History Repeating: A Return of Violent Machismo to Fantasy and Science Fiction
At the 35th Annual Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) in Orlando, March 2014, Stephen R. Donaldson, as a guest on a discussion panel, raised a concern about the apparent rise of violence, nihilism, cynicism, and darkness in modern genre fantasy writing. In particular he singled out what is most commonly referred to as ‘grimdark’, a sub-genre of fantasy popularised and exemplified by authors such as Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and George R.R. Martin. Although I should mention that he did not explicitly name those authors.
The common (mis)understanding of grimdark is that it is fantasy writing that eschews the tropes of hero, heroic quest and the simplistic morality of good winning out over evil, in favour of a much darker, more cynical fantasy world which is generally graphically and explicitly violent, morally bankrupt (or at the least deeply flawed), and celebrates the dirt, darkness and grittiness of the world. Heroic characters are replaced by violent, sociopathic, immoral or amoral protagonists, who are not so much anti-heroes as villains but on a side less villainous than the other. Good and evil have been replaced by evil and slightly less evil. In many ways a fairly accurate rendering of what the news presents us with on a daily basis, on the hour, every hour.
There is a belief that a primary focus within grimdark texts is on celebrating explicit and highly detailed violence with an almost fetishized gaze, and linking this to a core concept of masculine identity. But what is interesting about this movement in fantasy is that it is not new, nor is it a unique phenomenon. In the early 20th century Robert E. Howard created a similar type of adventure fantasy, sword and sorcery, with Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian as prominent examples. In Howard’s case his self-proclaimed reason was to create a new model of masculinity in light of sociological and cultural developments that he felt were feminising men.
Howard was experiencing a world in flux, the rise of industrialisation, the rise of the working and middle classes, the rise of the New Woman, the rise of the suffrage movement, in effect a time of challenge to assumed patriarchal superiority. Technological advancement, industrialisation, mechanisation, in addition to the voice of women, were creating havoc in Howard’s perception of social reality. He felt that men could no longer be men, that they had lost the essence of masculinity. Mechanised soldiery replaced the charge of the officers with melee weapons. The noble officers being replaced by jumped up commoners. Less ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and more ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.
In fact, as Howard famously stated ‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’ Howard created Conan as a barbarian. A man of violence and personal code of honour that paid no attention to civilised ‘rules’ and mores. Conan was closer to an articulation of Nietichze’s übermensch than Howard’s perception of the ‘modern’ man. Conan took what he wanted, killed those who opposed him, and with a virile heterosexuality directly opposed the ‘feminisation’ that Howard perceived around him.
This leads to the curious parallel between Howard’s perception of the early 20th century, and what can be discerned in the early 21st century. Warfare has become increasingly mechanised and separated from the human element. Drone strikes, smart bombs and collateral damage dominate media coverage of modern warfare. The theatre of war is increasing digitised and virtual. The rise of female soldiers and homosexuals, bi-sexuals, and trans-sexuals serving openly in the military, directly challenging one of the last bastions of perceived heteronormativity and masculinity in the modern world. The increasingly vocal and pointed questioning of patriarchal business and social practices in society today. The open and frank debates concerning female reproductive rights, rape culture, sexual harassment, the objectification of women for male enjoyment. Even the rise of the ‘metrosexual’ and the ‘hipster’ as a cultural construction of what a man is or should be. Each of these things has been framed by some commentators as attacks on established order, as an attack on white, male, heterosexual privilege. For when the status quo is challenged, those in possession of the greatest privilege have the most to lose.
While these concerns are slightly different to those of Howard’s time, they are of a kind. A new century, with new values, overthrowing or attempting to overthrow established and hitherto accepted norms, has left the privileged classes feeling under attack, their power eroding. So perhaps it is of no surprise that Abercrombie and Lawrence have tapped into this feeling of disenfranchisement and, like Howard, have turned their gaze to a fictional past when men were men, women were women and sheep were nervous. Yet their version of these past idylls is painted heavily with the cynical and world-weary attitudes so prevalent in today’s society. While Howard reacted to the rise of modernist warfare, modernist thought, and a modernist society, perhaps the popularity of grimdark can in part be explained by a response to postmodern warfare, a postmodern society, a postmodern culture. That is not to say that either Lawrence or Abercrombie are advocating for these positions of supremacy to be protected, but rather they are engaging with a zeitgeist, or as Steven Erikson has put it, the ethosphere of the time. We can’t really blame an author for putting to page the feelings and concerns of the modern day, and expressing those ideas starkly and placing them in conversation. It is one of the greatest and most enduring aspects of literature, and it is one of the greatest strengths of fantasy literature.
In Howard’s time the use of the mechanised rifle and machine gun put combatants beyond melee range. Officer’s swords were increasingly symbolic, ceremonial and anachronistic. ‘Shell shock’ became a common term as soldiers moved from violent ‘battle’ to the impersonal massacre of chemical weapons and explosive devastation. The focus of Conan on the warrior in single combat, the clash of champions on the field of battle, of honour decided through martial prowess, was a rejection of the mass slaughter on the 20th century battlefield. A return to the heroic milieu of epics like The Iliad and The Aeneid. But there is also an awareness of the bloody violence of war, of the increasing butcher’s bill of dead and maimed soldiers. In the last thirty years we have seen this distancing of combat to create ever more powerful weapons of mass killing from ever greater ranges of engagement. Language itself distances us from the violence, shell shock turns into PTSD, an acronym devoid of impact and meaning. Civilian casualties become collateral damage, a term that denies the human cost and suffering involved and reduces lives to an additional column in the ledger, a remainder of the equation. Drone strikes and smart missiles rendered in glorious technicolour blaze forth from our screens as we watch the world burn as if it is a terrible reality TV show.
