It wasn’t overtly cynical but the undercurrent was there as everything faded to black. So I made some changes for the better. I’ve always been against cynical storytelling, particularly in science fiction and fantasy where we are open to a world of possibilities. So I looked at it objectively and realized what I was really trying to say wasn’t cynical. I speaking to the infinite possibilities of love set against the entire unkown of unexplored space. I just needed a little push in another direction, a small change, it’s really only a paragraph or two in the entire story but it makes it so much better.
Mainstream science fiction has had an inferiority complex. Stemming from a time when people dismissed science fiction as being “just for kids” so you see a lot of writers compensate by being overtly dark and gritty, it’s how we get things like the Game of Thrones, but some of the worst offenders conflate dark and gritty with cynical. Most of the time it’s the one with the bad Frank Frazetta imitation crossed with a bad heavy metal band album cover on the front. You know the one with the girls in the metal pasties and sprays of blood everywhere that just screams “We’re not for kids anymore.”
In an effort to show they’re “mature” they’ve confused dark with cynical and worst of all, they’re being cynical for the sake of being cynical. You can be dark, you can be grim, but if you’re doing it from a place that’s bitter it’s like reading a story written by a jaded teenager in a high school writing class.
To me, the ultimate example of a writer being dark and gritty without being cynical is Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Howard created a world with some of the most gruesome barbaric images in all of fiction, a world where enemies are crucified and people bite the heads off of ravens to survive, and our hero makes no apologies as he stands in the middle of it, sometimes even doing the crucifying.
The larger story of Conan is that of an explorer, someone who is too smart and too curious to be content with being just a nomad looking from plunder to pillage. (The movies are way more Kull than Conan) The world Conan inhabits is a world in which good and evil are very real, very black and white, and anybody who wants power has to choose a side but Conan doesn’t see that in a negative.
Conan doesn’t choose a side outright; he rejects authority when thrust upon him either way but will always do the right thing. But to him, since the world has both tangible good and tangible evil it means the world is one-hundred percent equitable. He’s unwavering in his belief that everything should be balanced. The good people get their reward and the bad guys get what’s coming to them, by his hand or by someone else’s, he really doesn’t care. Whether it's raiding a temple to retrieve a jewel from a demon wizard’s cave only to give that jewel to a beggar when he finds out the princess is lying to him or leaving an enemy to be crucified like he did to Conan earlier in the story, Conan's sense of justice borders on the obsessive but it's never without merit in the story.
When Conan eventually becomes a king it’s not a upbeat moment. It’s a tragic end to a life as an explorer and adventurer. The man who set out to leave his world is thrust back into it based on his own sense of duty and justice. But it’s still never presented as a cynical end. Conan never lets go of the notion that the world is equitable even if it’s forced him to be the hand that guides it.
One of the later stories involved Conan fighting a gorilla who thinks he’s a wizard. Read that sentence again because yes, it’s that awesome. But the story is more than an un-apologetically silly story about a man fighting a gorilla…in a cape…that thinks it’s a wizard. (c’mon, that’s cool) It’s a story about Conan returning to his roots and finding a balance of justice and meaning of life against something like him. Someone fighting against a world that made him into something he never meant to be and his primal sense of nature which, like Conan, is in the end peaceful.
Lots of fantasy and sci-fi authors have been inspired by Conan. But they also lose sight of what made those stories special. They look at those Frank Frazetta paintings and think that fans want guys with swords covered in blood and hanging out with wenches in metal swimwear. It misses the point, they miss the sense of adventure, the character with an outlook that’s unapologetically simple, and they miss the brazen sense of fun.