I Am Neither GrimDark Nor PollyAnna

While reading the ever-amusing Ace of Spades Book Thread http://ace.mu.nu/archives/352551.php, I followed a link to this article, where it seems that some have had their fill of Sci-Fi Dystopias. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathryn-cramer/speculative-fiction-book_b_5916266.html

This does not surprise me, as I suspect Dystopias grew popular in science fiction for the same reason that GrimDark rose to rule Fantasy. (A fact the author of the above article misses completely.) That is, that anti-heroes have grown from a once legitimate literary device to complement the hero/villain structure, to turn all of writing into a gray ammoral world where the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is who the primary point of view indicates we should root for. A fact Sarah A Hoyt commented on in her Human Wave manifesto (indicating this is no new concern):

5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, I’m not flinging my kindle.)

I am pleased to see those who hailed the arrival of these ‘ambivalent heroes’ now finally come to the ground we have held for most of a decade. I find it amusing that of all people to blame for no longer envisioning big futures, ASU’s president picked Neal Stephenson. Whose Anathem was probably his biggest and most optimistic future, set well after the more dystopic cyberpunks that made him famous. And even his retro-futures, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle provide optimistic glimpses of science, finance, and the progress of society. There are MUCH better targets to aim this charge at than Neal Stephenson. Also, at this point, I remind you of my posts on dystopic Sci-Fi’s mystic cousin, Grimdark fantasy here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/how-grim-is-too-much/, and here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/i-am-over-grimdark/. Blatant pessimism, moral ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, and no attempt to even FIGHT for a better world does not make for an entertaining story. Not fantasy, not sci-fi. And the prevalence of this nonsense is a large part of the reason for Mysteries being the big genre fiction for profit today. At least in those, there is closure, resolution, and a knowledge that justice has been done.

I don’t like them, by and large. As they are too formulaic, and the contrivances of the genre do nothing for me. However, their elevation at a time that Speculative Fiction is screaming ‘Diversity” and “realistic characters,” and hemorrhaging readership all the while, probably hints at a problem in the mindset. A problem that runs through the love of Dystopias, antiheroes, and an unwillingness to embrace a true heroic journey. You see, if you’re committed to moral relativity, there can’t be heroes. Everyone is just a different point of view. We can’t accept that some things are legitimately beyond the pale. A mystery gets around this by having a protagonist who is only judging the ‘facts.’ But what speculative fiction writers have to realize is that sympathetic aspects to a culture, or a villain, don’t make them heroic, as such. Just like flaws in the hero don’t make for anti-heroes, as such. A hero seeks to overcome their vices via their best qualities (and often they have the vices of their virtues). A villain makes a virtue of his vices. A hero admits there is darkness and accepts a measure of (gasp) hypocrisy in any moral creature is unavoidable. A villain spreads his arms like Don John and says, “At least I am plain dealing!”

Yeah, that doesn’t commend him much. This isn’t to say villains can’t be redeemed (over time), or that heroes won’t fall. This isn’t to say people can’t die trying to change the world, and the villains maybe even win. It means that we accept that morality exists outside of who wins or loses. And that the true hero may calculate the odds, but that doesn’t mean they refuse to do the right thing because of them. Or for comparison, let me leave with this:

A hero: The Iron Code of Druss the Legend: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

An Antihero: Jayne Cobb from Firefly: “Like my Daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t do the smart thing. Do the right thing.”

A Villain: “Kneel Before Zod!”

I Am Over Grimdark

It’s Official. I’ve picked up three straight “Grimdark” books in a row. Two of them highly acclaimed, near-5 star books on Amazon, and failed to finish ANY of them. I just can’t take the unrelentingly unsympathetic characters, the idea that somehow modern profanity in a Renaissance context makes for ‘deeper’ writing, and how no one is capable of doing the right thing for the right reason. EVER. Unless they are there to die like the rube they are.

Look, I get it. Grimdark started as a subversion of traditional fantasy. And the Heroic Journey NEEDED subverting. I’m not saying we need to go back to two-dimensional heroes that don’t face doubts or have flaws. I *like* flawed heroes. But there’s a distinction between flawed hero and slightly-off-black anti-hero. Sure, I have Baron Camuel in my Aurori series. And everyone loves the badass vampire who has no problem leaving a trail of blood in his path to accomplishing his ends. But the guy gets his fair share of thumpings too. Of course, I torture my heroes as well. So *everyone* gets it.

I believe in Earning Your Happy Ending. That’s a GOOD thing. But frankly, Grimdark has become the Dark Age Comics of Fantasy. An annoying cliche that is nothing more than glorying in the inverse of the heroic journey. It’s boring. And the practitioners have every bit as much an obligation to liven up the subversion as the traditionalists did to twist their own stories.

