Brian Murphy at The Silver Key has been running something of a series of posts on realism in fantasy, and his mild objections to it. I have been commenting occasionally in mild support of this trend, because I think that the fantasy genre is very conservative and needs to have its perspective broadened and conventions loosened. This inevitably involves experimentation, not all of which is going to work; and the folks at The Silver Key are generally quite conservative, so overly prone to see any experimentation as some form of radicalism or nihilism. However, recently Brian posted about Richard Morgan’s new novel The Cold Commands as a continuation of this theme, and Richard Morgan himself turned up in comments.

I’m a fan of Richard Morgan’s science fiction, but I hope that it’s been noted around here that I’m not shy of criticizing work I like, and Richard Morgan’s defense of his style of realism really doesn’t do him or the concept of realism in fantasy any favours. Basically, in defense of presenting gore in fantasy he refers to a poem by a Vietnam veteran that describes the “fierce joy” of murdering innocents, apparently based on real life experience. Richard Morgan has cited a war criminal as his muse. It shouldn’t take much effort by most people to recognize that defending your slasher-fiction on the basis that its honest to the experience of war criminals isn’t going to win you any favours with the majority of your critics (or, one hopes, your fans).

But Richard Morgan goes one better than this, and presents this “realistic” depiction of war – as seen through the eyes of a murderer – as somehow preferable and more realistic than eliding the details or glorifying the emotional and spiritual dimensions of war.

If Morgan wants to represent realism in war he has most certainly chosen the wrong path to go down here. A “realistic” depiction of the horrors of war would be much more likely to come from the eyes of the mundane majority of modern soldiery, that is the ordinary enlisted men who resisted the pressure to commit war crimes at every turn. These men didn’t write poems about how they loitered at the back of the squad, avoiding being too close to the commander who might order them to murder; they don’t make fine lines out of the “fierce joy” of firing high so they can avoid killing a non-combatant, only to have one of their more eager squadmates finish the job anyway. The only poetry that is written about these men will be the cruel beauty of Wilfred Owen, if they are so unlucky. They don’t get promoted by their war-criminal commanders, and if they take the ultimate risk of turning their arms on their colleagues to save innocent lives they don’t get medals until many years later. In modern war these men are the vast majority of the uniformed ranks, doing their best in very difficult circumstances to follow strict rules that have been laid down for them by a society that has spent 60 years learning what a nightmare modern warfare is. But there’s no joy in the “realistic” stories of ordinary squaddies doing their best to stay moral in immoral circumstances, so it’s much easier for Morgan to fall back on the psychopathic visions of a war criminal in his defense of “realism.” Give me Tolkien’s glorification of the nobility and sacrifice of war over this grubby version of realism any day of the week.

I suppose as his yardstick Morgan should try reversing his role, and asking himself what muse he would take to his side if he were one of the Vietnamese villagers who survived? If Miyazaki Goro chose to defend his misinterpretation of le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea on the basis of a poem by a decorated Japanese war criminal, would Morgan consider that to be of high merit? If Nabokov had defended writing Lolita through reference to the self-expulcatory ravings of some child-fucking Victorian-era pervert, would he be lauded for his difficult choice of representing “realism”? If Dostoevsky had defended Crime and Punishment through references to Chopper Read’s biography, would he have in no way diminshed his tale?

Of course this isn’t entirely Morgan’s fault, because our societies seem to be going through a slow period of forgetting just how horrible and senseless war is. If Guantanamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq represent the nadir of that process of forgetting, it should always be remembered that these things can’t happen in isolation – they need a culture of forgetting to support them, and as we moderns get further and further removed from the cruelty and cost of the wars we start, and as the horrors we committed those years ago fade into distance, of course it’s easy for authors like Morgan to come along, raised and taught during the end stages of this process, and so manufacture justifications for literary savagery from the poetry of war criminals. But I like to hope that if the fantasy genre is reformed and its conventions loosened, it will not be just to shift its attitude to war from the pre-world war 2 justifications and elisions of Tolkien’s era to the self-serving ignorance of our modern times. We can surely do better than that.