Grimdark is a subgenre of speculative fiction with a tone, style, or setting that is particularly dystopian, amoral, or violent. The term is inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: "In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war."
Several attempts to define "grimdark" have been made:
- Adam Roberts described it as fiction "where nobody is honourable and Might is Right", and as "the standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their backs on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana, and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was". But he noted that grimdark has little to do with re-imagining an actual historic reality and more with conveying the sense that our own world is a "cynical, disillusioned, ultraviolent place".
- Genevieve Valentine called grimdark a "shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics".
- In the view of Jared Shurin, grimdark fantasy has three key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism (for example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and the agency of the protagonists: whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, grimdark is "fantasy protestantism": characters have to choose between good and evil, and are "just as lost as we are".
- Liz Bourke considered grimdark's defining characteristic to be "a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action ... as either impossible or futile". This, according to her, has the effect of absolving the protagonists as well as the reader from moral responsibility.
Whether grimdark is a genre in its own right or an unhelpful label has also been discussed. Valentine noted that while some writers have embraced the term, others see it as "a dismissive term for fantasy that's dismantling tropes, a stamp unfairly applied."
Use in fantasy fiction
According to Roberts, grimdark is a modern form of an "anti-Tolkien" approach to fantasy writing. The most successful and popular grimdark fantasy, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is characterized in Roberts's view by its reaction to Tolkien's idealism even though it owes a lot to Tolkien's work. According to Garrad, grimdark is associated to the gothic movement on the nineties and its values of loss and negativity.
Writing for The Guardian in 2016, Damien Walter summarized what he considered grimdark's "domination" of the fantasy genre as "bigger swords, more fighting, bloodier blood, more fighting, axes, more fighting", and, he surmised, a "commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers". He saw this trend as being in opposition to "a truly epic and more emotionally nuanced kind of fantasy" that delivered storytelling instead of only fights.
Authors whose works have been described as grimdark tend to be people writing from the 1990s onward. They include – apart from Martin – Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan, Steven Erikson, Paul Kearney, and Mark Lawrence. In a broader sense, the "pervasively gritty, bleak, pessimistic, or nihilistic view of the world" characteristic of grimdark fiction is found in broad swathes of popular fiction from the 2000s, including in such media franchises as Batman, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead.
Contrasting genres and trends
In 2017, the writer Alexandra Rowland proposed that the "opposite of grimdark" is "hopepunk", a literary trend that emphasizes what grimdark rejects: the importance of hope and the sense that ideals are worth fighting for despite adversity. The novelist Derek B. Miller defined hopepunk as "stories that free the soul from darkness. That necessitates situating the characters and action in a dark world and then directing the drama and activity towards the light. Whether they reach it or not is part of the story."
Another style proposed to provide a contrast to grimdark is "noblebright", which takes as its premise that not only are there good fights worth fighting, but that they are also winnable and result in a happy ending.
- Roberts, Adam (2014). Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Hachette UK. p. 42. ISBN 9781444795660.
- Moser, Marcel (2019). "Hope as the Main Driving Force of Humanity in the Grimdark Universe of Warhammer 40,000" (PDF). Kick (2). ISSN 2623-9558.
- Valentine, Genevieve (25 January 2015). "For A Taste Of Grimdark, Visit The 'Land Fit For Heroes'". NPR Books. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
- Shurin, Jared (28 January 2015). "NEW RELEASES: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR BY KATHERINE ADDISON". Pornokitsch. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
- Bourke, Liz (17 April 2015). "The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 7 March 2019.
- Garrad, Jon (2017). "Endless Nineties: the perennial aesthetic of'grimdark'games". Gothic Styles, Gothic Substance.
- Walter, Damien (1 January 2016). "Science fiction and fantasy look ahead to a diverse 2016". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
- Cordova, Savannah (1 March 2019). "Grimdark Books". Reedsy. Retrieved 7 March 2019.
- Mike Gelprin; Mark Lawrence; Gerri Leen; Adrian Tchaikovsky; Nick Wisseman (1 October 2014). Grimdark Magazine Issue #1. Grimdark Magazine. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-9941659-1-6.
- Romano, Aja (27 December 2018). "In the era of Trump and apocalyptic change, Hopepunk is weaponizing optimism". Vox. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
- One atom of justice, one molecule of mercy, and the empire of unsheathed knives, Alexandra Rowland, festiveninja. Published 17 November 2018 (Accessed 30 December 2018).
- "Radio Life: Interview With Author Derek B. Miller". SciFiNow. January 21, 2021.