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Of the Darkness and the Light: Meditations on the Grimdark

Been kicking this around for a while. What has me posting it now is partly from a Q&A my publisher hosted on Twitter revolving around their open call, in which one person asked if there was room in fantasy beyond what is grim and dark and grimdark (Harper Voyager responded in the affirmative, and held up my book as an example of such). The other part is from my friend Teresa Frohock’s lovely post over on Tor.com regarding defining grimdark as opposed to horror (that post hasn’t much to do with this one other than the title; I just wanted to give Teresa a shout-out – buy her new book!).

Anyway:

Even looking at this image makes me feel ill.

Even looking at this image makes me feel ill.

When Shireen Baratheon was strapped to that stake, my stomach turned. I felt sick. All those memes shooting around on Facebook the week afterwards—the ones about how Stannis wasn’t going to win Father of the Year or whatever—were not funny. It was a horrible, horrible scene, gut-wrenching and soul-draining all at once. My compliments to the actors, the writers, and everybody involved with that scene. Holy crap, guys, did that ever work.

I find myself thinking a lot about Shireen Baratheon lately. She isn’t real and what happened to her didn’t really happen, but I find myself thinking about her anyway. I look at a horrible picture of a little boy drowned in the ocean, washed up on the beach, and my stomach turns. I see a picture of a Nazi soldier pointing his submachine gun at a Jewish family, the father throwing his body in front of his children, and I get sick inside. I feel just as horrible. And I think of Shireen.

Fantasy has been getting pretty dark lately. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like picking up a fantasy novel these days is more likely going to bring you down than bring you up. George RR Martin has, of course, said that he draws much of his inspiration from history and, as it happens, history is pretty dark and miserable territory. No doubt, the darkness of Game of Thrones and other “grimdark” fantasy stories out there are more “realistic” in the sense that the things happening in them are not any more extreme or horrifying than the things that actually happen out here, in the real world.

In response to this assertion of realism, though, I am forced to ask a question: why am I reading a genre called fantasy, then?

My late father-in-law did not read fiction, as a rule. He didn’t understand why you would read anything made up when history was so stuffed with great stories that actually happened. He read biography after biography, history after history, and possessed a breadth and depth of historical knowledge that, frankly, blew me away (and I’m no slouch at my history, myself). His refusal to read fiction I found curious, but he had a good point. I mean, why read about something made up when you can have the same experience and learn about something real at the same time?

Those two questions: “why read fantasy if it’s going to be so realistic” and “why read fiction when history is full of interesting stories” are dovetailed. The answer to either question is the answer to both, and the answer is this:

We read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic.

That’s it. That’s the whole point of fiction—to believe that which is inherently false. Because my father-in-law had a really, really good point. If realism is what I’m after, then I read history. I watch the news. I study the facts. I wallow in the real world, with all its tragedies and imperfections and rough edges.

But fiction is something different. I’m not reading it because I want it to be real. I’m reading it to make the real into something transcendent. I want the unsolvable to be solved (at least partially), I want the evil to be vanquished (most of the time), I want my story to do what the real world can’t do for me—get me to believe in magic, get me to dream about faraway places and wonderful things and heroes and dragons and swords with names. In fantasy, there is no reason we have to be miserable. The world can do that for us.

Now I’m not saying I need pat, happy endings all the time, nor do I particularly enjoy the same thing over and over and over. What I wonder at is this wish to have our real-world cynicism encroach upon our fantastical playgrounds. So much these days seems to be another version of apocalypse, another bonfire of heroics. While George RR Martin’s brilliant work is perhaps the most obvious example of this mood, it is hardly exclusive to him.

“Heroes,” a friend of mine told me once, “must tread carefully in the world of Westeros.” That’s true. Jon Snow’s heroics got him nowhere, just like his brother and his father’s nobility doomed them. And, again, that is much the same as history—history doesn’t treat many of its heroes well. So, I suppose we can all nod sagely at Jon Snow’s untimely end and say “yeah—figures. What a dummy.”

See, the thing is, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to find myself scoffing the hero just to assuage my own pain over their fall. I don’t want to shake my head at (yet another) rape scene and say “that’s just how awful this place is.” This is fantasy, friends! We don’t have to make it that bleak and, even if we do, we can have our heroes win. We can have them overcome the horrible nature of their world and, by doing so, inspire us to do the same.

