On John C. Wright on Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God”, with notes on reading SF.

In a recent post, John C. Wright reposted his essay on Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God”, which, according to Mr. Wright, led him away from atheism. His personal religious journey aside, let us examine Mr. Wright’s claims about “Hell is the Absence of God”, and see what it suggests to us about how to read SF.

First, he makes a claim about the nature of the story:

The worst attempt at Christian SF….”

This is repeated elsewhere:

“He is not criticizing religion in general: his ire is confined to Christianity. The universe described in the tale does not depict the sorrow of the endless incarnations; there is no hint of Mount Meru or Mount Olympos, nor does the great wolf Fenrir rear its all-devouring jaws; Isanagi and Isanami are not present, nor the Nine Immortals. The main characters do not recite the Koran or study the Torah: they go to prayer-meetings. If Mr. Chiang meant to make a point unrelated to Christianity, then he selected Christian props and tropes to clothe his meaning.

Perhaps he means to confine his ire to Protestantism, because priesthood is nowhere in evidence. The characters are revivalist lay-preachers, not sinister robed figures from Gothic churches.”

In other words, by writing in an environment likely to be recognizable without great elaboration to his audience, Ted Chiang was criticizing a specific religion. Never mind that there is no mention of Jesus;  if there is any religion that this resembles, with priests as well as lay teachers, it is pre-rabbinic Judaism. (Indeed, there is no mention of the Bible in the story either, to go along with the Koran or Torah.)

But because it is written in English, and thus has “prayer meetings”, Ted Chiang is “criticizing” Christianity.

There’s a word for that: projection.  Please note that this is being written after Mr. Wright’s conversion; he claims that this story’s “strawmanning” drove him away from atheism.

But it is the next paragraph that seals the deal:

“Am I reading too much into it? I think I am not. There is no point to the story if it is not a criticism of Christianity, a topic fascinating to the dominant section of the SF audience, who are skeptics from the West, i.e. from Christendom. Criticism of other religions would be of marginal interest to the expected audience. When is the last time you heard someone blaspheming Thor?”

If you read the story, I submit its last sentence carries with it the meaning: “That is the nature of true devotion.”  The story is not about the behavior of God; the behavior of God and the angels is not explained, or analyzed for its moral content. It is analyzed by the characters for its effect upon them — the whats, not the whys.

Earlier, Mr. Wright asserted:

“But in this case, I humbly suggest that the point of Mr. Chiang’s story is not just clear, it is repeated and exaggerated. He is criticizing Christian theodicy.”

The story is about the human reactions to God; the “theodicy*” in the story is the framework Chiang uses to generate those reactions.  It tells us nothing about God — and a great deal about people.

“Chiang is trouncing a straw man.”

Remember this sentence; it is important.

I am deleting here a great deal about Mr. Wright’s personal journey to Catholicism, and his arguments as to what an honest atheist must do — he is often even more loquacious than I, and it is not relevant to the point here — and continue:

“What Mr. Chiang does here is undercut the atheist argument by abandoning the standard of true and false. “

In other words, because the story does not, in Mr. Wright’s opinion, accurately represent Christian theodicy, it undercuts atheist argumentation.

He goes on to add:

“ Had he been honest, he would have explored what the world would be like if the Christian God were visible and obvious, and what the reactions might be.”

We shall elide the argument of “dishonesty” here, and simply point out that what Mr. Wright wants isn’t the story Ted Chiang was telling — that the straw man being trounced here is the story Mr. Wright wants him to have written, rather than the one he actually did write. All of this harkens back to the presumption that the story was a critique of Christianity — a view implied by the absence of markers for other religions (aside from, say, the Hebrew names of the angels, and the like) and nothing else.

To return to Wright:

“ I read Chiang’s story and I thought: is this the best my side can do?”

No.

“anyone reading those two author’s work [Tolkien and Chiang] in contrast will see that one has an insight into human joys and human woes, a compassion toward even human folly or pride or sloth. And the other one shows nothing, no humanity, no understanding. The heart of Chiang’s work is not in the right place. Even though I thought Chiang’ world view was true and Tolkien’s was false, I concluded Tolkien’s insight into real life was keen-eyed, and Chiang’s was superficial.”

To read “Hell is the absence of God” as “superficial” and lacking insight requires one to accept that it was written as agitprop (as, indeed, Wright accuses it of doing) and that, therefore, the characters within it are false.

