Superversive Literary Movement Anniversary Essay– Life, Carbon, and the Tao!

Subversive Literary Movement

Those of you who have joined us in the last year may not be aware that before the Superversive Literary Movement, there was still Superversiveness. It existed in the form of Mr. Superversive himself, the astute and witty essayist, Tom Simon.

When John and I conceived of the idea of the Superversive Literary Movement, we inquired of Mr. Simon as to whether he would be willing to allow us to use his LiveJournal handle for our new flegling lit movement. Not only did he kindly agree, but he graced this blog with our very first article, back in October of 2014.

Now, a year later, Mr. Simon strikes again with another excellent article.


A collection of Mr. Simons excellent essays on Tolkien and our craft.

Life, Carbon, and the Tao


Tom Simon

A year has gone by since the Superversive blog officially kicked off, and during that time, as they say, life has happened. As writers, we always need to go back to that. Part of the deep malaise that afflicts our art form (and many others) is that it is too easy to be influenced. It becomes fatally easy to reuse tropes and characters and ideas from other stories, or other art forms; it takes an effort of will to go back to reality and look at it with fresh eyes. There is, I suspect, no such thing as strict realism in fiction – reality is too complex, too big, too un-story-like – but every story needs to be rooted in reality at some point. Not reality as we would like it to be – that is part of the flight of fancy on which the story takes us – but just as it is.

Today, as I look at reality, I find myself thinking of two questions, which, if answered badly, can lead our field up a blind alley. The first one arose in Golden Age science fiction, and led a lot of writers astray on a technical point. The second one arises in every form of fiction, and leads whole cultures astray. But there is a curious resemblance between them, and the answer to the first question, I find, sheds light on the second.

Lord Talon

Mr. Simon also produces high quality fiction.

The first question:

What’s so special about carbon?

There used to be a recurring trope in science fiction about ‘carbon-based life forms’, as distinguished from all the other kinds of life forms based on other elements. Silicon was the most popular, for good and plausible reasons; plausible, but alas, not sufficient.

Life requires complexity. The simplest microbe is a pullulating chemical factory in which thousands of types of complex molecules interact and collaborate to produce the delicate balance of stability and change that we refer to as ‘being alive’. There are good reasons, grounded in information theory, to suppose that life cannot be supported by a system much simpler than that.

There are three ways of joining atoms together, and two of them are not helpful for our purpose. Ionic bonds only form simple molecules. Metallic bonds don’t really form molecules at all, but masses of solid metal, with the same simple pattern repeated over and over. Covalent bonds are where the action is. Some elements don’t form covalent bonds at all, and we can scratch them off our list. Others form anywhere from one to four bonds per atom, and clearly, the more bonds an atom has, the more complex structures it can participate in. We could build molecules as complex as we liked out of atoms with a valency of 3; but the real winners are the carbon group elements, the only ones with a valency of 4. If we form a chain or ring of carbon-group atoms, we have plenty of free bonds left over, on which we can hang any number of other atoms; and this gives us the complexity that we require.

There are six elements in the carbon group: carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, lead, and flerovium. Tin and lead behave as metals, and germanium as a semi-metal: that is, they normally combine by metallic bonds. An atom of lead, tin, or germanium may form covalent bonds with other elements, but not, as a general thing, with other atoms of the same element; so we can cross those three off the list. Flerovium is an artificial element, never found in nature, with a half-life of a few seconds, and only a few dozen atoms of it have ever been observed. Scratch flerovium.

That leaves carbon and silicon; and to SF writers of the Golden Age and thereabouts, silicon looked like a good candidate for the formation of life. It is abundant, it readily forms covalent bonds, it has a valency of 4. In theory, every kind of carbon-based atom has a silicon-based analogue, and we could readily imagine a whole biology built up with silico-proteins and silico-nucleic acids. But in practice, those analogues never form. Silicon bonds with silicon easily enough, but much more readily with either hydrogen or oxygen. In nature, we never see one silicon atom bonded to another. Even the silicone compounds have oxygen atoms alternating with the silicon: Si–O–Si–O, never Si–Si. The Earth’s crust contains an enormous amount of silicon, but all of it is combined with oxygen, usually in the form of silica.

Carbon, too, combines more readily with oxygen or hydrogen than it does with carbon, but the difference of bonding energies is much smaller. So a plant, for instance, can invest the energy it receives from the sun to break apart carbon-oxygen bonds in CO2, and get most of that energy back by linking the carbon atoms together to form the backbone of carbohydrates or proteins. It would take much more energy to break up SiO2 and link the silicon atoms together, and even then, the silicon chains would be very unstable, and would go poof in the presence of either oxygen or hydrogen. Since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, and oxygen is the most common element in rocky bodies like the Earth, it’s safe to say that silicon-based life is a non-starter. One still hears of it occasionally in ‘soft’ science fiction, but it has no place in hard SF, any more than the canals of Mars, the oceans of Venus, or for that matter, H. G. Wells’ gravity-proof mineral, Cavorite.

