Friday, April 29, 2011


(This is part one of a two part discussion of Game of Thrones, the second part of which will is featured here at The Factual Opinion.)

It should surprise no one at this late date that I have read my fair share of fantasy novels. However, I have not read George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. Perhaps an explanation in is order.

When I was just a little shaver coming up in the world I split my reading time pretty evenly between sci-fi and fantasy. (I'm going to type sci-fi and if you've got a problem with you can just suck it.) My tastes in sci-fi were, even at the time, hopelessly retrograde. I had a teacher in high school - we all had this teacher in high school - who was really, seriously into sci-fi and used to tease me for being stuck in the mud with my Heinlein and Asimov while he was jazzing out to Lucius Shepard and Bruce Sterling. He actually gave me a couple books when I graduated - Shepard's Kalimantan and The Difference Engine by Sterling and William Gibson. I finally got around to reading the former a few years back and it was pretty tepid, and the one time I tried to read The Difference Engine I just about had a stroke because it was so damned dry. It's still there on my shelf, unread, next to my autographed (and similarly unread) copy of Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon's The Chrome Borne. (True story: Lackey & Dixon are the nicest people you could ever want to meet, and if you're ever in northeast Oklahoma you should stop in and say hi. I have no idea if they remember me fondly at all.)

Fantasy is an easy genre for a kid to like, but all the same more problematic than sci-fi. Sci-fi can always fall back on (at least the appearance of) a patina of sophistication and rationality. It's the Literature of Ideas! I loved fantasy but at the same time I was always deeply skeptical of the genre. Even as a kid it was pretty easy to tell that some of that shit was just not right. Fantasy, after all, is the Literature of LARPing! I will say for clarification that while I have read books (plural) by Piers Anthony, I have never read a Xanth novel. I have never read read Terry Goodkind, L.E. Modesitt, or R. A. Salvatore, but I have to my eternal shame read a Dungeons & Dragons novel. (In my defense it was actually pretty good.) However, with the exception of rereading some Tolkien in the middle of the decade, I haven't read any "high" fantasy in over a decade. There is one very simple reason for this, and if you know fantasy at all you'll understand exactly why I walked away from the genre: The Wheel of Time.

Epic fantasy is a strange beast, but even in the world of epic fantasy The Wheel of Time is a remarkable and sui generis specimen. The genre is notable for its extreme depth of field: every epic fantasy series (and all epic fantasy comes in series) walks in Tolkien's footprints, and Tolkien's primary virtues as an author were his extreme attention to detail and unparalleled sincerity of affect. That is why his books endure even after decades of awful fandom and mediocre movie adaptations. I'll stand by The Lord of the Rings even after all the shit that has been perpetrated in its name - damn fine books, and the ending of The Return of the King still chokes me up every damn time. (Don't talk to me about those fucking movies!) So every epic fantasy series is long and long and long, composed of multiple thick door-stops of cheap newsprint, published every couple of years like periodical drugs, and dissected with the ferocious loyalty of Thomas de Quincey rushing the doors of his favorite opium den. There's money to be made ad infinitum from nerds forever chasing that dragon, trying to somehow reclaim that first high, pretending as if their arms weren't already covered in the scabby purple track marks of narrowed expectations.

I'd be lying if I didn't say that the type of people who read these books was, at a certain point, a major factor in my having become seriously disinclined to read more of them. Besides Tolkien, the only series to which I ever gave my heart fully was Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books. I loved those books partially because of the way they gleefully dismantled so many of the genre's hoariest cliches. (The protagonist was a physically deformed rapist, for crying out loud.) A lot of hardcore fantasy fans seriously dislike Donaldson for just those reasons. But then against my better judgment I got sucked into The Wheel of Time. It it not without good reason that I say "against my better judgment": I had a number of friends who kept pushing the damn things on me over the space of about a year. I resisted and resisted, made a couple false starts but then finally got sucked in. The problem was that the books themselves were awful things in which to get sucked, totally aside from any discussion of quality, simply because they never ended. The first book in the series, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990. The series' author, Robert Jordan, died before the books could be properly completed, but the series will finally be completed in 2012 with the help of an assistant hired by the estate to flesh out Jordan's final notes and outlines. The last volume of the series will be the fourteenth volume. The story when completed will be larger than Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, and that's the second biggest non-genre fiction series that comes to mind. (The longest is most likely Balzac's Com├ędie humaine, which stretched over 95 finished and proposed novels and short-stories.) You could fit two and a half Prousts inside the Wheel. (Maybe you could actually find Marcel somewhere in the Wheel if you looked hard enough, nibbling on a madeleine and swinging a sword against rampaging trollocs.) Check this out: when all is said and done, the whole thing will top out over four million words. Nerds are masochists, not to mention slaves to habit.

