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Note: Major spoilers through to and including the fifth ASoIaF book.

This series is commonly considered to be the archetypical Crapsack World , in which life is short, nasty, and brutal, and hardly anybody “bad” ever gets their just desserts while the innocent suffer.

However, if you really get to thinking about the various deaths and fates of A Song of Ice and Fire – illustrated in morbid elegance for the show by the Beautiful Deaths series – you quickly realize that there such an astounding degree of poetic justice that if anything it is closer to a traditional morality tale than the grimdark nightmare it is so commonly believed to be.

Consider.

Robert Baratheon is a drunk, fat, stupid pig. He gets killed by a pig. He even appreciates the humor of the situation before he dies.

Viserys suborned everything to his goal of becoming king, becoming cruel and insane in the process. He ended up getting crowned, though not quite in the way he expected to.

Balon Greyjoy dreamed of returning to the old ways, and put those plans in action once the Seven Kingdoms fragmented. He met his Drowned God sooner than he anticipated.

Lysa Arryn, paranoid towards everyone, was murdered by the one person she trusted; and in the same way she had executed dozens of others at the whim of her mentally ill son.

Khal Drogo. A steppe warlord in his prime brought down not by arms or sorcery, but by a common infection of a minor wound.

Joffrey, the Mountain, Vargo Hoat – grade A psychopaths one and all – meet exceedingly sticky, humiliating, and painful deaths.

Eddard Stark. Even this pillar of “white” morality in a sea of “gray” and “black” ultimately fell to karmic blowback. He got executed on a misunderstanding. Where did we see that before? In the prologue, where he disbelieved Gared’s stories and summarily executed him as a deserter. Recall that he did not even attempt to verify his story with the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Both were ultimately undone for being unable to handle a dark secret – and both died by the same blade, Eddard’s Ice.

Tywin. The man who regards guaranteeing the survival and future prosperity of his House as his ultimate goal in life, and lets no ethical concerns get in the way of it, ends up getting murdered by his own son and leaving no clear successor to Casterley Rock. He won many battles, but lost the war of his life – a “war” at which the vast majority of people succeed at without giving it much thought at all.

Even those characters who survive (for now), surprisingly frequently, get appropriate comeuppances.

Tyrion murders Tywin. In the process, he confirms himself as a kinslayer beyond any lingering shadow of a doubt – but it is all the more ironic that it’s quite possible he saved the father he hated so much from a much more agonizing death, if the popular theory that the Red Viper had poisoned him before his duel with The Mountain is correct. In the process, to add to the irony, he “rescued” Tywin from the consequences of his own cruelty and brutality many years ago.

Jorah trafficked in slaves. He becomes a slave. And all because of oneitis.

Theon was in a difficult situation, between a rock and a hard place, an unwilling Third Culture Kid in a world of savage tribal loyalties. But he could have perhaps managed to navigate himself out of it if it were not for his overweening ego and superiority/inferiority complex. His fate is to have his personality, his ego, erased – and at the hands of Ramsay Snow no less, who like Theon is also a self-obsessed “outsider” – if an immeasurably crueler and more malignant one.

Sansa was giddy for a man she didn’t know, overlooking the numerous signs he was a grade A psychopath. Her award was to get to know him entirely too well.

Jaime defined himself, in large part, through his skill with the sword. He lost his right hand – the same hand he had used to push Bran Stark out of a window while a guest at Winterfell. Cersei, among other pathologies, had a ridiculously inflated sense of self. She got paraded naked around King’s Landing.

Jon Snow. As with Ned Stark, this may elicit howls of outrage downvotes, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. He executed Janos Slynt for treason and insubordination. Slynt, of course, was an excessively nasty man, and there were no tears shed for him; in any case, it was an entirely legal and indeed the correct thing to do. But then he wanted to get involved in political squabbles that were, strictly speaking, not of the Night’s Watch business. But too bad for him, the Night’s Watch is an exceedingly strict organization, and unlike his first attempt to return to politics south of the Wall, this time he didn’t limit that involvement just to himself, but invited all who would follow along with him. And for this he got a half dozen daggers in his guts. Of course, we know the caveats, we still sympathize with him… but even here, at some level, what happened to him was not really “unjust.”

At least by what passes for justice in Westeros.

tl;dr: A Song of Ice and Fire is commonly viewed as a deeply cynical series in which heroes die, the innocent suffer, and evil prospers. To the contrary, in a remarkably large number of cases – more, even, than in many much more “optimistic” works – people do get what they “deserve.” Or if not, then at least the principle of “what goes round, comes around,” is frequently demonstrated.

