In the Grim Darkness of Fantasy's Future There is Only Grittiness

by Arthur B

Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains is a good book which would be a lot better were it not for the grittiness arms race in fantasy.
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Normally, with fantasy trilogies, I’d do a Reading Canary article and read several of the books to get an overview of the thing as a whole and leave a nice clear marker where the series becomes no longer worth following, but Richard Morgan’s A Land Hit For Heroes series leaves me with a conundrum. It’s nothing to do with the fact that only the first book, The Steel Remains, has been published to date; if I loved it, I’d just write a review and sit on it until the rest of the series came out and I’d had a chance to read it, and if I hated it I’d declare it shit and forget about it. The thing is that whilst I did find a lot to like about it, I honestly don’t know whether I’d recommend it or not. I don’t know whether I enjoyed the book, I don’t know whether I want to keep reading the series - I just don’t know. In principle, I would absolutely love it. But Richard Morgan’s attitude and style are so incredibly abrasive I have serious trouble getting past it.

The novel is set in a fairly simplistic fantasy world whether there are three major cultures - the Majak steppe-nomads in the far north, a harsh monotheistic Empire in the south, and a Renaissance Europe-themed confederation of merchantile cities squeezed between the two more or less. The Trelayne League and the Yhelteth Empire - plus a horde of Majak mercenaries working for both of them - are arch-rivals, but joined forces some years ago to fight an incursion of serpent people which threatened to annihilate humanity altogether (especially since the lizardfolk had dragons in tow); each of the three protagonists of the novel are heroes of that war. Egar, one of the few people to have killed a dragon in the war, went home to the steppe after retiring from mercenary work, and at the start of the novel is the chief of his clan. Archeth is notable as being the last remaining Kiriath in the world, the Kiriath having been dark-skinned possibly-not-human people who commanded extremely advanced technology which they could use to travel between dimensions (although with great difficulty); since the war she has worked as an advisor to the Yhelteth Emperor, having been left behind when the rest of the Kiriath left this dimension at the end of the war.

The third protagonist - and the one which the novel gives far and away the most attention to - is Ringil, scion of a noble house of Trelayne. Ringil helped Egar beat the dragon, and commanded a legendary action at Gallows Gap - however, because he is gay and doesn’t really try to hide it, there’s no place for him in Trelayne or Yhelteth. The religions of both places disapprove of homosexuality on a moral basis, and whilst Trelayne society is willing to turn a blind eye to nobles who break the rules discreetly (even as it gruesomely executes commoners found guilty of immoral acts), they certainly aren’t going to celebrate Ringil’s achievements, or give him a high military post, or even publish the primer on military tactics he wrote after Gallows Gap. As a consequence we find him living in peace in an obscure village, somewhere where people mind their own business and they’re content to keep their noses out of his.

When we’re introduced to Ringil he’s happy enough living off his reputation and occasionally slaying gruesome monsters on behalf of the villagers, but that’s all shattered when his mother comes to visit. Apparently, a cousin of Ringil’s has been sold into slavery - one of many in Trelayne who have been taken as slaves for the payment of debts, following the legalisation of slavery after the war - and only Ringil is dangerous enough (and reckless enough) to go after it. Soon enough Ringil’s sleuthing, Archeth’s investigation of an invading ghost army that laid waist to a Yhelteth port, and Egar’s battle to survive a fratricidal conspiracy against him lead them all to a forgotten swamp on the frontier of Yhelteth territory, and a confrontation with the denda - a people as far advanced beyond the Kiriath as the Kiriath are beyond the common run of humanity, and can stroll between parallel worlds with ease.

The Steel Remains is Richard Morgan’s first fantasy novel, whilst his usual stamping ground is cyberpunk-flavoured hard SF, and you can tell that from a few of the plot and setting details - the parallel universe stuff is a big one, as is the "armour" worn by some of the denda (which sounds for all the world like the old-school Stig’s gear), and the Helmsmen that operate the Kiriath world-ships might well be artificial. But it goes a bit further in that in the sort of details Morgan chooses to invent when he attends to worldbuilding - the world of The Steel Remains has a dust ring, like Saturn’s (which some of the parallel universe stuff suggests is the remains of an exploded moon), and Morgan goes so far as to think through how that would appear from the surface, and makes some of the Majak religious beliefs focus on it. It is heavily implied that the denda are possessed of incredibly advanced technology (of the "indistinguishable from magic" sort that Arthur C. Clarke liked), and it’s even possible that the Kiriath and denda are, despite their differences from the Trelayne and Yhelteth and Majak peoples, simply human beings who had reached a particularly high level of technological achievement. If you’re the sort of person who seriously dislikes getting SF in your fantasy, you’d probably find this off-putting; on the other hand, if you miss the days when fantasy and SF authors weren’t afraid to cross the streams then you’ll most likely welcome it.

