Thursday, August 8, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy

By way of introduction, I came to the idea of a round table discussion after doing back to back interviews with two of my favorite authors. Afterwards, I was thinking how interesting it would be if I could just sit back and watch these two incredibly talented writer's just talk to one another about matters of fiction. The round table you are about to read, was sparked in that moment. 

All of the writer's gathered here are known for their expert handling of violence in their fiction no matter the specifics of the story. I've read and enjoyed them all and have reviewed almost of all of them here. 

After some biographical information for those of you who may not be familiar with the authors and their work we'll dive in with the first question. Due to the length of the discussion, I've decided to break this up by question. You can expect a new installment every other day until all the questions have been answered. I found the dialogue between these four to be very very insightful and a joy to read. Here's hoping you all feel the same. 

Kameron Hurley is the award winning author of GOD’S WAR, INFIDEL, and RAPTURE. She currently hacks out a living as a marketing and advertising writer in Ohio. She's lived in Fairbanks, 
Alaska; Durban, South Africa; and Chicago, but grew up in and around Washington State. Her personal and professional exploits have taken her all around the world. She spent much of her roaring 
20's traveling, pretending to learn how to box, and trying not to die spectacularly. Along the way, she justified her nomadic lifestyle by picking up degrees in history from the University of Alaska and the 
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Douglas Hulick is author of "Among Thieves", the first book in the "Tales of the Kin" fantasy-adventure series.
When not writing, Douglas is a stay-at-home dad (or should that be: when not busy being dad, Douglas is an as-time-permits-writer?). Either way, he makes his home in the upper Midwest. He has a B.A. and M.A. in medieval history, with minors in history and anthropology. Who knew they would come in useful?
He is also a practitioner of Historical Western Martial Arts, with his main focus being on early 17th century Italian Rapier. (Primarily Capoferro, for you WMA enthusiasts and "Princess Bride" fans out there.)

Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn't Mayberry, it was quiet and sleepy, so he got started early imagining his way into other worlds that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While he ultimately moved away, he never lost his fascination for the fantastic. Though his tastes have grown a bit darker and more mature over the years.
Jeff lives near Chicago with his wife and three daughters. By day, he is a book editor for the American Bar Association; by night, he will continue to crank out novels as long as there are readers willing to read them.

Zachary Jernigan is a 33-year-old, quarter-Hungarian, bald male. He has lived in Northern Arizona, with occasional forays into the wetter and colder world, since 1990. His favorite activities include: listening to 70s-00s punk and post-punk music, cooking delicious and often unhealthy foods, riding human-powered vehicles, talking and/or arguing about religion, and watching sitcoms.

During his rare periods of productivity, he writes science fiction and fantasy. NO RETURN, his first novel, comes out March 5th, 2013 from Night Shade Books. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION, CROSSED GENRES, and ESCAPE POD

52 Reviews:  Violence in fantasy is certainly in the public eye, largely due to airing of the Red Wedding episode on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Of course, most long term fantasy readers were ahead of the curve on this having a thirteen year or so head start. Do you think the level of violence we see in today's genre fiction owes to the game changing nature of Martin's series? 

Kameron Hurley: Short answer? No.

I think Martin’s influence on the current genre has more to do with subverting fantasy tropes and reader expectations than ratcheting up the violence. The writer that really turned up the violence-and-ick factor, I’d argue, is Joe Abercrombie, whose first book came ten years after Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and has spanned an incredible number of imitators. Most folks don’t have the scope or publisher support to write an epic on the scale of Thrones. When a writer’s series hits the mainstream, folks often forget that – at the time it was first published – it had an influence, but not necessarily the profound one we see when looking back on when it first came out. Robert Jordan’s work also explored war and violence (as did Hemingway’s, for that matter!), and the ramifications of such – I still remember the horrific scene of the melted people-in-stone from the prologue. I’d argue that the popularity of Jordan’s work helped bolster the success of Martin’s series.  

The trouble with focusing too heavily on Martin and Jordan, however, is also that we erase a lot of fiction that came before, fiction that may have influenced them– the hero of Gene Wolfe’s most beloved series was a torturer, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books didn’t shy away from portraying the genocide of entire peoples, Octavia Butler wrote extraordinarily creepy and quite violent stories, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man had a lot of violence for its time, and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man had some very angry, violent protagonists who would happily cut you in two. Her short story, We Who are About To… was all about a woman running around murdering the survivors of a spaceship crash. Then there’s Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, which still gives a lot of folks nightmares.

One of the things folks told me to do when I first started writing spec fic was to go back and read the classics. It helped me understand what had come before me, and encouraged me to riff on and subvert those things. Pretending Martin suddenly appeared from a vacuum does a disservice to what’s come before. What’s changed is our willingness to portray that type of violence in mainstream television and perpetuate it in mainstream culture. In a society that has been at war for over a decade, where our media is increasingly showing us more-and-more real-life violence, I think we turn to fiction to make sense of it. To be honest, I’m still waiting for HBO to pick up Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, which have all the political machinations and assassinations of Martin’s work with far more interesting and varied sexual relationships. Of course, we’re still far more comfortable showing rape and murder than interesting consensual sex on television, so it may be awhile.

