Wright is the visionary author that Publisher’s Weekly called “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent”. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading his blog, you’ll also know he is a Catholic philosopher, a Catwoman fanatic, and a senior supervillain in the United Underworld Evil League of Evil.
His memory banks inform me that he is also a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaperman editor. He lives in fairy-tale-like happiness with his wife, the esteemed authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children: Pingping, Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright.
His Castalia House publications include AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND, CITY BEYOND TIME, ONE BRIGHT STAR TO GUIDE THEM, THE BOOK OF FEASTS & SEASONS, TRANSHUMAN AND SUBHUMAN and contributions to SCI PHI JOURNAL #1 and #2.
For a full list of his awesome oeuvre, go here.
Q: Your conversion story from atheism to Christianity is remarkable. Some critics have been surprised to discover which of your books were written as a Christian, and which were written as an atheist. You have said that in each case you simply followed the internal logic of the story to its conclusion. How much has your faith influenced your fiction, if at all?
A: This is a very difficult question, because my firm resolution when first I converted was to simply tell stories to entertain.
I am often annoyed by stories that preach, even when they preach a sermon with which I wholly agree, such as Philip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS. I was an atheist when I read it, a full-throated anti-Christian zealous in my love of godlessness, and even I could not stand the obtrusive excrescence of the preaching in that miserable book.
Now that I am in the other camp of the endless war between light and darkness, I confess I am still nonplussed and unamused by preaching disguised as entertainment, whether it supports my side or not. The idea of ‘Christian entertainment’ is a sound one, as long as it is entertaining as well as being Christian. There is an odor of self satisfied smugness and piety which is as repellant as the musk of a skunk clinging to many Christian entries into the literary world, which one never finds in older works, such as Milton or Dante, and never in the works of masters even in so humble as genre as science fiction. I challenge anyone to find anything nakedly and blandly pious or preachy in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers, but there is clearly a spiritual dimension to all their works.
So I vowed a great vow never to let my personal feelings creep into my books, but merely to tell a tale for the sake of the tale, keeping faith with my readers. I am not their teacher, nor their preacher, nor their father confessor, and I have no duty to instruct them, and no qualifications to do so, no more than the jester in a King’s court has the authority to criticize the laws and policies of the King. My customers are my kings, and my job is to do pratfalls and take pies to the face to amuse them.
In the space of a single hour my great vow was overthrown when a reader, practically in tears, so deeply and thoughtfully praised the vision of spiritual reality presented in one of my short stories, the wholesomeness of the moral atmosphere portrayed there, that the reader likened it to a man trapped on some alien world of chlorine gas and sulfurous clouds being allowed to step on the fair, green fields of Earth for a single breath of wholesome, springtime air.
The reader was talking about my Christian faith, and the strength and firmness and clarity it lent to my writing. If I can wax lyrical about Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage, as I did in THE GOLDEN AGE, then surely I can wax lyrical about truth, virtue, and beauty.
The king is sad, and the jester needs to bring him comfort, for I know tales of a country where these sad things do not reign, but a king kindlier and mightier than any mortal king. As a jester, I owe it to my kings here on Earth and the King of Kings in heaven not to hide or waste my talents.
So, from now on, all my work will contain some element of the higher reality in addition to stories about space princesses being menaced by space monsters.
Now, a wise reader will notice not much difference in my books before and after this vow. This is because I write as the muse dictates. The muse uses my experiences and beliefs as grist for her great mill along with all other elements in the universe, because nothing is beyond her reach.
Q: If a writer is a good craftsman, will his worldview affect the story? Should it?
A: I cannot speak for other writers. Myself, I could not keep my personal beliefs out of my writing even if I wished for the same reason I cannot intrude my personal beliefs into my writing even if I wished. I write what my ferocious poet’s heart commands, and what the logic of the story dictates, and there is no use daydreaming about resisting such commands as these nor overthrowing such a dictator as this.
Q: Speaking of biographical questions, why do modern critics and journalists obsessively fixate on an author’s personal history and try to explain (or dismiss) their works with armchair psychology? What drives this trend?
