The Grimly Grim Hallmark Of Awfully Bad WritingS

Classic science fiction novels have many annoying writing tics that make it hard to enjoy them, but the word "grimly" has always seemed the worst. People are always speaking grimly, or staring grimly, or even smiling grimly. Of all the adverbs that attach themselves, like alien facehuggers, to science fiction prose, "grimly" is the worst — and the most unnecessary. And it's still cropping up all the time.

Here's a perfect example of a needless and annoying "grimly," from Bruce Sterling's story "Maneki Neko" (from The Locus Awards: Thirty Years Of The Best In Science Fiction And Fantasy):

Louise frowned grimly. "That's right, wise guy. Make jokes about it. You're involved in a malicious software attack on a legal officer of the United States. You'll see."

It's almost too obvious to point out, but "frowned grimly?" You don't think "frowned" might have worked on its own? And even "frowned" seems like surplus here.

The Grimly Grim Hallmark Of Awfully Bad WritingS

And here's a more run-of-the-mill use, from David Weber's 2004 novel The Stars At War:

"Send it Priority One," Hausman said grimly, and settled back in his chair as the light-speed burst transmission sped across the vacuum.

The reason I highlight Weber's use of "grimly" is because it's so typical: it's often used in a military/action context. It shows us that the situation is serious, and it also shows us that Hausman is a serious guy who means business. If this were a TV show, the dramatic music would swell as Hausman settles back in his chair, but there's no music in a book. So "grimly" has to serve as Weber's orchestral sting.

At it's worst, a "grimly" overdose looks something like this passage from Wilbur Smith's historical novel The Sound Of Thunder:

"You're drunk!" She accused grimly.

"Oh foul libel! Oh monstrous untruth." Saul backed hurriedly out of range.

"All right, Sergeant." She turned grimly on Sean. "Where is it?"

You'll be shocked to learn that Mercedes Lackey is addicted to "grimly." And so are a bunch of other fantasy authors. Isaac Asimov liked him some "grimly" as well, and most collections of "classic" science fiction of the 1930s through 1960s contain a fair number of grimlys. (Grimlies?) But once you start looking for it, you find "grimly" in a lot of recent stuff as well.

The Grimly Grim Hallmark Of Awfully Bad Writing

Douglas Adams satirizes this style of writing in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:

"Get it moved," he repeated grimly, and bustled grimly back through the door grimly hauling up his trousers and coat in preparation for the grim ascent.

It gives you a sort of, I don't know... a grim feeling, doesn't it?

To be fair, there's an issue of changing tastes here. According to Google books, D.H. Lawrence loved to have people speaking "grimly" and someone takes some news "grimly" in a Joseph Conrad book. And they're generally regarded as pretty good authors.

The real problem with words like "grimly," of course, is that they're a substitute for real characterization. Here's Martin Amis, discussing the wealth (ha) of character development in Michael Crichton's The Lost World:

The job of characterization has been delegated to two or three thrashed and downtrodden adverbs. ‘Dodgson shook his head irritably'; ‘ "Handle what?" Dodgson said irritably.' So Dodgson is irritable. But ‘ "I tell you it's fine," Levine said irritably.' ‘Levine got up irritably.' So Levine is irritable too. ‘Malcome stared forward gloomily.' ‘ "We shouldn't have the kids here," said Malcolm gloomily.' Malcolm seems to own ‘gloomily'; but then you irritably notice that Rossiter is behaving ‘gloomily' too, and gloomily discover that Malcolm is behaving ‘irritably.' Forget about ‘tensely' and ‘grimly' for now. And don't get me started on ‘thoughtfully.'

I definitely think "grimly" isn't quite as ubiquitous in science fiction as it used to be, but it still turns up way, way too often. And part of the problem is that today's SF writers grew up seeing it everywhere. So it's part of their familiar vocabulary, cozy and soft like an old sweater. And it is a quick and dirty (so, so dirty) shorthand for character and action, and a certain suspenseful mood.

Plus it's sort of a "space adventurer" sort of word — it's emotional but stoic. You can have any emotion grimly, and it becomes more serious and muted, yet also more important, than a regular emotion. It's got the power of grimly!

Here's a list of fairly recent SF writers who have used "grimly" pretty recently:

  • Charles Stross (although mostly in his fantasy writing),
  • John Scalzi (in Old Man's War and The Last Colony),
  • Richard K. Morgan (in Altered Carbon),
  • Greg Bear (in many many works),
  • David Brin (including the great sentence "'That wasn't me,' Beta assured grimly."),
  • Cory Doctorow (including a "smiled grimly"),
  • John Shirley (including "Satan chuckled grimly" in his Constantine novelization),
  • John Varley (but not since 1983's Millenium),
  • Connie Willis (a lot),
  • Orson Scott Card ("laughed grimly," "smiled grimly," and the phrase "grimly determined" appears in two different books.)
There's more, but I'll stop. Just promise you'll help me stop the grimness!