Jeff Salyards: Way to set the bar high, Kameron. Thanks for nothing.
I’m with her on this one—I don’t think Martin’s particular brand of violence or action sequences has been a game changer in the genre, or really the strongest or most memorable part of his writing at all.  Watching the HBO show, you’d think that every fifteen pages someone was disemboweled, raped, beheaded, or otherwise violently dispatched. But in the books, while there are certainly awful and alarming things that happen in front of or to POV characters, actually a large chunk of the worst stuff takes place “off-screen.”

Exhibit A: Theon Greyjoy. You don’t see him or his minions kill and tar the two farmer boys, and you certainly don’t see the sadistic torture that he undergoes at the hands of Ramsay Bolton later on. Where the show revels in it for effect, on the page you get the gist of it later, and it’s all reported second-hand. So, too, some of Gregor Clegane’s most heinous acts—raping an innkeeper’s daughter, playing Scald the Weasel with his brother’s face, etc.—are all reported or referenced by someone else.  

Now, simply alluding to all these horrific things does create a pervasive atmosphere, to be certain. Martin is great at awful atmosphere. But his books are progressively bigger and more massive in scale than the last, and on a per-page metric, he spends vastly more time describing sumptuous meals, or cunning political maneuvering, or blazonry, or the after effects of awful stuff happening, than detailing battles or the often unexpected acts of violence that punctuate the books. He plays to his strengths—complex character and characterization, sprawling and immensely detailed world building, and convention subversion, as Kameron mentioned. 

Describing tactics, logistics, and visceral, pulse-pounding battles ain't really his thing. In fact, he blithely skips over some of the more significant ones that happen (e.g., Whispering Woods).
For instance, while not a fantasy writer, Bernard Cornwell (a favorite of Martin’s, btw) does actually seem to have a big set piece battle or incredibly realistic and gritty action sequence every chapter. In terms of weight in the books, his violence is front-and-center. So, too, Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, or Paul Kerney.

Zachary Jernigan: I'll be the odd one out here, probably, and begin with a massive admission of ignorance: I've never read Martin. I don't say this to be a snob. (Okay, maybe a little. I never know.) I say it because when we're talking about how something influences the genre it's very easy to over-extend that influence. As I said, I've never read his work -- in fact, most of my references in the fantasy genre are decades older than Martin, and even then I've read ten times more science fiction than fantasy -- and yet my first novel is a fairly violet fantasy. Clearly, I'm not taking direct influence from him.

But, it'd be ridiculous for me to say that I'm unaffected by his work. As a hugely bestselling author, he has altered the publishing landscape. I'd assert that, with him at the head of the table, it has become more possible to portray a certain kind of violence -- the kind of violence that requires no sentimentality, tenderness, or justice to "balance" it out -- in traditionally published fantasy. This is not to say that such violence has never been portrayed (Kameron gave some great examples, all of which you should seek out), but I view many of those as outlying examples that hardly touch the popular consciousness as Martin's does.

(If you think I'm overstating his influence, just go peruse Goodreads for fifteen minutes. A clear majority of fantasy readers have his series at the top of their favorite reads.)

The funny/sad thing about this situation? I think violence has immense potential to impact the reader in novel ways, and -- conservative though this perspective surely is -- I worry that Martin's influence may diminish the overall impact of truly extraordinary examinations of violence in fantasy literature. I don't worry overmuch about the majority of works that aim to entertain (I don't mean that as an elitist comment; it's the kind of fiction I write, after all), but there are works of great subtlety and brutality that I fear will be interpreted more simplistically because of Martin's influence.

Jeff Salyards: I knew that Zack either A) hadn't read him or B) read and hated him. I just knew it in my bones

Zachary Jernigan: Ha! I am awful, yes. But in all honesty, it's no prejudice toward Martin: it's prejudice toward huge freaking books. I'm a slow reader, and impatient as all hell, so an ongoing series of massive books has never really been in the cards for me.

Kameron Hurley: I love how every comment Zach makes about reading (or not reading) genre fiction includes the statement "I don't mean to sound elitist, but..." Zach, there must be *something* you like about genre fiction, or I suspect you would not write it! Who were your actual influences? I know you've talked before about Zelazny, who certainly also had a great influence on SF/F.

Jeff Salyards: And to stay on track, how would you describe the level/treatment of violence in those mysterious and seminal influences?

Zachary Jernigan: Well, I'm constantly hearing that my view of literature is elitist. I don't think it is -- I've always been a cranky person who dislikes most things, the vast majority of them not all that popular -- but when you happen to be fairly vocal about your views you run such a risk. I give the caveat because I'd hate people to think I'm not aware of how it sounds when I say such things. I should probably just stop qualifying my statements, but I'd rather be laughed at than cause too much anger. I do love the genre. I just happen to be a person whose love is inextricably bound up in criticism. It's who I am. I love nothing so much I don't rag on it. 