A: Obviously, if the critic accepts the philosophical notion that all opinions are relative to one’s social status, economic class, sex or race, one must accept the conclusion that there is no such thing as good art or bad art, no standards by which such things can be judged, aside from their political expediency.
Those works it is expedient to praise, since one cannot praise their adherence to a nonexistent standard, the lazy and dishonest critic can praise by reference to secret and inner psychological strengths and virtues in the writer, expressed in his writing. I speak here theoretically, since I have never once in real life read a single critic who praised a writer based on the virtue of his sound and heroic psychology.
Those works it is expedient to dispraise, since one cannot dispraise their falling short of an nonexistent standard, the lazy and dishonest critic can dispraise by reference to secret and inner psychological weaknesses and vices in the writer.
What drives this trend is witchhunting. The Leftist Witchfinger General, together with the Thought Police, are frantically busy, busy as bees, attempting to accuse everyone and everything of every imaginary crime their limited and diseased imaginations can concoct.
The favorite accusations of the witchhunters these days are to accuse the writer of fair-mindedness, chastity, Christianity, sanity, under the various witchhunter-jargon names of racism, sexism, bigotry, cowardice. The advantage of being a witchhunter, is that one knows there are no witches, and so anyone can be accused at any time, and no one is allowed to defend himself.
What drives the trend is an utter lack of justice and a deep and abiding hatred of fair-mindedness, objectivity, rationality and reason. The Witchhunters are in a revolt against reality, and anything that reminds them of reality causes them to flinch and scream and cower and fling their claws before their blind and blood-leaking eyes much like a vampire seeing the sun, or Gollum from Tolkien.
Q: That said, are you related to the Wright brothers? The people want to know.
A: I do not know. My great-grandfather hopped a train late one night departing Circleville, Ohio, with my grandfather under his arm. Nothing else is known of any relatives farther back than this, nor did my grandfather ever learn his mother’s name.
My grandafther’s name was Orville, and he was born in the same year as the famed first flight of the Wright Brothers, but before they flew. The two brothers did not themselves have any children, but other members of their family did, and their family was from that area of Ohio, as was mine.
Q: Your novel AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND, while not a narrative retelling of William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, shares the same universe, while your NULL-A CONTINUUM is a sequel to A.E. van Vogt’s WORLD OF NULL-A. What is it like playing in somebody else’s sandbox, and how should a writer approach reworking, reimagining, or adapting another’s work?
A: I am embarrassed you did not mention ‘Guyal the Curator’ my story set in the Dying Earth background of Jack Vance, appearing in SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH, the one pastiche of which I am most proud. I nailed his vocabulary and word patterns perfectly, better than writers more accomplished than I.
Honestly, writing in another’s sandbox is no different than writing for a comic book or a situation comedy where the basics of the situation have been established by other writers. It is no different than writing Hard SF, where the writer has little to no liberty to violate known laws of science, or writing historical fiction, where the writer has little to no liberty to violate known events of history.
For that matter, it is no different than writing a sequel to one’s own work, where nothing established in the previous books can be overthrown or ignored. Or, to be specific, if it is overthrown, it has to be overthrown for a reason that is established within the story telling logic already set down.
I have been inventing and moderating role playing games set in backgrounds invented by other men ever since I was in school. Like any other work of art, there is a scope where your imagination can run wild, and a scope where your imagination has to be reigned in, and disciplined to the established cannon. It is really no more difficult than adhering to the metrical rules governing how to write a sonnet.
One tremendous advantage of such world-sharing is that the audience comes with a certain set of expectations and emotional attachment to the characters and setting, so that any surprises or plot twists can be carried off with far less work on the part of the writer. Or, rather, his work is both liberated and constrained by the established cannon.
If I am writing a Fantastic Four story set in the Marvel Universe, I do not need to explain to any reader who Doctor Doom is. I can build on the work of those who have gone before me. Likewise, if I establish in the story that the world of Phaethon, which once orbited between Mars and Jupiter, was smashed to asteroids by the hunger of Galactus, more than half my work has already been done for me by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. My mission is only not to betray the legacy I have been granted, by, for example, making Galactus into a Greenpeace activist.
