Thursday, May 23, 2019

Game Theory

"It never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened," quotes Aaron Bady in his review of "The Last of the Starks", the fourth episode of the just-concluded eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. Aaron--whose reviews this season, alongside Sarah Mesle and Philip Maciak, have remained the gold standard for talking about this much-talked-about show--is referring to the battle against the army of the dead in the previous episode, whose fallen are eulogized in "Last"'s opening scene. "This is why the show needed those fiery pyres and a big speech from Jon about how no one will ever forget; otherwise, we might notice and be shocked that it didn't matter, that everyone is going to forget, and that it never happened." But in a way that he might not even have realized at the time, he is also articulating the approach of the entire season. Rather than tying off and concluding its storylines, in its final season Game of Thrones furiously goes about unmaking them, and finally, itself.

It's not just that the battle against the army of the dead barely comes up after it's won. It's how little any of that storyline ends up mattering. The identify of the Night King, the meaning of the grisly bits of environmental art he kept leaving for our heroes, the role of Essos and Westeros's warring religions and the prophecies that seemed to involve our heroes, whatever it was that the dead actually wanted--all are forgotten as soon as Arya plunges her dagger in and wins the day. And after that first unmaking, others follow with increasing speed and urgency. Jon Snow's parentage, speculated about by fans for years, confirmed two seasons ago, revealed to the world at the end of last season, ends up playing absolutely no role in where his or Westeros's story end up. Sansa, Daenerys, Varys, and Tyrion play subtle chess games against one another when they each learn Jon's identity, and it all ends up meaning nothing as far as the nation's final disposition is concerned. Daenerys razes King's Landing to the ground, and the next week there's enough of the city left for the characters to occupy and squabble over.

In the season's final episode, each scene seems to cancel out the one before it. Daenerys is a demonic dark lord, surveying her troops like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl movie and regarding her acts of destruction with manic glee, promising to burn down the whole world, so powerful that no one can imagine how to stop her. No, wait, now she's dead. The Dothraki and the Unsullied are fearsome, dark-skinned Others, fanatically loyal to Daenerys and an enormous problem for Westeros even without her. No, wait, they have inexplicably allowed Jon and Tyrion to live for weeks after Daenerys's death, waiting politely for Westeros's surviving lords to gather for a conference to decide its fate. But now Grey Worm insists on Jon facing justice for his betrayal of Daenerys! No, wait, he just wants the Westerosi nobles--a group of people he neither trusts nor respects--to give Jon a trial, after which both armies meekly pile back on their ships and sail off, never to trouble the continent again. But Jon is to spend the rest of his life at the Wall! No, wait, he just fucks off with the wildlings, which no one tries to stop him from doing because no one seems to care.

Perhaps the most profound expression of how much Game of Thrones wants to undo itself is the fact that it allows Tyrion to set the terms of its ending. For three seasons, we've been watching Tyrion repeatedly faceplant due to his tendency to spin convoluted, oh-so-clever plans that don't survive their first contact with reality. For three seasons, one character after another has berated him for buying into the myth of his own cleverness and inevitably outsmarting himself. What, then, are we to make of the fact that the conclusion--the solution, apparently--to Westeros's wars of succession is yet another Tyrion Lannister special? Hey, you know what system of government is super-stable, guaranteed never to lead to succession squabbles or civil wars? Elective monarchy!

The final scene of Game of Thrones, in which Tyrion presides over a meeting of the Small Council featuring all our favorite secondary characters, is meant to convey a hard-won peace.  But really it feels like an act of gaslighting, the ultimate negation of change. The wheel has turned, and somehow, despite all the talk of revolution, despite all the upheaval and destruction, despite all the promises of apocalypse and transformation, we've ended up right where we started. Sure, there are some cosmetic changes--Bran is king now, because why the hell not; the Stark children have grown and are each doing their own thing; a bunch of cities have been burned to ashes. The players have changed, but the game remains essentially the same. All the drama of the last eight seasons and nine years? It will shock you how much it never happened.

