It’s still very grimdark out there

Even though I’ve been away for a few days, the blogosphere or at least the SFF corner of the blogosphere hasn’t moved on yet, since we’re still discussing grimdark fantasy. So here is a round-up of the latest entries in the discussion. All the best entries are by women incidentally:

Warning: There will be some spoilers as well as potentially triggery discussion of sexual violence below, so proceed with caution.

First of all, there is a discussion about the subject going on at Reddit here and here. The view seems to be overhwelmingly in favour of grimdark fantasy, which isn’t surprising given Reddit‘s user demographics.

Regular commenter Estara points out this great entry by Kate Elliott in the ongoing debate on gritty epic fantasy. Hereby Kate Elliott takes on a question that has been largely ignored in the latest reiteration of the debate about gritty epic fantasy, namely why it is that rape scenes are usually considered an integral part of epic fantasy of the gritty persuasion, because it’s “realistic”, while consensual sex scenes are rare and often considered “icky” by habitual readers of the genre. IMO that’s also why many in the SFF community feel so threatened by the popularity of urban fantasy. Because though urban fantasy is far from free of problematic gender dynamics, it is far more likely to feature consensual and mutually respectful sex.

Sophia McDougall tackles another aspect of the “realistic” frequency of rape and sexual violence in works of grimdark fantasy, namely that the victims are almost always women and children for some reason, while men are magically safe even in settings where they wouldn’t necessarily be. Liz Bourke responds and points out that men in war zones are almost as likely to be raped as women.

Now there are male victims of rape and sexual violence in SFF. Jamie Frasier in Outlander, David in the Weather Wardens series and Mark Vorkosigan in Mirror Dance come to mind immediately. But then it is notable that the Weather Wardens series, the Outlander and the Vorkosigan saga are all written by women, Rachel Caine, Diana Gabaldon and Lois McMaster Bujold respectively. And neither author is ever mentioned in discussions on gritty speculative fiction, though they do write gritty and dark fiction. As for James Bond, the torture scene in Casino Royale, though not technically a rape, is described in highly sexual terms in the novel, which is what makes it so incredibly disturbing, particularly if Casino Royale was your first ever exposure to the Bond books after having watched only the movies. Though it is telling that this scene never appeared in any of the Bond movies until Daniel Craig’s tenure.

And talking about the gender gap among rape victims in gritty speculative fiction, this is something that bothered me quite a bit about Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, which I otherwise enjoyed a whole lot. Interestingly, Green’s name never shows up during discussions of of gritty speculative fiction either. Quite the contrary, several of the review snippets on the backcover of my edition call the Deathstalker series “light and humorous space opera”. Because whole planets being slaughtered in graphic detail and the bodies of the victims being ground up and turned into a highly addictive drug is just so bloody funny. But I guess the fact that there is true love (lots of true love even for the least likely of characters) and hope in the Deathstalker series means that it cannot be dark and gritty.

One of the main things I like about Simon Green’s work are his delightfully tough female characters. For a male writer, Green writes very good female characters, though sadly he rarely gives us scenes from their POV. However, several of the female characters in the Deathstalker series are rape survivors, while none of the men are, at least not explicitly. The most blatant example is Evangeline Shreck, a victim of a horrendous incest situation, who was basically created to be raped, for the Evangeline we meet is a clone created by her own father after he murdered his original daughter when she fought back against the repeated rape she was subjected to. Since Evangeline is born into a universe where clones are considered property and have no rights, her “father” uses her clone status to control her, because should anyone ever find out that she is a clone, she would be immediately killed. Evangeline’s story is very very difficult to read, even though the rapes are never spelled out in graphic detail.

