Apparently, we’re having yet another discussion about moral ambiguity and nihilism in (epic) fantasy. Well, it’s been almost a year since the last one, so the subject is probably due again. Plus, last year’s discussion coincided with a juicy political scandal in Germany and we’re having another one of those at the moment as well.
Epic fantasy writer James L. Sutter fired the opening volley in this essay at Suvudu, wherein he contrasts the black and white, good versus evil morality of Lord of the Rings with the shades of grey, everyone is a bastard morality of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and attributes the success of the Games of Thrones TV show to the fact that it does not offer clear-cut moral certainties. Though whenever I hear Tolkien trotted out as an example for black and white morality, I wonder whether the poster has read much Tolkien.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt replies at Adventures in SciFi Publishing and states that he prefers his heroes to have some kind of moral compass and dislikes outright nihilism and “everybody is a bastard” stories.
I’ve made it clear in these pages before, where I stand on this issue. In short, I’m more in line with Bryan Thomas Schmidt than James L. Sutter, because I prefer my protagonists to have a moral compass of some kind and I prefer there to be a difference between heroes and villains, however slight. Books, films, comics, etc… which make me fervently wish for an asteroid to hit the Earth/the Daleks to invade/a nuclear bomb to explode and wipe out all characters, because they’re just so loathsome, is not something I like to read or watch.
So I tend to avoid the overly dark forms of entertainment. But believing that fiction should have some kind of moral compass and that heroes should be better than villains puts you in a doubly unpleasant situation. First of all, it leaves you to attacks from those in the SFF community who believe that the nihilist stuff and superior and who are only too happy to accuse you of being too stupid and immature to grasp the wonderful shades of moral grey found in the bleak and dark and nihilist darling of the day. I left an online community where I’d been a member for years over this argument, because I was sick of defending myself against people whose tastes were obviously different.
On the other hand, wishing for some kind of moral compass in your fiction also gives you some strange bedfellows including conservative Christians, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket” political conservatives, anti-media violence crusaders, i.e. the sort of people I don’t have much in common with apart from not wanting to read books in which the protagonist murders and rapes dozens of people and that I quite often vehemently disagree with.
Besides, what does and does not constitute morally inacceptable behaviour is highly subjective. A lot of the time when this subject comes up, you get people who are okay with graphic torture scenes and have no problems with their kids reading them, but who get worked up over a single “fuck” or “shit” or about a consensual extramarital sex scene (double points if the sex is gay or lesbian). There was a TV show I used to watch where fandom liked a woman who was a serial killer, but despised another woman who cheated on her (unlikable) boyfriend but was otherwise a nice person and – most importantly – never killed anyone. I stopped watching when the writers killed off the likable characters, whose sole crime was having sex and enjoying it, and made the survivors increasingly less likable. Indeed, many of the advocates of morally ambiguous fiction only like their moral ambiguity in the realm of violence, while promiscuity is still viewed as the ultimate evil and the characters should preferably have no sex at all.
And even the defenders of morally sound fantasy have often no qualms with a piece of morally questionable fantasy, as long as they enjoy it. Remember Theo/Vox Day, who was involved in last year’s nihilism in epic fantasy debate and felt that morally ambiguous epic fantasy was not just fiction that was not to his taste, but apparently heralded the decline of the western world itself? Turns out he’s still blogging at Black Gate on occasion. What is more, he takes Mur Lafferty to task for not wanting to read supposed genre classics, because the racism and misogyny and the prevalence of violence against women puts her off. So Theo ranting against Joe Abercrombie and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a sign of his moral superiority, while Mur Lafferty ranting against The Stars My Destination and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a sign of her lack of education and moral flatness? Sorry, but this doesn’t work. If Theo enjoys Thomas Covenant, more power to him. But that doesn’t change the fact that Thomas Covenant is a rapist and no more moral than the protagonists of the Joe Abercrombie novels he singled out for destroying western civilization. But since Thomas Covenant is really sorry for what he did, spends much of the series wallowing in self-pity and finally apparently redeems himself, at least in the eyes of Theo (I can’t say if it would work for me, since I never got that far), that apparently makes The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant okay. Though I guess what really makes Thomas Covenant okay for Theo but not Joe Abercrombie is that he enjoyed Thomas Covenant but didn’t enjoy Joe Abercrombie. Which is a perfectly acceptable aesthetic judgement, but does not automatically make one book morally superior to the other.