This series of articles will explore presentations of evil in genre fiction.
Recently, I was discussing dystopian fiction and the “evil empire” archetype, and began to wonder about what could really be considered evil yet also avoid being simply parodic. Outward acts of brutality are in themselves unsatisfying signifiers of evil; they can even be considered unconvincing. A society based on mass executions and physical punishments and easily-understood savagery supposes that all involved in it are mindless savages who take pleasure in this – and is thus reductive as a setting.
De trop brutality is a hallmark of the “grimdark” subgenre of science-fiction and fantasy, so named because it is supposed to evoke a hopeless and pessimistic vision (it became popular as a result of the tagline for the Warhammer 40,000 wargame; “in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war”). Yet ultimately, the suspension of disbelief required to accept this parodic violence makes it impossible to write a good story within it. A case has been raised for George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books as being among the strongest examples of “grimdark” fantasy in their emphasis on the mortality of central characters and unflinching depictions of rape, murder and disease. However, even those fall down in places; the tragedy at times is contrived and the attempts to make suitably cynical and unpleasant characters to populate this extreme version of medieval Europe sometimes end up too stupid and nasty to be at all relatable. When the focus is unremittingly on the breakdown of idealism and innocence in the face of cruel reality, eventually it becomes impossible to make any strong attachment to characters.
Yet it is this sense of crushing inevitability, of the inescapability of true tragedy, which can also create truly memorable and nightmarish scenarios; however, this does not come through simple ultraviolence and slaughter. Not only does a superflux of killing eventually prevent the reader from forming attachments to characters, and make it impossible to care in any way about the future of the setting, it rapidly falls apart in logistical terms. For one, placing such a low value on life, while not without historical precedent, is very difficult to make convincing; when “evil” forces are shown to be grotesquely inhumane, there is often no consideration of how such a risky dominion can be maintained without consistent revolution or dissent.While fantasy is ultimately about suspension of disbelief, there is a limit to this which much “dark” fiction crosses in its attempts to outdo rivals; even when the intent is not to be parodic, the results are frequently ridiculous. This can work, as the hyper-stylised 2000AD science-fiction stories like Judge Dredd and ABC Warriors show (both are pleasingly tongue-in-cheek settings which use their ridiculous violence and extreme nature to parody other “dark” fiction) but the intent there is to be humorous and indeed immature, not to assume violence and hopelessness is a sign of maturity.
The threat of doom and violence, rather than frequent depictions of it, is what is required to make something truly “grimdark” – often, using atrocities as a method of making something shocking makes the end result seem very immature and risks trivialising the serious issues being explored. A common defence of “grimdark” medieval fantasy is that the middle ages were an unpleasant period of history filled with violence, abuse of power and summary executions – yet this view is hugely reductive since it almost assumes that its inhabitants were accepting of and complicit in these acts in toto. There is a difference between a world where awful things happen and one where they are accepted and Martin’s books for the most part get this right – the most relatable characters are those who have established for themselves boundaries and try to change society to whatever extent they can. The balance is a fine one when creating a “dark” setting – if every character unquestioningly accepts the amorality of the world they inhabit – or even embraces it – then there is little scope for conflict or moral ambiguity.
Absolute amorality is not the same as characters with skewed or selfish moralities; Tyrion Lannister, in Martin’s series, is interesting for precisely this reason. He is established as being ambitious, prepared to kill and willing to perform acts many would consider “evil”, but this is justified by his status as the black sheep of his family – he has grown up ostracised and consistently victimised, but also inherited the ambition and determination of his family (presented for much of the series as the villains in that they are motivated in their amoral deeds by avarice and personal advancement rather than any nobler goal). Tyrion’s aim is self-preservation and personal advancement, but the combination of his outsider status and the fact his aims appear more aligned with what the reader considers desirable than those of the characters he is surrounded by make this more palatable than, say, Cersei’s (a relative of Tyrion’s who seeks purely personal power).
So to conclude this first article in the series, unremitting grimness in the basest form is not to be ruled out completely in genre fiction; however, it does not inherently make something mature or complex but instead is best employed as a backdrop to characters trying to fight it and make some good of it. Presenting protagonists as amoral or completely accepting of the worst excesses of society (or even willing participants in it) can make it hard for a reader to engage with them, while on the other hand the good (or simply better than others) figure prepared to cross some lines but not others (as Tyrion Lannister is) provides a natural focus for conflict and maturation as a character; be this as simple as their predefined boundaries being challenged, or their descent into total evil or ascent into a more noble persona, the best characters within a “grimdark” world are not those who are complicit in it, but those who fight in some way against it.