How to hover just a little bit off the ground

In my ongoing quest to consider how to accomplish all sorts of fictional feats fictionally, I must confess to being a little bit stumped by a recurring one. Flying is one thing but hovering just a little bit is a repeated visual indication of futuristic technology. Star Wars in particular is replete with a kind of hovering-a-bit technology that transitions from a handy way for moving heavy object, to vehicles that fly very close to the ground, to presumably the full-on flying vehicles shown on Coruscant.

How best to even describe this? A kind of limited anti-gravity? Intentionally restricted flight? Whereas many other fanciful physical effects in science fiction have clear rules, the limited hover is typically under explored. However, given the command of forces needed for the standard artificial gravity required by space-opera to keep everybody walking around, it makes sense that a kind of limited neutralisation of gravity also makes sense.

We can throw in some rules. Firstly the technology we currently have for hovercraft doesn’t count. The science-fiction hover is noiseless and unobtrusive. It is meant to look effortless beyond maybe a glow or a soft hum. Hovering by the means of big turbines blowing air doesn’t count. Similarly, while it might consume some power, hovering science-fictionally is shown as inexpensive. I think I recall a kind of animal drawn cart in The Mandalorian where the cart itself had not contact with the ground, suggesting a technology that just sort of works once it is up and running.

Likewise, it is technology that doesn’t require special surfaces to work. It is a lot easier to imagine devices being able to hover within the Starship Enterprise because the whole ship must have a highly complex control of gravitational forces (as well as engines that literally warp space). Yet, it is not something we do see within Star Trek. I assume we don’t see it in Trek because it would have been a tricky effect in the 1960s and hence didn’t become a ‘thing’ for Star Trek. For Star Wars, Luke’s speeder appears to hover using a neat practical effect involving mirrors and from that point on hovering became a thing within Star Wars.

Famously, Back to the Future 2 introduced hoverboards as a near-future technology that we were promised but which clearly hasn’t arrived. The hoverboard also lives in this unclear space between something that is almost but not quite a full on flying machine but with an implication of cheapness and simple utility. It’s hard to see how the fictional 2015 could have cheap hoverboards for teenagers without having the same technology everywhere.

Of course magnetic levitation is a real thing ( ) and that also gives a clue for the concept we are looking for. “Levitation” is the concept we are looking for but techniques such as acoustic levitation ( don’t really match the kind of science-ficitional levitation we are discussing. Likewise, real-world examples like maglev trains don’t come close to the kind of hovering within the science fiction trope. Optical levitation perhaps has some of the features but it is currently only possible with tiny objects.

Of course, I’m not interested in building an actual levitation device but rather hand-waving at a fictional one.

  • Control over the geometry of space-time. That sounds grand but it is implied by the existence of artificial gravity on space ships. If you can walk around the Millennium Falcon, then there is the technology to manipulate gravity at a very fine level. Quite how that translates to hovering, I don’t know.
  • Scaled up manipulation of fundamental forces. Of course everything in the universe is under the sway of forces that repel and attract. Repulsive forces are what stop everything in the universe just shmooshing altogether. At a fundamental particle level, forces can be attractive or repulsive at different differences. Our levitating slab of frozen Han Solo may be sitting in a sweet spot of altered fundamental forces of nature. Gravity is stopping things from floating away completely but the natural repulsion of matter is operating at an exaggerated scale.
  • It is actual flying. What I mean is the technology for levitating is actually whatever the routine technology for flying is but some how intentionally limited. An engineer can take a screwdriver to one of those Star Wars levitating palettes, switch off a limiter of some kind and have a full on aircraft.

Well I guess I'm writing about Clarkesworld again

It is very creditable that Neil Clarke has written a lengthy response about the since withdrawn story that I reviewed here. There is much to be commended about his response, in particular that relevant background is given and responsibility taken. I do think there are issues with the response and that they are issues worth discussing. Arguably, this is a discussion that could be postponed but I think waiting has its own issues. Broadly, there is an issue here with the role of publisher versus author and the relative risks each faces when engaged with something controversial. I’m not attempting to go line-by-line through the statement or diagnose what is good or bad about it but rather I want to examine what concerns me in general by looking at some select details.