Even Steven Erikson, who frequently gets lumped into the Grimdark writers, saw this. The Parans and Fiddler represented tortured heroes, with real flaws. But they were legitimate heroes, and they represented–with Itkovian and Whiskeyjack–the moral center of the series. For all the glory of Rake, Karsa, Apsalar/Sorry, and yes, Quick Ben and Kalem, the world may have been Grimdark, but it was shot through with hope. It wasn’t gleefully crushing every moment of joy the reader could find.

I’m tired of the soul-sucking, darkness where the only difference between any of the characters is who the protagonist is and perhaps some hint of modern sensibilities that’s supposed to ‘tell’ us who the ‘good guy’ is, even when in the context of the story, they’re all bastards of the 1st rank.

Really, it’s over. Start subverting what you created with the abandon you took to hacheting traditional fantasy.

Chugging UpGrade

I’ve spent all week on one chapter of the Sword & Sandal. It’s admittedly a long chapter. But not that long (about 6000 words so far, and climbing). To be fair to myself, I’ve spent a lot of work editing. On that front, I should point everyone to this little side project: http://fav.me/d5ylwfa

The Crux is probably best described as my own response to The Dark Tower and Six Gun Tarot. It’s something I did more or less completely for fun, with knowledge that even Weird Westerns set on post-apocalyptic future worlds are still not really marketable. So I don’t have any problem sharing it there. But I love Westerns. And I hated what the second of the books above, in particular, did with the genre. I think there’s enough room to be “punkish” without going all PC. And of course, if you’ve followed me long enough, you know I despise Message Fic.

I wrote this last year. It grew out of a short story character concept that sprang into my head a while before that: http://fav.me/d48a92f which earned me a Daily Deviation on dA. I couldn’t come up with a good story for Phoebe right off, after that. But she wouldn’t leave my head. So I turned back to the Wastes, and mashed up magic, western, post-apocalyptic adventure, steampunk, and a dash of potboiler (though much less than usual), to make what is probably my most straight-out adventure story. It started out with its own magic system, but wound its way into my Auroriverse. I’m not sorry for that. There are plenty of messed-up worlds to write about in it. Even if the current project and my Space Opera are distinct. 😉

It’s the story of a gambler, a gunslinger, and a cannibal (yes, he’s a good guy) in the last bit of civilization for a thousand miles in any direction. And ‘civilization’ is a loose term, when you speak of a world forsaken even by its gods. When one gets out of sight of the city’s gaslamps, anything goes. Really, I had as much fun as anything I’ve written outside my Urban Fantasies.

I tossed aside Brett Weeks Night Angel the other day. I’m fairly certain that establishes me as having fallen out of love with true GrimDark. Especially since I devoured Ringo’s Princess of Wands in 3 days. Yeah, I know, there’s a message in it. But contrary to dedicated message-fic masquerading as speculative fiction these days, there’s a STORY first. And Ringo isn’t Anvilicious about the message.  Besides, some people do need to know that not every believing Christian is the stereotype of a Bible Thumper. I’ll concede faith often plays an important part (and usually positive) in my stories. I don’t think you can be honest to historically-based fantasy without making it so. But that doesn’t mean I either have to make every hero ‘jaded on religion’ and a modernist in disguise. Or a bigot either. Those two character types have become a veritable cliche in modern fantasy, and not even the reviewers call it out. So yes, when Ringo makes a character who isn’t one of either, it’s nice to see. Much like the Carpenters in The Dresden Files.

Maybe this is why I’ve gravitated to Urban Fantasy for my reading these days. Epic Fantasy has been overrun by dark, depressing places I don’t care to visit, with characters that have few, if any, redeeming features. Glen Cook was never as depressing as the people who’ve come after him. Look at his Instrumentalities of the Night series. Sure, there’s a lot of darkness involved. But Piper is far from an unsympathetic character, even as a mercenary. It’s ironic we have to descend to the grime of the cities to find characters we can believe in anymore.

Two Book Endorsements

Not Book reviews mind you. I don’t have the inclination to go through them both in detail and potentially spoil them for the reader.  But I’ll give them wholehearted thumbs up. (Or at least 99%.)

I recently finished reading Fated. The first book in the Alex Varus series by Benedict Jacka. Alex is a ‘probability mage.’ Don’t call him a ‘fortune teller.’ That gets him cranky, apparently. There’s nothing showy in his magic. But when you can see what’s going to happen from every contingent possibility, you don’t need to say Forzare! and make the world tremble.  (Plus he does a Dresden Shout-out, so I have to give it props for sheer audacity.) It has good humor, a great narrator as a primary character. Troubled, with having walked both the light and dark paths (further on the dark side than Harry ‘actually’ has, in fact). But committed to doing what’s right now, when no one else seems to be. Excellent world-building, a great magic system, a crackling narrator, and can there be a better city to write Urban Fantasy in than London? I really need to get the next two books in a hurry. Though Mrs Cole would point at the towers of Babel that constitute my current reading piles and tell me to stop. 😛

