As part of my author guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot. I am very excited andthe author of
August 15, 2017!
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On Writing Violence in a Violent World
by Anna Smith Spark
My name is Anna Smith Spark. I write violent grimdark fantasy. I write in explicit terms about war.
It’s a bit embarrassing, actually, occasionally. The woman opposite wants me to come and talk to her school about creative writing. My ex-boss wants a signed copy of my book. Me: ‘Um… are you sure? It’s … um …. A lot of people die, yeah?’
The trite explanation is that I’m writing to show the reality of violence. I’m not glorifying warfare, I’m showing how inglorious it is, how horrifying and pointless and futile. War is evil. Killing is evil. To target civilians, to make use of rape and human shields and all the other atrocities of total warfare, is an obscenity against life itself. I write to show that. Make it clear. A mirror. Didactic. All that.
But it’s not that easy. Is it?
Homer’s Iliad was written down over two and a half thousand years ago. It was composed maybe three thousand years ago, give or take. It is the first and greatest masterpiece of European literature. The foundation stone of western culture. It is a book entirely and totally about war. People die. People die horribly. Hell, of the three central characters, two die in battle and we’re left knowing the third will pretty shortly be following them. And the whole reason for the war is shown to be futile. Someone left her husband for someone else cause she fancied him better, and, I mean, that’s worth fighting for ten years over, isn’t it? Right up there with abolishing slavery or defeating fascism, that. And everyone in the Iliad knows it. Knows it’s pointless. Knows it’s futile. An absurdity. Nobody in the Iliad wants to die by violence. We get several long speeches to that effect. Death is shown to be terrible. Horrible. Better to settle down, have children, grow old in the love of your family, live a long and peaceful and happy life. The Iliad, like all great war poetry, is a didactic blast against the pointless futility of war.
War is also the whole basis of the Iliad’s society. War is glorious. War is noble. War is a man’s purpose in life. War is…
War is fun.
The battle scenes in the Iliad are fantastic. Brutal. Visceral. Uncompromising. Horrifying.
You think the Iliad’s been told and reread and rewritten and filmed and painted for the best part of three thousand years now just because it points out that killing people is wrong, man? The Iliad’s right up there with Predator and Tom Clancy as one great amazing breath-taking violent rush of fun.
But charging down on the Trojans Ajax killed Doryclus,
Bastard son of Priam – he wounded Pandocus next,
Wounded Lysander, Pyrasus, then Pylartes.
Wild as a swollen river hurling down on the flats,
Down from the hills in winter spate, bursting its banks
With rain from storming Zeus, and stands of good dry oak,
Whole forests of pine it whirls into itself and sweeps along
Till it heaves a crashing mass of driftwood out to sea-
So glorious Ajax swept the field, routing Trojans,
Shattering teams and spearmen in his onslaught.
You think the person who composed that, he only did it to show war is wrong?
The battle scenes I write …. I love writing them. Almost get up and start dancing around shouting with my heart beating real loud. It’s exciting. Basically a massive turn-on. And not to blow my own trumpet too loudly, they’ve been described as fantastic. Brutal. Visceral. Uncompromising. Horrifying.
Reading about violence is enjoyable. Watching films about violence is enjoyable. Writing about violence is immensely enjoyable. And I strongly suspect, from everything I’ve ever studied about history, that actually doing violence is even more enjoyable than reading or writing or watching it. Warfare has been pretty much a constant of human history, and those who are good at war have generally occupied the top social and sexual desirability spot.
Grant that this boy, my son,
May be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
Strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power,
And one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!’-
When he comes home from battle wearing the bloody gear
Of the mortal enemy he has killed in war-
A joy to his mother’s heart.
That’s Hector in the Illiad. He’s spent ten years killing Greeks for the sake of a woman who ran off with his kid brother. He’s seen most of his brothers die, and his wife’s entire family die, and he knows, deep down inside, that he’s going to die any day now himself. He’s killed more people than he can probably count or remember, up close and personal, sticking his sword in their guts, cutting them open, seeing their eyes as they die. And all he wants in the world for his baby is more of the same.
