Guest Post: “And the World Turned Gray: Gritty vs. Classic Heroes” by Kameron Hurley

KameronHurley-AuthorPicKameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.

Also on CR: Review of God’s War

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Peake-GormenghastI’ll sometimes hear folks musing about where the “gritty” hero came from. And though you’ll get a lot of knee-jerk responses of the “Well, it’s a reaction to traditional goody-goody heroes,” I’d argue, in fact, that gritty, unlikeable heroes have been around a lot longer than you’d think. Gormenghast wasn’t exactly full of heroes. It was full of idiots and backstabbers. We just didn’t celebrate them. They were funny.

Oh, sure, what littered the shelves as I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s were indeed mostly traditional sorts, I suppose. But there were notable exceptions – Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger, Mary Gentle’s Ash, and let’s face it, you know, Conan wasn’t a sweetheart fun dude.

Hobb-1-AssasinsApprenticeUKBut the hero who broke all the rules – who didn’t really save the world, who didn’t get the girl that tore me up the most – was Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. I’d argue Hobb’s semi-tragic hero, who did not slay the dragon or win a kingdom (even Joe Abercrombie’s characters sometimes win a kingdom) or run off with the love of their life, was among the first to start the shift toward a hero who was a bit more gray, a bit more complex, and whose end was a lot less predictable than most. Fitz was the Catalyst. He was the person great events moved around. He was not the active agent. Only the spark.

In truth, on looking at a lot of fantasy heroes and heroines of the past, what I found had changed most between, say 1970 and 2004 wasn’t the level of grit or gritty. After all, there was a lot of dark, messed up stuff going on in the New Wave (The Stars My Destination, for a brief departure into SF-land, was hardly full of nice people). Instead, what changed was this idea that the good guys were always going to win. That the Big Bad would be defeated. So you got heroes like Fitz, and KJ Bishop’s war-wrecked veterans, who, it could be argued, often did more harm than good. Maureen McHugh writes complex characters whose endings always tend to be ambiguous, sort of non-endings, more abrupt halts than tying up all the loose ends.

What we’re falling in love with, over time, isn’t necessarily the grittiest jerk with a sword – we had Conan for that. What began to happen is that we craved more complexity in our stories. And with complexity comes a good deal of ugliness. The bad guys sometimes win. Sometimes it’s not even clear who the bad guys are. Oh, sure, folks wrote dark, complex fiction prior to when the term “grimdark” popped up, but grimdark – tragedy, complexity, brutality – of this type has been especially sought after from the early 2000’s. Just as New Weird started becoming a Named Thing, the dark fantasy writers were beginning to get more attention, too.

ME3_Cover_ArtIt’s been interesting to watch video games go through this same tilt toward the more complex, the tragic. I sobbed my way through Mass Effect 3, while the galaxy was being destroyed around me. And… I found it deeply cathartic. But… why? What are these complex stories giving me that fluffier, more comfortable stuff isn’t?

I’d argue this love of the grim and complex isn’t just about the maturity of an art form, but a reflection of the times we live in. The United States has been at constant war since 2001. That’s thirteen years of war. That kind of war – even one conducted on far shores, and brutally ignored in our media – seeps into everything. The world looks a lot more complex when you’re fighting in residential areas and sending drones to blow up wedding parties, doesn’t it?

Our fiction, the stories we were interested in, changed too. Because war gets into your bones. Veterans come home. The war they fought not only affects them, but everyone around them. It bleeds into everything.

And that seepage is nothing compared to the grim reality faced by those whose countries we waged war in.

So when people tell me that the rise of gritty, complex fiction is a reaction against traditional heroes, or something only aliened teen boys read, I can’t help but sigh. Because I’m seeing the desire for grim stories from another angle. From the position of a people who perpetuate violence on others but have very little experience of violence. People struggling to figure out who the good guy is, because, increasingly, as they look in the mirror they realize that it isn’t as clear as it once we.

We look for ourselves in our stories. It’s how we make sense of the world.

The gritty and traditional heroes are products of their times. We used to believe we were right. We’d always win. The world was black and white. As the world is split wide open with greater access to information and instant communication, many are waking up to that fact.