In the modern day we are surrounded by violence on television, in film, online, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week in news, in entertainment shows, in games, and in advertisements. The interactive violence of computer games, which have become increasingly visually accurate and realistic, often situated in ludic renderings of contemporary war zones and scenarios, played in contests between interconnected gamers anonymously and across the internet. Media reportage of violence in the streets, in schools, in homes as well as in foreign warzones, is all packaged as indistinguishable from entertainment, and there is an increasingly blurred line between news, editorial and entertainment, between fact and fiction, between belief and truth. The post-modern conflation of entertainment, news, sex, violence, fiction and reality, has led to a complete breakdown of what is and what is not acceptable in terms of viewing violence, of living our lives, of how to treat other people. As a result, grimdark has had to go so much further than Howard ever did or could, in order to pierce the jaded, cynical and numb viewer of violence. In a world of regular school shootings, and televised battles, the level of fetishized violence needed to make an impact has certainly been raised from Howard’s time.
But it isn’t just violence that has bombarded our senses and numbed our responses. Our elevation of consumer capitalism without moral or common-sense checks and balances, and our rewarding (or failure to truly punish) of corrupt politicians and business entrepreneurs has left us weary and cynical, and with a lot of shared debt. In the face of such a dire, bleak, and grim reality which rewards the super-rich and punishes everyone else, many readers are simply numb to the evil and corruption of the world around us. In the face of all this Donaldson made the argument that now is precisely the time to be writing aspirational fantasy, to celebrate the innate goodness, kindness and virtue of the human condition, but again, we cannot fault the authors of grimdark fictions for exploring the darkness that is all around us. The market is certainly robust enough to support fantasy of all kinds.
But the thing I take from all this is that ‘grimdark’ is not a pejorative, nor is it ‘new’, it is a descriptor that we can apply to work that directly engages with and explores the feelings of nihilism, cynicism, hopelessness, and intolerance around us. Grimdark stories bring us directly in touch with some of the harshest aspects of our reality, but use the fantasy setting to give us that distance that is critical in allowing us to view the shadowy underbelly of the human condition and societal upheaval, without having to immediately assume a position on the issues. Once we take a step back from those initial positions we can also re-evaluate the narratives in-front of us. Abercrombie’s work in particular has been derided, side-lined, and dismissed after being labelled, and yet his writing is consistently critical of those very aspects of darkness that are associated with it. The corruption in his novels, although portrayed as inevitable, is not elevated to a virtue. The smug arrogance of the military officers is a satirical rendering, or a sneering representation if you will, of the odious, arrogant officials and power-hungry, ineffectual ‘leaders’ we are confronted with on a daily basis. Through it all you get the underlying impression of the dark humour of someone living through this and needing to express rage and dissatisfaction with the current situation. The gallows humour, the trench humour, the snarling cynicism that accompanies us when we are under siege.
Viewed in this light, grimdark might be the very form of fantasy that allows us to vent our dark despair at the world and open us to the very inspirational fantasy that Donaldson believes is necessary in this day and age.
This reminds me of Pop Art, which was a response to the perceived emptiness of mass consumerism. My criticism of Pop Art is that it produced empty art, with no emotional content and nothing to move or inspire the viewer. I’m with Stephen Donaldson here: I think the role of art is to lift us up, to show us that the struggle is worthwhile, whatever the outcome.
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I have to disagree with Donaldson. (And point out that his main character, Thomas Covenant is a rapist.) While I have enjoyed many traditional fantasies, such as Tolkien and Jordan, the so called grim dark authors present their works as foils to all that came before.
I discovered Abercrombie, Cook, Erickson and Lawrence while waiting for Jordan and Martin to finish their latest books. Cook, in particular struck me as a new and different sort of fantasy. Each of these authors brings a different take to what can be called ‘grim dark’. But each also is overtly critical of the darkness portrayed in their works.
Cook’s Croaker, the analyst and physician of the Black Company, gives a ground level look at the horrors of war both in the medical tent and as the recorder of the Company’s history, including those who fell in battle.
Erickson offers characters who are in the mud, getting the job done, but questioning why and what is the point. The end of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is very direct in pointing out that compassion is the goal. Along the way, Erickson takes many fantasy tropes and stands them on their heads. He makes you love the characters and recognize that most of the people in the world of Wu are motivated by love.
Lawrence in particular takes the anti-hero character to the next level. Jorg is everything you would hate to meet in any world. Kicking, scratching and clawing his way to the life to which he believes he is entitled. And yet the end of Emperor of Thorns flips it all on its head and changes reality with a simple change in the earliest decision in Jorg’s life. From raging terror and the cause of so much unrest to sacrifice that uplifts the world of those left behind.
As I see it, these novels are the very inspirational works Donaldson is looking for in fantasy today. It’s just that today’s inspiration requires a larger acknowledgement of how dark the world can be in order to highlight the sacrifices of the protagonists.
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I am a big fan of Cook’s Black Company books. They remind me of Vietnam fiction, but set in a fantasy world.
Thanks for the response to the article.
Grimdark isn’t a synonym for “Dark Fantasy”. It’s the tropes and aesthetics of “dark” fantasy taken to ridiculous, baroque extremes. It comes from Warhammer 40k’s straight faced, tongue in cheek introduction: IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE 41ST MILLENNIUM, THERE IS ONLY WAR.
Thank you! What an interesting analysis of the phenomenon.