While I was in Greece working for two weeks I had no internet access, something of a catastrophe for my millions of fans but a strange chance to chill out for me. Fortunately I had downloaded a couple of books to my kindle before I left so I had plenty to occupy me, and first on my list was the Richard Morgan series The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. In this post I will give a brief review of the two books, but what I’m really interested in with these books is the subtext, and the underlying implications of the world structure of the sub-genre they are derived from.
I have previously read and reviewed Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk/space opera cross-over novels, Altered Carbon and Woken Furies, both of which I really enjoyed for dubious reasons. Richard Morgan’s two new novels are fantasies rather than science fiction, and are also a departure from his previous style in that they are clearly intended to be “grimdark,” that new style of fantasy realism that embraces violence, rape and brutality but, most especially, rape. In his sci fi, Morgan kept the sexual violence repressed and simmering on the edge of the story: sure, there were snuff movie makers and some nasty criminal undergrounds, but they were just that – some kind of tiny minority who traded cruelty to a tiny minority. In The Steel Remains series, Morgan has moved the sexual violence to the centre of the story, along with a heavy dose of brutality, and embraced all the lowest aspects of grimdark. I have previously commented critically on his justification for doing this, and also on the general trend towards misogyny and violence in stories like A Game of Thrones, so I entered these two novels with very mixed views on what to expect.
First of all, I enjoyed these books for all the same reasons I enjoyed his previous works. In their broad outline they haven’t really deviated much from the basic themes of Altered Carbon. The story features on some elite soldiers who are veterans of a great war to save civilization. The war was brutal and they are scarred from it; but even more by the the cruelties they were forced to commit when they were deployed to put down civil revolts near the end of the war. They have emerged as scarred survivors with a very short fuse and a strong drive to hurt bullies and criminals, largely to try and rectify their own past complicity in horrible crimes. This means we get to see a healthy dose of bully-smashing, which I always find thoroughly enjoyable: child rapists, murderers, slavers, torturers and bastards get all manner of cruel and just desserts in this story, and it’s really hard to feel any pity for them. The world they’re in shows no shortage of such people, and in fact if our heroes were to set out on a mission to do in every bully and cruel bastard on the planet, they would end up very lonely. The world is divided into two main countries, a northern and southern empire that are basically equivalent to Europe and Asia Minor: the southern continent is clearly meant to be Muslim. One of our heroes is a gay son of a very privileged family, in a world where homosexuality is a deep sin; another is an outlander from horse tribes generally seen as barbarians. The main character (the gay man) is a picture in repressed rage, basically a shirt-lifting version of Kovacs from Altered Carbon. There’s a lot to like in watching these two men dispense with anyone who offends their sense of rightness which is, in general, the same as the reader’s. I think this means they are relatively (for fantasy) deep and complex characters, and generally in the right in a degraded and mediaeval kind of way. Unfortunately the story is not as tight as in his previous works: there are parts that don’t make sense and at times it feels like I missed a book, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Some sections, particularly those set in the faerie world, just don’t make any sense to me. There’s also a strong deus ex machina running through the whole latter part of the story, with one of the characters basically getting out of any situation through his role as vessel for some ancient darkness, the role of which is not explained. That aspect of the novels is pretty shit, actually, and I was disappointed with those elements of the story. So, although the novels retain some aspects of Richard Morgan’s best works, they represent both a structural and moral degeneration from his previous highs.
Which brings us to the issue of the grimdark. If the moral universe in which our heroes operate were to be characterized in two easy themes, it would be: every man rapes, and the strong can kill with impunity. This is grimdark, you see. At the time the story is set, the northern kingdom has instituted a new system of debt slavery, in which basically anyone who cannot pay a debt can be sold, along with their family, into permanent and brutal slavery. That is, if your neighbour goes underwater on their mortgage, you can buy them, and then rape them with impunity – and even pay for them to be sent to a special training school which will somehow (probably, the implication is, through rape and violence) turn them into willing sex slaves.
Furthermore, as far as I could tell in this world, free women seem to be divided into only two types of person: noblewomen and sex workers (who of course are routinely referred to as “whores,” a noun which in this story basically replaces “woman” in the narrative flow). The men could fill more roles, but no matter what they did, unless they were very very high in society, our heroes could murder them in the street without paying any penalty. It appears that in this world of grimdark, slaughtering people who spill your beer is pretty standard practice. I guess beer is expensive.
The implications of these setting elements are obvious and abhorrent. What kind of world can pass a law to enslave ordinary people’s neighbours? How is that going to work? Sure, one of our heroes is employed to rescue a girl from his extended family who is sold into this situation, but we’re somehow meant to believe that they are the first and only family to decide to take independent action against slavery, and that the rest of the world is just going along with it. This seems hardly credible. There is not, in general, any particular group targeted for exclusion and enslavement, and no sense that “it won’t happen to me.” Just ordinary families getting swept up in slavery because they went into debt. This scenario is just impossible to credit, even in a mediaeval dictatorship. Who would tolerate this? How long would it last before people started rebelling? Especially in a world where heroes can kill ordinary men with impunity, it seems pretty likely that a village would scrape up the money to pay a few mercenaries to go and liberate their enslaved members. It seems far less likely that they would buy those enslaved members and then subject them to the full cruelties of lifelong slavery. “Hi Bob, yes, I always enjoyed chatting with you at the pub, but from now on I own your family because you didn’t pay the beer tab, so I’m going to rape your wife and daughter every day.” Doesn’t figure, does it? But the society of these novels seems to just go along with it, as if they had a missing moral bone … which they certainly seem to lack when it comes to prostitution and murder.
