On cruelty to your characters and Joe Abercrombie

First off, I love Joe Abercrombie’s novels. They are brilliant, and very well-written. But with the latest, The Wisdom of Crowds, the last book in his A Little Madness series, he has gone too far, even for me. Even though he IS Lord Grimdark.

The Wisdom of Crowds is no more bloody, no more morally gray, no more disturbing, no more grim, no more dark than all the others. But. . .but. . . I don’t know. There’s something about it that hit me wrong. I’ve been struggling with what it is. I do admire authors who don’t pull their punches with their characters. Think of George R. R. Martin and the Red Wedding. I ended up getting tired of A Song of Ice and Fire, even the HBO series (that bad last few episodes!), but not because the books were too grim. Around Book Three or Four, they just sounded tired to me. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Martin has never finished the series. Maybe he’s sick of them, too.

I don’t demand an ending that’s all roses and unicorns. Far from it. Maybe it’s unfair to make this comparison, but after finishing The Wisdom of Crowds, my mind flicked back to Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Thomas Cromwell trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light), especially that last book. Reading the last hundred pages of The Mirror and the Light left me, frankly, devastated. And I knew what was going to happen, because it’s history! Mantel presents the politics of Henry VIII’s regime as every bit as corrupt and convoluted as the politics in The Wisdom of Crowds. Sure, bad things happened to her characters in real life, but she could have softened them up a bit, right? And she didn’t. Plenty of other historical novelists writing about the same events have. At the end of The Mirror and the Light, though, I felt actual grief, and pretty profoundly, too. At the end of The Wisdom of Crowds (spoilery here), I felt cheated.

I thought about another historical novelist, too, the Australian novelist Colleen McCullough. Long ago, I had read The Thorn Birds. My impression was that it was kind of soapy. But she wrote a mammoth series of historical novels about ancient Rome, The Masters of Rome series, based on extensive research into the period, that have made a very different impression on me. I’m through three of the five or six novels in the series, and they are nowhere near as satisfying as Mantel’s, mostly because they wear their research on their sleeve, and Mantel skillfully avoids this pitfall. The ol’ information dump, bane of world-builders in whichever genre they write. Nevertheless, McCullough’s talent for characterization is pretty astonishing. You’re deep into a particular character, you see what motivates the character, and you come to admire that character even while seeing how ruthless the person can behave. In the very next chapter, the character is doing something so viciously amoral–massacring whole villages for mere expedience, or out of mere pique, or assassinating your best friend, say–that it snatches all your sympathies away. Yet you keep believing the character. A writer able to do that has a real gift.

So are these apt comparisons to Abercrombie and the way he treats his characters? Mantel is an acknowledged master of contemporary literature with a Man-Booker Prize under her belt, for one, and Abercrombie is a writer of genre fiction. Maybe not a fair comparison there.

I think it is. I don’t think of so-called genre fiction as inferior. I think of the label “genre fiction” as a trick of marketing and publishing, and the stigma that accompanies it is sometimes deserved, sometimes not. But for the sake of argument, I restricted my thinking to fantasy novels. I thought about other fantasy novels without unicorns&roses endings (a bit spoilery, but not if you know Abercrombie, who never has these!). I thought about Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, for example. That novel left me in a puddle on the floor, and not because it was sentimental.

So why? I keep asking myself this. Why was I left so cold at the end of Abercrombie’s trilogy? I came up with several reasons. The first is expectations. I had heard from other readers of fantasy that they didn’t like the book as much as some of his others, so I had that impression planted (unfairly–but realistically) in the back of my mind as I began to read. But once I had gotten several chapters in, I had already decided those readers were wrong, and that The Wisdom of Crowds might be shaping up to be one of my favorite Abercrombie novels ever.

Let me digress here by telling you why I liked it. Because, in spite of a perhaps negative tone in this post, I really did. The great age of heroes is over in this book. We’ve seen it coming for a long time, we who have faithfully read all of the Abercrombie books. The high drama and romance of the North is a relic by the time we open The Wisdom of Crowds. Abercrombie never caters to that sense of romance–on the contrary–but in the earlier trilogy and the related books (full list here–READ THESE if you haven’t) we see a world shaped by those notions of heroism and glory, and characters who struggle to live up to them, even if they mostly fail. In The Age of Madness, the last trilogy (at least so far, and excluding the Shattered Seas books) from book one (A Little Hatred) through book two (The Trouble With Peace) and into this last one, book three, we see a world transitioning away from that heroic age to an alt-Industrial Revolution with all its growing pains and all its sordidness. That can be a hard sell in fantasy-land, where a lot of readers WANT all the romance and glory, so I wondered if that’s why some readers don’t like this culminating book.

