The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
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heart_of_what_was_lost_tad_williams Tad Williams has a new book set in Osten Ard, The Heart of What Was Lost. At only 224 pages it seems more like a novella compared to what he produced for his original series. The last of that of that trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, To Green Angel Tower, weighed in at more than 1,000 pages in the original print hardcover edition (of course it was split in two for paper back).

People are talking about how Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Book was an inspiration for series such as A Song of Ice and Fire. First, Williams finished the series in three books. So that’s a huge difference. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Book produced large narratives on a per publication basis, but the story was relatively spare compared to what people are attempting now (Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive is already coming out with 1,000 pages books in a projected ten book series). Additionally, William’s world-building was relatively thin and superficial, while the ultimate resolution of the plot threads of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Book struck me as a bit cliche and pat.

This is not to denigrate what Tad Williams achieved with Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Book. But to be honest I think the past generation has seen huge changes in epic fantasy. Whether for the worse or better, that is up to you….

• Tags: Fantasy, Miscellaneous 
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91I3cXu7PxL One of the most surprising things that I encountered when reading The World of Ice & Fires is how many noble houses outside of the North still claim paternal descent from the First Men. Reading the books I had no idea the extent of it. For example, the Blackwood house of the Riverlands worship the Old Gods of the First Men, so their derivation from this group made sense. But I had no idea that House Dayne, House Royce, or House Westerling, descended from the First Men. And that’s not the least of it. When Aegon I conquered the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, four of these lands were ruled by houses directly descended down the male line from the First Men (the Lannisters descend from the First Men through their maternal line).

Here are the list:

– the Starks, you knew this.

– House Greyjoy, of the Iron Islands and portions of the Riverlands. They descend from the legendary Grey King, rather than a specific semi-historical individual, as the Andal families do. Though culturally diverged it seems likely that the people of the Iron Islands are part of the First Men migration.

– House Gardener. These were the kings of the Reach. After they were exterminated by Aegon I the Tyrells took their place as the preeminent house of this region. They descended from Garth the Greenhand.

– House Durrandon. These were the kings of the Stormlands. Robert Baratheon’s ancestor married the daughter of the last king.

Gardener and Durrandon were both culturally assimilated to Andal folkways obviously (the legendarium even states when the kings converted to the Faith of the Seven). But the fact that these two dynasties persisted after the Andal cultural revolution is rather peculiar to me. The Lannisters were Andal kings of the Westlands, but their name is from the First Men (a male Andal lord who married into the house adopted the name when there wasn’t another male heir). In the Riverlands the Tully house was preeminent, but there were no kings. The Martell princes of Dorne were Andals on the male line, but famously they intermarried with the Rhoyne people and became culturally amalgamated so that it is hard to describe them as prototypical Andals. Finally, the Arryns of the Vale are classical Andal kings, and they are described as “oldest and purest line of Andal nobility.” That would be strange to note if it were not for what I describe above.

George R. R. Martin has admitted that he’s making things up as he goes along to satisfy fans. Though he might have known Hodor’s fate as far back as 1991, I doubt he knew the genealogies of the noble houses, or their ethno-religious backgrounds. Rather, people kept badgering him, and he responded, and when he stated something in print/web it became canon. So here we are.

• Tags: Fantasy, Miscellaneous 
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51CIf5MFrJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ In the comment thread below there was a lot of discussion about fantasy literature. This is a topic which I have some opinions, because when I consumed fiction regularly, it was mostly fantasy and science fiction (yes, I’m a nerd). The eruption of Game of Thrones into the popular culture space has brought this classic nerdy genre into the foreground.

Though fantasy is by its nature not of this world, the reality is that some level of plausible coherence rooted in verisimilitude is necessary for it to be broadly accessible and enjoyable. Apparently Robert E. Howard wrote the Conan the Barbarian books partly because he enjoyed writing speculative historical fiction, but didn’t have the time or energy required to become well versed enough in a place and period. Therefore, he created the Hyborian Age as a distant prehistoric epoch which was misty and vague enough that he could let his imagination flow freely while still borrowing heavily from the historical and anthropological furniture of our own universe. Sometimes this can get a little ridiculous. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic books are in some ways historical fiction loosely inspired by the fantasy genre (he’s exhibited this pattern of drawing closely from historical periods and places over the last 20 years)!

