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Violence as climactic conflict

All stories require conflict of some kind… but does it always need to be violent conflict? There is certainly a trend in fantasy, science fiction, and horror to find narratives driving towards a massive violent conclusion. These have become set-pieces, the very things that sell Blockbuster films to audiences. We expect them in our genre narratives now, but why? Are they really necessary for genre narratives to be effective?

Is the level of violence we’re used to seeing really necessary? Often, the threat of violence is far more interesting and better at keeping the reader or viewer on the edge of their seat than the culmination of that threat.

Charlotte argues that these stories always boil down to the basic fight for survival. Will survival always eventually come down to violence?

If we must include violence in our narratives, what makes some violence valid and others gratuitous? When violence becomes too ‘clean’, where we are removed from the confronting, emotionally arresting aspects of that violence, it no longer has a reason to exist.

This week, we ask whether violence is necessary for genre narratives. What would happen to the stories if we removed the violence?


Further reading:

Texts mentioned in this episode:

  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Moon
  • I am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Shape of Water
  • Starship Troopers (book by Robert Heinlein and film)
  • Sebastian de Castel (author)
  • Gladiator
  • Star Trek
  • The First Law by Joe Abercrombie
  • Black Sails
  • Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Melinda Snodgrass (author)
  • We are Legion by Melinda Snodgrass
  • Rogue One
  • Alien and Aliens
  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  • Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire
  • The Copper Cat by Jen Williams
  • Star Wars: A New Hope
  • The Riddle Master by Patricia A. McKillip
  • MacGyver
  • Dr Who
  • Call of Duty
  • Altered Carbon
  • Kick-Ass
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service
  • Cabin in the Woods
  • Matt Shaw (extreme horror writer)
  • Dawn Kano (extreme horror writer)
  • Saw franchise
  • Hostel
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Wristcutters
  • Wolf Creek

One comment

  1. It kind of sounds like the discussion got a bit off track from the premise of “Do we need violence in SFF stories?” The answer, of course, is a resounding, “Of course not.”

    I do find it interesting that none of you could really come up with examples of non-violent SFF novels or movies. That’s more to do with the sorts of stories you like rather than what’s available, I think. 2001: A Space Odyssey does have violence in it, but because it’s caused by a computer and because both Clarke and Kubrick are more intellectual artists, it doesn’t feel terribly visceral. But the entire beginning of both movie and book are blood-drenched, as the apemen fight amongst themselves and one is mauled by a mountain lion.

    However, there are numerous examples of mainstream, incredibly popular SFF movies which don’t have violence in them.

    Two of Jim Carrey’s best films, for example: The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind both feature interpersonal conflict but don’t resort to fisticuffs for their resolutions.

    Close Encounters of the Third Kind is scary at times, but there’s no actual violence in it.

    Field of Dreams, perhaps my favorite Fantasy film of all time, has extremely low-scale violence, and that particular scene is more of an accident than anything else.

    Then there are the “man v. nature” types of stories, which are perennially popular, even in SF. Movies like Gravity and The Martian (and in the latter case, the novel it’s based on), feature main characters trying to survive extreme situations alone. Both Sandra Bullock’s and Matt Damon’s character have to survive primarily using their wits and, as Mark Whatney (Damon) says, “Science the shit out of this.”

    Similarly, the movie Passengers (Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen) has a lot of action, conflict and explosions, but it’s not person-on-person violence as it is person v. environment.

    In novels you have an even bigger selection, from the exploration type of stories like Rendezvous With Rama by Clarke or The Gods Themselves by Asimov. Books like Connie Willis’ Remake aren’t about violence at all, but they are decidedly hard Science Fiction. More recently we’ve had A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock which is an all-too-plausible dystopia that doesn’t feel very much removed from today’s concerns.

    A couple of my favorite short stories include Larry Niven’s “Flashcrowd” which is about the euphoniously-named Jerryberry Jensen acting as an investigative journalist looking into the effects of instant teleportation. As far as I recall it is completely nonviolent. On the Fantasy side there is Anne McCaffrey’s “A Proper Santa Claus” which is about the frustrations artists feel when people put them into a box; in this case a little boy whose drawings and sculptures come to life, but when he is forced to draw things “properly” the magic goes away and they just sit there.

    Violence is certainly an easy shorthand for conflict, and naturally many stories can’t be told without it. (Although I kinda want to see a version of Predator where they sit down and talk out their differences.)

    For me, an excellent antidote to mindless violence in films are the Marvel movies. In those movies the punch-ups are more about the character-driven aspects of the violence, especially in Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther. But even in films like Guardians of the Galaxy where there is often a gleeful cartoonishness to the violence, when Starlord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot first meet, they really engage in a very rough-and-tumble version of Keep-Away rather than a vicious fight. (Despite some limbs getting hacked off.) The end of the film has the Guardians coming together as friends and an ad-hoc family where they defeat the bad guy and win the day by *literally* holding hands. That sort of thing is not what people usually associate with superhero films.

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