Another thing Morgan carries over from his SF writing is his worldview, which was summarised by Morgan in an interview with Saxon Bullock:
[...] society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an elite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses.
This is an incredibly cynical stance, fusing a blithe dismissal of every political system that has ever existed with a high-handed contempt for the "little people", combined with an absolute pessimism that things can ever improve. I can’t get on board with that, personally. Morgan states in the Saxon Bullock interview that he tries to write in such a way that the reader can make their own mind up about what happens and they don’t have to agree with him, which is laudable; I don’t know whether he succeeded with the Takeshi Kovacs books, but he does not succeed here.

In particular, it is transparently obvious from the book that Morgan considers religion to be an absolute social evil, with pretty much no redeeming features. The faith of the Yhelteth Empire (which regularly gets good and genocidal against non-converts) is supposed to be a stand-in for more or less all monotheism, but it’s pretty clearly Islamic flavoured, and comes complete with a college of extremist clerics who, if the Emperor doesn’t play his cards right, might end up leading a theocratic revolution one day and instituting a regime even more nightmarishly repressive than the current one. The religion of Trelayne is less clearly described and defined, but its disapproval of homosexuality and other things it considers immoral shown to be a powerful weapon in the hands of the secret police. The Majak religion is mainly in the hands of shamen, and the one shaman who appears in the book is a manipulator who uses religious pronouncements to manipulate Egar’s brothers into trying to kill them.

Interestingly, the Kiriath and the denda, the two most technologically advanced cultures in the book (and Morgan makes it clear that he considers the Kiriath to be highly socially advanced as well), don’t appear to have that much in the way of a religion at all. It is entirely possible, in fact, that all the world’s faiths are mere superstitions; some of the angelic figures in Yhelteth scripture may be denda, and the Majak’s ideas stem mainly from misidentification of the planet’s ring as a celestial sky road that the dead ride down. To be fair to Morgan, Egar does seem to get some consolation and comfort out of some of his religious practices, as when he visits the grave of his father or steels himself against the threat of death, but that’s a matter of him and his private beliefs; whenever organised religion shows up in the form of a priest or an institution, it’s almost invariably bad. The one exception is the schoolteacher-priest in the village Ringil starts off the novel in, and the only reason he’s not a manifestation of cruelty and bigotry and ignorance is that he outright ignores the church’s teachings - in other words, organised religion is only OK when you ignore it.

Now, I’m an atheist myself, but this is a bit much. Religion inspires a whole lot of shittiness, and is a cover for a whole lot more shittiness besides, but I’m not so hung up about it that I can’t recognise where it has in fact inspired people to do wonderful things. Morgan seems to be decidedly hung up about it. The fact is that you can pick and choose incidents from the history of religion to make it out to be this monstrous, destructive, harmful force, but you can do that with any big idea that’s been with us for even a few centuries, let alone millennia, just as you can cherry-pick incidents to make it seem like religion is a wonderful and glorious thing. The fact is that religion is complicated; the same thing that prompts aged cardinals in golden palaces to cover up child abuse inspires hard-working hermits to create homes and hospices for the world’s most needy. To pull out a really cheap shot (well, a cheaper shot than the child abuse thing), religion - often the same religion - inspired people to help the persecuted escape the Holocaust just as it justified that very same persecution in the eyes of others. I believe that all the world’s religions are basically not true in terms of what they say about theology and metaphyiscs (and I don’t think there’s any truth in theology or metaphysics to find in the first place), but I haven’t dismissed all religious people as credulous idiots, vile manipulators and moralistic censors since I was 14. Richard Morgan is 45 this year, but when he starts writing about religion he ends up coming across like a teenager who’s just discovered Richard Dawkins.

Morgan’s depiction of Ringil as a homosexual character almost succeeds, but only almost. Morgan takes care to make sure that all the protagonists’ sexual drives are on display - Egar’s in the middle of a series of unsatisfying flings with significantly younger women wowed by his dragon-slaying stories when we catch up with him, and Archeth keeps catching herself thinking about the soft and compliant slave girl that the Yhelteth Emperor sent her as a present and then feeling really guilty about even considering using her for the purposes she is considering - and by doing so ensures that even though Ringil is sexually active, he is not defined by his homosexuality and he isn’t depicted as being any more promiscuous as anyone else. Ringil is, to an extent, defined by his society’s homophobia, but that’s entirely fair; homophobia is so pervasive in Ringil’s society (as it is in ours) that he can’t help but be confronted with it almost constantly, and it would be a gross failure of characterisation not to consider how Ringil reacts to it.

