Fantasy: Too Gritty?

Lots of fiction, especially fantasy fiction, seems to be quickly succumbing to all that is grimy, gritty, and grim. Game of Thrones, Prince of Thorns, The Night Angel Trilogy, The Blade Itself, The Song of the Beast, and many other titles besides take their readers into the darkest, roughest, sharpest, most cynical corners of the genre.

As far as I’m concerned, a little darkness and despair goes a long way in fiction in the same way a little spice adds to the flavor of a given food. But too much ruins the dish, and pretty soon you’re only eating that buffalo wing because one of your buddies promised you $20. (I might actually read The Blade Itself for $100; everything I’ve read about Joe Abercrombie indicates I wouldn’t touch his books otherwise)

Maybe it’s because I’m a big softy, and am immature or naive or expect too much fun in fiction. I don’t know. What I do know is that more books are coming out where the characters’ loved ones get mutilated, raped, and murdered. Literally no one cares about showing them kindness or understanding. It’s pretty much casual, sneering brutality and suffering all the time. And that’s just in the first chapter.

At what point did this start sounding realistic or reasonable? It’s a classic overcorrection against much of the fantasy of yesteryear. Adventures were treated like paintball matches in these books, and you never got the sense your heroes were in any danger. And of course lots of people got tired of the Disney movies that defanged the folktales of the Brothers Grimm.

Reasons abound for why that grit is there. It’s for the sake of honesty and realism, making people care about characters, flavoring the book, and many other reasons besides. Nevertheless, this isn’t really a trend I want to give in to. If possible, I’d rather show more restraint with darkness and make it count for the moments when it’s really needed. Little black needles jammed deep into the story’s nerves.

I got into fiction for adventure and discovery, not to watch the genuinely good guys get betrayed and beheaded, while everyone else gets into petty fights, then they drunkenly amble off to the local whorehouse. That’s all good and fine for a few chapters, but a book becomes manipulative and dishonest when that tone takes up almost every page in the book.

Understand, this grit isn’t the same thing as realism, despite many writers’ claims to the contrary. A cut getting infected if someone doesn’t tend to it? That’s realistic. Getting knocked unconscious causing lasting, even permanent damage (as opposed to all the characters who get knocked out and are perfectly fine afterwards)? That’s realistic, too.

No one at all showing your protagonist any kind of pity or compassion? That’s not so realistic. Everyone in their family being either depraved or a victim of moral degeneracy? Unlikely, albeit not impossible. Every event in someone’s life being meaningless, spent in squalor and sewage, and punctuated by failure, rape, and torture? Definitely not realistic.

Edit: It’s also not necessarily a sign that the genre as a whole is maturing. Grit isn’t the same thing as maturity, even if a story can use some as one ingredient among others (three-dimensional characters, consequences to their actions, etc.) to become more mature. Whatever the case, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of maturity in the “arms race” where the newest big name in fantasy tries to display more rapes, more severed limbs, more sociopathic protagonists, and more excrement than the last big name. One day this movement is going to run out of steam. It truly cannot go on forever, and fantasy will grow out of it.

It is so much easier to contemplate the terrors of Hell than the beauties of Heaven. Anyone can tell a story that basically says “Life sucks, and then you die.” It takes patience and care to see the light that shines through anyway. Sometimes you have to look hard to see something beautiful, like a character doing a noble act for the right reasons (and not losing his head afterwards), but that doesn’t imply the absence of good. I admire those stories that combine grit and smoothness, acting appropriately when one is needed more than the other. Show some kind of balance in your work, and you’ll make the light shine brighter even as the darkness is deepened. Plus, it will be a more convincing story.

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The Difference Between Geeks and Nerds

Artist Bob Eggleton has recently updated his Facebook status with an intriguing distinction between “Geeks” and “Nerds.” Yes, I know each term has a lot of possible meanings (often on an individual basis), and you can’t actually hammer them down to a specific definition. But let’s just accept these words for the moment as markers, convenient ways to distinguish between two modes of thinking.

Essentially, it’s a question of attitude. If people can tell you are obsessed with something because you love it, it endlessly fascinates you, and you don’t apologize for your passion, then that makes you a “Geek.” However, if your dedication to that subject is marked by disappointment, nitpicking at flaws, and approaching your interests with a cynical and dour attitude, then you are a “Nerd.”

I don’t mean to insult anyone who likes to think of themselves as a nerd (in which case you have a different meaning for that word anyway), nor am I saying we can never criticize or have negative feelings about our passions. Heck, for longer than I care to admit, I realize I have been a complete “Nerd” about my own writing, about movies I love, and any of a hundred other passions in my life. But it does help to be reminded that if something is a passion for you, it’s best shared with others in a positive light. Rather than spending all of your time pointing out mistakes or showing how not to do something, entice others into seeing things from your perspective.

Let’s pick a couple of examples in, say, the field of astronomy. I’ve always seen Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame as a Nerd. As the title of his blog implies, he makes a name for himself by going after the shall we say “astronomical” mistakes people make when it comes to the heavens, whether it’s a conspiracy theorist pushing the Apollo Moon Hoax idea, or picking apart the scientific inaccuracies in science fiction movies. Again, it’s fine to pick something apart, but when most of your effort goes to showing how other people make mistakes in your field, my enthusiasm considerably dampens. This doesn’t make Plait a bad person. He’s just not the kind of astronomer I’d be eager to share a taxi with. Plait is certainly knowledgeable about astronomy, and I’m sure he loves studying it and talking about it, but that pleasure is rarely communicated to his audience.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, would definitely qualify as a Geek in this respect. When you listen to him in interviews, you can hear him brimming with delight and optimism, and you know he was born to be an astronomer. A few years back, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, I had the tremendous honor of meeting him and having a prolonged conversation with him. Not only does he have an extraordinary depth of knowledge about the universe, but his attitude makes you share that excitement. Tyson is accessible and friendly, and when he does get negative, as he does when NASA’s budget got cut for the umpteenth time, there is fire in his voice rather than a condescending sneer.

There are other examples of this, of course. In my cherished field of dinosaur paleontology, world-renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker is quite possibly the biggest Geek there is. He shares Tyson’s enthusiasm and constant sense of wonder at what he studies. The fact that he’s an Ecumenical Christian preacher likely lends some fervor to his academic pursuits, as well. Listening to him, you know that he thinks dinosaurs are awesome, and wants to share that attitude with everyone. By contrast, Brian Switek from Smithsonian Blogs can hardly write an article without taking potshots at writers, movies, TV shows, or the general public for all the mistakes they keep making about dinosaurs. Some of which aren’t even mistakes. Hearing it from him, either they’re deliberately irritating him by not putting enough feathers on Velociraptor, or they’re just stupid for thinking soft tissue was found in a T. rex femur.

[Note: Actually, we did find original remains from the animal — blood vessels and medullary tissue and the like — but Switek still seems to have a hard time thinking of it as anything but a “bacterial biofilm” that grew on the bone’s interior. Switek leaves little room in his thoughts for the extraordinary or the unexpected, never mind the impossible.]

In this cynical age where few things are good enough and we are constantly setting ourselves up to be torn down, I submit to you that the world needs fewer “Nerds,” and a lot more genuine “Geeks.” If you feel like you can’t help being a “Nerd,” please remember that most of us are at least trying to enjoy ourselves. And remember that even if facts can’t be changed, your attitude can be. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s high time I go from glowering to grinning and hop back on the Geek train.