Meanwhile, the two female main characters in the Deathstalker series, two women tougher than most of the male characters, both have rape or attempted rape in their past. Ruby Journey*, the bounty hunter turned galactic rebel who’s only in it for the loot (or so she claims), recounts that she was forcibly married off at age fourteen (this is a society that practices arranged marriage at all levels and particularly the women are often teenagers) to a man “with clammy hands who liked to slap her around”. One night she waited until he fell asleep and stabbed him to death, which was when she realised that she liked killing people and was quite good at it, so she decided to become a bounty hunter. Meanwhile, Hazel D’Ark, the closest thing the series has to a female protagonist, is on the run for stabbing to death a man who tried to rape her, when we first meet her. Plus, Hazel is even more screwed up than Ruby (and Ruby is pretty screwed up). She suffers from nigh pathological commitmentphobia, has a history of drug abuse and seeking out abusive relationships and is unable to admit her love for Owen Deathstalker, the hero of the series, until it is too late, even though it’s very obvious to everybody, including the supposedly emotionless Cybermen (Green calls them Hadenmen, but they’re clearly Cybermen/Borg standins), that she is very much in love with Owen. We never learn just what happened to Hazel to maike her the way she is and Hazel certainly doesn’t tell (and Green doesn’t give his female characters many POV scenes, so we mainly see them through male eyes), though it’s highly probable that she escaped a forced/arranged marriage as well, which may account for her extreme commitmentphobia.

Now the universe of the Deathstalker series is a harsh place, so characters experiencing rape and sexual abuse is not unlikely. However, it is notable that only female characters (and Hazel, Ruby and Evangeline are all main characters) get raped, while male characters are far more likely to suffer emotional or physical abuse, even in situations where rape would have been likely. For example, two male characters, Jack Random and Julian Skye, are imprisoned and severely tortured at one point. Both suffer lasting damages as a result of the torture, Julian Skye even dies of his injuries months to years later. However, there is no hint of rape. To be fair, those female characters who are imprisoned during the course of the series, Diana Vertue and Hazel D’Ark, also suffer physical and psychological torture, but not sexual abuse. It’s notable that all three female characters turn the table on their rapists and don’t need men to rescue them (Evangeline’s “father” is eventually killed by her boyfriend, but she already escaped her “father’s” control at that point and neither needs nor wants her boyfriend to rescue her). And though none of the male characters experience sexual violence, the physical and psychological torture they undergo is certainly horrible enough. Nonetheless, the rape gender gap is very notable here, whereas the Diana Gabaldon, Rachel Caine and Lois McMaster Bujold works mentioned above feature equal opportunity rapists and both men and women experience sexual violence.

Elizabeth Bear offers her take on the grimdark debate and points out how ridiculously repetitive and predictable the worst of grimdark mode fantasy is. Because if a particular narrative or subgenre has trained you to always expect the worst possible thing to happen to the characters, then you won’t be surprised or shocked when it does. You’ll simply nod wearily and think, “Too bad, cause I really liked this character. But it was kind of obvious.”

I call this the Semir’s partner syndrome, after the German buddy cop show Alarm für Cobra 11, which has a steady star, Turkish German highway cop Semir Gerkan played by Erdogan Atalay, and a changing array of partners/best buddies for Semir, who inveitably get killed off whenever the actor wants to move on to bigger and better things. After the first three partners or so died, you learned not to get invested in the partner, cause they will only get killed off anyway. Going with an example more familiar to Anglo-American audiences, you could also call it the Spooks syndrome because of the extreme tendency the British spy drama Spooks had to kill off its entire cast multiple times over its ten season run. Or even the Joss Whedon syndrome because Whedon is also infamous for randomly killing off likable characters. I know that plenty of people were shocked by the ending of Doctor Horrible, while I was shocked that so many people didn’t see that one coming from a mile off. Indeed, the Semir’s partner/Spooks/Joss Whedon syndrome also illustrates the perils of getting too predictably in having unpredictably horrible things happening to your characters. I may still read/watch your work, if you tell a good story. But I sure as hell will know better than ever getting invested in your characters again.

Elizabeth Bear offers up a list of authors of good gritty fantasy, which includes a few female names for once. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, women are rarely listed among the writers of gritty fantasy, even though some of the nastiest and darkest examples of gritty speculative fiction I’ve ever read were written by female writers. But then women do write dark and gritty, but they rarely write grimdark, because – as I’ve pointed out before – grimdark is a mode that mainly appeals to privileged young white men.