Firstly, it present the ensuing controversy in terms of “attacks”. Later in the response it acknowledges genuine difference of opinion. It would have been wiser to begin there. If Clarkesworld did not anticipate prior to publication that the story would engender controversy then I would have to assume a level of naivety that is astonishing. I think there is a significant issue with this statement also:

“I’d like to start by addressing some of the misinformation that I’ve seen:”

Speculation is not same thing as misinformation. There was a lot of speculation (which I’ll discuss further on). Of the points Neil Clarke then lists most centre around issues on which there was wide levels of speculation rather than active disinformation. True, much of it was poorly or weakly reasoned but what we did not see (on the whole) was people claiming inside knowledge (i.e. we didn’t see people claiming they actually knew who the author was or had access to inside knowledge). Rather, it was cases of people making inferences from the nature of the text that the text itself was not sufficient to make.

I’ve talked a lot here about the difference between a reasonable hypothesis made in advance of information and how that shapes how we inquire about the world. Both cognitively and as matter of how the logic of empiricism works, people need hypotheses to ask relevant questions. Inquiry is not assumption free and it isn’t possible to be assumption free. The rational step is knowing when to dump assumptions and hypotheses when they aren’t helping. A case in point is:

“This was not a hoax. Isabel honestly and very personally wanted to take away some of the power of that very hurtful meme”

There are two very different points but intimately related points here: the intent of the story and whether there was some kind of hoax in play. The ostensible intent of the story was clear once read. It is notable that this intent is about attempting to accomplish something in the ‘real’ world beyond the normal range of written fiction. I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to attempt but it’s not unlike lifting a heavy weight, impressive if you can do it but it requires some care. In this instance the equivalent of a responsible person in a workplace making sure people aren’t trying to carry heavy boxes without the use of a trolley is the editor and publication. Isabel Fall’s intentions are one thing (heck, they are admirable) but what were Clarkesworld’s intentions?

A publisher/magazine isn’t a neutral medium that simply transmits stories to readers. That’s a lot clearer with NON-FICTION, e.g. if a journalist writes an incredible scoop that will generate a lot of interest and controversy, the newspaper publishing that scoop is a co-partner in that. There is an “I” missing in that statement from Neil Clarke as in “I wanted to take away some of the power of that very hurtful meme” and I can very much see why he might feel that it wasn’t his place to say that. However, if that was a key purpose of the story, then the act of publishing was a key element of that purpose. Exactly the same story published on a personal blog or on AO3 would have a very different kind of impact and be less capable of achieving the stated objective.

That all points to significant issues around publisher responsibility and the duty of care between publisher, editor and author. As far as I can see Isabel Fall satisfied all her duties as an author (delivered an attention grabbing story that shows some significant skill with genuine intent) but there is a massive failing in the duties of Clarkesworld to one of its authors. It’s a failing equivalent to an employer seeing an employee about to lift a heavy box and doing no more than saying “Hey, do you think you are OK at lifting that heavy box?” and when the employ says “I think so!” giving them a thumbs up.

The second point is the one about hoaxes. I could act smug because I hedged my bets on the story being genuine but that misses the point. Hoaxes and pranks happen. In addition contributions to the society-wide discussion on the human rights of transgender people really do include bad-faith contributions, not all of which come people who are openly on the far-right. Prank articles to non-fiction outlets are also a phenomenon. That varies from the funny (e.g. this case ) to the less funny and while I might find the prank on Quillette amusing even an attempt at a righteous hoax creates the same basic problem of undermining trust.

