Uncanny Values: Writing Attitude Dissonance in Setting

Another day, another comment on someone else’s essay. Today it’s my forum colleague and recently-published author, David Craig, who has written a piece on Writing Social Values in Historical Fiction. Craig discusses the challenge of writing settings where the social norms are… different… from our own. Not in a fun, alien sense, but in an “oh god, these people are a bunch of racist misogynistic bigots” sense. Craig identifies the difficulty in balancing authenticity with having unsympathetic characters, and potentially attracting readers who like racist misogynistic bigots. It’s an issue that I am actually dealing with myself at the moment, as I write a story about one Lionel Terry – but we’ll get to that later.

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Where in-story Values Dissonance (as TV Tropes calls it) really becomes a problem is not the truly alien setting. Writing an Aztec Priest who sincerely believes that sacrificing small children to Tlaloc will bring rain is not an issue – there is comfortable distance between the Priest’s world and our own. You aren’t going to run into people in 2019 who actually think like that, and getting inside the mindset of such a person can be an intriguing (if disturbing) adventure. Rather, the problem are those settings that are almost-but-not-quite like our own. The chief offenders here are eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America (the twentieth century is easier to fudge). In these cases, there is enough overlap between their views and ours that modern Westerners can relate to them, but enough difference that we can still spot the uglier aspects of the older culture. Uncanny Values, if you will – it’s the West’s proverbial (or maybe literal) racist grandfather in the attic. Worse, there are still people around who do have these sorts of views, even if they are less socially acceptable than they once were, hence the writer’s fear of attracting an unsavoury audience.

The example Craig cites is his own book’s setting of 1893 Glasgow, a place and time we in 2019 simultaneously can and cannot relate to. While I have never met (so far as I know) anyone who was alive in 1893, my parents (born in the 1950s) have. This is the world as it was when my great-grandparents were children – in one sense, it is not distant at all.  Yet for all that I have immense fondness for the intellectual enthusiasm and boundless curiosity of the Victorian era (I also live in a city dominated by gorgeous Victorian architecture), we all know that some Victorian social views have aged badly. Hence the setting being a prime candidate for Uncanny Values, and why Craig ran into it when writing his book.

Thinking about how I have dealt with the issue myself, Wise Phuul – set in a world of approximately 1900-level technology – gets round the problem by virtue of being secondary world fantasy, rather than historical fantasy. Since accuracy is of less concern for secondary world fantasy (it’s made up whole-cloth), there is much greater freedom to play with social attitudes – though not infinite freedom, since I do want to evoke a particular time with my setting. This means I can drop the real-world ugly bits (why would the Viiminian Empire care about gender and sexuality when all that matters is necromantic power?), and give them a whole heap of imaginary ugly bits (the necromancy thing). There is values dissonance in Wise Phuul, but I think it is of the Aztec Priest sort, rather than the racist grandfather sort.

My short stories that have historical elements are not so lucky. My taniwha/railway story, An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie, is set in North Otago in 1896 – so, yes, Victorian. I get round the problem by focusing on the less offensive aspects of the Victorian world-view – Religion (Wilson) and Progress (Mackenzie), though the occasional bit of mild period prejudice is there, treated more as a decorative turn of phrase to evoke the time-period. In The Happiest Man Alive, set in Britain in the 1960s, I also include the odd bit of deliberate values dissonance (a certain reference to a tea-caddy) to remind people that Sam is not quite from our era. The point is that in both stories it’s there in the background, but not something I go into in any detail, because it’s not important to the story.

This brings us to my unfinished story about the real-life Lionel Terry (strictly Edwardian, not Victorian, but close enough). Fascinating guy, in a train-wreck sense, one of the most famous inmates of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, and someone who would be a potential story gold-mine for a historical New Zealand piece, were it not for complicating factors. Namely that the guy was more than just a mad self-made messiah with some painting ability and a taste for white suits. He was also a convicted murderer (he was in the Asylum having escaped a death sentence via insanity), and a lifelong White Supremacist. Sadly, local far-right nutters still consider the guy a hero.

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So he’s an unlikable, morally reprehensible, protagonist – what of it? There are plenty of those in all forms of literature. Well, leaving aside that Terry, as a historical figure who never changed his views, can’t have a redemption arc, and the additional issue of wanting to avoid giving him any sort of glamour, the biggest problem I have encountered in writing this short fantasy story is that (sadly) the majority of the real-life New Zealand public were quite sympathetic to his cause. He was basically New Zealand’s Edwardian-era Ned Kelly at one point, only with industrial strength hatred of Jewish and Chinese people, and with what was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. This sense of culturally normalised racism prevents Terry’s views from being thrown into appropriately sharp relief when he interacts with others in the setting, and when dealing with a figure like Terry, I think you need in-story contrast. If everyone is defined by being racist in the story, then he loses a key distinguishing attribute, quite apart from the writer’s fear of producing a text that inadvertently condones racism.

