The Grimdark Games

I read an article recently discussing things fantasy and science fiction could really use more of.  At the top of that list was “A sense of fun.”

Yeah, you could definitely say that’s missing.

In my most recent interview (check out #sffwrtcht on Twitter if you’re interested in giving it a glance) I mentioned that my strongest writing influences are Walt Simonson’s epic run on Marvel Comic’s Thor series, Duck Tales, and Darkwing Duck.  You could also throw in monster movies, and, though I only discovered them after I’d been writing for a while, the pulp adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I’m no longer self-conscious about admitting that because those are worthy influences, and they’ve made me a better writer.

It’s a topic I return to quite regularly on this blog, but I’m not a fan of a lot of modern fantasy.  Not because it’s badly written.  It’s not.  But because I just can’t take all the grimdark.  We live in a culture where Superman watches Metropolis crumble and where movies based on a line of toy robots are full of brutal robotic disembowelment.  The reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t out yet, and I have no strong opinions on it.  But damnit, those character redesigns look so harsh and humorless that, ironically, I have a hard time taking them seriously.

The original TMNT comic was violent and brutal, but the turtles were still intentionally goofy looking and there were many peculiar elements to their universe.  Their chief ally is a guy who beats up crime with sports equipment.  They’ve gone into space and fought against an alien dinosaur empire.  Time travel, ninjas, mobsters, and supervillains.  It’s a weird mishmash chosen as much for the fun of it as for any sense of realism and the unapologetic nature of it was what I found so charming about the original comic books.

I’m not saying the fantasy I grew up on was better because it wasn’t.  But it was more fun and optimistic.  It wasn’t trying to convince me it was “grown up”.  It was cool, first and foremost, and if it happened to transcend that now and then, it was a happy byproduct.  Transformers: The Animated Movie remains one of my favorite films, and the plot is little more than a bunch of cobbled together set pieces, explosions, laser gun battles, and 80′s hair metal.  But damn if it doesn’t manage to be a compelling adventure with both incredibly dark moments and, yet, with a heart of optimism beneath it all.  The movie actually ended the Cybertronian War storyline that was at the heart of the series.  The Autobots take back their homeworld, and as a kid, that left a big impression on me.  There was always new conflict be had, but at their darkest moment, the Autobots saved the day and reclaimed Cybertron.

Nowadays, Cybertron seems have become another casualty in the name of maturity.  The otherwise excellent Fall of Cybertron video game is built upon the premise that Cybertron has been used up by the endless war, and the Transformers have no choice but to leave it behind, a hollow husk.  That isn’t far-fetched, and I don’t object to it as a story point.  But it’s still kind of sad to see it sacrificed like that.  Some might call it realism, but this is a story about giant robots from space that change into cars, jets, and dinosaurs.  Realism shouldn’t necessarily be the goal.

The trend isn’t going anywhere soon.  Stuff like the relentlessly bloody and gruesome A Game of Thrones and our cultural obsession with dystopian futures are here to stay.  I get the appeal of those stories, though I do wonder at why anyone would want to play out their own version of The Hunger Games, which at its heart is basically a horror story about having to murder one another for the amusement of cruel overlords.  But it is dramatic.  I’ll give it that.

It is why when I read fiction, I tend to pick up the older stuff.  I’d attribute it to nostalgia (as is often the case), except a lot of it was only things I discovered when I was already well into adulthood.  Tarzan remains my favorite literary character, and I read my first Tarzan story when I was 32.  At the time, it seemed both incredibly bold and violent.  Tarzan kills a lot of beasts and people on his adventures.  But in the end, he’s still a guy with a wife he loves, friends he cares about, and a unique sense of morality that makes him compelling.  Some might see that as a cop out, and they aren’t entirely wrong.  But they aren’t entirely right either.

I just wish we could see drama as more than just brutality, loss, and sacrifice.  The human story is one of ups and downs.  Triumphs can be worthy stories.  Some might call it escapism, but that’s such a childish simplification.  As if the only real things are pain and suffering, and everything else is a lie we tell children to make them feel better for as long as they can remain innocent.  Things aren’t black and white, and while I won’t deny the grimdark has a place in fantasy storytelling, it’d be nice if we could have a little more hope now and then.  It’d be even nicer if that wasn’t automatically dismissed as fluffy emptiness.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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3 Comments

  1. Stephen
    Posted March 21, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ll admit that I tend to enjoy the dark stories. At the same time, I prefer my fantasy or science-fiction to have a strong sense of humor. There are a lot of works that are full of the grimdark, as you say, but still manage to be funny at appropriate points, which not only humanizes the characters, but also gives a hook for getting into the story.

    When things are just dark and depressing all of the time, there’s simply no real foothold to gain as an audience. We can enjoy the technical aspects and appreciate the story and characters, but I, at least, feel separated from stories that are so dark as to be opaque. With a bit of light provided, the shadows seem much deeper, stronger, and accessible.

    Two good examples that I’d give, if anyone’s read them, would be The Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko or the Avery Cates series by Jeff Somers (also under the Orbit imprint).

  2. Mark
    Posted March 21, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    You mentioned that things aren’t black and white, which is also usually the reason people give for preferring “gritty” or “realistic” stories. However, I notice that instead of showing the full range of human behavior and emotion, grimdark usually just focuses on a shade of charcoal gray that is almost indistinguishable from total darkness.

    In contrast to sci-fi/fantasy , it seems like mystery/detective fiction is getting less dark. Detective stories from the 1940s to the 1970s were pretty dark and nihilistic, whereas a lot of popular mystery novels seem to be either co-written by cats or have teacups on them.

  3. Posted March 22, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it’s a bit disheartening when stories featuring women being sexually tortured are so influential on a whole genre that new writers get told to write like that. A hallmark of immaturity seems to be the inability to consider other interpretive views of reality and single-mindedly pursue your own. It’s how saying, “Rape and gore make my stories more realistic,” can seem intelligent when in fact all it does is make stories repellant, especially when the writer has no experience with either thing and can provide no insight about people who suffer or cause those things.

    I stopped reading GAME OF THRONES within 40 pages when a woman was being sexually tortured. I stopped reading another fantasy novel when–oh well, you know where this is going.

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