I guess you can call that naive if you want, but my response to you is that a little naiveté is good for us. Because, contrary to what so many of us believe, the world—the real, actual world—doesn’t have to be such an awful place. It can change. We have to believe that, don’t we? I worry when even our fantasies become grim, bleak landscapes of suffering and degradation. What does it say about us that we aren’t even willing to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil and the heroes save the day?

So that brings me back to how we read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic. For us—for our society, our world—I think the most implausible and unrealistic thing we can imagine is the idea of redemption and the ability for people to change. In fantasy, we have a unique lens through which to view our own world and, yes, we can certainly make it dark and horrible if we want. Indeed, a utopian story of happiness and light would be difficult to connect with, I guess. That said, there is no reason that in the darkness and the horror someone can’t stand up and say “no.” Some guard who cuts the little girl free from the burning stake and runs off into the wilderness. Some man in a fishing boat defying fate to save some drowning child. And then—get this—that person gets away with it. They are the hero for that moment in time, when all hope seemed lost. They are the person we all hope we can be, doing the right thing when it is hard. Sounds crazy, right? Some of you are shaking your heads, maybe. Some of you think that sounds lame or that I’m a pie-in-the-sky crackpot.

But I’m not. And for me, that’s what fantasy and science fiction are there to prove—not how weak we are or how terrible, but how wonderful we can be and how noble, no matter how awful we were in the past. It’s our world, folks. Let’s make it a beautiful one for a change.

The Wages of Villainy

If you're waiting for catharsis, keep waiting.

If you’re waiting for catharsis, keep waiting.

Possible Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Be ye forewarned!

 

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones recently. I’m significantly behind, but never fear – I read the books years ago, and I know everything that happens. More than many of you, probably. It has, however, been a while since I’ve read the first three books. I just finished watching the second season, which puts me somewhere in Book 2 (though where book two ended and book three began is unclear to me, since I read them back-to-back). One of the things I’m remembering as I watch is just how many awful people there are in Westeros – Cercei, Tywin, Joffrey, the Boltons, the Freys, the Greyjoys, the Mountain, and on and on. So very often, the end of each episode leaves me feeling sad or depressed. So very rarely do the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

This is, essentially, what we want, right? We want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. Oh, sure, we’ll wait for it. We’ll wait for a long damned time. Hell, I read all five books waiting for it, always hoping and praying that the payoff, when it comes, will be oh so sweet. I want Arya to shiv Cercei. I want Sansa to push Littlefinger out the Moon Door. I want Danerys to cross the goddamned Narrow Sea and bathe Westeros in cleansing fire.

Do I get any of these things?

Well, put simply, no, I do not. In fact, I’m beginning to lose faith that I will. Oh, sure, bad things happen to the bad guys sometimes. Joffrey’s death was especially satisfying, truly, but for every bad guy that gets his, there’s a dozen good guys who unjustly meet their end. If I’m honest, I’m getting a little tired of it.

There’s something very Anglo-Saxon going on in Game of Thrones. Those old barbarians – the guys who brought us Beowulf – were all about death and loss. Beowulf itself is basically a love-story to the idea of death. They knew we all had it coming to us, so for them what was important was how you faced it. Everything good in your life – all you had built, all you had done – was just one asshole with a sword away from being ruined. It happened all the time, and the Anglo Saxon skops wouldn’t let you forget it. See this passage from Beowulf:

…and soon it stood there, /finished and ready, in full view, / the hall of halls. Heorot was the name /[Hrothgar] had settled on it, whose utterance was law. / Nor did he renege, but doled out rings / and torques at the table. The hall towered, / its gables wide and high and awaiting/ a barbarous burning. That doom abided, / but in time it would come…

Lines 76-84, Heaney translation

You can’t even get one line past the description of the beauty of Hrothgar’s hall before we are told how it all was going to burn down. Dark stuff, guys. You can’t have nice things, because the world is full of awful people. All you can do is learn to roll with the punches and find a way to survive, just like Sansa has.