We speak of organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry, as if it were an equal division; but this is not so. We call a compound organic if it contains carbon, and inorganic if it does not. Even though carbon is only one element out of a hundred-odd, inorganic compounds are vastly outnumbered by organic ones, and all new discoveries in chemistry can only increase the odds still further. If you look at the molecules that are complex enough to serve as the building blocks of life, whether Earth life uses them or not, they all contain carbon – every single one. One day, we may discover a kind of life that does not depend on chemical bonds at all; a life form, perhaps, that relies entirely on the direct interactions of high-energy fields in a plasma medium, to which it would not matter what kind of atoms the plasma itself is made of. We cannot say that such a thing is impossible; but we can say that silicon-based life is impossible. On Earth, or in any kind of planetary or deep-space environment, carbon is where the life is.

Sci Phi issue #2

Tom’s essays also appear in Sci Phi Journal 

(This one with a story by John as well.)

And now, to the second question: What’s so special about the Tao?

Here I am using the term Tao the way C. S. Lewis used it in The Abolition of Man: meaning the basic principles of morality on which all civilized peoples have generally agreed. Here are some of the perennials: Don’t murder your neighbour, don’t steal from your neighbour, don’t mess around with your neighbour’s wife, don’t perjure yourself. Men have differed on the definition of neighbour, and some of the wide variation in human cultures is accounted for by that difference. Some peoples apply the Tao only to members of one’s own tribe, or one’s own nation. Some try to apply it to every human being without exception. And of course there are differences of detail, such as whether a man should marry one wife or four. But every culture that survives is based on the Tao, just as every life form is based on carbon; and the reasons, at bottom, are similar.

What the Tao does is to establish a minimum basis for safe dealings between human beings. If, every time you went into Starbucks, you had to seriously question whether the barrista would sell you a cup of coffee or shoot you on sight, I fancy that Starbucks, as a business, would not have lasted long. Fortunately, both you and the barrista subscribe to the Tao. Even if you don’t understand the reasons for the rules, you obey the rules, at least most of the time, because that is the only way that you can get along and do business together. Even to live together in a community requires the Tao. My neighbours lock their doors when they go out, it is true. But if I did not accept the Tao, locks would do them no good; I would smash the doors with an axe and help myself to their belongings. And if they did not accept the Tao, they would have no grounds to complain. No human being can live as a solo army, at war with the whole world. We are born weak and helpless, and most of us are weak and helpless again before we die; and we all have to sleep in between. The Tao literally keeps us alive when we cannot defend ourselves.

The basis of the Tao, in one word, is reciprocity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Or if that is too strong for you, take the formula of Confucius: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ Over tens of thousands of years, in the laboratory of daily life, in tribes and villages, cities and nations, we have boiled down the art of reciprocity; we have codified the things that none of us (when sane and healthy) wish done to us, and we agree not to do them to others. In almost every culture, this code is reinforced by the prevailing religion; but it is quite possible to accept the Tao without any religion at all. It is the common moral currency of humanity, and with the caveat noted above, it passes everywhere. Societies that reject the Tao do not hang together; and individuals who reject the Tao soon find themselves without any society.

Tom Simon -teoeas

A tale of quests, strange magics, and ancient wars!

When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In the stories of the past – in nearly all fiction before, say, the late nineteenth century, and all popular fiction until a much later date – the Tao is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do not observe the Tao. These people are called criminals, or outlaws, or villains. In the older kind of fiction, the villain upsets the Tao to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero restores the Tao by avenging the victim.

Consider the Odyssey. Odysseus was a sharp operator, maybe, but still a hero; he restored the Tao. Old Polyphemus, the Cyclops, violated the Tao in a pretty straightforward way: he ate his house guests. The Greeks set great store by the laws of xenia, or hospitality; and even we degenerate moderns, when our friends invite us to dinner, do not expect to be the dinner. Later, he restored the Tao in the matter of adultery, dealing with his wife’s suitors in a brusque but exemplary manner. (No, he could not have called the police. Odysseus was the King of Ithaca; he was the police.)

It is only we moderns, for the most part, who try to write fiction without the Tao. This may be partly because of our exceptionally urbanized life. For the first time in history, the majority of human beings now live in cities. It is easier to reject the Tao in a city. In a small village, a psychopath will soon make himself odious to his neighbours. They will drive him out with sticks and stones, or tar and feather him; at the very least, they will not do business with him anymore. In a large city, where everybody does not know everybody else, a psychopath can always look for fresh victims – until he reaches the point of actually being infamous. At that point, his reputation precedes him, and people who have never even met him know that he is not a man to deal with. About that time, or a little after, they generally kick him out of town, or throw him into prison. This means that even a psychopath has to be careful where and how often he breaks the Tao, so that he does not make too many enemies at once.

But there is a kind of fiction in which breaking the Tao is a rule in itself. This was considered brave and bold and groundbreaking among the Decadents a century ago; it was a good way to shock the bourgeoisie and annoy one’s parents. For it is always cheaper to talk trash against the Tao than actually to break it oneself. Most of the people who read this kind of fiction have not got the guts, or perhaps the opportunity, to do any serious lawbreaking themselves. The stories are harmful in a more subtle way. By degrees, they create a habit of thought – a habit of regarding the Tao as optional; and if this habit is fed and encouraged, it becomes a habit of regarding the Tao as a stupid tribal taboo, and those who obey it as superstitious fools. People can really come to believe this, and act accordingly (when not afraid of being caught); it is a sort of psychopathic infection, and the patients degenerate by degrees. The first thrill of being ‘transgressive’ – cheering for the robbers instead of the cops – does not last; the addict returns for stronger and stronger doses. And our own generation has raised a bumper crop of such addicts.