Unfortunately, the book’s take on homophobia is complicated by the fact that Morgan has chosen to join the grittiness arms race which is plaguing fantasy at the moment. George RR Martin started it when he dropped copies of A Game of Thrones on Amazon and Waterstones, but in the absence of any Grittiness Non-Proliferation Treaty all the fantasy authors are doing it - Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Steve Erikson, even Bioware have joined the family of gritty-capable fantasy producers. It’s far too easy for any tinpot third-rate fantasy author to create a fantasy novel infused with enriched grittiness (achieved by throwing lots of rape and blood and shit into an otherwise standard fantasy novel), and the United Nations is completely powerless to act. (The worst grittiness of all is Neutron Grittiness, which wounds particular characters or groups in a novel with grit but leaves others standing, as seen in JV Jones’ work.)

In this case, Morgan seems determined to take the grittiness as far as it can go, to the point where it ends up turning into self-parody. The religion thing is one of those aspects, as is the whole "society is shit and will always be shit and also people are shit, fuck people" angle. The homophobia gets caught up in it. On one end of the spectrum are touching and well-observed scenes between Ringil and his family, in which the awkwardness between him and his parents says everything. At the other end of the day is a bit where Ringil more or less takes a day off sleuthing - remember, he’s supposed to be chasing his kidnapped cousin - in order to mope about the place where his first boyfriend was horribly executed and his father made him watch the whole thing. In between there’s a plethora of horrendous incidents; I think the straw which broke the camel’s back is the bit where Ringil remembers being gang-raped at a boys’ private school, where all the kids take turns gang-raping each other as part of being hazed, which is so over-the-top (and so keen on playing into all the silliest stereotypes about private school hazing) that I just stopped taking it seriously.

Ultimately, my problem is that Morgan just plain fails to set the homophobia apart from, say, the grotesque corruption of the nations of his fantasy world or the machinations of evil priests or the butchery of random innocents - in other words, because so much of the rest of the book is obsessed with establishing a fashionable air of grittiness, it becomes impossible to see the prejudice Ringil and others suffer as anything other than part of this overwhelming tidal wave of dark, man, dark that floods three-quarters of the book. It is good and right that Morgan thought about and depicted homophobia and Ringil's reaction to it, and considered how pervasive homophobia is in society, but there were points where I felt he was using it as part of this ridiculous pissing contest that the mass market fantasy authors are all participating in at the moment, and the subject’s just too important to be exploited for cheap grittiness points.

Also, to be fair, there are the odd parts where Morgan’s depiction of homosexuality itself just plain falls down. When Ringil encounters (or rather, is captured by) one of the denda he ends up fucking him, several times, as they go on a happy stroll between worlds. This is silly, but not sillier than a hero/heroine being seduced by a villainess/villain, and the fact that the denda in question is interested in sex at all goes a long way towards humanising the denda as a whole (after all, if they enjoy fucking they can’t be super-out-there aliens with motives utterly divorced from our own, can they?). But there’s a bit later on where Ringil is imparting the information he gleaned from the denda, and he seems to suggest that obtaining important information via pillow talk is something which usually only women do. And there’s a part where Egar declares to some homophobic soldiers that he supports Ringil’s proposed course of action by saying "I’m with the faggot" - the soldiers had used the f-word first, but still, the idea that Ringil as a homosexual is comfortable with his straight pals calling him a faggot is troubling to me. I mean, imagine a story about racism where the white ally of the ethnic minority protagonist said "I'm with the [insert racial slur here]"; it just wouldn't come across right. (I don't even remember Gene Wilder using the n-word in Blazing Saddles, though I could be wrong.)

The grittiness extends beyond the homosexuality of course, though it regularly takes on a sexual character. When we are introduced to the Yhelteth Emperor, he is discussing matters of state with Archeth whilst happily fingering his latest harem slave, and we are politely informed that he occasionally severely hurts slaves in front of his advisers as a way to show his disapproval. The sinister priest who turns Egar’s brothers against him is a sexual sadist who delights in brutalising prostitutes. And so on. Plus there’s the standard-issue brutality and genocide on the part of the state that a gritty fantasy novel almost demands, religious bigotry, and so on.