Football hooligans arrange to meet up before matches purely in order to kick the shit out of each other, and, whatever else you might say about them, it’s probably not because they’re filled with existential self-loathing and want to torture themselves. Get some blokes together on a Friday night and give them a couple of beers and … you know … somehow … people just … sort of … start … hitting things. Alexander’s soldiers followed him from Greece to the banks of the Indus raping and killing and burning and smashing thing. Genghis Khan’s soldiers followed him from Mongolia to Europe doing the same. Tamerlane’s soldiers. Napoleon’s. Hitler’s. Egyptians and Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians and Romans and Huns and Goths and Vandals and Arabs and Crusaders and…. you get the picture?
You think all those people went all that way entirely under duress? Because they were stupid? Misguided? Desperate? Wrong in the head? Different from you?
War. It’s fun.
Ah, yes, you say. Okay. But that was then. Things were different. I’m different. More civilized. I wouldn’t do things like that. Back then, maybe it was kind of acceptable, but people who enjoy it now, today, they’re sick in the head. And when I read or watch violence …. well, I mean, obviously, it’s the triumph of good that I’m rooting for. Violence is exciting and enjoyable. Gets the old adrenaline going. Basic fact of biology and all that. Way back when before we were fully human, we were carnivores and hunters, we wouldn’t really have got very far in the world if we didn’t have something in our biochemistry that said killing was a good idea. But we’re better than that now. People who give in to those impulses, they’re sick and twisted and evil. And, in fact, when we cheer on violence, it’s as the salvation of the world from people who are sick and twisted and evil and that. The bad guys being defeated. Light and life coming out on top.
And this is bleedin’ fantasy, woman. I mean, come on, what do you expect the Chosen One to do when confronted with the Dark Lord and his drooling minions lusting for pain and slaughter? Flash them the peace sign and walk away?
Sauron’s legions march out of the Black Gate and Aragorn makes a long speech about love and kindness, and they all look at each other and hug and see the error of their ways and everyone lives happily in eternal peace.
You’d all be queueing up to buy the book and watch the film and collect the miniatures to that, wouldn’t you?
Robb Stark says to Jaime Lannister somewhere about book two, hey, man, let’s like, shake hands, let bygones be bygones, good of the people and all, there’s got to be a better way.
That’d have you waiting ten years for the sequel, showering Emmies on the TV show, reading the author’s blog posts on baseball like it was the word of God, yes?
Reading about violence is fun. Watching violence is fun. Writing violence is fun.
Violence. War. It’s fun.
Oh, you say, but it’s about the satisfaction of seeing the evil dude really get it. That’s why I enjoy it. He’s the evil dude. Sick in the head. He’s got to properly suffer. Really suffer. Can’t let him off the hook with an apology and a promise to make amends. So you’re saying I should just forgive Hitler, are you? So you’re saying I’d be a better person if I did?
The greatest minds in human history have grappled with that one. I’m probably best off not trying to give a definitive answer here. But just think about this for a minute: what if it was your child who shouldn’t be forgiven? Your mother? Your lover? You? How do you know the bad guy’s the bad guy and deserves it? How do you know?
Really know? All those people marching all over the world with swords and axes and machine guns … they were all so stupid they couldn’t see what they were doing? Unlike you?
It’s easy in fantasy. The evil dude usually very conveniently wears evil horns and spiky armour and has ugly deformed ill-treated semi-human evil slaves. But in real life … throughout history … you think the evil dude just happily knows he’s evil? Really goes around intending to commit atrocities, probably cackling maniacally, tortures kittens in his downtime, never did a kind thing to anyone ever in his whole evil overlord life?
You think you can just tell?
Oh, sure, we like to think it’s easy. Read Mein Kampf or any other poisonous racist drivelling excrement (or, better yet, don’t) and, yeah, I give you, and it is really pretty obviously sparkly big neon lights capital letters clear. Genghis Khan’s soldiers made towers of human skulls outside the gates of burning cities. So did Tamerlane’s. Kind of hard not to think about that and not conclude they probably weren’t the nicest of blokes. Comedy sketch interlude ripped off the Fast Show: two Nazis stand in their death’s head uniforms and one of them says slowly to the other, ‘gee, you know, it’s dawning on me, you think maybe we might be the bad guys here?’
