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?”


“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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