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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Grimdark fiction

A question for readers...

One of the projects I am keen to work on is a study of grimdark fiction. This week I wish to take a break from my standard blog format of full, 1k+ word essays to more briefly outline my developing thoughts on this subject, and to request your input as readers.

The main idea on which I am working is that grimdark has its roots in the emerging nerd, and established punk cultures of the British later 70s and early 80s (but continuing variously thereafter). That it is explicitly political and satirical in the tone of its dystopian vision. And that it better anticipates the neoliberal trajectory than the more serious anti-Soviet and anti-Nazi dystopias of the earlier twentieth century.

This trajectory includes the explicitly obscene face of neoliberal rule in exaggerated personality cults around semi-criminal mobster figures; the related and rapid appropriation of counterculture aesthetics into establishment domination; that for all its fetishisation of freedom, its inherent authoritarian bent; the ways in which it handles ecological and economic decline by excluding more and more people from categories of humanity and citizenship; and its tendency to absorb everything contrary to itself into itself.

To argue this point I want to further argue that grimdark proper is meaningfully distinct from what is variously called grimdark today. That is, any fiction with a dour aesthetic that incorporates ultra-violence. Grimdark is properly and explicitly framed as humorous, deploys comic exaggeration and does so to create a sustained sense of the grotesque. To illustrate my meaning, by this understanding of grimdark, The Dark Knight (2008) or Breaking Bad (2008-13) do not qualify, although the latter could be said to have elements of the genre’s essential characteristics.

Grimdark could also be said to overlap considerably with cyberpunk, where cyberpunk takes on these key features. This is a point that would need developing. There are also liminal examples of children’s media that have some elements of grimdark, such as The Demon Headmaster.

To argue and better state this case, I have been compiling a list of works of grimdark fiction. And I wish to put out a general request that this be extended in the comments to this post. The miniature wargame Warhammer 40,000 (1987) is the most explicit original here, it is the origin of the term grimdark and contains all of the genre’s essential ingredients (although some earlier works fit aptly). To research this, and hopefully develop my thesis, I will be reading Tim Linward’s Grimdark: A Very British Hell when it is released later this year.

But to develop the idea of a genre, I wish also to cover a broader range of fictions that fit. This is my extant list, which has already been benefitted by others suggestions:

Judge Dredd (comics. 1977)

Mad Max (film, 1979)

Escape from New York (film, 1981)

V for Vendetta (comics, 1982)

Paranoia (tabletop RPG, 1984)

Robocop (film, 1987)

‘The Happiness Patrol’ (Doctor Who serial, 1988)

Back to the Future II (film, 1989)

Crusader: No Remorse (game, 1995)

Starship Troopers* (film, 1997)

Dark City (film, 1998)

The Chronicles of Riddick (film, 2004)

Priest (film, 2011)

Snowpiercer (film, 2013)

* I suspect the film adaptation is a better example of grimdark than Robert A. Heinlein’s original novel.

I am also keen to hear any thoughts, positive or critical, on this thesis, and other potential useful sources. Please feel free to comment.


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