GRRM is a sort of Jigsaw.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Fantasy, Game of Thrones, Literature 
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So we hear from the blog that is not a blog that The Winds of Winter isn’t going to be finished before HBO launches its sixth season this April and decidedly outpaces events in the books.

This should not have come as a surprise and here is the graph – so far as I can tell originally posted last year on /r/dataisbeautiful – that demonstrates why:

page-counts-of-popular-book-series

Accoring to the graph, the anticipated date of The Winds of Winter was 2017. So getting it finished by the beginning of 2016 was always going to be a longshot. It is however the case that Books 4-5 were marked by an artificial delay due to timeline consistency problems, so we can still be reasonably optimistic for delivery sometime this year. (If I had to make a New Year-style prediction on it I would say 60%; and 80% by 2017).

You don’t any particularly convoluted (Great Forks) or pessimistic (he lost interest) theories to explain why this is happening.

First, the books George R. R. Martin writes are BIG. The original A Game of Thrones is also the shortest at 704 pages, the latest A Dance with Dragons is 1056 pages in the mass paperbacks. It is also worth mentioning that both The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring are projected to be 1,500 pages in length, or more than 50% bigger than the average ASOIAF novel to date.

Second, they are extremely complex from a narrative perspective, made all the more so by writing each chapter from the perspective of individual characters. Balancing timelines must be a nightmare, especially since GRRM is a “discovery writer” who doesn’t tend to plan his books in detail beforehand. But he does have a high regard for consistency which forces him into a lot of revision and rewriting. It is clear that this started taking a toll from the third book onwards. But it appears that this is something that afflicts the vast majority of fantasy series, including much simpler ones like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (which incidentally moved forwards barely any quicker nonetheless!). The only big exception I can think of is Brandon “Robot” Sanderson. But then again even he has for the most part only stuck to trilogies to date.

page-counts-of-popular-book-series-2 Comparisons to Robert Jordan, such as the recent by Razib Khan, are premature. From the time of his “inflection point” by Book 6-7, not only did the pace but also the quality of his writing started degrading fast as plot was replaced by endless skirt smoothing and braid pulling and female on female BDSM until Branson Sanderson came along to put The Wheel of Time out of its misery. To be sure, GRRM’s plot has also slowed down drastically. But crucially, it was not replaced by any decline in worldbuilding and characterization; I for one enjoyed Tyrion’s odyssey in Essos, and the depiction of Cersei in A Feast for Crows as an evil female is on a level that I frankly cannot recall being matched in any other work of fantasy. In contrast, due to Robert Jordan’s mediocre characterization skills, The Wheel of Time without a plot was but an empty husk.

Moreover, whereas it was clear by mid-series in The Wheel of Time that the plot was going nowhere, things in the past two books have been clearly arranged to enable a whole range of climaxes to happen in Winds of Winters in quick succession, from the fantasy version of Battle of the Ice in which Stannis the Mannis will show up Show!Stannis for the preposterous imposter he really is, to the Second Battle of Mereen and the Return of the Queen.

There are two additional concerns that I will also take the opportunity to address now.

The Show will Overtake the Books

Like it or not but realists have always viewed this as being a near inevitability.

But for all intents and purposes these are now two separate works. As GRRM himself said (and I agree), the butterflies have become dragons as of Season 5.

MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

I am not a “bookfag” by any means. I even think the show got some things better. Having Arya interact with Tywin. Letting Cat continue to RIP. The Faith Militant. Others it got a lot worse, such as the absurd Dorne adventure, not to mention the cucking of Stannis.

stannis-the-cuck

For better or worse, these are now two very significantly separate narrative streams and the potential for cross-genre spoilage is now very limited.

GRRM Will Never Finish the Books

Many people question whether GRRM is capable of finishing the books from a… let’s just say demographic perspective. “He is getting old.” “He’s fat.”

Naturally, GRRM doesn’t much appreciate that:

I find that question pretty offensive, frankly, when people start speculating about my death and my health. So fuck you to those people.

But it’s a legitimate enough issue, especially considering what happened with Robert Jordan, so it’s something worth addressing in a serious way if only to lay the less informed (and at times nastier) speculation at rest.

George R.R. Martin is currently 67 years old.

Let us look at the actuarial tables.