Epic fantasy, a century ago, began with cautionary tales, dealing with the negative parts of the Tao. The grandfathers of the genre were authors like Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, and Robert E. Howard, whose heroes were often ambivalent and never spotless; there are no Sir Galahads in their work. But they were never mistaken about their villains. Conan’s morals were pretty loose, but the wicked kings and sorcerers that he slew generally needed slaying. This has sometimes been called ‘Grey vs. Black’ morality. The feeling – it is no more than that – is that the White Hats, if there are any, are too clean to beat the Black Hats in a straight fight. You need to bring in a specialist, a Conan, or four Lords of Witchland, or Seven Samurai, who are on the ragged edge of the Tao themselves, and have often been in trouble, and are experts at getting out of it. The ‘rules of engagement’ for a Conan are very simple: No holds barred, and Crom favours the strongest.

In the next generation, the Inklings and their immediate heirs raised the moral tone. Tolkien is often criticized for his ‘simplistic’ approach to morality; but it is his critics who are simplistic. Frodo does not destroy the One Ring because his purity gives him the strength of ten. He, in fact, does not destroy it at all, but actually succumbs to its temptation. But because he stays within the Tao, and serves it faithfully as long as his strength and sanity last, the Tao serves him also. He has the help of all peoples of good will, Elves, Men and Dwarves, Wizards and Hobbits: not just the other members of the Company, but Galadriel and Faramir, and the whole armed strength of Rohan and Gondor. Even Gollum helps him, for a while; and in the end it is Gollum who fulfils the Quest. The really simplistic morality belongs to Sauron, who only counts his enemies by spear-points, and takes no notice of the Tao. Sauron would have been genuinely afraid if Conan had come after him with the Ring; he thought Aragorn was going to do exactly that. He simply overlooked the damage that many small hands could do in co-operation, because co-operation was not in his moral vocabulary; and that damage turned out to be fatal.

Nowadays, in epic fantasy above all, but to a lesser extent in the other imaginative genres, we are faced with a full-throated reaction against the Tao. Even Conan is too moral for the modern epic writer. The new standard, if we may call it that, is exemplified by A Game of Thrones. There are still good characters and evil ones, and to that extent the Tao is recognized; but the evil ones always win. The quickest way to get yourself killed, if you are a nobleman in Westeros, is to do a good turn for somebody else. In George R. R. Martin’s invented world, the Tao really is a tribal superstition, and those who follow it are chumps – and then they are dead. The mortal sin of the Starks is to be too good for the world they are living in, and they pay for it in blood.

Now, Martin is careful, when speaking of this matter outside of his fiction, to point at all the historical examples of evil rulers, and claim that he is only portraying the world as it is. But he is not; he is portraying a ‘Crapsack World’ in which all the evils are pooled together, without any of the good that enabled them to survive in reality.

One model for Westeros is England during the Wars of the Roses; but those wars, it happens, were exceptionally bloodless even by the standards of mediaeval Europe. There were no more than about twenty battles all told, spread over a period of about thirty years. Even in those battles, casualties were light, seldom more than ten percent of the relatively small forces engaged. And the contending armies took considerable care not to kill civilians, destroy crops, or sack towns, because those things were precisely what they were fighting to control. Moreover, both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were devout Catholics. True, they each believed that their respective contender for the throne had a divine mandate to rule; but they also believed that a king could forfeit that mandate by evil-doing, and in fact, each side believed that the other side’s contender had done just that. Richard III lost the battle of Bosworth Field because many of his own supporters believed he had lost the right to rule, and deserted to Henry Tudor.

Again, Martin can point to the web of intrigues and assassinations in Renaissance Italy. The Lannisters bear strong points of resemblance to the Borgias. But the Borgias were a disease, a passing phenomenon. They had no genuine power base of their own; they were a Spanish family that became powerful in Italian politics when one of them manoeuvred his way into the Papacy. Control of the Church gave him almost unlimited funds with which to buy temporal power over the Italian cities, and he tried to set up his illegitimate son as ruler of the whole country. But the Borgia power was parasitic; it had no roots in the country; it depended on foreign money, and when the Pope died, the family’s power faded away in just a few years. We are supposed to believe that the Lannisters have been a power for generations, when they routinely exercise that power in ways that would destroy its very basis in a short time.

In fact, no ruler can stay in power for long without substantially accepting the Tao. Consider the ‘Red Wedding’. One noble family proposes an alliance by marriage with another: well and good. But the bride’s family, which proposed the alliance, massacres the groom and his whole family at the wedding itself. This is not a violation of Christian morals only, but of the core of the Tao as recognized by all civilizations. The pagan Greeks would have been outraged by the violation of xenia. The pagan Romans would have been outraged by the abuse of amicitia, and would never have married into that family again. A Confucian would decry the breach of familial impiety, and say that the offenders had lost the Mandate of Heaven. It is not just that the act would have been swiftly and thoroughly punished. It could never have been organized on such a scale in any society where the Tao was taken seriously. The troops who carried out the butchery would have refused to obey their orders; or else (being outside the Tao themselves) they would have turned their swords against their own masters, and massacred both sides for their own profit.

