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George R. R. Martin

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91-rbDuvMoL._SL1500_ There are some of us who have waited years. It has even come to pass that we have grown into manhood, and one generation has waned and another waxed as George R. R. Martin has been weaving his series A Song of Ice and Fire. His “So Spake Martin” once had oracular aspect for the patient ones. Now we wait…we wait. Years pass.

And yet a new specter haunts the horizon, the specter of HBO. There are those of us who have not followed this show, which began at the beginning of the decade. We have watched with curiosity as the newcomers have reacted with horror at what we who have waited have known for all these years. But we harbor no ill will, we, the waiters. We know. We know the end will come, and a new creation will join the constellation of the volumes which have come before. We wait.

But now there is talk that the show is proceeding ahead of the books, and that our patience is for naught. George R. R. Martin needs to make this clear: are the shows “spoiling” the books, or, is the television series a “fork”? Obviously I’m hoping for the second.

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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 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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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"