My solution – time will only tell if it works – is to have the narrator be a fantastical entity of some description (think Gil-Martin from James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner). This narrator is safely outside the value constraints of the historical period (fantasy rides to the rescue of history…), and thus able to give a critical perspective on events, even as Terry confides in him. Not that the narrator is sympathetic either – he’s quite clearly capital e-Evil, and unreliable as anything – but he at least serves to deflate the main character. I don’t want Terry to be a glamorous Hannibal Lecter-style villain, and I don’t want his genuine mental illness to be a moral excuse for his actions. At the same time, I don’t want to present Terry as a moustache-twirler. I find those uninteresting, and Terry may be many things, but uninteresting is not one of them. It’s a strange tightrope to be walking here, and I normally would not describe my ideas about a half-finished story in such detail, but I ran across Craig’s post, and though I’d untangle my thoughts a bit…

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Pinning Down Grimdark

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Gritty realism, moral ambiguity, flawed characters, and wall-to-wall violence: such are the claims that Grimdark has made about itself over the past decade.The term started out as a borrowing from Warhammer 40k (“in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war”), which was then applied pejoratively to literature. Since then, it has been worn as a badge by a whole swathe of writers, to the point where there is now a recognised sub-genre of Grimdark fantasy. But, as is the case with all genres (which I maintain are artificial distinctions made by readers and publishers, not writers), there is still copious disagreement about who or what counts as Grimdark. Hence today’s essay, which despite the title is less about an objective attempt to define the sub-genre, and more about attempting to put my own thoughts in order on the subject. Oh, and I also want to respond to a forum colleague (a self-identified Grimdark author, no less), who has recently had an essay or two published in Grimdark Magazine.

I have a particular view of what Grimdark is, as a sub-genre of fantasy. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and its various follow-ups. Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains (I have yet to get around to chasing up the sequels). Bleak, cynical fantasy with bleak, cynical protagonists, who regard life much like Thomas Hobbes regards life in the state of nature – “nasty, brutish, and short” – and who are eminently self-aware of their predicament. There’s a world-weariness, laced with nihilistic despair, about proceedings, livened only by a thick coating of black humour, and none of it is ever destined to change for the better. The contrast with the more idealistic and optimistic elements of traditional fantasy (by ‘traditional fantasy’ read a certain type of ‘candyfloss wish-fulfilment’) could not be more stark – it is essentially a literary reaction, one that takes delight in deconstructing while leaving little in its place.

Orbiting the Grimdark star (or black hole?) are a constellation of other works, which to my mind share many elements with the sub-genre, but which (in my humble opinion) do not truly constitute Grimdark. R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse, for example, is a staggeringly bleak setting – in the spiritual, as well as the material sense, and the author does seem to identify with the Grimdark label (which he terms Fascination with the Abomination). On the other hand, Eärwa is (explicitly) not nihilistic: it is a world laden with meaning, and there is less focus on bleak humour, and more on dark alienness. If Bakker is Grimdark, he is a slightly different variant: his idea of an Abomination seems less mundane and more fantastical than “humans are bastards” (though there is copious human bastardry in his series to go with the alien horrors). Also, if Fascination with the Abomination is the distinguishing trait of the sub-genre, does that mean Anne Rice and her literary descendants, who turn the Abomination into a veritable aesthetic, are grimdark too? That strikes me as an odd categorisation.

Another potential candidate for Grimdark Fellow Traveller would be Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogies from the 1970s and 1980s are extremely dark and deconstructional, and arguably lay the foundation for what came later. That said, I would place his books further from the black hole than Bakker – rather than embracing despair, Thomas Covenant is the story of a prolonged battle (literally and metaphorically) against it, with the entire first trilogy being haunted by High Lord Kevin’s abandonment of hope via the Ritual of Desecration. As I have mentioned before, Donaldson’s work is pessimistic, but not at heart cynical. It puts its protagonists through hell, but does not tap-dance upon the human condition, and certainly not after the manner of “the world is shit” Grimdark. This goes double with the author’s interest in character redemption – as terrible a human being as Thomas Covenant is (Angus Thermopylae even more so, in Donaldson’s space opera series, The Gap), there remains hope for both him and the world he stumbles into.

That leaves George R.R. Martin, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s claim to Grimdarkery rests very much on the notion that Good (Ned Stark) is often punished for pursuing morally correct actions, whereas Evil (Tywin Lannister) often reaps rich rewards from his perfidious schemes. I, for one, am unconvinced. Pointing out that successful politics often involves the dirtying of hands is not a particularly groundbreaking insight – Shakespeare does it, for goodness sake – but, more relevantly, I feel Martin (via the respective legacies of Ned and Tywin) suggests that there is more at work than mere politics. Ned dies a confessed traitor, and his family suffers… but there are still people in Westeros who remember and love him. Characters will march though snow-storms for Ned’s little girl. Tywin Lannister – supreme master of Westerosi realpolitik – gets rewarded for his cruelty by being shot on the toilet by his own son. And no-one marches through snow-storms for Tywin’s little girl.

I could further suggest that there is very little moral ambiguity about Gregor Clegane and Ramsay Bolton, while a character like Brienne represents a real attempt at reconstructing a romantic (and very non-Grimdark) ethos. Sandor Clegane and Bronn may be amoral poster-children for deconstruction and cynical “might makes right” viewpoints, but Martin isn’t simply tearing the genre down – he works within tropes or even rebuilds them. George R.R. Martin, after all, is a cynic with the heart of a romantic, which to my mind puts him outside Grimdark classification. He certainly isn’t a realist writer either (quite apart from the dragons and ice demons, the work isn’t interested in representing day-to-day banalities), though I suspect that when people praise the supposed realism of Grimdark, they are really confusing realism with focusing on the negative aspects of the human experience. Fact is, the works in question are just as stylised and artificial as anything else in the fantasy genre. Which is rather the point – fantasy, by definition, is not realistic.

