GRIMDARK: What Is It, And Who Does It Belong To?

Ask the average person on the street ‘What is Grimdark?’ and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Why? Because genre labels rarely escape the confines of their hardcore fanbase. Ask the same person the difference between Science Fantasy and Space Opera, and that blank stare will continue. Or they’ll awkwardly shuffle off. One of the two. But if you find a reader of speculative fiction, that branch of literature often abbreviated to SFF, Science Fiction Fantasy, and you’ll get a different reaction. “Game of Thrones,’ they might say. Or they’ll mention Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence. These three answers have something in common. They’re all firmly set in the solitary F at the end of SFF. Because for the past two decades or so, Grimdark has been seen as the property of the fantasy genre. But it wasn’t always this way.

Tracking a genre, or even a subgenre, to its roots is a near impossible task. Science Fiction and Fantasy have been tangled together ever since the days of the weird fiction magazines. There are many who’ll say they’re not all that different, and certainly bookshops across the globe seem to share this view. Sometimes Horror ends up thrown in there too. But all of these genres grow out of the same literary traditions. The Gothic has a strong influence on Horror and Fantasy, but that famous Gothic novel Frankenstein is often touted as the start of science fiction. It’s not, because if we include books written before science fiction was coined as a term, we can reach back further than the 1800s. But even Shelley’s detractors will note that it is at least a recognisable forerunner of the genre that fully emerged in the 1920s. If we take these speculative fictions as the successors to myths and fables (which is certainly a valid interpretation of some branches of Social SF), then we end up at the root of it all. The literal Ur-text of Gilgamesh.

But Grimdark? Grimdark is the new kid on the block. Along with Cyberpunk (and the many -punk children) it’s one of the few literary styles to emerge in the past few decades and be fully recognised as a genre. It’s the rough and ready, slightly edgy offspring of SFF, and it has come to dominate much of the modern market. So where did this emergent genre get its beginning? So far as I can tell, the first use of the term is in the tagline of Warhammer 40,000 – In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. There it is. Grim darkness. Two words, but the idea is there. It’s an origin point, but one that has been misinterpreted (wilfully and otherwise) down through the years. Grim darkness wasn’t so much a label back in those days as another part of the worldbuilding. Early Warhammer 40,000 shared a lot of DNA with properties like Judge Dredd and 2000AD comics. Grim darkness wasn’t an attempt at realism. It was pushing violence and gore and misery to absurd levels in a uniquely British satire of then-current politics and pop culture. Just compare the name of a certain Ork warboss to a list of British Prime Ministers, and you’ll see how unsubtle it could be. And for a very long time, that was all grim darkness was. A jokey worldbuilding exercise.

Cut to the 2006, when Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself is published. The first in a fantasy trilogy, it immediately sets about skewering tropes with as much glee as its protagonists skewer one another. The whole trilogy is about the subversion of expectations. there is some attempt at realism involved – heroes are wounded, have sex and use the toilet, usually in graphic detail – but it’s also a comedy. That comedy was lost on some, who saw only grittiness. It was accused of being grim and dark for its own sake, and the label Grimdark appeared as a pejorative. Abercrombie took this label and made it his own, even styling himself as Lord Grimdark. All part of the joke, but now the label existed, and it could be applied to other things. The first few books that followed (most notably Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns), while conceived independently, fell into the same market. Lots of blood, some gallows humour, and morality that was firmly grey. Countless imitators later, and grimdark became something more concrete.

But over the next decade, something strange happened. Grimdark forgot how to have fun. The humour was leeched away, until all that remained was darkness for the sake of darkness. Grimdark had become the very thing it once parodied: An edgy teen trying to act like a grownup. There were still great books being published in the Grimdark sphere, including Anna Smith Spark’s excellent Empires of Dust trilogy, but the original spark (no pun intended) was gone. Grimdark now took itself seriously, and it was with this sea change that I walked away from the genre. There just no fun to be had anymore.

Meanwhile, over in Warhammer 40,000 something big was happening. The early in-house novels defined grimdark in those early years, but the formation of Black Library, the space was opened for more ambitious storytelling. Whereas early stories focused on blood splatters and over-the-top violence, now there was room for more involved content. The question being asked by the stories was no longer ‘Wouldn’t it be awful if the world were like this?’ but rather ‘If the world were this awful, what sort of people would it breed?’ Warhammer 40,000 also began to take itself seriously, but while fantasy stumbled, science fiction became the stronger for it. Instead of satire, we now had deeper explorations of how propaganda played a part in war (William King’s The Macharian Crusade), or the true horror of endless war across countless wars (Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts). The orks still cling to their comedic roots, but the franchise at large has come of age. The satire is still there, but it is only the foundation for a tower of rich storytelling.

Of course, Warhammer 40,000 – pioneer though it may be – is not the only Grimdark SF out there. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising saga stands firmly in this tradition. Though it’s insistence on one-upping itself falls into many of the same pits as Fantasy Grimdark, the series is a sharp detour from the glossy and clinical science fiction many still expect from the genre. Yet while there is a resurgence of interest in darker stories, they have always been a part of science fiction. Just take Henry Kuttner’s Fury, which at the time of release was labelled as ‘no story for the lily-livered’ and ‘a novel of violence.’ Kuttner and co-author/wife C.L. Moore are notable for their incredibly dark and twisted storytelling, and this was well before Games Workshop was even a glean in Ian Livingstone’s eye. Warhammer 40,000 did not invent grim darkness, it only popularised it. And if fantasy has co-opted the term Grimdark, then there is still a place for the genre among the stars.

Recently I was gifted a review copy of Grimdark Magazine’s thirtieth issue. Most of the content falls on the fantasy end of the spectrum, so you won’t see a full review here, but this article is informed by my reading of it. Grimdark Magazine is a solid indication of where the genre is at present. Fantasy grimdark is still preoccupied with subversion, to the extent that those subversions have become predictable tropes in their own right. It still takes itself very seriously, but so to does the science fiction side. Victoria Hayward’s ‘Bone Armour’ at times feels like Warhammer 40,000 (which is hardly surprising, given that she also writes for Black Library), but on a closer reading feels like the bleak and hopeless story you’d find in Astounding! Kuttner and Moore would no doubt be impressed. Some of the stories in the magazine are not so much Grimdark as straight horror. Or maybe they are Grimdark., Whatever Grimdark means. Because even Mar Lawrence, whose work straddles the boundary between SF and F admits in the issue’s interview that he is unsure what Grimdark actually is.

And I think that’s the issue with Grimdark. It’s been around for a long time now, and there are already new subgenres (such as the ludicrously named ‘hopepunk’) that actively set out to be a counter to it. But what is ‘it?’ Grimdark as a label has been applied to so many stories and authors that the meaning is spread thing. Ask ten readers and you’ll get eleven opinions as to whether a book is Grimdark or not. For me, the gallows humour is an integral part. But for others, copious levels of violence and characters who swear a lot are the threshold. And maybe we’re all right. or all wrong. The only thing I can say with confidence is that, until the genre stops evolving, no one will agree on what Grimdark is. And when a genre stops evolving, it becomes stale. So maybe the change is a good thing. Because for as long as people argue about what Grimdark means to them, the genre will remain a part of our lives. For better, or for worse, Grimdark belongs to us all.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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