Monday, February 2, 2015

BLOGTABLE II: "After Grimdark"

Welcome to the second episode of Blogtable! Here's how it works: a prompt is issued by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by three guest bloggers in turn. Crucially, each guest blogger will also respond to each preceding respondent. This episode's cast o' characters:

The G (Prompter) 

The G is founder and co-editor of ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F, crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

Justin Landon (Respondent #1)

Justin Landon used to be a blogger. Now he does other stuff for He won some awards and was nominated for some others. He’s got kids. Some people consider him hilarious. Sam Sykes calls him dead.

Aidan Moher (Respondent #2)

Aidan Moher is the Hugo award-winning editor of A Dribble of Ink, a blog about science fiction and fantasy. He likes his family and beaches, and lives in Canada.

Foz Meadows (Respondent #3)

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. Her YA novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt, are both available through Ford Street Publishing, and in 2014, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer for her blog, Shattersnipe. An Australian expat, Foz currently lives in Scotland.
But enough about us...

EPISODE II: In which The G asks whether "grimdark" has had its day in the sun and, if so, what might come after.


From an essay I wrote for The Book Smugglers:
Gritty movements begin as reactions to the staid and overly safe status quo, whether it’s Tolkeinic fantasy, cozy mysteries or abstract expressionist painting. They are, in the first phase, exciting transgressions of boundaries and convention. They breathe new life into boring forms, and often feel more “realistic” because they do not flinch from the horrors of life (and of which there are many).
Yet as more and more people gravitate towards gritty art, the grit that made the original stuff revolutionary becomes an expectation. It is now no longer the avant-garde but the institutional center of the art form—the new status quo.

Seeking to replicate the visceral thrill and impact of the revolutionary phase, both producers and consumers begin to demand more grit. Grimdark, which previously was just an extremity of the gritty movement, itself becomes the status quo. And as levels of grit rise and envelop everything in their path, the probability of a slide into cheap shock n’ schlock rises as well. Taken together, these factors conspire to the gritty movement of its power, reducing it to cartoonish self-parody and rendering it passé.

The parabolic model suggests that gritty art movements are likely to sputter out after passing an all-important tipping-point, though the actual moment is usually only apparent in hindsight. Regardless, the expectation is that grittiness won’t be the selling point it currently is. But this doesn’t necessarily herald the end of the gritty fantasy; rather, we may instead see more authors employ grit as more tool than default mode. Even grimdark, that relentless and extreme manifestation of grit, can be utilized in this way.
 I wrote that a year ago, but it seems even truer today than it did then. After all, 2014 was the year when two of gritty fantasy’s best-known practitioners, Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence, turned down the grit factor for their new series, while the most popular author of gritty fantasy, George R. R. Martin, did so in a standalone (The Ice Dragon). These developments *might* reflect a broader shift in the genre, or they might not.

So my question for all of you is: have we reached “peak grit?” Alternatively, are we just seeing a shift in or broadening of how people “do grit?” And what might any of this portend for the genre? What comes “after grimdark,” so to speak?


The Colonel turned his head and spit. It wasn't mere saliva, but that same caustic substance mixed with other more ruddy substances. Blood certainly, but bile too, a result of his gorge rising at the taste of human flesh on his tongue, now discarded on the cracked earth.

This flesh, recently belonging to the enemy soldier with whom the Colonel wrestled, was pearlescent in its whiteness. The wound gaping in the man's throat, courtesy of the Colonel's teeth, was a vermilion geyser, pumping with the regularity a metronome. Behind the man, who was dying even if he didn't know it, were scores of bodies—women and children predominantly, with the occasional geezer mixed in for good measure.

With a quick turn of his hips the Colonel deposited his foe on the blood soaked ground and gave the not-quite-corpse a swift kick in the ribs. A good soldier is a thorough soldier, the General always said. And the Colonel was nothing if not a good soldier. And looking around the detritus of the battlefield, the good soldier's work was done.

“Bravo, Colonel,” the General said behind his left shoulder. When the Colonel turned the General was gone, but his voice remained as it always did. “Move Colonel. There is work yet to be done.”

As the voice faded the Colonel was left with a sense of loss, not just because he was alone inside his head, but because he was once again surrounded only by death. Hundreds would be lonely tonight. The women and children dead at the hands of the Gremlins for sure, but also the families who would never see their loved ones again. It was a tragedy. The Colonel would not compound it by leaving them here to bake under the desert sun.

"You can. And you will," hissed the voice again. "You have somewhere to be." The General was always a son of a bitch.

He was also always right. If the General didn't care, the Colonel didn’t either. Turning his back on the death behind him, the Colonel ran. To the next battle. To the next blood letting.

I write this shitty piece of fiction not because I have a story to tell, but because I think it illustrates what is wrong with the idea of grimdark. It is functionally a genre of fiction built solely on the assumption that people don't care.

In an effort to portray a more authentic style of fantasy fiction than that published in the 1980s and 90s, an entire movement emerged. It's a movement that tries to take the worst moments of any story and put the focus on those moments and build a sense of shock and awe around those moments. However, like turning up the bass on a song, at some point the music becomes distorted and all that's left is window rattling. The lyrics are gone, replaced entirely by a visceral thrumming reaction inside your chest.

In other words, the future of grimdark is cannibalization. The volume has been maxed out and what meaning and intent remains behind the music is consumed. Like all cannibals, the odds of it contracting some weird brain disease as a result of eating itself are quite high. And like most weird brain diseases the outcome is death.

Grimdark is dead.

What will replace it? Something else. Hopefully something that reflects the changes grimdark called for without its absurd desire to appeal to the same part of our brain that likes beating up hookers in video games. I care about stories in which characters care about the outcome. I care about stories in which characters care about each other. I care about stories that want to make things better, even if they fail.

