By John F. Triolo, Director to Communications
Science Fiction is often considered by pro-life activists to be rhetorical territory held by the enemy. To some extent this view is justified. Large segments of our culture including entertainment and the arts, as well as the most of the organs of middlebrow intellectual opinion are largely sympathetic to the ideological concerns of the so-called “pro-choice” and “death with dignity” movements. Genre fiction is by no means immune to the anti-human influences of the prevailing artistic and popular cultures. Straddling as it does the gulf between popular and literary fiction, serious science fiction is perhaps more subject to anti-life intellectual influences than many areas of writing. In addition to these influences, there is the tendency among many of the contemporary authors of both hard science fiction (emphasizing technical detail and scientific rigor) and soft science fiction (with an emphasis on social sciences and purely imaginative elements) to embrace the grossest form of philosophical scientism, which might be described as the worship, rather than practice, of what is perceived to be science. This worship is often combined with a disdain for moral or ethical concerns that do not closely align with contemporary conventional opinion.
The story of science fiction doesn’t end with the colorless adherents of a prosaic, mechanistic ideology, however. Science fiction is, along with its cousin fantasy, essentially imaginative literature and the imaginative quality includes the moral imagination. If many works deal in prosaic propaganda and lazy tropes this is typical across the wasteland of contemporary literature, especially in the case of so-called “literary” fiction. There are science fiction stand-outs that ask readers to examine complex ideas and consider how society, culture, and technology relate and alter each other. Of the writers of these stand-outs there are a select few who give us stories with complete characters of true substance and emotional depth set in plots of verisimilitude, despite their fantastic elements. These authors and their stories have the power to excite hopeful expectations of the adventures of distant ages or chill with grim warnings of futures where technology enhances imprudence, institutionalizes injustice, and makes it temptingly easy to commodify and instrumentalize the human person.
Michael Flynn is such an author. His 2012 short story collection Captive Dreams is an excellent starting point for pro-lifers looking for readable science fiction stories that will not offend, and may inform, their point of view without ever descending into the merely didactic. The collections stories deal with basic themes of isolation, moral decay, selfishness, cowardice, compassion and its absence, personal growth, of course, the impact of technology of human society and human relationships. All address in some way the unique and incalculable potential of every human life. All touch, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely on a pro-life theme.
Each of the six stories in Captive Dreams, three of which were previously published, stand alone and can be read and enjoyed in isolation. The constituent parts of the collection, however, are loosely but importantly unified by a single, fictional New Jersey Neighborhood and characters from one story will often make a brief but important cameo in another. The stories also share a common timeline running from sometime during or before the 1980s to a prospective future which is close in years but far removed in thinking and culture. As we read through the different tales we are also permitted to observe the massive changes, some beneficial, many quite destructive, wrought by the introduction of various technologies–some of which originate in chronologically earlier tales.
In “Melodies of the Heart,” the first story in the book, we meet a misanthropic doctor working part-time in a nursing home. At the start he is full of bitter contempt for his patients who he views as little more than broken-down machines greedily clinging to life long after it can do them or anyone else any good. As the story progresses a very strange patient, a speculative medical mystery, and a family tragedy combine send the story’s major characters on a journey which ends in the discovery, however imperfectly, of both other people as complete, valuable individuals and, perhaps more importantly, themselves. This story sets the tone of gently sad melancholy, punctuated by brief moments of hopeful light and episodes of frantic despair, that pervades the entire volume.
“Captive Dreams,” the second story, from which the collection takes its title, and “Remembered Kisses,” the fifth story, both take a sobering look at human relationships. These stories of trust and dependency explore the dangers of viewing people in terms of what we want from them. Readers are forced to ask themselves how much their relations with the powerless are characterized by a charitable desire to for the good of the other and how much by a desire to force them into the roles we need them to play. How easy it is to excuse the grossest crimes in terms of what we “know” is best for someone unable to speak for himself.
“Places Where the Roads Don’t Go” and “Buried Hopes,” the fourth and sixth stories respectively, are both in their own ways stories about emotions, sensibilities, the difficulty of breaching barriers created by perceptual differences without real sympathy for the Other. “Places Where the Roads Don’t Go” also takes a close look at the logical facts and irreducible truths of human life and the dangers of trying to deny them. “Buried Hopes” closes the book by giving a satisfying glimpse of the neighborhood’s origins.
“Hopeful Monsters,” the third story and of particular interest to pro-lifers, takes an excruciatingly clear-eyed look at a society which has used its knowledge of genetic science to perfect the ongoing process of turning human beings into merchandise to be bought, sold, or returned for store credit. This society is also one where the “only wanted children” logic of today’s abortion regime is taken to its logical extreme. Of the stories in this collection, “Hopeful Monsters” is probably the most emotionally difficult to read and the easiest to imagine as an accurate depiction of our own not-too-distant future.
The pro-life philosophy which clearly under-girds all of the works in the volume is certainly illuminating and the scientific and fantastic speculations contained in the stories are extremely interesting. What sets Captive Dreams apart and makes the stories so worthwhile, however, is the quality of Mr. Flynn’s writing. Imagination is certainly there and that of the best sort which makes the fantastic seem plausible. There is also wit which, despite the need to be applied delicately in stories of this type, results in some moments of very genuine humor in unusual circumstances. Most importantly, Mr. Flynn’s writing is full of compassion and sympathy for his characters which is so complete, even in the cases of wrong or unlikeable characters, that it is reminiscent at points of Willa Cather, Anthony Trollope, and the literary giant of contemporary science fiction, Gene Wolfe. Mr. Flynn does not present us with just so stories designed to show the triumph of good over evil in time and he never preaches. Rather, he shows us a world very much like our world, which indeed may be where our world is heading, populated by people very much like the people we encounter everyday. To these setting he adds elements of philosophical and technological complexity and lets the tales tell themselves out, often in very sad ways–like so many real stories do every day. Along the way Mr. Flynn helps his readers to understand what motivates enemies of life while reaffirming our respect for it. Despite, or perhaps because of, the melancholy this volume engenders, Captive Dreams is an extremely beautiful and rewarding read. When you reach the final page of this collection you will say, with Rann of “Buried Hopes,” “I hate to see things end.”