Interview: John C Wright with Ernest Lilley
Review: The Golden Transcendence
SFRevu: Congratulations on the finish of the Golden Oecuneme, and a wonderful first novel, if in three parts. How do you feel now that it's all out there?
John C. Wright: On the one hand, it is a dream come true. I have wanted to be a SF writer since I was nine years old. On the other hand, I am happy that I had children before I had a book published, so that I have not lost track of what is important and unimportant in life.
SFR: Did you have fun writing the story? I've certainly enjoyed reading it.
JCW: Fun does not enter into the equation. I write because I cannot imagine not imagining things.
I am goaded to my task by muses of Helicon like an ox lumbering to the threshing. The ox that is not muzzled while he treads the corn, is allowed a small mouthful or two of the grain he tramples, so that the work is not pure toil; but I am not sure one calls it fun.
SFR: Can you boil the "lesson" in the book down into a short bit that simple folk (like me) can get? Or should we just read it and hope that it seeps in on some level?
JCW: Lesson? I am not wise enough to be a tutor, and it would be presumptuous of me to think I am. My purpose was to entertain. One can read the moral out of any situation, real or imagined, by seeing what allowed the victor to prevail, and at what cost. The protagonist in my book prevails because he has so much self-consistency and that he can even continue to act as befits his character, even when his memory is erased. The villains fail in the end because they lack character; they (literally) end up fighting themselves. Integrity would seem to be the key to success in the Golden Oecumene universe.
SFR: Are Heroes a good thing to have around? They seem pretty disruptive to peace and security.
JCW: And a fireman is no use until there is a fire. I am sure that St. George was disruptive to the dragon, and Beowulf imposed on the peace and security of Grendel. The virgins sacrificed to the dragon, and the jarls slain in Heorot, might demur.
SFR: By the way, where does "Oecuneme" come from?
JCW: It is Greek. It is an alternate spelling of the word Oikumene or Ekumen or Ecumen. To the Greek, the known quarter of the world was called the Oecumene. Since the world got hotter to the south and colder north, the Greek love of moderation and temperance in all things convinced them that life could not exist in the tropics, or in the arctic. They concluded there was a zone of fire circling the equator. But they knew also that the world was a globe, and so calculated there were be another moderate, temperate zone on the other side of the globe: the lands on the opposite side of the world were called the Antipodes, which means "The place where the feet are opposite" since, to those on our side of the globe, they seem to be standing on their heads. Because the Oecumene included the known world, when the Universal and Catholic Church convened councils from the entire known world of the Roman Empire, they were called Ecumenical councils.
I would have used a more common spelling, but better writers than myself had already taken them up: Ursula LeGuin's Hainish novels take place within the Ekumen; The Demon Prince novels of Jack Vance take place either within the Oikumene.
SFR: Few writers have your command of grammar and language. I certainly don't. I quail when contemplating the use a semicolon, and the only example of the future perfect tense I know is "scrod", which comes out of a joke about the Boston fish market. Oh, look I'm trying to sound witty and pontificate and all I'm accomplishing is to sound inane. See what you've done? Anyway, is the polysyllabic preponderance and pedantic posturing (fun as it is) a conscious bit of style, or your natural voice? Would you write in your own voice or is everything style and artifice?
JCW: The purpose of erudition is to hide that fact that intellectuals know far less about the real world than people who work for a living. My own voice is scholarly and pedantic. I am a scholar and a pedant. From time to time, I attempt to write a character who speaks with vulgar and vernacular simplicity, and these are usually tin-eared failures. In this particular book, I was attempting to make the characters from the far future sound like people from the past, and so I added archaisms and anachronisms to their speech to give a sense of distance and grandeur. Other books or other characters do not require elevated language.
SFR: Tell us about the small boy growing up in Virginia gazing up at the stars.
Before you read all those Great Books. Did you watch the early space shots with
rapt attention, or where they before your time? Did you tell stories to
SFR: When did you discover books? Especially (of course) Science Fiction? Do you remember the first real book your read, and do you think favorably of it?
JCW: The first book of any kind that I read on my own, for pleasure, was called Young Daniel Boone, one of the "Young Americans" series, which told semi- fictional biographies of the childhoods of famous figures in America. A friend of my father’s loaned the first science fiction book I read to me: it was the paperback edition of Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel. The first paperback I ever owned by a hand-me-down copy of Players Of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt. The first new paperback I owned was Dreamquest Of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft; the first one I ever bought myself was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The first hardback I ever owned was The Silmarillion by Professor Tolkein.