Nor – despite the best efforts of the TV adaptation – is Martin’s work really nihilistic. Nihilism is belief in nothing (not to be confused with atheism, which is lack of belief in god or gods), and despite bad things happening to people in A Song of Ice and Fire, stripping human existence of meaning is not the intent of the text. Rather, it is much more about letting the characters discern their own sense of “what is right”, without claiming that an objective answer exists. Recall that Existentialism, an answer/solution to nihilism, is about imposing one’s own meaning on an objectively meaningless universe. “All Men Must Die. But first we live,” is a heavily existentialist sentiment, exhorting people to make something of their lives, not to sit around drinking themselves to death because it’s an inherently meaningless world and nothing matters. In this case, one can even imagine Nietzsche approving of Ygritte urging Jon to abandon the Night’s Watch’s slave morality (Nietzsche, despite popular misconceptions, was not a nihilist).

So much for the current literature. Can we see anything in older literature that may provide some insight into Grimdark? The sub-genre likes to claim sword and sorcery – we will discuss how true that is when I get to the response section of this essay – but, based off how some overly enthusiastic aficionados describe it, practically anything or anyone could be Grimdark, up to and including J.R.R. Tolkien himself. After all, The Hobbit is deconstructional, with plenty of moral ambiguity once the story gets to the squabble over the Hoard (and even before – Bilbo is explicitly employed as a burglar. Move over Locke Lamora!). The Lord of the Rings has the deeply flawed politician character, Denethor, who comes to a terrible end. The Silmarillion has the deeply flawed creative genius character Feanor, who comes to a terrible end while taking his people with him. The Children of Húrin is unapologetically bleak, and even has a section where our protagonist falls in with some amoral and arguably sociopathic outlaws (complete with attempted rape). The problem is that if Grimdark casts its net so widely as to include Tolkien himself, it cannot very well claim itself to be a new and distinctive development within fantasy. If you include everyone, you no longer have a sub-genre.

Going further back further, we encounter Shakespeare.

[Yes, retrospectively assigning genre is taking works out of period context, but I am primarily interested in looking at the supposed defining features of Grimdark, and besides, people have been claiming Frankenstein (1818) as science-fiction for decades. If they can do it with Mary Shelley, I can do it with Shakespeare, damn it.]

Hamlet is an interesting example, since we do encounter a jaded, morally ambiguous protagonist (mistreatment of Ophelia, accidental murder of Polonius, et cetera) in a rotten political environment, and, of course, nearly everyone dies. Oh, and it is objectively fantasy, what with the ghost thing. The funny thing about Hamlet as Grimdark, however, is that Shakespeare has his protagonist act realistically in the proper sense of the word – when confronted with the ghost’s allegations, he actually does what you or I might do, and tries to verify them first. Then he stands around thinking about the moral consequences of killing his bastard uncle. Hamlet’s dithering is not what we would expect from a Grimdark protagonist (who would more likely to skewer Claudius and Gertrude mid-coitus or something), but it is more true to life. People do have moral hang-ups, even if it is against their immediate or objective interest.

Ay, there’s the rub. What separates Hamlet from Grimdark in terms of human nature is that Grimdark would, I think, drop the deeper aspects of the protagonist’s personality – the ones that make him a three-dimensional character – and focus on the cynicism and sarcasm he develops in the face of his unenviable situation. Potentially make him more of a Claudius (corrupt, morally compromised schemer) or a Fortinbras (hot-headed man of action) too, because ditherers with moral hang-ups don’t conform to certain strange interpretations of human nature. There is a reason Hamlet is more important to the Western literary canon than Shakespeare’s genuinely Grimdark piece, Titus Andronicus, and I think it is at least partly because it achieves the proclaimed goals of Grimdark (dark, tragic, moral ambiguity) more effectively than the Grimdark mode does itself.

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Shifting out of genre, one could – if one were feeling harsh – see antecedents for Grimdark in the work of the Marquis de Sade. Harsh, because, whatever its faults, modern torture porn tends to be better written than the eighteenth century variety (there are better fanfiction writers than the Marquis). Oh, and while there is copious cynicism, de Sade’s work lacks anything that a twenty-first century audience would consider humour.

Leaving aside whether de Sade was trolling, getting his rocks off, satirising society, or some combination thereof, the argument that he presents in Justine (1791) runs essentially as follows: what is good is determined not by a (non-existent) God and His corrupt church, nor by man-made institutions and law, but by Nature – and it is not man’s place to go against Nature. To illustrate this, De Sade’s ‘novel’ features two sisters, Justine and Juliette. Justine stays true to her faith, and commits to a life of virtue. Juliette starts off by working in a brothel, and from there commits to a life of vice. Justine is then subjected to an endless string of rapes and torments by every depraved libertine in France (there are a lot of them in the book), whereas Juliette prospers from her wicked ways. Ergo, Nature punishes virtue, and rewards vice, which means human beings should listen to their baser instincts, obey Nature, and be good by being bad. Q.E.D.

