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Game of Thrones

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51OMI4Jez3L._SX260_ I finally “broke” last year, and began watching Game of Thrones, the HBO show. As a longtime reader of the series I had held out hope that The Winds of Winter would come out early enough not to be spoiled by the series, but it was not to be. In fact, it is probably likely that that book will come out after next season.

Say whatever you will about the “fork” between the television series and the books, Benioff and Weiss have made it clear that they know the conclusion, and that they’ll tie the threads back together broadly in line with the books. That means unless Martin engages in a major course correction, we’ll know conclusion of the series years before last book.

I began to watch the show because it was pretty much impossible to avoid spoilers on Twitter as they began to push the story forward rapidly. What’s the point in waiting another ten years? But that also means that I now have access to other material which can spoil the show: below the fold is footage of the actors in what is clearly a very important scene. The scene brings together two characters who are so important that I have a hard time believing that this is a major difference between the book and the television show. It is entirely likely that this scene occurs in the book in some form. It isn’t an entirely unlikely occurrence, but, it still brings into realization what was only a probability.

If you want to be spoiled, click below the fold. Even if you don’t want to be spoiled, it will happen. If you haven’t read the book and are waiting on George R. R. Martin to finish, probably a good time to read all the books that are out and hope Winds comes out shortly.

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340px-Codex_Gigas_devilThere has been extensive discussion online about the fact that the character of Ramsay Bolton on the HBO television show Game of Thrones was irredeemably psychopathic, cruel, and so ghoulishly sadistic as to be a cartoon of evil. But as a reader of the books I’ve generally shrugged off these complaints, because the character is even more perverse on the page than the screen. If you don’t believe me, this article in Vulture lays it out comparatively. It isn’t just that Ramsay kills people, most of the “nobility” in George. R. R. Martin’s world are butchers. It is who and how that is more shocking. For Ramsay killing is not simply a means, but an ends.

Screenshot 2016-06-20 20.31.42 Not only is the book Ramsay even more inhumane than the television Ramsay, but he doesn’t exhibit an incongruity between his physical appearance and his behavior, as he does on the television show. That is, while the actor who plays Ramsay is handsome, in the books he described as not not physically attractive at all.

All this in and of itself doesn’t raise eyebrows. George R. R. Martin doesn’t write characters who are boy-scouts. He admits to preferring shades of gray. But Ramsay is no shade of gray. Who then is the equivalent to Ramsay? It seems that in this case Martin’s world is somehow unbalanced.

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18925629._UY200_ The show runners of Game of Thrones (the HBO television which will actually complete its run under its original creators) admitted that they patterned part of the battle in yesterday’s episode on the Battle of Cannae. This was obvious to me, as I was actually thinking that the Boltons were exhibiting something similar to the Carthaginian double envelopment. Pretty cool synthesis of a callback to The Two Towers, as well as integrating real history.*

If you want to read a great description of Cannae, I’d recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.

* Somewhat anachronistically, as the phalanx formation was used by the Romans, and perhaps not the Carthaginians.

• Category: History • Tags: Game of Thrones 
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I wasn’t going to post more today, in light of the April Fool’s joke I played on you. But here’s me going at it again. Lots of stuff I wouldn’t normally stumble upon hits me via Pulse, and today I see this in Salon, Is “Game of Thrones” too white? – Fantasy fiction might have racial problems, but they’re just a reflection of America’s broader battles. Here’s the problem I have, imagine this subhead: “Fantasy fiction might have class problems, but they’re just a reflection of America’s broader battles.” You see, in epic fantasy fiction the class structure is a pyramid, with a few who have, and the vast majority who do not have (let’s take urban fantasy and the like off the table for this discussion). But that’s OK, it’s a feature, not a bug. That’s because epic fantasy is playing with the furniture of the past, and that furniture is riddled with a class system predicated on radical inequality.

