So, after my fellow cohost of the Whippersnappers and editor of the anthology God, Robot (which produced a Hugo-nominated short story), Anthony, did a review of “Sword & Flower” by columnist and blogger Rawle Nyanzi, it sparked a small dust-up between the Pulp Revolution crowd and the Superversive crowd. So, on behalf of Superversive SF, I’m going to tell you why Superversive is better than Pulp… and why anyone who thinks this is very mistaken (the same goes for those who say the opposite, that Pulp is better than Superversive).
Pulp and Superversive are categorical variables, which is statistical-speak for variables that cannot really be quantified (to differentiate between, say, a variable like speed or height, which you can provide a numerical measurement for). Here’s the catch. Pulp and Superversive are separate categorical variables, but they’re not mutually exclusive; that is, a piece of fiction that is Pulp is not automatically excluded from being Superversive.
During the Superversive SF Roundtable where we discussed the Superversive Book List, we brainstormed the different types of qualities that make up superversive works of fiction, and I managed to distill them down into five categories. They are:
- Aspiring/Inspiring- These mean that the characters aspire to something greater than themselves, and inspire others to seek greatness, and not remain where they are. This also refers to characters who theoretically aspire for uplifting things that aren’t necessarily a part of the moral sphere, such as beauty. “Betterment” and “wonder” both fall here.
- Virtuous- This means that there is a right and wrong in the world. This does not mean there can’t be moral complexity and ambiguity – in fact, when done well this can be incredibly powerful – but even then there needs to be an understanding that there’s a difference between right and wrong. The characters themselves don’t necessarily need to be virtuous, but the concept of virtue must exist in the framework of the story.
- Heroic- Closely entwined with the second category, the Heroic category means that there is a standard of heroism. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have a hero (for a brilliant superversive story that features a protagonist who isn’t a hero, see John C. Wright’s “Pale Realms of Shade”), it means that the protagonist has a code of ethics under which they work, a code of ethics that marks them as something more than a villain. To go back to “Pale Realms of Shade”, the protagonist, Flint, might be a Grade A jerk and even a murderer, but he’s different from the demons he’s fighting against; in fact, he has to be for the story to work, because the temptation to become demonic is central to the story. While having truly villainous villains is something of a lost art nowadays and can certainly help flesh out this category, it is not strictly necessary for an Agnes Trunchbull to exist – but a standard for heroism is an absolute must.
- Decisive – This means that the characters are active; their actions matter. They are not bereft of agency, at the whim of fate, or purely reactive to the things going on around them. These characters make decisions that affect the plot, and their decisions have to mean something. Books that ultimately preach the meaninglessness of life and the futility of struggling to change it don’t fit this section.
- Non-Subversive- This is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. These are works that do not attempt to subvert the paradigms of healthy culture, and don’t mock and criticize needlessly. While many great superversive works contain certain subversive aspects – even Lewis’s Narnia series and Tolkien’s Middle Earth books aren’t free of this, nor should they be – the work as a whole should be predicated on building up society rather than bringing it down.
These are the five categories we’ve settled on, and a work should try to fulfill most of them, if not all (except for the last category). There is a sixth category, Noumenal, but that’s a discussion for another time.
So there is your peek behind the scenes at what the Superversive crowd is doing: Organizing. Now that I’ve laid down the criteria for Superversive literature, I’ll tell you of a story I’m writing.
It’s about a man, a man confronted with the injustices of a tyrannical usurper trying to slay the woman he loves, and to defend her, he becomes something greater than he is, using self-discipline and training to go from a plain warrior to someone of unmatched prowess. He’s morally straight and kind, but has courage in the face of incredible adversity, won’t shirk from trouble because it’s, well, trouble, and also refuses to do the wrong thing when that would make life easier, but compromise his conscience. Right there, that checks off two boxes listed above (Aspiring/Inspiring and Heroic).
He travels the world I have made, sees wonders, sees beauties unearthly. He goes into the most dangerous of places, and grows stronger for it.