Between the notion that Being a Bastard is the only way to get ahead in the world, and de Sade’s (actually very sincere) rants about the wrongness of organised religion, one can see the overlap between this and Grimdark. De Sade does take things a bit further, admittedly – he is writing a self-consciously immoral work, whereas modern Grimdark prefers amorality – but poor Justine’s journey has the same excited delight in suffering one finds in the later seasons of TV’s Game of Thrones. Imagine Sansa Stark fleeing from one Ramsay Bolton to the next, all the while being given strange philosophical lectures as the Boltons try to correct her, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. To cap it all off, of course, Justine dies by being struck by lightning. I told you de Sade was a terrible writer.

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Based off the above two thousand words, you can probably guess that I am not a fan of the Grimdark sub-genre. True enough, and I would not personally categorise any of my own work under the heading (your mileage may vary). On the other hand, I wish to clarify that I do not hate the sub-genre as such. If I have one objection, it would be that as a literary reaction to ‘fluffy’ fantasy, Grimdark has become played out these past ten or more years – and the solution to a jaded audience is not to ramp up the rapes and murders even more (*cough* Game of Thrones *cough*). This isn’t prudishness on my part either, but having read a fair amount of de Sade, I like to think that we in 2019 can do better than rehashing the “greatest hits” of an eighteenth century troll.

With that out of my system, let’s take a look at C.T. Phipps’ essay on the Grimdark hero:

Grimdark is a relatively new subgenre in the world of fantasy and science fiction, having emerged as the grittier, morally ambiguous side of fantasy in the 1970s and ‘80s with the likes of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series, Glen Cook’s Black Company, and the Warhammer 40K role-playing games and related literature.

As I have suggested above, I am sceptical that the ideas behind Grimdark are necessarily new, even if the notion of these ideas actually being a sub-genre unto itself is indeed a recent development.

As an author with a taste for the genre, I was required to ask myself a simple question: if I’m not going to write about a world where being the good guy works out, then what is the motive for the protagonist? What do our heroes fight for if, taking a look around themselves, they can’t noticeably measure any improvement in the world? Is it just a matter of making their opponents worse off than themselves? Turning those questions over in my mind, I came to the conclusion that answering them would make a pretty good novel in itself.

There is an implicit assumption here that someone would only do something if there was a tangible benefit arising from it. I think this is a short-sighted view of human nature – in addition to noting the unintentional evocation of de Sade (“if the world punishes Justine for being virtuous, why not be Juliette?”), I would also point out the entire Northern Theory of Courage, which so fascinated Tolkien, was based on the premise that true heroism was fighting on in a lost battle. People do absolutely futile things all the time, for matters of principle.

Gilgamesh, literature’s earliest known hero, was a complete bastard with sex addiction and aging issues. Hercules’ entire history consists of murdering people, then feeling really bad about it, so he murders some more offensive people. King Arthur, depending on the myth, one-upped Herod the infant-slayer and intended to burn his wife at the stake instead of sending her away. Indeed, it’s not until fairly recently people decided that heroes need to do more than awesome things to earn that title; they had to be role models as well—and we all know that just left a vacancy for other kinds of protagonists. 

Applying modern attitudes and value systems to pre-modern societies – as this paragraph does – is a very dangerous game. How heroism is evaluated varied from society to society, and that includes how cultures viewed attributes that we would consider reprehensible.

(Arthur did not “one-up” Herod. In the story in question, he considered himself bound by law – and the law just happened to dictate burning at the stake.).

The first characteristic of a grimdark hero is, by and large, they aren’t fighting to improve the world. There are exceptions to this, of course, but mostly this truism holds fast: the grimdark protagonist is a product of their environment. Conan the Barbarian kills, plunders, and indulges because that’s what barbarians do. Elric is from a society where good is an alien concept, and his chief source of woe is his realization that that’s really messed up. There are idealistic figures in the world of grimdark, but invariably, they are bigger bads than the bandits because the axiomatic nature of grimdark is things don’t get better.

My immediate thought here was if Phipps considers Bilbo Baggins a grimdark hero. He’s not fighting to save the world – he’s employed to steal treasure.

Conan is often fighting the evil wizard of the week in order to rescue the damsel in distress. I think Phipps is confusing low stakes with inherent cynicism – sword and sorcery is rarely set on an epic scale. The difference between saving the world and saving the damsel is quantitative, not qualitative (it’s not as if Conan ever needs to save the world (Elric does, of course)).

It is an impressive summary of just how the grimdark world differs from that of more mainstream fiction, emphasising that things do not always work out for the best and events play out with no regard for the morality of the participants. 

I think this is a misrepresentation of mainstream fiction. If events always worked out for the best, we would not have stories. And if events always played out with regard to morality, all stories would be nothing more than morality plays. There are plenty of works that are clearly not Grimdark, but which are also not morality plays.

Locke Lamora, protagonist of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, is a con man who possesses no higher aspirations than to continue tricking the absurdly wealthy out of their goods. He’s not even doing it for the money but simply because he enjoys tricking them. 

Oh, he enjoys it, yes. But Phipps is missing one key component of Locke’s motivations. His devotion to the cause of the Crooked Warden is more than simply “thieves prosper.” It is also “the rich remember” – in short, idealistic notions of class war. Idealistic because a cynic would be more than happy with the Secret Peace.