To get counterfactual for a moment, the tragedy is that The Steel Remains would be brilliant if Morgan weren’t trying too hard to be dark, man, dark. The depiction of homophobia would have been much less likely to lurch into parody territory, the Yhelteth Emperor would have had a shot at being believably corrupt rather than stupidly, cartoonishly corrupt, and so on. Morgan writes a fantastic fight scene, the plot is gripping, and he does at least have his heart in the right place when it comes to cast diversity. But there’s my problem: there’s too much about the book which is just a little bit stupid for me to recommend it with a straight face, but there’s too much good about it to dismiss it entirely.

Morgan lists his influences as Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum stories, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series, and some of Poul Anderson’s fantasy work. Whilst, like Anderson, Morgan is an author crossing the border between SF and fantasy, and whilst he does remind me a bit of Wagner with the wading in blood and sex, The Steel Remains to me is most like one of Michael Moorcock’s mis-steps - a story of dubious value produced by an author of obvious talent. To use Moorcock as an example, Morgan shoots for the core Elric novellas (the excellent, indispensable sword and sorcery series) but hits the cruddier Hawkmoon novels (a disappointingly less competent retread of much the same territory). It’s honestly quite rare for me to be this conflicted about a book - you know that if you listened to our Text Factor podcasts, where I generally didn't "Meh" a book if I could help it - which is the big thing making me hesitate on getting the next book, The Cold Commands. Do I want more of this? I honestly don’t know. To use the Text Factor scoring system, this book is about as “Meh” as it gets for me; if we had an Axis of Meh, it’d be on it.
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Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 20:47 on 2010-10-14
Just an excellent review, Arthur!

For myself, I find something slightly cowardly about the attitude of writers like Morgan. I mean, it feels like while they go one about the many hypocrisies and ills of the world, all that their work achieves is merely a sort of everyday sourness, a humdrum discontent with the world. It's so much tinder for so little bang. If you're going to be that angry about so much, you might as well go the full hog and go out in a full take-no-prisoners blaze of pure misanthropy. Say what you will about Michel Houellebecq, but he at least has the courage of his convictions. He depicted the entire modern world in The Elementary Particles as inherently rotten, and celebrates its extinction and replacement with a new one that doesn't share its flaws. I suppose what I'm saying is, if you wanna hate, go big.
Arthur B at 22:12 on 2010-10-14
Say what you will about Michel Houellebecq, but he at least has the courage of his convictions. He depicted the entire modern world in The Elementary Particles as inherently rotten, and celebrates its extinction and replacement with a new one that doesn't share its flaws. I suppose what I'm saying is, if you wanna hate, go big.

Actually I'd rather people just grow the fuck up and actually think about ways people can live in the world, rather than angrily declaring that this game called life is mean and unfair and they don't wanna play.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 23:27 on 2010-10-15
Actually I'd rather people just grow the fuck up and actually think about ways people can live in the world, rather than angrily declaring that this game called life is mean and unfair and they don't wanna play.

But...but...that's three-tenths of the rationale behind the desire to create art!

'Course, you always have to find a way to push yourself out of angst and into transcendence for anyone to give a schmick about what you want to say. Some people do it better than others.
Arthur B at 02:47 on 2010-10-16
But...but...that's three-tenths of the rationale behind the desire to create art!

I am doing the thing where I look at you over the top of my glasses, through the Internet. That is what I do when I read that statement.
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2011-01-19
You know, I think this discussion of the "grimdark arms race" helps delineate the difference between Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series and the TV adaptation True Blood. I think Harris paces herself very well, making her stories just as gritty as the style calls for without ever spilling over into “whee! Look at me being all 'dark, man, dark,' over here!”

Whereas after watching the third series of True Blood I felt like I'd just passed through a Force 4 gritstorm.

I suspect I'm a bit more sympathetic to Morgan's take on human societies than you are (even if he probably does over-generalize a bit), but I likewise take exception to his patronizing attitude toward the “little people” and his pessimism that things can never change.

I also completely concur with your observations of organized religion.
Michal at 03:33 on 2011-06-20
I got myself in a bit of trouble a while back on my blog when I said that Morgan and Abercrombie and all the other grittiness arms race authors were being just as shallow as the fluffy young-farmboy-on-a-quest Terry Brookses and Robert Jordans of yesteryear. Before, the "grand mythic themes" (read: poor copies of Tolkien) were supposed to add the depth to fantasy, now it's the "unrelenting realism" (read: ridiculous amounts of swearing, rape and gore); both approaches speak to a very superficial way of trying to make your work "serious business", as if simply including some trappings are going to make it deep all by themselves.
Serious Fantasy Novel: "Oh look! There's some little girl getting raped by a bunch of marauding bandits! Oh, and there's the farmer's boy getting viciously whipped by his father...ouch, those scars look like they're really gonna last...anyhow, moving on, here we have lots of people dying some really horrible deaths...blood, guts, splattered brains, broken bones, severed heads...and here we have some neo-fascist government executing people left and right...and some dude dying a really poetic death...oh, and did I mention the whole world is ending in 24 hours? Yep, that's how serious and dark I am. Isn't it magnificent?"

