John C. Wright, author of “Twilight of the Gods”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Twilight of the Gods” is a tale of a multigeneration warship that continues in the interstellar fleet action in which she is involved, long after the mortal officers, crewmen and marines have forgotten the meaning of the titanic eon-long battle around them. Due to an invasion of the lower decks by enemies, and the mutiny among the officers, control of the long-quiescent battlecomputers is lodged in a single set of codes carried on a ring—as far as the crew is concerned, this is a magic ring, and whoever possesses it becomes the captain of the steel universe around them. Conflict erupts when a lone wanderer from the heavy outer decks of the world-ship appears, bearing the fatal ring, and seemingly loyal to the ancient, long-lost sailing orders of the forgotten generations who launched the mighty warship. For he believes, although he has never seen them, that there are other warships beyond the steel walls of the world, friend and foe alike.

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

The story springs from two roots. First, this is my attempt to tell the story of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs in space, complete with elfs and dwarfs and mortals and immortals. Second, this is a sequel to my first two short stories sold, NOT BORN A MAN and FARTHEST MAN FROM EARTH; all three tales take place in a common background or future history, where the human race has discovered the secret of immortality on 36 Ophiuchus. Only an incentive such as eternal youth, in my opinion, could motivate the human race to overcome the near-infinite expense and hardship of interstellar travel. I hope one day to complete this
‘Ophiuchan Cycle’ of tales with a novel tentatively titled THE UNCONQUERED EARTH, currently being written.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Many writers have attempted to blend fantasy or fairytale elements into a science fictional background, and yet to maintain both the world-view of science, and the flavor of fantasy. As Ursula K. LeGuin once remarked about her attempt to blend the two genres, mixing red and blue does not make red-blue, but makes purple. This is my effort to write a purple tale.

The science fictional idea here is that I wanted to answer the question of how military discipline could be maintained across the centuries in a multigeneration warship. I dismiss as fantasy the notion that we will one day find faster than light drive: you are more likely to find a magical girl genii living in the bottom of a decorative Jim Beam bottle. I also dismiss as fantasy the notion that there will be no wars in the future. If there are humans in the future, there will be wars.

The fantasy idea here is that I wanted to put on stage the larger than life characters of Norse myth, the proud, doomed hero, the pagan gods equally as doomed, and the end of the universe. In this case, the universe involved is Robert Heinlein’s UNIVERSE, and I freely borrowed the notion from him. He is an inventive man, and has many ideas to spare, and will not miss one if I nick it. Whether this story is a success or not, I must leave to the readers to decide. For myself, I count this story a victory because it contains my favorite line of anything I’ve written. The original officer component of the multigeneration warship, due to medical advances once available on Earth during the long-lost century when she was launched, are immortal, nearly invulnerable. Alverin Cumae, leader of the rebels, is one such. In the fray in the command deck, pierced by a lance. He pulls the lance-head from his chest, unhurt, and he announces to the trembling mortals, “I am an Earthman, born under blue skies!” I love that line.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

None of my stories are personal. I am not sure what that means. I write stories as a cobbler makes shoes, as a task I hope to do well given the tools and materials at hand. My stories may pinch at first, but I hope you will find them comfortable. And perhaps even in them you can walk to a place you would not otherwise have ventured.

What is the appeal of this type of fiction–stories that take place in interstellar societies? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

Science fiction is the unique product of the scientific revolution, and it is written for, and meant to be read by, a culture that dreams, admires, or fears scientific change. Historically, the scientific revolution followed a long period of world-exploration called the Age of Discovery, which includes figures as varied as Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, Cook, Byrd, and so on. Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and Neal Armstrong walking on the moon are the modern technological equivalents to the great explorers of the past. Interstellar exploration is both a logical next step and an awe-inspiring adventure that challenges the spirit of man. The intercontinental societies of Spain in the New World, and Britain, or in the Far East form the template writers use, because it is the only example history provides, to extrapolate what the next great Age of Discovery might be like — and Age of the Stars.

As a dream, it shocks the imagination to contemplate the star gulfs, and to envision mundane, earthbound man among the far worlds beneath alien suns. As an intellectual puzzle, it strains the reason to invent how one might overcome the practical problems inherent in the attempt to maintain civilization across such immense distances. Science fiction is both a dream and a puzzle, and if our race is not to turn our back to the stars, it is a puzzle we must solve and a dream we must not let die. The fascination of dreams of this kind and puzzles of this kind is what drives science fiction.

My own story is an attempt to answer how wars could be fought over such distances.

What are some of your favorite examples of interstellar SF, and what makes them your favorites?

I have a curious aversion to faster than light drive, which I regard as a fantasy, even a deception: let us not underestimate the staggering immensity of the task facing human destiny. We are trapped on this one small world huddling near this one sub-medium-sized star. To escape this trap will require the utmost of genius, resourcefulness, and dedication across centuries. Let us not fool ourselves that it will be easy.

So, given my dislike of faster than light stories, my favorites are narrowed to an abnormal few tales of interstellar SF. First, please read LOST IN TRANSMISSION by Wil McCarthy. It is s sobering work, so say the least: superhigh-level technology cannot solve all the problems facing interstellar colonization. Second, please read DEEPNESS IN THE SKY by Verner Vinge. Third, please read STARFARERS by Poul Anderson and also HARVEST OF STARS by Poul Anderson. His take on the matter is more hopeful than that of Wil McCarthy, but just as hard-sf-ian and just as realistic.