The grimdark hero is the product of their world. They are nasty because the world is nasty, ruthless because the world is ruthless, and cruel because the world is trying to step on their face.

Again with the implicit assumptions. Juliette must be the hero because the world is nasty to Justine?

Even so, the best grimdark heroes are also the ones who invite us to sympathize with their perspective and maintain some sort of human hook that we can hold onto while enjoying the ride through their existence. Some lesser authors of the genre fail to keep readers invested in their protagonist because in their desire to shock, they neglect to make the protagonist someone who, actions aside, we want to succeed

On this point, I agree with Phipps. Perhaps I’d quibble, and replace sympathise with emphathise, but the basically the point stands.

The grimdark hero at their best is like Geralt, doing good in spite of its pointlessness, or at least having fun. 

But, given the stakes involved, it is not pointless. By slaying a given monster, Geralt is helping people. He’s not saving the world, but he is making a difference – ask Ciri whether Geralt’s actions are pointless.

Most stories don’t involve the protagonists saving the world, because most people are rarely in a position to do so. That doesn’t make those stories grimdark. It just means they’re stories where the stakes aren’t that high. Personally, I am also on the fence as to whether I would consider Sapkowski’s Witcher books Grimdark, but let’s run with it…

The grimdark hero is the protagonist in a story who survives in a world not of their choosing. By hook or by crook, they will always fight to survive. Death may eventually claim them but it will not be for a lack of fighting. They have some quality, some spark of humanity, that rebels against a world of meaningless cruelty and apathy. This may only be because they find themselves in an otherwise miserable hellhole. We see some element of ourselves in the grimdark hero, not as we aspire to be, at least morally, but how we hope we might scratch out an existence in the worst of circumstances.

Well and good, and, yes, this is certainly a sentiment I can get behind (in my more self-important moments, I like to think my own Teltö Phuul is a less glamorous take on this). My issue is that I simply do not see this sort of character as being unique to Grimdark – indeed, I see potential for a fair degree of overlap with anti-heroes.

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That concludes today’s essay on Grimdark. This one was written with a heavy degree of subjectivity in mind – this as an issue of definitions more than anything, and where, exactly, one draws the line between Grimdark and non-Grimdark. I suspect C.T. Phipps takes a broader view of the sub-genre than I do.

Of Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

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Most people will have never read Paul Clifford, the 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – but everyone knows the first seven words. “It was a dark and stormy night” has been parodied endlessly, to the point where it is far better known via mockery than via any context that plays the line straight. It’s the opening line of Snoopy’s novel. It is, famously, the textbook example of bad writing, to the point where Bulwer-Lytton now has his name associated with a bad writing contest.

Is this remotely fair? No, it isn’t. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “it was a dark and stormy night” at the technical level. I wouldn’t go using it in a non-ironic sense – we’ll get to that shortly – but quibbling over “where it goes wrong” is, as this 2012 Ferretbrain article suggests, a bit silly.

That said, technical considerations are really one piece of the puzzle. Where I feel the linked article goes off the rails is that it is so interested in exceptions to “superstitious rules” (some of which do exist, for a reason) that it ignores one simple concept. Namely, that the purpose of writing – any writing – is to create an effect in the mind of the reader. Quite apart from Snoopy at the typewriter, what effect does reading “it was a dark and stormy night” have? Well, for me, I don’t immediately think of the image it is trying to evoke. I simply see a stock phrase, and a distracting one at that. Readers don’t like distractions – while everyone uses stock phrases to communicate concepts, I think it advisable to keep them away from story openings. First impressions, and all.

But this is merely why I, writing in 2019, would avoid it, not why a novel written in 1830 has issues, and besides, stock phrases are a dime a dozen (cue deliberate irony…). What has Bulwer-Lytton done to deserve his opening being turned into a stock phrase of eternal infamy? In this case, I would dig a bit further. Never mind the 189 years of received wisdom and mockery, what does “it was a dark and stormy night” evoke? I would suggests it evokes a particular mood. A mood associated with wind-swept heaths, pipe organs, moustache-twirling villains, heaving bosoms, silken handkerchiefs, opera capes, and Christopher Lee’s Dracula in yet in another Hammer Horror retread. In short – and Ferretbrain does not use the word once – “it was a dark and stormy night” creates a sense of melodrama.

Melodrama is over-the-top appeal to emotion, which is problematic because it calls attention to itself, and distracts from the actual story. Encountering characters (invariably female ones) bursting into tears at the slightest setback creates a sense of artificiality. Real people, even sensitive ones, don’t behave like that. “It was a dark and stormy night” conjures up images of that sort of story, so by having those seven words as the opening, Bulwer-Lytton tips us off (unintentionally or not) that his tale will be of a certain type – albeit I have only read the first chapter of Paul Clifford and a plot summary, so I cannot judge how fair that is. In any case, emotion-packed narratives were popular in the nineteenth century – less so now. Modern tastes tend to snigger at melodrama… hence Snoopy, and hence the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Speaking of Bulwer-Lytton being the victim of changing tastes, nineteenth century prose styles were often more verbose than what we encounter today, and in referring to the opening line, I have actually simplified things. “It was a dark and stormy night” is only the first seven words of the opening – even if it’s the only part anyone remembers. The actual first line of Paul Clifford is this:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Oh dear. The melodrama is still there (violent gusts, scanty flames, darkness… are you filled with sufficient foreboding now, dear reader?), but now we really can critique Bulwer-Lytton at the technical level. A surfeit of adjectives and adverbs is forgivable – I have read my share of H.P. Lovecraft – but this opening sentence is objectively overwritten, and the parenthetical aside about London is just funny to a modern eye. That said, my favourite line from the first chapter of Paul Clifford has to be this one:

This made the scene,—save that on a chair by the bedside lay a profusion of long, glossy, golden ringlets, which had been cut from the head of the sufferer when the fever had begun to mount upwards, but which, with a jealousy that portrayed the darling littleness of a vain heart, she had seized and insisted on retaining near her; and save that, by the fire, perfectly inattentive to the event about to take place within the chamber, and to which we of the biped race attach so awful an importance, lay a large gray cat, curled in a ball, and dozing with half-shut eyes, and ears that now and then denoted, by a gentle inflection, the jar of a louder or nearer sound than usual upon her lethargic senses. 

A woman is dying of fever, yet Bulwer-Lytton (in a single sentence!) takes time out to describe a comfortable fireside cat. I don’t think it is really bad writing in the sense of what we normally consider bad writing – it’s actually a nice visual image, described with some precision – but the discrepancy between the death scene and the manner in which it is written is just peculiar. Small wonder that Bulwer-Lytton lends himself to modern laughter, even if it is unfair that he’s only remembered for that “infamous” line. The nineteenth century produced much worse writers than he.

[New Zealand Politics] Jumping At Blue-Green Shadows

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Consider New Zealand’s 2017 election results:

  • National: 44.5%
  • Labour: 36.9%
  • New Zealand First: 7.2%
  • Greens: 6.3%
  • ACT: 0.5%

And the most recent Colmar-Brunton Poll from December 2018:

  • National: 46%
  • Labour: 43%
  • Greens: 5%
  • New Zealand First: 4%
  • ACT: 1%

The threshold for achieving parliamentary representation in New Zealand is getting 5% of the vote or winning an electorate seat (we have a proportional MMP voting system borrowed from Germany). After the last election, Labour and New Zealand First formed a government, supported by the Greens. National and their client party, ACT (who never get 5%, but which get handed an electorate seat by National in Epsom) are in opposition.

Now, you may notice, that despite being the largest single party, National struggles to actually form a government, because it lacks allies: basically, the right-wing vote in New Zealand is cannibalised by one large Tory Party, while the left-wing vote is more splintered – which under MMP is advantageous, so long as the splinter parties remain above the threshold. All well and good, so what can National do about its predicament?

It really has four options:

  • Boost its support so it can win a majority in its own right. – Unlikely, unless there is a large economic downturn between now and the next election (due September/October 2020).
  • Convince New Zealand First or the Greens to switch sides. – New Zealand First is economically centrist and socially conservative, with a populist streak. The Greens, are, well, the Greens: socially liberal and environmentally focused. The Greens, obviously, would not support National (economically right-wing and socially centrist), but New Zealand First might, on paper. Problem is, there is enough bad blood between National and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters to fuel an entire season of Game of Thrones (minus the sex), and Peters seems broadly happy working with Labour (economically centrist and socially liberal).
  • Create/rehabilitate a potential coalition partner. – From a strategic angle, this is really what National should be doing. Problem is, the ACT brand is toxic, and there just aren’t enough conservative “right of National” voters to get a small right-wing party across the 5% threshold (I think there would be if the threshold were 3%, but it’s not).
  • Kick New Zealand First and/or the Greens under 5%. A parliament consisting of just National and Labour (and puppet ACT) – hitherto unthinkable under a proportional electoral system like MMP – would mean a National Government.

The fourth option is what National is currently doing: attacking Winston Peters whenever they can – which is why the Penguin devotes so much attention to him. This brings me to the real subject matter of today’s post: the imminent formation of a Blue-Green Party led by Vernon Tava – a “new” environmental party that (unlike the existing Green Party) would prop up the Nats.

Well, that’s the cover story anyway. The Herald article and various right-wing commentators are portraying such a party as having a “good chance”. They don’t. The sort of person who would support such a party is voting National anyway – so why bother? They aren’t remotely getting 5% unless the National Party collapses 2002-style. The real motivation here – as Chris Trotter correctly recognises – is to split the Green vote, kick the Greens under 5%, and hence out of Parliament. Which is what National wants.

I agree with Trotter that, ideologically, a Blue-Green Party would be irredeemably compromised – it would essentially become a Tory greenwasher/apologist. Where I disagree is the extent to which this would actually be a threat to the Green Party:

From the hints he has so far thrown out to the news media, Tava’s strategy would appear to be to match the Greens in the “responsible environmentalists” stakes, while highlighting the outlandish and seriously alienating words and deeds of the Greens’ social revolutionaries. The more of the latter he is able to bring to the electorate’s attention, the more likely Tava is to detach at least some of the Greens’ more conservative supporters. The Greens leaders should be aware that there will be no shortage of generous right-wing donors lining-up to resource a Blue-Green Party dedicated to dividing and demoralising the Greens’ electoral base. 