Okay, so that's a major generalisation, but I agree with Michal above; it is really tiring to see some authors define "realism" through the inclusion and fetishization of rape, murder, genocide, torture, oppression and so on, whilst having their characters adapt the "oh woe is me" attitude, along with some constant internal dialogue in which they pontificate on the misery of their "utterly insignificant" lives.
Arthur B at 07:35 on 2011-06-20
I got myself in a bit of trouble a while back on my blog when I said that Morgan and Abercrombie and all the other grittiness arms race authors were being just as shallow as the fluffy young-farmboy-on-a-quest Terry Brookses and Robert Jordans of yesteryear.

You got a link to that blog post? This sounds worth a read.
Michal at 08:15 on 2011-06-20
You got a link to that blog post? This sounds worth a read.

Ask and you shall receive.

I also wrote a follow-up after the whole thing exploded. Oh the wonderful world of blogging.

Arthur B at 10:16 on 2011-06-20
Them's some great articles. Though I mildly despair at the debate being derailed by moralistic sorts like Leo Grin being all "oooh nooo this modern material is all mean and nihilistic" when FFS, Howard was as big a nihilist as you could care to find.
valse de la lune at 10:58 on 2011-06-20
You know, I think this discussion of the "grimdark arms race" helps delineate the difference between Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series and the TV adaptation True Blood. I think Harris paces herself very well, making her stories just as gritty as the style calls for without ever spilling over into “whee! Look at me being all 'dark, man, dark,' over here!”


Don't know about that. All the misogyny and racism are pretty DARK MAN DARK for me, but in a completely unintentional way with even less self-awareness than the average Abercrombie/Morgan-alike.
Wardog at 12:26 on 2011-06-20
I secretly like Abercrombie... I mean his women aren't great but he does his grimdark with a certain amount of style. But then I'm not trying to claim it's particularly mature either.
Arthur B at 13:21 on 2011-06-20
I really couldn't get into Before They Are Hanged because Abercrombie had seemed to ditch his characterisation hat and just threw a series of buffoonish cartoons at me, but in terms of the grimdark stakes I think he's far, far better than Morgan.

Martin and Abercrombie's stuff both clearly have some substance to them, even if I don't always get along with how they present it, whereas the more I look back on it the more I feel that The Steel Remains relied heavily on grimdark as a substitute for depth.
valse de la lune at 13:27 on 2011-06-20
But who do you think writes worse sex scenes between Martin and Abercrombie? "Ahhh... uhm... argh" versus pink masts and Myrish swamps--fight!
I love the sex scene in Before They Are Hanged, a brilliant bit of writing.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2011-06-24
Michal: Before, the "grand mythic themes" (read: poor copies of Tolkien) were supposed to add the depth to fantasy, now it's the "unrelenting realism" (read: ridiculous amounts of swearing, rape and gore);

Thank you for saying this – that whole comment was spot-on. Thanks for the links, too; good stuff.

As for Leo Grin's criticism of grimdark fantasy and the response of Abercrombie and his ilk, I quite liked Athena Andreadis' take on the debate. I'd like to present either side with a copy of Finnikin of the Rock to categorize and then watch them squirm.

Pyrofennec: All the misogyny and racism are pretty DARK MAN DARK for me, but in a completely unintentional way with even less self-awareness than the average Abercrombie/Morgan-alike.

Well, yeah, but I hadn't started thinking about Harris' books in those terms when I made that comment. I still appreciate the way Harris balances “bad stuff happening to people” without diving into “grr, grrr, life sucks, me hardcore, grr” in her narratives. For me the sexism and racism is entirely separate (and indisputably bigger) trainload of fail.

Pyrofennec: But who do you think writes worse sex scenes between Martin and Abercrombie? "Ahhh... uhm... argh" versus pink masts and Myrish swamps--fight!

*laughs* Oh great, now you've got me thinking in terms of my sisters playing Soul Caliber 2: “Baaattle two: … Fight!
Michal at 23:34 on 2011-06-24
As for Leo Grin's criticism of grimdark fantasy and the response of Abercrombie and his ilk, I quite liked Athena Andreadis' take on the debate. I'd like to present either side with a copy of Finnikin of the Rock to categorize and then watch them squirm.