Q: One of my favorite aspects of SF/F is the bewilderment I experience when reading the first chapter of a new novel, when I have stepped into a completely different world and am bombarded with strange images, languages, and people. As an author with superb world-building skills, how do you lead a reader into your alien world without completely alienating him? How do you strike the right balance between the familiar with the unfamiliar?
A: If I meet an author with suburb world-building skills, I will ask him. As far as I am concerned, the answer to that question varies with the logic of the story telling of the work under my hand, that is, with what the story telling goal is, and what my means to reach that goal are.
In the case of THE GOLDEN AGE, my ambition was to write the most ambitious and far reaching far future novel I could possibly manage. Hence, there I was willing to take great risks with alienating the readers unable to keep pace with the frantic speed of the introduction of mind-boggling concepts and half-familiar alien terminology. So, as far as that book went, the reader was thrown into the deep end of the pool for the sake of the shock.
In the case of NULL-A CONTINUUM or AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LANDS, to which you alluded in a prior question, I was constrained to adopt the strategy of the author, in order to adhere to his mood and theme. A.E van Vogt deliberately used a technique where a new concept or alien idea was introduced every six hundred words or so, requiring the reader to make a leap of imagination akin to a leap of faith to fill in the missing details.
William Hope Hodgson used a different technique, where, instead of any description at all, he would refer to the menaces of the Night Land merely by a suggestive yet nondescript name, such as The Great Watching Thing of the Northwest, or the Thing That Nods, or The Mountain That Never Speaks.
On the other hand, for a book like LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS or COUNT TO A TRILLION, the viewpoint character is from our own world, or something very near to it, and the story telling logic required keeping the narration always from the viewpoint of a single protagonist, so that any surprises to the protagonist were also surprises to the reader. Those books start in the shallow end and go step by step into the depths.
So, in short, I do not in my writing strike any balance at all. For stories where the story telling logic requires clear and concise descriptions of exactly what the protagonist is seeing, I writer clear and concise descriptions. Where the story telling logic requires a leap of the imagination, I leave the appropriate gap or cleft in the narrative, without railing and without a safety net, and have faith that my reader can make the leap. We are science fiction people, after all!
Q: From what I’ve read of your work, your characters often have trouble remembering or dealing with their past. In THE GOLDEN AGE, portions of Phaethon’s memory have been wiped. Tommy’s past comes calling for him in the form of a cat in ONE BRIGHT STAR TO GUIDE THEM (and Richard seems unwilling to remember their childhood adventures). The sun and the moon have become half-forgotten myths in AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND. Mr. Frontino from MURDER IN METACHRONOPOLIS suffers from the opposite problem: a hardened memory of all the timelines he’s experienced (though at one point he too also has some of his memories wiped). What do you suppose draws you to this motif?
A: That question I can answer exactly. My favorite books when I was young were WORLD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt, NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Roger Zealazny, DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer, DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by HP Lovecraft. An astute reader will recognize what these books have in common. Gilbert Gosseyn does not know why he has an extra brain; Carl Corey does not know he is Corwin of Amber; Igor Ravel does not know he is a time traveler; Randolph Carter does not know that the fabulous sunset city he seeks is his own native city of Boston, seen through the lens of his childhood memories.
But I wanted to have memory loss be the main problem for Phaethon, because the technology involved in editing and downloading human brain information automatically implies that a person in such a society cannot trust his own memories. I am actually a little surprised that other writers in so called post Singularity fiction do not make more of this: total human control of the environment, including all the information in the environment, would mean the trustworthiness of your senses, memory, personality, and identity would only be as trustworthy as the men (or machines) controlling your mental environment.
The memory loss in ORPHANS OF CHAOS was more due to storytelling technique: I could not have my teenagers start out the story by knowing who they were, and amnesia in a story is a elegant way to have the reader make discoveries about the character at the same time the character does. Otherwise, the reader has to play ‘catch-up’ to the character. If the character is from an alien dimension, it becomes far less awkward to try to describe things (especially in first person) if the character is born and raised on Earth and can relate things to the reader’s frame of reference and background.