In fact, we do see factions and cabals that wield power in something like the way that Martin describes. We see it in organized crime; but as Ben Kingsley said to Robert Redford in Sneakers, ‘Don’t kid yourself. It’s not that organized.’ In Martin’s view, those who follow the Tao are sheep, those who don’t are wolves; and the wolves, always and everywhere, prey upon the sheep. The evil preferentially destroy the good, and evil always wins. But this is not what we observe in life. Organized crime employs hit men, but nearly always to kill other criminals. Crime families and syndicates go to war against one another; they cannot go to war against society, just as a parasite cannot afford to kill its host. And society, being under the Tao, has resources that the criminals cannot draw upon. For there are not only sheep and wolves; there are also sheepdogs. The wolves may try to corrupt the sheepdogs, and sometimes they succeed. But they have neither the numbers nor the unity to attack them directly.

In effect, the ruling classes of Westeros, and many others like them in recent fantasy, are crime syndicates in a world without law. But it is the law that makes the crime possible. The vast majority of the people need the Tao to do business with one another, and to make the whole society function. Part of that function is enforcing the Tao through laws, and resolving disputes between people when reciprocity breaks down. This is not a function that we ever see the epic gangsters performing. They are too busy planning murders and rebellions. Real criminal gangs are only able to function because someone else does the hard work of holding society together. They never exist as a ruling class; and when they do temporarily become rulers, as with the Barbary pirates of the eighteenth century, or the Somali warlords of our own time, the society breaks down, the people perish, and the profits of crime disappear. Without the Tao, there is no trust between people; without trust, nobody can work and create wealth; and without wealth, there is nobody for the criminals to rob.

Why, then, does this kind of fiction remain popular? I believe it is significant that A Game of Thrones was adapted for television by HBO – that is, by the same network that brought the world a series called Cathouse. It is the pornography of violence and illegality, combined with some relatively mild pornography of the plain old sexual kind; and it caters to a thoroughly jaded and desensitized audience. At bottom, it is a kind of adolescent power-fantasy: the fantasy of the teenaged Viking, turned loose on a metropolis full of easy loot and nubile women, from which all the forces of law have magically disappeared. We see a pretty straightforward version in the Sin City comics. Of course this can only ever be a fantasy, because the forces of law never do disappear. The alternative to policemen and prisons is not anarchy, but vigilante justice, which is a good deal more dangerous to the would-be Viking.

But there are no vigilantes in the fantasy; the adolescent fancy can glut itself on imaginary killing and looting and rape. It can do so all the more readily when it has no experience of these things in real life: the smells, the blood, the screams, the cries for vengeance – the victims who fight back. Even a sheep has teeth and hooves; even a wolf has a breakable skull. At bottom, this is a fantasy for people who have never lived; whose lives have been so soft that mere hardness, in any form, has the appeal of the exotic. To borrow George Orwell’s phrase, it is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.

Tom simon -dcac

Snarky essays on the art of writing fantasy

So what can we, as writers, do about all this? The best we can do, I believe, is to quietly teach the Tao in our stories; to show the complexity of human life, as an organic chemist shows the complexity of biological life. But people want stories about violence and criminality? Very well; let us tell them. But let us tell the whole story, with the post-mortems and the blood feuds and the vengeance. And let us contrast it with some instances of actual heroism. Critics and publishers, no doubt, will sneer at our ‘bourgeois morality’, and call us ‘simplistic’; for they – it is an occupational hazard – are the most jaded audience of all. No matter; now we can pass them by. We can go over their heads and deliver our stories directly to our readers; and that may be the decisive weapon in this fight.

There does, I believe, come a revulsion; a point where people are no longer content to be fifteen-year-old rebels even in their fantasies, but want more sustaining food for their imaginations. Let us be there to give it to them. We can produce better effects – better conflicts – with chiaroscuro, with darkness and light, than the nihilists can ever produce by layering darkness upon darkness.

Beyond that, it is a question of access; and that is largely a matter of publicity. If a work of superversive fiction were as well known to the public as A Game of Thrones, it would sell as well or better. We have seen it before: it happened with The Lord of the Rings; it happened with Harry Potter. We have not got the media machinery, or the advertising budgets, to crown a Martin; we cannot conquer Sauron with the Ring. But we have that element that Sauron never took into account; we can co-operate. We can speak up for each other. Those of us who are worst at promoting our own work, it often turns out, are the best at promoting the work of others, because our own egos are not involved. When a man praises his own work, we say, ‘Of course he would do that,’ and ignore nine-tenths of what he says. It is when he praises other people that we take notice.

This, too, is part of the Tao; and it will serve us well, if we consent to serve it. The co-operation of many small hands, or as people say nowadays, crowdsourcing, can move mountains that the old mass media had to let strictly alone. I believe that millions of readers, movie-goers, and TV-watchers are athirst for heroes as well as villains, but at present they are only hearing about the villains, because the big media are braying about villains in unison. Let us raise a chorus of small voices. In the end, I believe we shall drown the villains out. It’s time to speak up for the Tao. For, like carbon, that is where the life is.

Thank you, Tom. That was brilliant!

