Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An Epic Fantasy Virgin Reads George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

OK, so obviously it's faintly absurd for me to describe myself as an epic fantasy virgin. Haven't I, in the twelve years since I first read it, reread J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings every other year? Haven't I made it all the way through The Silmarillion, and understood most of it, and enjoyed it all? Haven't I adored the films, and gotten into ridiculously nitpicky discussions over which changes were justified and what Tolkien meant by this and that? And isn't The Lord of the Rings the great-granddaddy of all epic fantasy, the wellspring from which all endless doorstopper series flow?

Well, maybe, but somehow, in my odd and atypical development as a reader, I managed to skip the Jordan/Brooks/Goodkind phase of a fantasy reader's life-cycle. I liked The Lord of the Rings a hell of a lot, but the dozens of thick tomes with garishly colored covers depicting big-breasted women and dragons failed to appeal to me. I stuck to science fiction, and barely even went near fantasy until a few years ago. Then it was all Pratchett, Gaiman, Miéville, Link, Crowley, VanderMeer, and all those other folks who run away from epic fantasy as fast as their little legs can carry them. I suspect my problem with the Tolkien-clones was precisely that they were copying someone else rather than carving out their own territory as Tolkien did (admittedly, Tolkien did a fair bit of borrowing, but usually from people who were writing centuries before the invention of the novel--a development that, on occasion, it seems that he was unaware of as well). A lot of Tolkien fans want more of the same, and I'm not quite sure why as a younger reader I wasn't one of them, but by the time I was in my twenties I had learned to sneer at the epic fantasy shelves and search for writers who worked in the cracks and crevices that Tolkien had left unexplored.

But George R.R. Martin is supposedly the author of multi-volume, doorstopper-length epic fantasy series that you read if you can't stand multi-volume, doorstopper-length epic fantasy series, and a ringing endorsement from the estimable Carrie A.A. Frye only whetted my curiosity. I picked up a copy of the first volume in the series (titled, as a whole, A Song of Ice and Fire) at the used bookstore, and dug in. The verdict? Not bad, for what it is. Not remotely as good as I had been led to believe, and for the first half (half here being 400 pages) rather pointless and uninteresting. Martin commits the cardinal (and extraordinarily common, these days) sin of fantasy writers--there's no doubt in my mind that a hack-and-slash edit would have left the book tighter and more interesting--but it's one that I had been expecting. What I hadn't expected was to be so thoroughly disappointed in everything I had been led to believe about these books: that Martin is a superb writer, that the series is a sophisticated variant of the epic fantasy story, and that the story I would find within the book's covers would be morally complex.

As a writer, Martin is no more than middling. He writes decent but not particularly stirring battle scenes (the descriptions of battle strategies left me thoroughly confused, but that's happened often enough with other writers that I doubt Martin is at fault) and maintains a brisk narrative flow. His dialogue is passable--not too many quotable lines, but not too many clichés either. Unfortunately, Martin is all-too aware of his antecedents, and every few dozen pages he feels the need to recall Tolkien in his descriptive passages. The result is a sad mockery of Tolkien's high poetic style, and, since Martin lacks Tolkien's wit, is not remotely as humorous (an example of a running gag in Thrones would be a boy who responds with 'I can too!' to 'You can't hear yourself fart!' and other such insults--that's pretty much the level of Martin's humor, when it exists). I'd like to stress that I'm not faulting Martin for not being Tolkien, but rather for trying to be Tolkien when clearly such an achievement is beyond him. This is the root of Thrones' failure--Martin can't decide what kind of book he wants to write. He moves away from the stereotypical forms of epic fantasy, but not far enough to make his book anything more than a sad half-breed, neither one thing nor the other.

