While the Great Conversation is thought to encompass the entire body of Western literature, similar conversations can be seen in weird fiction. In Appendix N, Zelazny conversed, for lack of a better term, with Kuttner, who conversed with Lovecraft, who in turn was part of a tradition of authors building on foundations created decades earlier by Ambrose Bierce. This one conversation of authors alluding and building off of their predecessors lasted over 100 years, and is still going, once you factor in such upstarts as Gaiman, Butcher, Correia, and even Scooby Doo. Likewise Farmer and Moorcock both conversed with Dent who took his own inspirations from Burroughs. A well read reader can recognize these allusions first hand, while those working to remedy their ignorance of great swathes of the conversation, like myself, rely on the works of critics to clarify particular exchanges. What readers don't usually get to see is the author's intent.
So to find on John C. Wright's blog notes for his own turn at the Great Conversation provides a rare opportunity, not just for seeing into the mind of a writer, but to see how canon is relevant to the story teller. As Wright says:
That one solitary reader for whom I write this article can rest assured: THE HERMETIC MILLENNIA is deliberately intended by the author to be something of a variation, or even a rebuttal, to certain science fiction author’s ideas with which I disagree, or which, at the least, I think not presented convincingly.As a word of warning, those adverse to spoilers should not read further, either in this article or Wright's own.
The first of many ideas to be taken behind the woodshed is Asimov's psychohistory.
Let us take FOUNDATION, for example. The conceit there is that the Second Foundation, discoverers first of the predictive science of history, and later, for no apparent reason, discovers Way Cool Mind Powers, could guide the galaxy through the Dark Ages with something like a Soviet Five Year Plan for the economy writ large. And then, having saved the galaxy from the scourge of barbarism, the human race would all live happily ever after under the soul-crushing absolute rule of the Imperial family, the Praetorian Guard, the Senatorial clans and their clients, not to mention the Mandarins of the Second Foundation who can control history itself, and your brain. Whoop-to-do, fun.
(Why is the reader supposed to root for these guys? Sign me up with the Mule.)
What is wrong with this idea, or, at least, it seems wrong to me, is that the members of the Second Foundation are still human beings, still as filled with powerlust and ambition and sentimentality and selfishness as any other human beings, despite knowing a science to predict the future.Like many Campbelline works, Foundation hinged upon the idea that man was malleable and that a small cabal of enlightened ones could ultimately improve the breed. Wright takes that idea and shows it to be the murderous disaster that history has repeatedly proved it to be. The centuries of the Hermetic Millenia are filled with hemoclasm after hemoclasm and extinctions as, invariably, the races of Man do not measure up to the designs of the Secret Kings. Other Campbelline writers such as Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and van Vogt take their turn under Wright's microscope, including the fan-favorite Slans, who appear as the radiotelepathic Locusts bereft of individuality yet overflowing in pride.
However, Wright's turn at the Great Conversation is not just negative criticism of Campbell:
Then I did the clever thing I had hoped my readers would catch: I made at least one member of these terrible races with their terrible customs into heroes and heroines, each in his own way...
My biggest worry was that I had taken this step too far, that I had made the heroes from these various variant forms of humanity so likeable, so loveable, that readers would in disgust think that I was advocating living under the social systems designed by evil Hermeticists to break the human spirit.
I was afraid readers would think I was advocating Chimerical eugenics or militarism, Witchy mysticism, Nymphlike hedonism, and so on, because in each case I show the good as well as the bad of these ideals.
That is not the point at all. I am pointing out that evil social systems cannot break the human spirit. You will find good people even in the worst of worlds.Wright's conversation is not limited to science fiction.
So, finally, we reach the crux of the matter. I had to invent enough posthuman races, variant humanities, enough attempts to force mankind to the next step of evolution, to give some weight to the conceit of what is basically a transhumanist arms race.
Instead of making them up at random, I based them off of a specific progression in human history and psychology which leads to slavery, because the point of what the evil psychohistorians in my yarn were trying to do was to break the human spirit before the aliens arrive, so that Man would submit to them, and live, rather than prove recalcitrant and useless, and be slain.
The steps are loss of ambition in the Sylphs; which leads to loss of reason in the Witches; which leads to loss of empathy in the Chimerae; leads to loss of chastity in the Nymphs; which leads to the loss of the sense of man as more dignified than the animals in the Hormagaunts; which leads to a loss of individuality in the Locusts; and, in the Melusine, this leads to a telepathic serfdom, a helotry of each thought and memory, far more terrible than any merely physical slavery ever endured.
The progression, put in simpler terms, runs from sloth to envy to wrath to lust to gluttony to avarice to pride.The Seven Deadly Sins appear, one by one, marching through Wright's future history, as they have through Dante's Inferno and an entire host of works, literary and popular, to include comic books like Shazam! (Also known by its plagiarists as DC's Captain Marvel).
This is how canon works. Each generation of writers takes and examines the works of those who went before, incorporates a little from each in admiration or critique, and, in turn, inspires future generations. Here, as though trapped in amber, we are gifted to an annotated exchange in the Great Conversation.