For more of Mr. Simon’s work, you can read his works, which are showcased between the two posts, or visit his blog.


Where it All Began!

In honor of the first anniversary of the Superversive Literary Movement, on October 1st, here is the essay that started it all:

The Superversive Literary Movement

Good storytelling. Great ideas.

Greetings, and welcome to the first post of the new Superversive Literary Movement blog, which will appear here on Wednesdays (or occasionally Thursday, if life interferes.)

Our very first post is an introduction to the concept of Superversiveness by Mr. Superversive himself, Tom Simon!


The Art of Courage

by Tom Simon

Behold the Underminer! I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!

The Incredibles

For about a hundred years now, ever since the First World War broke the confidence of Western civilization, it has been fashionable to praise subversion. Art, music, and literature, as many of the critics tell us, are not supposed to go chasing after obsolete values like truth or beauty; they are supposed to shock, to wound, to épater les bourgeois – to subvert the values of society. Here is a fairly typical example, from the literary critic, John Grant:

It must meddle with our thinking, it must delight in being controversial, it must hope to be condemned by authority (whatever authority one chooses to identify), it must be at the cutting edge of the imagination, it must flirt with madness, it must surprise.

Grant is prescribing goals for fantasy, but the same demand has been heard in every genre and every art form, much to the harm of the arts. Most people don’t share Grant’s ideological preoccupations; they see the arts not as vehicles of propaganda, but as entertainment. Trying to get yourself condemned by authority may be good sophomoric fun while you are doing it, but it makes a dull spectator sport. Considered as entertainment, it has no virtue except novelty; and it has not been novel since about the 1920s. This is one reason why the ‘serious’ arts see their audiences shrinking year after year, until they are only maintained in precarious existence by public subsidy.

Part of the trouble comes from that apparently blank cheque, ‘whatever authority one chooses to identify’. In practice, this always means the same authority: the ghost of Mrs. Grundy, the narrow-minded, puritanical, bourgeois authority that lost most of its power in 1914, and does not exist at all anymore. If you rebel against a different authority – the Chinese Communist Party, or the rulers of militant Islam – you will not find the critics so approving. They will call you reactionary or even neocon, and the hand of Buzzfeed will be raised against you.

For the world of art and literature is largely dominated by the Left, and the Left is dominated by people whose world-view is inherited from their great-grandfathers. In this view, we need labour unions to defend us against the peril of child labour, Big Government to defend us against Standard Oil. America is one false move away from theocracy and Jim Crow; Europe is one false move away from another World War. Nothing can save us except a wonderful new panacea called Socialism, which has never been tried before, and with which nothing can possibly go wrong. These, in the main, are the ideas of the Left even today; and the people who believe these things have the nerve to call themselves Progressives. They call for progress; but they are still trying to progress from 1914 into 1915. They call for subversion; but the thing they are trying to subvert no longer exists.

To subvert a thing literally means ‘to turn from below’: to undermine. In olden days, men built their forts and castles on high ground, because high ground is easier to defend. A hilltop fortress can be made almost impregnable. But only almost: for a fortress can be undermined. The attacking army digs tunnels underneath the fortifications, scooping out the earth and rock until the walls cave in from their own unsupported weight. This is the original kind of subversion.

Nobody uses the word subversion in that literal sense anymore, but it is helpful to keep it in mind, because it applies metaphorically to every other kind of subversion. Our brave Progressive rebels have been subverting the walls of nineteenth-century capitalism and imperialism for a hundred years, and the walls fell down long ago. All that remains now is a hole in the ground, under which armies of activists like crazed moles are busily undermining each other’s mines. One mole calls another mole’s mine sexist, and digs a tunnel to make it collapse; the second mole calls the first mole racist, and digs a tunnel under that. They have lost the power to create; all they have left is the mere reflex of criticism.

At this point, subversives can do nothing but dig the hole deeper, or at best, rearrange some of the rubble on the surface. Further subversion achieves nothing; it creates nothing; but they go on doing it from sheer force of habit – the habit of feeding the ego. If they fought effectively, they might win, and then they would not feel needed anymore. As long as they fight by useless methods, the war can continue, and they can take pride in being on the right side.

On the face of it, this is insane; but it is exactly the kind of insanity that you will always find among sane people. It is the insanity of the committee, where people who disagree about their destination have to agree which road to take. Those who want to go north reject the road that goes south, and those who want to go south reject the road that goes east; in the end they compromise and take a road that goes round in circles. Ritual subversion satisfies the craving for activity without ever risking achievement.

G. K. Chesterton described the process in Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down…. But as things go on they do not work out so easily.  Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil.  Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.

The subversives have pulled down their lamp-post, and they must go on pulling it down for ever, because they cannot agree on what to do next.

What, then, can we do, those of us who are not Progressives? We cannot fight subversion by its own methods; that only makes the hole deeper. But if subversion means ‘turning from below’, there can be such a thing as turning from above. We have nothing to gain by digging a bigger hole, but we can build right over it. It seems natural enough to me to invent a new word for this by changing part of the old one; so I call it superversion.

The job of the superversive is at once difficult and rewarding. We shall need to build on the high ground, as people used to do: not only for defence, but because the high ground is more solid. Before the subversives dug their mines under the churches, there was a parable that used to be widely known. The gist of it was that a house built on rock will stand firm, but a house built on sand will soon fall down. High ground is usually rocky ground, and from that perspective, ideal for us to build on.