The plot of A Game of Thrones recalls the opening moves of England's War of the Roses--two houses, the Starks and the Lannisters, are vying for control of an unstable throne. Martin here has a chance to convey the bleak reality of such political games--that there are no good guys or bad guys, that the monarch's dynasty is only sacrosanct so long as he has men to defend it and gold to pay them with, that for the right reason, even the most honorable man will turn on his king, and that, ultimately, no one 'deserves' the throne--and he does indeed come very close. Martin makes it clear that the current king, a usurper who deposed his mad, bloodthirsty predecessor, is a weak-willed, mercurial man who countenances atrocities for the sake of expediency. Crimes are committed by both parties in the dispute for the crown, and none of the contenders are likely to usher in a golden age and sell beer for a penny a pint any time soon. But when push comes to shove, Martin shies away from true moral ambiguity. The gruff, northern Starks are honorable to a fault--their lord executes criminals himself because he believes that the man who passes the sentence should be made to swing the blade, banishes one of the nobles sworn to his house for dealing in slaves, and refuses even to consider the notion of political assassination. The wealthy and cunning Lannisters, on the other hand, all but buy their way to the throne--they hold all the crown's debts--and are also guilty of committing incest, maiming children, and murdering puppies (literally, on all counts). The division between good and evil is fairly clear-cut, and although, to Martin's credit, there are decent Lannisters and untrustworthy Starks, they exist on the margins and are insufficient to counteract Martin's fundamentally black-and-white approach.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with making your good guys as pure as the driven snow and your bad guys so evil that their names can barely be spoken--Tolkien got a lot of mileage out of this kind of dichotomy, and one of the uses he made of it was to make his readers, even the more modern ones, forget about the truth of medieval living--that life was nasty, brutish, and short, and that actual nobility was in short supply. Martin refuses to show us his characters and his world through Tolkien's rose-tinted glasses, and ironically the result is that the gap between what these men believe themselves to be and what they actually are is all the more noticeable. There's no escaping the fact that even the best and most virtuous of Martin's characters sell their women to each other like chattel, and that the true victims of their games of power are the ones who have no power and no voice--the peasants whose villages they trample, whose fields they plunder to feed their armies, whose women they claim when it suits them and throw away when it no longer does. By the time I was 200 pages into the book, I no longer cared which faction would win the throne, since it was obvious that none of them would rule well enough to deserve it. Tolkien gives us a truly fantastic fantasy world--a medieval culture in which peasants are respected and never abused (not by the good guys, at least, although where the Riders of Rohan got their food on the long march to Minas Tirith I have no idea) and where not a single woman is married against her will or to a man she doesn't care for. If we're to accept Martin's more believable take on medieval culture, we have no choice but to accept that even the best among his characters are little better than slave-owners, and that our loyalties should properly lie with whoever will put all their noble heads on a long row of spikes.

I've recently developed a deep personal dislike of books that open with detailed descriptions of the adult characters' childhoods. While good books can and have been written about childhood and the process of growing up, and equally good book can and have been written about adults, hardly any book is improved by a hundred pages of sibling rivalries, petty yet crushing disappointments, and sexual awakening, before the actual plot gets going. So I was deeply disappointed to see that more than half of the characters in A Game of Thrones were juveniles--enough so that I was holding out hope for the Orson Scott Card approach to juvenile characterization, in which children are nothing more than short adults. In all fairness, Martin doesn't spend an excessive amount of time on coming of age stories, and at least one of the youngsters--the deposed princess Daenerys--quickly matures and become the most interesting character in the book. But again, Martin isn't quite willing to leave the foibles of childhood behind. His juvenile characters aren't real children--immature, inadequate and often irrational--but neither are we completely spared their tedious tragedies. Lord Stark's bastard son struggles to find his place in a world in which he's neither a commoner nor a noble. His older daughter is convinced that heroic ballads are a reliable guide to life and experiences a tragic disillusionment. His younger daughter is a tomboy who wants to fight, not sew and look pretty. These boring, familiar clichés cause the pace of the book to drag, especially when compared to the often fascinating adventures of the adult characters.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that A Game of Thrones is a mass of halfway measures, compromises and mediocrities. Martin can't convey the poetry and grandeur of Tolkien's prose, but neither is he willing to let his narrative voice become completely unobtrusive. He eschews Tolkien's romantic take on medieval living, but he never arrives at a Miéville-ian disdain for the aristocracy. He gives us multifaceted heroes and villains, but still wants to be sure that we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. A significant portion of his characters are neither children nor adults. All of which leads me to wonder: is it possible to write truly sophisticated epic fantasy? Could a better writer than Martin have matched moral relativism with compelling characters, grandeur with a realistic portrayal of medieval politics?