The memory loss in LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS was a matter of mood: dreams are dreamlike because we forget them when we wake up. The idea of a ‘memory mansion’ is one I stole without a qualm of guilt from John Crowley, who got it from Giordano Bruno, who got it from the Greeks. I loved the idea that mnemonics, the Ancient Art of Memory, was the only ‘superpower’ my hero possessed: he recalled what other men forgot. Everness, of course, is my homage to Edgewood: a memory mansion built in the real world
Q: You have often credited your muse for inspiration. How many muses are there, where do they come from, and how do I borrow yours?
A: There are nine muses: Thalia, Melpomene, Erato, Calliope, Clio, Terpsechore, Polyhymnia, Euterpe, Urania. They inspire comedy, tragedy, love poetry, epic, history, dance, psalmody, lyric poetry. Urania is often listed as the muse of astronomy, but clearly she is a muse of science fiction. Those who say that there are three are heretics and followers of Robert Graves.
If I owned the muses, I would lend them to you. I do not. They own me. If you wish to be possessed, the best tactic is surrender.
Q: How has the editing process been for you at Castalia House?
A: Mr Beale makes competent and workmanlike suggestions I am glad to incorporate into my work without debate. So far he has not given me any bad advice. My editor at Tor Books likewise, I should hasten to add. The struggles and heartache of which one so often hears such bitter complaints, has, by the grace of some good fairy, passed me by.
Q: If you were a fireman from Fahrenheit 451 and you could only save one of your books (that you have written) from being burned, which would you save and why?
A: If I were a fireman from FAHRENHEIT 451, then I would save DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA by Alexis de Tocqueville, so that I might subvert my fellow subjects of the telly-addicted police state with memory of what our nation once was and could be again. I would also wear a Guy Fawkes mask a black opera cape and a hat with a buckle on the hatband, because those are Way Cool, and I understand this is the fashionable dress for Catholic revolutionaries discontent with the reigning powers that be.
If I had to save a science fiction book, I would save Bradbury’s book itself. Not only would it creep out Montag and my fellow firemen, but it might give them some hope.
If you want to ask me which book of those I’ve written is my favorite, please ask me that. If you want to ask which, if any, could do some good to the surrounding society, please ask me that. My favorite of my own works is ‘One Bright Star to Guide Them.’
I doubt my humble works can do any good to my surrounding society, since I write them as lighthearted entertainment – but heaven works in mysterious ways, and can from time to time slip in a message of hope or inspiration even into the most insipid and trivial of pastimes.
Maybe ORPHANS OF CHAOS might shock some student nodding over his modern, politically-correct boring textbooks by hinting at what a real disciplined liberal arts education can mean for a student.
Q: Which of your works do you feel is most suitable for a cinematic adaptation, and which would you most like to see on the big screen? For extra fun, name your ideal cast and director.
A: No, thank you. What I want is an animated feature film drawn by Bruce Timm and the team who did JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED to put ORPHANS OF CHAOS on the screen.
Amelia Windrose can be voiced by Tara Strong (she voiced Batgirl and Harley Quinn) and Headmaster Boggin by David Ogden Stiers. Carl Lumbly can be Victor Triumph (He was the voice of the Martian Manhunter).
Q: What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
A: THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. And the best film I’ve seen in ten years is INTERSTELLAR by Christopher Nolan.
Q: As a former stoic, you are most likely a man of considerable discipline. What advice would you give to a young writer to help them develop the necessary self-discipline to write every day?
A: No, I am most likely a man who wishes he had considerable self discipline. The advice I would give any young writer is to marry a woman who wants you to be a writer. You will do things for her you can never find the strength on your own to do for yourself.
Q: In a 2007 interview with Avi Abrams of Dark Roasted Blend, you mentioned that you were planning to write a book of Christian apologetics called ‘Letters from Tomorrow’. Is that still in the works?
A: Yes, albeit I have not touched the manuscript in some time.
Q: Having now tackled the time travel, far future romance, fairy tale, space opera, dying earth, and high fantasy subgenres of SF/F, when can we expect your sword and sorcery, steampunk, military sci-fi, Cthulian, superhero, and southern gothic horror novels? In other words, what’s coming up next?
A: Oddly enough, SOMEWHITHER will be published by Castalia House in 2015. It is a sword and sorcery steampunk military sci-fi superhero gothic horror novel.
