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08:26 am: Holy Godzilla of the Apocalypse: or How to Identify a Superversive Story

So, you want to be Superversive? Eager to join the new movement but not sure how to tell if you have? This post will, God willing, help sort out a bit of the confusion.

So, without further ado: The Benchmarks of the Superversive:

First and foremost, a Superversive story has to have good storytelling.

By which I do not mean that it has to be well-written. Obviously, it would be great if every story was well-written. It is impossible, however, to define a genre or literary movement as “well-written”, as that would instantly remove the possibility of a beginner striving to join.

What I mean by good storytelling is that the story follows the principles of a good story. That, by the end, the good prosper, the bad stumble, that there is action, motion to the plot, and a reasonable about of sense to the overall structure.

Second, the characters must be heroic.

By this, I do not mean that they cannot have weaknesses. Technically, a character without weaknesses could not be heroic, because nothing would require effort upon his part.

Nor do I mean that a character must avoid despair. A hero is not defined by his inability to wander into the Valley of Despair, but by what he does when he finds himself knee deep in its quagmire. Does he throw in the towel and moan about the unfairness of life? Or does he pull his feet out of the mud with both hands and soldier onward?

Nor do I mean that every character has to be heroic, obviously some might not be. But in general, there should be characters with a heroic, positive attitude toward life.

However, many, many stories have good storytelling and heroic characters. Most decent fantasies are like that.

Are all decent fantasies Superversive?

No.

Because one element of Superversive literature is still missing.

Wonder.

Third, Superversive literature must have an element of wonder

But not ordinary wonder. (Take a moment to parse that out. Go ahead. I’ll still be here. )

Specifically, the kind of wonder that comes from suddenly realizing that there is something greater than yourself in the universe, that the world is a grander place than you had previously envisioned. The kind of wonder that comes from a sudden hint of a Higher Power, a more solid truth.

There might be another word for that kind of wonder: awe.

Specifically, the awe that comes when you are pulled out of your ordinary life by being made aware of the structure of the moral order of the universe.

That kind of awe.

To be Superversive, a story needs that moment when you are going along at a good clip and you suddenly draw back, because you have been lifted outside of yourself by the realization that there is something Bigger.

(And I don’t mean bigger like Godzilla. Just the God part. No zilla. Unless this Godzilla works for God. Godzilla, Holy Monster of the Apocalypse, or something.)

On this blog, I will often talk about Christian Superversive stories. Stories that have that moment, when the greater truths of the Creator of the Universe are suddenly glimpsed by the reader and/or the characters in the story.

If the Superversive Movement is about storming the moral high ground—bringing a moral order into our stories, adding the power of a greater truth. Then, the most effective stories are likely to be the ones that reflect the author’s highest sense of truth. For me, that means the truths of Christianity, as I understand it.

However, I want to make it clear, right from the beginning, that Superversive literature does not have to be Christian. You can write Jewish Superversive or Buddhist Superversive. It does, however, require a moral order and a glimpse of the awareness of this order in the story.

My favorite movie of all time is Winter’s Tale, the movie made from Mark Halprin’s novel. Winter’s Tale is Jewish Superversive.

What makes it so good is these moments I refer to above, moments that take you out of yourself and make you realize that something Bigger is going on. (Again, not Godzilla…except for Holy Godzilla, who most likely lives in a Pokaball on Batman's belt…so Robin can shout out: Holy Godzilla, Batman! And Batman can shout, "Holy Godzilla, I choose you!" and Holy Godzilla can appear and stomp on the Joker (and probably half of New York, too, but…ah well.)

My favorite TV show, Chinese Paladin Three, is Taoist Superversive. You are going along, minding your own business, enjoying this pure fantasy romp, and suddenly, toward the last third, there is this section where the villain tries to convince the Taoist priest of the futility of the human condition.

The story line suddenly becomes so deep and so touching, so insightful and so unexpected. The depth of the moral questions being presented to the priest character and the horror of what he suffers adds a whole vertical dimension to what had previously been a lighthearted adventure.

It brings a sense of awe.

Two questions come to mind:

1) Can you write Wicca or Pagan Superversive?

Possibly, but it would be difficult. Why? Because fantasy…gods, myths, etc…is the matter of Pagans. If the story starts out about such things, adding more of the same is not superversive.

However, if the story were about, say wizards or nymphs and fauns, or any other worldly matter, and the gods made brief unexpected appearances in which they put across moral ideas that lifted the story to a higher level, that might possibly be superversive. (Gene Wolfe’s Solder In The Mist comes to mind.)

2) Can  Christian Fiction (or Jewish Fiction, or Taoist Fiction) be superversive?

Probably not. It certainly could be inspirational, if done well. But if something starts out already being about these matters, then it is not superversive to introduce them. It is just part of the tale. Such a story could be written in a way that would make it enjoyable to those who love superversive stories, but it would not be superversive in and of itself.

An Example:

I don’t want to give too much away about Winter’s Tale, part of the wonder of the story is that everything is so unexpected. But I think I can describe this scene without ruining too much of the joy.