And naturally, when I ask myself questions like these, I turn to John Crowley. Crowley's very first novel, The Deep (now out of print and available in Otherwise, an omnibus edition that collects Crowley's three early novels) puts Martin and all his cohorts to shame. In less than 200 pages, Crowley tells the story that Martin hasn't even begun to finish, about a medieval society in which two factions, the Reds and the Blacks, vie for the throne, and a third group, the Just, seeks the death of all aristocratic rulers. Crowley never forces the readers to choose sides, but instead makes us fall in love with his characters--the old knight and his young wife, the young prince who falls in love with her, the deposed king, locked away in an old mansion and left to his heartrendingly portrayed madness. True, there are very few battles and the plot lacks Martin's intricacy, but what Crowley lacks in scope he makes up for in intensity and beauty. I would read The Deep a thousand times before I picked up the next volume in Martin's series.

It's been suggested to me that a lot of the problems I had with A Game of Thrones are addressed in the series' later volumes, but I fail to see how this should induce me to read them, or make my complaints any less valid. The book is 800 pages long (and doesn't encompass even one complete plot), and I spent four days of my life reading it. To suggest that, in order to have an even marginally improved reading experience, I should slog through hundreds of pages more from a writer whose prose, I already know, I find uninspiring, only suggests to me that Martin should have written a shorter book--a shorter series, in fact. Tolkien has a strangle-hold on the fantasy genre, which is a shame, especially since so many of his inferior imitators seek to emulate him in all the wrong ways, chiefly his verbosity (and let's not pretend that The Lord of the Rings couldn't have used a few judicious cuts here and there), but for the time being, I see no reason to venture back into epic fantasy. Not when there are so many wonderful writers out there whose fantasy truly has a just claim on the word, and who can actually give me what I want in terms of sophistication, moral ambiguity, and beautiful writing.

19 comments:

Dotan said...

Well, nevermind. More grist for the research mill.
I read an excerpt featuring Daenerys that ran in Asimov's back when Game of Thrones came out, but in the actual book, I've never read past the prologue. I think I've got Fat Fantasy Phobia by now. The crap generic fantasy of my youth (Donaldson excepted) was much slimmer.
Have you read Mary Gentle's Ash? It's my official "if you liked/hated/was inclined to pick up Game of Thrones, you should read this" recommendation. This might be doing it a disservice, but nearly every complaint you have makes me draw parallels to how Gentle handles similar subjects.

ThursdayHaiku said...

Thanks for posting this. I also have been having a hard time relating to the whole "Game of Thrones" appeal. It's nice to see I'm in good company.
I'll just be checking out the John Crowley now...

ca said...

Yes! I'm glad someone else doesn't like Martin! I am still sort of gamely hanging on and skimming through each book for a couple of hours as it comes out, because he really is writing what i think is a fascinating plot. Unfortunately he fails in the basic requirement for me to actually think a book is halfway decent, which is to have at least one character that I actually *like.*

I do have to say that the "starks good: lannister bad" motif is both deepened and challenged in the later books. But unfortunately, he basically does this by making all the characters, even the ones who used to be minimally okay, kind of annoying and unlikeable.

okay, thursdayhaiku, meet you at the bookstore in the Crowley section... thanks for the rec.

niall said...

I've been holding off on reading Martin at least until the series is complete, so I can't comment on that either way; but I can second the recommendation for Mary Gentle, and in particular Ash.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, nevermind. More grist for the research mill.

Why do you think I kept going after the first 10 pages? :-)

I've heard good things about Gentle's Ash (and also 1610: A Sundial in a Grave). I'll have to check her out.