You can choose to take this as a pointed criticism of monarchy, of the fantasy genre and its obsession with prophesied rulers, of the promise of heroes who will remake the world into something better if only we give them absolute power over it and us. The fact that nothing has changed is the point, you see, because true change can't come from within the system, man. And look, I have often--quite recently, in fact--taken pleasure in the pastime of ascribing to Game of Thrones a level of complexity and subversiveness it obviously didn't possess. But this time, I don't buy it.  The show's conclusion lacks the darkness and richness of its more tantalizing moments, when you could convince yourself that there was something more going on than just what appeared on the surface. On the contrary, there's something desperately earnest about it. Or just plain desperate, the writers putting more and more speeches in Tyrion's mouth as if trying to convince the audience sitting at home rather than their other characters.  By the time Tyrion starts going on about stories, there's no way to avoid admitting that we're meant to be taking this all at face value. There's a palpable sense of flop sweat about that final turn, as if the writers had only now realized--after eight seasons, seventy-three episodes, and countless storylines, locations, and characters--that they have no idea what their story was about. So then, let it be about stories--that solves the problem, doesn't it?

"Who has a better story than Bran?" Tyrion asks, in brazen defiance of the fact that at least half a dozen characters sharing the scene with him, not to mention himself, could answer that question in the affirmative. But in this new Game of Thrones, a show that has devoured itself in order to avoid acknowledging that it was only ever about itself, this retcon is necessary. We have to believe that the character with the least interesting story actually has the best one, because to take any other character as our focal point would require a much more dramatic, meaningful ending than the show is capable of delivering. Even Tyrion himself--whom the show dusts off as its mover and shaker and point of view character, as he hasn't been since the end of season four--ends up getting written out of the official history of the most important events in his life. The future belongs to the Brans--all-knowing, personality-free cyphers who only a few seasons ago were convincingly described as effectively dead, and definitely no longer human.

I'm coming off as mocking--because there is, quite frankly, a great deal to mock here. But the truth is, I don't want to complain about how bad Game of Thrones has gotten or how silly its ending was. What would be the point? I've been complaining about Game of Thrones since before there was a Game of Thrones (that review is not my favorite piece of writing, but boy, did I nail the core problem with the series's story). I've complained about its sexism.  I've complained about its violence.  I've complained about the unearned prestige being granted to what was clearly little more than a well-made soap opera. We all complained about those things. And then we kept watching all the way to the end. If the series's end has embodied all the flaws we spent nine years complaining about--if it features a beloved female character expressing the opinion that having been raped has made her a badass; if it paints a wannabe revolutionary as a murderous fanatic who wants to kill the world in order to save it; if it uses people of color as scary, ravening hordes of merciless killers; most of all, if it fails to end in a way that puts a satisfying, decisive cap on its story, instead taking us back to its starting point--well, who's to blame here, really? The show, for being exactly what it always was? Or us, for pretending that it would change at the very last minute?

Over the last few weeks, we've seen the rise of a cottage industry in twitter threads and thinkpieces seeking to explain "why Game of Thrones sucks now". We've had plotters vs. pantsers, sociological vs. psychological, and that age-old standby, "it all went to pieces when they ran out of books!" I don't want to be the glib cynic who responds to these kinds of analyses with a great cry of "you idiots, it always sucked!" But I do think that a lot of them miss what Game of Thrones was, and mistake it for something it wasn't. This was never a story that was going to end well because it was never a story designed to end at all. The true refutation of epic fantasy tropes that, we kept being told, was what made this story brilliant would have been in letting it go on forever, constantly churning through characters and settings, constantly throwing up new dynasties only to topple them, constantly pulling our favorites out of danger only to plunge them back into it, constantly pointing at fresh-faced new heroes only to have them fail and reveal themselves as ordinarily human.