And yet most fantasy deviates more strongly from our own universe, creating its own “secondary world” where correspondences to our history and places can be made, but which are more tenuous or speculative. Even in cases where connections are as clear as Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, there are very salient differences which mark the work as fantasy as opposed to fantasy inflected historical fiction. For example, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series draws from 10th century Germany (she states this plainly), but the world is inhabited by various mythological or non-human peoples, as well is being much more gender-egalitarian than our own. I was a little skeptical of the latter part because conventional sexual dimorphism still seemed to hold in Crown of Stars, and that is I believe one of the natural reasons that men in pre-modern muscle-powered societies tend to produce highly patriarchal systems of political organization.

Which gets at the point about verisimilitude: there are stock fantastical aspects of this genre which I can take in stride, but subverting the more banal scaffolds of reality which root the world in something we can relate to bothers me. This is less of an issue in science fiction. I have read works where women take the roles of protectors to men, who conversely dominate the home. But, these works often posited biological changes where females were larger than males. In other words, they exhibited some internal coherency, insofar as the structure of the genre involves subverting and altering the parameters of what we might consider “natural.” In k10063 contrast, the fantasy genre often takes us “back” to a world that resembles a static and socially “traditionalist” order, as if to counteract the shocking reality of magic or supernatural beings being normal phenomena which interpose themselves into our existence regularly.

That is why for me religion in particular is an important aspect of the texture of any fantasy work. Religion is looms large in, is often even essential and central to, the Weltanschauung of pre-modern humans. In Big Gods the author argues that a transformation of our conception of gods and their role in our lives was critical in driving the emergence of complex societies over the last 10,000 years (others point the arrow of causality in the opposite direction). Even if particular individuals who were leaders in pre-modern societies were personally not pious (e.g., Julius Caesar) the societies in which they were eminent were always suffused with religious sentiment and practice (e.g., Rome).

Silmarillion And yet there are two authors who in my mind stand out for giving a “thin” treatment of religious belief and practice in fantasy literature: J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. le Guin. These two authors are very different, very eminent in the field, and, have differing views from me on a range of topics.

I have read widely on Ursula K. le Guin’s opinions in interviews, essays, and notes in her collections of short stories. She is a very political liberal author who has sympathies with anarchism and Daoism. Additionally, le Guin has stated she she is not particularly interested in the “hard sciences,” as opposed to the “soft sciences,” and even evinced a fascination with post-structuralism in one essay! (her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber)

In other words, I have major differences with Ursula K. le Guin in terms of our views and assessments. But overall I’ve enjoyed most of her work. She can get annoyingly preachy on occasion, but le Guin is a great prose stylist, with an ability to be evocative without being pretentious (much of her work is aimed at juveniles and young adults, so that probably necessitates enforced clarity). Because of her liberal politics she enjoys inverting, distorting, or confounding racial expectations. Unlike most of science fiction and fantasy, especially in the period she was writing actively, le Guin’s protagonists are not invariably white males. Despite not being a white male personally I have no major issue with identifying with white male characters (race is not a major personal identity for me). But, because le Guin has non-white/non-male protagonists her works are often situated in worlds that depart from the standard issue fantasy or science fiction settings. And often that’s a good thing.

Her Earthsea novels are epic fantasy, but are strong departures from the typical Nordic backdrop one finds in this genre. Most of the people, and the protagonists which are you meant to identify with, are clearly non-white, with dark brown to olive complexions and dark hair. In contrast, the only recognizably Northern Europe modeled population are marginal barbarians, beyond the limes of the oikoumene, with bizarre folkways and practices. But Earthsea is not a progressive cartoon. Its system of magic is novel and memorable, while its geographic setting is on a world which is characterized by a vast archipelago of islands, rather than on contiguous continents! This is somewhat strange, but not totally fantastical. Consider Majapahit. All of these elements are atypical of classical epic fantasy, but they don’t go beyond the bounds of imagined possibilities, or even plausible realities.

J. R. R. Tolkien couldn’t have been more different. A Roman Catholic who valorized the British bourgeois and supported Franco, his politics are inverted from those of le Guin. An incredible world-builder, Tolkien famously invented the template for epic fantasy. Some writers, such as Terry Brooks, have made very lucrative careers rearranging the plot elements and motifs from Tolkien’s novels. Unfortunately much of fantasy for decades consisted of clones of Tolkien’s work, in part because his world was so lovingly constructed and fleshed out, and also because it was so easy to just generate derivative narratives. This was the standard against which le Guin created her film negative when it came time to world-build.

And yet both authors gave little space to the elaboration of religious phenomena in their pre-modern fantasy! The only conventional theists in Earthsea are the barbaric (white) Kargads. The other inhabitants of Earthsea are similarly to atheist Daoists, rather like le Guin herself. And just as with race and place, she has admitted plainly that she excluded and marginalized supernatural religion because she didn’t much care for it. She wanted to make something radically different.

The situation with Tolkien is more complex. His world had demi-gods (Ainur) and God (Eru). These are not entities you have faith in, rather, they clearly exist and are known to exist to all. The antagonists do not disbelieve in the Ainur, they rebel against them. Tolkien himself was a Catholic, and claimed his work was fundamentally Catholic, but many critics are skeptical. Some have suggested because he was very religious in a Christian sense, and well versed in the folkways of the Northern European pagans from whose mythos he drew to construct his world, he was uncomfortable with realistically integrating their religious system into his work. It offended his Christianity to see what were clearly Northern European people practicing false religions. Though le Guin and Tolkien are starkly different in their attitudes toward religion, they ultimately arrive at the same conclusion that a realistic religious system is not congenial to their own preferences or comfort.

I believe their readers are more poor for it, and it detracts from the thick textures which otherwise characterize their worlds.

• Tags: Fantasy, Miscellaneous 
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611jQLzlbwL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_ I notice that R. Scott Bakker is finally coming out with a sort-of conclusion to his second trilogy, with The Great Ordeal. I say sort-of because it seems that his final book in the second trilogy of this planned three trilogy series is going to be one of two, as Bakker submitted a manuscript that was far too long.

Presumably there were issues in relation to the logistics of publishing, because it’s been nearly five years since The White Luck Warrior. That’s unfortunate, because Bakker’s series really has no parallel in the epic fantasy genre from what I can tell. It leverages standard genre tropes, but introduces a dark philosophic undertone set against the foreground of an incredibly rich and finely crafted world. Much of the brutality in The Prince of Nothing seems almost gratuitous, but if you want a more antiseptic narrative, there’s always Brandon Sanderson.

Bakker’s descriptions of the antagonists threaded throughout his series are chilling, and communicate both menace and mystery. The Inchoroi are like no other villains I’ve read of in fantasy….

• Tags: Fantasy, Miscellaneous 
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Game-of-Thrones-Tie-in-Cover-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-20154638-794-1213The New York Times has a really bizarre story up about The Game of Thrones television series, For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role. Here’s a flavor:

But, she added, “At a certain point, you get the feeling that you can’t walk through a chapter without expecting something horrible — almost always to a female character — just to prove that this is indeed a very scary and dark piece of literature.”

Mr. Martin said that his philosophy as a writer is to show and not tell, and doing so requires “vivid sensory detail.”

“When the scene in question is a sex scene, some readers find that intensely uncomfortable,” he said, “and that’s 10 times as true for scenes of sexual violence. But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.”

This was a problem for many with the books when they first came out. Some readers did not appreciate the darkness which made the world that George R. R. Martin created much more gray in a metaphorical sense than traditional high fantasy, which J. R. R. Tolkien established the template for in The Lord of the Rings. But the coarse character of the narrative wasn’t by chance, Martin has explained in detail that he wanted to create a world with more ethical ambiguity, spare of magic, and a verisimilitude which belies the idea that fantasies can become pure escapism. Who would want to escape to the Dark Ages? Even the high and mighty have blood on their hands in Westeros, as they do in this world of ours.

The son of Achilles throws Hector's child from the walls of Troy

The son of Achilles throws Hector’s child from the walls of Troy

But let us observe that in many ways Martin’s brand of morally complex fantasy which we may find “problematic” probably has much deeper cultural roots that Tolkien’s antiseptic world of immortal elves and unremittingly evil orcs. If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad there are many passages and events which modern sensibilities might find objectionable. For one, the ancients took slavery to be an uncontroversial institution. Their ethical universes were different. In many ways they were more brutal. Even the Germanic mythos which Tolkien drew upon to create Middle Earth was more harsh than the glow he gave to the Men of the West.

For those who wish a more elevated and clean high fantasy where the halls of the good are bright and shiny, and darkness is absolute in its opacity, there’s always Brandon Sanderson. He’s certainly a great writer who can deliver on plot which comes to life, and world-building which is exceedingly rich. But his characters also reflect more classical archetypes of good, and the sexuality is relatively absent, perhaps reflecting his Mormon religious orientation (his protagonists tend not to do the “dirty” unless their relationship has been solemnized somehow). Perhaps it says something about mainstream American culture today that they’d rather HBO produce programs that could pass muster in a Mormon seminary? Fantasy which glorifies the cultural values of someone like Amanda Marcotte or Michele Bachmann probably wouldn’t be too popular, but perhaps like salads on the menu at Wendy’s people just want it to be there to make them feel better about themselves when they indulge.*

P.S. I wonder how the shrinking violets who write for The New York Times would feel about Lord Foul’s Bane?

* I bring up Bachmann because conservative evangelicals have produced their own popular culture, which glorifies their particular values, explicitly to challenge the mainstream. To not put too fine a point on it most of it is crappy schlock, which even many evangelicals are embarrassed by. This isn’t to say that art has to be nihilistic, but there’s a fine line between imparting values in the context of a vivid artistic texture, and putting the moral of the fable before the fable itself.

• Category: History • Tags: Fantasy, George R. R. Martin 
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A few months ago I had a post up about Game of Thrones, where I argued that to a great extent the book and the world that George R. R. Martin created was racist because that’s true to how pre-modern worlds generally are constructed structurally. When fantasists create a ‘secondary world’ they are almost always using our own universe as a prototype, often shading or refashioning some aspect here and there to taste. A true fantasy which is totally counter-intuitive and lacks familiar coherency is without any anchor for a reader, and so lacks narrative power. Fantasy stripped away of injustice or oppression would be without dramatic tension. Utopia does not sell. Additionally, the speculative element in this literature is sharply bounded by precedent. Modern fantasy in its origins is simply an elaboration of the epic literature which is often at the root of contemporary civilizations. J. R. R. Tolkien attempted to create in his own works a simulacrum of a rich epic folk past for the Anglo-Saxon peoples analogous to what the Scandinavians had thanks to Snorri Sturluson’s efforts.

My post on Martin’s work was prompted by the ruminations of one Saladin Ahmed, whose piece in Salon manifested all the stale standard post-colonial inflected drivel which riddles much of popular literary criticism. Ahmed popped up in the thread of my post, but actually misunderstood the intent! The reason is pretty straightforward I think: our “paradigms” are so different that he had a hard time hearing me correctly initially. I responded to Ahmed, but weirdly enough though he hung around the comment thread he never really engaged with me after I made my own stance clearer to him. Whether it disturbed him, or did not interest him, I will never know.

With all that back story entered into the record I actually purchased Ahmed’s debut fantasy novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, a few days after my encounter with him on this weblog. I spent about a month reading it on my Kindle in my spare time here and there. Why did I spend money purchasing fiction produced by someone whose ideas I perceive to be second-rate and derivative? There are two major issues. First, many colored people complain about the ‘Eurocentric’ nature of fiction, film, etc. But complaining is easy. Where are these people when it comes to actually producing their own alternatives? Ahmed has done this, so for that one has to give him his due. Second, just because on finds an author disagreeable, objectionable, or even offensive, does not mean that an author is not worth reading. I doubt many of Tolkien’s readers today share his traditionalist Roman Catholicism. It is after all a work of fiction. Nor do all of Isaac Asimov’s readers of his Foundation series go along with the implicit atheism that’s a reflection of the author’s own views (Hari Seldon was based on Asimov himself).

Throne of the Crescent Moon actually got very high marks on Amazon. But if I had to rate it, I’d give it 3.5 stars. It wasn’t a bad book, but neither was it a page turner, at least for the first 2/3. Since I read it on the Kindle I didn’t have a page count handy, but Amazon said it has 288 pages. And that’s the problem: Ahmed tried to do too much on too small of a narrative canvas. Many of my criticisms of particular elements of Throne of the Crescent Moon can probably be reduced down to the fact that the author simply did not develop the thread very well because he was trying to do so much in parallel. As a concrete example Ahmed’s attempts to create romantic side-plots over the course of this one book were about as believable as what the late Robert Jordan achieved: plausible only to a 12 year old. After finishing the book I’m willing to chalk this up to limitations of space, and assume that the full arc of the relationships will be fleshed out over the trilogy. Because of the short length of the book though the primary character managed to develop some depth his accomplices remained a bundle of psychological reflexes.

Probably the best thing about Ahmed’s narrative is that despite the excessive set up and frankly torpid plotting of the first 2/3 things start to speed up over the course of the last 100 pages or so. Unlike many first volumes of a series this is not just a “set up” book. Though at the end there are some loose ends you can really read Throne of the Crescent Moon as a standalone, rather than just an introduction to a series. The ending may have been a bit hurried, and perhaps forced, but it was certainly more satisfying than what you find in many fantasy novels, which never seem to get to any point (e.g., the last of Martin’s books to name one!).

The spottiest aspect of Throne of the Crescent Moon is the world-building, and the novelty of a faux Islamic civilization. My version of the book did not come with a map, and the geographic margins were not very clear to me. I appreciate that Ahmed did not replicate our own world in totality, changing only a few of the names, but that also means that the onus was upon him to fill in some of the empty spaces. Again, this may be a task left to later books, but it left me unsatisfied. Many of the basic elements seem to be drawn from the world of the high Abbasids, with Bedouin and “marsh Arabs” making appearances. And just as fantasy based on a European medieval model tends to create their own variants of Christianity, so the author created his own analog to Islam. But there were just enough difference that the derivation was not a replication. The religion in Throne of the Crescent Moon was Islam-like, but clearly not Islamic.

Which brings me to the point of the title: if Saladin Ahmed was named Salvatore Anderson I believe that many people, including Saladin Ahmed, might accuse the author of engaging in “Orientalism.” Though there is a technical meaning for Orientalism, the reality is that it just refers to a whole class of instances where Westerners co-opt, characterize, or utilize, non-Western motifs and cultures. For the first 2/3 of Throne of the Crescent Moon every other character is quoting the Koran-equivalent every other sentence, and there’s a reference to God every third word. I exaggerate, but it read like a Westerner’s stereotype of pious Middle Eastern folk who fear an Almighty God. Some of the reviewers at Amazon criticized the author’s rendering of female characters. If he was Salvatore Anderson I can’t help but wonder if some of those critics might wonder if he was stereotyping male-female relationships in the Middle East, and projecting an Orientalist fantasy of sexual relationships upon Islamic societies? The reality is that I suspect that in 288 pages there is only so much you can do, and the female characters were not developed because of feedback in the editing process. Often male authors who are criticized for this rectify the situation in future books, but you are still left with the reality that rectification is necessary in the first place.

Now, what if Saladin Ahmed wrote a book set in an analog of India? I can only imagine the attacks he might suffer from angry Hindus, who perceived in his treatment some sort of slight. A reader in the earlier post quipped that Ahmed was clearly not going outside of his comfort zone, an Arab creating Arabesque fantasy. But the reality is that in today’s hyper-sensitive identity-focused world where frauds and the intellectually lazy are always on alert to scream bloody murder, the best thing to do is write what you know in an essentialist sense so that you can insulate yourself from charges of insensitivity toward the Other. This is not always enough to insulate you. A white Western author who only writes about whites may be criticized for being exclusionary, but that is probably a better state that being criticized for depicting non-whites with insensitivity.

Overall Throne of the Crescent Moon is an interesting, if not outstanding, book. Its basic constituents in substance are not particularly original, though stylistically the author brings his own Arabesque spin. Due to constraints of time I’ll probably not be reading further on in the series, but if the author is given more latitude by his publisher to write longer I wouldn’t be surprised if the future editions are more well written as editors start to operate with a lighter touch. Though I do have to add for a genuinely original take on the fantasy genre, instead of simply rearranging the furniture, you probably have to go to Brandon Sanderson. Unfortunately Sanderson’s work tends to read a bit on the young adult side, but his world-building really does break out of the Tolkien template.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Fantasy 
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A few weeks ago I said that I would post an update on how A Dance with Dragons was doing on Amazon. Here it is:

A 5 star rating is good. The sample size is not too large in relation to previous books, but I think we can conclude that this is more in keeping with the perception of relative mediocrity of book 4, than the epic virtuosity of the first three in the series. I have also now read A Dance with Dragons, and here are my impressions (no specific spoilers, though I’m going to talk about the general tenor)….

I think the low score for A Dance with Dragons even compared to A Feast for Crows has less to do with the content and style of the book in relation to its predecessor than the reality that the readers of this series are even more hungry for some movement of the plot arcs. This makes sense. Many of the people who started with A Game of Thrones as virgins now have families! These are people with less time, and they want some bang for their buck. But that’s not what they’ve been getting, at least since A Storm of Swords was published in 2000.

Unfortunately for us this may all be part of the plan. A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows are really two halves of the same book, with the narrative interleaved across them in terms of chronology. If you follow George R. R. Martin’s explanations of how the series got out of hand in the early 2000s you know that this wasn’t in the cards at inception. Rather, these books were planned as a bridge between two very different periods of the overall narrative, which was originally going to be more distinct because of a chronological gap between the earlier books and the later ones (this would allow some of the younger characters to mature at least into adolescence). But what was once a trilogy is now projected to have seven books in all, and many are placing bets that it will go beyond that. To some extent the story has gotten away from the author and these two books are attempts to pause, take stock, and reload.

And because they are so instrumental in their role in the whole series they don’t live and breath as ends unto themselves. It’s clear when you’re reading the earlier books that they’re pieces of a broader puzzle, but even if you don’t finish the puzzle, the Byzantine machinations of A Game of Thrones and the pathos of A Storm of Swords leave you with something which stands apart from the overall series. There is nothing like the “Red Wedding” in A Dance with Dragons or A Feast for Crows. You plod through them because you hope you’re setting the foundations for the “good stuff.” But this act is expending the capital of goodwill built up from the previous books. They just don’t stand up on their own legs.

Don’t get me wrong. George R. R. Martin is not my bitch! This is fictional series. But it was a damn good one. In fact, I still think it’s a damn good one. But if the author continues to construct the launching pad in book 6 I suspect he’ll lose a lot of people. The proliferation of plot points and viewpoint characters boggles the mind, and in interviews Martin has indicated that sometimes he feels overwhelmed. With his zest for killing off characters he shouldn’t have a problem making this issue go away, and there is a high likelihood that the canvas across which he’s painting his plot will constrain the possibilities of his creativity soon enough. I’m hoping this is the calm before the storm (in a good way!).

Addendum: To my surprise Robert Jordan’s series didn’t really flatten in the distribution of ratings until book 8.

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George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons has been out one day. There are now ~20 reviews (as of this writing) on the Amazon website. So we have some information in in terms of reader reaction. The sample size is small, so I don’t have a high confidence, but it does look like that Martin has outdone A Feast for Crows. It had been the nadir of this overall series, A Song of Ice and Fire, though some of this might be contrast effect. Book 3, A Storm of Swords seems to have been the fan favorite.

In any case, I’ll be posting an update in the future when the number of reviews goes north of 100, but here are some charts comparing the five books in the series. The first shows the absolute number of ratings. Since A Dance with Dragons has been out for only a day, the second one shows the proportions.

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So A Dance with Dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire #5, is coming out in about a month. Honestly I’ve been wondering if it really would drop (at ~1000 pages, it’s literally going to be a heavy drop). Seems as if it’s for real, Publisher’s Weekly has a short review up (and Lev Grossman will be penning a positive review in Time soon). Overall from what I can glean it looks as if A Dance with Dragons will receive a straight-B grade. My own current plan is it to wait for the first assessments to come in on Amazon, and get the Kindle version if the star ratings remain above A Feast for Crows. It is strongly hinted in the Publisher’s Weekly review that this is basically another “bridge” book, suggesting that George R. R. Martin still hasn’t gotten the story under control yet. Nevertheless, it may be that we finally reach the threshold of the portion of Martin’s epic which shifts from Dark Age historical thriller to magical high fantasy, a transition the author has promised, and which helped me convince Alan Jacobs to give the series a second look after being disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements early on. Martin’s penchant for dark plot twists, and shades of gray in character and actions, certainly gave his work a level of verisimilitude which put it above and beyond other works of fantasy, but I’m honestly not too excited about a magicked-up version of the Book of Job. Whereas some fantasists use magic as a deus ex machina which transforms their narrative into farce in short order, at his point a little numinous wonder would do the characters of the A Song of Ice and Fire a world of good.

Also, I still haven’t see the Game of Thrones HBO series, but the incessant web-chatter about it certainly does remind me of A Song of Ice and Fire. I guess it’s doing some good in terms of marketing Martin’s brand.

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One of the aspects of fiction is that it serves as a Rorschach test. Over at Slate Nina Shen Rastogi has a post up, Is “Game of Thrones” Racist?:

The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.

They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PC sort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”

I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of the Dothraki uncomfortable, to say the least. Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist.”

First, the author immediately notes that for every swarthy barbarian there is a depiction of another trope, the Evil Blonde Guy. Nina Shen Ragosti’s read the books. She knows that though initially you encounter a story which is framed in black-white Manichean terms that is the norm in the more juvenile sectors of epic fantasy, the development of the characters, and your perception of the world which they inhabit, quickly slouches toward many shades of gray.

The television show may be different, I don’t know. In any case, if you read the books I think you might seriously wonder what George R. R. Martin has against blondes! Not only is the family which is at the center of the web-of-evil-intent-and-action boldly blonde, but within the “good family” (the Starks) depth of character and nobility of purpose are usually aligned with the brunettes (petulant Sansa vs. persevering Arya, good-hearted but ultimately naive Rob vs. brooding but predestined Jon). The main caveat is that Martin is one who often sets up expectations which he turns upside down, so any coarse generalization may eventually land on the wrong side of the ledger.

There are several broader issues in the bigger picture in terms of the reaction of people to epic fantasy and speculative fiction. First, in a world where most people praise multiculturalism and diversity there seems to be a tendency to blanch and recoil when faced with genuine divergence of viewpoint and variance of behavior. In our own world many attempt to reframe differences of value as ultimately due to material conditions (e.g., intolerance is rooted in poverty, etc.). This misses the reality that despite our common humanity grounded in human universals which makes communication across the chasm of culture possible, there are also deep abiding incommensurable values even among extant societies! People recoil from a depiction of barbarism, but we have barbarism in our day! Sometimes I get a sense that the discomfort that people have with the depiction of barbarism in fiction is that it smashes the delusion that cultural diversity can be reduced to variety of dress, dish, and language. This was how cultural diversity was preserved in the former Soviet Union. One of the main criticisms of fantasy is that it is too often a simple and unsubtle morality play. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire in contrast has rich texture, but we need to be cautious about ruining our enjoyment by projecting our own contemporary preconceptions as we explore it. We need shift between enjoyment of the development of individuals with whom we identify, along with moments of epoche to take in the landscape without preconceptions.