Didi said...

Well, obviously, I disagree. I do think the first book is the weakest. Back when I read it, though, there was no hype, or very little anyway. It was just this fat fantasy book Opus had purchased for publication, written by a guy who had writted some excellent short fiction.

So when I read it, unprepared as I was with hype and all, Eddard Stark's death was a shock. And Tyrion is a great character from the start.

I can't argue your point about the prose. I like it, I think it's good. You don't. That's your prerogative. But it is true that every single one of your plot and character complaints is answered. There truly are no camps of good and evil. When we see Eddard through Jaime Lannister's eyes, he is much less sympathetic, for instance. And Jaime himself, by the end of the third book, is a well rounded, fascinating character. Far from the monodimensional villain the Starks would like to think he is.

Also, I'll third the Ash recommendations. Brilliant book.

Sherwood said...

Thank you--I reacted the same way, and for exactly the same reasons.

kellys said...

Thank you for that. I had thought of picking up this series, due to all of the effusive praise, but your astute criticism has saved me a lot of time and money.

Char said...

I just finished the 4th in the series--A Feast for Crows--and am looking forward to the 5th.

For me, these books have been quite an adventure. I've looked forward to finding out what happens next and have read them non-stop for days. I've thought about the books for many days after completing them because I was so enthralled by the experience.

I agree about the daunting size and "wordiness" of the series, but I can see where GRRM is going with this, and I totally appreciate his efforts. The scope of A Song of Ice and Fire is HUGE, so the plot, characters, settings, etc. have to be huge as well.

I met George Martin in Denver when he was signing his latest installment. He is very warm and humorous; not at all what I expected.

jeanjeanie said...

I surfed in on a search on Martin blog entries, and I'd like to say that when I first read A Game of Thrones, I agreed almost 100% with everything you said. However, I kept reading (with reservations) at the urging of my friends, and I'm glad I did. It took the third book to turn me into a fan of the series. By the end of A Storm of Swords, pretty much everything you've been led to believe in the first book is turned on its head. After finishing it, I went back and read Game knowing where everything was going, and discovered whole new layers of complexity that I couldn't see on the first read.

I also think that Martin's prose style is an acquired taste. I was turned off by it at first, and it took me a year to get through Game because of it. I'm not sure whether it's because I've gotten used to it, or whether he's gotten better, or a combination of both, but I actually enjoy his writing style now.

Anyway, I realize it's not for everybody, but as somebody who really didn't care for A Game of Thrones on the first read, I'm really enjoying and savoring my read of his latest entry.

devan said...

I usually read your entires with a great deal of respect for both your thoughts and your opinions, but I found myself somewhat chagrined that you seemed to see so little of merit in the "Song of Fire and Ice." I let my heels cool for a day or two in order to approach things with a level head, and hope to perhaps compose this reply with the respectful tone you desserve. I mean none of this as an attack against you or your tastes. I am neither the voracious reader I was in my youth nor an established reviewer of popular fiction, so please take these comments in the spirit they were intended.

Honestly, asside from the "R. R." in the middle of their names, and their esteemed positions in the fantasy genre, I'd argue that any attempts to show similarities between Tolkein and Martin are futile. They write in completely different styles and come from (and create) completely different worlds. The tendency for people to drag Tolkein off the shelf every time they discuss a work of fantasy does a disservice to both the newer writer and the older. I find it best to leave Tolkein as he lies and to attempt to look at each book I read with fresh eyes. Thankfully, for good and ill, no one will ever be Tolkein.

If comparisons must be drawn, I'd say that Martin writes more similarly to his contemporaries, Robert Jordan and Dan Brown. Like Jordan, his novels are full of complex, tangential stories with myriads of characters covering depths of plot that never seem to converge or even near a conclusion. And although similar, Martin's segmented stories and the cliff-hangers between chapters never approach the level of Dan Brown. However, the painful similarities between Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons" has caused me to lump him with David Eddings as a despicable plot-recycler and to pledge to never read his money-grubbing prose again. That being said, I still have enjoyed the writings of all three. Martin writes a series of books that I find stirring and hard to put down.