For those of us who write stories, this chiefly means moral high ground. I am not speaking of sexual morality; that, nowadays, is a subject so difficult to approach, so fraught with ego and emotion, that we are liable to lose most of our readers if we begin there. Fortunately, there are other areas of morality where most people still have an instinctive preference for the good. Progressivism tells us that we are all pawns pushed about by socioeconomic forces (which only the great god Government can hope to alter). Our instincts and experience are all on the opposite side. We know, and feel that we know, that individuals can actually do things, and sometimes great and heroic things. And we know that the best things are often done against the odds; the socioeconomic forces do not inevitably win. Progressivism sneers at the idea of good and evil; but we persist in admiring qualities like honesty, unselfishness, and fair dealing, and most of us feel shame when we do the opposite things. Most people like the kind of story that can be called heroic, where the main character wants something and accomplishes it in spite of opposition. Very few people like stories where all the characters’ actions are doomed to futility, no matter how much they were taught to admire such stories at school.

It has been truly said that courage is not a virtue, but the form that every virtue takes at the testing point. In this sense, most good stories are about courage – the courage to make a sustained effort. It takes physical effort to climb a mountain or build a castle; it takes an effort of will to lift yourself above your worse impulses and climb up to the moral high ground. That is one reason why the metaphor refers to high ground. Temptation is as universal as gravity, and we spend most of our time and effort resisting them both. It is true that courage is not an unmixed blessing. It can take as much courage to commit a murder as to save a life. But it is fair to say that no good thing was ever accomplished without courage; that our whole civilization is built on the courage of men and women who would not surrender to their circumstances, but strove for something better.

I believe it follows, then, that courage is the essential quality of a superversive story: not the dumb, dull fortitude that passively endures in the face of suffering, but the courage that allows the character to take action – to risk becoming a hero. In a double sense, fiction is the art of courage. It is the art that teaches courage by example; it is also the art that is about courage. If the characters have no problem, there is no story; but if they do not have the courage to try and solve the problem, the story has no point, and the audience will not be entertained. There are plenty of non-stories and pointless stories already; plenty of literature, full of pretty language and therefore praised by the critics, in which nobody does anything, or even tries. I say we have had enough of those stories. Let us be superversive; let us build on mountains instead of making molehills. Let us make up stories about people with courage, and have the courage to tell them, as much as the critics and the Progressives wish us to be silent.

Tom Simon is an author and essayist. He has written many really fine and inspiring essays on a host of topics, including some excellent essays on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. To find out more about his work:

His blog:

His author page: His novel, Lord Talon's Revenge Writing Down the Dragon ( and other Essays on the Tolkien Method and the Craft of Fantasy.) 




Subverting Subversion

If I encounter the enemies of my enemy, should I consider them my friends? If a statement is not not false, does that make it true? Propositional logic gives an affirmative answer to the second question. Other systems of logic are less decisive, and may be more helpful when contemplating real-life decisions. After all, the brigands who murdered my enemy may treat me no better. So if superversion opposes subversion, where does that leave the subversion of subversion?

Tom Simon described the relationship between subversion and superversion in an essay that begins with this extract from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’


‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’

‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’

‘And do you consider yourself a man?’


‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.’ His manner changed and he said more harshly: ‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?’

‘Yes, I consider myself superior.’

O’Brien did not speak. Two other voices were speaking. After a moment Winston recognized one of them as his own. It was a sound track of the conversation he had had with O’Brien, on the night when he had enrolled himself in the Brotherhood. He heard himself promising to lie, to steal, to forge, to murder, to encourage drug-taking and prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases, to throw vitriol in a child’s face. O’Brien made a small impatient gesture, as though to say that the demonstration was hardly worth making. Then he turned a switch and the voices stopped.

Simon’s analysis of Winston Smith concludes that his rebellion was…

…doomed from the start. It is not just that the man who inducted him into ‘the Brotherhood’ was a spy for Big Brother. Winston’s failure was even more fundamental. He tried to rebel by becoming a subversive, but the Party itself was a gigantic instrument of subversion. O’Brien’s vision of the future was of ‘a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ How can any rebel avert such a fate by throwing bombs or spreading disease? All the methods of the Brotherhood were simply ways of doing what the Party wanted done.

Subverting subversion is presented as futile. This prompts Simon to offer a different kind of response to subversion.

In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

There is much to admire in Simon’s essay. However, I wonder if Simon draws the right lessons about the methods used by Winston Smith, and the forces that destroy him. A boot upon a human face is a vivid metaphor, but even that image is not wholly nihilistic. It requires that somebody has manufactured a boot.

Winston Smith does not live in a Hobbesian anarchy, where all are at war with all. His society is at war, but the threat posed by foreign powers is used to unite the population. Much has been built by Ingsoc, the party which rules. In particular, they have constructed a very large government, which has a permanent character even though it impoverishes the population. They have also developed a ubiquitous surveillance network, and they are in the process of rolling out a new language. These are not modest accomplishments. They require a rigid adherence to a single strategy, which is why loyalty is so important to Ingsoc.