Finally, Elizabeth Bear also restates a point I made in my last post on the subject, namely that there is something very juvenile about the relentless darkness of the gritty grimdarkness. She goes on to say that she favours books that have a balance between happy and unhappy, hope and despair, light and dark. I completely agree with that point, because Murphy’s Law fiction (Anything horrible that can happen, will happen) is just as one-dimensional as the sort of Pollyana fiction where nothing bad ever happens to anyone. Only that Murphy’s Law fiction is far more common than Pollyana fiction, because stories where nothing bad ever happens to anyone are more cliché than reality. Even harmless small town romances like Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series have bad things happening, sometimes even to good people. Indeed, it is very difficult to find Pollyana fiction or movies for those people (I have a few in my life) who really cannot abide the slightest hint of violence or darkness in their entertainment. And no, I won’t force pseudo-realistic grit down the throat of an elderly woman who’s wheelchair-bound after a botched back operation, because trust me, she knows how bad life can be.

Marie Brennan offers her take on the debate at SF Novelists and complains that only grit and violence are considered realistic, whereas actual history offers a lot more shades of grey than the most morally grey gritty fantasy out there. She also takes issue with the fact that dark and gritty works are somehow considered morally superior to lighter works, a point I completely agree with. I don’t mind if someone prefers their fantasy gritty and grimdark, but I do object to this superiority complex of the cult of grimdarkness and to the way how many of its adherents attack anything and anybody who doesn’t subscribe to their particular blend of realism.

Finally, just because the men deserve to have their say as well:

Sam Sykes offers a reasoned response to the debate and states that if everything is relentlessly dark and depressing, it just becomes banal and that a bit of light and hope is needed along with the darkness. Interestingly, Sykes also gives us the etymology of the term “grimdark”. Apparently, it originated from the Warhammer 40000 RPG and the neverending series of tie-in books.

C.P.D. Harris weighs in again and also points out the Warhammer 40000 connection. Now I’m not familiar with Warhammer 40000. I read one of the tie-in novels years ago, not knowing what it was, I remember feeling rather lost. Still, it’s interesting that the Warhammer 40000 fans feel that critics of dark and depressing fantasy have appropriated the term “grimdark”, which is a positive label in that particular subsubculture. Well, I’m open to alternative suggestions, though “grimdark” is pretty damn spot on.

In a follow-up post, C.P.D. Harris also points out that grimdark settings make genuine heroes shine even brighter and offers the space marines (recently at the heart of a trademark battle) of the Warhammer 40000 franchise as an example. Now I agree with the theory that a generall dark setting can make the few genuinely heroic characters shine even brighter (though grimdark fantasy usually distinguishes itself by the fact that there are no genuinely heroic characters in grimdark fiction). However, as someone who was brought up to be highly skeptical of the military, the space marine archetype has never worked for me. All too often, (American) writers expect me to automatically accept that a given character is worthy, just because he or she is a marine, space or earthbound, or a Navy SEAL or a member of some other elite military unit. However, if you’ve grown up viewing the military as a source of problems and violence rather than heroism, then the mere fact that a character is a marine or Navy SEAL or other elite soldier works against rather than in favour of this character. Don’t just tell me that this guy (or gal) is a marine and expect me to classify him (or her) as a hero. Show me why he or she is heroic. Now some writers manage to pull this off and overcome my natural skepticism of the military and convince me that their characters are worthy and heroic. I’ve never had a second of doubt about the A-Team (the characters who showed me that soldiers can be good guys), Leroy Jethro Gibbs or Suzanne Brockmann’s heroic Navy SEALs. But those examples are exceptions rather than the rule. And while I love space opera, I’m not a fan of the space marine archetype. Indeed, finding space operas to enjoy is very difficult for me, because so many publishers and critics treat “space opera” and “military SF” as interchangable (even though they are not), so avoiding the “rah-rah” space marines is increasingly problematic.

Brian Ruckley responds to the discussion to date (including my contribution) in a two-part post and explains why his own novel Winterbirth (which I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on it) is as dark as it is. His defense is considered, though pretty similar to what we’ve seen before. Since I haven’t read Winterbirth, I can’t say whether it’s merely dark (or even whether it’s dark at all) or whether it tips over into problematic grimdarkness.

Richard K. Morgan was not aware that he was writing grimdark fantasy (he prefers the term noir fantasy) and anyway, he believes that critics of grimdark fantasy are intellectually incoherent and McCarthyists besides who try to keep him and his pals from writing what they want to write. Uhm, no one wants to keep anybody from writing what they want to write. We just don’t want to read it. As for intellectual incoherence, the most incoherent posts in this debate have come from the pro-grimdark camp (Mr Morgan’s own contribution is a prime offender), since the not very coherent Leo Grin hasn’t even been involved in this go-around.