There are prostitutes – sorry, “whores” – everywhere in this story. In one notable scene, our hero is stalking through some random street and hears a prostitute – sorry, a “whore” – busily sucking off a sailor in an alley, then notices a whole queue of sailors waiting for her services. This is … phenomenally weird. Everywhere we turn there are “whores,” but these men have to queue up; or is it the case that demand outstrips supply? In which case how can these sailors afford a blow job, and why are there “whores” everywhere we look? In this story “whores” serve as a kind of scenery or background the way trees, birds and carriages might be in a more standard story. Whereas in the Belgariad our heroes would be leaning against a wall and an ale cart or a bird seller might walk by, in this world it’s always a perfumed “whore,” who trails behind her (in a particularly odious moment of poor writing) “the smell of used woman.” Scanning the world Morgan lays out for us, there seem to be no female shop-keepers, apiarists, porters or grocers: just noblewoman and “whores.” And there are an awful lot of them, too. Also, just as in A Game of Thrones, these “whores” appear to be completely expendable, so if you have ever wondered what it’s like to kill a girl, you just hire one of those expendable “whore” things that are on every street corner, and no one will care if you do her in horribly. How does such a world come about, especially when there is a huge stock of slaves available to be used however one sees fit? The only way I can see this working is if there is a massive gender imbalance, but the female majority hasn’t yet figured out it can gang up and take over just from sheer weight of numbers. It’s just economically and politically weird. It seems, for example, that men care about their daughters – so how are they tolerating a world where every second daughter grows up to become an expendable “whore”? The observable nature of the world seems to run repeatedly up against the moral framework, in a way that ultimately cannot be reconciled.
The same applies with the weird phenomenon of people being able to murder each other with impunity, and also the cold-blooded way that men routinely dispose of all injured opponents by killing them. No world that works this way would stay civilized, and typically these kinds of extra-legal killings have only been possible in special places or at special times. The degree of casual murder on display in this story would be out of place in Japanese-occupied Manchuria or modern Afghanistan (as, for that matter, would the degree of misogynist violence). Those places were devastated war-zones under occupation; we’re meant to believe that this world is a functioning and stable society, bar a little bit of war recovery.
There is no place and time in history that has managed to stay civilized and maintain this degree of sexual and non-sexual violence. The setting is impossible, unless we are to imagine that the obviously basically human societies being portrayed are fundamentally amoral and alien, which they’re clearly not meant to be. It’s as if Morgan wanted to portray the moral exigencies of men trapped in total war (which is certainly the implication of his self-exculpatory musings linked to above) but couldn’t be bothered stepping outside the standard fantasy setting – as if it was too much effort to create the physical backdrop for the moral story. And who would want to write this moral story anyway?
I think this is a problem with “grimdark” generally: they want to write a world where men have unparalleled rights over and access to women, but they want to imagine a world where women can still walk the streets freely; they want men to be able to kill bullies without punishment, but they want a world where men still drink together with strangers in pubs. The reality is that these worlds don’t coincide, and the failure of the grimdark authors to realize this makes me think that they’re actually just using a cheap, knock-off fantasy setting to work through their unresolved adolescent issues: they want to get back at all the women who rejected them and all the men who bullied them, but they haven’t the imagination to construct a setting where this is possible; so they just dial our assumptions about the barbarity of mediaeval worlds up to 11, and get to work on the non-consensual sex. To me, this is lazy and weak world creation, and yet another example of how over the past 30 years the fantasy genre has consistently failed to live up to its transformative and speculative potential. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that, as the nerds of the 80s grow into the peak of their spending power, and also start to experience their mid-life crises, their fiction will begin to be dominated by stories that appeal to their unresolved adolescent angst. But if it’s going to do that, I would prefer that it would at least do so in a slightly more mature and creative way than “grimdark” has so far managed to present me with. I guess I was hoping for too much …
fn1: That’s a lie actually, I was very angry about it.
fn2: Kindles are worth their weight in gold when you are travelling
fn3: Actually the soft-porn bdsm series Gor from the 70s(?) did this. In that story the author constructed a moral framework in which women fundamentally want to be used by men, and are turned on by male power. Although superficially based on capture and forced enslavement, willing were actually consenting to their own slavery, thus didn’t rebel and could be turned into willing sex slaves. Whether or not you think this is horrible (I don’t; I think it’s just porn) it is, at least, an attempt to make the moral underpinnings of the story match the actions of the protagonists. It’s an attempt to explore what the world would be like (from a pornographic perspective) if humans were morally different to how we actually are. Grimdark doesn’t bother with this speculation: it just rapes people.
fn4: that sentence sounds clumsy if it ends with the word “women,” but let’s be clear about this: by and large, grimdark doesn’t rape men (or if it does, they are generally deserving of it). It rapes women. Over and over again.