When I was a child, I passed my neighbor’s house every day while walking home from school. He would often be sitting on his front porch, tying his shoes, and would wave or say hello to me. I remember one day that was different from all the others:
“Hi, Billy. I hope you’re having a great day.”
“It’s OK, I guess. I just wish school didn’t have to end so early.”
“Would you like to hear some stories?”
“Oh boy, would I!”
“Terrific, but let’s sing a song first.”
We sing, “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…”
Viva Longevicus by Brandon Daubs. A corporation genetically-engineered rats to make them cuter and smarter, and sold them as housepets. Some of the rats on colony planets decided they’d rather live outdoors, breed a lot, and eat all of the colonists’ crops.
The characters are soldiers/exterminators trying to wipe out the rats, although they don’t believe their task is possible. They have to do some dark stuff, like blowing up a shuttle full of escaping colonists because they can’t be sure rats haven’t snuck on board. They end up doing some dark stuff to each other as well.
The rats’ reproductive biology has been altered. A few of the rats are big queens who spit out swarms of pink baby rats. This was probably intended to add a gross-out/horror element, but to me, regular rat biology is more scary. Fail to wipe out a single breeding pair, or a single pregnant female, and the ratpocalypse is back on.
This was my favorite story of the magazine, but I didn’t understand a part tacked on to the end. There was some computer message about spreading the rats around to other planets, but I wasn’t sure if this meant that the rats had become smart enough to use computers, or if there was a human group on the rats’ side. A decade or two ago, I wouldn’t have bought into the idea of humans wanting to wipe out their own species, but after working with biologists at a few major universities, I now know this is reality, not fiction.
There was a lot of cursing in this story, which probably makes sense for exterminator-soldiers losing a war against rats. If I met someone in person who cursed like these guys, I might not think much of it, but seeing it in print was jarring. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s true.
Burying the Coin by Setsu Uzume. In this steampunk story, a character announces (to the reader) her intention to betray her zeppelin captain, then spends the rest of the story getting around to it.
A Proper War by James Moore. A group of rapist bandits get in a medieval weapons fight, then some other grimdark stuff happens. Past rapes are mentioned many times, but fortunately, none are depicted.
The Price of Honour by Matthew Ward. This is a story of a personal struggle going on within a political struggle, but it was a bit tough to follow because there was too much world-building vocabulary for a short story. The names of military ranks and/or noble titles are not the ones we’re used to, and each character had an unfamiliar name as well as belonging to a clan with an unfamiliar name.
The story jumped around in time, which I normally hate in a story. In this case, the first time jump actually worked and made the story more interesting, but the second one didn’t.
I found the story’s main character more likeable than others in this magazine. He was actually a good person, but he was put into a bad situation by bad people.
“Mister Rogers, those weren’t like your normal stories. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m just tired, Billy. So very, very, tired.”
I wasn’t originally planning to read Grimdark magazine as part of my quest, but another blogger pointed out that this was the magazine’s sci-fi-heavy issue, so I gave it a shot.
I didn’t find the magazine heavy on sci-fi. “Viva Longevicus” was the exception, being built around a sci-fi idea, which is rare for things that are called science fiction these days. “Burying the Coin” is steampunk, which I like to call historical fantasy, and others might call urban fantasy. “A Proper War” had a medieval technology level. “The Price of Honour” had science-fiction technology, but the story could have used flintlock pistols or swords instead, without any changes to the plot.
In case you’re not familiar with the term “grimdark”, the magazine has a definition: a grim story set in a dark world told by morally grey protagonists. The wikipedia article for grimdark has some similar definitions, and lists a handful of representative authors.
I don’t have much experience with grimdark literature. I’ve read two novels that I’d call ‘grimdark-light’, and a number of short stories like those above. I think I would have loved grimdark books as a teenager, but the older I get, and the more real-life betrayal and death I see, the less I enjoy reading about fictional betrayal and death.
I’m open to suggestions, though. So, if you know of a grimdark novel or short story that’s so good, it will change my mind, tell me about it in a comment below.