That’s not why I had my misgivings about The Wisdom of Crowds. I loved that part of the novel. It’s as if Abercrombie took bits of the French Revolution, bits of the Russian Revolution, maybe a dash of Pol Pot, and HUGE prescience about the way things are shaking out in the world we’re actually living in right now–its greed, its heartlessness, its by turns power-mad and gutless politicians, its manipulated people (by disinformation merchants!)–and put them into this novel. I’ve heard it said that once guns become ordinary implements of war, fantasy is over, but Abercrombie’s books have cannons, and it’s clear his warriors, who might use “flat-bows” (I take these to be crossbows), are probably going to see their entire way of warfare destroyed by military technology in the coming generation. And his novels, especially the ones in this last trilogy, do show industrial technology, social ideas, the distribution of wealth, and so on in the process of undergoing radical change.

BIG SPOILER, so look away if you haven’t read this book:

That ending, though. There’s no justice. No heroism, except a last unexpected (very touching) demonstration of courage by one of the least likely characters to exhibit it–immediately undercut, because it leads to absolutely no effect, no redemption. Nothing but cynicism remains in the world of this novel. It’s not like King Lear (another work of literature where nothing remains but cruelty–and another very unfair comparison) because Lear’s fall is tragic, while the characters who fall here are just pathetic. As a result, I the reader am left feeling flattened and bitter, feeling Abercrombie was cruel to his characters because he could. It’s like Lear with only the “flies to wanton boys” part. Hmm. . .maybe we should think Jacobean tragedy here and not Elizabethan.

At the end of my post, I’m left feeling I’ve probably made an unfair criticism of Abercrombie’s novel. My reaction could very well rest squarely on me, the terrified reader. Considering world events, maybe the vision of humanity at the end of The Wisdom of Crowds, and the unpleasant experience of having our noses rubbed in it, is exactly what we all deserve.

And then again, if I could write half so well, I’d be a happy woman.

Speculative fiction and games, multimedia edition

For a few posts now, I’ve written about the kind of speculative fiction in NOVEL FORM that explicitly examines its status as literary game-playing. What of other media? I’m thinking film, long-form streaming episodes and feature-length. I’m thinking the visual arts. I’m thinking amalgams of words and visuals like comics and graphic novels. I’m thinking music. Dance. I’m thinking–duh–games themselves, speculative fiction laid out like a game to be played, making no bones about its nature. I’m relying on our understanding that “fiction” is not just about storytelling, especially literary storytelling. Think about a scientific hypothesis or the concept of the “legal fiction,” for example. Think about war simulations.

Any type of model or modeling can be considered “gaming” something: a concept, for example.

Yet if you enter the term “fiction” into your search engine, you’ll invariably get page after page of discussions about storytelling. The term “fiction” is a lot more complicated than that, but beyond my scope. I’ll just refer you to the concept of fictional entities, and you can explore it from there.

If we do think of speculative fiction as a kind of game-playing, where else besides speculative fiction novels does this type of play appear? Here are just a few examples. In the interest of not going on too long, I’ll save all the other fascinating types of speculative games to be played for another day and focus this post on:

Games themselves

Classic games like chess and Go have been described as elaborate metaphors for or models of life. Here’s a statement about the many ways chess has been considered so: “There is one tradition that views the game as a precise model for demonstrating causality, even the syllogism. Another, prevalent in medieval Europe, viewed it as encapsulating the divine-ordained, hierarchical social order, with the monarch at the top and the expendable commoners beneath. George Eliot would reintroduce the image of society as a great chessboard in the novel Felix Holt. And then there’s another tradition, in which the game contains the key to understanding the underlying harmony – or tragedy – of the universe.”–Dan Taylor, “On Chess.” And see William Pinckard’s discussion of how “the three games,” chess, backgammon, and go, reflect our humanity.