Talking of which, Mark Lawrence, one of the main purveyors of grimdark fantasy, offers his one word take on the discussion. It’s okay if he does not want to get involved, but dismissing some very real issues people are having with many books, including Mr. Lawrence’s, as the result of mere internet hype is not very helpful.

*The Deathstalker series is full of characters with descriptive and somewhat preposterous names. With a hero called Owen Deathstalker, what do you expect?

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15 Responses to It’s still very grimdark out there

  1. As a side-note on the iconic games workshop Space Marines, one of the things I find fascinating about the GW Space Marines is the utter dearth of women in their lives. Their is no description of a female Space Marine, Space Marine romance, or even turned on Space Marines in the GW fluff. They live monastic lives, utterly apart from women, immersed in hyper-machismo. One wonders what they do for release.

    Ultimately the lack of female Space Marines is one of the things that could hold the game back and diminish the IP. GW has attempted to address this with the Sisters of Battle, but while cool, they aren’t Space Marines. The lack of strong female characters in the spotlight turns off many potential players and readers in the modern age. Some GW’s competitors have picked up on this, offering competing products that have some pretty awesome female warriors to compete and thus attracting a wider potential audience.

    • Cora says:

      I suspect it’s because the perceived target demographic of the Warhammer 40000 franchise are teenaged boys and young men who are believed to be more interested in action than in any romantic subplots. Of course, they’re mistaken, because there are plenty of female gamers and the tie-in books are just as likely to reach female as male readers, especially since they are pretty much ubiquitous in British (and I presume American) bookstores as well as at Amazon. Interestingly, the one Warhammer tie-in I read years ago was actually written by a woman and had a romance subplot, though the romance didn’t involve space marines but the inhabitants of a fairly low-tech world.

      • The main American competitor to Warhammer, Warmachine by Privateer Press, has picked up on this vulnerability. Their factions always have at least one strong female character among the basic starting heroes. The troops often have female figures mixed in with the men too. Unsurprisingly, I have seen more women express interest in this game than 40k.

        • Cora says:

          I haven’t come across Warmachine, but then I’m not really a gamer. Though I’m not surprised if women are more interested in playing Warmachine, if bthat one has better roles for female characters. Though I recall that when schoolmates played the German RPG Das Schwarze Auge (the black eye) in the 1980s, the players simply picked whichever gender they preferred for their characters. So you had brute barbarian female fighters for the sole reason that the player wanted them to be female.

      • Mary says:

        Also, it’s a wargame. The heart of the matter is painting up the minatures and staging the battles with them. Which helps explain the GRIMDARK setting — more excuses for war. Also, if everyone is a stinker, you can appreciate the war on a purely intellectual level more easily.

        The novels frequently throw in marvelous heroism and incorruptible character because they have different dramatic requirements. Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaiphas Cain books and Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts are among the best — and have romance.

        • Cora says:

          That’s a very good point, namely that the game requires constant war, which is easier to realise in the grimdark setting.

          Hoewver, what makes for a good RPG rarely makes for good fiction. Glad to hear that the novels manage to transcend the game requirements. The one I read was actually okay, once I got past the initial “WTF is going on?”

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  3. Estara says:

    That was a totally fascinating read again, Cora. Nothing to add to the linkage this time, though ^^.

    • Cora says:

      It’s fascinating how much discussion grimdark fantasy still sparks even on the umpteenth go-around. And as usual, some of the best posts are largely ignored.

      • jennygadget says:

        I’m curious – which posts do you think are the best/being ignored?

        Mostly I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything good. 🙂

        • Cora says:

          IMO the best posts were those by Foz Meadows, Kate Elliott and Sophia McDougall, though McDougall’s post may be triggery because of rape references. The posts by Joe Abercrombie and Tom Simon are also important, since they started off this round of the debate. Meanwhile, the contributions by Mark Lawrence and Richard K. Morgan can be safely ignored, since they don’t add anything to the debate and are also rather passive aggressive responses to valid criticisms of their work.

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