CASTALIA: Want Superversive Pulp? Try Eoin Colfer’s “The Wish List”

The superversive conversation at the moment has more or less centered around two topics (things tend to move in cycles; we’ll move on eventually):

  1. What makes a good “strong female character”
  2. The connection between superversive and pulp

I’m not going to rehash that conversation; if you want to see the relevant posts, try these, and click through the comments for discussion. Instead, I’m going to try to give you an example of a relatively modern superversive novel that seems like it would fit pretty firmly in the pulp tradition: Eoin Colfer’s “The Wish List”.

Colfer is best known for his Artemis Fowl series, which is a ton of fun (and pretty pulpy itself) but leans hard into feminism and environmental politics. And it’s not his best work; that would be “Airman”, which is a superb adventure novel that I may also write about one day.

“The Wish List” is something very different than both of those, and in some ways it’s a remarkable book.

Let me try and make my case in order:

1) It has a clearly and unashamedly Christian cosmology. I’m not sure if any other modern work by a mainstream writer is as overtly and clearly Christian as this one. I’m not talking about Christian themes here. I mean St. Peter and Beelzebub literally debate each other at the gates of Heaven (A brief note: the theology is occasionally fudged somewhat, but it’s still undoubtedly Christian):

Even though the archangel  and the demon came from different ends of the spectrum, theologically speaking, they had, over the past few centuries, established something of a rapport…

“So what’s the problem, Bub?” [St. Peter] grinned down the phone line. His opposite number would be spitting fire, but he’d have to swallow it if he wanted a favor.

“The Master is looking for a soul.”

“What about that lawyers’ convention?”

“No. A specific soul. I thought if you had her at the Pearlies, we might trade.”

Awesome. The coolest part of it is that there’s none of that universalist “All religions are true in their own way” crap. “The Wish List” is a novel with a Christian soul, and it tackles its fantasy elements from that perspective.

2) Evil is kicked in the face. In the earlier pulp conversation, Jeffro said this:

I mean the point of a pulp story is to have somebody punch evil and kiss the girl, right?

Good news! Evil might not be punched (Well, sort of, but not really…), but it is kicked in the face. And it’s amazing:

Belch wrapped himself around Meg’s torso. Insane gibberings leaked from between his slobbering lips.

“Finn,” he muttered. “Finn going down.”

That was it for Meg. She’s just about had it…

“Belch,” she screamed, raising down a booted foot, “You can go to Hell!”

She brought the boot down squarely on his wet nose, and the creature that had been Belch Brennan spiraled into the flames, with Meg’s name stretching behind him like a prayer. Or a curse.

3) Yes, the girl is kissed. Not our protagonist in this case, but the deuteragonist gets what surely must be one of the most spectacular kisses in all of fiction:

“Well, Lowrie,” she said, echoes of the teenager in her voice. “Why have you come here?”

It occurred to Lowrie then that he was probably on television.

“Lost love,” he said simply, and kissed her on the lips.

And the crowd went ape, especially when Cicely Ward draped a hand over the dapper old gent’s shoulder and kissed him back. It was fantastic, stupendous.

An ethereal ray of white light exploded from the point of lip contact…

Belch felt it too…”What the hell is that?” he growled, peering over his shoulder.

…”Good,” [Elph] said. “Pure, one hundred percent good.”

Meg felt a rush of blue in her aura.

4) Things get weird. In fine pulp fashion, we get this creation:

Someone, or something, was spinning along beside her. Canine features bubbled under a human skin, poking through like computer animation effects. It was horrible. Grotesque. Yet somehow strangely familiar.

“Belch?” said Meg uncertainly. “Is that you?”

…The dog-boy could only stare in horror as his fingers morphed from stubby digits to pit bull claws. Tears and slobber rolled down his face, dripping in large gobbets from a furry chin.”

Cool!

5) Genres are mixed. In the middle of the fantasy, we get bits like this:

The computer wizard grinned smugly. “No problem, Beelzebub-San, I can uplink him.”

…Myishi removed a nasty-looking object from his box of tricks. It resembled a small monitor on a metal stake. Without hesitation the programmer plunged it into the morass of Belch’s brain. 

…”The brain spike. I love this little baby. The brain’s own electrical impulses provide the power source. Ingenious, if I do say so myself.”

Pure science fiction, baby.

You can’t argue that this one doesn’t hit the pulp beats, right? Unashamedly Christian cosmology? Genre mashing? Weird imagery? Gals getting kissed and demons getting kicked in the face?

It’s all there.

But is it superversive?

You better believe it is.

Remember the infamous redemption story post?

Well, “The Wish List” is that story and more. It’s a redemption story, and it’s a resurrection story. It’s about not giving up, and living without regret, and making up for past wrongs, and all of that other stuff that’s corny when it’s executed badly and amazing when it’s executed well.

“The Wish List” is executed very, very well. It’s not just fun, it’s not just funny, it’s not just inventive, it’s also moving and inspiring. It’s incredibly superversive.

Is it perfect?

No, it’s not. The Chekov’s gun at the beginning is flashed rather obviously, and many of the plot beats are very predictable. The characters sometimes lean a little too far into the stock end. But you’re having so much fun when you read it that you hardly even care!

Isn’t that also the exact thing that folks like Jeffro have been talking about? Those supposedly “cliche” and “predictable” plot beats were used so much because they were incredibly effective?

“The Wish List” is the sort of book that we just don’t see much of anymore, and fans of pulp fiction or superversive fiction owe it to themselves to give it a shot.

  • wlinden

    I read his HHG “authorized sequel”, and hated it

    • Bellomy

      I concur. That one was a swing and a miss.

  • Overgrown Hobbit

    I’ll see you an Airman (a favorite) and raise you a Supernaturalist. Thanks for reminding me in time for SRP booktalks!

    • Bellomy

      I really enjoyed “The Supernaturalist” too, but I still would take “Airman”.

      Though “The Wish List” is really his only book that isn’t marred by some silly feminism. “Airman” is so great right up until Isabella decides to engage Conor in a fencing duel, which, are you kidding me?

      But the last line is one of my favorite in all of fiction. “Ordinary men look left and right, up and down. But men like us are different. We are visionaries.”

      Ah, I love that line!

    • Bellomy

      Fun fact: Myishi from “The Wish List” pops up again in “The Supernaturalist”. I believe it’s his corporation that’s responsible for all of the evil experiments done on the orphans.

      • Overgrown Hobbit

        Cool!

    • Bellomy

      (And the name “Stefan Bashkir” first appeared in “Artemis Fowl” as one of Artemis’s many pseudonyms.)

  • Scholar-at-Arms

    “I’m not sure if any other modern work by a mainstream writer is as overtly and clearly Christian as this one.”

    Dresden Files has gotten more and more overtly Christian in its cosmology, but Butcher can’t take it too far to avoid alienating a chunk of his huge audience.

    • Bellomy

      It’s mostly that “The Wish List” is so…straight about it. The background is just assumed. He has some fun with it – reincarnation is casually considered as an option by St. Peter at one point – but the obvious gist is “Yes, Christianity is true, deal with it”. Saints and angels are always the good guys, demons and damned are always the bad guys, and that’s that. There’s no fooling around with any “But who are the REAL bad guys here?” nonsense, and nobody ever says something silly like “Of course, all religions are true in their own way”.

      Nope. It’s Christianity. The Christians are right. Now let’s get on with the story.

      It shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is! It’s refreshing to see somebody take that premise, dive into it wholeheartedly, and craft a sincere and serious story around it. It’s barely done anymore, and to see it from an uber-leftist feminist like Eoin Colfer is just about astounding.