Sunday, 27 November 2016

Shadows Lengthen: A Discussion of Grimdark Fantasy

KT Davies telling me off for suggesting
that Tolkien isn't all that dark.
On November 26th I took part in a fascinating panel at Sledge-Lit, about whether fantasy becoming darker has been good for the genre overall. The discussion inevitably focussed on the topic of ‘grimdark’ fantasy (by which we also mean science fiction and other spec-fic genres and sub-genres).
The following is cribbed from my notes on the panel. Thanks to fellow panellists KT Davies and Graham Edwards, and to moderator Freda Warrington for such an illuminating debate!

How would we define ‘Grimdark’, and is the label helpful.

The term ‘grimdark’ originated in the Warhammer 40k fandom, derived from the tagline ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’. It was tongue-in-cheek at the time, but has become more universally applied even retrospectively to dark, gritty spec fic (i.e. Game of Thrones). Consider me particularly amused when I saw online recently an assertion that grimdark only applies to fantasy, and not to SF. Mate, it started with SF!

Adam Roberts described it as fiction ‘where nobody is honourable and Might is Right’.

No consensus as to what it actually means (like Brexit. Grimdark means grimdark). Personal take: It’s a reaction to heroic idealism. Anything where the traditional fantasy binary of good and evil is sufficiently blurred, so we have lots of shades of grey, murder-death-kill, and protagonists who make questionable moral judgements, can be described as grimdark. Where everyone is a bit murky, you end up rooting for the least worst option.

Has fantasy always had dark elements, before Grimdark was even a thing?

It’s intrinsically linked! Fellow panellist Graham Edwards said that ‘a lot of fantasy is rooted in folklore, which can be VERY dark. Just think Hansel and Gretel. So is fantasy just inherently grim?’
We can see dark fantasy in lots of classic works, from books and films to comics. A Song of Ice and Fire is the obvious choice. Everything to ever feature in 2000AD, from Dredd and Slaine to Nemesis the Warlock and ABC Warriors. Many of the old Conan the Barbarian stories could be considered grimdark, even though they’re written in the pulp style. Conan himself is a reaver, thief, pillager. He commits some questionable acts, although we always see his as this noble savage whose moral compass is (allegedly) far straighter than the corrupt city-folk around him. And what about writing that is often viewed as separate from genre fic? Is Cormac McCarthy grimdark by the above definitions? Probably so!

Do writers/filmmakers use darkness/violence to make fantasy more accessible to a wider audience?

Would Game of Thrones be as popular on TV without all the beheadings (And sex?)? Is it exploitative, or a way to reach the mainstream audience? We’ve definitely seen this rise of more ‘mature’ programming in the last decade or so. Game of Thrones taps into the same vein of sex n’ violence as 300, Spartacus, Rome, The Walking Dead, etc. (Ian McShane called Game of Thrones ‘just a load of tits and dragons’ recently, and he probably has a point that those particular aspects have attracted the more casual viewer – but writing off grimdark fantasy as immature for the inclusion of those elements is dangerous, as it prevents discussion of the serious topics conveyed within).

Grimdark is sometimes called an ‘anti-Tolkien’ movement, which is probably why columnist Damien G Walter – a huge fan of Tolkien – dismisses it out of hand as fantasy written to appeal to adolescent boys. I think it’s pretty hard to see George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie fitting into that camp. And if anyone gave my books to an under-16 I’d raise an eyebrow. Our ideals of heroic fantasy do come from Tolkien, who was virtually a Victorian. He puts those old-fashioned manners and mores, and an idealising of chivalric values, into his stories. But he completely glosses over the ethnic cleansing, and ideological reasons for the mass wars in his stories. Grimdark fiction goes deeper. It adds the grit. It shows the horrors of war, the horrible decisions that those so-called heroes have to make to secure victory. It’s on the battlefield at eye-level with Boromir, not taking a nostalgic view from the quill of a hobbit.

The crucial element is: do you glorify those horrors, or do you use the story to shine a light on them, and to comment on them? If the former, then it’s just gratuitous, and I’d wager that there’s a lot of it out there, which is why grimdark gets a bad rep.

Grit itself is becoming ubiquitous. Has it gone too far? How dark is too dark?

A quote from Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie:

“But the dividing line between what is righteous and worthwhile, and what is wrongful and gratuitous, is so fuzzy as to be a blur, and will be in a totally different place… for every author and reader.  Often people have limitless capacity for savage ultraviolence but find a consensual sex scene, or indeed someone having a wee, just a bit too edgy for their sensibilities.  One person’s disgracefully titillating torture porn can be another’s searing examination of how far one might go to get the truth.  One person’s profanity is another’s hilarious and realistic dialogue. One person’s disheartening pessimism that threatens the heart of western civilisation is another’s thought provoking deconstruction of conventions.”
-- JA
Possibly we’re reaching a tipping point. The Walking Dead has started reporting falling viewing figures at a time that it’s pushing its darkest ever series. The first few episodes of series 7 have established that hope is lost – the series doesn’t have a reputation for heroic triumph, so a lot of people are tuning out probably because they don’t know if the ‘good guys’, such as they are, can actually win.

Real life has been looking very bleak this year. There’s a lot of pessimism and moral panic surrounding events in 2016 so far. Maybe viewers just don’t want to compound their misery with more misery. ‘Well, things are bad, but at least my favourite character is still alive… oh…’

This is where maybe Grimdark can go too far. Victory for the hero can be hard fought, and come at great cost, but there has to be victory nonetheless. When the outcome is universally bleak, perhaps we’re straying too far into the horror genre, and alienating the core audience.

Shameless selfie with old mate
and fellow grimdarker Gav Thorpe.

Has it been good for the genre?

I certainly hope so, because by some definitions I’m writing it!

Like any movement, grimdark fiction has explored previously untested avenues, and has provided a home for those lovers of darker, perhaps horror or ultraviolent fiction, who wouldn’t ordinarily have gone for fantasy and SF. Anything that brings more readers to the genre is a good thing.

So what is the next new thing that will reinvigorate fantasy further? Where can fantasy go next?

We might be seeing a trend towards more hopeful fiction again. BUT the Game of thrones TV show, and the revived popularity of the books, shows us that grit certainly isn’t dead.

Personally, I think mash-up fiction is gathering momentum. Adding horror to fantasy or SF often makes a property ‘grimdark’ while also providing a new twist. But why stop there? And look at what Marvel Studios are doing with their movies – the Marvel universe is really a science fiction one, but they’ll make a heist movie, a spy thriller, a buddy road-trip comedy… all in the same universe, all with those superhero/SF elements. I think we’ll see more of that. Grimdark fantasy has tended to be focused primarily on war and politics, but I wonder if we’ll start to see the grimdark sci-fi ghost story (Adam Christopher is doing a bit of this at the moment), the grimdark fantasy crime caper, and so on.

Further Reading


As I was compiling these notes, I found an excellent essay by Mark Lawrence on the subject of grimdark fantasy. Check it out here.

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