You claim that Martin could not decide which kind of book to write, but I think you may have been too caught up in trying to draw comparisons to Tolkein to notice the obvious. I would hardly glassify these stories as either witty or humourous. Martin neither writes with a wit comparable to Neal Stephenson, nor with the comedy of a Greg Costikyan. I do however find that the periods of relative levity allow Martin to take a step out of the gloom and tragedy to both accentuate it and make his novels readable. The oppressiveness of these tales is what drew me to them. It hardly interests me to read tales of rape, incest, murder and treachery for their own sakes, but I feel these aspects of this story set the stage for the type of novel being written. This is a dark world and Martin is unafraid to use his characters' deaths and tragedies in an often grist-mill-like fashion to advance his story's goals. I have never read a series where an author is so willing to terminate major characters.

Furthermore, Martin avoids completely the overt "Black and White" approach of Tolkein and even sets up Stark as a pawn to this end. Lord Stark is truly Martin's knight in shining armor. He brings him forward draped in honor and nobility and snuffs him brutally at the hands of the Lannisters (book 2?) to show that indeed in this world, nice guys finish last. It leaves the reader correctly fearing for the lives of these good guys as Martin brings them forward and causes us to cling to them in the hopes that they learn the lessons Stark did not before brutal reality snips their wicks all too soon. The majority of Fantasy I've read takes the opposite tack. Nobility and the writer's focus often encase a major character in an invulnerability that causes the stories to seem fantastically unreal.

You aptly pointed to Martin's failings in relation to the perhaps cliched stories of the Stark girls. However, as a male writer, I find that Martin does better than most, and surely doesn't fail as grandly as Roger Zelazny or Mamet or Hemmingway. Were one looking for the height of realism in female characters, I think a female writer might do the best job. That said, I found that the eldest Stark daughter's niavete when it comes to differentiating song and story from the brutal world she lives in an apt parrallel to and perhaps cunning jab at the reader's experiences within the mass of fantasy stories. Our coming of age herein mimics her own.

I would argue that this series may very well be the "truly sophisticated epic fantasy" you seek if only you would set Tolkein asside and open your eyes to the story you read as you hopefully give it another chance and delve into the second book of a growing saga.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Devan, and thank you for your long and thoughtful comment. I'll try to respond to your points one by one.

You wrote:

Honestly, asside from the "R. R." in the middle of their names, and their esteemed positions in the fantasy genre, I'd argue that any attempts to show similarities between Tolkein and Martin are futile. They write in completely different styles and come from (and create) completely different worlds. The tendency for people to drag Tolkein off the shelf every time they discuss a work of fantasy does a disservice to both the newer writer and the older.

My reasons for bringing Tolkien up when discussing A Game of Thrones were simple - he's my only point of reference. As I wrote in my post, I've not read any epic fantasy beyond Tolkien, so comparisons to him were prominent in my mind when I read the book. That said, I don't believe I compared Martin to Tolkien - or at least, not in the sense of saying that Martin isn't as good an author as Tolkien (which, frankly, is both obvious and not fair) - in my post, or that those comparisons were the reason I didn't enjoy the book. In fact, my chief problem with Thrones was not that the book wasn't similar to LOTR but that it wasn't different enough - that whenever Martin tried to break away from Tolkien's stranglehold on the sub-genre (and I do think it's fair to drag Tolkien off the shelf when discussing books written in homage or imitation of him, as most epic fantasy is) he stops short of his goal. As I wrote:

I'd like to stress that I'm not faulting Martin for not being Tolkien, but rather for trying to be Tolkien when clearly such an achievement is beyond him. This is the root of Thrones' failure--Martin can't decide what kind of book he wants to write. He moves away from the stereotypical forms of epic fantasy, but not far enough to make his book anything more than a sad half-breed, neither one thing nor the other.