As of 2013, the chance of death at this age for US males ov er the course of a year is 1.7%. Thus, giving him the benefit of the doubt on his drive and enthusiasm (and as I showed above there is no reason not to), it is almost certain he will live to finish The Winds of Winter.

According to the graph, we can expect to see a A Dream of Spring by 2023, by which time he will be approaching 75 years. That gives an 82% chance of seeing it published. Assuming to a more pessimistic 2025 date, it drops to 76%. Still much more likely than not.

Regrettably, some people suffer through a period of debilitating illness before their death, which makes productive work impossible. (Known as the “healthy life expectancy” concept). Even assuming one that lasts 5 years before death – for Robert Jordan it was a single year – that still leaves a 66% chance of completion.

There are of course some additional aspects to consider – to what extent can we treat him as an average American man?

  • The most obvious negative thing is his obesity, which is negatively correlated with life expectancy.
  • On the other hand, he is obviously highly intelligent. This is correlated positively with LE.
  • He is not a low-income White, the big group for whom demographic outcomes have been in stagnation in the US since 1990. I am assuming he is not addicted to painkiller prescriptions and his now extraordinary wealth will enable him to afford the most advanced medical treatments should the need arise.

All things considered, I suspect the latter two factors more than cancel out the first. It also needs to be borne in mind that medical technology continues to improve so (all else equal) GRRM should benefit from that, although truly radical breakthroughs are very unlikely to come by within his remaining lifespan.

Incidentally, this is all the more reason to support transhumanism and radical life extension, so that we don’t have to worry (and deny worrying) about such issues.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Culture, Fantasy, Literature 
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brandon-sanderson-and-anatoly-karlin

Meeting with Brandon Sander, October 9, 2015.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the finest worldbuilders around, especially in terms of magic systems. Thanks to rigorous application of his eponymous Laws of Magic, he has succeeded in formalizing what can be termed as the fantasy equivalent of “hard” scifi. The emphasis on using magic to cleverly resolve problems also makes him a master plotter: The “Sanderson Avalanche” is an actual term his fans use to describe the cascade of shocking reveals and jolting about-turns that characterize the seatgripping finales of his novels. He writes at a prodigious pace, churning out one to two fantasy book a year, with no apparent impact on quality. Fans have semi-seriously inquired as to whether he is a robot. As well as writing doorstoppers like the books in the Stormlight Chronicles series, he is also an adept writer of short stories: The Emperor’s Soul is perhaps the single most perfect fantasy short story I have ever read.

That said, there are also lingering weaknesses in his work. This is something of a pet peeve, but excellent worldbuilder that he is, many of the customs and traditions in his worlds fail to make evolutionary sense. It is easy to see why the Night’s Watch has such harsh discipline, being composed of the dregs of society, or to appreciate why male channelers are feared and systemically hunted down, because otherwise they go crazy and blow up a nuke on your village. But why exactly do Mistborn peasants fear to venture into the mists? Why is it shameful for men to be literate in A Way of Kings? If he ever gave answers to these questions, I do not recall them.

A more serious failing is that many of his characters are rather two-dimensional. I could not even remember the name of the lead heroine of Mistborn a couple of years after reading it, whereas I suspect even many second tier characters from GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fair will remain with readers indefinitely. People say he can write up some good dialog and humor, as in the casual banter between Wax and Wayne in Alloy of Law and the recently released Shadows of Self (the top photo is of Sanderson and me at a signing of this book). I agree with that assessment, to an extent. But to be quite frank, a lot of his dialog can also sound rather forced. A particularly jarring example is Wayne’s hat obsession. You can almost feel the author inserting it here, here, and here in order to keep ticking the regular comedic relief checkbox.

In particular, I find his portrayal of women to be deeply lacking. Apart from superficial aspects like dress or cosmetics, many of them behave in ways difficult to distinguish from that of men. I find Sanderson to be weaker here than even Robert Jordan, which is really saying something considering the criticisms leveled against the latter on this account. But Jordan’s women at least acted like women – not like medieval European women, to be sure, but like modern American women – but they were still recognizably female in tic and mannerism, whereas Sanderson’s women tend to be more like comic book “gurl power” superheroines. To someone like GRRM there can be no comparison at all. I suspect to an extent this is a weakness borne of Sanderson’s very genteel and “proper” approach to human relationships motivated by his Mormon faith. He has admitted he has a “boy scout” mentality on such issues and was in fact unwilling to read beyond the first book of ASOIAF on account of its grit and cynicism (and one daresays, realism). Such a mentality is best suited for writing the more optimistic kinds of scifi. If however you write medieval-tinged fantasies and crapsack world dystopias, especially if they revolve around the more criminal elements of society, that is a no starter.

