Today, Nerds of a Feather "sits down" with bestselling novelist Steven Erikson, author of the influential epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen, the irreverent Star Trek parody Willful Child, as well as a number of other works (most of which are set in his Malaz world). Always generous with his time, Steven Erikson today discusses a wide range of issues with us, from grimdark to tragedy, satire, anthropology, gaming, and the need for empathy in human relations. We hope you enjoy this awesome interview!
NoaF: You've recently waded into the meta-debate over “grimdark” fantasy, and we wanted to follow up on a few points you've made—here and also in your two essays for r/fantasy. Our understanding of your argument is that grimdark is not synonymous with “grit,” nor is it an extreme manifestation of grit. Rather, it seems that you are positioning grimdark-the-adjective as qualitatively rather than quantitatively different different from gritty-the-adjective. You seem to see “gritty” as the centering of narrative on the unflinching portrayal of hardscrabble lives under difficult circumstances, whereas “grimdark” is defined by the notion that catharsis, which is possible under gritty circumstances, has now been rendered impossible or unobtainable. Is that a correct reading, or would you instead say that the potential for catharsis is just one marker of several? And, if so, could you tell us why the potential for catharsis is such an important marker of grimdark/non-grimdark--both in and of itself and relative to more commonsense markers, such as the extremity or pervasiveness of violence, splatter and so forth?
SE: First off, thanks for this invitation: I have been very impressed with the level of discourse on Nerds of a Feather and am delighted at the chance to participate. Coincidentally, I was only a few days ago sitting on a panel at ICFA, addressing violence and nihilism in Fantasy, in which we rehashed the whole ‘Grimdark’ debate, and, as is often the case, the informal follow-up discussion that took place at the pool-side bar offered up a whole host of new ways of thinking about this. With the caveat that what I’m going to relate here comes from observations made by other people, and that I make no claim to authorship, I’ll see if I can summarize some intriguing points that came from that discussion.
If we can consider the evolution of modern Fantasy as derived from two parallel and rather distinct lineages (Sword & Sorcery emerging from the pulp tradition on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Tolkien exegesis), we could certainly track the drive towards a ‘realistic’ or ‘authentic’ approach to the fictional portrayal of violence in both streams, although there are qualitative differences between the two (for example, Howard’s take on violence is arguably more visceral than is Tolkien’s). Given that, the place to look for what distinguishes the two tracks has to come from asking what the violence serves. Answering that question can call on myriad sources, from biographical (Tolkien’s experiences in WWI) to direct textual analysis seeking pervasive thematic explorations, but that I’ll leave to the scholars.
As a writer I can’t help but look at another author’s work of fiction from a perspective of what, how and why. What is being said, how is it being said, and finally, why is it being said. Only when satisfied that I’ve parsed some answers out of those questions does the potential for entertainment kick in. While this may seem odd to the general fan or reader, I’d humbly suggest that it’s little different for them, if less analytically: what rings true, or authentic, or honest, is how we all measure a work of art.
But every work of art is contextual, bound to its time of creation, and no matter how inventive a fantasy world, it can’t help but derive its inspiration from the real one. It doesn’t help that, these days more than ever, much of the (and here I’ll invent a word on the fly) ethosphere (as in, the ethos of the culture surrounding you, an alternative for Zeitgeist) is itself a fantasy, created by the incessant needs of market forces, consumerism, titillation and spectacle, and this is why in my own essays on Grimdark I drew in the culture of modern action films, superhero films and the like, to suggest that what we’re seeing in the Fantasy genre is no more or less than a delayed and not-particularly-original reflection of that ethosphere of nihilistic, sociopathic violence so prevalent in modern action flicks, which likely derived from the nonfictional ethosphere in which despair, random violence and mass destruction seem so prevalent (cool, I got to use my new word, twice!).
Anyway, all of this is leading up to my saying that gritty violence in Fantasy is nothing new, especially if you backtrack along the Sword and Sorcery path. So everybody running around at the new ‘gritty’ Fantasy waving their hands in the air and going ‘ooh ahh!’ is kind of silly.
So, distinguishing ‘grit’ from Grimdark is, to me, rather easy. Grimdark may be characterised by ‘grit’ but something else is going on, and that something else is fundamental to what Grimdark is (and let me add, I no longer see Grimdark as a pejorative, and now use it as a descriptive). Nihilism is the key word here: the death of hope, the pointlessness of existence and, by extension, the indifference to suffering.