I've not read Jordan, so I can't comment on any similarities between him and Martin, and what little I've read of Dan Brown convinces me that, middling writer though Martin is, it's hardly fair to compare him to a hack like Brown, chapter-ending cliffhangers aside.

I would hardly glassify these stories as either witty or humourous. Martin neither writes with a wit comparable to Neal Stephenson, nor with the comedy of a Greg Costikyan. I do however find that the periods of relative levity allow Martin to take a step out of the gloom and tragedy to both accentuate it and make his novels readable.

You miss my point. I wasn't expecting laughs, but rather the natural humor that accompanies any genuinely human endeavor. I don't trust people who won't laugh at themselves, and I don't trust authors who don't recognize the ridiculousness inherent in everything we humans do, and who take themselves, and their stories, too seriously. Even Tolkien knew better than to tell his melodrama of good versus evil without leavening it with sheer human folly - and it's largely accepted that LOTR works because of that decision (in particular the decision to focus a significant portion of the narrative on the Hobbits, who offer a humanizing touch in the midst of all the superhuman grandeur). It's one of the reasons why The Silmarillion is considered such a problematic book, one only appreciated by fans who want to know more about Tolkien's invented universe - it's too serious to be human. Martin tries to make jokes only very infrequently, and they are usually of a scatological nature, not particularly funny, and not useful in reminding us that all these characters, for all their great plans and power, are human beings with feet of clay. It's that humanity that I missed, not the pratfalls.

Martin avoids completely the overt "Black and White" approach of Tolkein and even sets up Stark as a pawn to this end. Lord Stark is truly Martin's knight in shining armor. He brings him forward draped in honor and nobility and snuffs him brutally at the hands of the Lannisters (book 2?) to show that indeed in this world, nice guys finish last. It leaves the reader correctly fearing for the lives of these good guys as Martin brings them forward and causes us to cling to them in the hopes that they learn the lessons Stark did not before brutal reality snips their wicks all too soon. The majority of Fantasy I've read takes the opposite tack.

Actually, Stark dies in book 1, several hundred pages after I had concluded that said death was imminent - after all, Martin presages the death with an omen - a direwolf slain by a stag - in the book's first chapter. Again, this might have something to do with the kind of books I read, in and out of fantasy, but the last time I read a fantasy novel expecting the good guys to be safe from harm it was titled Harry Potter and the..., and even then, I turned out to have been wrong in my expectations. Now, maybe within epic fantasy what Martin did was shocking (but really, is the death of the patriarch at the hands of his enemies such a shocking move? Isn't it the bedrock of most young prince stories?), but not to me, and the whole point of my post was to discuss how a person with no grounding in the subgenre reads these books.

You aptly pointed to Martin's failings in relation to the perhaps cliched stories of the Stark girls. However, as a male writer, I find that Martin does better than most, and surely doesn't fail as grandly as Roger Zelazny or Mamet or Hemmingway. Were one looking for the height of realism in female characters, I think a female writer might do the best job.

Um, no. Even within fantasy, the answer is no. I named six fantasy writers in my post as emblematic of the kind of fantasy I enjoy - Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, John Crowley, Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer. If we discount Ms. Link, only VanderMeer stands out as a male writer who doesn't write compelling, believable, realistic female characters, and even in his case the problem isn't that he writes bad female characters but that he doesn't write them at all - in what I've read of his work his POV characters have all been male. The remaining authors have had no problem getting into a female character's head, and if we looked outside fantasy we could find more - Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Norman Rush, and Geoff Ryman, to name but a very few.

The problem isn't that Martin is a man but that he deal in clichés. I agree that Sansa's disillusionment from her childish romanticism should be a fascinating journey to follow, but I didn't enjoy reading about it for the simple reason that Sansa is a twit for whom I could feel no sympathy. Similarly, I couldn't care about Arya's adventures because she's a Mary Sue, and not remotely believable as a human being. Since Martin had no problem writing Daenerys - as I mentioned above, the best character in the book - I can only assume that the problem had nothing to do with gender.