I resented getting lumped in with Leo when the debate erupted across the 'net, but I'd like to think I showed a little restraint in the follow-up post. It was all a bit scary because I'm essentially a young nobody in the Canadian sf scene who had (seemingly) opened Pandora's box. Fortunately, the debate moved far beyond me thanks to being...a young nobody in the Canadian sf scene, and Abercrombie/Morgan/Mieville &c. fans turned their axes someplace else.

I think we can add one more thing to the "insert gritty fantasy writer here" 's version of The Lord of the Rings, though: Eowyn acts the way she does because she was raped as an adolescent by orcs. Dark, man. Dark.
Arthur B at 14:25 on 2011-06-25
I think we can add one more thing to the "insert gritty fantasy writer here" 's version of The Lord of the Rings, though: Eowyn acts the way she does because she was raped as an adolescent by orcs.
And of course JV Jones (and a good many authors who should know a damn slight better) writes a version where this happens but when Merry and Pippin get captured, like in the original book, nothing really that bad happens to them except they're a bit hungry and they have to march a bit and they get yelled at.

In Martin's version, at least, terrible things happen like Merry loses a limb or three and Pippin is also raped.
valse de la lune at 17:26 on 2011-06-25
For me the sexism and racism is entirely separate (and indisputably bigger) trainload of fail.


Well yeah, but it's no coincidence that racism and sexism are part and parcel with a lot of DARK MAN DARK, y'know? On the other wizzy, Tolkien was a racist bore and not exactly fantastic about women, if I think about it; both Tolkien and the anti-Tolkien troops tend to devote their attention to white straight dudes (barring, to some extent, Richard Morgan and Michael Moorcock--or Mieville either if we count him among the gritty grimdarkians, which I hesitate to considering his more recent novels e.g. Embassytown). So ultimately I bite both "sides," aha, for exactly the same shit.
Arthur B at 17:45 on 2011-06-25
To be fair, Michael Moorcock's protagonists are pretty overwhelmingly white straight dudes. He's done a small number of novels with female protagonists, I can point to a very very few of his protagonists who aren't straight, but I can't think of any non-white protagonists of his off the top of my head.

To give The Steel Remains its due Morgan does manage to tick more diversity boxes than your typical Moorcock novel. The problem I had was it seemed to be ticking the boxes for the sake of providing Morgan yet one more way to be grimdarker than the competition.
valse de la lune at 18:33 on 2011-06-25
There's a Jewish protagonist in Behold the Man (though I can't recall his ethnicity) and some of his white dudes are bi, I think. Jherek Carnelian is probably pansexual. I'll try not to contemplate the incest.

The problem I had was it seemed to be ticking the boxes for the sake of providing Morgan yet one more way to be grimdarker than the competition.


Could be, but I found his gay dude written in a less skeevy way than say the gay dudes in a bunch of by-women-for-women published slash fanfic where homosexuality is objectified as a performance for women's titillation. However, I'm not a gay man so I'm just Minority Warrioring here.
Arthur B at 18:44 on 2011-06-25
There's a Jewish protagonist in Behold the Man (though I can't recall his ethnicity) and some of his white dudes are bi, I think. Jherek Carnelian is probably pansexual. I'll try not to contemplate the incest.

All in line with my observations. On top of that, Jerry Cornelius is definitely pansexual. And Una Persson is in a fairly stable (though open) relationship (well, as stable as any relationship involving two time-tripping adventurers can be) with Catherine Cornelius during her series.

Now that you mention it, if you take Breakfast In the Ruins into account Karl Glogauer's ethnicity is actually kind of fluid, along with everything else about his identity. And Jerry Cornelius has black skin in A Cure for Cancer, but that's specifically not a changing-ethnicity sort of thing so much as him being some sort of three-dimensional equivalent of a photographic negative in that novel (he has white hair and black teeth with it, and his passport gives his ethnicity as "Caucasian").
valse de la lune at 18:54 on 2011-06-25
And Jerry Cornelius has black skin in A Cure for Cancer, but that's specifically not a changing-ethnicity sort of thing so much as him being some sort of three-dimensional equivalent of a photographic negative in that novel (he has white hair and black teeth with it, and his passport gives his ethnicity as "Caucasian").


lolwut

Oh yeah, and Gloriana's pansexual, I think. Is Gloriana the one you had in mind re: Moorcock's revising his stuff? I understand the original novel featured an incredibly rapey conclusion (Quire raping Gloriana and her falling in love with him for it)--the edition I read doesn't, so for a long time I was puzzled.
valse de la lune at 19:00 on 2011-06-25
Hahahaha I just googled up something about Gloriana and... what is this now. Oh Moorcock.
Arthur B at 19:26 on 2011-06-25
lolwut
It's some kind of side effect of his demented experiments in forcibly transmogrifying people's identities that he can gather enough entropic energy to actualise the black box he left behind in the space between the planes of the Multiverse in order to...