Pranking an outlet for fiction is harder to do because a story is a story. The purpose of a prank or hoax (such as the famous Sokal Hoax) is typically to demonstrate a lack of editorial oversight in an outlet claiming to be truthful to some degree. That makes less sense with fiction but it doesn’t exclude the possibility. Given a hostile environment on multiple levels (i.e. attacks on transgender people, attacks on fandom and the overlap between the two) it is not only unsurprising that a story entitled “I identify sexually as an attack helicopter” would have people asking “is this a hoax?” (or “is this some sort of attack?”) but also that is eminently PREDICTABLE that was going to be a reaction. I say that but clearly Clarkesworld didn’t predict that and that’s a shame. Things maybe obvious in retrospect but it is a lot harder to imagine seeing something as being fake when you already know it is genuine. I get how they didn’t see that prior (but should have done) but looking at Neil Clarke’s response, I don’t think he has still grasped that aspect.

For example, further on he makes this point:

“Isabel was born in 1988. That does not make one a neo-Nazi. I’m honestly surprised and disappointed that I have to say that.”

I’ll assume he is genuinely befuddled. I am 100% certain nobody believes that being born in 1988 makes you a Nazi. What he is doing here is failing to consider how on earth this even came up. Being dismissive of it because of the face-value absurdity of it is a failure. It’s the same kind of failure of not considering an alternative view point that he is admonishing others for elsewhere. I do believe that a focus on the “88” was an error of reasoning but it was a subtle one and of a common type. As I said several days ago:

“Likewise, I see people trying to discover meaning in the birth date given in the Clarkesworld bio (1988). The ’88’ being a bit of neo-nazi semiotics, but it’s also a perfectly reasonable year for an author to be born in. I’m suspicious of the idea of somebody hiding their identity by leaving secret clues to their identity — they probably didn’t and if they did then they’d be a bit more obvious.”

[edited to correct my appalling spelling]

The point here is a kind of fallacy of confirmation of priors. Putting in deniable tokens of far-right allegiance is a thing that neo-nazis do but the whole point of this stupid game is that they are intended to be deniable. The fallacy is taking a hypothesis about deceit and reasoning “but that’s exactly what somebody being deceitful would do!” without considering the opposite hypothesis (i.e. it’s also what somebody not being deceitful would do) and realising that it is of no evidential value at all. Looking for hidden “88” is rather like the stupid neo-nazi circle game/OK symbol nonsense — it is intended to provoke a degree of paranoia and distrust in people. It is both genuine (in that neo-nazis genuinely do these things) and in-genuine in that it’s purpose is to sow doubt.

I’ve no idea why Clarkesworld decided to include Fall’s birth year as the only bit of biographical data but clearly it wasn’t a neo-nazi shout out. Should they have spotted that? I think probably not, that’s a much harder case of spotting in advance why data you know is genuine might be see as false by others. However, as an error it illustrates the primary issue with the fuss around this story and it is a point I alluded to in my review.

The fundamental question surrounding the story before its withdrawal was not at its heart one of gender, own voices or author identity. There are issues about each of those but looking at them separately only adds further confusion. The core issue was the question of whether it was a story in good-faith or bad-faith.

An ‘own voices’, good faith story (i.e. reflecting a person genuinely attempting to tackle issues) might be good or bad aesthetically (or emotionally or politically etc). It might succeed or fail. It might be problematic in all sorts of ways and a corollary to that is that people have every right to talk about how it might be problematic and a corollary to that is that the author might find that discussion hurtful. I’m not engaging in that perspective of the story beyond that.

The open question in early January was whether this story was a story meant in good faith. There’s not a way of asking that question without it being hurtful to the author IF in fact it is in good faith. But we are back to the point that “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” announces itself as being in bad-faith. That’s part of the the (now) stated intent of taking a hurtful meme and attempting to strip it of its power. Neil Clarke knew that the story was meant in good faith, his readers did not nor did the wider audience. Nobody in that wider audience knows who Isabel Fall is. That’s not a question of pseudonymity but simply a question of there being no established track record of trust. For example, if I entitled a blog post here “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” I suspect most people would expect to see me write an essay about the history of the meme rather than assume that I changed politics (even so, I doubt I’d use that title).