But of course, it couldn't do that. And so, with a pair of showrunners whose work was never as clever or as deep as they seemed to believe, and who were clearly itching to be done, we got an ending that was rushed, half-assed, and prone to the series's worst and ugliest failings, especially where female characters were concerned. (How often did women talk to one another in Game of Thrones's last two seasons? How much worse do those numbers get when you exclude Arya and Sansa's misbegotten fight storyline from season seven?) I'm not saying it couldn't have been done better. But I don't think there's a version of this show that ends in the way that fans wanted and expected it to, with a grand climax that ties together all the show's storylines and themes into a satisfying and transformative crescendo. This was never that sort of story.

No, instead of wondering why we're all so disappointed in what Game of Thrones has become, shouldn't we be wondering why we liked it in the first place?  Why did those of us who recognized the show's problems from day zero continue following it so obsessively?  What were we getting out of it?  This feels like an important question, especially now that the show is over.  Because I guarantee you that in the dozens of writers' rooms where, right now, teams of extremely talented people are trying to create the next Game of Thrones, it is being pondered and, if we're to go by past experience, exactly the wrong lessons are being learned. Remember when the Lost fandom was at the peak of its frustration with the show's endlessly proliferating mysteries, and every wannabe clone tried to sell itself by promising that it had an airtight multiseason plan all worked out from the get-go? And then all those shows flopped like the airless, over-designed slogs they were?  Imagine that, but with dragons and cod-medieval fantasy worlds.

It's not as if there haven't been other fantasy shows running before or alongside Game of Thrones.  It's not as if there haven't been multithreaded historical dramas with rich, charismatic characters operating within a complex geopolitical landscape.  It's not as if there haven't been shows like Game of Thrones that were better, smarter, more tightly-plotted, more interesting.  Some of these shows have been successful, but none of them were Game of Thrones.  I would argue that the reason for that is exactly the thing so many people are now identifying as bad writing, the thing that writers trying to making lightning strike twice are now streamlining out of their proposals and pitches.  The shapelessness of the show's overarching plot, the looseness of its pacing, that frustrating tendency to compound entities instead of converging on a narrative. These all left space for fans to argue with the show and complain about it, to claim the world and its characters as our own in the face of writers who clearly didn't know what to do with them. We loved arguing with Game of Thrones. We loved complaining about it. We loved that alongside its top-notch production values, complex characters, and a cast who could pull off anything asked of them, it was so obviously, stupidly wrong about so many things, from medieval norms and customs to battle tactics to how women think, act, and behave towards one another. We loved that we could spend hours debating and discussing it and not get treated like hopeless nerds, because everyone else was doing it too.  We never really wanted it to end.

So farewell, Game of Thrones. We shall not see your like again, despite HBO's multiple planned prequels and spinoffs and Amazon's forthcoming Lord of the Rings show and whatever else anyone tries to recapture your magic with. That combination of tremendous skill and utter, bone-deep stupidity isn't the sort of thing you can produce by demand.  More than a show or a story, Game of Thrones was a glorious mistake--a half-finished (and probably never to be finished) series of books with a flaw baked into it so obvious that people were pointing it out decades ago, handed to writers without the skill, or even the desire, to make that story their own, that through a bizarre alchemy hit the absolute perfect sweet spot between frustrating and engrossing.  That sort of accident doesn't come along too often.  So thanks for giving us something to argue about.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

When Marlon James announced that his next project would be an African-set, epic fantasy trilogy, I have to admit that my reaction was skepticism. I first encountered James when I read his second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), which used heady language and uncompromising descriptions of violence to address the physical and psychological impact of slavery on its victims. It marked James out as an author to follow. But I've been a genre fan for a while, and I've seen too many authors come from the outside—from literary fiction, or from outside of fantasy—and get heralded as the ones who are going to save epic fantasy from itself. Especially in the current moment, in which there are so many authors testing the boundaries of what epic fantasy can do—people like Sofia Samatar, Kai Ashante Wilson, Jeannette Ng, K. Arsenault Rivera—I wasn't really certain what James, with all his skill, could bring to the table.