Now, to be candid, of course I read and enjoy faster than light fantasies as much as the next fanboy. Oddly enough, one of the better examples of a writer seriously thinking through the problems of interstellar society comes from the very earliest days of SF, back when we were pulp fiction: I mean of course the magnificent and seminal “Lensman” series by Doc E.E. Smith. Please do not be fooled by the sophomoric writing or the rough-hewn characterization. He proposes, in brief, that there are only two options for coordinating government control between planets that have nothing in common with each other, not language or history or psychology or biology. One is the Civilization of the Lens, a condition of mutual benefit with minimal laws and taxation. The other is the Empire of Boskone, a condition of mutual exploitation and plunder. If you do not and can never understand your neighbors, what can you do with him? Either let him live in peace with you and respect his rights, or invade and enslave him. There is no real third option.

The least realistic example of an SF story treating with interstellar civilization is the FOUNDATION series by Isaac Asimov. The premise there (and I spoil no surprises) is that the laws of history are like the gas laws, where the Brownian motion of an individual air molecule cannot be predicted, but the aggregate behavior of gasses can be. So a genius named Hari Seldon discovers the laws of history and sets about to organize all future history so as to minimize the damage from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in space. The rules of psycho-history require that the subjects, normal Joes like me, in other words, remain in ignorance of the laws of psycho-history for them to operate.

This is the most inauthentic wish-fulfillment fantasy of social engineering I can imagine. The Social Engineers, in the form of the Second Foundation, get to run the lives of the various meaningless heroes in this book forcing all events toward their foreordained outcome—meaningless, because by the premise of the story, nothing a single individual does has any effect on the outcome of history. Far from taking any steps to ensure human freedom or liberty throughout the galaxy, the Seldon plan yearns for Empire, because we all want Caesar and Nero and Caligula with absolute power over our lives and the live of our children for all time, right? Well, not I.

The premise of the book also directly contradicts itself. If the actions of one man can have no meaning on the outcome of great historical events, how is it that Hari Seldon, one man, can not only influence the outcome of events, but orchestrate them? And how does Hari reduce to a statistic the chance that someone else will not also discover the laws of psycho-history by studying the same mathematics he did? Does he plan out what all the geniuses of the future will create, and what influence their inventions and discoveries will have? I am trying to imagine Hari Seldon living in the time of Augustus predicting, by statistical analysis alone, the fall of the Roman Empire, the invention of the stirrup and its effect on heavy cavalry warfare, the writings of St. Paul and Mohammed and their influence on religion and on the wars of religion, and the discovery of the New World, the presence of gold deposits among the Aztecs, the unlikely conquests of Cortez, the rise of Spain as a world power, so that our Augustinian version of Hari Seldon can deduce the outcome of the Spanish Armada. Maybe he can foretell the weather reports, or the birth of a man like Sir Francis Drake? Maybe the fact that Queen Elizabeth was a girl had no effect on history? Oh, my aching brain.

For a realistic treatment of the idea of psycho-history, read PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS by Donald Kingsbury. Never has an unsound idea been more thoroughly skewered than Kingsbury’s answer to Asimov’s condescending concept of psycho-historical elite controlling the ignorant masses. I would not dream of revealing more.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

Yes. My latest book is called NULL-A CONTINUUM.

With the kind permission of the estate, I was authorized to write a sequel to A.E. van Vogt’s brilliant and seminal novels WORLD OF NULL-A and PLAYERS OF NULL-A. This is not a once in a lifetime opportunity, because one would have to be a Hindu with a hundred lifetimes for such a chance to come again.

This is my favorite book by my favorite author, and, in all modesty, I am the only writer alive today with the skill and inclination to write a Vanvogtian tale of superscientific wonder, give it the mood and flavor of the 1940’s, and introduce a new plot twist every 800 words, just as van Vogt would have done. If you want to read a good old fashioned space opera from the John C. Campbell Junior days of the golden age of SF, this is your last chance ever.

I also have written a short story taking place in the background of Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” series, appearing alongside the most impressive lineup of names in modern fantasy in an anthology titled SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R.Martin, published by Subterranean Press. I wrote a sequel to Guyal of Sfere, if you catch that reference.

Here are the confirmed contributors. My jaw drops in awe when I look at these names. These folks are the best. Well, maybe not that guy on the end of the list. George R.R. Martin said he would add a story—I don’t know if it is in or not. Jack Vance himself penned a forward to this volume.

* Dan Simmons
* Robert Silverberg
* Kage Baker
* Terry Dowling
* Phyllis Eisenstein
* Glen Cook
* Neil Gaiman
* Elizabeth Hand
* Matt Hughes
* Tanith Lee
* Elizabeth Moon
* Mike Resnick
* Lucius Shepard
* Jeff Vandermeer
* Paula Volsky
* Howard Waldrop
* Liz Williams
* Walter Jon Williams
* Tad Williams
* John C. Wright

The fan of my trilogy THE GOLDEN AGE (hi, mom!) will be interested to learn that I wrote a short story detailing the further adventures of Atkins, the last soldier of Utopia, against the forces of the Silent Oecumene. The story is called “The Far End of History” and it appears in an anthology titled NEW SPACE OPERA II edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, published by Eos.

To learn more about Mr. Wright, visit his website.