He is guided by virtue, and eventually meets up with some other characters, many of whom are morally questionable. Through their interaction with him, these characters become more selfless, virtuous, and heroic themselves, and go from morally grey to heroes (there’s the Aspiring/Inspiring). In this world, there’s a clear line denoting what is good and bad, and that the evil usurper is bad, a cutthroat despot who isn’t scared to shed innocent blood (and she does this out of envy and desire for power, not because she was abused as a child or was a psychopath). Good is good, bad is bad, and while the hero isn’t %100 good, he aspires to be good (thus, the Virtuous box is checked).
And ultimately, the hero fights to restore the throne to the rightful ruler, and does so. He is not a pawn of chance, incapable of making his own decisions. He decides, and those choices have consequences. His actions have an effect, and he doesn’t react to the world, but proactively acts (thus fulfilling the Decisive category). And lastly, I’m not deconstructing ideals of heroism or other healthy cultural paradigms (thus fulfilling the Non-Subversive category).
So, I’m writing a Superversive story, one that will be published in a magazine.
Here’s the catch. It’s being published in Astounding Frontiers, Superversive SF’s pulp revival magazine. The description above is accurate, but focuses on the Superversive themes, not the pulp.
My story is about a soldier, charged with guarding the elegant and demure Space Princess, scion of a star (She kind of glows). He teams up with a stoic yet wise Void-wielding pseudo-Buddhist attack monk lizard alien man, a rough-and-tumble yet oddly maternal cyborg techno-necromancer (who’s art is drawn from Daoist philosophy), a giant crustaceanoid barbarian who’s bulletproof and very violent, and the crustaceanoid barbarian’s love, a sorceress insectoid-alien who is refined and demure (as refined and demure as an insectoid lady of high breeding level can be).
He flies in a ship that sails through the ether, and goes from a soldier to a sorcerer-knight who wields the ether and the Void, among other powers. He breaks into the vault of the imperial sorcerers to plunder its knowledge, and fights the horrendous beast that lurks in the heart of a sun. There’s travelling through the myriad avenues of death, Way Cool armor forged from the substanceless Void, action and heroism aplenty.
My story has battles on space ships, duels to the death, a classic romance, and a Space Princess, ethereal and beautiful. It has sorcery used alongside laser cannons and futuristic technology, where a battle can take place with scrambler beams or ether blades. Settings include the deadly library of sorcery, an ancient temple, and ruins of an M.C. Escher palace that is suspended in the heart of a hollow sun. It looks at genre distinctions and laughs in their face.
As for me writing it, it’s a bit shorter than the other novel I’m writing, but in every chapter I’ve tried to have some action scene. I draw from the works of authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and Brian Niemeier for inspiration. I add themes of Superversion in it, though I don’t have angels telling men to be better (I don’t have angels at all, but I do have a gigantic ten-story tall crab-dragon solar beast with super-healing).
So, I would simply like to state this: While not everything that’s quickly plotted and full of action and weirdness is Superversive (I’m looking at you, Elric of Melniboné!), and while not everything Superversive is about taking a fist to the face of evil (Andy Weir’s “The Martian” comes to mind), these two fields of writing can overlap, and I’d like to venture that they overlap quite well.
Superversive literature is against Subversive literature, works that try to destroy and undermine that which upholds civilization. Pulp is (from my experience) against non-heroic literature (or literary fiction), literature that focuses less on adventure and romance and more on stylistic gimmicks or characterization at the expense of plot (I’m not saying Pulp doesn’t have believable characters, just that Lit Fic overdoes it to the point where there is not a plot, merely a character… supposedly doing something vaguely plot-related). The Superversive writers and the Pulp revolutionaries are, I would say, natural allies in the quest to create truly culturally innovative and paradigm-shifting fiction. While we can have our doctrinal squabbles, remember that they’re about relatively trivial things, and that the guy you’re arguing with will probably be your best friend compared to the current subversive and literary SF & F authors.
Corey McCleery is a columnist and frequently top-100 listed fantasy author on the website Wattpad. His book, called Fever Blood, about a dragon-man who saves a woman and the adventures they have together, can be found here.