An alert reader will notice my debt to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy imprint edited by Lin Carter: almost all the fantastic fiction I read in youth was from this line. Particularly vivid in my memory was an obscure work (rescued by Mr. Carter from oblivion) called Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. The power of the imagery in Hodgson is remarkable and haunting, despite his awkward use of archaic language. (My own modest contributions to the Night Land mythos have been reprinted in a volume edited by Andy W. Robertson called William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Eternal Love. See Mr. Robertson's website at home.clara.net/andywrobertson/nightmap.html.) I think very highly of all these books. I remember them all very well indeed. My memory on other points is vague: I cannot tell you how old I was or what state I was living in, when I read them. I suppose I was not paying attention.
SFR: It certainly seems that attending St. Johns College in Annapolis (home, as you point out, of the Great Books Program) has stood you in good stead. How did you come to go there, and is there and point in the rest of us be playing catch- up by trying to read the classics? Is there a reading list worth perusing? Should there be more non-Western Civilization entries on the list?
All the great minds in history have been writing books, and each generation
of work contains answers and responses to the prior generations, so that all of
history is like a dialog of Titans, speaking from century to century. All the
allegedly great thoughts of modern thinkers, the latest modern ideas about man
and politics, religion and the universe, are merely the last five minutes of the
dialog. If you do not read the Great Books, then you walked in late, and missed
the question and the topic. A late-comer to the conversation runs the risk of
thinking some small digression or side-conversation is the main point. And a
late-comer will not know that the wonderful theory being proposed by the
sharpest point of the cutting edge of latest late thought is something that
Plato or Aristotle refuted some two thousand five hundred years ago. All the
unquestioned assumptions of our civilization, at one time, were questioned, and
both side of the question debated. Without knowing those debates, the student
cannot protect the roots of his thoughts. A shallow philosophy is easily
uprooted, and doomed to drift with the current of fashionable opinion,
swallowing whatever nonsense drifts by and scoffing at the rooted thinkers as
reactionaries. The only defense against shallowness is to know the roots of
things, and to know questions and the answers that old thinkers thought through.
The advantage of reading the Great Books, is that you will know where your
thoughts are rooted. You will be like a man with memory in an age of amnesiacs.
When everyone around you talks as if the present generation invented war and
peace, love and hate, and discovered the sexual process, you alone will recall
that the world existed before AD 1968. The reading list for St. John's is available on the Internet. Here it is:
Should there be non-Western Civilization entries on the list? The answer is no. There is hardly enough room as it is on the bookshelf of a student, or in the brain of a student, to give the works of our own civilization and culture an honest examination. Understanding the work of strangers is a leisure; understanding the work of one's own life and legacy is a duty. We live in an age where our next generation has been raised in appalling ignorance of our civilization, and whether they will be able to pass it intact their children is in doubt. Now is not the time to neglect our forefathers further. Not to be too blunt about it, but the Western Heritage is relevant to us, and the Eastern heritage is not.
Take a look at today's newspaper. You might see a debate about the justice of the war in the Middle East. The notion of the "Just War" that frames the debate was invented by St. Thomas Aquinas, based on Aristotelian thought. Familiarity with these root ideas deepens an otherwise shallow understanding of the debate. In contrast, Sun Tzu's theory of warfare did not affect Aquinas or Machiavelli or Clausewitz, and does not influence the theory or practice of warfare in the modern West. Reading the Bhagavad Gita or the Book of Five Rings, the Shahname or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, will add nothing to the student's understanding of the debate. Even in China itself, the main tension is between the ideals of Marx and Adam Smith, two Western men. The student riot and massacre at Tiananmen Square were not caused by a dispute over the ideas of Mencius or Xunzi And so likewise for all the great issues of our day. Our debates are always framed in terms of individual rights, the sacredness of human life, the duties a patriot owes his city. These ideas are from the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages, or from Ancient Rome. The notions unique to the East, Dharma and Karma, the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Path or the Way of Heaven, deepen no understanding of a Western discussion.
For those who do have leisure, St. John's does maintain a reading list of the Great Books of the East. It is available online at http://www.sjcsf.edu/academic/grads4.htm.