Crime boss Pearly Soames approaches another man in 1915 New York, reminding the second man that he owes Pearly a favor. He asks for help in his plan to kill Beverly Penn. The second man wants nothing to do with it, but Pearly calls the debt and insists.

Then, suddenly, in the midst of this intrigue scene, Pearly says:

I've been wondering.

With all these trying to go up…and you come down.

Was it worth it, becoming human?  Or was it an impulse buy?

You must miss the wings, right?

Oh, come on. You must.

And in that instant, you suddenly realize that something very different is going on that you first thought, and it opens a glimpse into some greater working of the universe, a glimpse that makes you pause and think…about heaven and fallen angels and what it means to be human and whether it is a good thing or no.

And that, my friends, is Superversive.

Comments

Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 8th, 2014 01:42 pm (UTC)
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Well said. Your post adds an important element to the idea of the Superversive, that of wonder and awe which is brought about, not simply or even primarily through the strange and fantastic elements of the story, but through a story that allows the reader to glimpse the moral order of the universe. And because, as C.S. Lewis and many others have pointed out, that moral order is an objective reality that underlies all people in all times, the Superversive, whether Christian, Pagan (Homer and Virgil, for example), Jewish, or whatever, will touch us at the core and draw our sight upward. It is, as you say, the vertical element that makes a story superversive, and though it is not always easy to do well, when it is done well, even the unbelieving, secularized denizen of our declining age can feel its power.

By the way, if some of us unknown nobodies, would like to contribute a piece on this subject, who do we contact?
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2014 02:07 pm (UTC)
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Write me at gmail. The username is arhyalon. I'll give you more info.

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From:marycatelli
Date:October 8th, 2014 03:43 pm (UTC)
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Hmmmm. . . is Spirited Away a superversive work?

Of course, that's genuine original style paganism in the form known as Shinto, not the neo-Pagan article.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2014 03:52 pm (UTC)
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That's an interesting question. It is definitely beautiful...but I am trying to think whether the ideas in it raise it suddenly to a higher level. I'm torn on that answer.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 8th, 2014 03:53 pm (UTC)

Heroes

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I want you to know that today I discovered that I'd done something really stupid a couple of weeks ago, something that made things worse instead of better as I intended. And just as a friend was consoling me by texting, "It happens to everyone", I found this:

"A hero is not defined by his inability to wander into the Valley of Despair, but by what he does when he finds himself knee deep in its quagmire. Does he throw in the towel and moan about the unfairness of life? Or does he pull his feet out of the mud with both hands and soldier onward?"

And that helped quite a lot. Thank you.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2014 05:21 pm (UTC)

Re: Heroes

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You are welcome.
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From:Amy Sterling Casil
Date:October 8th, 2014 05:28 pm (UTC)

Wonderful!

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Accepting that there is a higher order, the unknown, things greater than ourselves ... in the old days, they called it "the Sublime."
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2014 05:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Wonderful!

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The Sublime is a good term, too!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 8th, 2014 07:29 pm (UTC)

Possible candidate?

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*nervously raises hand*

I think my first novel, Nobility Among Us, might well count as superversive.

In part of the story, one of the main characters has his face lacerated where it won’t heal by his former closest friends to permanently mark him as an outcast, is left barefoot in nothing but his underwear in a shattered city district populated with hostile lowlifes, his only faint hope of redemption being about 600 miles away. Oh, and that hope is the man he just failed to assassinate. He is also in this situation by choice, because of an encounter he had that gave him a glimpse of a whole new horizon.

Anyone interested in a review copy to see whether it belongs in the category?
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2014 07:39 pm (UTC)

Re: Possible candidate?

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It might!

We don't really have a venue to review it yet, but that will, hopefully, come! Keep your eye out, I'll announce it if I get such a thing.

Edited at 2014-10-08 07:39 pm (UTC)
From:Father Jacob Maurer (Father Maurer)
Date:October 8th, 2014 09:10 pm (UTC)
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First off - thank you for this blog! I've been delighted to read your husband's musings - his promises of great things here has been fulfilled in short order.

Secondly - love the references, nerdy-ness and tangents.

Thirdly - and now we get to an actual response! I'm curious about fictional Christian subversive tales. The first story that came to my mind was C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce - but my own fondness of the story might be blinding me from properly applying the criteria. I'll throw in the Narnia series in for good measure - would you be willing to remark on why or why not they fit in?

In any case, thanks for your blog
Fr. Maurer
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2014 09:20 pm (UTC)
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Narnia yes. No question. The matter of the story is a fairytale. The Superversive quality is the vertical touches brought by Aslan and such things. The glimpses of something higher.

The Great Divorce. Harder question. It may be too Christian to be Superversive...(even if inspirational) I'll ask John his thoughts.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 9th, 2014 01:30 am (UTC)
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Thank you for this.
Does literature which focuses on building up the values of society and civilization count as superversion?
I gather from the article that superversive literature must aspire to more then outbuilding the subversive literature of the destructive elements. It does seem, however, to be a small circle indeed where authors have successfully touched upon true transcendent awe.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 9th, 2014 02:00 am (UTC)
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I think it would depend on how the story was handled. If the matter of the story is on that subject, then it's not Superversive.