Ingsoc prevails over Winston Smith not by killing him, but by co-opting him. The soul of Winston Smith is decimated, but his body lives on. What made him Winston Smith has been annihilated, in order to secure the loyalty of his shadow. This is how the novel ends.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Even if the goals of Ingsoc are nihilistic, it is not nihilism without limit. Their goal is a mirror reflection of that espoused by classical liberals. If the paradox of freedom is that there must be some limits on freedom to maintain a steady maximum of liberty, then there must also be some limits on nihilism to maintain a steady maximum of oppression. Orwell’s indictment of socialism is compelling because it shows how the free thinking pursuit of socialist principles can lead to doublethink, and ultimately to the prohibition of any alternative thought.

[Ingsoc] rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a powerful story because we all take the side of Winston Smith. Even socialists sympathize with Winston. Winston’s struggles may have been futile, but I am loathe to discount his methods. In Winston’s society, subversion was the right response. He could not be expected to simply ‘build over’ Ingsoc, putting in place rival institutions. In order to build something new, he would first need to clear the land of existing obstacles. More importantly, he would need to work with others to do that. But how do you find others to work with you, when everyone suffers the oppression of Big Brother? How should we do it, in the world we live in? Subversives can do more than destroy. They may use subversion to send a signal to others, in order to construct coalitions. Subversive methods may be key to getting people’s attention, and encouraging them to join the fight.

A winning strategy requires more than the pursuit of victory; an enemy is also defeated by their own failings. Perhaps Ingsoc could not be defeated, but Winston was still right to fight in the only way he could. When Winston was defeated, it was because of his human frailty. To maintain the hope of eventual victory, we must first refuse to be defeated. As Sun Tzu observed:

In antiquity those that excelled in warfare first made themselves unconquerable in order to await [the moment when] the enemy could be conquered. Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with the enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable. Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.

Simon was right that an endless revolt loses all purpose. He is right to rail against the perpetual subversives who, like Don Quixote, have grown obsessed with old battles and outdated stories. They try to relive imagined glories by fighting villains and monsters that do not exist. As a consequence, they may fill fantasy worlds with caricatures of what they claim to find in the real world.

Because Simon is right to criticize the ‘subversive’ critics, we cannot allow a contradiction to emerge, where our enemies are permitted to use the weapons of criticism, but the rest of us forego them. Criticism is less heroic than constructing something new, but heroes fight to win, and they should exploit the weaknesses of their enemies. Just as importantly, subversion often makes for a good story. To build and operate the Death Star would have been a tremendous feat of engineering and logistics. But Luke Skywalker is a hero because he blows it up!

Whilst we try to maintain a positive outlook, we should remember the enemies of superversion are not weak. On the contrary, they have a passionate commitment to building bigger, bolder, more ruthless governments, that would be empowered to increasingly police what ordinary people say and think. We do need alternative institutions, but we also need to subvert any institution that obstructs our right to offer alternatives. This leads me to conclude that the method of subversion is not contrary to superversion, but necessary for it. What distinguishes the proponent of superversion is they do not allow subversion to become a goal in itself.

Tom Simon on Superversive Fantasy

Mr Simon explores the question, “Does Fantasy equal Subversion?” and takes a Mr Grant to task for his embracing of this idea and goes on in his usual engaging style to draw us into what is wrong with the idea that fantasy, and all art, needs to be subversive. As “My Superversive” himself, Mr Simon obviously disagrees with this madness.

Does Fantasy equal Subversion?

Subversion is a popular word in literary criticism nowadays, and some persons have suggested that it is the principal function of fantasy. Not a function, which may perhaps be true, but the function, the sine qua non of imaginative literature. John Grant has gone so far as to propose that anything that is not subversive is therefore not fantasy at all, but a subliterary ersatz that he derisively dubs Generic Fantasy, ‘this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage — this loathsome mire’. In Mr Grant’s taxonomy, virtually everything derived from Tolkien, or showing his influence, is ‘garbage’ and ‘mire’. He does leave himself just enough room to wriggle out of the logical implication, which is that Tolkien himself did not write fantasy; but he does this by allowing that Tolkien’s work is, in some unspecified way, sufficiently ‘subversive’ to meet the Grantian standard.

Now, this is a remarkable claim for anybody to make. If just one author in the appalling history of the twentieth century was not ‘subversive’, it was J. R. R. Tolkien. He was an enthusiastic supporter of order, authority, hierarchy, in both the temporal and spiritual spheres; a passionately orthodox Catholic, a royalist, a hidebound traditionalist who did not even approve of refrigerators and called aeroplanes ‘Mordor-gadgets’. When Orwell said that a Conservative is ‘a thing that does not exist nowadays’, he was merely proving that he had never met Tolkien. A full study of Tolkien’s conservatism would fill up many books, so here I shall confine myself to a couple of quotations (cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien) that sufficiently illustrate the point:

I am not a ‘democrat’, if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.

Touching your cap to the Squire may be dam’ bad for the Squire but it’s dam’ good for you.

Now, some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors.

This leaves Mr Grant in an awkward position. According to his rash definitions, The Lord of the Rings must be ‘Generic Fantasy’ and ‘garbage’ because it is not ‘subversive’; but what most of his audience means by fantasy is ‘stories like The Lord of the Rings’. Mr Grant has not only cut off the branch he is sitting on, he then has the audacity to announce that it alone is the real Tree, and all else is merely a diseased fungoid growth. Often a surgeon must amputate a limb to save the patient; but he amputates the patient to save the limb. Whatever else this is, it is startlingly original.