(Aside: It is also just a bit ironic that as a Mormon conservative, Sanderson seems to be more overtly concerned with Social Justice in his books than G.R.R. Martin, who is an avowed liberal in real life but writes about it with a light, deft hand that is characteristic of Orwellian prose; there is nothing in Sanderson’s works that even begins to approach the majesty of Septon Meribald’s speech on the horrors of war. Nor, of course, is he any sort of Orson Scott Card in this respect.)

Like most people, I discovered Brandon Sanderson when he was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think it had the potential to be a truly epic fantasy, but unfortunately – for lack of discipline, or a desire to spin up an extra buck – the whole thing degenerated into such a mess by about Book 8 that it was hard to see how it could possible be salvaged. Sanderson at any rate made a sterling effort at it, even if in my opinion it ended up completely flopping by the final book in the series, A Memory of Light. It was full of internal internal inconsistencies and deus ex machina galore. Nonetheless, it was obvious that the primarily fault lay with Robert Jordan; I doubt he could have done any better than Sanderson even had he lived to finish it. I was sufficiently impressed by Sanderson’s rescue attempt to check out his other work. I was likewise impressed by the bold overthrowing of established fantasy convention in Mistborn, and that is how I ended up adding him to the small roster of fantasy writers whose books I buy and read more or less regularly.

Apart from writing an absurd number of words per day and tending to a growing family, Sanderson also finds time to teach Creative Writing classes at Brigham Young University. You can access the lectures here: http://www.writeaboutdragons.com/brandon_w2012/ In my opinion, this is the best resource bar none for Creative Writing 101, and Sanderson must be credited with not only fulfilling his “civic duty” by teaching at a local college but also making his lectures freely available online. Importantly, he makes reference to his own work, including his own weaknesses as a writer. Confirming my own impressions, he confirms his primary weakness as characterization.

Arguably, writing lessons coming from Sanderson are more useful than those coming from Stephen King, or GRRM were he to ever teach them. That is because writers like King or GRRM are so brilliant, most of all at characterization – the most important element of creative writing by far – that I cannot even begin to conceive of ever coming anywhere close to matching them. In contrast, I can just about envisage converging with Sanderson, in some alternate universe where I make it my life’s mission to do so. Sanderson is not particularly brilliant (relative to the best of the best) but he does have a well-developed process which, married to his formidable work ethic, allows him to release pageturner after 4.7-star bestselling pageturner, year after year.

And that is highly inspirational.

brandon-sanderson-and-audience

Brandon Sanderson giving a lecture at Kepler’s Books bookshop.

At the Shadows of Self signing, Brandon Sanderson gave a heavily Social Justice-themed introductory lecture. He compared the traditional Chinese guardianship of literacy with the supposedly unwelcome attitudes of sci-fi and gaming circles to minorities such as women. Personally, I find that comparison highly questionable on both ends. There were plenty (for a Malthusian society) itinerant tutors and monasteries who imparted literacy in medieval China in return for coin or service, and the state exam system was the closest thing the world had to a meritocratic system of government. (The actual system of characters was another thing, sure, but its staying power was more likely due to a QWERTY effect or even sociobiological reasons than to any conscious desire to entrench an elite. Note that Korea’s Sejong the Great introduced an alphabetic system in the 15th century, but it took until the 20th century for it to truly catch on). As for the other half of the argument, well, this isn’t the place to go on a Yiannopoulosian rant. Suffice to say many gaming and I suspect scifi/fantasy communities are pretty beta and fall over themselves in cringeworthy ways to please and cater to female members (though of course that’s not the same thing as making women well disposed to them!).

Fortunately, that somewhat ideologically-tinged lecture didn’t last long, and soon the format moved to that of a Q&A session with the audience. For the most part, the questions involved the more technical aspects of creative writing. Little of it was truly new to me (since I had watched his lectures), but it was good to be reminded of them, especially coming as it did three weeks before Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, held every November, and I strongly recommend folks check it out.

