An Interview with Catholic Sci-Fi Author John C. Wright
“If Vulcans had a church, they'd be Catholics.”
I initially came to know John C. Wright in the same way most people come to know him―through his science fiction and fantasy novels.
I knew I wanted to read more of him and possibly meet him when I found he had converted to Catholicism after having been an atheist for many years.
He was born John Charles Justin Wright on October 22, 1961 in Chula Vista, California.
Trained as a lawyer at Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary, Wright has also worked as a newspaperman and newspaper editor at St. Mary's Today.
He's never written a bad book but of all his books, I particularly enjoyed his Orphans of Chaos for which he was a Nebula Award finalist―a prestigious award for sci-fi writers. His debut novel, The Golden Age, garnered a comment from Publishers Weekly stating that he "may be this fledgling century's most important new SF talent."
In 2015, Wright received five Hugo Award nominations―another important award for s-fi writers―including three in the Best Novella category ("One Bright Star to Guide Them," "The Plural of Helen of Troy," and "Pale Realms of Shade"), a fourth for Best Short Story ("The Parliament of Beasts and Birds"), and a fifth for Best Related Work ("Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth.")
On September 4, 2016, Wright's novel Somewhither (Castalia House) received the very first Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. This is the first of his A Tale of the Unwithering Realm series. It's not only well-written but also has a palatable Catholic sense and sensibility. Whereas many science fiction and fantasy writers borrow heavily from Catholicism because of our spirituality, dignity, elaborate tradition and moral authority, not all will do so gently or respectfully. Wright, as a faithful Catholic, grateful for the graces he admits God has given him, writes on a more personal, spiritual level. Even those not generally drawn to science-fiction will note certain moral themes in Wright's writing. In addition, Wright expresses himself and his ideas intelligently. Whereas too many sci-fi titles are redactions of general, hackneyed themes, Wright gets to the heart of good science-fiction―interesting ideas expressed artistically.
Sci-fi isn't about ray guns, alien brain-eating invaders and exploding rocketships―even though that's the fun part. Rather, good sci-fi is about social commentary and as Wright is a devout Catholic, his writing gets to the core of what our society has become and the moral disasters which might ahead of us all the while holding forward a Christian moral and spiritual ideal to which we, and society, might aspire.
We might ask ourselves from whence a dyed-in-the-wool atheist gained such a wide-ranging Catholic perspective. Apparently, according to Wright, at the tender age of 42, he had a profound religious experience which prompted his conversion from atheism to Christianity.
Write described his experience which included visions of the "Virgin Mary, her Son, and His Father, not to mention various other spirits and ghosts over a period of several days."
In 2008, he entered the Catholic Church, of which he often comments about the logical basis of our theology, spirituality and dogma: "If Vulcans had a church, they'd be Catholics."
Wright is married to author L. Jagi Lamplighter; together, they have four children.
Mr. Wright was kind enough to speak with me recently:
1. How would you characterize your spirituality?
I am not sure what you mean by spirituality. Webster defines it as "the quality or state of being concerned with religion or religious matters".
The word "concerned" merely means such things are a matter of attention. The degree of my concern with such things is the same before and after my conversion from atheism, albeit, naturally, now in the opposite direction. I am a loyal son of the Holy Mother Church, and believe and promote all she believes and promotes.
2. Please speak about your journey to the Church.
I was an atheist since age seven, and throughout all my adult life until a short time ago. My reasons for disbelief in God were entirely intellectual and rational: I thought the concept self contradictory, the historical evidence weak, the evidence favoring the proposition unconvincing, and not different from the claims of other religions, cults, and superstitions. My faith in faithlessness eroded over a period of years when I slowly realized that my loyal allies, the atheists, were not merely wrong, but brain-meltingly, blindingly, foam-at-the-mouth barking moonbat wrong on all the major political and social issues of the day, from war and peace to abortion to homosex to contraception.
Meanwhile, my hated enemies, the Christians, were right on all those issues, and not just right, but delicately, sternly, carefully, strongly and overwhelmingly right: they were right with the rightness of just and honest men, men too humble to pretend that they are wrong when they are not, too humble to speak untruth.
Being a cold and remorseless thinker, as logical and dispassionate as a Vulcan (or, for those of you familiar with the classics, as a Houyhnhnm) logic forced me, step by step, and very much against my natural inclinations, to realize that all modern non-Christian moral thinking and philosophy was rubbish, and that political and moral calculations based on modern non-Christian notions of right and wrong (where nothing is absolutely wrong except calling something absolutely wrong) were nonsense.
This baffled me. My worldview could not account for creatures so irrational (so I regard you then) as Christian could be right on all points, while creatures to rational (so I regarded myself then) as atheists could be so wrong.
