Sunday recs: On the problematic sides of grimdark

Evening, gentle readers!

It’s been a rollercoaster weekend; I haven’t got any creative writing done, which is egregious. Ah well, at least today I had a very productive café session with a dear friend: I worked on an article I’m writing related to my MA thesis. Oh how I enjoy crafting academic text!

Anyway, links!

Before the serious discussion links, let’s go for a poem. A Glance Across the Ballroom, by Ada Hoffmann: one of the most delightful Cinderella-inspired poems I’ve ever read.


Eleanor Arnason’s Me and Science Fiction: Hope for the Future is an interesting column on optimistic science fiction and why there should be more of it. I mostly agree with her. Yes, I think sf needs to tackle the grim, difficult stuff, too – but why should it entirely shun the brighter visions? Optimism doesn’t need to mean lack of conflict. In a setting that doesn’t paint an entirely bleak future for our planet, you can still have interesting stories.

Personally, I’m not much a fan of grimdark. I prefer my fiction with more than just a sprinkle of goodwill and optimism. There’s a time and place for dystopia – definitely yes – but I just don’t think it needs to be the default option for sf. Human beings are capable of horrific, dark things, but we’ve also got the potential for good, for healing. Fiction – perhaps especially science fiction – is a great way of looking at the consequences of what we’re doing to the planet, for instance. But sometimes, I’d love to see a sf future-vision that ended up bright. Through darkness, perhaps, in the way of the most heart-wrenching stories; but ending in hope.


Foz Meadows writes about grittiness and grimdark. Very good post. I really recommend taking the time to read all of it. She writes, for instance, that if

the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

So true; and one of the reasons grimdark doesn’t appeal to me. I want sf/f to look at issues, problematise them and deal with them, instead of just perpetuating the same cycle of misogyny/homophobia/etc.

In this post, Kate Elliott (a wonderful writer!) approaches the grimdark question from the point of view of sexual violence and its unfortunate prevalence in “gritty”, “realistic” fantasy. She counters this with a discussion of consensual sex in fantasy, and why it’s important to portray positive sexual encounters in fiction.

Rape is used way too often as an “easy” way of giving a female character a tragic backstory, for instance. In too many portrayals of rape in fiction, writers don’t pay attention to the actual effects of the act of violence, but instead rape becomes trivialised. It’s especially worrying if a story contains frequent rape scenes or dubiously consensual sex, but little to no consensual sex at all. As Kate Elliott writes:

To my mind, we lessen the story we are telling about human experience if we do not include and see as worthy all of human experience, especially including positive depictions of sex and love. What kind of world do we vision if we only tell the ugly stories about such intimate matters?

Well said. I, at least, want to challenge notions of “that’s just the way it is; women have always been mistreated, so thus it shall be in my Fantasy World”. And I want to write happy, joyful depictions of sex and love in addition to sad things. Who says a happy sex scene can’t contribute to character development?


About Sara Norja

I'm a bilingual writer of prose and poetry. Things I enjoy apart from writing include tea, reading voraciously, cycling on warm summer nights, medieval manuscripts, dancing, and the wind.
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2 Responses to Sunday recs: On the problematic sides of grimdark

  1. MNiM says:

    Well said you!

    (And thank you for the links, too, btw, I’m definitely going to delve further when I get a chance.)

    One of the things I always find a bit weird about consensual sex scenes — and I hope this isn’t too tangential to your larger point — is that they’re always treated as purely romantic (and as an unnecessary add on, unless you’re specifically writing/reading romance). But sex scenes can be so much more — they can reveal character in ways that a less intimate scene could not, and they don’t even have to be inherently romantic. Sex is like any other human experience, full of potential to be funny, or awkward, or sad, or even start out as one thing and turn into another. A character can go from nervous to trusting to tender etc.

    I can’t remember who said it originally, but it probably wasn’t me, that a scene only has to do one of two things to merit inclusion: a) reveal character or b) drive the story forward. Sex is such a huge part of the human experience, individually and collectively. I won’t pretend that a lot of sex scenes aren’t clichéd (they are), but a really well done sex scene can say so much about a character (or characters, and how they relate to each other), their beliefs, their culture/s, the setting… and it’s mostly treated like mindless candy to reward the reader for getting so far in a romance.

    • Sara Norja says:

      Definitely delve! Also, I think you should read Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series. It is brilliant and could possibly be totally up your alley.

      I so agree about consensual sex scenes having the potential for so much more than just being a romantic, “filler” scene! Very good points on how sex can be so much more in terms of character. Yes, a lot of sex scenes are clichéd, but the ones that work in terms of character development can be just amazing in terms of emotional impact because of the intimacy of the situation.

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