I, personally, find the complicated humans of Chiang’s work far more relatable than many of the allegories and examplars of Tolkien’s; but that is a matter of taste.

But let us return to that “straw man” that Chiang is accused of belaboring.

If you are reading a story about a God who is manifestly different from the one that you know or believe in, there are two ways to interpret it:

1) It’s a story about the God you actually believe in, misrepresented and maligned, or

2) It’s a story about a god that isn’t the one you believe in, and how people react to/cope with that god.

It’s clear that Mr. Wright reads #1.  And, indeed, if you look at many of the authors enjoyed by Mr. Wright and his ilk and his followers, they are allegorical writers; they write in references, they draw strong parallels to the world as they see it. (e.g. Tolkien, Lewis, Kratman)

I submit that #2 is reading science fiction; because, while science fiction cannot help but be about the present time of the writer (since that is where they are situated, that is the milieu from which they have grown), it does not have to be a simple relation; indeed, it can be a very complex one.

If I wanted to write about how people react to God, without all the arguments about specific Gods, their goodness, their validity, etc, I would want to write about a very generic God — just as Ted Chiang did in “Hell is the Absence of God”.  To do otherwise is to comment not about the people’s reaction, but about *that* specific God and people’s reactions to *it*.

The strawman was not in Ted’s story, but in Mr. Wright’s head; which is part of why SF is a mode of reading, as Chip Delany suggested**, instead of just a mode of writing.  Writing an “SF” story in which everything has its one-to-one analog with the real world isn’t SF; it’s allegory, just as the canonical “six-shooters in space” is often considered not-SF.

What does this tell us about how SF is constructed, and read? I’ll explain more in a forthcoming article.

* Theodicy is “the problem of evil” — or how to justify the existence of evil in the face of God’s asserted goodness.

** I am looking for his exact words, but my copy of “The Jewel-HInged Jaw” is proving frustratingly elusive.

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Message Fic, and the Irregular Conjugation of the Adjective

In a discussion of Naomi Kritzer’s Hugo-winning “Cat Pictures, Please!”, a commentator made this argument, in reference to Kritzer including the following line:

The legitimate studies all have the same conclusions. (1) Gay men stay gay. (2) Out gay men are much happier.

Their comment:

“Nonetheless, this is the message fic. that our host and Correia have pointed out: Where fiction is used not to elucidate greater truths, but perpetuate a falsehood. So while FTL has a lot of evidence against it, FTL is not a “social” topic: It is a conceit. And the homosexual lifestyle is definitely not healthy — physically nor mentally.

To which I can only say, “message fic” then has no objective meaning, and is only useful as a flag that “this fiction contains assumptions about the world that the reader disagrees with.”

 In itself, retrofitting isn’t bad. Christian authors do this all the time, but at least you know it is Christian fic. going in. This was kidnapping science fiction to make it pure fiction. Science fiction readers get blindsided into message fic. and nominations and awards are granted for the message not how the story was crafted.

I do not know if the original author of this comment (who has been invited here) meant to divide “Christian Fiction”, “Science Fiction”, and “Pure Fiction”. I can only imagine that the “pure fiction” is meant in the sense of “falsehood” rather than a category of fiction itself.

However, I don’t think an author like John C. Wright (upon whose blog this discussion happened) would agree that he wasn’t writing “science fiction” or “fantasy”, but was, instead, writing Christian fiction.  And if having any kind of discernable “message” — where a message appears to be, again, a statement about a social position that the reader does not agree with — removes you from SF, then SF as a genre is a much poorer, much smaller place, and lacks any coherent definition to an outside observer.

The statement “Out gay men are much happier” is only a falsehood to some, just as the statement “women shouldn’t serve in combat roles” is only a falsehood to some; yet the latter is somehow not called out as “message fic” when it is implicit in a given work.  Or, indeed, explicitly done so.

Why is that? Bertrand Russell’s “irregular verb” (I call it adjective, because, frankly, Russell used the same verb in his examples, and changed his adjective. :)): “I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.”

“My favorite writer tells deep and eternal truths in their work; your favorite writer has a strong viewpoint, their favorite writer writes message fic.”

It is my contention (which I shall revisit in this space in the near future) that the value of SF, no matter where you come from on the political spectrum, is its ability to examine spaces that are *not* allegorically or directly factually tied to the real world. Calling something out as “message-fic”, and therefore less valuable (or, indeed, not SF at all), when you do not agree with a premise is damaging your own ability to read and appreciate SF, and restricting and damaging the genre.

