It’s not the grit, goddammit. It’s the grain.
It was the io9 headline that got to me: “The Unfulfilled Promise of Gritty Space Opera.” It’s not the basic premise of the article, no; there was something special going on in Firefly and the Battlestar reboot that just isn’t anymore—though I’d also include Cowboy Bebop, and Farscape on a good day (both of which are conspicuous in their absence), and not so much Space Cowboys or Solaris; I think the desire to see it as a discrete movement led to some distortion in selecting who was in, and why. I mean the indisputable wellspring of all this stuff for God’s sake is Alien, which is nowhere to seen.
But what was going on and what they have in common isn’t for fuck’s sake grit.
It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been kicking around the edges of the always brewing but lately intensifying backlash against the grimdark school of gritty epic fantasy? But it certainly doesn’t help that I’ve been reading comics ever since everybody with a pen and a whole lot of ink thought the thing that made Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen great was the fuckin’ grit, man. And we had grim ’n’ gritty superheroes and the joycore backlash and the relapses and the espionage crossbleeds and the X-Men in black leather and then back in the goofy costumes again and far too many people thinking that all they had to do to give us good comics (or epics, or science fiction, or procedurals, or, or, or) was to put in some grit or take the grit out again.
Fuck the grit. It isn’t the grit. The grit is nothing but an epiphenomenon.
“I realize there’s a particular type of comic I love that doesn’t come along too often,” said Shænon Garrity, and she said it about Dicebox, yeah, so sue me, “although it should. It’s science fiction or fantasy, preferably the former, with a focus on the ordinary lives of not-quite-ordinary people. There’s world-building, but it’s about society more than technology. The art is filled with interesting details.”
Botswana Beast said, “there was a final sense, to me, of new pathways, new vents in the medium and in the SF genre (which is so often entirely reliant on high-concept, but perhaps given we now live in a world of constant high-concept, it is perhaps time to read more humanised takes on such).” —And yes, he said it about Dicebox, what do you want from me?
There was also this brief Twitter conversation, on the subject of road trips, and car payments and water bills, and how maybe a dose of the latter might help the former.
As, you understand, some recent for instances.
The thing that movies and to a greater extent television and to a much greater extent comics and games can all do that prose can’t is throw in incidental detail, all of them, the best of them stuffing their multitracks with sights and sounds and physical sensations and we’re working I’m sure on smells God help us, while prose plods along laying one word down after another on its single track. —The thing of it is you need details to fill up those multiple tracks. Star Trek comes out swinging in the sixties to imagine the wonderful world of the future and can barely imagine past the walls of a spaceship. You want food? You go to a hole in the wall and ask for whatever you want. You want aliens? Slap some paint on their faces and chalk a moral caption on the sleeves of their jackets, we’ve got shots to set up. —But by virtue of longevity if nothing else details accreted, as fans and writers and producers paid attention to the world and its ragtag, hotchpotch consistency; by the time Next Generation came out, there was something of a there there, though you’re still going to the wall to ask for your tea, and when it comes time to calibrate the framminjammer you’re just typing rapidly on glass screens and saying what you’re doing, out loud, because who has time to figure out what that would really look like, doing something like that? Write down some technobabble and on to the next, there’s models to build.
Contrast that with the opening of Alien, where they’re all waking up from cold sleep, joshing Altmanly with each other over breakfast, settling into their messy workstations on the bridge and going about their business. The actors, legend says, lived and slept on that set during rehearsals, and it shows. They don’t tell us what they’re doing, they just do it, and there’s a wealth of detail, prickly, sticky, finely grained detail to pick up from what they’re doing, and how.
Or think about the very physical actions that had to be performed in concert in a very real place to turn Serenity around and save them all from the Reavers in the Firefly pilot; think about the toll that’s taken bit by agonizing bit on the pilots and the crew in “33,” to get back to our champions of soi disant grit.
An unreal world, however high-concept, that’s really lived in. —This isn’t the Dogme ’07 of mundane SF, though mundane SF was trying to get there, too. Adventures can happen, oh yes, and not-so-ordinary people can go on them. But we see the how, and the why, and the impact it has, and all the little details accumulate into how life is really lived, somewhere utterly else.
It isn’t the grit. It’s the grain. Fine details, closely observed; not irritants that require an oyster to deliver anything of value.