Grimdark Fiction

There’s an article floating around today in which Damien Walter talks about grimdark fantasy within the context of the David Gemmell Legend Award and the World Fantasy Award. There has been a lot of discussion about the contents of the article and grimdark fantasy on both Twitter and on the article itself. In a nutshell, it has been a very interesting argument on all sides and some good points have been made. But, as a reader and reviewer, I feel that something is getting lost in the translation because there are misconceptions being thrown about as to what grimdark fantasy is.

Additionally, there has been a distinct lack of acknowledgement of grimdark fantasy as written by women. Or, you know, just grimdark fiction in general, whether it is science fiction or fantasy. This isn’t something new of course, because the publishing industry and the reader/fan-base have become adept at glossing over the contributions of women in SFF, for the most part. This is a perception that desperately needs to change but sadly, there are very few agents of such change.

Regardless, fact remains that grimdark fiction isn’t what most people think it is. It is much more nuanced than the general public believes to be.

My first exposure to grimdark fiction was through Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts novels and William King’s Space Wolf novels, published by Black Library. They are both space opera tales of heroism and adventure in a galaxy that is essentially riven with evil, where the individual matters less than dirt. If you want to gain an understanding of what the Warhammer 40,000 setting really is about, then the following piece demonstrates it quite ably.

It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

That piece is present in every Warhammer 40,000 novel. It is a lead-up that gives a succinct explanation of what the setting is all about. It is a dark setting, relentless, and uncaring of the individual. There are no real heroes in this setting because even the best commit atrocities on a daily scale. And that’s another thing that gives the setting its grimdark label: the scale. Millions, even billions of soldiers in a single battle. All fighting to defend a single scrap of land. An age where technology is revered as holy and where there is an entire priesthood that safeguards those secrets on a galactic scale. Where wars of attrition are the daily norm. And so on.

That, for me, is the best encapsulation of grimdark fiction in a science fiction setting. Of course, I am a fan of Warhammer 40,000 fiction, so there might be some bias there as well, but I think the point stands.

But, as is often the case in our society, grimdark means different things to different people. Some people would pick up The Lord of the Rings and think it is a grimdark tale about a halfling having to confront the personification of evil. Others would say that the ever-presence of the Sith in Star Wars means that the setting is fully grimdark. Frank Herbert’s Dune, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Pacific Rim, Star Trek, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Avengers. The list goes on. I’ve met people who believe that these settings/movies/books are all grimdark. They aren’t right, but they aren’t wrong either. It all depends on what your perspective is. It depends on your personal definition of what extreme violence is.

It is pretty undeniable that novels purporting to be grimdark SFF have been on the rise in the last few years. There are various authors out there who are writing novels with settings where “gritty” is the order of the day. Dark SFF also gets lumped into that definition a lot, although I think that there is a difference between Dark SFF and grimdark SFF. The latter is simply an extreme form of the latter. At least for me it is.

Both Warhammer Fantasy and Forgotten Realms, Tolkienesque fantasy settings that have a strong identity of their own, can be called grimdark settings, for various reasons. Warhammer Fantasy is the surest case, more so since Warhammer 40,000 is a science fiction extension of it to some degree. As someone who has been reading WHF fiction for a number of years, there are certainly plenty of times when I’ve thought that the stories have been particularly dark and unremitting. Forgotten Realms I’m less sure of since I’ve only recently started reading related fiction, but from what I have read, the setting has plenty of examples of grimdark elements.

And yet, many people would argue that these are not grimdark settings. They are simply fantasy settings with a somewhat darker edge to them than most. Certainly, if you compare them to Dragonlance or Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar novels, that difference is clear as day.

But once again, a lot depends on how you define grimdark. Is it simply an extreme, or is it something more? That’s a key question to consider whenever you converse about the topic.

For my money’s worth, I think it is both. Simply being an extreme is meaningless. It is just a simplistic classification in that regard and as such, easily dismissible. But it is when so-called grimdark fiction is more than just what’s on the tin that it starts to really matter.

I haven’t read any of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. I tried reading the first one, A Game of Thrones, but I gave up quite clearly. It was just too complex a read for me. But, I’ve been keeping up with the HBO adaptation, and there are very clearly grimdark elements in the world that the author has created. Sometimes he uses shortcuts such as rape, mutilation and sex to get across the level of morbidity in the setting, but sometimes he does so much more because of how the shortcuts are applied. Simple nudity can do that too, when it is not mere titillation. A particular scene involving Brienne of Tarth (sp?) and Jaime Lannister from the new season springs to mind. As the current most popular genre-work, A Song of Ice and Fire will undoubtedly be among the top 3 series that people will mention when asked what fictional work they identify as grimdark. And they would be right of course.

