Joe Abercrombie, the author of notably violent fantasies, recently joined Twitter with the arch handle "LordGrimdark." His sobriquet was by way of reductive response to widespread online discussion about the virtue of that certain cynical, determinist, bleak kind of fantasy most associated with George R. R. Martin, Abercrombie himself, and more recently that hard-headed refugee from science fiction, Richard Morgan. It's a discussion that has been rumbling on for some time: last June, Damien G. Walter complained that "fantasy writers have left . . . an open goal by filling their books with scenes of rape and torture in a misguided attempt to provide psychological depth that they aren't skilled enough to create in other ways." In a more recent essay, Marie Brennan argued that the grimdark mode peddles "the notion that only the ugly parts of the world are real."
I have sympathy for the concept that novels which habitually crowd out any joy, love, or cause for optimism are as incomplete and unbalanced as the hippiest of so-called escapist fantasies. Most especially, and as Liz Bourke has argued with supporting statistics, the disproportionate amount of grimdark pain which falls on women brings into fatal question its "realist" pretensions. In a snippy defense of himself and his compatriots, Morgan posited that those who object to his particular brand of ugly fantasy are self-appointed gatekeepers aiming to repel the SF invaders from their borders; the discussion, however, seems to me precisely the kind of conversation which is worth having across generic boundaries.
There's a characteristic dialogue between genres in the final volume of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha, Rapture, a genre-straddling novel which happens to be both grim and dark. Events seem about to take the science fictional turn which the novel's nominal genre might have led us to expect from the off:
"There are gravitational points between high-density planets called Damira's points. It's when the pull of one planet is no longer stronger than the pull over another body. At that point in the sky, debris becomes forever caught in these areas. So debris wanders through, becomes caught in the tide, and then is pulled back into the vortex in an endless rotation. Forever trapped between two great heavenly bodies in space."
"What the fuck does this have to do with anything?" Nyx said. (p. 264)
Irreverent and free-wheeling, Hurley's far-future planet of Umayma is a world with an apparently Islamic origin which has for centuries been torn apart by endless war. At the center of her stories is the bounty hunter Nyxnissa so Dasheem, once a government-sponsored assassin, or bel dame, latterly a soldier of fortune—and always a killer without sentiment. Nyxnissa accepts that her world is not just governed but activated by violence, that the gunshot or the gut wound is the currency with which it is possible to get things done. She is gloriously self-possessed, repellently amoral, and thoroughly original. She is a woman in a man's grimdark world.
The blend of influences and references at work in Umayma and Nyx led to some considerable hype around Hurley's debut, the Apocrypha's first volume, God's War (2011). The editor-in-chief of this very magazine, Niall Harrison, emerged as one of the book's chief cheerleaders, and has summarized in a comment against Maureen Kincaid Speller's critical review his high opinion of the novel: "It was generically fluid (in dialogue with many different parts of the field, I think), rampantly intersectional, unashamedly ambitious yet also (it seemed to me) solidly commercial." In my own review, I was a little more skeptical but no less certain that the book should be greeted open-armed by a grateful genre: "Coarse and inelegant . . . this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel . . . [is] just what the genre ordered." God's War was awkward and patched-together, and its unpleasantness relentless; but it felt very much like a novel that was sorely needed.
In many ways, science fiction still needs Hurley: following the announcement of an all-male shortlist for the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award, for instance, British commentators are keeping their fingers crossed that this year's UK publication of God's War sees it shoot onto the relevant shortlists. Hurley is a woman who has created a non-Western world in which women act, make choices, and accept consequences. Nevertheless, as Farah Mendelsohn has written, Hurley also depicts "a 'feminist' community that is happy to sacrifice its sons, and a Muslim community incapable of negotiating a peace"; writes, in the clear-eyed assessment of Paul Kincaid, about an endless war in "a society that would have risen in rebellion or broken apart in disorder centuries before"; and, in the opinion of the infamous Requires Hate, commits the grievous errors of lacking nuance and inspiring tedium. Hurley is both savior and sinner, tomorrow's great identity politics hope and yesterday’s xenophobic, second-wave, old news.