The implicit assumption is that the Greens have attracted the occasional environmentally conscious conservative, and such people are vulnerable to Tava’s charms. This, incidentally, is also the conclusion of the Nats’ Pet Troll, Mike Hosking, who thinks there is a constituency of people who are concerned about environmental issues, but who don’t agree with Green Party social activism.

This assumption founders on one basic problem: “conservative” environmentalists don’t vote Green as it is. They already vote for someone else.

New Zealand Green Party voters – despite what the Green Party likes to think about itself – tend to be well-off, well-educated, urban, and socially liberal. The seats where the Greens exceeded 4000 party votes in 2017? Auckland Central, Dunedin North, Mt Albert, Port Hills, Rongotai, and Wellington Central. University-infused social activism is a feature for such people, not a bug. Moreover, when the Greens do perform outside this core base, it is not through attracting small ‘g’ green conservatives, but through attracting the vote of disgruntled Labourites. In short, anyone voting Green in New Zealand – at least in 2017 – does not have the least bit of interest in seeing a National Government, and by extension, would not respond favourably to a Blue-Green Party whose raison d’être is “less social liberalism” and “more co-operation with the Tories”.

Ergo, the Blue-Green Party will be a flat failure, and if they end up taking 1-2% off anyone, it will be National itself. Trotter is jumping at shadows.

In the Land of the Elephant’s Footprint – accepted

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My Golden Summer of Horror continues. My 2400-word science-fiction/horror piece, In the Land of the Elephant’s Footprint, has been accepted by Into the Ruins for their next issue. The nice thing about far-future stories (also seen in my previous Green Antarctica story) is that you get to get creative with the setting, while retaining the odd little references to our current world. In this case, the reference in the title is to a certain Elephant’s Foot, destined to haunt humanity for millennia to come.

2019 Reading More: January (+ Old New Zealand Racists + Ponies)

Completed reads for January:

  • The Shadow, by Lionel Terry
  • Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey

Yeah, not a great start for a year where I want to read more. The Shadow shouldn’t count either – it’s really a 30 page racist pamphlet from 1904, that I read for research purposes (Lionel Terry is one of the most famous madmen/murderers/far-right nutters in New Zealand history, and I intend to write a story that deals with him). Suffice to say, I felt a tad icky afterwards. It also doesn’t help that Terry’s ideological heirs are running around a hundred years later, more vocal than ever, but decidedly not confined to mental institutions.

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That said, January proved a month for watching, rather than reading. I managed to work my way through all eight seasons of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (totalling some 195 episodes). I already had a working knowledge of MLP, having previously rented a room from a couple who had a pair of young girls (not just MLP either. The kids were obsessed with Frozen)… but I’d never actually sat down and watched the series in its entirety. Well, now I have.

I’m aware I am a bit late to the party here – the Brony controversy having died down some years ago – but better late than never. To be honest, my previous scepticism (everyone starts out a sceptic) had less to do with gender conformity (which I couldn’t care less about), and more because as someone who was a child in the early 1990s, I regarded the franchise as a glorified means of selling toys. To encounter a version of the series that has genuinely good story-telling, and genuinely positive themes, was a very pleasant surprise – at least in the earlier seasons. Seasons 6-8 are weaker, and the show is clearly running on fumes at this point.

The Keeper – accepted

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2019 is turning into quite the Summer of Horror for me, at least in the writing department. I have had another acceptance, this time my 1900-word piece, The Keeper, which has been picked up by The Horror Zine for their April 2019 issue.

The Keeper has an interesting history. The germ of it was re-watching the old 1977 Doctor Who serial, The Horror of Fang Rock (Tom Baker’s the Doctor), which put me in the mood for writing a lighthouse setting. It’s also got a self-conscious shout-out to Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of “it was a dark and stormy night” fame)… which I hope I get away with. Having a protagonist with an academic background in nineteenth century English Literature can cover up the most awful things.

This was also one of those stories which greatly benefited from a recent re-edit. It had been getting its share of rejections, and I could see why (lack of clarity, too many adjectives). Luckily, in this case, a re-write seems to have done the trick.

A Christmas in Bohemia – accepted

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Remember last month when I wrote a piece about my fondness for Good King Wenceslas? Well, that wasn’t quite everything I had to say on the subject.

You see, about a year ago, I stumbled across an anthology call for stories that gleefully took the piss out of Christmas. Rather than writing yet another “Santa Claus” story – done to death in all forms of Western media – I decided to write a depraved retelling of my favourite Carol. The result was ‘A Christmas in Bohemia’ – easily the sickest 3600 words I have ever written.

My story got rejected by the anthology (fair enough, really), and I thought that was that. No-one else could possibly want something like this thing, so A Christmas in Bohemia sat, gathering dust, in a corner of my hard-drive. Until now.

A Christmas in Bohemia has been accepted by Infernal Ink Magazine, for their Fall/Winter 2019 edition. Yes, a retelling of my favourite Christmas Carol will wind up in a collection of Erotic Horror. Hooray for genre adventurism, I guess?

A Tolkien Reading Order

The question of Tolkienian reading order has popped up in a couple of places recently. It’s a basic question, but a fair enough one too – fifteen years after the last Jackson Rings film came out, there is now an entire generation who know the story from that source, rather than the original. And, well, The Fall of Gondolin has come out since I offered my opinion on The History of Middle-earth series – my earlier advice to read Book of Lost Tales Volume II is now redundant.

