Genre Barleycorn vs. Rooster Cogburn: Grit in SF/F

A recent entry in peadarog‘s blog has got me thinking about realism and grit in fantasy.

My favorite definition of sword-and-sorcery is Joseph McCullough’s: “Fantasy with dirt.” In high fantasy, Aragorn grapples with Sauron over the rule of Middle Earth. In sword-and-sorcery, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are living on the street and complain about the smog (“The Cloud of Hate”). The scale is different, certainly, but more significantly the setting is different–grubbier and more threadbare. And any acts of heroism in Lankhmar appear on stage against a background of darker and more mercenary motives. That’s what I mean when I talk about grit in fantasy (and I like both gritty and relatively grit-free stuff, by the way; it’s all a matter of how well it’s done).

Realism and grit are always relative. One of the cool things about the spaceships in 2001 was that they were these immaculate shining instruments of human aspiration. And one of the cool things about the spaceships in Star Wars was that they were dirty, beat-up things that had to be kicked every now and then to make them work. Neither really has a claim to reality, but each has its own type of realism, one grittier than the other.

C.S. Lewis famously distinguished between the realism of presentation and the realism of content. Most questions of realism in sf/f hinge on realism of presentation: with what plausible concrete details these imaginary events are embodied? One of Lewis’ examples is “the dragon ‘sniffing along the stones’ in Beowulf“, and his own greatest strength as a fantasist was his ability to vividly embody the fantastic (sometimes at the cost of making it seem less marvellous).

But I think any claims a genre work has to realism of content should be treated with extreme suspicion. Fantasy and science fiction in particular, and fiction in general, are defined by their unreal content. Storytellers who start to preen about the realistic content of their stories are either trying to put one over on their audience, or they fundamentally misunderstand the cultural game of storytelling–in which case they are unlikely to do it well. That was my problem with the briefly fabled anti-fabulist “Mundane SF” movement.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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8 Responses to Genre Barleycorn vs. Rooster Cogburn: Grit in SF/F

  1. peadarog says:

    “One of the cool things about the spaceships in 2001 was that they were these immaculate shining instruments of human aspiration. And one of the cool things about the spaceships in Star Wars was that they were dirty, beat-up things that had to be kicked every now and then to make them work.”

    Exactly right! Thanks for the mention, but once again, you leave me eating your dust. Or should I say, ‘grit’? ;-p

  2. al_zorra says:

    I don’t know if the real problem is that people get so excited about the period details and the world-building and the nifty ideas, but have no real story or characters.

    This happens in the movies all the time, for instance the Alexander the Great movie, and The Last of the Mohicans. I recall the director of the latter talking at great length about the care they took to make sure the buttons on the uniforms were exactly historically correct — which, of course, the audience doesn’t ever really see. But he didn’t seem to have taken any thought to providing any personality to the women principals or much story other than running, running, running. Action does not a story make either. Quest fantasies forget that one a lot. Travel is not a plot.

    Whereas, for instance the old BBC Last of the Mohicans from back in the late 60’s, I think, was better than the book in lots of ways, because the annoying bits were missing, and all the good parts were much foregrounded. Lots of story, lots of plot and lots of character.

    Love, C.

    • JE says:

      It’s funny how good Hollywood is on the details of period costumes and how bad it is at everything else that requires historical imagination.

      And I think you’re right about fantasy epics. Writers can forget that their job is to tell a story, not to create a “Let’s Go!” tourist guide for their imagined landscape.

  3. filomancer says:

    Fantasy and science fiction in particular, and fiction in general, are defined by their unreal content. Storytellers who start to preen about the realistic content of their stories are either trying to put one over on their audience, or they fundamentally misunderstand the cultural game of storytelling–in which case they are unlikely to do it well.

    Hear, hear.

    But, you know, this storytelling thing–it isn’t so easy to do it well, even when you’re completely down with it.

    • JE says:

      “But, you know, this storytelling thing–it isn’t so easy to do it well, even when you’re completely down with it.”

      Absolutely. My own method of poking the stories with sharp sticks until they tell themselves is showing a few tiny little flaws lately. (For instance, it doesn’t work. There are some other problems, but that’s the main one.)

      And I can see how a gifted storyteller might be attracted by the challenge of writing a story within the Mundane SF limits–like a modern poet writing a sonnet or a villanelle. Fortunately neither my education nor my self-discipline tempt me down that path.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Fantasy and science fiction in particular, and fiction in general, are defined by their unreal content.

    Yes, but they are anchored by their real content. If it’s all unreal, few readers would be able to relating. Parents, siblings, children, gravity, rain, darkness, moonlight. These are things we understand. They are points of reference that anchor a story for us.

    Once when I found myself with a tree inconveniently between my golf ball and the green, the old man I was golfing with–you got to watch those old guys–said, “Jeff, that tree’s 90% air.”

    James, that story (pointing randomly) is 98% real, but like my golf ball, you’re going to hit the unreal while passing through it, and those bits are going to get most of the attention. But even the unreal parts need the real. Would sentient flames work as a story element if I didn’t know what real flames were?

    I ran into the dismissal of realism a lot in my roleplaying days. How could I worry about realism when some dude is conjuring acid arrows and chucking them about? Because it wasn’t the magic the horked up games for me, it was the realism. When the game master was describing the mundane stuff and it wasn’t matching up with reality, confusion was eminent.

    By the way, one of the rpgs I used was WFRP. It described life within the game world as “ugly, brutish, and short.” 🙂

    –Jeff Stehman

  5. JE says:

    “ugly, brutish, and short.”

    That’s what I mutter whenever there’s a mirror nearby…

    I have to agree that the real gives weight to imaginary stuff. In fact, unreal stuff is really made out of real stuff: I think Tolkien was right and what we really do is subcreation, “put hot fire in the belly of a cold worm” etc. It just bothers me when some storytellers try to pretend that their game of “let’s pretend” is more grownup than someone else’s.

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