SFR: Does reading the Great Books of Science Fiction give one a grounding in anything? What are the Great Books of SF?
The SF greats are the writers you recognize by last name alone: Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Tolkein. Major writers are those writers whose works have influenced other writers. By this standard, for example, Gibson is a major writer and A.E. van Vogt is not. Even though I personally prefer one to the other, I must admit Gibson changed the way a whole generation wrote and read SF, whereas the work of A.E. van Vogt is isolated from the mainstream, and stands to one side of it. Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsany is a work of genius, but it is a work of erratic and freakish genius, having nothing to do with the main growth of science fiction, and contributing no ideas to future generations of writers.
SFR: In the Gevers Interview you said, "All the sophomoric ideas presently being preached from the pulpits of the pundits, all the clever policies of clever politicians: it has all been done before...The Twentieth Century A.D. might have been spared a great deal of grief and bloodshed, had she remembered the Fifth Century B.C." Is it possible that the thinking of the 20th Century was an attempt to repackage those great thoughts in ways that were consistent with a "rational" understanding of the universe?
JCW: The question assumes that Aristotle and Aquinas were not rational, whereas they wrote with Euclidean precision and deliberateness. The love of unreason which characterizes modern philosophy was introduced quite recently, with Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Marx's attempt to repackage the dark conceit of Plato, that men could live with all property shared in common, did not free it from the errors inherent in the concept, which are laid bare by Aristotle and, in more detail, by Adam Smith. His added material did not correct the flaws inherent in his borrowed material (and, indeed, Marx invented new flaws). The ideas of Marx enslaved half the world in half a century. The contagion spread more swiftly in lands where Aristotle and Adam Smith were not part of their education and tradition. Those of you who do not believe ideas have consequences, take note.
SFR: Were there no worthwhile contributions to the understanding of the human condition in the last century? Not even Post-Modernism?
JCW: Works written within the last century have not yet stood the test of time. It would be premature to say what will remembered by civilizations after our own, and what will be forgotten. I would venture to say that little recent work merits being remembered. Modern times have produced remarkably irrational philosophies, remarkably unbeautiful literature, and remarkably gross fine art, of interest not even to our general society. On the other hand, advances in the physical sciences, in medicine and mathematics, and in economics, that have taken place within the last century, are without parallel in history.
The writings of Einstein and Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrödinger will exist long after the gibberish of James Joyce is forgotten. Myself, I have not read any post-modern writers. I have heard evil-sounding rumors of this crew, which do not incline me to be curious about their writings. I will point out merely that an understanding of the human condition presupposes (1) that humans have a human nature, (2) that this nature exists and is in a certain condition, and (3) that true statements can be made about that condition; the act of making a contribution to this understanding further presupposes (4) that such statements can be communicated, through words, to the understanding; and (5) such statements are true and valid. You will have to tell me if these are presuppositions the postmodernists grant. If not, even without reading them, logic might suggest that they cannot made a contribution to the understanding of the human condition, not deliberately.
SFR: I gather from the dedication of The Golden Transcendence that you're an admirer of the Wright Brothers. How and When did that come about? Have you been to Kitty Hawk for the Centennial? How do your sons feel about it?
JCW: I have admired the Wright Brothers my whole life: how could I not? My father is named Orville Wright, Jr., and his brother (requiescat in pace) was named Wilbur, and they both decided to become aviators in order to live up to their names. My late grandfather (and you can guess he had a sense of humor) was also named Orville Wright, and was from Dayton, Ohio. The Wright brothers were in competition with Mr. Langley, who had an enormous sum of money from the government to invent a heavier-than-air flying machine. The two bicycle mechanics from Ohio build for four dollar their launching rail out of two-by-fours, and managed to launch their machine successfully. Langley consumed an absurd amount of taxpayer's money to build his launching ramp, and crashed his machine into the water at the foot of his ramp. I am not sure what kind of person could fail to admire the dedication, know- how, and gumption of the Wright Brothers, but I doubt it is the kind of person who reads or writes Science Fiction. All science fiction is basically a footnote to the Wright Brothers. My sons are too young yet to know much one way or the other. I think my boy admires Pikachu and Robin Hood more than the Wright Brothers, at the moment. We have not been to Kitty-Hawk yet.