There are some other writers that will come up, primarily male. I see Mark Lawrence, Brent Weeks, Joe Abercrombie and Peter V. Brett being mentioned a lot. Of these, I’ve only read Lawrence and Brett so far, and unlike the above, their “grimdarkness” for me has been only about the superficiality, using shortcuts for simple titillation and nothing more. Brett’s novels do approach the kind of grimdark that I prefer, but not really. Of course, this is only going off the first novels in their respective trilogies, so the writers could have expanded on this further in subsequent novels, but I lack that information so I’m going off on what I’ve read.

From all the conversations that I’ve followed on Twitter (nothing too in-depth I should add), I haven’t seen any female authors being mentioned. I mean yeah, there have been a few, but the discussion has been skewed towards the men rather than the women. Which is a downright shame. A common supposition has been that only the men can write grimdark fantasy and that if a women writes something within that definition, then its not grimdark. Its a mind-boggling concept that I just cannot understand.

But sadly, such is the bias of our society. We continue to extoll the works of the “dominant” gender rather than treating matters on an equal basis.

K. J. Parker, C. S. Friedman and Robin Hobb are some of the names that I’ve seen mentioned as far as the fairer sex is concerned. I have no experience with either of these authors than with Robin, whose first Farseer novel I read in July (and it wasn’t really grimdark, or dark fantasy even, just a “regular” fantasy novel with a good vs evil angle). The great thing is that there have been a few individuals who’ve taken the chance to mention these authors. It creates dialogue and is informative. A close friend of mine, a fellow reviewer and blogger, has been speaking quite highly about Friedman’s Coldfire series, so much so in fact that I’ve added her books to my reading pile for next year.

Creating this kind of a dialogue is absolutely vital and necessary. And these three ladies are not even the tip of the iceberg. In a way, if you think about it, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could very well be an example of grimdark fiction. Women have been writing fiction for ages and Mary Shelley was among the first of them, way before many of the most popular men in SFF even got their starts. That means there is already a strong legacy of women writing dark/grimdark fiction and it is to our own detriment that we ignore that legacy. There have undoubtedly many, many more who have written these kind of stories. How can there not be? Just because one is not informed about them does not mean that they are not there.

And so, that’s what this post is all about. I want to hear from you which authors, specifically women, you consider to be grimdark authors. Even just dark SFF works because like I said, its all a matter of perspective and definition.

So go ahead, and tell me.

Posted on October 14, 2013, in Editorial and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I think Assassin’s Apprentice is probably the happiest of Hobb’s novels – mostly because it’s too early in the overall tale for the reader to fully spot the seeds of the horrific train wreck of events that will overtake the protagonist in later books. (The strength of Hobb’s writing is that many of these events are consequences of her protagonists’ decisions…decisions that sometimes you’re screaming at the character not to make, even as you know it would be out of character for them to choose otherwise.)

    C.S. Friedman is indeed terrific, and her ColdFire trilogy has a great example of an “antihero” (though somewhat like Hobb, I believe you need to read beyond the 1st novel in the trilogy to fully appreciate it.)

    A few other authors who write dark and/or brutal SFF (I know there are many more but I’m not writing this at home so can’t check my shelves): J.V. Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Mary Gentle, Kameron Hurley, Sheri S. Tepper (in some of her books). Oh yes, and Susan R. Matthews, whose novel “An Exchange of Hostages” has the honor of being hands-down the most deeply disturbing SFF novel I’ve ever read – if you don’t believe me, go look at her reviews on Amazon, some of which put Mark Lawrence’s reviews to shame in terms of the visceral horror/disgust on the part of the reader. ;P

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    • I didn’t like Assassin’s Apprentice, but I might check out the second book next year. Not sure. And C.S. Friedman, like I said, I’m definitely going to try. Tried reading Kameron’s books last year, couldn’t read it. Might try the others though! Thanks for the recommendations!

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  2. I really do recommend Abercrombie, particularly the First Law Trilogy. I wouldn’t say Mary Gentle was “grimdark”, but she’s very very good.TBH, I’m never sure if what I’m reading is Grimdark; I’m rarely bothered or disturbed by visceral grit so it doesn’t really register that what I’m reading could be regarded as dark, or indeed grim, until somebody else reads it and points it out.

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  3. Can’t believe you never finished Game of Thrones, one of the best books ever!

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  4. A Song of Ice and Fire can be challenging sometimes, but it’s worth it. Personally, I’d consider my own forays into fantasy fiction to be grimdark: check out my serialised short story “The Killing Place” at http://www.ethanreilly.wordpress.com.

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  1. Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Episode #1 - The OutRamp

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