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My opinion, as far as the Middle-earth texts go:

  1. The Hobbit. – I myself read The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings, but while it is perfectly do-able, I think it’s a mistake. Reading The Hobbit first will give much more insight into certain aspects of Rings (such as the grief at the tomb of Balin), plus it’s less likely to lead to treating The Hobbit as something it is not. This is not a grand epic – it’s a whimsical adventure with some darkness towards the end. And, pragmatically, The Hobbit is short.
  2. The Lord of the Rings. – Goes without saying, really.
  3. The Silmarillion. – Not a light read, of course, but thoroughly rewarding. Note that in contrast to most of the later stuff in this list, it is a coherent narrative within the covers of one book. You don’t get confronted with a series of unfinished texts and commentary. The 1977 Silmarillion was, however, assembled out of such texts by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay after J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, so if you care about strict “canon”, you’re going to want to nitpick after reading the other stuff (I don’t – it’s a bloody mythology, and in any case Pengolodh was Biased).
  4. The Children of Húrin. – Another coherent posthumous work, assembled by Christopher in 2007. If you have read The Silmarillion first, you will know what happens already, but I don’t think spoilers are a real concern here – the major point of Children is that it is a book-long expansion of a single Silmarillion chapter, making it the most complete of the Great Tales of the First Age.
  5. Unfinished Tales. – The most accessible of what is to come, this is a 1980 compilation of unfinished texts and commentary. I would advise skipping its First Age section, however – Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin is featured again in The Fall of Gondolin (it’s basically half that book), and if you have read The Children of Húrin, you’ll find that story repeated here in the Narn i Chîn Húrin section (the Narn was one of the texts used to assemble the later book). For Second and Third Age material, Unfinished Tales is pretty neat though – including some great world-building essays and background material.
  6. Beren and Lúthien. – A collection of unfinished texts and commentary, focused unsurprisingly on the Beren and Lúthien story. Whereas Unfinished Tales is broad, this one is narrow, and probably less user-friendly, in that a fair amount of this volume is verse (specifically heroic rhyming couplets).
  7. The Fall of Gondolin. – The third and last of the Great Tales, this is another focused study. Half the book is already featured in Unfinished Tales, and the other half is featured in The Book of Lost Tales Volume II, but its major selling point is its accessibility: this is the Gondolin story within the covers of one book. See here for my more detailed review.
  8. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. – If you have come this far, you’ll likely have at least a passing interest in the man behind the myth, Death of the Author or no. Letter 210 – Tolkien’s commentary on a proposed film adaption – is priceless. While strictly outside the scope of this post, I can also recommend Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien.
  9. The History of Middle-earth Volumes 10-12 [Morgoth’s Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth]. – My summary here. The indispensable part of The History of Middle-earth series (Volume 2 may be redundant now, but these aren’t).
  10. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. – A forgotten part of the ‘canon’ (it was published in Tolkien’s own lifetime, so there), The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is a short and completely optional read. It’s (mostly) whimsical poetry, very much in the tradition of Lord Dunsany, and is ostensibly a collection of hobbit folk traditions in verse form. Just be warned of one infamous scene.
  11. The Road Goes Ever On. – Even shorter and more forgotten than #9, this is really another completely optional read. It is ranked as high as it is purely because it requires so little reader investment, but it is another neat little addition to the list of Middle-earth works that appeared in Tolkien’s own lifetime – with sheet music by Donald Swann – and reaffirms the ‘traditional’ backstory of Galadriel. See here for more information about it.
  12. The History of the Hobbit (2 volumes). – John Rateliff takes on Christopher’s traditional role as commentator, looking at the drafts and development of The Hobbit. The major selling point of this one is that it contains the (now-legendary) original chapter of Riddles in the Dark – the version that Tolkien re-wrote to better reflect the Gollum of Rings.
  13. The History of Middle-earth Volumes 1-9. – The optional volumes of the series. See my comments here.

Tolkien produced non-Middle-earth material too, of course: Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, Mr Bliss, and Roverandom. And the various posthumous bits and pieces, though they have a bad habit of being overpriced…

2018 Not a Reading Challenge: The List

My completed reads for 2018:

  1. Jirel of Joiry, by C.L. Moore
  2. Northwest of Earth, by C.L. Moore
  3. Krabat, by Ottfried Preussler
  4. The Training and Work of an Initiate, by Dion Fortune
  5. The Conquest of Bread, by Peter Kropotkin
  6. Jack London: Selected Short Stories, by Jack London
  7. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
  8. The Story of Kullervo, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. The Marquis de Sade: A Life, by Neil Schaeffer
  10. The Dance of the White Cranes, by Alexander Goeb
  11. Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
  12. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
  13. Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  14. The Aztecs, by Nigel Davies
  15. The Fall of Gondolin, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  16. The Fifth Sun, by Burr Cartwright Brundage
  17. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  18. Justine, by the Marquis de Sade
  19. Sailing to Sarantium, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  20. The Book of the Law, by Aleister Crowley
  21. The Four Socratic Dialogues of Plato, by Plato
  22. Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook, by Terry Pratchett
  23. Time of Contempt, by Andrzej Sapkowski

So, yeah. Pretty disappointing – and well short of the one hundred and three I managed in 2016. 2019 will have a quite simple objective: Read More.