You see, I knew with an absolute knowledge that I had to be right, for my logic, based on axioms I deemed to be unassailable, said so. And yet, as a philosopher, my sense of honor told me that if my philosophy would force me to disbelieve any sight or report of the supernatural, even if true, then it was like a thermometer that always told you your temperature was feverish, whether it was or not.
So in a quandary, I prayed a prayer to the God I was sure did not exist, telling him, nay, daring him, to show himself to me in some way my philosophy could not dismiss as illusion or hallucination or coincidence: for I said that if he wished my good, and could not perform, he was not omnipotent, or was unable to know a way, was not omniscience, or indifferent to my damnation, not benevolent. To me it was like writing a letter to Santa Claus, for I knew no one heard and nothing would answer.
The next day I was struck down by a heart attack, and was dying on the floor.
My wife called a Christian Science Practitioner, who is of a small denomination that places their whole emphasis of their teaching on healing by prayer, which they claim to have down to a science. Hence the name. I do not dispute that claim: the man prayed, the pain stopped. Instantly. Call that a coincidence if you insist, but if a man claims to be able to fix your car motor, and he does certain things, and the motor is fixed, you would not call that a coincidence.
I went to the hospital to see what had happened. At the time, I thought it an attack of pleurisy. The doctor said I had five blocked arteries leading to my heart and I should be dead. I said I did not know I had five arteries.
While I was waiting, the Holy Spirit entered my body. The sensation was like a physical sensation, but it was not. It was spiritual. It was like wine being poured into a dirty cup.
I became aware of my own soul. At the time, I thought the word was either meaningless, or the word meant 'mind'. There is not one of the five senses I can name whereby I perceived it, but I perceived it as clearly and obviously as you yourself reading these words know that you exist.
I had several other visions, visitations, spiritual experiences, and, a month or so later, something like a voyage outside of time and space where God showed me the mystery of how free will is reconciled with divine foreknowledge. I saw God and was lifted on an ecstasy beyond words, and spoke to Christ, and had the bejeezes scared out of me. He said that God judges no man, but that he, Christ, would be my judge at the end of time.
Hearing this, I sighed a sigh relief, for I realized I must be hallucinating!
As an atheist I knew with all the proud knowledge of an atheist that God as depicted in the Bible was very judgmental, and always was damning this man or that in the harshest terms. This meant I was not speaking with the real Jesus, merely having an odd dream. While awake. And in my right mind. Perfectly aware of my surroundings. Hmmm?
About a month later, when reading the Bible, which I had never read before, except by school assignment in college, I came across the verse in the John where Jesus said the same thing, in almost the same words, to the apostle.
Now, I had never read the Bible before, and so could not have read, remembered, and forgotten those words, or had my subconscious mind somehow dredge them up in a dream. The only logical explanation for me and John encountering the same words if I did not somehow subconsciously get them from John, is if Jesus, the same today and yesterday and forever, said the same thing to both of us.
I met Mary. Words cannot express her gentleness. How full of sorrow she was, and yet also, in a way I cannot explain, how full of joy. She is a simple Jewish woman who worked hard all her life, and yet she is also the Queen of the Angels. I held her hands in my hands. I would do anything, die any death, suffer any torture, just for the slightest chance of seeing her again. That is how profoundly and deeply my brief meeting with her touched me. I wish I could wipe her tears away, or, at least, cause her no more.
There is more to the story, but I fear to tax your readers. Suffice it to say that I experimented with forces beyond my understanding, much like a child sticking a fork in a light socket. God has a sense of humor. I asked him to show himself to me, and he certainly, certainly did. I have been deluged not only with an overabundance of evidence but with a change in my life and soul which my mere human reason is powerless to resist. If you remember the character of Benedict from your Shakespeare, a man who mocked love and marriage, until he met the woman who knocked him head over heels into love's sweet folly, that Benedict is an image of me.
Now, my situation was one of unparalleled happiness, for I was like an orphan boy who discovers, not only that my parents were alive, but that they were queen and king! But when I rushed to church to find my parents, lo and behold, it was like finding out my parents were split due to the messy and acrimonious divorce, Protestant against Catholic, Orthodox, Nestorian, and other Eastern Churches, and the unhappy couple demands the son to move in with one parent and spurn the others.
I resent you Christians not having somehow found the guts and the wits you needed to keep your Church in one piece.
3. What are your childhood influences in your spiritual development? Any contemporary influences?
I was an atheist as I child. Obviously my childhood spiritual development had no contemporary influences because my childhood is not contemporary, but lies in the past.