I'd say that most of my influences are individual books rather than singe authors, though I do have a few favorites: Alice Sheldon, the aforementioned Zelazny (though I hate his portrayals of women), Sean Stewart, Joanna Russ, Cordwainer Smith, and a few others that escape me. Even authors whose books I often love -- Ian McDonald, Phyllis Gotlieb, Terry Pratchett -- have volumes I really don't fancy.

As to-- 

Wait, Jeff's comment leads me to believe this will be part of the published roundtable. Seriously? I thought these were just random interactions and maybe even hazing of the new guy. Crap. Oh, well.

To answer your question, Jeff, I think for me the most powerful scenes of violence are those that come as a true shock. Rarely in my favorite books is violence all-pervasive. It's usually short, punctuated by tragedy. There are no extended fight scenes. That's not say it can't be done -- you did a great job of it in Scourge of the Betrayer, for instance -- but it's relatively rare for me to stay with those scenes. Typically, I prefer a scene like Robert Silverberg wrote in his Dangerous Visions story, "Lies":

"A swift kick in the belly might do it. Too crude, too crude. Yet Cassidy had not come armed with abortifacients, a handy ergot pill, a quick-acting spasmic inducer. So he brought his knee up sharply, deploring the crudity of it. Lureen sagged. He kicked her a second time. He remained completely tranquil as he did it, for it would be wrong to take joy in violence. A third kick seemed desirable. Then he released her."

I mean, how horrifying is that? That's the kind of scene that defines violence for me.

Douglas Hulick: What was the original question again? Something about unicorns?

Okay, seriously....

I'm going to contextualize a bit here and say that for readers who are either new to the genre, or have only been reading it for the last 10 years, Martin may very well BE a game changer. Why? Because he's quite possibly the most violent/bloody/gritty thing they've read to date. If you are defined by your early experiences, then for many readers GRRM is IT when it comes to violence in fantasy.

And that, I think, speaks more to the demographics and growth of the genre than anything. A couple years ago, when I first started actually paying attention to on-line SFF blogs and review sites (I'm a slow adopter with limited time to read and kids at home--so sue me), I happened to stumble across a number of people posting their "Bestest Fantasy/SF Books Ever" lists. And do you know what I saw? Aside from the Tolkien's LOTR and maybe a nod to Heinlein or Moorcock here or there, nearly every list I saw were comprised of books or series less than a decade old. A lot of the books listed were good (or, at least popular--I'll let Zach grandstand on that distinction ;), but to have 75% of the best examples of SFF being published in the last ten years? In a genre that extends back a century or more? Please. Yes, a lot comes down to taste, but a lot also comes down to depth, and those lists told me that a lot of people weren't digging any deeper than what they could find on the shelves of their local B&N or on their recommended reading lists on Amazon or Goodreads.

This genre has been growing for quite a while, especially lately. When I first started reading SFF, you almost had to go back to the older works because there just wasn't as much new stuff to find on the shelf. Now, it's impossible to keep up with what is coming out, let alone dig back into what has come before--at least, not without making a conscious effort. And even then, what you want you may not be able to find in print any more, let alone in e-book format. But with so much on the shelves (both real & virtual), where's the incentive for the casual genre reader to go fishing?

So is GRRM's The Shits when it comes to violence in fantasy? For many readers, yes, he is--and Ned Stark's death will always be a defining moment for them. But for us older codgers, or those who, like Kameron, make a conscious effort to dig back into our genre heritage, it’s just another step on the continuum.

Where I do think things have changed is the genre's willingness to have more violence show up on the page, both in general and on the best seller's list. In some types of books, it's almost expected now. But, as Kameron says, that has more to do with our broader desensitization as a society than any one (or several) series of books. If people weren't willing and ready to accept that much blood and rape and gore on the page, then I doubt those books would be moving quite as well as they are. Writing and story count for a lot, but there also has to be a connection with the broader audience for something to build momentum. And if the audience wasn't hungry for what is quickly becoming a (admittedly simplified) trademark for Martin's ASOIAF, then we wouldn't be here talking about it.


  1. absolutely magnificent post. I feel like I'm at a convention panel! Can't wait to see what gets posted in a couple of days.

  2. Interesting read! While I own the first book, I've not read it, and doubt I ever will. I don't particularly care for deeply violent fantasy, nor am I keen on the political/historical focus. But there's certainly plenty of violence in the genres over the years, like many I read most of the Elric novels, and I'm on the list of those who likely will never read another Ellison due to the nightmares from I Have no Mouth. I'd say Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule is the reason I'll never read Game of Thrones though - the months of nightmares that spawned means I'll never again try a book that I know is that grim or violent.