Superversive Blog: The SF Culture War Posts — Part Two

Part Two of our multi-part look at the psychology of Science Fiction, as explained by Ruth Johnston, author of Re-Modeling the Mind, a new book that takes a fresh look at Jung’s work on personalities.


Part One:  What Forces Drive the SciFi Culture Wars?

Part Two: Optimistic in the Night Land

Q: For Part Two and Three, we wanted to take a look at specific works and discuss how the ideas in your new book apply to these works. Let’s start with John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land

A: I read John’s Night Land stories last year, and this year I’ve been trying to catch up on the original work they’re based on. The original novel, The Night Land, is very, very early science fiction isn’t it?

Q: Yes. The Night Lands by William Hope Hodgson was written in 1912. This was after the very first science fiction authors, such as Wells and Verne, but before E.E. “Doc” Smith and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. John really liked the original book and had run a game based on it back in law school. So, when the chance to write stories in that background for Andy Robertson’s Night Lands website, John  jumped on it. The stories in Awake In The Night Lands were originally written for that website, back when John was an atheist.

A: I really like how John’s four stories pick up the future history from Hodgson, gradually moving ahead into the most distant future, right to the collapse of the sun. I guess around the time that Hodgson was writing, there were early theories about the sun’s age, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations. These theories, as well as the increasing pile of dinosaur bones and other fossils, were making people aware of time in a new way.

The Night Land (the original) gets described as a horror story, but I see a lot of optimism in it. Our relationship to technology changed during and after the World Wars, but in 1912 this process hadn’t started yet. Scientific knowledge was exploding in unimaginable directions and, as yet, no real downside had been seen. The Chicago World’s Fair was lit by electricity in 1893, and this made a powerful impression on people’s minds. For the first time, an entire building, and more, could be outlined against the dark night sky by thousands of lights without any danger of fire or constant human tending. Electricity meant that people could control light and with it, knowledge and safety.

Then in 1903, the Wright brothers managed the first powered flight. By 1912, there were small aircraft factories and various “firsts” had been achieved, like first crossing of the Channel, first passengers, first woman, and so on. Hodgson knew that flight would go in unimaginable directions in the future, so he included an airplane in his story only as an ancient artifact.

People had always dreamed of flying, but the science of the early 20th century also brought things they had not imagined. Light had a measurable speed, which changed the nature of physics. It was literally unimaginable how far science might go in a million years. When Hodgson published his novel in 1912, there was good reason to believe that discovery and technology might keep going in a straight line upward until everything now impossible might become real. Later science fiction often explores how technology might go wrong for us; The Night Land is about how technology can help keep us alive in a changed, dangerous world.

What’s happened to the earth is terrible, of course: as the sun cooled, the earth cracked open, with the ocean pouring into the rift, gradually evaporating and contributing to more cooling. Life is only sustainable in the valley that eventually emerges from the crack, 100 miles below the current surface. The sun has gone out so the only source of power is the earth’s core and magnetic charge. Survivors of humanity re-started history inside the valley and have mostly forgotten that the world is larger. They live in a thick metal pyramid sunk deep into the ground and standing 7 miles above the surface. But in this endless darkness, technology is optimistic and life-sustaining. Like the World’s Fair, the pyramid creates its own daylight. The original novel’s plot hinges on light: being able to make it, finding it in unexpected places, and how to cope when it’s utterly gone.

So in spite of the darkness of the fictional world, I see the stories as grounded in optimistic Extroverted Intuition.

Q. Before we continue with our main subject, could you remind our readers of the unusual use you make of the words Introverted and Extroverted. Most people use these words to mean “likes to be alone” and “fun with people”, but one of the real gems of your book is your entirely new take on what Jung might have meant by these terms. Can you remind us of how you are defining them?

A: In the first article, I explained how both Intuition and Sensing can be Introverted: scanning for danger, idealistic, and a bit pessimistic, like a rabbit’s instinctive way of scanning the sky for flight patterns that could be hawks. On the other hand, both of them can also be Extroverted: optimistic, flexible, and pragmatic. Balancing each other in personalities, they form two basic polarities that I called A and B. (These are just temporary names for this series of articles; A and B are not terms from my book.) A is the pairing of optimistic, exploring Intuition and more danger-oriented, idealistic Sensing. B is the other pairing, where Intuition is idealistic and danger-oriented, while Sensing is exploring, flexible and optimistic.

Q: Let’s talk about the ideas you share in your new book. What light can they shed either on the original Night Lands or on John and his version?