In the case of the Colonel and the General portrayed above, they can go find someone else to read them.


To say grimdark is dying requires is first to admit that it was ever a living thing in the first place. Rather than a definable literary movement, grimdark was instead the collective fart of a very loud and flatulent community of readers who revel in the idea that rape and ultraviolence are more "realistic" or historically accurate or honest than the hopeful fantasy of Katherine Addison or Elizabeth Bear.

A portion of the Internet SFF fan community is so obsessed with this false idea of a genre that doesn't exist, that the label is being thrust upon anything with even a hint of violence. Is there a market for nihilistic, salt-in-your-wounds fantasy? Absolutely. Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence sell like hotcakes, and Kameron Hurley's an ascending star. But, is this a literary movement that Abercrombie and Lawrence have intentionally waded into, or a pejorative that's been propagated by the unwashed masses to give a name to crotch-stomping fantasy that appeals to to the Call of Duty generation? In our pedantic society, everything needs a label, and that's all grimdark is. A label thrust upon an a false idea by people who don't understand that the term originated as a joke in the first place.

Grimdark is no more a genre than a fart is the voice of god.

Grimdark is not violence and depravity. Nobody writes about those things exclusively. Grimdark is about humanity at its lowest, and our ability to crawl up from the muck towards the light. And fantasy writers have been writing about that for decades. Millenium.

I wrote an essay recently about the power that speculative fiction has to instill hope in readers, to teach us lessons that we can apply towards the challenges that face us we fake our way from birth to death. Fiction always has and always will be be more powerful when it inspires hope than when it flays humanity and leaves it hopeless under the scorching sun and circling vultures.

I cannot say it better than Elizabeth Bear:
But what some critics ignore is that the best of the current wave of gritty fantasy does not buy into this fallacy—what Gardner called the disPollyanna syndrome. Instead, it embraces a balance closer to reality: that the world is arbitrary and unfair, and that sometimes even well-meaning people do awful things: desperate, vicious things. But also, that complete jerks, sociopathic monsters, can and do accomplish good—sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.
The best of the grimdark authors beat the reader down to an inch of their life, and then reveal there the base strengths of humanity, the kindness and strength that is in all of us. This is no different than Samwise carrying Frodo up the slope of Mount Doom. And to say that Tolkien began the grimdark movement would undermine the whole concept that it was created in direct opposition of the "status quo". Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a reaction to the horrors he experienced as a soldier during wartimes. Down the deepest, darkest wells, Tolkien managed to find light, to find goodness and honesty, even in the horrors of war. Sound familiar?

Grimdark is a parody of itself, and the best grimdark writers are not writing grimdark at all. They're writing about hope. And if the authors who popularized the genre aren't writing grimdark, then who is?


As I’ve said before in relation to grimdark fantasy, I don’t think we can usefully discuss grit as a proxy for realism unless we’ve first defined what we mean - or rather, what its authors mean - by real. Overwhelmingly, the realism that grimdark chooses to reinforce is obsessed with the idea of misogyny as a human default: that we can only discuss ugly politics, hard choices, war, rape and every other facet of human evil through the lens of male power and violence, with women either repressed within or absent from the narrative.

This perspective is, I think, the real limitation on grimdark as currently exists: by definition, it can only show us a single, sad permutation on something we’ve seen a thousand times before. It can’t - or rather, doesn’t - give us a new culture to explore or make us rethink the inherent contradictions within our own, because it’s already committed to the idea that humanity is only really capable of exactly one flavour of bad, and for too many grimdark writers, this has a wag the dog effect on their portrayal of humanity: they create their cultures backwards from the same starting point, with the same assumptions about that point’s inevitability, and try to plead The Unassailable Muse when it’s subsequently noted that this produces a plethora of similar stories.

By contrast, and if you want a compelling look at what grimdark could be doing, if it wasn’t so obsessed with the violence of (overwhelmingly straight, white) men, examine the works of Kameron Hurley. Her stories are saturated with blood, war, violence, slavery, rape - all the grimdark favourites - and yet, because she writes with both an appreciation for cultural context and an eye towards diversity and original worldbuilding, these elements are used to conduct a nuanced dialogue on human nature, rather than, as is otherwise the case, a flat declaration that this is what we are, forever and ever, amen.

As such, what disappoints me most about the vast majority of grimdark isn’t its sameness; it’s that the sameness is invariably justified by a commitment to a realism that is, in fact, selective at best and fictional at worst, and highly unimaginative in any case, given that we’re discussing the same genre that happily admits dragons and spaceships. To give just one example: while the average American man has a 1 in 33 chance of being raped, compared to roughly 1 in 4 for American women, the gender gap disappears in warzones, prisons and other violent environments. That is a verifiable reality; and yet for all that grimdark is happy to write in ugly detail about women being raped in war, I’m yet to see such a story apply this fact to its treatment of men.

Because in the end, modern grimdark isn’t about reality: it is, rather, a profoundly hopeless - in the sense of denying hope - treatise, or collective of treatises, on the concept of masculinity. Under this thesis, men are at constant risk of descending into monstrousness, with every effort to claw civility from the carnage deemed praiseworthy. This is not a positive view of men. It isn’t even an accurate view of people. Gender isn’t the most vital determining factor in monstrousness,which is rather down to a combination of culture, nurture, circumstance and personality. This is what writes like Hurley understand: not only that monstrousness is contextual, but that the context itself is subject to change. And unless grimdark can wrap its hydra-heads around the concept, then it’s going to continue its deevolutionary trajectory into one-note gore, do not pass go, do not collect $200.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator