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A Song of Ice and Fire

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A-Game-of-Thrones-Bantam-Spectra I’ve been talking about A Song of Ice and Fire as long as I’ve been blogging. I purchased the first book as a paperback in December of 1998 because of the cover and some blurbs from authors that I found credible (Tad Williams?). In 2000 I ordered the British edition of A Storm of Swords because it came out earlier than the US one by a few months. So in a little over three years I read the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Over 15 years later we’ve gotten through the next two books!

Back when I read Usenet I recall someone observing that there was something like Egwene’s rule in the Wheel of Time novels of Robert Jordan. Basically as the series progressed Egwene and her entourage moved toward the White Tower of the Aes Sedai at slower and slower pace, so World_of_Ice_and_Fire_cover that it was as if Jordan was trying to illustrate Zeno’s Paradox in his plotting often(I stopped reading after book six). I hate saying this, but Martin may have out done Jordan in that his books four and five had less narrative progress (Martin’s characters and world-building exhibit much more verisimilitude, so I cut him some slack; Jordan admitted that all the primary female characters in his books were extrapolations of his wife). Instead of a gradual exponential decay A Song of Ice and Fire crashed after 2000.

And now we have the television shows, to the point where I almost wrote A Game of Thrones to label the series, as the show is named after the first book, though its narrative arc covers the whole series. Yesterday George R. R. Martin explained on a blog entry that his books were going to definitely be outpaced by the HBO series. For years there were those of us who read the books who ignored the television series, or at most laughed and rolled our eyes as people who watched the HBO depiction without prior exposure were shocked, appalled, and amazed. Sean Bean’s Eddard Stark will always be Boromir to me! Martin confirms now that the shoe is on the other foot. But, he does note that the show and books will diverge in many ways. Because the television series will go first I can not but now wonder if it will influence the trajectory of the books (e.g., Martin might consciously or unconsciously deviate from the HBO series in future installments in ways he might not have otherwise done so). Honestly the whole situation strikes me as worthy of a short story, as it’s really unprecedented. Books are turned into television shows or films. Or, shows or films are novelized. What is going to happen now is a synthetic hybrid process.

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A_Game_of_Thrones_Novel_CoversBelow in my post on The World of Ice & Fire there were two comments which I think are important to keep in mind. First, George R. R. Martin has admitted that accounts of distant lands and ancient times may not be precisely accurate in a modern sense, but rather hew to the sort of scholarship one might have found in the High Medieval period which his world is generally an analog with. Second, one commenter points out that the long lineages asserted in Martin’s books make no sense in light of high rates of elite conflict and attested extinctions and near extinctions. The problem is the same one you see in uniparental DNA lineages (mtDNA and Y) and surnames which come down through one sex. In Augustan Rome the elite families were going extinct, to the consternation of the princeps. But it was basic math. If family lines are perpetuated through males, and a certain proportion of families in each generation do not produce males who live to adulthood to perpetuate the line, then there is going to be a slow extinction of the old lineages. As a stylized example, if a given nuclear family has a 95% chance of having an adult son each generation, a quite high rate, within 15 generations more than half of these lineages would still be extinct. That’s 375 years. The idea that the Starks would be able to maintain the paternal lineage for thousands of years, let alone keep their status as the apex lineage, is simply unbelievable.

Because I’m interested in biology I naturally fixated on the genetic aspects of Martin’s secondary-world which raised my ire, but really they’re minor issues in the grand scheme.* Rather, it’s the broad geographic and historical sweep which leave me skeptical of the world-building. George R. R. Martin’s complex and multi-textured narrative in a world which is recognizably High Medieval, but not exceedingly isomorphic with our own, has reshaped fantasy over the past generation, engendering many imitators. Martin’s protagonists are human in a fully developed fashion which makes them more believable to readers who aren’t 12 year old males, or late/post-Victorian dons. Aragorn would never have had a bastard. The true blood of Númenor was not capable of such things by the nature of his being. By introducing a dark and realistic pre-modern sensibility akin to Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles Martin’s work has won praise for its verisimilitude. A world not just of imagination, but perhaps could just be.

And yet when you take a step back much does not make sense. The First Men arrived ~10,000 years ago. But they all spoke the same language even ~2,000 years ago, when the Andals arrived. Two thousand years after the Andal arrival different peoples on the continent sized Westeros speak with different accents. The dates given for the arrival of the First Men in particular can be thought of as legendary, but they are recorded as being a Bronze Age people. Therefore their arrival must have been long ago. The Andals have a more well attested history, because they are the dominant people of Westeros. The level of cultural diversification simply does not comport with what we know about evolutionary rates of change of societies on the scale of thousands of years. Very little happens on Westeros in comparison to our own world, where the rate of change has been much faster since the emergence of agriculture.

Second, institutions such as the Night’s Watch are totally implausible. Societies which are of High Medieval nature are unlikely to be able to plan for disasters on the order of thousands of years. Nor are the men of the Night’s Watch likely to maintain neutrality as to goings on south of the Wall for so many generations. Humans exhibit group conformity and cohesion around ideals, but these decay over time, and a time of selfishness always breaks free to tear down institutions before they are built back anew. What Martin has constructed in his secondary-world is a landscape which is not nearly as subject to episodic regressions and cycles of cultural efflorescence as our own, despite its peculiar climatic regime which would militate in favor of such a pattern. It is a world of radical cultural stasis and torpidity. In ways they do not resemble modern humans at all, but other groups of hominins.

OK, to take a step back, I’ve really lost it, haven’t I? The reality is no secondary-world replicates the complexity and nuance of the real world in terms of the religions, languages, and peoples, which we see around us. None of them are able to have as much historical background as the real world. In fact if someone attempted to do this they’d not be able to write novels! Secondary-worlds by their nature have to be stripped down. The same problem crops up in far future science fiction. If it is too exotic and changed it is simply not able to be turned into a narrative which we as modern humans could relate to. Authors like George R. R. Martin have to strike a balance between plausible social texture, exoticism which doesn’t leave us incredulous, and simplification which does not render the canvas blank. It’s a tough balancing act. They make different choices, and I respect Martin’s.

* If the Targaryen ability to master the dragons is genetic, then they should have followed the Walder Frey strategy and bred themselves an army.

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51Hf10rYJuL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ For Christmas I gifted myself a physical copy of The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. I actually went down to the local bookstore, but balked when I noted that Amazon charges $25 while they were offering $50 retail. I don’t go for cheap in every case, but that was a ridiculous difference. After reading the reviews and browsing a bit at the bookstore (yes, I’m a bad person!) I wasn’t too surprised with what I received (no, I was not getting the ebook version because the illustrations matter for this, and ebook renderings are often suboptimal). It’s not The Silmarillion, because George R. R. Martin is just not the “world creator” that J. R. R. Tolkien was. I think it’s fair to say that Martin’s world has been created as a vessel for the stories, while Tolkien’s narrative served to flesh out his world. As someone on an Amazon review stated much of what you find in The World of Ice & Fire will be online soon enough, so why purchase the book? Mostly because though many of us are fans of Martin’s series we’re no longer obsessively reading over websites like Westeros. We’re OK with getting the authorized gist.

And that’s what this book is. The subhead is mildly misleading, because most of the text is predictable if you read between the lines of the book, and fill in missing pieces of the histories alluded to in passing. Also, some of it strikes me as a bit hasty. In online interviews Martin seems to basically admit that he had to create some elements of the background on demand, because he actually didn’t have anything in mind. This reminds of Tolkien complaining that he received letters from bontanists demanding a more thorough treatment of the biogeography of the plants of Middle Earth.

My main gripe is that I could have done without the section on the Targaryen kings. Perhaps this is setting the scene for prequals to the current series, but that seems getting ahead of yourself if I may say so. Also, the Targaryen practice of brother-sister royal marriage is probably not as genetically sustainable as it seems to be in the family tree depicted at the end of the book (no, I haven’t calculated the inbreeding coefficient). I say this after reading The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, where it seems rather obvious that some royal lines simply expired due to inbreeding.

Finally, I was rather surprised that it seems that the Martin’s world is inhabited by three species of humans. The inhabitants of the southern continent, originally labelled Sothoryos, seem to be analogous to a robust Australopithecus. The people of Ib seem to be Neandertal analogs. Both of these populations are explicitly stated to not be inter-fertile with other human populations due to post-zygotic barriers. I have to wonder if this was just created on the stop to add exotic color to the book, since it seems pretty outlandish.

Note: I have not watched the HBO show. Nor do I plan to in the near future.

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I have to point you to this post on royal inbreeding in A Song of Ice and Fire. They reference my post on the Habsburgs. Well done! In any case, one possibility is that the Targaryen lineage may have purged their genetic load through inbreeding. The basic logic is that all the recessive traits are going to be “exposed” every generation, resulting in a far stronger selection coefficient against those alleles than would be the case in a outbreed population (where most deleterious variants with recessive expression are masked by being present heterozygote genotypes).

• Category: Science • Tags: A Song of Ice and Fire, Genetics 
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A friend mentioned last night that he was watching a bit of A Game of Thrones, the new HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ll probably wait until after the DVD version comes out, if I watch it at all. I’m not generally impressed by visual media adaptations of science fiction and fantasy literature, and have even less use for film & TV only science fiction & fantasy. I’m not a snob, I’m just easily bored. In any case, George R. R. Martin has gotten The New Yorker treatment. I had to laugh at this sentence from near the end of the piece: ‘Martin hopes that, after he surmounts the particular thorny problems of “A Dance with Dragons,” the final two books will come much faster.’ Of course he he said this after the last book. To be fair, there wasn’t that much of a gap between book two and book three.

I still remember the cold January day in 1999 when I picked up a paperback version of A Game of Thrones. My roommate at the time was baked and passed out in front of the television, as was his usual Saturday night ritual. I read the first chapter of A Game of Thrones after having finished Paul Gottfried’s A Conservative Movement. I went to sleep after I got tired, but then finished the book the next day. Lucky for me I had to wait only one day to read the sequel, A Clash of Kings, which had just been published (in hindsight obviously they were pushing copies of the paperback f A Game of Thrones to coincide with the hardcover publication of A Clash of Kings). As someone who had read some of the other “heirs” of Tolkien, such as Robert Jordan, Martin’s contribution put me in the mind that the time had come to put away childish things.

Martin had a friendly relationship to Robert Jordan, who passed away before completing his series, The Wheel of Time. He has asserted that The Wheel of Time set the groundwork for the panoramic post-Tolkien epic fantasies which A Song of Ice and Fire is an exemplar. In short, no The Wheel of Time, no A Song of Ice and Fire. I think this is probably not totally accurate, insofar as it posits a Great Man model of fantasy literature. But, Robert Jordan’s success clearly was a signal to both writers and publishers about the possibilities of the genre. Yet The New Yorker article also addresses the fact that The Wheel of Time is an elaboration of a formula meant to appeal to twelve year old boys. The repertoire of the various reactions of the characters to the exigencies of life are very limited, and after a few books you become rather tired of the flat personalities on offer. Jordan’s aim seems to have been to make sexual tension intelligible to a twelve year old boy. Unfortunately that makes much of character development ludicrous to those of us who have passed the first blush of puberty. Additionally, the world-building in The Wheel of Time exhibits a tendency toward shallow flash and gimmickry. It has none of the rich historical thickness of Middle-earth or the earthy realism of Westeros.

Though the philosophy of Epicurus has been caricatured by the ignorant as a byword for excess and gluttony, like most ethical systems he argued for the importance of moderation and balance in the aim of the full appreciation of the hedonic experience. The problem with much of heroic fantasy is that it lacks such balance, and does not manage to negotiate the knife’s-edge between the banal world that is, and the fantastical that could be. The juvenile aspect of much of fantasy literature is exhibited in its gluttony for the black & white aspects of the world which a fictional world can give full reign to. The Dark Lord who is the apotheosis of evil. The teenage farm-boy who is good, naive, and also handsome and gifted with incredible powers beyond imagining (and, who at the end of the series finds out that he is in fact the son of a king!). Martin’s great insight, which he clearly shares with other writers such as Robin Hobb, is that writing within the fantasy genre is not a license to engage in every wish-fulfillment. It is a liberty to enchant, and surprise. At least if you aim to appeal to adults who have lived enough life to have experienced enough to intuit that the sweet life is to a large extent given color only by its contrast with the bitter. Perfection does not move.

As for George R. R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire, I will probably keep reading. For now. I’m not a public hater, there are more important things in my life than a fantasy series. The first books of his grand vision are the standard now, for me and many others. That’s an achievement in an of itself.

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"