The author of the Salon piece concludes:

Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like the Lord of the Rings, is the work of a brilliant and conscientious writer who is nonetheless writing in his own time and place. The United States in 2012 is, far too often, and even with a black president, still a culture rich in racist stereotypes and xenophobic fear-mongering. Expecting a writer to remain entirely unstained by this is expecting a person to live underwater without getting wet. If we still find troubling racial assumptions and caricatures in fantasy – whether on the page, or on the big or small screen — this probably tells us more about our culture-wide problems than it does about a single writer’s, or a single show’s issues. A Song of Ice and Fire is indeed our American Lord of the Rings, and if Westeros has its race problems, they are simply a powerful reflection of America’s.

The above was written by one Saladin Ahmed. Here’s his educational background:

He holds a BA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, and an MA in English from Rutgers….

The fact that Ahmed could write something as unhinged from reality as the concluding paragraph to his Salon piece tells us more about his own educational-cultural milieu than it does about the literature and the authors of the literature in question itself. The real pre-modern period was soaked in xenophobia and racism. Ahmed is likely well read enough to have encountered the works of Ibn Battuta, the great Arab Muslim ethnographer and travel writer of the medieval period. Ibn Battuta’s work bleeds with unexamined parochialism, prejudice, and xenophobia against other races and non-Muslims. But he was frankly a man of his time.

George R. R. Martin has been queried about the sex and brutality which pervades his work. One of his common responses has been that the past was characterized by sex and brutality. It is in other words, a feature not a bug. The darkness lends his epic an air of this-worldy verisimilitude which is often lacking in J. R. R. Tolkien’s more high toned creation. The same could be said for Martin’s depiction of ethnic differences, conflicts, and perceptions.

One of course one might interject here that the viewpoints expressed by Martin are still through quasi-Eurocentric eyes (the Andals and First Men do not exist after all). But that makes narrative sense; the ultimate center of the story arc is fixed upon Westeros. When given page time Martin has a tendency of humanizing characters which were otherwise evil caricatures. The lack of nuance given to non-quasi-European characters is almost certainly in part due to their lack of page time. You might demand that Martin write with a more objective anthropological tone, but A Song of Ice and Fire is not an ethnographic monograph. It’s narrative fiction, and the world-building is secondary to the plot and character.

My standard response to people who complain about “racism” in X works of literature is that you should write yourself! But Ahmed has done us the favor of doing so, his Throne of the Crescent Moon has been well reviewed. If you want to invert the standard Eurocentric narrative in fantasy fiction, where white is implicitly or explicit right, then you can immerse yourself in Judith Tarr’s Avaryan Rising, or if you prefer it done more subtly, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia.

Let me quote from a description of Ahmed’s novel to show you how it can get silly very quickly:

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings:

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “The last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.

Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God’s justice. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia….

Notice all the references to the supernatural and the religious piety of the protagonist. It’s a fact that a lot of fantasy fiction assumes the existence of supernatural agents, of gods. Many of the protagonists are depicted as pious and godly, as if these are good things, rather than mental delusions. As an atheist who rejects the supernatural I wonder why there are no atheist viewpoint characters, or worlds where there isn’t a reference to supernatural agents and activities?

If I did wonder these things I’d be a narcissistic fool. I imagine someone could create a materialist based medieval secondary world. But it would be more a curiosity, or an exercise in the alternative. Pre-modern societies were pervaded by belief in the supernatural, so I’m not particularly surprised if it crops up (works of fantasy which avoid explicit supernaturalism, such as Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover turn out to be cases of science fiction upon closer inspection).

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Game of Thrones 
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So it is now less than a week until A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is out. The internet is supposedly flooded with spoilers, some of them fake, thanks to the Germans mistakenly shipping out nearly 200 copies of the book early. At this point I’m kind of irritated by the fact that whenever there’s a media story about the series I have to stare at a photo of Sean Bean looking grave. I’m generally not a fan of film or television adaptations of science fiction or fantasy, but the near overshadowing of the literary production by the T.V. series of late gives me another reason to want to gripe.

The Daily Beast has a very long and lush review (positive). Entertainment Weekly is more concise, ranking the books 3 > 1 > 5 > 2 > 4. And yes, it is for real, at over 1,000 pages this is going to be the longest book! I know I said I’d wait for the Kindle version, but the reviews seem a lot more positive than A Feast for Crows, so I don’t know anymore….

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Game of Thrones, Song of Ice and Fire 
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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.

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"