I would argue that this series may very well be the "truly sophisticated epic fantasy" you seek if only you would set Tolkein asside and open your eyes to the story you read as you hopefully give it another chance and delve into the second book of a growing saga.

As I wrote above, I don't believe that my problems with Martin have to do with an inability to set Tolkien aside - or rather, I believe that the inability was Martin's, not mine. It's been stated here and elsewhere that a lot of my problems with A Game of Thrones are addressed in the later books of the series, but I just don't see myself picking them up. My time and funds are limited, and I think the odds of finding common ground with Martin are too small to risk further waste of either.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I was wondering what your take on the Song of Ice and Fire series would be, although I'm a bit surprised. I am also of the opinion that the oppressive Tolkein comparisons in your review point to an oppressive Tolkein-sieved point of view in your reading. I honestly can't imagine how juxtaposing ASOIAF, which is overtly gritty, political and realist only with the dreamy, mythological, linguist-born Middle Earth would have impacted my reading. Tolkein never even crossed my mind - for whatever reason, I didn't read them as though both works were fighting over a genre. They seem as different to me as Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, and excoriating one for trying and failing to be the other is absurd.

S.M. Stirling said...

Ah... have you noticed that what you're saying is, essentially, that you cannot identify with a character who isn't basically like a late-20th or early-21st-century Westerner.

(And of a particular kind, at that.)

Martin shows genuinely medieval types or at least an approximation thereof; your response is that they're all so loathsome you can't be bothered with them.

That's sort of... limited. It's the sort of thinking that led to abominations like Kevin Costner in "Robin Hood" (aka "Dances with Peasants") giving a speech which amounts to the Declaration of Independence to an audience of medieval peasants, who respond with enthusiasm.

(First, no medieval nobleman would have done so because the concepts didn't exist in his mental universe; and second, the peasants would have reacted with horror, incomprehension, or a mixture of both if he somehow did.)

If fiction is to be anything but literary onanism -- if it's set in cultures severely different from ours -- you should be willing to make the effort to live inside the head of people who are _not_ like you.

Who have different moral reflexes and assumptions. Who live in a different perceptual universe.

Eg., try entering the head of someone to whom dynastic legitimacy is _very important_. Or "good lordship". Vastly more important than individual affections, for instance.

I don't think that way. You don't think that way. BUT THEY DID.

Someone once commented that most SFnal aliens are actually less different from us (contemporary Westerners) than the average Japanese is.

This is, sadly, true: and you've just given a perfect demonstration of why that is.

Projective empathy is what it's all about.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I sincerely doubt that Martin's portrayal of medieval behavior and norms is an accurate depiction of history. Where, for example, are religion and superstition? I can think of several novels, some SFnal, like Michael F. Flynn's Eifelheim, and others mainstream, like Eco's The Name of the Rose and Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, that do a better job of recreating the quasi-alien mindset of people who lived in that era.

A Game of Thrones, in contrast, appears to be trying to impose 21st century moral relativism on a medieval setting, and my complaint was that Martin hadn't taken this approach far enough. I'm perfectly capable of buying into a moral outlook I disapprove of for the sake of enjoying a novel - The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example - but first I need the author to commit to a moral perspective. Martin hasn't done so.

Anonymous said...

Where, for example, are religion and superstition?
Umm... Superstition is all over the place. Guest right, kinslaying, all the stories and magical creatures that are referenced... Elaborate?

As for religion... If you'd bothered to read beyond Game of Thrones, you'd see that religion, too, is quite present, starting with the R'hllor stuff in Clash of Kings. Even saying that, though, the Seven and the old gods and whatnot still get plenty of mention in Game of Thrones. The background details are there, even if they don't take stage until later books.

This is kind of a strawman anyway, though. s.m. stirling is quite correct to point out that the people of Westeros live in an entirely different cultural and political context. Whether they're "genuine" medieval types are not is not germane.

Anonymous said...