4. What would you say are the clearest examples of spirituality, either your own or an alternative one, in your own work?
In the last seven books I have written (six science fiction and one fantasy), my protagonists have all been Roman Catholic, and the Church is portrayed as being, in my books, what she says she is in real life. My speculation regarding how the Church might change as future centuries arrive and pass is based on an extrapolation of the changes that history reveals: I assume, for example, that matters of doctrine cannot change but matters of discipline might.
In a fantasy story, I am dealing with traditional tropes, images, and situations take straight out of classical and medieval legend, folklore, myth, and my main character is a modern boy who wants to be a knight. My love of authenticity drove me to have the boy encounter the real ideas behind real knighthood, where are overwhelmingly Catholic in sentiment and structure: I did not mean for the book to promote one denomination over any other, but, like someone writing a vampire story, if you deal with medieval ideas and settings, you deal with the Catholic world.
5. Would you give some examples of successful portrayals of spirituality in classical science fiction and contemporary pieces which you admire? Do you have any criticisms of such portrayals?
Hmm. Very difficult, because there are so few. All science fiction books are spiritual descendants either of HG Wells, a socialist atheist, soft SF that mock religion as a sham, or of Jules Verne, who wrote hard SF, where religious ideas do not come up at all.
Science fiction has always been leery of religion. See, for example, the Therns portrayed in GODS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John W Campbell Jr established the basic philosophy science fiction was going to follow for many decades, and religions is regarded as the opiate of the masses, or, like the Kipling tale MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, religion is portrayed as a social control mechanism, as in SIXTH COLUMN by Robert Heinlein, or as a fraud, as the Fosterite church STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein, or as both, as in the Great Galactic Spirt in FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov, or the Great God in GATHER, DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber. Such books are uniformly sophomoric, juvenile, and shallow in their approach.
The few books that touches on religious themes did so in a decidedly Gnostic or antichristian way. See, for example, books like VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay or THE UNIVERSE MAKER by A.E. van Vogt or CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C Clarke, where the aliens who look like cartoon devils with horns and batwings are somehow the good guys because they help mankind evolve into extinction, replaced by our psychic children who evolve beyond the need for physical bodies.
But there are exceptions, and these are so exceptional that they stand out brightly. A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr is one where spiritual concerns in general and the Catholic Church in particular are treated in a respectful, realistic and honest way. A CASE OF CONSCIENCE by James Blish has some theological inaccuracies, but clearly takes place in a universe where the Christian worldview is correct and real. The short stories taking place in the 'Instrumentality of Man' universe by Cordwainer Smith have symbolism and overtones of spiritual significance, but it is rather indirect.
I recall reading the one and only time out of all the voluminous reading in my youth a scene where a monk tries to persuade a nymph not to have sex out of wedlock, and he patiently and kindheartedly explained the drawbacks and costs, particularly to one's inner most self. It stood out like a single tree in a flat salt plain, because all other books I read, if they touched on questions of sex at all (few did) unabashedly and onesidedly promoted the lifestyle of James Bond and Captain Kirk, and Hugh Hefner as the ideal. The only possible objection ever proffered to a live of endless orgies was placed in the mouths of stupid, cardboard characters meant to represent repressive Victorian Puritanism, always written by sophomoric writers with no knowledge whatever of either the real Victorians or the real Puritans.
The scene was in a novel by Christopher Stasheff, one of his WARLOCK IN SPITE OF HIMSELF sequels. I found out only this year that Mr. Stasheff wrote as staunch Roman Catholic.
Of moderns, I can only think of one standout author: Gene Wolfe. He and he alone manages to capture something of the wonder and terror that must have been in the mind of the late pagans and the early Christians. I especially recommend his 'New Sun' books 'Long Sun' books and his 'Short Sun' books.
There is a scene in the Short Sun series that describes a religious experience so akin to my own that I am certain the author either experienced the exact same thing himself, or talked intimately to one who had. One word of warning:
Gene Wolfe is an acquired taste, because he is notoriously indirect, tight-lipped, and ambiguous as an author, when sometimes even major events are not named, and the reader is expected to glean the buried truth beneath the unreliable narrators and lies fallen men tell themselves. It is hard work. The journey is not for everyone.
Now, I know that Tim Power is a Catholic, and often his books touch on occult and mysterious things, but I cannot bring to mind one I would call overtly concerned with spiritual issues.
And no list of science fiction books touching on spiritual themes would be complete without mentioning EIFELHEIM by Michael Flynn, one of the few stories where someone in the Middle Ages acts and talks like real people in the Middle Ages. It is a first contact story between aliens and Christians where the aliens act like aliens and the Christians act like Christians, instead of, as in most other science fiction, having it the other way around.