On the other hand, one obvious answer to that question could be found simply in the project's description. As much as epic fantasy has been changing and growing over the last decade or so, there still isn't a lot of it that is set in African or African-derived settings. The fact that James had taken the publicity and cachet that came with winning the Booker (for A Brief History of Seven Killings, in 2014) and announced his intention to write an "African Game of Thrones" (a description which he has, in subsequent interviews, demurred from a little) felt remarkable in its own right. It hasn't been that long since such a project would have been unimaginable, much less with the publicity and prestige launch that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has received. So maybe, I thought to myself, my skepticism might more accurately be described as cynicism? Maybe a gifted writer with a different perspective can bring something new to the form?

It turns out, I was both right and wrong to be skeptical. James clearly knows his stuff. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has many distinctive traits and pleasures, but in terms of the story it tells, it does exactly what the capsule description of "African-set epic fantasy" seems to promise. It is set in a quasi-medieval, fantasized Africa, where nations and city-states (probably fictionalized versions of real entities that I don't recognize) grapple for power even as currents of magic and horror influence and are influenced by geopolitical turmoil. It even opens with the traditional fantasy-world map, which marks out the various polities in its setting, each, as we will learn when we visit them, with its own distinct customs, social organization, and culture.

Into this setting, Black Leopard, Red Wolf injects a quest narrative, in which a ragtag crew of misfits with various magical powers and sad backstories face perils, monsters, and double-crosses before realizing that they have become embroiled in a plot that affects the highest reaches of their society. There are some obvious Tolkien references—at one point, the band of nine travelers is referred to as a "fellowship", and a sequence in which they debate whether to go around or through a dense forest where, one of them insists, they will meet monsters and mind-altering magic is a blatant reference to the passage of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.

James clearly includes these references in order to confound the obvious associations they have for fantasy readers—the characters' fellowship is riven by conflict and long-simmering enmity; the novel's Gandalf figure, the witch Sogolon, is revealed as manipulative, monomaniacal, and ultimately misguided; the magical, Rivendell-like city where everyone lives in beautiful platforms at the top of trees turns out to be a classist dystopia, ruled by an egomaniacal queen and powered by an army of brainwashed slaves. But, perhaps because the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is more often its own creation than a reflection of anyone else's worldbuilding, the story set in it defaults to the familiar templates of the genre more often than it reacts against them. The novel ends up feeling like a very familiar sword and sorcery adventure, albeit one with a setting that is still uncommon in the genre. It's left to the reader to decide whether the resulting work is more conventional or more groundbreaking.

One thing that James definitely does differently from many other epic fantasy authors is how he structures the novel. In its early chapters, in which we are introduced to Tracker, our otherwise nameless narrator and protagonist whose preternatural sense of smell can track people and objects across continents, the narrative jumps in time, elides important information, stands still for long stretches, and most of all uses Tracker's own ingrained resistance to being made part of anyone else's story to stave off anything resembling a narrative. The novel is framed by interludes in which Tracker tells his tale to an inquisitor as part of an investigation into a crime whose full contours we won't understand until its end. As the inquisitor writes,
The Tracker's account continues to perplex even those of uncommon mind. He travels deep in strange lands, as if telling tales to children at night, or reciting nightmares to the fetish priest for Ifa divination. ... He goes into the sight, smell, and taste of one memory, with perfect recall of the smell in the crack of one man's buttocks, or the perfume of Malakal virgins in bedchambers coming out of windows he walked underneath, or the sight of the glorious sunlight marking the slow change of seasons. But of spaces between moons, a year, three years, he says nothing.
This is James's way of acknowledging the skip-start nature of these early parts of the novel, the way he resists kicking off his story in a way that can make the reading experience a frustrating one, but which also, as the quote observes, recalls traditional storytelling methods far more than commercial epic fantasy. (Gautam Bhatia, in his review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf in Strange Horizons, argues that it is this storytelling mode that sets the novel apart from its genre and makes it distinctly African.) In the novel's first hundred pages, Tracker runs away from an unhappy home, stumbles upon his ancestral village, learns a bunch of family secrets, including the fact that he is expected to take up a blood feud that has already claimed several generations in his family, runs away again, becomes the quasi-guardian of a group of children who have been abandoned or sold by their families because of superstitions about various birth defects, and meets Leopard, a beast who can change into a man (or perhaps vice versa) who becomes his first true friend. It's only in the final pages of the opening segment that something resembling a standard fantasy plot rears its head, when, after a separation of some years during which Tracker plies his gift to locate lost treasures, absconded wives, and abandoning husbands, he and Leopard meet again. The latter recruits him for a mission to rescue a child who has been kidnapped and made to serve a group of supernatural monsters.