For many, games like chess and go are profound models of what it means to be human. What about the more frivolous game-players among us? Think of a game like Monopoly, which models, riffs on, criticizes, and jokes around with capitalism. Or . . .what exactly does it do? What was it originally designed to do? Read around and find out. Especially HERE. We can all think of favorite card games, favorite board games. Some board games were specifically designed to model out historical events and alternate possibilities, such as the Avalon Hill games based on Civil War battles and other great battles and events in history. Here, thanks to the inestimable Wikipedia, is a complete list of Avalon Hill games.

But if we restrict “speculative fiction” to storytelling genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopia, what kinds of games do we get? As I thought about so-called tabletop games, I found the “7 Types of Board Games” classification showcased in the Nerds on Earth web site to be a great resource.

Online and computer gaming have introduced a whole different dimension. To pick just one genre, fantasy: single-player games like most of the Zelda franchise (mostly on Nintendo) have their diehard adherents. Originally designed by Japanese game geniuses Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the Zelda games have spun off into anime and manga, tie-in products, multiplayer modes, at least one really bad movie attempt (not speaking personally–haven’t seen it–just reporting the consensus here), and many failed projects leaving eager fans with broken hearts and unmet expectations. Many, many great single-player games have shown up on the fantasy gamer scene since, such as Skyrim from the Neverwinter Nights folks, to name one of the best. These can be available for PC or on consoles such as Microsoft’s X-box and the PS-series of consoles by Sony.

Multiplayer games are their own entire book-length topic, so I’ll restrain my natural tendency to go on and on about them and again restrict myself to fantasy (easy there, SWTOR fans. . .or *sob* Star Wars Galaxies). A quick trip through fantasy-gamer history: literary objects Beowulf and The Faerie Queene fed listeners’/readers’ appetites for epic fantasy, although they didn’t call it that. . .scholars J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis wrote about these works in an academic setting, then, fascinated, wrote their own (Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien; Narnia books, Lewis). . .the Tolkien craze/revival in the 70s led to readers hungering for more and thus board games like Gary Gygax’s and Jeff Perren’s Chainmail (or, more accurately, a miniatures game, another whole subgenre of tabletop game, yikes). . .leading down one path to Dungeons & Dragons and down another, with the advent of Arpanet and bored computer programmers in the middle of the night, to MUDs (“multi-user dungeons”), text-based computer fantasy strategy games. . .and then, coupled with graphical user interfaces, to the first MMORPGs (massively mutliplayer online role playing games). It’s debatable what game holds the honor as the first MMORPG, but the one popularizing the genre was Ultima Online (1997). All you rabid MMORPG-ers, correct me in the comments if I have anything wrong here! The game that made the genre go nuclear was, I suppose, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (2004), although we fanatical Everquest (1999) and Everquest II (2004) players don’t like to mention it. Ours being, you understand, much the better game (passed around, alas, from game studio to game studio), and WoW stealing all of our game’s best ideas, and. . . *duct-tapes mouth shut here* Since WoW swept onto the scene, many have tried and few have succeeded in creating a game as popular. There have been, before and since: a D&D Online attempt, a Lord of the Rings Online attempt, a whole lot of Elder Scrolls single-player spinoffs produced by Bethesda Softworks, including the 2014 MMORPG Elder Scrolls Online (borrowing a great deal from the studio’s hugely successful Skyrim single-player game), the very successful Final Fantasy franchise produced through Square Enix–a mixture of single-player and multiplayer iterations, which actually began well before most of these games in 1987 but only released an MMORPG version (FFXI) in 2002. There have been newer attempts like the graphically crude but to some really addictive Valheim, Amazon’s beautiful but (imho) lackluster A New World. Dare I mention the always-forthcoming but never actually released Pantheon? Prove me wrong, fans! But there are other iterations of these types of games: the Lego-like kiddie smash hit Minecraft, and now a ton of hugely popular battle royale and arena games that have actually organized into e-sports leagues with paid players/media stars and their own YouTube and Twitch channels.

For some people, these computer games are the end of civilization as we know it. For others, a whole new way of telling/participating in stories. Personally, I find it pretty brilliant to marry this type of fantasy storytelling with game strategies and technologies.