My own question was possibly (hopefully) one Sanderson doesn’t get asked too often. I had noticed that his concept of the cosmere – the general idea of there being multiple connected worlds, and virtuous men and women becoming Gods in those various worlds and universes – seems remarkably similar to Mormon eschatology. So I asked to what extent Mormonism influenced his worldbuilding. The answer was fairly predictable and reasonable: He said that while he did not consciously borrow from Mormonism, obviously its core ideas and concepts were rather intrinsic to his identity and worldview, so it was inevitable that it would seep through to some extent into his creative work.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Fantasy, Writing 
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The demented Russophobe Edward Lucas has surpassed even his own stellar record of profound insights about the evil empire, this time explicitly comparing Russia to Mordor (the land of shadow in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) from his Yahoo! list.

Quoted below in its entirety for laughs.

The British author JRR Tolkien always hated any attempt to compare his fantasy world of Middle Earth to contemporary political systems. Yet his books were hugely popular in eastern Europe during the years of communist captivity. The “scouring of the Shire”, in which a prosperous agricultural economy is reduced to destitution and misery by the activities of the “gatherers” and “sharers” bears an uncanny resemblance to the collectivisation of the Baltic states in the early years of Soviet occupation. “A lot of gathering, and precious little sharing” says a hobbit dourly.

But as the skies darken once again over the European continent (or Middle Earth if you prefer) , the temptation to find analogies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is overwhelming. Mordor is clearly the Russian Federation, ruled by the demonic overlord Sauron (Putin). His email address, to give a contemporary note, might be sauron@gov.morder.me (the suffix is for Middle Earth). The threat from Mordor—symbolised by the Ring—is the combination of dirty money and authoritarian political thinking.

And Sauron’s henchmen the Orcs are clearly the murderous goons of the old KGB. The new twist—the Uruk-Hai, is the mutation of the old Soviet intelligence service with organised crime and big business. Sauron’s allies—the Nazgul—are the Siloviki, the sinister chieftains of the Kremlin’s authoritarian capitalist system. Like the Nazgul, we seldom see their faces.

And what of the opposition? One candidate for Frodo couild Mart Laar, Estonia’s irrepresible former prime minister and someone who has consistently seen clearly the threat from Mordor and what to do about it. His faithful sidekick could be Sasha Vondra, the equally prescient and doughty deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic. Other possible hobbit-heros are Ivan Krastev, Bulgaria’s top foreign-policy analyst, Jüri Luik, Estonia’s ambassador to Nato,

(more suggestions for hobbits welcome)

The Fellowship of the Ring included elves—a strange but awe-inspiring folk whose presence in middle earth was drawing to an end. They are clearly the Americans, whose long-drawn-out withdrawal from Europe is halted but not reversed by the need to fight the titanic battle against the forces of Mordor. Prominent elves include the thinktanker and propagandist Ron Asmus (perhaps Elrond?_Galadriel (possibly Anne Applebaum), Celeborn, Galadriel’s husband is (twisting the plot a bit) could be Bruce Jackson. One candidate for Legolas could be America’s top diplomat for pipelines and energy security, Matt Bryza. Who would be a good Arwen?

What about Eowyn, or Eomer, Aragorn (poss Radek Sikorski or Carl Bild). Misha Saakashvili could be Boromir (desire for forbidden fruits led him to put his own personal interests ahead of the common cause)
Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the Hobbit, could be Vaclav Havel, or Vytautas Landsbergis, heroes of the battle against the evil empire in previous ages,

But who is Gandalf? One candidate would be Lennart Meri, the much-mourned Estonian former president and elder statesman, who had just the right blend of wisdom, courage and mischief and wizard-like abilities with both people and gadgets. Sadly, Lennart died in 2006. But Gandalf disappeared in the mines of moriar—and came back triumphantly in the third volume of the trilogy. Lennart’s many friends and fans hope for the same, at least in spirit.

Picking out the cast on the bad side runs the risk an encounter with England’s ferocious libel laws. It is not too hard, however, to see candidates to be Wormtongue, the slimy propagandist for Mordor who weakens the will of the King of Rohan, Theoden. His kingdom could be almost any country in Europe, but had better be Germany. And it is easy to think who might count as Germany’s foremost expert on Russia and a biographer of Sauron. Saruman is more difficult still—a hero of past wars who has switched sides to disastrous effect. He could be any one of the top West European leaders who have so disastrously forgotten the lessons of the Cold War and have been seduced by Mordor’s dirty money.

Too bad that poor Ed is not only totally disconnected from reality, but his madness isn’t even original.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.