Another distinctive trait of the novel is Tracker himself, a sour, confrontational type of person always ready with a smart-aleck reply. "Like, I like. Dislike, I love. Disgust, I can feel. Loathing, I can grab in the palm of my hand and squeeze. And hatred, I can live in hatred for days", Tracker explains of himself. And indeed, he spends much of the novel's early chapters delaying the plot's beginning because he hates the idea of being under anyone's command, of being part of a group or accepting anyone's mission. That there is a great, gaping wail of pain and loneliness at the center of all this oppositional behavior should come as no surprise to anyone—from a very early point in the novel, Tracker's adopts as a catchphrase the saying "nobody loves no one", which should really tell you all you need to know about him. But this doesn't make him a particularly original character, nor does it allay the frustration of watching him pick pointless fights that end up preventing the actual story from happening.

(Another issue with Tracker is the fact that he has serious problems with women, and particularly women with authority and power. That he is called out on this attitude by several characters, that the accusation of misogyny clearly bothers him even as he can't entirely refute it, and that he even seems to make some progress towards a more healthy approach in the book's final chapters, are indications that James has given his protagonist this character trait with deliberate intent. But this still means that we spend some six hundred pages in the head of a man who views any woman with power as an enemy and seeks to undermine her. In addition, the novel's plot can't seem to avoid validating Tracker's attitude—most of the women he interacts with do end up being villains, and almost all of them are dead, defeated, or outsmarted by the end of the book.)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes a more conventional shape in its middle segment, after Tracker gets sufficiently over himself to allow the quest to start. Joining a band of travelers that includes a witch, a giant, and one of his oldest enemies, he traverses the book's fantasy-world map in search of the missing child. (Oddly enough, it's in these chapters that Leopard disappears for what feels like a very weird and underexplained reason; perhaps this will be elaborated on in the sequels, which are supposed to cover the novel's events from a different character's point of view.) These chapters deploy a lot of classic epic fantasy tropes while also making tremendous use of the novel's African setting and James's research into it. We travel to walled cities, dusty archives, mysterious forests where giant spiders roam, and a network of magical doors that transport people instantaneously across the novel's fantasy map.

Through it all, James's rich, sometimes overheated language gives the novel a personality all its own, while also sometimes making it a bit of a slog. He's great at capturing the sense of a place—the conformity and legalism of the city of Kongor, or the stratified walled city of Malakal, where concentric walls divide the social classes from one another. He's equally good at inventing fantasy monsters (or repurposing them from African folklore) to haunt, attack, and viciously kill members of the party. But all that richness can come to feel overbearing, even in the more straightforward chapters of the novel's middle segments in which the plot proceeds in a fairly orderly manner.

It's also in these chapters that the novel introduces its first genuinely likable character, the prefect Mossi. A guardian of the peace in Kongor, where the missing child was kidnapped, he starts out investigating Tracker and eventually joins the mission after the villain's tendrils turn out to have infested his police department. He is almost immediately positioned as Tracker's potential love interest, and James's handling of their burgeoning romance is affecting if a bit on the predictable side. What's more important is how Mossi brings Tracker out of himself, forcing him to acknowledge his failings and try to work on them, and encouraging him to reach out to others and own his feelings when he experiences loss and grief. (The fact that Tracker is gay is introduced with little fanfare very early in the novel, and what's mainly interesting about it is how different communities in the novel's setting have various attitudes towards homosexuality and other forms of queerness, from total acceptance to violent persecution.)