Again, that’s not Isabel Fall’s fault and it shouldn’t have been her problem because the source of the trust should have not rested with her but with Clarkesworld. The answer to the question “is this story intended to be in good-faith” should have been “yes, because Clarkesworld wouldn’t have published it otherwise”. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a sufficient answer for many people and I don’t think we can fault people for not seeing it as a sufficient answer. The key question Clarkesworld need to answer before publication is whether people in wider fandom (i.e. not just their regular readers) is whether they had sufficient trust both in fandom in general and among transgender fans in particular for Clarkesworld (not Isabel Fall) to attempt to take away some of the power of a very hurtful meme. The answer would have been “no”. Clearly, the magazine doesn’t have that level of trust, as demonstrated but also, I think it was obvious before hand.

Am I being wise after the event in saying so? No, really I don’t think so. Multiple people, from varying backgrounds were asking me privately before I wrote a review, whether I thought the story was some sort of hoax or other shenanigans. In the context it had then (which isn’t the context it had now) many sensible, rational people genuinely couldn’t tell. My main reason for thinking that it wasn’t a hoax was that I don’t think any of the usual suspects are that smart or that intellectually adept (or, lets be frank, capable of writing that well). That this was unclear was an editorial failure not a failure on the part of the author. Which takes me to this point:

“It’s the author’s choice when and where they want their story to be heard.”

That would be nice if it was true but the editor & publisher of a notable SF magazine knows that it is not true. Clarkesworld chose to have the story published at this point in time in their magazine not Isabel Fall. The author isn’t wholly powerless and obviously has some power of consent in the process but I really don’t have to explain what the power dynamic is in this circumstance. Again, no that does not mean they shouldn’t have published the story but simply publishing it is not by itself empowering an author. Later, Neil Clarke does credibly engage with aspects of this but running through his account is this same kind of notion of the magazine as a neutral conduit. I don’t think he is attempting to pass blame onto others but I also don’t think the response really examines the position, power or responsibility of the magazine here, although it begins approaching that in places. For example:

“Twitter can be dangerous.”

I’m just doing short quotes because people can quickly read the whole thing (and probably already have done). Again, I think this is disingenuous and worse feeds into a right-wing narrative of evil Twitter mobs etc etc that itself is particularly damaging. Science fiction has had no shortage of spats, kerfuffles, controversies and cause célèbres since there has been something recognisable as ‘fandom’ and long before the existence of Twitter. The issue here was not the medium of the discussion but, as I said above, whether this was a flawed story written in good faith versus a story intended in bad faith. Social media impacts the speed of such discussions perhaps but of the many kinds of flaws social media has, the discussion around this story was not a particularly pertinent example.

How can I say such a thing! Because, the ‘problematic’ aspects of the story were baked into the very premise of the story: taking a hurtful meme and repurposing it. The questions around identity, trust, gender etc are the questions that taking a hostile symbol and repurposing it bring with it. How can it not? You can’t take something from one group (transphobes in this case) and give it to another without bringing up who-is-who. That’s a different issue to the other aesthetic or literary aspects of the story (cue discussion on death of the author etc) or the models and perspectives of gender in the story. Twitter wasn’t the problem here, a lack of context was and, again, the failure lies not with the author but with the magazine.

And that takes me to this point:

“The story was neither award bait (in January?!) nor clickbait. Both are unpleasant practices and we have no tolerance for either. I can at least see how the latter might have been assumed by the title, but it was not the intention.”

The ‘award bait’ issue arose not as a confused attack on the author or the magazine but because of multiple people positively suggesting the story should be given an award. For example, from the original comments:

“I feel bad for any new author publishing their first short this year, they don’t have a chance at a new author Hugo, this is it right here.”

And, no, there is nothing wrong with people saying they love a story so much that it deserves an award. I’m citing positive award comments about the story to show where and why people critical of the story were likely to talk about awards and the magazines intent.

Also, Neil Clarke’s rejection of the claim is a little hollow. “Award bait” isn’t an unpleasant practice, it’s a dismissive (and rude) term for magazines seeking to publish stories that will win awards. In terms of substance, yes, magazines do that because, well, because of course they do. We want magazines to publish stories that have the qualities that lead to stories winning awards.

