SUPERVERSIVE: Why does the tone of our fiction matter?

Tuesday , 26, July 2016 11 Comments

ISS Groot RocketOne thing I don’t think we’ve actually done since SuperversiveSF began partnering with Castalia is actually articulate in a concise way what our deal is. I’ve mentioned our mandates: Good storytelling, heroic characters, and a sense of wonder. There’s a certain tone we’re looking for in our fiction, a certain sense of something greater, usually presented in such a way as to eschew coming across as a soapbox– because soapboxes are irritating, even when you agree with them. I was much more firmly in the libertarian camp than I am now when I read Atlas Shrugged (seminary has made me a pinko commie) and even then, I frequently pictured Ayn Rand as a chibi little velociraptor shaking something to death long after it had died. I mentioned last week that I prefer my characters to face a lot of morally grey situations, and that’s mainly because I feel like it does more good to get people thinking about something than to lecture them about your ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. “That’s a bad guy. Put the crosshairs on his face and pull the trigger.” is perfectly fine, too. And a rant about message fiction is probably a little bit of rabbit trail, except in so far as that I think message fiction has a distasteful tone to it that’s probably (but not definitely) in conflict with a sense of wonder and heroism and all that other stuff. Lecturing comes from a place of superiority and superiority is usually off-putting. No one wants to be lectured unless they’re legitimately attending a lecture.

And pinning down the exact tone of a superversive work is probably an exercise in futility, because everyone’s going to have a different idea of what does and doesn’t qualify. “Sense of wonder” for me can run the gamut from “Man, space is big, and Jupiter is pretty!” to “Holy crap, that’s a lot of explosions! Space fleets! Boom! Shooting bad guys in the face!” But I think it’s safe to say that a Superversive work is going to leave you more or less energized when you’re done with it. Maybe a little more hopeful than you were before. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar stands out to me: both the narrative itself and the fact that someone in Hollywood can still make a movie like that these days left me feeling like the world had a little more hope than it did before. And that’s the thing with superversive fiction; it “undermines” our worldviews in a way that calls our attention up, towards the sky, and away from the mud.

The wife and I watch a lot of Seinfeld reruns on TBS. It’s not exactly superversive– and I’m not saying everything has to be– but one thing that’s really struck me is how mean spirited most of TBS’ original sitcoms appear to be in the ads that run in the commercial breaks. How they appear to be filled with just complete idiots and unlikable jerks. On one hand, one might say that it’s just a comedy, and we shouldn’t take it seriously; on the other, one might ask what that does to one’s perspective on one’s fellow human beings. Fiction influences people– you don’t have to look too far into the personal stories of astronauts and scientists before you start seeing Star Trek as an influence. (As much as I love Alien, Aliens, and even the stupid-but-beautiful Prometheus, you don’t see people who want to go to space because of those films.)

This week at SDCC, James Gunn broke the news that Rocket Racoon and Groot were going to be on NASA’s new mission patch for the ISS. Guardians of the Galaxy, apparently, brought space back into the public eye in a way that other things have failed to do. And why not? It was a fun movie, with characters of a sort that I love: bad people struggling to be good.

That is why the tone of a story matters. We clearly respond to the things we watch, play, and read. In ways big and small, that stuff influences us. If all our stories are grim, grimy stories of horrible people doing horrible things, we’re eventually going to form an idea that the people around us are horrible and horribly inclined– which is the last thing our world needs right now. Everything doesn’t need to be sunshine and rainbows and Princess Unikitty; but it’s irresponsible to create a canon of fiction that doesn’t include some sun or at least a break in the clouds.

Josh Young is  a seminary student, Castalia House author (featured in God, Robot and author of the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!

  • Loyd Jenkins says:

    “But I think it’s safe to say that a Superversive work is going to leave you more or less energized when you’re done with it.”

    That says so much. I want this is a story; it is one of the reasons that I read fiction.

    Thank you for putting it into words.

    • Josh says:

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely understand. 😉 A lot of the reason why I write is that I’m frantically trying to grab the feels that I got from books (and movies, and games) that I love and recreate them. Because those works made me happy in a particular way, and so I want to make other people happy. But it starts to get mangled when you try to explain, lol.

  • H.P. says:

    Every Puppy Kicker: “Can you name even ONE example of bad message fiction from the Right?”

    Every Puppy, immediately: “Atlas Shrugged”

    • Josh says:

      And the hell of it is that, like a lot of message fiction, it would have gotten its point across just as well if she’d cut out the soapboxing. It’s a fine dystopian SF novel without that.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    Now I have an image of a tiny velociraptor, with a s
    hock of black hair and a cigarette holder lecturing in a thick Russian accent…

  • cirsova says:

    While I like a dark and brooding tale now and then, there’s something about those stories where the spaceman beats the cultists, frees the slaves, punches a Nazi and get the girl to the cheers and accolades of his talking gorilla friends.

    Guardians of the Galaxy showed that the over-the-top gonzo space adventure still has huge potential.

    I tread a bit grimdark in one of my upcoming issues (some stories were just too good to pass up), but I always want to have any collection, whether stories or music, finish on a triumphant note.

  • And this is why, despite the whiz-bang special effects and glitzy costumes, the X-Men franchise films don’t leave the audience feeling good.

    The mutant characters aren’t heroes, they are victims. Sure, they can blow up cars with their minds and whatnot, but people are mean to them because they are different, and so that justifies all the violence against ordinary people. All of the films (all the ones I’ve seen, anyway–I gave up a couple of movies ago) have to have at least one angsty scene with the mutants crying about how they can’t help being what they are and they wish humans would just leave them alone.

    “Look what you made me do!” just isn’t a feelgood message.

    • Alex says:

      Man, remember all the cops Wolverine killed in X2? It was just like that old Rancid song!

    • Josh says:

      You know, I think you’ve put your finger on something I’ve been wrestling with for a while. I enjoyed First Class and Days of Future Past, but after watching DoFP, I couldn’t help but think of how it was an example of how even lackluster entries in the MCU tend to be better than good entries elsewhere.

  • Christopher says:

    “The mutant characters aren’t heroes, they are victims. Sure, they can blow up cars with their minds and whatnot, but people are mean to them because they are different, and so that justifies all the violence against ordinary people.”

    Perhaps more so in the movies than the comics, but let’s remember too, X-Men, when it debuted in 1963 was a flop of a series (yes debuting the same day as the Kennedy assassination didn’t help, got it), but it didn’t really take off until 1979, and even then, not until the ’80s did it really find its stride and its audience. I agree that something about the franchise has always been “off” for lack of a better word…

  • Michael Maier says:

    The reason I always loved the X-Men, from let’s say around issues 110 to 225, was they felt like a family of outcasts.

    Even with the stoic Cyclops and total jerk Wolverine, they were tight-knit and would gladly fight and die for one another.

    None of the movies have that sense. I don’t know if that’s even possible in the movie format, but it’s depressing.

    The movie X-Men feel like mercenary soldiers that just happen to be fighting for the same employer, rather than a real team or family.

    I thought the very first film was okay but they went downhill fast and nothing except Deadpool is any good. And that has a lot of failings as a movie.

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