Read the Rest

Tom “Mr Superversive” Simon talks about Lord of the Rings

Tom Simon had an interestingly superversive article published in the most recent issue of Sci Phi and they have an excerpt from “The Making of the Fellowship” up on their website. Give it a read!

The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings

by Tom Simon

In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero.
—The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 183

Evil is its own best propaganda, especially in fiction. Few people can entirely resist its fascination: many a hero has been upstaged in the popular imagination by his opposing villain. Milton’s Satan is a more interesting figure than Milton’s God, and Darth Vader is far more popular than Luke Skywalker. J. R. R. Tolkien actually made his villain the title character of The Lord of the Rings, but wisely chose not to portray him directly in the story. Sauron is always off stage, mysterious and menacing; in his absence, the One Ring becomes the focus of evil. The Ring, and the evil for which it stands, have an unwholesome glamour that draws the attention of nearly every reader and critic. In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, possibly the definitive work in the field of “Tolkien Studies,” Tom Shippey devotes a 51-page chapter to “concepts of evil” in The Lord of the Rings. I know of no comparable inquiry into Tolkien’s concepts of good. These tend to be mocked (by hostile critics), or passed over in silence, or at best taken for granted.

To the philosopher, this lacuna presents both a symptom and an opportunity. Ethics is not primarily the study of evil; it is the attempt to define and understand the Good, and evil is defined merely by its opposition to that. We know that Sauron is Evil with a capital E; but what is the good to which he is opposed? What did the “speaking peoples” of that place, as Tolkien calls them, consider worth doing, and what, by their standards (and their author’s), made for a life well lived?
All of the major “speaking peoples” were represented in the Fellowship of the Ring: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Let us begin, as Tolkien does, with the hobbits. Hobbits are anachronistic in Middle-earth, and deliberately so; they have clocks and umbrellas, tea-parties and tobacco, as befits an idealized and sanitized version of the rural English among whom Tolkien spent his formative years.
The Prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” and the opening chapters give us more than enough information to go on with. The Shire, which Tolkien describes as a “half republic half aristocracy” in the letter quoted above,

[They] had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.…
They attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.

As Frodo observes, “No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire.” The few swords in the Shire had not exactly been bent into ploughshares, but they were preserved as mathoms, keepsakes or museum pieces, not for use.

Clearly we are looking at an idealization; which at any rate makes it easier to identify the ideal. This is preindustrial Western man, not as he ever actually was, but as he aspired to be; and sometimes the aspiration was nearly fulfilled. In the peaceful and sheltered society of pre-1914 England, the habit of violence was easy to avoid. Moral softness acted in concert with the Christian moral code, which persisted long after the decline of the churches. The society of the Shire takes this tendency to the point of caricature. All kinds of serious crime, not just murder, were virtually unknown: we are told that the principal duty of the Shirriffs was chasing down stray livestock. It is a utopian society, but utopian in a peculiarly English vein: hedonistic without addiction to pleasure, liberal without the selfishness that is the frequent vice of liberty. Hobbits were governed not by laws and magistrates, let alone police and soldiers, but by their own deeply ingrained sense of the fitness of things – their moral sentiments. Adam Smith would have approved, though probably with a knowing smile at the author’s thumb on the scales.

But it is not enough to be hedonistic and liberal. Pleasure and freedom do not maintain themselves without effort. In the life we know, that means both the moral effort of following “The Rules,” and the physical effort of defending one’s society against enemies who do not share these values. We find both in the Shire. A number of hobbits desert “the Rules” at the first serious temptation, and enlist as bullying Shirriffs under the rule of Saruman, in his guise as “Sharkey.” Robin Smallburrow describes the process:

‘There’s hundreds of Shirriffs all told, and they want more, with all these new rules. Most of them are in it against their will, but not all. Even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s business and talking big. And there’s worse than that: there’s a few as do spy-work for the Chief and his Men.’

Minding other folk’s business: the cardinal sin of the liberal Utopia. In Tolkien’s youth, one of the worst insults one Englishman could offer another was “Nosey Parker.” But every liberal society is vulnerable to Nosey Parkers, as the history of the last hundred years has shown. When Lotho Sackville-Baggins made up his mind to take over the Shire, he was minding other folk’s business with a vengeance; but the other folk were not willing to mind his business by stopping him. Only when Sharkey’s rule became unendurable did the hobbits resolve to throw him and Lotho out; and they did so only with outside help. For the four hobbits of the Fellowship had been trained in a sterner school, and knew how to deal with Sharkey by sterner methods than name-calling and complaining.

Read the rest in Issue #2 from Amazon, Castalia House or Smash Words

The Art of Courage, the original Superversive essay by Tom Simon

One of the earliest articles outlining the idea of superversive fiction was by Tom Simon who blogs over at Bondwine and was published by L. Jagi Lamplighter. He outlines the idea of Superversive Fiction in The Art of Courage. Tom also has an essay in the latest Sci Phi Journal about the good as found in the Lord of the Rings.

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