Well, basically the Cornelius novels are pure concentrated lolwut.

Oh yeah, and Gloriana's pansexual, I think. Is Gloriana the one you had in mind re: Moorcock's revising his stuff? I understand the original novel featured an incredibly rapey conclusion (Quire raping Gloriana and her falling in love with him for it)--the edition I read doesn't, so for a long time I was puzzled.

That and The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming, which originally featured the Fireclown opening Mavis Ming's mind and helping her self-actualise by... flogging the shit out of her.

Moorcock was in a very odd place in the late 1970s.

Hahahaha I just googled up something about Gloriana and... what is this now. Oh Moorcock.

Well, to be fair to the guy that's an anonymous comment, it might not be him.

But if it isn't him it sure writes like he does and references his friendship to Andrea Dworkin like he does and... yeeeeeeah.
Cammalot at 19:54 on 2011-06-25
I am so torn up about statements like that linked one, because dammit, there are things he is saying in it that are not wrong, but the finally analysis and product is still Not Okay.

Like, okay, he's saying he wanted to do a positive portrayal of masochism based on experiences of his loved ones who were masochists (in which case probably he should not have continued with "BUT I DON'T SUPPORT THAT LIFESTYLE MUCH"). It's not an invalid objective, to write a novel about a masochist woman. But that doesn't work at all, because (I don't know which version of Gloriana I read, but it did have the line in it, from the Queen, "YOU WILL NOT DO THIS TO ME," or similar, with emphasis on "me" being a special sort of someone). Ahem. My sentence got out of my control there.

That doesn't work because Gloriana's masochism isn't the problem with the story, the problem is that Quire does a bunch of other terrible things and this last thing is presented as the thing that expunges all those other things. And... I don't think Quire's motive was a mutually fulfilling S/M relationship.

So would it have worked if a character other than Quire committed the not-a-rape-but-a-dominant-roleplaying-action-in-a-consensual-relationship or whatever that was supposed to be?

And how much pure kink is allowable?
Cammalot at 19:58 on 2011-06-25
Wait -- that's counterfactual criticism, isn't it. Sorry about that.
valse de la lune at 20:10 on 2011-06-25
But that doesn't work at all, because (I don't know which version of Gloriana I read, but it did have the line in it, from the Queen, "YOU WILL NOT DO THIS TO ME," or similar, with emphasis on "me" being a special sort of someone). Ahem. My sentence got out of my control there.

That's the revised one, and the same edition I read. I recall something about "YOU WILL NOT RAPE ME" because "me", Gloriana, symbolizes... England? It's been a while.
Arthur B at 20:18 on 2011-06-25
Wait -- that's counterfactual criticism, isn't it. Sorry about that.

It's OK, this isn't one of Jamie's articles so you're allowed. :)

It has been sufficiently long since I read Gloriana that I'll refrain from getting too into this until I get there in my Moorcock series. (I am still hip-deep in psychedelic Cornelius nonsense so that may be a while.) But please keep going, I'm finding it fascinating and I'll probably keep the discussion in mind when I get to it.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2011-06-25
Pyrofennec: Well yeah, but it's no coincidence that racism and sexism are part and parcel with a lot of DARK MAN DARK, y'know?

Mm, I hadn't considered that. Good point.
Robinson L at 20:15 on 2011-06-28
I resented getting lumped in with Leo when the debate erupted across the 'net, but I'd like to think I showed a little restraint in the follow-up post.

Yeah, it's a shame to see your moderate and well-reasoned critique of the position taken by some members of the grimdark crowd conflated with a sweeping political and philosophical condemnation of everything grimdark.
Steve Stirling at 04:54 on 2011-07-13
Martin Luther once commented that the human race was rather like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse; gets on, falls off to one side, gets back on, falls off on the other. And of course a cynic is a disappointed idealist. Tolkien was an idealist, of course, but his world is actually much more realistic than Morgan's.

With respect to THE STEEL REMAINS: I didn't dislike the book, and technically it's not bad at all, but it got sort of predictable after a while.

For example (and this is just one example), the protagonist has a certain type of postindustrial person's attitude towards religion, and it's jarring in context -- rather like having him listening to an iPod.