Science fiction fans are usually personalities in which Intuition is a very strong part, often the strongest and most dominant. When it’s Extroverted, the universe seems full of possibilities waiting to be connected. Under every rock or behind every star could be a great invention or cure. When it’s Introverted, the personality usually has an innate feeling of knowing the truth of the world, so that exploring ideas is a matter of looking inward, following an inborn map of meaning. It’s also a bit more pessimistic and idealistic: under every rock there might be a rattlesnake, not a cure for cancer. But the rocks do need to be turned over, because it’s terribly important to find truth and roll away anything that covers and hides.

William Hope Hodgson’s original story seems full of Extroverted Intuition to me. Technology keeps mankind alive and there’s no real downside. His dark world is filled with evil spirits and creatures, but mankind’s ability to solve problems keeps one step ahead so that they can build a good way of life. The optimism of his Intuition feels so powerful in the story that I believe he probably had this kind of Intuition in his personality. It creates a sort of worldview.

I think this is some of what charmed John when he read the 1912 novel, and because I know John from college, I can say without guessing that he has that kind of Intuition. In his mind, the world is full of dots to be connected, and we’ve barely begun to connect them all.
Now the other half of the polarity I’m calling A is Introverted Sensing, which can show up as an intense idealism about human social roles. In fantasy and science fiction, it comes out in taking fairy-tale roles like king and knight very seriously. It also believes strongly in archetypal images like mother and father, male and female. When someone with A writes SFF stories, the setting and events can become wild and even chaotic, but the human roles never move much from archetypes. We see this clearly in both Night Land versions, the original and John’s. Anyone walking in the Night Land is going to be surprised by whatever comes next, whether it’s a fire pit, a dangerous creature, an oddly detached spirit, a living stone monument, or a cluster of blind worms. The stories depend strongly on human thought, activity, and roles to give them structure: like putting a snail into its shell. Human roles are stable, not flexible and random like the setting and ideas.

Q. Now we are getting to the crux of the issue, are we not? Can you tell us more about how your ideas apply to the human roles in The Night Lands.

First, just the concept of being human is crucially important. Hodgson has a “Master-Word” that only humans can know or say, though (wisely) he never tells us what it is. John’s stories picked up this core meaning of being human and play with it: what if someone refrains from saying it, what if someone has been made into a non-human and can no longer say it, what if an evil creature develops the ability to say it? I think the Master-Word is an archetypal notion of the essence of being human, and its message is that being human is not a flexible category. It is a core attribute and as such it is rigidly unchanging.

Second, the archetypal contrast of Male and Female is of utmost important in the Great Redoubt. In the original story, Hodgson’s narrator and his true love are depicted as having extreme attributes of male and female traits: the man’s strength and the girl’s daintiness are reiterated over and over. Further, there’s an aristocracy in the pyramid, hinted at by Hodgson and developed by John. In John’s first two stories, the leading ladies (narrator in one case) are princesses. In the first story, the princess rebels against the law of arranged marriages. The second story is a retelling of the Greek tragedy of Antigone, which requires a royal princess for the plot to work. Both princesses push back against their fates, but they can’t divorce their personal identities from their social roles, and fate always wins. So the human roles in the stories are not flexible at all; I don’t want to call them “stereotyped,” but quite appropriately we can call them “archetyped.”

Q. Are there archetypes in the story that do not have to do with humans?

A: There’s another strong archetype: light. Light is never general, it always comes from a source. Maybe a volcano, maybe a natural gas flame, maybe electrical current in a tool or weapon. In John’s first story, “Awake in the Night Land,” the narrator is saved from imminent death by the sudden appearance of a star, where stars are normally hidden by thick toxic clouds. In Hodgson’s story, the narrator is saved once or twice by a sudden light from above, maybe a star, maybe something else. Light is always a force for goodness, though it brings danger too. In folk tales and stories around the world, stars have the same image of goodness and, in a way, eternal life. The stars go on while our lives end, so they seem to stand for a power above death.

Q: What is the connection between someone’s personality and a story’s worldview? There isn’t a simple one to one correspondence between readers’ personalities and the type of stories or movies they like.

A: That’s right, and we don’t want to suggest that it’s so direct. We can like a story for idiosyncratic reasons, or from technical admiration, and we may not even cotton to the structured beliefs of people who overlap in what I call personality worldview. However, the way we process the world may match the way a story presents it so that it just feels like home. I think John had that sense about Hodgson’s stories.