Second, there are fantasy works which have veiled or unveiled anti-white sentiments you can find out there if you want to balance the scales. Ursula K. Le Guin has copped to this as one of her agenda’s in the Earthsea stories. It’s even more explicit in Judith Tarr’s Avaryan novels. Here’s a representative selection from Avaryan Resplendent:

Vanyi’s cheeks were burning. No doubt they blazed scarlet. It was all the color they ever had. Corpse-woman, people called her here, because she was as white as new milk, and they were all black or brown or ruddy bronze. Even the Asanians were, at worst, old ivory.

The are references to the “maggoty pallor” of people who seem equivalent to white Europeans in Tarr’s secondary world in A Fall of Princes. Judith Tarr herself is a white American from what I know, so I doubt she’s pushing a deeper agenda, but just changing the terms of her secondary world in a manner which makes it atypical for Western fantasy.

But the bigger issue is that authors can not help but inject their own perception of the world and biases into their works. Otherwise they’d be computers lacking real A.I. I’ve noted before that it’s pretty clear that Brandon Sanderson is a theist, or is speaking from a theist point of view, in his fiction. He has admitted as much. More precisely there seems to be a Mormon inflected aspect in his Mistborn series. Conversely, Ursula K. Le Guin’s atheism seems to have influenced the lack of theistic religion in Earthsea as anything but a deviation or abomination (in interviews she soft-pedaled the propagandistic nature of her execution of intent, but I think I’m being accurate).

There’s an easy way to even out the problem of Eurocentrism in fantasy fiction: more colored people should write. David Anthony Durham is a black fantasy writer. I don’t think his race influences his Acacia series too much. He does utilize the Evil Bonde Guy trope, but so do fantasy authors in general (see David Coe). One might suggest though that he gives a little more detailed description to the African equivalent populations in his secondary world than one might usually find in epic fantasy, which I found interesting even if it was marginal to the main story arc. Black science fiction writer Steven Barnes wrote an alternative history duology starting with Lion’s Blood which could, it is argued, be an Afrocentric “what-if.”

Much of fantasy literature draws from epic myths. J. R. R. Tolkien’s own work was an attempt to create an epic myth for the English people, because their own had been lost, unlike the Scandinavians or Irish (rather like the Kalevala). Most “high cultures” have an extensive epic myth tradition which can be mined, so authors who want a non-Northern European milieu have a lot they could work with. David Drake used a hybrid of Sumerian and medieval European motifs in Lord of the Isles.

Less criticism. More creation!

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Fantasy, Fiction, Racism 
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Apparently July 12th, 2011, is now a hard date for the publication of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin has confirmed the date on his website: “Barring tsunamis, general strikes, world wars, or asteroid strikes, you will have the novel in your hands on July 12. I hope you like it.” He even has a late-1990s style countdown going. For what it’s worth, the first book, A Game of Thrones, came out in the summer of 1996. That means that a 10 year old starting the series in 1996 would be 25 now. In all probability this is going to be ~10 books, so who knows how old that 10 year will be when it’s all done.

Personally, I found that the last book was kind of a let down. Amazon reviewers seem to agree, as books 1-3 got 4.5 stars, but book 4 only 3. If Martin can’t bounce back, I assume that this series going to go the way of The Wheel of Time (before it was resurrected after the death of the author by Brandon Sanderson). At least Patrick Rothfuss has his second book out. Now, where to find the time so that I can actually read this stuff some day….

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Fantasy 
Razib Khan
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