You can't really write fantasy or historical fiction unless you can get inside the head of someone who's religious without assuming they're a deluded dupe or evil con-artist.

Most people are religious, including most who are religious specialists by trade; in the type of society that these types of fiction mostly use as settings, nearly everyone is. Secularism in our sense is literally inconceivable. Most people in those contexts are going to exist in a perceptual universe that's -saturated- with religious meaning, and in which you can't so much as wake up, eat or go to sleep without the appropriate ritual.

I'm an atheist myself, but fiction is supposed to involve a degree of projective empathy. Otherwise I'd stick to novels about bohemian-artsy Anglos having a midlife crisis.

The religion thing is a subset of a more general problem; that people from different cultural backgrounds (and our own society becomes quite different if you go back a few generations) are -different-. There's an old joke among SF writers to the effect that most SFnal aliens are less alien than a Japanese. Unfortunately it's often true. It's even hard to find a protagonist who isn't, down deep, a Benthamite Utilitarian.

It's intensely dull to read about nothing but people who are basically like you and agree with most of your basic moral and philosophical assumptions. However, the effort to get inside the mind and emotions of someone who has a different concept of what -constitutes- right and wrong (leaving aside whether they're a good person by their own lights or not) seems beyond a lot of writers.

Mary Renault (who was a -very good- historical novelist) has a scene in THE LAST OF THE WINE where the protagonist's father is dying, having been stabbed by the goons of his political opponents. (The setting is Classical-era Athens.)

The son holds his father, who struggles to get out some last words. What he says is: "Avenge my blood."

The son responds with shock: "Father, how could you think me so base of soul as to forgive my enemies?"

By that part of the book you've become intensely involved with the hero; it's a shock, and a salutary one, to realize that to him revenge isn't a wicked impulse to be suppressed or agonized over. It's a holy duty.

Arthur B at 11:36 on 2011-07-13
You can't really write fantasy or historical fiction unless you can get inside the head of someone who's religious without assuming they're a deluded dupe or evil con-artist.

I'm not so sure about fantasy - there's plenty of material out there that's not really connected in anything except the loosest possible sense to actual history, in which ahistorical attitudes don't bother me. Likewise, in typical D&D-inspired fantasy with gods who regularly give spells to their clerics and occasionally pop up to punch dragons on the nose I don't mind so much because in that sort of world you'd expect people to have a different attitude towards religion than they historically did in ours anyway. I really don't mind lightweight, entertaining fluff with little connection to reality so long as it presents itself as being such and has no shame of its essential fluffness.

Where it really bugs me in a fantasy context is in works, like The Steel Remains and a hell of a lot of the rest of the gritty crowd, which try to project an air of being oh so much deeper and more serious than much previous mainstream fantasy, but are actually when you examine them more or less precisely as shallow as your average Terry Brooks.
Steve Stirling at 22:56 on 2011-07-13
Where it really bugs me in a fantasy context is in works, like The Steel
Remains
and a hell of a lot of the rest of the gritty crowd, which try to
project an air of being oh so much deeper and more serious than much previous
mainstream fantasy, but are actually when you examine them more or less
precisely as shallow as your average Terry Brooks.


-- good point and I see what you mean.

It's essentially a matter of arrogance on the part of the writer. We're prone to it, since we're God in our work.

As the saying goes, it isn't what you don't know that'll kill you, it's what you think you know that just ain't so.
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2011-12-30
I've been informed that Andreadis' "A Plague on Both Your Houses" is no longer available at the link I posted several months ago. Since I still believe it's a really good essay, and I have an updated link available, I thought I'd share it here.

Voila!
Michal at 02:39 on 2012-01-01
I don't really think Abercrombie et al are Robert E. Howard's "direct intellectual descendants" (surely Michael Moorcock is the one they all cite as an influence? I just don't feel the Howard with these guys), and Howard tends to be a decidedly Celtic/Arabian-Nights-ish fellow with his settings as opposed to Anglo Saxon, but otherwise, it's pretty spot-on. Though I chuckle a bit since I initially targeted Sara Douglass for declaring how much more mature and realistic her work was than her predecessors' (by that point, though, things had moved far beyond me)--there's women doing the gritty thing too, like the aforementioned J.V. Jones.

Back to the article:

To use Hawkmoon as an example, Morgan shoots for The History of the Runestaff (the excellent, indispensable Hawkmoon series) but hits The Chronicles of Count Brass (the much less worthy sequel series).

But now you know that shooting for The History of the Runestaff was going to produce dire results in the first place!
Arthur B at 07:22 on 2012-01-01
I have adjusted accordingly.
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