I don’t write southern novels, because I live in the south, and since I am so absent minded and unobservant, the perennial writing advice to ‘write what you know’ forbids me from writing about things in my immediate environment, as they always escape my attention.
Q: With the advent of digital publishing and the increasing politicalization of the genre, SF/F is changing rather rapidly. Suppose you have inherited H.G. Well’s Time Machine and decide to make three trips into the future, traveling to the years 2024, 2114, and 802,701 A.D. What does the SF/F genre look like in each period?
A: Well, I can give a rather accurate answer to this question. Let me answer in several parts:
Before ten years have passed, several events will have happened to change the landscape of science fiction publication. First, in 2009, Max Guevera and eleven other transgenics escape from the facility named Manticore; months later, terrorists detonate an electro-magnetic pulse device which devastates civilization. Publication of science fiction will be severely restricted, and a return to paper printing almost impossible to accomplish in the midst of the depressions and revolutions following. In 2010, the Monolith Architects will ignite Jupiter into a second sun, for the benefit of the creatures dwelling in the seas of Io, and human astronauts forbidden from attempting any landings. This will produce a crushing sense of mental inferiority in the general mass of mankind, and their interest in reading books about human scientific achievements will be severely curtailed. By 2013, Snake Plissken will activate a superweapon shutting down all electronic technology worldwide. Hence, book selling as a profession will have entered a period of sharp decline. Also, since Nehemiah Schudder was the last elected president of the United States since 2012 A.D., the theocracy ruled from Lynchburg, Virginia, the new capital, will have ruled all forms of entertainment and happiness to be against Biblical principles, and had them banned.
By 2022 A.D., New York City has become overpopulated with 40 million starving citizens, but remember that Thursday is Soylent Green day. Fortunately, in 2021, the world population dropped almost to nothing, since worldwide sterility began to afflict all the children of men. In 2020, Arno Stark, the current wearer of the Iron Man armor will travel back to our time to battle Spider-Man, whom I frankly consider to be a menace. In 2026, the New Tower of Babel will be erected in an unnamed metropolis under the control of ruthless industrialist Joh Fredersen. Let us hope major flooding does not drown our proletarian workforce. So the slump in science fiction book sales caused by the destruction of civilization in the Teens will, by the Twenties, show signs of recovery.
By 2114 A.D., the unmanned Night-to-Lightspeed interstellar vessel Croesus arrives at V 886 Centauri and begins star-lifting operations of the antimatter plasma found in the photosphere. An artifact of nonhuman intelligent origin called ‘the Monument’ is discovered and photographed by the onboard artificial intelligence, but the radio-laser broadcast back to Earth is not received, due to the Little Dark Ages, the Jihad, and the events surrounding. Oddly, science fiction writing will suffer a tremendous boost in readership among the genetically altered members of the Kshatriya caste in the Hindosphere, now the world’s predominant hegemonic power.
By 802701 A.D., The Second Men will have penetrated into the midst of the continent of Gonwonlane and discovered a longstanding war between the super-evolved simians of the equatorial jungles and the few, scattered, semi-moronic but highly aggressive descendants of the once-great First Human Species. The Second Men, possessed of greater charity and an utter lack of egoism, will have no use for science fiction stories, and their publications will consist almost entirely on mathematical and theological treatises. However, this inability to imagine and propagate science fiction will leave the Second Men almost entirely unprepared when cloudlets of the mass-mind of the self-aware living dust-storm entities inhabiting the frigid atmosphere of Mars make the odyssey across the unthinkable abyss of interplanetary space, and establish a colony atop the Himalayas.
Wait, did you want a real answer to a question about the real world? I am a science fiction writer, dammit, and we don’t know squat about what is really going to happen. If we did, you and me and all of us would long since have had our jetpacks and talking robots and moonbases and have been fighting invaders from Mars.
Q: How can your readers and fans pray for you in 2015?
A: I would like them to pray for the health and wellbeing of my family, particularly of my second born son.
Q: And what are your resolutions for the New Year?
A: My resolution is to get a jetpack and fly with my talking robot to the moonbase, and then to Mars and fight the invaders there.