Rapture is separated from God's War by two years in our world, 14 years on Umayma, and another sequel, Infidel (2011). That second book deftly expanded the palette of the Bel Dame novels, offering a more intense engagement with the political make-up of their world. Rapture offers further developments on this front, as well as bringing back the "aliens" from the first novel and painting a vivid picture of how the passage of time affects its characters: Nyx is slower, her erstwhile colleague and sometime lover Rhys is more resigned, their planet is more—not less—broken.
What all three novels share, however, is that pose beloved of the grimdark: that all is horror, and that nothing is clearer than when it is in blackness. It feels like Hurley is writing her manifesto when she depicts her characters, "Just running. Endless, mindless running across the desert, into a future much bleaker than the past" (p. 90). It's here, I think, that Hurley runs into the trouble exhibited by the disparate reactions her books have elicited. On the one hand, she writes novels which aim to philosophize about levels of oppression, about how groups are marginalized and dehumanized, subjected to power structures and bent out of shape; on the other, she tells stories which are essentially a chain of violent set-pieces, ones which never stray from the central conceit that hope and happiness are impossible. In Infidel, Rhys's children are murdered in as cruel a fashion as possible in order that the villain can make a point; in Rapture, Nyx is ripped away from domestic bliss in irrevocable, needlessly final, fashion. The repetition of this vignette—another of Rapture's key figures, the shifter and reluctant revolutionary Inaya, also leaves her family behind—comes to feel more like a tic than a theme, a kind of motif untroubled by an opposing image.
Rapture is the chronicle of Nyx's last mission: she is sent into the wilds of Umayma, which we quickly learn are host to a range of clues about the planet's deep past, to capture the man who has come to be a figurehead for the legions of "boys" who have returned home following—yes—the end of that endless war. The incipient revolution perceived by the matriarchy, however, is a red herring: elsewhere, a much more serious uprising is at hand, through which the planet's oppressed and embattled mutant shape-shifters hope to achieve equality. Umayma is split into several competing states, and the machinations of each of these—often boiled down, perhaps deliberately and perhaps not, to racialist stereotypes—acts upon these twin plots, occasionally to distraction. Rapture is, like Hurley's other novels, a bumpy ride, and its structure can stutter. But what it does do well is address this issue of minorities, of groups forced through the sausage-maker of the state, and what they must do to shut the grinder down:
Inaya leaned toward him. "We have a narrative in this country that shifters are in the minority. That we are some statistical anomaly. But my mother and I, we lived for many years without anyone knowing what we were. If we all admitted to what we are, how many shifters do you think would be revealed? I don't believe men and women want to kill their children. I believe we want what is best for them. When the priests come for children, and not just those who are not careful, I think we will see change." (p. 134)
Inaya disagrees with her fellow revolutionaries: she sees this peaceful revelation as a means to their end, but others insist that, "We must show strength or be put down like animals" (p. 328). This dialogue between the optimists and the pessimists is key to the novel's argument. Inaya sits at one pole of this dispute, and, elsewhere and in a different plot, Nyxnissa is at the other—and even the cynical latter agrees, perhaps in response to Mendelsohn and Kincaid, that, "Wars don’t keep on unless everybody's behind them. Men just as much as women. Turn a dead eye to it, profit from it, roll over and accept it . . . if you're not actively resisting it, you support it" (p. 215). Hurley is good at showing how individuals and states can conspire to prolong and profit from war, can willfully ignore injustice where and when it offers the most convenient option, and in this she goes a long way towards legitimizing the conceit on which her world is built. When the aliens arrive, posing an existential threat to the elite who devised and directed the war, the queen of Nyx's homeland of Nasheen suddenly and without shame announces that victory "will require all of us working together" (p. 173).