I no sooner finished that than turned straight into the 3rd book of Larry Correia’s Grimoire Chronicles: Warbound. If you’ve read the 1st 2 books, I don’t need to say anything more. If you haven’t. Well, do yourself a favor and get them. ALL. NOW. Alternate History meets Dieselpunk meets Superhero Noir (which is how the magic system of the series basically pans out, something X-Men-like, but more believable). Also, this is Larry Correia, so you know there will be guns. LOTS of guns. Many, many firearms of all types. Right uses Might. And Freaking How. There’s wit. There’s romance (gasp!). And there are epic battles by the bucketload. Correia is a master of pacing. And it shows. The editor could’ve done him a few favors in the grammar department. But none of them are disastrous. Some people classify this series as Urban Fantasy. I push back on that by saying that the action is decidedly NOT given to any one city, and the character of any ONE city does not define any character in the story. So it’s not UF. That doesn’t make it less awesome.

Now, as Amazon offloads another truckload at my door, the next book up is from a former conversant on the OLD Bioware Forums boards, back in the days of Neverwinter Nights. The Grim Company, by Luke Skull. I’m looking forward to this read. And I’ll hope he returns the favor when The Iron Conqueror comes calling.

I finished three chapters of the Sword & Sandals this week. And I have most of a fourth in my notes. So it’s time to get cracking on that. 😉

 

 

 

 

How Grim is Too Much?

I’ve followed Luke Scull since the early says of NWN, and chatted with him on the old Bioware Forums and NWN Vault more than once. He was a remarkable module creator, and I enjoyed the interactive stories he wrote. So I’m interested a great deal in his coming The Grim Company. Already in your hands quite possibly if you’re on the right hand side of the Atlantic.

But I was a bit troubled by his comment to this review, which does not put off my interest, but does inspire me to rebut http://www.lukescull.com/2013/08/publishers-weekly-review.html. Having tried to read Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold I can honestly say the answer to the question, “Does it matter if your characters are not truly sympathetic?” is, to myself and many readers Yes. I don’t mind grim worlds. Reality is a pretty grim place when viewed honestly, and it’s not likely to be different for most people in most settings. The United Federation of Planets sounds wonderful, but its functionality doesn’t withstand scrutiny. At the end of the day, a functioning world is going to involve lots of people doing very disgusting things to other people. And the hero who doesn’t understand this is in trope terms, Too Dumb to Live.

That said, being forced to live in such a world doesn’t mean having to enjoy it. Or at least not conceding that when one does enjoy it, it’s a perverse amusement. The characters in Best Served Cold, to my sentiments, all enjoyed being jackwagons far too much. “Interesting” will only carry you so far, once you figure out that you really don’t care if the character lives or dies, there’s not a lot of reason to keep reading. It’s a similar problem to the one I had with The Name of the Wind. I can’t bring myself to care if Kvothe lives or dies. He’s as snobbish as the nobles he feuds with. And his one flaw is he’s abrasive. Because anything he tries to do, he excels at. Now I can acknowledge both Abercrombie and Rothfuss are insanely talented writers. But skilled authors have turned out books that failed to capture the attention before. That’s not always the fault of buyers being too dumb to see their brilliance. Sometimes it’s the fault of authors being too clever for their own good. So yes, please give us a character to care about.

I read another interesting piece here. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. There’s a lot to be said about this article. Much I agree with. One-dimensional ‘strong’ female leads are just as dull as one-dimensional ‘damsel-in-distress’ leads. And I absolutely agree about the pass female characters are given when it comes to using lethal threats as a way to prove they’re just as tough as guys. And yes, the examples she gives in that article are two of the more overtly shocking ones. Now I do have Aishe unleash fire on Kilian once in my Aurori Saga, but she does so knowing Kilian can stop it, and holding back her strike enough to make sure it doesn’t hurt him. Honestly, I will at this point aim my finger at feminism and say, “You wanted non-feminine women leads. You got them. They’re still dull.” Better answer, write real women as leads, and don’t apologize for letting them being overpowered like any other hero every once and a while. We all get overwhelmed by the world sometimes.

But she’s dead on about Sherlock Holmes being all the things she lists, and then a woman getting to be ‘tough.’ Meh. I thought Sydney Bristow in Alias was probably the best female action lead I’ve seen drawn. Definitely capable of being tough, but still intelligent, resourceful, capable of being vulnerable emotionally, truly damaged without being broken. And determined. Interesting she wasn’t mentioned in that article.  In short, Sydney was a real person who happened to be a woman, and more interesting for being one.

Where I don’t agree with the article is this insistence on a quota system. Along with changing token characters into female ones just for the sake of being there. I don’t see how token switching character genders makes for better ‘representation.’ A token is a token. And it’s still pandering. Better to say, concentrate on making enough fascinating female characters that we don’t think about how many background females there are. Make an honest attempt to portray a real world, and I think the readers–or at least those not hung up on representation questions, which is there OWN hangup–will fill in the world appropriately.