If we as authors are all driving towards authenticity, we still have to ask, introspectively, what are we really saying here? But let me emphasise: that is a neutral question. If the author, having asked that question of her or himself, then answers: ‘Hope is dead and so is God and nothing in this world means a thing so just fuck it’ they have the right to do so. There are moments in the lives of many of us when we may think precisely that. There are moments when despair simply overwhelms. These are genuine moments. They are authentic. Accordingly, many of us have written works that, years later, make us cringe.
As you may discern here, I’ve mellowed somewhat on the whole Grimdark thing. It’s all contextual, momentary, and quite possibly short-lived. But I will reiterate my central point in my essays, addressed to authors everywhere: Think through what you’re saying and ask yourself why are you saying it.
Catharsis is not possible in a nihilistic world. That’s why it’s such a rare concept these days.
NoaF: Along those lines, there’s some debate over whether the Malazan Book of the Fallen counts as grimdark. You appear to be arguing that it’s something else--perhaps superficially related to grimdark but not substantively. What, in your opinion, demarcates the series from the archetypal grimdark story? And if Malazan is not grimdark, then what are some examples that you think do clearly fit within those boundaries?
SE: Given what I’ve said about Grimdark above, it’s pretty easy for me to distinguish the Malazan Book of the Fallen from that descriptive. The series was born of compassion and that is precisely what it sets out to explore, and at the risk of spoilers, it ends in a place of hope and redemption. But none of that would have any resonance without an adherence to some form of authenticity, and the conveyance of authenticity is a product of craft more than anything else. It comes from the use of details, touching on every sense (smell, touch, taste, sight, sound) in a way that immerses the reader as much as possible in that created world. It comes from characters who feel real, living in a solid, physical world; and who occupy an internal landscape that we can recognise, and who may walk the steps we’ve walked, think thoughts we’ve thought, and feel what we’ve felt. Detail can be seen as synonymous with ‘grit’ but again, ‘grit’ is merely descriptive. Finally, the Book of the Fallen adheres quite deliberately to a structure of Tragedy, and as such, catharsis is implicit, and exists for the characters in the tale (even as it is offered to the reader), which is, I suppose, what makes it post-modern (one can even say that the tale was told for the benefit of those characters and the journeys they undertook; and that, accordingly, it was told out of deep sympathy for these invented characters).
Again emphasising that I’m using Grimdark as a descriptive, not a pejorative, I’d suggest that both Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence are writing Grimdark.
NoaF: Much of the grittiness in the Malaz world involves the Bridgeburners and Bonehunters (or in Ian Esslemont’s storyline, the Crimson Guard), all of which feel strongly inspired by Glen Cook’s Black Company. What impact did the Black Company have on your own writing? And if you could name any other single author as exercising an important influence on your own body of work, who would that be?
SE: Both Cam (Ian Esslemont) and myself were well-read in Fantasy and Science Fiction (if somewhat diversely) all of which provided a mostly formless foundation for the eventual creation of the Malazan world through our gaming. But, curiously, we were both attending the Creative Writing Program at the University of Victoria, immersed in ‘non-genre’ literature, at the time of the first glimmerings of what would become Malazan. If I recall correctly, Cam was buried in the existentialists and exploring their connection to Latin American Magic Realism (heady stuff), while I was lost in virtually every novel and story and nonfiction work related to the Vietnam War.
Cam was the first of us to discover Glen Cook (Dread Empire series) and it wasn’t long before I too was devouring everything he’d written. The Black Company was in its first run back then, and considering what I was reading in conjunction with it, that perfect meshing of the world-weary Vietnam War veteran voice, tone and atmosphere, left me reeling.
Years earlier, Donaldson’s Covenant trilogies stood in for my personal ‘Lord of the Rings’ (I was not a reader of Tolkien). So I would place these two authors as directly formative for me. And if you think about it, with Donaldson’s highly Latinate, complex writing style and Cook’s terse, droll understated style, I pretty much ended up somewhere in the middle of the two styles.
NoaF: The Malaz world deconstructs and subverts many common fantasy tropes, from that of the noble savage to that of overly static notions of gender roles. We particularly enjoyed how you dismantled the gender gap in the Malazan Army. Both male and female commanders are called “Sir,” and soldiers high and low only gain respect if they are competent. Gender, in fact, has little to do with anything. Could you speak a little to your approach on this topic?