SFR: As I recall, you've got a Heroic Fantasy novel in the works. Do you have a
personal leaning towards SF or Fantasy? Are they different tools for different
jobs, and if so, what jobs would they be?
JCW: I have no preference: I should like to win fame in both fields, if the readers will allow. Fantasy is easier to write than science fiction, as it involves fewer facts. Science Fiction, by its nature, is rational, forward-looking, futuristic. Fantasy is, by its nature, mystical, nostalgic, archaic. The science fiction author attempts to persuade the reader that some advance in technology or change in laws or customs would have amazing results. The point of science fiction is to amaze. The whole trick is to make it seem realistic. Imagine it as a dialog between the reader and writer.
And so you have From Earth to Moon by Jules Verne.
If you want to write Soft SF, all you do is knock out the third question. Instead of asking about Newton, you simply say, "Let us suppose we could get to the Moon without asking how to get there. Simply grant it as done. What could we find? Suppose a man named Cavor flew to the moon in a vessel made of antigravitic metal, he might meet a race of highly advanced Insect Men living in a socialist utopia …" And you have First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.
Even dark and cynical science fiction is based on this implied dialog with the reader. "Suppose present trends continue. Suppose an utterly ruthless government used advanced electronic machines like television screens to watch every home, and made all deviation from correct thought a crime, what would it be like? Even the language would be corrupted. There was a man named Winston Smith…." And you have Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
The point of Fantasy, on the other hand, is to remind the reader of the strange and fantastic and numinous things we hope or fear exist beyond the Fields We Know. When life is arid, we need fantasy like a drink of cool water in the burning wasteland, to remind ourselves that, beyond the dreary horizon of baked black sand and pitted rock, somewhere, green trees heavy with dates nod above an oasis, languid courtesans trail their begemmed fingers in the trickling waters, dreaming, perhaps, of us. We wonder what the taste of elfin wine in crystal flagons pressed from a vine that grew in lands now swallowed by the sea might taste like, or the salty kiss of a sultry-eyed mermaid. When Barbacane's enormous cannon begins to hammer too loudly in our ears, or the lamp-eyed insects of Mr. Cavor's Lunar communists seem too many and too cold for our human souls, we lift our ears to listen for the horns of Elfland softly blowing in the distant trees, from beneath the hollow hills, and we wait for Robin Hood in Lincoln green to string his bow to cow the arrogant rich lords, or we hope beyond hope that young Arthur will pull from the stone the shining sword that no other man can pull, and drive back the wolf and the wolfish men and all injustice from the realm. Science fiction is meant for bright days, and fantasy for twilight.
SFR: For whom are you writing? If you could specify the ideal reader, what would he be like?
JCW: My ideal reader is James Stoddard. Aside from him, I should like a reader who has time and money to waste on Science Fiction books, and who prefers to buy several copies in hardback and give them away as gifts, rather than wait till the books come to his local library. He is a freethinker, not so beholden to the ideas of the Establishment that he counts how many women characters appear in each scene to determine if I have met my quota, or, pardon me, my outreach goals. He knows enough science to notice my scientific mistakes, but might be generous enough to excuse them.
SFR: How did you come to write the Golden Oecumene in three parts rather than just one big book. Longer works have been done, and really, the only thing I didn't enjoy was having to stop the story and wait for the next volume.
JCW: I wrote the manuscript and sold it as one whole. My editor (wisely, I think) decided it was unlikely that readers would fork over $60 for one nine-hundred- page book by an unknown author, but that the readers might part with $25 for a trio of three-hundred page books. When the first volume was well received, the publisher decided it would make more money to split what was at that time the second and concluding volume into two, to make the work a trilogy. Unfortunately, by that point, the first volume had been printed, and so the words TO BE CONCLUDED, which I had added to the last page of the first volume, turned out retroactively to be untrue.
Naturally, I would like to charge for the books what the market will bear, neither more nor less: since selling the goods below the market rate would be less than optimal for my patient creditors, and selling above the market rate less than optimal for my generous readers. My apologies for making you wait, but George R.R. Martin has pulled the same prank on me, and I waiting in a purgatory of impatience for the next installment of GAME OF THRONES.
I seem to recall that Roger Zelazny did the same thing with his Amber books, and he was not even polite enough (as I was) to warn the reader that the story was not finished in one book. I am in august company.
SFR: Has Tor considered an Omnibus edition?