Indeed (and in-keeping with the grimdark's lack of room for Inaya's optimism), time and again relationships of all kinds are presented in Rapture as things of convenience. Its focus, after all, is not on the high politics of revolution and interstellar war, but on the low skulduggery of a band of mercenaries, expendable to their masters and each other, who are sent to search for a bearded man in a desert (Hurley always holds her contemporary references at a deniable distance). Like the novels before it, Rapture paints shallow, thumbnail sketches of its supporting cast—and later developments suffer for our lack of investment—but, as if Hurley is learning the ropes as she goes, she makes a feature of this bug. "When Nyx was hunting . . . [she] wanted to learn what was most important to them," we read. "For most people she hunted in all her years as a bel dame and a bounty hunter, the answer to that question was generally a person, or people" (p. 161). This is key to the action of Rapture: the Nyx of this novel is not the Nyx of God's War, since she now pines for "another woman back home, and a house full of kids" (p. 38); nevertheless, she also lends the lie to her own ironclad rule, and abandons those loved ones all the same—as do the other major characters of the novel. It is this tension which drives events: is it people, or power, that matters most? "Nasheen was about power," we learn. "Having it. Wanting it. Killing for it. Without power you weren't anything" (p. 357).
We see the corrosive effect of this stifling power structure, in which personal connections are routinely the subject of collateral damage, and Rapture works hard to square the circle: its characters are in one way or another searching "to build a better world. So why did so many others want to keep it just the same?" (p. 96). Inaya, who sees the idealistic truth that "you're the same as all the people you murder" (p. 257), loses control of her own revolution; Nyxnissa, who "never believed in anything" (p. 65), discovers that her mission is not what it seemed (and the reader, 250 pages in, might be forgiven for frustration that she learns the same thing at the same time); for both of them, the only change possible seems to involve self-annihilation. "All killing gets us is more killing," Inaya sighs (p. 54). In the manner of its execution, then, the novel's core debate risks recursion.
Trapped by the tension inherent in her scenario, between intersectional ideal and grimdark aesthetics, Hurley devises an ancient magician, a woman able to draw "on the same stuff the shifters did to remake themselves, the ancient organic matter of the derelicts that had once been siphoned off to build the world" (p. 106)—and thus do anything. Her name is Safiyah, and, set upon the world by governments aware that in extraordinary times they require an extraordinary weapon, she comes to dominate the final third of the novel—punching holes through reality and reshaping matter to untie even the trickiest of Gordian knots. In one sense, this literalizes the idea that one's life and world is one's own to make; at another stroke it neutralizes the life-without-choice led by many of the novel's characters, including every boy ever sent to the front and every wife, like Rhys's, ever subjected to her husband's life plan. Safiyah's godlike powers offer a thematic fillip, then, at a moment when the series might have been stuck down a dead-end; but, as they rescue Hurley from the irresolvable contradictions of her world, they also reshape her narrative, demoting the series's trump card, Nyxnissa herself, and calling into question the real agency of its other characters. At the same time, Safiyah's invulnerability leads her to espouse the same de rigeur hardbitten bon mots of which Nyx was once so generically guilty: "There were many things about what the war had done to Nasheen that turned her piss to vinegar, but the acceptance of the sulphur-tasting beverages that passed for liquor was among the ones she most despised" (p. 171). As a solution to a problem, Safiyah works fine; in other respects, she is an unbalancing presence in a novel which attempts precisely a kind of equipoise.
On the other hand, Safiyah is one of the many elements which makes Rapture such a blistering, breathless, and energized read. It gambols through action set-pieces and explosive violence with nimble dexterity, and Hurley writes muscular prose which, whilst rarely approaching poetry, has developed a style of its own. One applauds a novel in which female characters can casually observe that "being pretty wasn’t an asset" (p. 231), or call themselves "bad guys" (p. 240); if one might also raise an eyebrow at one which still cannot quite bring its elements into a comfortable balance, perhaps it's also worth being occasionally discomfited. Rapture, though an improvement on God's War, is still far from a perfect, or indeed a pretty, novel; it is a marketable science fiction fantasy thriller which questions assumptions without quite offering its own sustainable replacements. It might be mordant rather than witty, fierce rather than wise. It cannot quite find the hope amidst its revisionist grimdark setting. But few writers are doing what Hurley is doing, and fewer still make such noise whilst doing it. If Rapture is only a waypoint on the road, one suspects that the destination would be inaccessible were it not for the breach this explosive series has cleared.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.