As for “clickbait”. Sorry, but they can’t have not known that “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” would attract clicks. Obviously it would. Obviously it is bait for clicks regardless of ‘intent’ — it’s like shouting and then saying you didn’t intend to make a loud noise. The only way for that not to play a part in the decision to run with that title (and yes, that’s a decision that ultimately sits with the magazine not the author even if authors of short stories typically decide titles) is if they didn’t use that title. You can’t un-know that somehow and make a decision uninfluenced by it. This is not unlike some of what I have written about apparent conflicts of interest — this isn’t a conflict of interest as such but it shares that same feature of intent not making a huge deal of difference to the ethics of the situation.

It also fails on the ‘unpleasant practice’ aspect as well. Really? Clarkesworld pays no regards to titles and whether they draw in readers? That it sees trying to optimise that as an unpleasant practice? Nah, there may be shades of cynicism attached to how we all (myself included obviously) craft what we put on the internet but there no simple distinction between carefully crafted title to encourage would-be readers and click-bait. There certainly isn’t a way to put “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” out there as a webpage and shareable link without knowing that it’s going to pull in a lot of clicks.

Put another way, and I know this will sound harsh, Clarkesworld ran a stunt and exploited an author to run a stunt and the author suffered as a consequence. That’s a bad thing and, as creditable as Neil Clarke’s response is (and written in difficult circumstances), I really don’t think it has engaged with that issue sufficiently. No, I’m not saying he is a terrible person etc etc. I can well see how good intentions and an unlucky combination of circumstances led to the situation. Hell, as readers know, I wrote things here in the past that led to nasty attacks on another person that I really wish hadn’t happened.

That also takes us back to “award bait”. As Neil Clarke says (and as I mentioned back in my earlier piece) January is a poor time of year to put out a story hoping to attract nominations twelve months later, nor would it help a first-time author with earlier stories (because they don’t have any). However, it is a great time of year for magazines and editors to gain attention. No (and I keep belabouring ‘no’) I am not saying that is what Clarkesworld was doing! But they weren’t not-doing that either and “in January?!” is a disingenuous response.

I can’t count how many posts here have touched on outrage-marketing. I don’t think this is an example of it but as with terms like “clickbait” there is not some easily defined line between being outspoken and being controversial for being controversy’s sake (or even in the latter case meaning that what is produced is bad cf Harlan Ellison).

As I said in my review, science fiction should attempt interesting things and a bold story that doesn’t achieve its objectives are still stories I want to see. I want to see new voices and I want to see magazines taking bold and provocative choices. The issue here for editors and publisher is understanding were the risks lie and who benefits when the risks pay off and who suffers when they don’t. In this case the balance is WAY OFF based on what we are now told. Isabel Fall took most of the risk and suffered most of the consequences. Clarkesworld has probably had a bit of a dint in its reputation but also a huge amount of attention, and around award season. Was the outcome they wanted? Of course not but that is what happened and that is not good.

Fire and the big lie

Here is a combination of blog topics. Mad Genius Club touches on the Australian fires as a topic. It’s an OK piece by Kate Paulk about fire seasons and flood seasons in Australia. However, it ends with a truism:

“When I was growing up, it was common knowledge that there should be regular controlled burns in the off-season. Every time the environmentalist lobby forces a stop, there are catastrophic fires, and every time once the fires die down there’s a new resurgence of locally extinct plants coming back. I’ve seen the cycle a few times now – it’s way past time everyone realized that nature is not tame and nature is not a mother (except in a rather specialized sense that involves rather nasty language). It’s also time we remembered that we can, for the most part, live with nature. We just need to remember that there will be no mercy and every mistake can be fatal.”

Paulk really is repeating “common knowledge” but it is “common knowledge” that I’ve discussed before [ ] Yes, hazard reduction burns are an important part of managing the risks of fire. Yes, people know that. No, they aren’t a panacea and no the “environmentalist lobby” isn’t stopping them. Aside from anything else why on earth would the “environmentalist lobby” want to stop something if it was such a part of the natural cycle? The idea doesn’t make sense on its own merits. It also has little connection with the reality on the ground. No major environmental group is lobbying against hazard reduction burns in general. Here is what I said last time:

“The real reason why there aren’t more hazard reduction burns in Australia during winter is that they are difficult to do right, dangerous and require lots of expertise and people…all of which costs money…which the two fire services don’t have…because of limits on public spending…by conservatives.”