It’s the gray heroes we see – the ones who don’t always win. The ones who bring more war than peace. Who solve disagreements with brutality. With force. And fear. And fault.

We see ourselves.

And we’re not traditional heroes.

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Kameron’s God’s War, Infidel and Rapture are published by Night Shade Books in the US and Del Rey in the UK (only God’s War has been released so far in the UK).

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US Covers

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UK Cover (Paperback) for God’s War

A quick Q&A with RICHARD FORD

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A while back, I posted a quick “Upcoming” blog about Richard Ford’s new gritty fantasy, Herald of the Storm. It sounded pretty cool. So, naturally, I wanted to interview Richard. He was kind enough to say yes, and so, in advance of my review of the novel (coming soon), here are Richard’s answers…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Richard Ford?

Richard Ford is a thirty-something bloke from the gritty north who has, in recent years, become a bit of southern softie. He also writes stuff on occasion, in the hope that someone will read it, and possibly even like it.

He is definitely not the other Richard Ford, who writes literary fiction in the classic American tradition and wins Pulitzers.

I thought we’d start with your fiction: Your latest novel, Herald of the Storm, was recently published by Headline. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?

Herald of the Storm is the first book in the Steelhaven trilogy – an epic fantasy focusing on the lives of several disparate characters as they try and survive in the grim port of Steelhaven – a city on the brink of destruction. To put it more succinctly: it’s David Gemmel’s Legend meets HBO’s The Wire!

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What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

Jealousy and envy are my main motivations. I’ve read quite a bit of epic fantasy and been blown away by it. Naturally I wanted to write my own, but make it grittier, bloodier and more potty-mouthed than anyone else’s. I think I’m pretty much there.

As for inspiration – I find I draw influences from everything and everywhere, be it other novels, films, comics, TV or even the news. Best place for gags or convincing dialogue is undoubtedly in the pub, and I’ll fight anyone who says different.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

HillD-LastLegionaryQuartetMy earliest regular taste of genre fiction came from 2000 AD back in the early ’80s, closely followed by Douglas Hill’s Last Legionary novels. I was also massively influenced by the choose-your-own-adventure books of Joe Dever and Ian Livingstone and later Weiss and Hickman’s Dragonlance series.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, so I shouldn’t complain really. I do complain though – long and loud. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t comfortable spending hours and hours in their own company with the constant shadow of self-doubt looming over them.

Being rather ill-disciplined and having the attention span of a Labrador puppy, I have to be quite methodical about the way I work. Everything is plotted out quite intricately and I have a daily word count target, which I almost always fail to hit.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I used to write and illustrate my own comics when I was a kid. It soon became clear I had all the illustration skills of a battered cod, so prose fiction was probably the way to go. It wasn’t until I got some decent feedback from a schoolteacher – Mr. Bontoft – when I was around 11 that I started to think seriously about doing it for a living (before that, I was on track to be an astronaut). Unfortunately, when I left Mr. Bontoft’s class all the positive acclaim ended, and I lost interest in it for quite a few years.

Everyone’s a critic, I suppose.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I think the genre’s never been stronger, and choice for readers never more diverse. There’s been a bit of an online buzz that the grittier writers are steering fantasy away from its origins, but I just don’t buy that – read some R.E. Howard and tell me it’s not gritty. I think my work sits firmly on the back seat of the fantasy bus with all the other cool kids, but that’s not to say I don’t appreciate the nice kids at the front.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

Work on book two in the Steelhaven trilogy continues apace. I’ve nicknamed it The-Book-That-Will-Not-Die, but I’ll slay it eventually, you just see if I don’t!

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’ve just finished The String Diaries by the brilliant Stephen Lloyd Jones (and I’m not just saying that because we share a publisher), and I’m about to start The Steel Remains by Richard K Morgan.

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What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I once locked myself out of a hotel room stark naked, in true Frank Spencer style.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Hopefully I’ll have finished work on Steelhaven Three and the immense pressure and feelings of anxiety I currently experience on an hourly basis will have abated.

Oh, and the endless riches my writing will inevitably bring. I’m quite looking forward to that.

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Herald of the Storm is out now, published by Headline.