The only problem with Mossi is that he is so perfect and so nice that one very quickly starts gaming out when his inevitable death will happen. And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a whole. The only things that are surprising about this novel are the worldbuilding details that draw on a cultural and folklore tradition that most epic fantasy doesn't look to. And while that's something to be celebrated, it doesn't make the novel as a whole particularly gripping.

While reading, I found myself thinking of Samatar's The Winged Histories (2016), which also draws strongly on core epic fantasy tropes like lost princes, hardened warrior women, and mysterious monsters, but uses them to poke at the genre's conventions and say interesting things about history, legend, and imperialism. The contrast feels even more striking given that Samatar and James both deploy the same plot point—apparently taken from a real Ghanian social convention—in which the king is traditionally succeeded by his sister's son, and imagine a disruption of the social order when one king decides to establish his own dynasty.

Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015) is another work to which I found myself comparing this novel, and here the similarities are even more profound. Like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it depicts a doomed, passionate gay romance set against an epic fantasy backdrop, plays a lot of games with dialect that challenge readers' assumptions about what epic fantasy characters are "supposed" to sound like, and revels in overheated descriptions of squelchy, bloody battles with fantasy monsters. And in every case, it does these things to much greater effect as both a piece of storytelling and an investigation of the genre. So much of what James has done in this novel has been done better, and more effectively (not to mention at a shorter length) by other authors.

On the other hand, maybe this is me blaming James for writing the book he wanted to write, not the one I wanted to read. There is, however, a moment at the end of Black Leopard, Red Wolf where it feels like the book and I might be looking for the same thing. The tale of the quest for the missing child has concluded, but the novel still has at least a hundred pages left to go. And we still haven't learned why Tracker is being subjected to interrogation in the framing story. When he starts the next chapter of his story, he is a hardened man, even more detached from his emotions than he was at the beginning of the book. It's not hard to guess what has happened—think, basically, of the most banal motivation one can give a male character in an epic fantasy tale—but what's interesting is the suggestion of the shape James is about to give his story. Throughout the novel there have been hints of a greater struggle happening out of Tracker's and our view—a looming war, a succession struggle, public disputes over the continued role of slavery, warnings of danger coming from the west. But in its final chapters, instead of plugging into these currents and turning Tracker into a player in a wider narrative, the novel instead has him turn inwards, rejecting any allegiance except to his quest for vengeance, any consideration except his own grief and pain.

So, in its final pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf becomes something that one doesn't tend to see in epic fantasy. Not a battle between good and evil, not a rollicking adventure in which mercenaries face off against horrors for little more than a payday, and not a Game of Thrones-esque geopolitical struggle. It is, instead, the story of a character, the tale of a broken man who, for a short time, was able to overcome his flaws and make a decent life for himself, and then lost it all. The novel's opening line—"The child is dead. There is nothing left to say."—reminds us that Tracker's quest will fail, and the rest of the story is merely elaborating on what that failure means and how it came about. That could be an interesting thing to do within the confines of this genre, reminding us that its characters are people, that their suffering isn't simply plot fodder, and that some wounds can't be healed with redemptive violence.

But of course, there are two more volumes to come in this trilogy, and it seems unlikely that Tracker will not appear in them, and thus that this is the end of his story. I suspect that I won't understand James's project with this story—and with this genre—until I've read all three volumes of the trilogy, and to be honest, based on my experience reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I'm not sure I feel very motivated to continue with it. I wish I had a stronger sense, coming out of this novel, of what it was trying to accomplish with this story, and whether its aims are something that is of interest to me.