JCW: Even we speak, the Science Fiction Book Club is putting together an omnibus volume, all three books under one cover, to be called The Golden Age Trilogy.
SFR: You've already covered the authors you view as influences - A.E. Van Vogt, Jack Vance, Cordwainer Smith, Roger Zelazny, David Zindell, Poul Anderson, Homer, Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein and of course Olaf Stapledon, whose work your work opposes, - Who do you enjoy in the current crop of writers?
JCW: In one interview, I boasted that I was the last remaining Space Opera writer. This was before I came across the works of Wil McCarthy, Stephen M. Baxter, Michael Flynn, Linda Nagata, and made that boast turn to ashes in my mouth.
Mr. Baxter particularly delights in tossing off ideas both scientifically sound and staggering to the imagination. Mr. Flynn has the best sense of realism, what real people talk like, real institutions act like, and what real science feels like, of the current field of authors, myself included. Mr. McCarthy and I have inaugurated a mutual admiration society (at least, I hope it is mutual), but we both find it dangerous to read each other's works when working on our own, since our outlooks are too similar. Mrs. Nagata needs no praise from me: if you are not familiar with her work, go forth and read. I also rather liked the laconic, super-high-tech action in a book by Scott Westerfeld called The Risen Empire (see our review). Homer has written a sequel to his Iliad called the Odyssey, which reviewers say has less action and glory than the first book, and centered on only one of the characters in the cast. The story is more personal, and in many ways more mature. Highly recommended. I personally prefer the Richmond Lattimore translation. Dan Simmons has written his own personal sequel to the same book, set in the remote future on Mars, called Ilium. I am about half-way through the book, and that is enough for me to recommend it without further ado. His brilliant and thoughtful and beautiful Hyperion Cantos are required reading for anyone who boasts himself a science fiction reader.
SFR: It seems to me that not just SF, but the culture in general is trying to
resurrect the "golden age" viewpoint of the mid-20th Century? I was always fond
of Gibson's short story, "The Gernsback Continuum" which talks about how the
futuristic styles of the 40s and 50s expressed a yearning for the future to
arrive. Are folks now yearning for the same future, even though it's in the
JCW: Each individual will put his longings in the future or into the past according to his wisdom, experience, and temperament. I have not read much of Gibson's work, and cannot comment on his story; neither can I speak with authority for anyone's yearnings but my own. I say that our culture took a very wrong turn somewhere around 1968, based on many lesser wrong turns and bad ideas popular in the 1930's and 1920's. If our culture were wise, she would be trying to reverse gear, and back away from the Abyss, and find the right path again. I do not know if this suggests a sudden nostalgia for the future of the fifties, or a well-deserved impatience with the false hopes and feckless daydreams of the sixties. The disadvantage of placing one's nostalgia in the past is that nothing can be done about it. The disadvantage of placing too much hope in the future is that, when those hopes are dashed, one is left rootless and prey to nihilism (and this may be the pathology of the postmodernists mentioned earlier). On the other hand, if the disappointed youth can sober himself by reading Aristotle and Aquinas, Cicero and Epictetus, he can learn how to school himself from false hopes, and make his soul like iron, until the cruelty of fate will have no power to mar it.
SFR: How is that Heroic Fantasy coming, anyway?
JCW: The first draft is done. I sent in the
editor's revisions last week. If the editor approves the changes, it will by
copy-edited and typeset some time over the next few months. It is called
Last Guardians of Everness. At the moment, we are
thinking of splitting it into two volumes, the second volume to be entitled
Mists of Everness. The book concerned a man who bargains with a devil to save
his terminally ill wife: the man must kill a stranger to perform the
necromancy, and recover her health. He discovers, to his horror, that the
stranger selected is the final member of a secret order keeping the devils and
nightmares of ancient myth locked outside of the sane and daylit world of
I also just sold to Tor books a manuscript for a quasi-scientific fantasy
called Orphans of Chaos, to be published in years to come. It concerns the
adventures of five children who have been kept, by themselves, in a boarding
school in Wales. The years pass and the children do not ever seem to reach the
age of majority. They begin to suspect they are captives, and not even human
beings. It is a story that has a mixture of magic and psionics, nanotechnology
and fourth-dimensional manipulation of the space-time continuum. I cannot say
whether it is fantasy or science fiction. What does one call a book that
contains both super-robots and ancient Greek gods?