The Lord of the Rings - a series.
The Return of the King - a book.
A Song of Ice and Fire - a series.
A Game of Thrones - a book.
Book - a part of a story.
Series - the entire story.

You read The Lord of the Rings, a series. You read A Game of Thrones, a book. You are comparing a book to a series.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

No.

The Lord of the Rings is a single book, originally published in three volumes because the scarcity of paper in post-War Britain would have forced a prohibitively expensive retail price on a single volume version. It was, however, submitted to its publisher as a single, complete, work - a courtesy, I might point out, that Martin has failed to extend to his readers.

More importantly, whether you read The Lord of the Rings as a single book or three, the fact remains that there is much to read for in its early chapters. The Fellowship of the Ring may not be as exciting as The Return of the King or even a complete story in its own right, but it's interesting, well-written, peopled with engaging characters, and compelling enough to make you want to read the next two volumes. A Game of Thrones, meanwhile, which is nearly as long as the entire Lord of the Rings, is poorly written and, with a few exceptions, not very interesting. It may be that later volumes in the series improve upon its flaws, but that to my mind is an argument for not having published Thrones in the first place. If it takes longer than 800 pages for your story to kick into gear, then you've done something - probably several things - terribly, terribly wrong.

Anonymous said...

just wanted to thank you for your post. and say i agree wholeheartedly.

i had the severe misfortune of trying to wade through god, something like 8 1/2 of those god-awful wheel of time books by robert jordan, and never again will i subject myself to reading badly written books by authors who cannot (or refuse to) tell a tale, not just in under a 1000 words, but in under several 1000. as you say, if martin couldn't tell his entire story in less than 800 words, let only just the first part, then something is seriously wrong.

the jordan books were not well written, the characters were not engaging, and the only reason i kept reading was because, literally, i just wanted it to end--i kept thinking, "i have read 8,000 pages; i have earned the damn ending." then i realized, i was a sucker--the whole point of the never end-soap opera is to sell more soap. the whole point of a never ending series is to sell more books. i may be wrong, but i believe that jordan series is now on book 13 or something and still not over, even though the author has since died. i finally stopped in the middle of book 8 or 9.

i hadn't heard of game of thrones until the hbo series. the tv show was entertaining, however, i think juxtaposing it with treme ever sunday put into perspective how just how unoriginal and trite and predictable it is. there is a reason that making fun of the show has because its very own meme afer all.

my dad bought the books to read before the show started. even though he is almost done with the fourth book, he has no clue what the plot is or the point. in almost 5000 pages the story hasn't moved forward in any meaningful way--he said reading the series was akin to reading a soap opera, lots of things happen and you get sucked in, in spite of yourself, but there is no point and nothing ever gets resolved. he also said, that he didn't think martin had any clue what his story was. is it a story about fighting an unhuman evil? or is it a story about petty court intrigue? he said that martin doesn't seem to have any discipline as a writer. writing requires making choices--you don't get to put every damn thing you ever wanted to write about into the story, but apparently that is what martin is doing.

this immediately brought mind the horrors of the jordan nightmare, and so i have decided to forgo the "pleasure." i will say this, from what i can tell of the fans of the martin series, they universally mistake crap, mass-market fantasy, with something worthy of being better than. they routinely say, "martin's series is so much better than the sword of shannara series (and others of its ilk)," ergo its greatness. that would be like a food critique saying, "this restaurant is so much better than mcdondald's, ergo it is the best ever." being better than shit != being of high quality. they also seem to think that there is something unique, innovative, and skillful in killing off well-liked/prominent characters. face palm. again apparently because tad williams has never killed any prominent character, ergo martin must be the best ever...le sigh...

as a fantasy reader, this saddens me. the genre is filled with amazingly original and non-cliche books from incredible writers, but they only seem to know of the crap books. here's a protip--in fantasy, as in most fiction, if the cover art is embarrassing, garish, and gauche, chances are the story inside is not much better.

here's a another--if the author can't or won't tell his story in a reasonable number of pages; one of you is a fool.

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