Alexander the Great was one of the biggest, evilest, most murderous bastards in history. You have any idea how many people he killed? What he did at Tyre, or in the Indus valley, or to one of his oldest friends, when he was pissed off or just pissed? His soldiers adored him. People literally worshipped him. Two and a half thousand years later and he’s still ‘the Great’ and yes, I might maybe have a teeny bit of a crush on him.
Richard the Lion Heart? Edward the Third and his son the Black Prince? Henry the Fifth? Great kings, those guys. Heroes of English history. ‘The greatest day in English history since Agincourt’, an English MP recently said. What those guys actually did was kill foreign people. In the foreigner’s own countries. They invaded foreign countries and killed foreign people who were weirdly a bit upset about being invaded even by such thoroughly dashingly heroic chaps. Ye gods, that’s a heroic thing!
Even King Arthur – all he actually did, really, if you think about it, all he actually did was kick the crap out of some Germans for the terrible crime of wanting to live in the UK. Looked at in that light, he was basically Nigel Farange with a magic sword. And you’ll never be able to get that image out of your head now. And I’m not sorry for that.
One of the main reasons we talk about Genghis Khan so rudely is because it was partly European skulls his soldiers were piling. He ain’t exactly seen as Darth Vader in Ulaan Bator, you know? Tamerlane’s so popular in Samarkand, newlyweds pose in front of statues of the ‘Scourge of God’ for their just married pics.
We all like to think we could tell, if it happened. We’d be the objector, the resistor, the pacifist, the person who tried to make it stop. Oh sure, yeah, if I’d been alive whenever, I’d have risked myself and my family and everyone I’ve ever loved to save the world from bad things. But that’s probably a lie. As history has proved time and time and time and time again. Some bloke in flashy armour stands up and shouts ‘For glory! For honour! For god/the fatherland/the sake of our women and children! For great big shiny piles of loot!” and the chances are pretty high you’d be cheering him following him singing along thinking you were on the side of light and life doing completely the morally right thing.
Because war is fun.
I’m not saying this because I think it’s wonderful. Quite the opposite. I’m saying it because it terrifies me down to the marrow of my bones. War is evil. War is an atrocity against humanity. But don’t pretend you couldn’t do it. That you might not find yourself waging war and enjoying it. That deep down, somewhere, you might not find it a really great wonderful good deal of fun.
War is evil. War is blasphemy against life and living.
War is fun.
Anna Smith Spark’s novel The Court of Broken Knives will be published in summer 2017 by HarperVoyager (UK) and Orbit (US). It is the first volume in the major new epic fantasy series Empires of Dust.
 Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1990, Book 11, l. 577-86
 Ibid, Book 6, ls. 568-574.
Anna Smith Spark lives in London, UK. She loves grimdark and epic fantasy and historical military fiction. Anna has a BA in Classics, an MA in history and a PhD in English Literature. She has previously been published in the Fortean Times and the poetry website http://www.greatworks.org.uk. Previous jobs include petty bureaucrat, English teacher and fetish model.
Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault. She spent several years as an obsessive D&D player. She can often be spotted at sff conventions wearing very unusual shoes.
In this dark and gripping debut, the exiled son of the king must fight to reclaim his throne no matter the cost.
Haunted by prophetic dreams, Orhan has hired a company of soldiers to cross the desert to reach the capital city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from the ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Young, ambitious, and impossibly charming, something dark hides in Marith’s past–and in his blood
“Grim, gritty, and fast paced; with great battles scenes! Anna Smith-Spark is one to watch.”―Andy Remic, author of the Blood Dragon Empire series
“Anna Smith-Spark writes in a unique voice with such pace and veracity your imagination has to struggle to keep up with your eyes.”―Adrian Collins, Grimdark Magazine
“On a par with R. Scott Bakker.”―Grimdark Alliance
“Captivating.”―Marc Turner, author of the Chronicles of the Exile series
“Holy crap, this is good!”―Grim Tidings