Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why Superversive fiction?

CS Lewis' demon, Screwtape, once had to advise his nephew Wormwood about a moment when the junior demon could not influence his targeted human. Screwtape patiently explained that Wormwood made the mistake of allowing the targeted human to read a good book. Any demon worth his sulfur should know that they must make certain that the humans they tempt must only be made to read important books. When people read good books that warm the soul, it cloaks them in a fog that a demon can't penetrate.

“Important” books like that have been why the term “literature” has always had a bad rap – especially 19ths and 20th century literature. Because, you will notice, that Lord of the Rings is rarely put in the literature section of a bookstore – if ever. I know of no English Literature program that will include Lord of the Rings as part of the curriculum. No. For “literature,” people are subjected to Steinbeck, or Lord of the Flies, or half of Russian literature, which makes you want to slit your wrists by the time you're done. To heck with being subversive, I would submit that much of the drivel labeled as “literature” is in fact corrosive to the human spirit, if not the human soul.

Much of the science fiction during the Cold War has the same problem. Ellison's I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, may indeed be great literature, or even brilliant, but I do come away from it wondering why I cared, or why I read it. It's a good example of Cold War science fiction, filled with the despair for the future. Heck, one of the reasons Star Trek worked so well is that it was perhaps the first Cold War sci-fi that showed a world after World War 3 that didn't look like a variation on Mad Max or The Terminator.

So, that's why Superversive fiction has always been a mystery to me – not because I didn't understand the concept, but because I didn't see the need for the term. Growing up, I always understood the difference between fiction that edifies and fiction that doesn't. Which was my original problem with the concept of Superversive fiction. Shouldn't all fiction be Superversive?

Obviously, the deeper one looks at some of the fiction being shoved into the face of the general population, the more it becomes apparent that we need a Superversive movement, mostly because of all the works being labeled “important” and then thrust into the face of the general reading public, insisting that we should read it. Too much fiction tries to be “important” fiction, and in being “important,” goes for “reality” … only their reality is grim, dismal, and amazingly Unreal. If you're trying for literature, and making it a matter of despair, you're doing it wrong. Because, sorry, I've met people whose lives have been misery, and hope is quite abundant in them. To be Jean Paul Sartre about life is to invite suicide.

J. Michael Straczynski, in his comic The Book of Lost Souls, has one tale of a street artist who recently lost her boyfriend to drug abuse. Soon after, the mural she made of him has come alive, and is talking to her … and telling her to come and join him, offering her a needle. And it is not the voice of a demon, or a monster, but, as our hero explains,
“It is the voice of reason and resentment .… The voice of madness is the voice that Believes, despite all of the evidence to the contrary … that sustains us when logic demands that we surrender to the louder voice – the voice of reason, and resentment. And it always comes in the guise of those who love us most, who want only the best for us …. Someimes their motives are pure, wishing only to save us from pain. And sometimes the pain they wish to spare is their own, because if you can be convinced to set aside your own dreams, they can remain comfortable with their decision to do the same. The Voice of reason is the voice that tells us that our dreams are foolish ….[it sometimes becomes] a genius loci, the spirit of the place. And the spirit of this place is despair.”
And that's the problem with those “literary” souls who want to sacrifice their characters, and their audience, on an alter of “reality.” Sometimes, just because something is “rational,” doesn't necessarily make it true.

This concept of “the real” is as unreal as Tolstoy's lie, that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," an idea that probably requires being Russian to believe. Is there any more Russian concept than to believe that being happy is bland and uniform, but being miserable is unique? It is a lie, but perhaps Tolstoy didn't know that at the time. If those of the self proclaimed literati truly see the world as miserable as they write it, it does make me wonder why the authors in question just don't do away with themselves and leave the rest of us alone.

I would argue that most true literature is written by those who aren't trying. There is more truth in the hope of John Ringo's Black Tide series, than in the shallow materialism of Wagner's Ring cycle (his Twilight of the Gods has the hero die, the villain die, the king die and his sister die, the girl die, and her horse die, and the mermaids of the Rhine get their ring back and they live happily ever after … and why did we care?). Then you have the epic scope of John C. Wright's Iron Chamber of Memory and the magic around us, and the wonder and majesty of the world and the universe.

And if you doubt me that there's wonder and majesty in the universe, go Google some Hubble photos.

If you're writing a novel, and no one in it laughs, or has a reason to hope, or live … or writing sci-fi and fantasy without a sense of wonder … or you write about space without the terrifying beauty of what's in the dark … you might just be doing it wrong.