I will give honorable mention to the horror-adventure urban fantasy series 'The Dresden Files' by Jim Butcher. The protagonist is a warlock living in modern Chicago, and most of the action is fairly typical for modern-age-meets- ancient-myths kind of stories. However, of particular interest to me as a Christian is the portrayal of a minor side character named Michael Carpenter, who happens to be a faithful father of a large family, a loyal Catholic, and the heir to the sword of King Arthur, which can slay magical monsters no one else can slay. Carpenter is a Holy Knight, a Paladin, in the modern age, and, oddly enough for a book written in the modern age, he is a sympathetic character, more sympathetic, indeed, than our somewhat hardboiled and cynical protagonist.
It is a sad, sad commentary on the modern age that portraying a faithful Christian as a hero is as rare as unicorns.
6. How has your personal spirituality developed in your writing or as an aspect of your writing.
At first, I was convinced that it would not my place as an author to preach or teach my personal values in the venue of my books, and so the first few books after my conversion are really indistinguishable from those I wrote before: and I laugh in scorn at pointy headed reviewers and critics who, having heard of my conversion, read some work I wrote when I was a hardcore vituperative atheist Christ-hater, and think they detect the dreaded scent of Christ, to which they react like Gollum to the taste of elfin waybread, choking and cursing.
But I received a tearstained letter from a reader praising my skill as a writer. Overpraising it, in my opinion. Amazed at how clearly I could explain and make plain the beauty, reason, and goodness of the faith. On that instant I vowed my pen to Christ, and said I would never write another book, tale, poem, or epigram not to His glory.
I avoid the dangers of being too obvious or preachy by disguising my intent under solid and sound storytelling.
7. What do you think is the place of such elements in science fiction?
Hmm. Good question. Science fiction is by and large based on a naturalistic view of the universe. When penning adventures about space princesses being rescued from space pirates by space marines, religion does not come up, except as local background and local color, in which case, the role of religion is to provide the radioactive altar to the Snake God of Mars to which our shapely by half-clad space princess is chained, that our stalwart hero can fight the monster.
Now, any story of any form can be used as a parable or as an example of a religious truth: indeed, my latest six-book trilogy is actually about faith, although it is portrayed in figures as being about a man's love for his bride.
Fantasy stories, on the other hand, once any element of magic or the supernatural is introduced either declare for the Church or declare for witchcraft, depending on whether or not occultism is glamorized.
Note that I speak of occultism, not magic itself. Merlin the magician is a figure from King Arthur tales, of which no more obviously Christian stories can be found, outside of Dante and Milton, but no portrayal in olden days of Merlin glamorized the occult. Again, the way characters like Gandalf in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Coriakin in C.S. Lewis's Narnia, or Harry Potter, even those they are called wizards, are clearly portrayed either as commanding a divine power, or, in Potter's case, controlling what is basically an alternate technology or psychic force. There is no bargaining with unclean spirits, no rituals, not even a pack of tarot cards. These are like the witches in Halloween decorations, who fly brooms and wave magic wands, and nothing like the real practices of real wiccans, neopagans or other fools who call themselves witches.
Fools, because, as I did when I challenged God, they meddle with forces of which they have no understanding. I meddled with bright forces, and was spared. They meddle with dark, and they think they can escape the price.
Fantasy stories generally are hostile to Christianity, some intentionally and some negligently. The negligent hostility springs from the commonplace American desire for syncretism, that is, for all religions to be equal. Even some fairly Christian-themed fantasy stories yield weakmindedly to this temptation, as in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising or A Wrinkle in Time is a science fantasy novel by American writer Madeleine L'Engle, where the forces of light are portrayed as ones where Christ is merely one teacher among many, each equally as bright and good, but makes no special nor exclusive claim. Or tales where the crucifix will drive back a vampire, but so will any other sign or symbol of any religion, from Asatru to Zoroastrianism, because all religions are equal, dontchaknow.
Such syncretic fantasy stories are perhaps more dangerous that those which are openly hostile to religion in general and Catholicism in particular, because such stories as are openly hostile can be read with pleasure and enjoyment the way one would read the Iliad by Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil, as pagan works where the reader suffers no temptation to bow to the stupid gods the writer evidently favors. In this category I place the work of Philip Pullman and Michael Moorcock. Socialist anarchist materialists are so autistic when it comes to spiritual matters, their worlds portrayed in their make believe has little or no power to sway real faith in anything real. Their ideas, when they venture into spiritual themes, are like listening to colorblind men discussing how they would make a better rainbow.