To be Superversive, the ideas have to come almost as a surprise in the midst of something else.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 9th, 2014 03:47 am (UTC)

Superversive slow?

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I'm wondering, as I read about your moment when things change, whether it HAS to be all in a moment, or whether it might not also work as a slow accumulation of tiny steps that lead to a place where a decision must go one way if a character is being true to her principles. And the question suddenly becomes: will she? And does it really matter?

It is still, I guess, a moment - but seems smaller than a switch from ordinary to angels. The tiny breeze rather than the rushing wind.

And then you look back, and realize that that breeze is happening at the top of the mountain. But only in retrospect.

Not trying to subvert your definition - but to understand its limits.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 9th, 2014 10:58 am (UTC)

Re: Superversive slow?

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The question is...does the reader stop and think about the greater world, God, morality, the place of man in the universe, etc.?

If so, it doesn't matter if the moment is fast or slow.
From:luckymarty
Date:October 9th, 2014 01:25 pm (UTC)

superversion and religion

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I am not convinced that superversion has to be associated with a particular religion -- at least, not clearly associated. Take THE LORD OF THE RINGS, surely one of the ur-sources of the superversive movement. Tolkien was of course a Catholic, and described the work as consciously Catholic (once he realized what he'd been doing unconsciously), but it is entirely possible for a non-Catholic to read the work and appreciate it without identifying it as Catholic at all. And of course none of the characters can have the least inkling of Christianity.

(Yes, I know people can read even Narnia without grasping the Christianity -- at least for a while -- but surely there's a difference in kind between Lewis and Tolkien.)

Then too, I am not sure why you call WINTERS TALE (the movie) Jewish.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 9th, 2014 01:37 pm (UTC)

Re: superversion and religion

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Superversive does not have to be associated with a particular religion...though it does have to have a moral philosophy.

I call WINTER'S TALE Jewish Superversive because it was written by a Jewish gentleman based on a book by a Jewish gentleman. And because, while much of the metaphysics mainly overlaps what Christians believe, a few specifics are more in keeping with Jewish tradition than Christian tradition.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 9th, 2014 08:13 pm (UTC)

Re: superversion and religion

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a few specifics are more in keeping with Jewish tradition than Christian tradition

Really? This is admittedly taking us away from the original post, but I'd be curious to know which ones.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 9th, 2014 09:07 pm (UTC)

Re: superversion and religion

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There are a few lines that refer to reincarnation and other afterworld issues that are not strictly Christian, but are...at least according to some scholars, not out of keeping with some Jewish views.

Other than that, everything is pretty much both Jewish and Christian friendly.
From:luckymarty
Date:October 10th, 2014 06:52 pm (UTC)

Re: superversion and religion

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Fair enough. I'm not particularly familiar with modern Judaism, and I do remember hearing that reincarnation was quite popular as a view, back in the medieval or early modern period.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 13th, 2014 05:18 am (UTC)

Re: superversion and religion

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I don't think it is part of modern Judaism, either...or at least not the more orthodox versions...but I have read that some scholars believe it was part at one time.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 10th, 2014 12:08 am (UTC)

Inspirational

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This post is really inspirational, but my slow wits are going to require more examples of what defines Superversive...although A Winter's Tale helps a lot.

I was embarrassed by how much I cried at the end of that film (beauty and truth make me weep more than tragedy these days), but fortunately I'd gone to the theater with just my mom...
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 10th, 2014 11:46 am (UTC)

Re: Inspirational

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I saw it four times in the theater. (Only one movie other movie I ever saw more than twice in the theater, I think.) I would have gone more...but it disappeared.

Other examples:
Narnia. My Prospero's Daughter series, particularly the later part of Book Two and the later part of Book Three.

I am trying to think of more examples. I think the reason so many readers have really liked John's Awake in the Night Land is because it is Superversive, even though he didn't mean it to be when he wrote it.
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From:Sarah Pierzchala
Date:October 10th, 2014 04:29 pm (UTC)

Re: Inspirational

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Thank you...I am reading Prospero Lost and really enjoying it---can't wait to get the next two in the trilogy!

(and I didn't mean to post anonymously...hit the wrong button)
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 13th, 2014 05:17 am (UTC)

Re: Inspirational

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Thank you!

Hope you enjoy it!
From:luckymarty
Date:October 10th, 2014 07:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Inspirational

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Lewis' OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET as well as the Narnia books, surely.

As stated above, I'm pretty sure we have to include THE LORD OF THE RINGS, though it's a lot more subtle (e.g. comments about providence) rather than aiming for a moment of realization.

Possibly, Gene Wolfe's LONG SUN books, though they're an odd example because a literal miracle is the very first thing that happens, though Patera Silk is a long time working out the implications.

Lois Bujold's first two CHALION books manage to get numinous power out of a completely made-up religion (and one with distressingly PC aspects, at that).
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 13th, 2014 05:19 am (UTC)

Re: Inspirational

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Definitely Lewis's planetary books, too. I really liked THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH...it seemed very much this way to me.

Gene Wolfe certainly tends this way. ;-)

I haven't read Bujold, so I cannot weigh in on that one.
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