There is room in SF for “Cat Pictures, Please” and Narnia (speaking of kidnapping a genre ;)), as there is room for Stand on Zanzibar and Starship Troopers — dismissing any one provides ample grounds for dismissing the others out of hand.

Address them, disagree with them, argue with them; but slapping “message fic” on any of them says much more about you, as a reader, than about them, as works.

On Poking Badgers — Kratman, Wright, et. al.

There is an Eddie Izzard sketch about “original sin” — in which people try to come up with, well, original sins. One of which, if I recall correctly, was “Poking Badgers With Spoons.”

And now, when I charge into battle on a right-wing (or alt-right) or ultra-religious site, I will admit to my friends that I’m back poking badgers.*

The question they often ask is “Why?”

The question I often ask myself is “Does this make me different from a troll?”

The answer to the first question comes in multiple parts:

  1. It lets me blow off steam; it’s fencing. I was brought up in a household of debate and argument and rhetoric; I bring those tools to my arguments elsewhere in the hope that I can, perhaps, shed some light and point out a few contradictions/assumptions while I’m having fun.
  2. For some of the notions out there, it’s worth actually combating them wherever they show up — Tom Kratman’s “It’s legitimate for me to shoot socialists coming to power as ‘self-defense'”, for example.
  3. I learn things.

#3 requires some definite expansion — but, as an example, when I was arguing with Rick Warden over at Templestream about one of his risible proofs for the existence of God**, he made a statement about the “universal truth of the law of non-contradiction.”  I found myself suddenly wondering if that was “universal”. Surely, someone must have challenged it.

And I found someone who had: Graham Priest, whose books on dialethism I find fascinating. I’m not sure I ever would have run across Priest, had I not argued with Warden.

Similarly, arguing with someone on John C. Wright’s blog encouraged me to seek out and read Ken Liu’s Mono No Aware — and I am very, very glad that I did.

Taking things that are fundamental assumptions of mine and having to defend them against other people helps me find out new ways to be clear about my views, and new ways to defend them. I now am very chary of using phrases like “laws of logic” and “laws of nature” because of how easily people go from that to presuming a lawgiver, an enforcement mechanism, etc.  Similarly, having been challenged many times on “It’s impossible to imagine that…” and coming up with examples — I’m an SF writer, it’s what I do — I’ve dropped “I can’t imagine…” from my speech; I very often *can*.

As to the latter: I draw a distinction that others may or may not share, and may or may not think applies to me:

I argue to win, and I change my arguments and respond.

A troll, to me, is arguing to infuriate/anger/outrage the other person. Their reward is the anger coming out of the person they’re dealing with. (For example: nominating obviously inferior works for Hugos in order to irritate the people who care about them is trolling. Nominating works you think are honestly good is not — it might be slating, but it’s not *trolling*.)

I don’t think I’ll ever convince the Kratmans or the Wrights of the world that they’re wrong. I might convince someone reading them that they are, and I might convince someone commenting in their blogs that they’re wrong.  But nothing would give me more pleasure in the argument than to have them “see the light”, as it were.  I would much rather have John C. Wright as a friend than as a fervent opponent who considers me subhuman.

Also: If all you are doing is posting the same canned response over and over again, you’re not engaged in a dialogue — you’re spamming.  So I make it a point to respond to the comments which engage with me. (Of course, this usually gets me called names as being overly loquacious, but if I don’t engage, or engage at little length, I’m accused of being a troll or just using cheap one-liners. I can’t win that particular game, but then again, I’m not the one playing it.)

So, to me, I am not a troll; I may be poking badgers with spoons to relatively little effect on the badgers, but that is not the same thing.

(Upcoming: some poking of badgers with spoons in this space, since I have learned something from dealing with them, and they politely asked me not to come into theirs. Sadly, this means they probably won’t even notice, but you never know.)

*The original badger for whom this was coined was actually a left-wing conspiracy nut, utterly committed to the notion that 9/11 was an inside job. When I presented him with the possibility of another group — one whose influence, while still strong, was definitely on the wane, while post-9/11, it had shot to new heights of economic success, political influence, and access — he agreed they sounded likely candidates too. When I said that described the band U2, and he agreed they needed investigating, I gave up.

** “seems most likely that” does not have a place in a proof, for example.