A thought on contemporary SFF

Some of my SFF analyst/author/blogger cohorts talk much recently of the coordinated expunction over the past several decades of literary giants like Brackett, Merritt, and the old pulp fiction stars. As I’ve said before, I can’t speak much to that. I’m not immersed in the industry or the history, and my understanding of what qualifies as “canon” is hazy.

I have, lately, been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History episodes on WWI. It’s hard-hitting stuff, and across the several hours I’ve listened to so far, he’s made several side references to Tolkien, Lewis, Wells, and their ilk, who were all contemporaries and (in Tolkien and Lewis’ case) participants in the Great War. This, combined with some of my recent reading about these guys has gotten me thinking.

Here’s the thought, on Twitter:



So why is the Song of Ice and Fire series a litany of rapes and ignominious murders (and I say this as a general fan of the series)? Well, perhaps in part because the writer and the target audience aren’t seeing these kinds of horrors all around them, and there is an appetite for this kind of entertainment. Don’t forget, people are brutal creatures.


I’m not saying this is to be praised, and I certainly cheer for those authors who work toward a return to the pulp heroics of times past. But I think there are numerous factors at play here, and we can at least be grateful that we aren’t craving escape from rationing, and conscription, and death on a grand scale.



24 thoughts on “A thought on contemporary SFF

  1. There is something about that, but I doubt that, if a war broke out, people would start writing uplifting stories. There have been other times with long-lasting peace (e.g. Pax Romana) but, as far as I know, their artists didn’t start writing grimdark nonsense. There is something more going on here, and if my teenage brain was anything to go by, the cause is probably ideological/cultural. There seems to be a cultural consensus that dark, gritty, and anxiety-provoking stuff is mature, contrary to more idealistic visions, which are “hypocritical.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your point is well taken, and I do think it’s a complex situation without a single cause.

      As to historical times of peace – that may be so, but it’s difficult to compare. Life was harsher in ancient times, and I imagine most people were more concerned with keeping their families fed than keeping up on the latest literature. There were also more grisly realities to life back then and a lot more death. People didn’t have anything near the quality of life even our poor here in first world societies enjoy.

      It could be that our culture has become to rotten and jaded. But I think if that’s the case, it’s because we’ve grown soft and spoiled. I think the quote is –

      “Hard times make hard people,
      Hard people make soft times,
      Soft times make soft people,
      Soft people make hard times.”

      We’re living in soft times. If we were living in a world where most men had witnessed firsthand the unspeakable horrors of war and nearly everyone had lost friends and loved ones, I think there might be less of an appetite to read fictions evoking such nightmares. In the context of WW1 and WW2, we’re not just talking a war breaking out. We’re talking conscription, death on a scale of tens of millions of people, and almost certain death for many soldiers. In WW1, there were groups of men who enlisted together and were decimated. Whole neighborhoods had their young male populations virtually wiped out. Those were the kinds of experiences Tolkien and Lewis were coming off of.

      But yeah, it is just my theory, and not one I even hold very strongly to. Just a thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. WWI was the cause event of today’s nihilism, expressed first in the literary fiction of the 1920s. And because the literary were published in the more prestigious slicks, the genre pulps strove to copy them.

    In some countries, such as France, entire genres vanished for decades because of the trauma.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re saying today’s nihilism is because of WW1?

      An interesting premise, but I’m a bit skeptical. Seems like most people today know little about the first World War. Any suggested further reading or elaboration you can offer, Nathan?


      1. While I am not Nathan, I think he is on the right track. I think what WW1 did was to completely destroy the idea that Western Civilization was somehow causing people to become permanently morally / physically better. I think the idea was that we were becoming more rational, kinder to one another, less violent, etc. There were huge advances in medicine / science, no religious wars, and an increase of religious tolerance. There seemed to be no limit to the “improvements”, morally or physically, that were happening in Western society.

        More important than these improvements themselves, was the idea that they were somehow permanent. The West was leaving war behind, leaving poverty behind, possibly (with the development of vaccines) leaving disease behind. FOREVER.

        Not to get too theological, but in a lot of Protestant circles, Postmillennialism was incredibly popular prior to WW1. Afterward…not so popular. TL;DR of Postmillennialism is that the world will become a better and better place. Once it gets really good and “Christian-ized”, Christ will return and create the new heaven and the new earth.

        In both secular and spiritual matters, everything seemed to be pointing toward the situation getting better and better. WW1 shattered all of it. There was no gradual (and permanent) improvement of mankind, there was just an extended time of European peace that had ended. We had not become more noble; all the barbarity of human nature came out in that conflict. We had just been able to hide it for an extended period of time.

        Thus, the pendulum swung back hard, away from “everything is getting better”…all the way to “everything is utterly awful” / “there are no heroes, just villains on all sides”, etc. You can imagine what this did to literature.

        While the pre-WW1 optimism was not founded on solid rock, the West ended up throwing out the baby out with the bathwater.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hm interesting, and I love the historical aspects of this kind of analysis. But I’m still not quite sure I follow. From what I’ve heard and read, things weren’t exactly peachy in Europe prior to WW1. The Boer War was nasty for England, and there were other problems bubbling up on the continent. But even granting that things were looking good before WW1, I don’t see how that was the turning point for us. The generations that fought and survived the two world wars weren’t nihilists. Why would there be this delayed effect, that 100 years after WW1, now we’re seeing this?

