saving things

October 6, 2014

Back in the dark ages, the mid to late 80’s, there was something of a revolution in comics and the depiction of superheroes.  Watchmen came out, along with The Dark Knight, and even Wild Cards, which all posited variations of the same idea:  if real people in the real world really had superpowers and/or donned costumes to fight crime, they would be neurotic at best, psychopathic at worst, and definitely some level of flat-out crazy.  These stories were dark, nihilistic and–everyone said, comparing them to the 50 years of gee-whiz adventure that had come before–more realistic.

In hindsight, politically and sociologically the 80’s were just awful, weren’t they?

Along with this new embracing of “gritty” realism came a rejection of anything that was too nice, too idealistic.  It was seen as immature, and the expression of idealism was considered naive, a glossing over of harsh worldly realities.  Yeah, I blame the 80’s.  For twenty years, a lot of storytelling seemed to get darker and more cynical.  Robin died. Superman died.  Everybody died, and came back so they could die again.  Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire made unrelenting terribleness in epic fantasy mainstream.  The term “grimdark” came into use, with much gleeful rubbing of hands.

A few years ago, I read Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates.  Now, Erikson does grimdark with the best of them — this book features a mass exodus of refugees who are being harried by an enemy, people are dying by the thousands, and when they finally reach the city, the gates are barred, and the survivors are all crucified by the side of the road.  The story ends with a group of characters searching for one man among the survivors.  Two other characters, immortal travelers, chance upon them when they have just found a dying dog.  Now, this dog and his pack have been running around the whole book providing a bit of comic relief through all the terribleness (no, really).  And now he’s dying no!!!!!!  One of the immortals has a healing potion, and a discussion ensues:  Should we use it on the dog?  Probably not.  The dog’s probably too far gone, better not waste it.  So the immortals walk away.

And then they turn around, go back, and give the healing potion to the dog, who survives and has many more adventures throughout the series.

I absolutely fell in love with Erikson’s Malazan series in that moment.  They saved the dog.  For no other reason than it was a good thing to do.  The Malazan series has some of the most brutal fantasy writing I’ve ever read, but it’s also filled with Save the Dog moments.  Characters who dearly love each other, without cynicism.  I need that.  Since the 80’s, so much SF&F and comics and superhero stories seemed to be about putting good people in awful situations and seeing how horrible they can be to each other, and how unrelentingly bad the world can be.  (And I was really into that for a time — I mean, I read all of Wild Cards, which got just as brutal as the rest.)  Those moments of idealism stand out like spotlights in the night.

I think it’s starting to change.  Saving things, unsarcastic idealistic characters — good people doing good — are coming back.  As Daniel Abraham has explained, when “dark and gritty” becomes the norm, it’s no longer shocking, it’s no longer radical.  So what then becomes shocking and radical?  Idealism.  Optimism.

My favorite comic to date is Warren Ellis’s Planetary, which is explicitly about saving things.  Captain America was not supposed to work.  Some people insisted that modern audiences would never buy the lawful good, earnest, idealism of that classic character.  And yet, it’s one of the best, most popular superhero movies of the last 20 years.  The whole Avengers sequence is filled with uncynical heroism — and I think people have been starved for that.  Guardians of the Galaxy — the climactic moment involves all the main characters saving the world by coming together and holding hands.  And no one’s complaining.

I really like stories about people coming together for the greater good, disparate folk who have a common cause and rise to meet great challenges. Who save things.  Turns out, I’ve always liked that kind of story:  Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Captain Power.  Some would like to see this kind of story as childish — the people making the DC movies, for example.  Grimdark isn’t going to go away.

But what I think it would be helpful to recognize is that grim and gritty isn’t any more realistic than idealism.  It’s a choice.  Sure, Wild Cards can get really dark — but I’ve chosen to write Wild Cards stories about friendship.  My upcoming story in Lowball is an outright comedy.  Terrible things happen in the world.  Really great things happen, too.  When someone tries to tell me that grim is more realistic because people are generally awful, I point them to stories like this:  during the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, firefighters stopped to save one homeowner’s chickens.  They saved the chickens, for no other reason than it was a good thing to do.

We makers of fiction, we’re not doing realism.  We’re making choices.  And I know what kind of world I’d rather be spending my spare time in.



13 Responses to “saving things”

  1. WanabePBWriter Says:

    This is the reason I am not interested in the new Star Trek after Into Darkness, and I think it is ultimately why the last Star Trek series ended after the second season. Star Trek is about hope for the future, Enterprise tried to mirror current events, terrorist attacks, shady unknown forces and such.
    One thing I think is missing from space Si-Fi is continuity to the past. It was such a bad movie, but part of me loved Prometheus because of the clips of Lawrence of Arabia, and the Captains line “I’ll have you know this squeeze box was once owned by Stephen Stills. More if that please.
    Question, do you have any feelings of optimism for Interstellar?

  2. carriev Says:

    It’s Christopher Nolan. It’ll be bleak, but I’ll go see it for the spaceships.

  3. This perceived need to darken everything is pretty much why I was disappointed with Man of Steel, and why, when people ask me what my favorite Superman movie is, I tell them it’s the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite (itself an adaptation of Action Comics #775: What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?). In that one, Superman proves quite effectively to a group of 90s-style “heroes” why he doesn’t use their methods, and why idealism is good.