More dangerous are writers of real skill and talent whose spiritual vision is awake, but whose loyalty is in the enemy camp: I put the remarkably talented Ursula K LeGuin in this category, for she can capture the spiritual look, feel, and flavor of Taoism without ever once revealing her own spiritual preferences; and likewise Mr. John Crowley, who is a gnostic, and peppers his work with themes that make the heresy seem quite inviting and new.
In my fantasy stories, magic is always portrayed as unlawful for humans, dangerous, and innately corruptive; elves are beautiful but dangerous; the Church is a mighty fortress bold as an army with spears and trumpets. Because that is the way it really is.
Stories and fairy tales are fictional. That does not mean they are false.
8. Do you have any recommendations as to how a reader/viewer of science fiction may interpret spiritual/religious themes in the work?
The question is too vague for a reasonable answer, because it would depend on the work. I suggest a healthy dose of skepticism for the semi-pop- psychology half-baked oriental mysticism seen in movies like Star Wars, and regard the monotheistic robot suicide bombers in the remake of Battlestar Galactica as a mere poison pen letter written by a drooling Christ-hater directed at His church.
Writers are tricky bunch, who make up stories for a living, and so any attempt to deduce the writer's stance on theology or politics based on what his characters say and do is doomed to fail. The most bitter atheistic ending I ever wrote to a tale was after my conversion, and the most uplifting spiritual ending I wrote was before. Both endings were dictated by the theme and plot of the story, not by the author's preference.
So, if I must answer the question, I will say only: be cautious.
If you must interpret spiritual themes in a word, do not leap to conclusions.
Do not confuse the author with the character with the muse. Do not assume Milton is of the devil's party just because he puts the best lines in the devil's mouth.
John C. Wright's Novels
- The Golden Oecumene
- The Golden Age (2002)
- The Phoenix Exultant (2003)
- The Golden Transcendence (2003)
War of the Dreaming
- Last Guardian of Everness (2004)
- Mists of Everness (2005)
Chronicles of Chaos
- Orphans of Chaos (2005)
- Fugitives of Chaos (2006)
- Titans of Chaos (2007)
Count to the Eschaton Sequence
- Count to a Trillion (2011)
- The Hermetic Millennia (2012)
- The Judge of Ages (2014)
- Architect of Aeons (April 21, 2015)
- The Vindication of Man (November 22, 2016)
- Count to Infinity (forthcoming)
- Null-A Continuum (sequel to A. E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A, 2008)
Stories in the Night Land Setting
- "Awake in the Night," (novella) William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Eternal Love, edited by Andy W. Robertson, Wildside Press.
- "The Cry of the Night Hound," (novella) William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Nightmares of the Fall, also edited by Robertson.
- "Silence of the Night," as of 2008 only published on Robertson's Nightland.co.uk website.
- "The Last of All Suns," (novella) William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Nightmares of the Fall.
- Awake in the Night Land, Castalia House.
- "Farthest Man from Earth," (novella) Asimov's Science Fiction, Vol. 19 # 4 & 5, No.229-230, April 1995.
- "Guest Law," (novella) Asimov's Science Fiction, Vol. 21 # 6, No.258, June 1997. (Reprinted in Year's Best SF 3, ed. David G. Hartwell, HarperPrism, 1998, and in The Space Opera Renaissance.)
- "Not Born a Man," (short story) Aberrations, No. 24, October 1994. (Reprinted in No Longer Dreams, ed. Danielle McPhail, Lite Circle, 2005.)
- "Forgotten Causes," (short story) Absolute Magnitude, No. 16, Summer 2001. (Reprinted in Breach the Hull, ed. Mike McPhail, Marietta, 2007.)
- "Father's Monument," (short story) No Longer Dreams, ed. Danielle McPhail, Lite Circle, 2005.
- "The Kindred," (short story) No Longer Dreams, ed. Danielle McPhail, Lite Circle, 2005.
- "Peter Power Armor," (short story) Breach the Hull, ed. Mike McPhail, Marietta, 2007.
- "Choosers of the Slain," (short story) Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, ed. Mike Allen, Norilana Books, 2008.
- "One Bright Star to Guide Them," (short story) The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 116, No. 4 & 5, Whole No. 682, April/May 2009.
- "The Far End of History," (novella) The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, Harper Voyager, June 2009.
- "Guyal the Curator," (short story) Songs of the Dying Earth, ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, Subterranean Press, July 2009.
- "A Random World Of Delta Capricorni Aa, Also Called Scheddi," (flash fiction), Flash Fiction Online, May 2010.
- "Judgement Eve," (novelette) Engineering Infinity, ed. Jonathan Strahan, Solaris Books, December 2010.
John C. Wright's website: http/www.scifiwright.com