Just consider, for a moment, that Captain is about a psychically perfect human – not ubermench, not a superman, or a supernatural man, but essentially more preternatural – and that says and suggests more about the dignity and ability of the human person than anything in that Thomas Hobbes knockoff, Lord of the Flies. (Yes, I have problems with a whole book based upon one line by a philosopher who has no real concept about how human beings or society works).

To write well is to write Superversive. To write fun, entertaining books is superversive. Because to entertain well is to edify, to build up the reader. I would put more faith in Die Hard than in Lord of the Flies. I would put more faith in John Ringo, Larry Correia and Wright than all of the art films in the world. I'd rather read CS Forester and David Weber than Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Hell, I'd read any Ringo novel with a 90% casualty rate than anything by Stephen King.

At the end of the day, Superversive fiction – any fiction worth its salt – could be summed up by GK Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Which makes them a thousand times more real than anything most recent “literature” has to offer.

Why Superversive fiction? Because it might not be "real," but it's true.


  1. Russian literature has always given me a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment in reading. It is true w/o necessarily being rational at Tolstoy's quote. But Tolstoy's quote is really quite rational if looked at more deeply. It is very akin to the path to eternal life being one straight and narrow path, while the paths to destruction are multitude. There is one right answer, but there are a gazillion wrong ones.

    1. To which I answer: click the link I put there. It's my reply to Tolstoy. Almost every domestic a cop answers is the same festering insanity. Go to a meeting of children of alcoholics, and watch them tell the same exact stories.

      Then talk about different family traditions, and what each family finds funny. Or enjoys together. Because if you think every happy family goes out on a camping trip, I will laugh at you.

      Though you do get points for stealing from the bible.

    2. I guess I hadn't thought of the quote in quite that way. I had thought it more broad and general: the happy family has parents attached to being faithful to each other and their children and creating a stable family environment, while unhappy families have parents that have a multitude of ways of being deceitful, selfish, unstable, and narcissistic. I suppose there are conversely a gazillion ways to demonstrate faithfulness, but that's why the quote is catchy and weird. It's ironic and doesn't make perfect sense except in the sense that family should mean something that it often doesn't. However, I don't disagree with you--I just hadn't thought the quote meant that.

  2. I haven't read any Tolstoy. Solzenitsyn, on the other hand, I have, and what I've read comes across as holding the hope of a pessimist. Not wanting the bad to happen, but expecting it, and on occasion, being pleasantly surprised when it doesn't.

    As far as JMS goes, my one great complaint is this: while he appears to be mostly secular, he at times appears to wish that he possessed faith. It would be simpler, and happier, to give in to that desire.

    Also, one of my favorite GKC quotes

    1. JMS was raised Catholic. I'm sure he's still haunted by the Jesuits of his youth.... you know, when they were worth a damn.

      And, mine too

  3. Superversive is a fascinating movement to me because it's so obvious.

    Of course true stories that show a wider world are better. But then, if it was that obvious, then why aren't they being published?

    I have a friend in a YA book club and he gets sent some real stinkers. One was literally called "We Are the Ants" about a homosexual teenage boy who literally spends the first chapter of the book whining about how much everything sucks with the most vile descriptions you can think of.

    You know, for kids!

    Who would have thought that telling normal stories could be so important? And yet, here we are.

  4. I have to tell you that I agree with a lot you have to say. I remember reading the Hunger Games and though I "enjoyed" the story it left me bereft of something I couldn't put my finger on. Then several days later I had an epiphany when I realized that there had been no mention of God in it anywhere. Not even as an expletive. Being Catholic the absence of God meant that there could be no hope. It was the final straw towards getting me to write. I cannot recall where but somewhere I remember someone saying that all art should should point to beauty in order to lift our minds, hearts and spirits towards eternal good.

  5. A lot of folk say that fiction should be "realistic" that it shouldn't all be happy-happy-joy-joy. The implication is that to be "real" fiction must be be miserable stories about miserable people living miserable lives.

    I disagree. While miserable people living miserable lives can be part of the real world (all too often, IMO) that's not _all_ the real world. I'm part of the real world and I like to think I'm not a "miserable person" and I'm certainly not living a miserable life. It's not a perfect life, far from it, but there's a great deal of room between "everything is always perfect" and "everything is miserable".

    As Ouida, pseudonym of Maria Loise Rame. From “Romance and Realism” in “Frescoes and other stories” (1883) wrote: “But the Vatican Hermes is as ‘real’ as the Japanese netzke, and the dome of St. Peter’s is as real as the gasometer of East London; and I presume the fact can hardly be disputed if I even assert that the passion flower is as real as the potato!”

    "Realistic" does not have to mean "depressing."


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