For a personality with the aesthetic taste of Introverted Sensing, the archetypal presentations of people and light make sense. They make the confusion of the shifting world seem tolerable, and there’s little to no feeling of pushing back, going “whoa, maybe these traditional ideas need to be challenged.” It feels comfortable to adopt them unchallenged. This may not be true for personalities with Extroverted Sensing, as we’ll talk about in the next article.

I want to point out a significant difference between Hodgson’s world and John’s adaptation of it, one that I imagine is based in their personalities. Hodgson seems only secondarily interested in the science of his world, because he’s really deeply interested in idealized love. Technologies are props to show us how even here, love conquers all. But John’s mind is organized around idealized logic, not idealized relationships. His stories all move toward philosophical questions and moral tests of principles. Science ideas (obviously, fictional ones) are much better described and developed, of course especially in the last story when the universe is collapsing. Every story still has a central love, but it may be fraternal not romantic, and it may be pitted against logic and law in a more meaningful way.

In Jung’s system we’d say John has a Thinking personality, while Hodgson may have had a Feeling one. But the world Hodgson laid out is easily adapted for John’s idealized Thinking for one main reason: that Hodgson does not require us to mix good and bad. In the Night Land, everything is bad, because evil spirits from outer space made it that way. Idealized, Introverted Thinking tends to define “good” as the force for order and logic, and “evil” as a force for chaos and destruction of life. Good upholds life, like walls, roads and fences. Evil leaves unmarked cliffs, sinkholes and pockets of toxic gasses. Evil is the enemy of both logical order and life itself. That’s the moral outlook of a mind that’s strongly organized around Introverted Thinking, and it fits easily into the post-apocalyptic Night Land.

I think John’s Introverted Thinking works neatly into his fiction, but in non-fiction, in his essays, it moves toward very strongly-worded opinions that polarize readers. So one of his great strengths as a science fiction writer also draws him into polemical rhetoric. Knowing how strongly he defends traditional religion now, it’s amazing to realize that he was writing the Night Land stories before he had any belief. There’s no God in the pyramid, but the star as an archetype of Good Light comes close to faith. As a writer, he really lives in two worlds, one in which he can move through unreal places and write things he does not personally believe, and the other in which he makes enemies by calling out what he sees as good and evil.

Q: Can you give us an example of how these personality categories we have been discussing apply to a story with a different world view, perhaps one from the most recent Hugos—in the hopes of finding one that is familiar to many of our readers. 

A: In preparing to write these articles, I read some of this year’s nominees and winners. I found Heuveldt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside-Down” utterly charming. I think I liked it so much because it matches my own personality worldview: I have that optimistic, what-if wondering Extroverted Intuition but it’s combined with super idealism about love and relationships. So I understood immediately that when gravity flipped, this wasn’t intended to be a scientific event, but in some ways it was just about how devastating it is to lose love. I talked to one sci-fi fan who said it felt like a cheat that the gravity-flip wasn’t taken seriously as a natural disaster, and I can see how to a more Thinking personality this would be a problem. I also see the “A” polarity in the way characters were handled. The little girl hasn’t much individuality, rather she’s an archetype of a child, even called “Dawnie” which evokes the dawn of life. One house has three women spinning flax into rope, like the Three Fates. So this has significant overlap with “Awake in the Night Land,” in my terms, but at the same time an opposite focus. It’s the “A” polarity organized around Feeling, not Thinking.

Thank you again, Ruth, for your observations.

Next time: Ruth Johnston applies her mind-remodeling magic to: “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love.”

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  • Anthony M

    A: In preparing to write these articles, I read some of this year’s nominees and winners. I found Heuveldt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside-Down” utterly charming. I think I liked it so much because it matches my own personality worldview: I have that optimistic, what-if wondering Extroverted Intuition but it’s combined with super idealism about love and relationships. So I understood immediately that when gravity flipped, this wasn’t intended to be a scientific event, but in some ways it was just about how devastating it is to lose love.

    This is exactly the problem with its nomination. You recognized the flipping as not being scientific – so science fiction is out. Fantasy is out – there’s never shown to be anything magical about it except, yeah, things flipped. The concept isn’t explored from EITHER direction.

    It was just a story told as a metaphor. It’s not sci-fi or fantasy properly understood, and never should have been nominated.

    • Anthony M

      (The article is excellent, by the way. This isn’t a criticism of it, just a comment on a snippet.)