SE: We were anthropologists (Cam and me). We’d met on a dig. We’d both worked with the original (now displaced) inhabitants of the New World. We’d spent summer after summer immersed in the remnants of their cultures -- recovering the modest evidence of when they were free, unsubjugated and unsuppressed. There exists a strange disconnect between the past and the present, and it is a poignant one. Sympathy is often patronising, and some would argue that empathy is impossible, but I would suggest that human history is a litany of displaced peoples (some being displaced, others doing the displacing, round and round since Day One), and empathy, no matter how open to challenge, remains a worthy goal. These days, it seems, such empathy (and the right to seek it, much less feel it) has become a target. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but to imagine two peoples reaching an understanding without empathy strikes me as a lost hope. If anything, the constant attack on allies of the wrong colour, wrong persuasion, wrong religion, or whatever, is having the effect of isolation, making exceptionalism a virtue and polarisation the common condition.
Many epic Fantasy works drew on a social structure that was demonstrably Eurocentric in inspiration. Employing a kind of romanticised and privileged interpretation of that Medieval European world-set brought with it the assumption of patriarchy as a self-evident baseline of normality, not to mention all the other obvious tropes of dark-skinned hordes from the East, decadent (and still dark-skinned) civilizations to the South, blonde and blue-eyed barbarians to the North, and so on. It was a bag crammed full of assumptions, stereotypes, pre-packaged conflicts, an obsession with aristocracy, and virtues born of birthright. Alas, the modern revisitation of all those assumptions and stereotypes also happens to be the most popular Fantasy series by a long mile, and to that I can only shrug in bemusement.
The Malazan world took shape in conscious refutation of that Eurocentric model. Point by point, we just hammered away at it. We did it in our gaming, we did it in our writing. We wanted colour-blind, so we made the Empire colour-blind. We wanted the utter absence of gender-based hierarchies of power, so we invented a magic system based on discipline, and we made that magic system effective enough to remove the ‘baby-making-factory’ trap of women in most pre-industrial civilizations. Then we took away the assumptions underscoring the language of sexism, particularly in, as you point out, the Malazan military.
Trying to imagine (and indeed, wish for) a world without sexism and a world utterly colour-blind was liberating in itself, making it a delight to dismantle all those pissy, miserable, pernicious tropes. Although it damn-near broke me, I have never had such (occasionally savage) fun as I did when writing the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen. Maybe it showed too much in the books on occasion (especially in Gardens of the Moon), but fuck, I’ve got no regrets at all. If there is anything of the wish-fulfillment in the Malazan series, it is found here.
NoaF: Malazan Book of the Fallen is in many ways a tragic tale, but it is punctuated with some of the most outrageously funny comedy scenes we at ‘nerds of a feather’ have read in a long time. We particularly enjoyed the interplay between the destitute Tehol Beddict and his manservant, Bugg. What do you see as the function of comedy in your series? Is it simply the other face of tragedy, something to lighten the heavy, dark, and gritty load, so to speak? Or do you see comedy as a more poignant way of making a statement about the world in which we live?
SE: I would think that comedy serves both the function of relieving pressure and providing another, perhaps more subversive, vehicle for social and political commentary. Tehol and Bugg are good examples of that, as they work to dismantle the rapacious economic structure of their native land. But also, it’s worth bearing in mind that humour often serves as a defense mechanism, both from the author’s point of view and also from that of characters who find themselves in extreme or traumatic situations, so it’s always worth it (when writing fiction) to keep that little pocket of irreverence near to hand for every character in a story. They need a break just like we need a break. They need to cut loose on occasion, same as we do. I would think that no matter how dark a story, or how repressive, humour remains a vital release-valve. And besides, sometimes it pays to impose a little perspective from a creative point of view.
NoaF: We would like to switch gears here and discuss authorial intent, something you discussed in a comment on our blog (here) and in your essays for the r/fantasy subreddit. You have argued that authorial intent does not equate to narrative “truth,” and have made an implicit criticism of authors who do not fully consider the assumptions they carry into their world. We think this is a valid point, but believe it is also possible to criticize the works of authors who have fully considered the assumptions they bring into their world. In this context, we’d like to discuss the role of humor, and specifically the deliberately "offensive" humor that permeates your recent book, Willful Child. One review deeming it "more than borderline offensive" on a number of fronts. Another review noted that it is hard “to not feel disgusted by the choices made,” but nonetheless found that the book revealed an important message of “the absurd, horrific consequences of Western Culture.” Is that an accurate summation of your intentions? Do you believe that in this case authorial intent, and the full consideration of the assumptions held by your characters, obviates criticisms of the delivery? What were the specific challenges of this kind of satire--say, in the case of Captain Hadrian?