        And if this growing cynicism and cultural darkness were immediate and pervading, how do we account for all the classic and pulp SFF that we’re holding up at the opposite side of the spectrum? The hero-driven stories of John Carter and Tarzan were contemporary with and succeeding the first world war. The likes of Buck Rogers, Conan, and Solomon Kane came in the wake of WW1, less than two decades before the second world war. Eric John Stark entered the scene less than a decade after WW2, as did the Lord of the Rings and the first Narnia book.

        Of course the wars greatly affected the course of civilization and the development of our culture, but I don’t see how it follows that times immediately prior to, during, and after both wars would foster golden, bright, heroic, superversive SFF; and then decades later we assign WW1 as the cause for our current decline.


  3. PCBushi: Interesting.

    As an aside from this post, I wanted to address the topic of Solomon Kane, which we spoke of a few months ago. I agree with you that the movie of that name is a good portrayal of the time and a decent action movie; unfortunately, the character of Solomon Kane as written by Howard is missing completely.

    Your term DARK PALADIN is as good a summation of the character as I have heard. Kane is possibly the most fearless of all of Howard’s heroes, and the most driven. There is no happiness for Kane, no simple joys; he is compelled to find and fight evil (or perhaps it is compelled to seek HIM). Howard’s stories and poems of Solomon Kane have a unique flavor and make a lasting impression.

    Well, now that you’ve read Conan, King Kull and Solomon Kane, you’ve read what some call REH’s Big Three. There are more though: Bran Mak Morn, king and last hero of the Picts of Caledonia in the time of the Roman Empire, Turlogh Dubh, irish outlaw, veteran of Clontarf and bane of Vikings. Then there is Francis X. Gordon, El Borak, the texas gunfighter who winds up raising hell from Palestine to the Khyber Pass in the decades before WWI.

    If you get the time to read them, I’d like to hear what you think of Howard’s other Heroes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, John! I haven’t seen the film yet, but I think I agree on your characterization of Kane. Such a great, layered hero.

      I’ve touched on Bran Mak Morn, just because one of the Kull stories features a crossover. Looking forward to digging into Howard’s lesser known stuff and exchanging some thoughts with you!


  4. I made the same observation last week. There is this “grimdark” author, not a very good one, IMHO, who writes all sorts of war and violence. Of course the guy has never really seen any war or real violence his entire life. I came across one of his posts on r/fantasy last week and it was so sad and pathetic I immediately lost any desire to read his stuff. It was all hand wringing about Trump, how he needed to take a mental time out due to election anxiety, how his mental health was damaged. It was so pathetic coming from an author that pretends to be all hard writing dark fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You are right about the military aspect and the love of escapism. When I was living in a shithole patrol base in Afghanistan, my go to entertainment was Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Pixar movies. We only watched uplifting stuff, the world around us was shitty enough.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. There is a really good book on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and WWI called A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte. In Loconte’s view Tolkien’s and Lewis’ fiction wasn’t just a product of their Christianity and experiences in WWI. It was a response–and reaction against–the nihilistic literature that was in vogue in Europe post-WWI.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like an interesting book!

      Yeah, as perhaps Nathan was referring to above (though not sure about the tie-in to current times), I know more mainstream literature got very somber and nihilistic after the wars. In one of the books I’m working on now, “Of This And Other Worlds,” Walter Hooper says in his intro that writers like Lewis were pejoratively labelled “escapists” by critics in the 60’s for their failure to toe the line and write serious material about social justice, etc. Doesn’t surprise me to hear that the trend went back to the 20’s and 30’s as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a really great book. The second book I would recommend about Tolkien, after Author of the Century.

        There is also an important WWII/Vietnam dichotomy. An existential fight against deadly evil by the forces of good has obvious relevance post WWII. Americans, at least, walked away from Vietnam thinking very differently about war. But contrast the approach of a Vietnam vet like Robert Jordan–taking a life is the weightiest thing in the world, and provision is made for eucatastophy–with the approach of George “LARPed his Santa Claus-ass through Vietnam” Martin–life is cheap and meaningless.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll make note of that one too, though I’m kind of reading these non-fiction/literary analysis stuff in between trying to shove as much AppN/Grand List stuff into my brain as possible at the moment.

        Yeah, that’s a good observation. And interestingly there seem to be room and audience (often overlapping) for both approaches.


      3. The 1960s (really the late 60s and early 70s) have long been seen as the time when the general public started adopting the attitudes of the 1920s elite.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. My response is similar, but, well: People turn to fiction to find meaning to their lives, to understand why they feel as they do. So yeah, after WWI & WWII, people wanted uplifting stories. They wanted to feel like there can be happy endings after horrific pain.

    But when things are going pretty well (as they are these days), and you still feel unhappy, it is somewhat comforting to think everyone is a shitheel. As in, Humans are basically untrustworthy assholes, just like GoT and WD, so it’s no wonder they got your latte order wrong and f’n TRUMP!

    But I also think that part of it is just pendulum stuff. Happy endings rule until they get too trope-y. And then once every dang thing is gritty and nothing is what it seems at first, and no one is ever good, and *that* gets too tropey, you go back to straightforward stories. Which may be why we are seeing a Pulp resurgence, if, in fact, we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wait, you have NOT seen the movie Solomon Kane yet? Bugger, I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you.

    But someone I know has seen it; I just thought it was you by mistake.

    My apologies. Senility won that round.

    Liked by 1 person

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