I should also add, that climate change has resulted in longer fire seasons which has reduced the window within which hazard reduction burns can be conducted safely.

However, it’s also worth noting that additional hazard reduction burns in national parks wouldn’t have stopped the scale of the fires this season. Fires ripped through areas of bush that had had hazard reduction burns or had had relatively recent major fires. For example, consider the 2013 Blue Mountains bush fires [ ] which prior to 2019 were probably the biggest fires this century to impact the greater Sydney region. Those fires consumed, among other areas, a large region running from Lithgow in the west, past Mount Victoria and into a section of the Blue Mountains called the Grose Valley.

2019? Again, among many other fires there was a major fire covering nearly 20 thousand hectares officially designated as the Grose Valley fire running from Lithgow, past Mount Victoria (damaging the train line) and flowing further east through the Grose Valley. Only 6 years later and an area that had experienced massive fires (international headline generating fires) was burning again.

And that is just one example. The 2019/2020 fires have burnt through a huge variety of territory, including farm land, including places that had recent significant fires, including places that had strategic burning back. Hazard reduction is “reduction” and not elimination. If there is bush then there is fire. Combine that with periodic drought and increased temperatures then you get worse fires more often. The NSW RFS, fire brigade and the National Parks service aren’t ignorant fools who somehow don’t know the “common knowledge” of the internet experts or Murdoch journalists nor are “greenies” or whoever the scapegoat-du-jour is. The obstacle to hazard reduction is time, money and resources but even then it’s not a panacea.

Of course, I’ve seen some even dafter people suggest getting rid of the bush altogether — that it is the very existence of the national parks that is the problem. That’s even more ignorant and specifically forgets the other species of disaster that regularly befalls Australia: floods.

Nominating season: resources

The Hugo 2020 nominations opened early this year but I’m only now trying to get my head into gear about nominating stuff. I think it’s going to be a strong year for novels but we’ll see. Meanwhile, mainly for my own reference, are links to a bunch of resources that make the process that bit easier!

And as everything is under control and we’ve got loads of time, here is the No Worries At All blob calmly considering their nominating options.

Some responses to the Isabel Fall story

I’ve started and trashed some further posts on the Clarkesworld “Attack Helicopter” story. As you are aware, I use this blog as a dumping ground for thoughts and I still have many on this topic. However, a long ramble that adds nothing to what I said earlier probably isn’t helping. Instead, here are some links to reactions I have found interesting that have come either from people I follow on social media or were forwarded by people I follow on social media.

There remain a host of questions but on most of them I think it is a matter of waiting.

Some responses to the attack helicopter story.

Phoebe North

Laura Lam on death of the author

Alex Acks:

Rachel Swirsky:

Bogi Takács:

M L Clark:

Edited to add a couple more that arrived later.

Carmen Maria Machado

Alexandra Erin doesn’t mention the story by name

A priest in a novel

There was a whole other essay that spun off into to far too many tangents. Metaphors, analogies and examples gather their own velocity and head off in directions that take them beyond what is useful. However, I ended up with this instead, which works on its own.

I’m thinking about reader expectations and how they apply to genres and also how knowledge of an author’s beliefs shapes those expectations. For this essay consider a character, we’ll call them Helen, who is a priest or a nun or some other kind of cleric. The point being they are overtly and officially tied to a religion and in a social role whose purpose is that they act as an intermediary between people and god(s).

Imagine we encounter Helen early in a story. How does genre shape what kind of expectations we might have about god and gods in Helen’s world?

Imagine Helen is a character in a contemporary “literary” novel set in the present day. Helen’s presence by itself doesn’t imply anything very much about the role God or gods will play in the story. Further, Helen will have theological beliefs as a character that we won’t necessarily expect to be assertions about how the world she lives in actually is. Similarly, those beliefs may or may not reflect those of the author.