SE: ‘More than borderline offensive,’ huh? Well, given that I set out to write the most offensive novel imaginable, I guess I pulled it off. It would strike me as an odd defensive tactic to claim authorial intent as a means to silencing critics. That just seems slightly skewed thinking, doesn’t it? No, the value of deliberate authorial intent is one of preparation: by knowing what you were up to, you can defend yourself rationally when a critic lets fly. Beats stumbling unwittingly into a firestorm. But having said that, why respond at all? The book is out there. It’s fair game to any and all critical review and commentary.
Satire is all about pushing the envelope. When I envisaged Willful Child I understood, almost immediately, that this would be, at its simplest level, Cringe Comedy. The kind that makes you flinch (often recoiling in disgust) or squirm. But it was also necessary for me to acknowledge to myself that comedy is a very personal thing: what works for one person won’t for another. I was aiming for the Family Guy kind of crowd, in terms of audience. Not everybody laughs at Family Guy.
Something of the range of comedy employed in Willful Child may have actually worked against the level of savage satire I was engaged in, since that satire was often portrayed subtly -- perhaps too subtly (so one reviewer argues) given the over-the-top humour surrounding it. I can see that it would be easy to react to the over-the-top stuff with such revulsion that the underlying satirical stuff doesn’t even get noticed. Gauging how a work is going to be received (especially a work as chancy as Willful Child) is always a crapshoot. I’ve given up trying to predict such things. For Willful Child, the only measure I have is that TOR has signed me for two more.
But to reiterate, nothing of my intent as an author obviates criticism, not just of delivery but also content itself. Intent for me is simply a means by which I guide and control what I write, how I write it, and my reasons for doing so. If a critic wants to engage me directly in a discussion of Willful Child or any other of my works, I would welcome the opportunity. Being told that something I wrote offended somebody won’t see me running for cover. Instead, let’s talk.
NoaF: We’d like to shift to gaming for the moment. You’ve have outlined the impact of gaming on your fantasy fiction before, and we find it fascinating that parts of your series were gamed. In light of this, can you point to an instance in the series where something in the game went off the rails? Also, do you continue to play RPGs and draw stories from them?
SE: A game session going off the rails is not necessarily a bad thing, though it might seem so at the time. It all settles out in the end, and indeed, that clusterfuck may actually turn out to be the best outcome after all. Cam and I both approached running a game with the aim of thoroughly messing with the heads of our
victims players, even when that player was just me, or Cam. It was a back and forth contest in how badly we could fuck up each other’s character. That’s what made it so entertaining, not to mention highly comical.
I have tried running a campaign again, but I find that my creative energies are more limited than they once were.
NoaF: Before we end this interview, we have to ask a rather silly question. Do you ever have problems keeping track of all your characters? After all, Dust of Dreams alone has at least a few hundred who make an appearance or who are discussed in some way, shape, or form. How do you avoid inconsistencies, or simply keep track of all the characters that populate your stories?
SE: Keeping track of my characters is a pain in the ass, and it’s only getting worse. Crap, sometimes just remembering their names is a problem. But once I track them down, slipping back into their situation still seems easy, as does rediscovering their voice.
As for avoiding inconsistencies, well, I’ve managed a big fail on more than one occasion. I’ve got what, sixteen years of story-telling to keep in my head. Three and a half million words of it, and, as you say, more than a few characters wandering through all of that.
NoaF: One final question. If given the chance to write any of your manuscripts over again, would you have done anything differently? If so, what? And why?
SE: Apart from correcting inconsistencies, no. I’m no longer that person, the one who wrote, say, Gardens of the Moon, or Deadhouse Gates, or, for that matter, The Crippled God or Forge of Darkness. My creativity has a different flavour now. It sees things differently. And yet, where it is now is precisely because of everything that’s gone before. Accordingly, if I could jump in a time machine, defy this linear progression of time, writing new versions of old stuff would screw the timeline pooch. The Malazan Book of the Fallen, as we know it, wouldn’t exist. Is there any guarantee that what replaced it would be better? Any guarantee that I would have reached whatever level of skill I now possess, in the absence of lessons learned, or beneath the pressure of new lessons?
I have enough problems with this timeline!
NoaF: Thank you so much for this fantastic interview!
SE: Thanks again for this invitation.