  4. Pamela Bock Says:

    To WanabePBWriter —

    I can totally, totally get why many of my fellow Trekkies (perhaps yourself included) have lost interest in the 2009 reboot series. It is definitely a darker Trekverse than the one Roddenberry envisioned in TOS and TNG, and I can understand why that may not be to everyone’s tastes.

    But for me, Into Darkness has so many “Save the Dog” moments that it catapulted the reboot crew into the slot of my personal favorite Enterprise crew. This blog post had me thinking about Into Darkness the whole time, because of the fine line it manages to find, the chord it manages to strike: while the universe of Into Darkness has become one of grimdark, the _characters_ of Into Darkness have not. And that actually makes the story a hundred times more powerful, for me. It’s easy to be idealistic when you’re in the universe of Roddenberry Trek, where humanity has achieved something near utopia. What’s more impressive to me are the characters who hold onto the idealism in the midst of the grimdark. There’s no “Game of Thrones” shades in Into Darkness; we aren’t here to watch our protagonists take turns seeing who can be the most horrible to each other. Instead, Into Darkness uses the grimdark to push our characters into the most idealistic versions of themselves that they can be. Kirk’s big moment is one of selfless self-sacrifice, not of cruelty or brutality. The world around him gets darker, and he gets lighter. It was a story I really responded to, and there is, very much, still an essential “Trekness” in the story to me.

    … not that you’re “wrong;” I just find myself unable to stop myself throwing in my two cents about Into Darkness every once in awhile. Into Darkness is a deeply important story to me, and every once in awhile, it bums me a bit to realize I’m fairly alone among Trekkies in thinking so. Which is okay, really. To each their own!

  5. Carbonman Says:

    The world IS a grim, dark place. It has gone more that way since the 1970s and it’s getting darker as time passes. The optimism of the ’60s is long gone. It’s become this way since we as a society concluded that we could ‘get ours’ by scheming and financial sleight of hand. ‘Something for nothing’ seems to have become acceptable and almost the norm.
    However, not all people feel this way and try to make the world a better place for themselves and for their community. All I can do is be the best person possible and try to make my world a better place.
    Some writers I greatly admire don’t shy away from challenges and bad things happening to their characters, but still manage to keep that optimism, integrity and do those things that are ‘good things to do’. I just finished ‘Exo’ by Steven Gould. His main characters have all sorts of bad things happen, but they each have moral compasses that are rarely ignored. I aspire to that strength of character and try to shine my own dim little light out there as often as possible. The alternative is to succumb (and I’m too damned stubborn).

  6. WanabePBWriter Says:

    To Pamela and Carbonman

    First Carbonman great website, There was a crooked man Eh! Nice! If I ever win the Powerball, or become a George R. level author I am giving you a call.

    Into Darkness: I did still enjoy the film and will be looking forward to the next. I just hope that things do not continue to only get darker. An example of my fears, would be Klingons mirroring “Islam/ Al-Qaida- ISSL” “Klingons are people of honor, not violence” Just using language here not making comments.

    Seventy three or so original episodes to exploit here for JJ and Hollywood to be exploit. My trekie heart shutters to think on what could go wrong.

    I guess for me, I try to remember there is more light in the world than we’re allowed to see. Dark gets the lions share of the press by far. Six thousand years or so of global barbarity will take a lot more than the few centuries of the growth in enlightenment we have had so far.

    In heart and head we are still apes no matter how much we want to think we are more. That old hind brain can get the best of any of us; all it takes is a poked in the right spot either by accident or design. Utopia or dystopia, try to make the first and you bring about the latter. I say let’s just keep the topia going.

  7. Carbonman Says:

    “And He Built A Crooked House” is exactly where I got the name from. I’ve been using it for my businesses over about 30 years.
    The world has actually become less violent in the last 70 years, but the consequences of a misstep are greater – climate change, nuclear weapons or accidents, complex, critical interdependencies for security of water and food supplies. Don’t get me started on willful steps backward to mysticism by various religious groups. I’ll get through this to my old age, but my nieces and nephews may not.

  8. WanabePBWriter Says:


    Correction or corrections are coming, and I do believe we will survive it. How ugly it will be is the real question. I RAH said and would say we are overdue for a thinning. I just hope when it comes it will not be so bad that we lose are shot at the stars.

  9. WanabePBWriter Says:

    That was horrible, my apologies. Our Shot…..

  10. Carbonman Says:

    I have to agree a correction is coming. If not Ebola, some other biological event will occur. Too many people = too many points of failure.

  11. David Bowles Says:

    Biological agents have an upper limit of effectiveness. The Black Death was about as optimal as you can get and still didn’t get close to wiping people out.

  12. carriev Says:

    Eek, I’m talking about optimism in stories and you’re talking about wiping out humanity! The idea is the worst *isn’t* going to happen!

  13. WanabePBWriter Says:

    In Response to Carrie

    Sorry about that my post had a spiraling effect. I believe that whatever comes we will make it through and adapt.

    I am more hopeful than the posts may indicate.

    Unrelated: Watched “her” No Obesity, no wheelchairs no homeless.

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