Imagine Helen is a character in a fantasy novel. It’s not 100% certain but I’d suggest we are more likely to expect Helen to have some actual access to a supernatural and god-like being. If Helen expresses theological beliefs, it as a minimum suggests these may be part of the wider world-building i.e. she is being used as a character by the author to brief us on some aspects of how this fantasy world works. The connection between the theological mechanics of this fantasy world and the author’s actual theological beliefs is complex. The author may be bringing with them unexamined ideas about the nature of religion or they may be purposefully examining some of their own beliefs or what they present may be utterly different to what they believe. The text alone may be inadequate (while containing clues or indications).

Imagine Helen in a novel set in a future society. She might be a hint that the story will have a supernatural element, she might be more like our first example but I think my initial expectation (until the rest of the novel made it clear) was that the author has view about how religion operates in a society. The author may or may not agree with Helen’s views and may but without further evidence, I’d take Helen’s social role as the author asserting some belief about how religion operates. I’d be very interested in what the author had to say about religion in contemporary society. However, without knowing more, I’d be cautious about saying what the author believes about the mechanics of religion based on the text alone.

I could go on. Horror or urban fantasy would have their own twists on those examples.

I was brought up as a Catholic and I was still a practising Catholic (if a sceptical one) when I first read Lord of the Rings and (more relevantly) The Silmarillion. I was older when I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series and I think had shifted more to atheism by then*. In both cases we have Catholic authors bringing with them Catholic beliefs to worlds where religion and the supernatural play a significant role.

The overt fantasy theology in The Silmarillion (or rather, in the Ainulindalë at the beginning of the book) is usually taken as telling us something TRUE about the setting of the book (i.e. these are real gods that exist within the setting) that we know not to be the actual theological beliefs of JRR Tolkien but within which we can see Catholic ideas once we know that they are there. Could a protestant have written the same story? I’m not sure that question makes sense as a counterfactual given how personal authorship is, so let me rephrase it. If the author of The Silmarillion was anonymous and we knew nothing about them how confident could we be of what their religious beliefs were based on the text alone? Hard to say given how much we know about Tolkien but I would say it would be very difficult to make confident assertions.

We could, reasonably, conclude that the author had thought a lot about god and gods and we could note that they adopt in the story a unitary, ultimate god from which the other gods derive. However, we wouldn’t know if that reflected the author’s beliefs e.g. the Ainulindalë presents a polytheistic theology with elements of monotheism that is different from Catholic beliefs.

Flipped around, it is still legitimate given what we DO know about Tolkien’s actual beliefs and reasonably draw conclusions about how they shape the fictional theology of his world. The significance of some (eg the primacy of Ilúvatar) grows and the significance of others lessens or is reshaped (eg to what extent the gods and demon gods reflect angels).

With Gene Wolfe’s Urth the Catholic influences are more overt in the society he presents. Without knowing about Wolfe’s actual beliefs, the novels clearly are written by somebody interested in and informed about Catholicism and Catholic societies. That Severian becomes more Jesus-like and more messianic (often unwillingly) throughout can also be easily seen without knowing what the author’s beliefs are. However, the ambiguities in the stories are substantial. Severian’s order is clearly modelled on Catholic priestly or monastic orders but they are torturers and deeply morally ambiguous. Severian is becoming a literal saviour of humanity but his powers derive from the intervention of benign aliens seeking to literally get the sun working. If the author of these books were an enigma, it would be hard to conclude whether they were a devout-but-critical Catholic, an ex-Catholic or just somebody who was fascinated by Catholicism aesthetically.

Again, flipping it around, seeing how Gene Wolfe’s beliefs influence his work is certainly illuminating. We can draw meaningful conclusions with the additional information that help inform and enhance the work. It becomes easier to see what Wolfe examines in the work and what might be unexamined assumptions about the world.

Ah, I’ve reached the end of this without having a conclusion. The author isn’t dead but texts are undetermined by authorial belief. Knowing what an author believes informs a text but inferring an author’s beliefs from a text is fraught and even more so in a fantasy or science fictional setting.

*[It was more of a slide than a sudden disenchantment or loss of faith]