For me, this frustrates me. I’m reading fantasy fiction, and so I want my cathartic victory to come along. I want somebody to ride in and kick some ass in the name of decency, if not righteousness. Maybe this is overly simplistic of me, and I by no means am taking away from the emotional power of Martin’s story – he knows how to kick a reader in the guts better than anybody I’ve ever read. It’s just that sometimes, as much as the pain and the pathos is fun, I also want to get up and cheer. I don’t do that enough in Westeros, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will.

In the end, if the villains get away with it for long enough, the audience at some point will become inured to their faults and crimes. They will become not monsters, but the norm. We will stop caring about the arrival of justice or even vengeance. This is what happened to me by the end of A Dance With Dragons – acceptance of the world Martin has created, in all its warty glory. I don’t expect much out of it; I won’t get attached. He’s lost me. There’s only so many times you can be abused before you move on, right?

 

 

At Last: Good Television!

The last good television show I watched was Lost. Yes, yes the last season wasn’t ideal, I know, but even with that caveat, the last season of Lost is better than the first season of pretty much any other show to come out since then. There have been things that are watchable (Defiance,

Yes, this guy is goddamned awesome. Have they given him ALL THE AWARDS yet? Why the hell not?

Yes, this guy is goddamned awesome. Have they given him ALL THE AWARDS yet? Why the hell not?

for instance, along with a laundry list of crime procedurals), but nothing that I saw and actually felt motivated to see more of. I would point out that I am aware Mad Men is supposed to be awesome and lots of people love The Walking Dead, but given my distaste for zombies and soap opera melodrama, the prospect of watching either of those shows sounds a lot like going to the dentist to me: good for me, and probably not that painful after all, but hardly something I’m rushing out the door to experience.

Oh, right, and there’s Game of Thrones, but seeing how I read all the books only to become disenchanted with the story at the end, the only reason I’m watching is to see Peter Dinklage tear up the screen. I’ve got the first two seasons on DVD, and I haven’t worked up the motivation to keep watching through season two. I mean, I already know everything that happens.

This brings me to my delightful discovery of the past week: Not one, but two shows whose pilots looked sufficiently interesting and fun that I am probably going to watch them both! Yes! Crazy, right?

Under The Dome

This is just a fantastic 'WTF' moment.

This is just a fantastic ‘WTF’ moment.

This is based off a Stephen King novel. I would imagine if you read it, that might suck some of the fun out of the series (much as happened to me and Game of Thrones), but beyond that, this show looks pretty awesome. It isn’t just that there’s a magical force field that’s cut off the town, it’s the completeness with which this idea has been imagined. King has thought of all the implications, here, and it shows. I know it’s been thought through because right at the end of the first episode (spoilers, sort of), I knew Duke shouldn’t touch the Dome, I yelled it at the screen, and I was right. Why? Because the Dome is operating under consistent principles and, therefore, can be anticipated. It also means there’s a lot more to discover, too. Throw in the devilish array of quintessential King small-town weirdo characters, and there is enormous plot potential running around here. So much has been set up and, goddammit, I want to see what happens. That hasn’t happened to me for the longest time.

Siberia

This one snuck up on me. It just kinda came on the television just before bed, and it is just so gloriously new and interesting that I can’t help but be sucked in. If you loved Lost and its weird, mystery vibe, there is no reason you shouldn’t love this show, too. That, though, is basically similar to a lot of attempted shows since Lost, and the majority of them have fallen utterly flat. What gives Siberia the edge? Well, it’s filmed like a reality show. It’s a show about a reality show gone horribly wrong; it’s the Blair Witch Project on steroids with actually good actors and a better special effects budget. Besides, if you loathe reality show contestants the way I do, why wouldn’t you want to watch some of those self-absorbed assholes get devoured by monsters in Siberia? Throw in a series of creepy mysteries on top of it, and I’m sold! I’m in! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait until the next episode!

It’s such a relief to say this, since I was worried I was becoming jaded and cynical towards the world of television science fiction. I’ve either been indifferent or hated almost all of it for years, and now, all at once, I’ve got two shows I am seriously interested in watching. So, kudos, tv executives, for finally stimulating that bug in me. Now, off I go to On Demand…