I freely admit I loved the books in the beginning. They are great fun, and even if the characters are about as transparent as saran wrap the stories themselves can be quite novel. So over the course of many months I kept reading and kept enjoying myself, until around book five a torpid kind of lethargy set in . . . book six was a dutiful obligation . . . and finally in the middle of book seven, after reading literally six chapters in a row of different characters I couldn't remember all arriving in some vaguely defined spot in the woods whose location I couldn't remember without an atlas, I gave up. I don't know if I literally threw the book against the wall but I wanted to, real bad. I was done. No more! No more epic fantasy! Because that shit . . . never . . . fucking . . . ENDS. Life is too short: in the years since I gave up on reading fantasy, I actually read War & Peace, which really isn't all that difficult if you've hacked your way through The Shadow Rising.

It was around that time that Martin's Game of Thrones first came onto my radar. The first book was actually hand-sold by a very enthusiastic bookstore clerk at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley, California. This was back in 1999. That book, the titular volume of A Game of Thrones, has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for 12 years. In that time i have encountered many, many people who have urged me to give the books a try. Give it a shot, they said. Read to page 80, they said. (Everyone says that, "read to page 80"!) Die-hard fantasy fans love it. Even a few friends of mine who have no real interest in contemporary fantasy have found themselves surprisingly devoted. But I had been burnt so badly by the Wheel that the thought of ever diving into another fantasy series just made me want to die a little on the inside. I am not feeling the whole "fantasy" thing so much these days, for whatever reason . . . maybe there's a statue of limitation regarding how long one man should be expected to care about elves and kobolds?

And now HBO has saved me the trouble of deciding whether or not I eventually wanted to commit to Martin's series (not as voluminous as The Wheel of TIme but still quite large, and still frustratingly unfinished). If a slavish adaptation on TV's premiere network for prestige serial drama can't sell the books, then the books aren't worth being sold, right?

I am not unconvinced but still somewhat nonplussed. I didn't absolutely hate these first two episodes, and I am firmly on board for the rest of the season (it's pretty to watch and well made, if nothing else, and I'd rather watch fantasy on TV than a crime procedural or a singing competition) . . . but based on the story I see, I can't for the life of me imagine why these characters and these situations have resonated so strongly with so many readers over the last fifteen years. Either the charm of the stories themselves is becoming obscured by the difficulties of adaptation, or the stories are less compelling than the manner in which they are told on television - I don't know the answer, and unless and until I read the books myself I will be in no position to judge one way or another.

There is also the fact that, frankly, I am sick to death of the default medieval setting for epic fantasy. Anyone who writes this type of fiction is still essentially playing in Tolkien's toolbox, and even the most clever inversion (such as Donaldson's books) is still just a clever inversion of an instantly recognizable and intimately familiar archetype. So we see the castle, the swords, the furs and the rusty armor, and we already know going in what the stakes are and what the general shape of the story is going to be. Genre is a phenomenon that trades on familiarity: people love The Lord of the Rings so they want more books like that but different, preferably for the rest of their lives.

The reason these series become so big is that the fans want extreme immersion. It's undoubtedly a byproduct of publishing evolution: series became bigger and more elaborate over the last few decades since the original publication of The Sword of Shannara. Shannara in 1977, moreso even than Tolkien, was the spark that lit the epic fantasy boom. Writers and publishers were rewarded for providing "more but different" all down the line, until the emphasis on "more" ran straight into the creation of electronic word processors. Looking at the history of genre fiction especially it's easy to see how the invention of word processors made the act of physically producing reams of regrettable prose far, far easier than it had ever been in the age of pen or typewriter. (Remember manual correcting fluid?) Perhaps there has been something of a backlash in the wake of The Wheel of TIme. Everything I have seen on the matter indicates that Martin is very much adamant about not wanting to needlessly inflate his series too far past the point of absurdity. With his hand firmly in the back pockets of a generation of fantasy readers this is an admirable show of restraint.

So here we are once again in a society that vaguely resembles medieval Europe, complete with struggle over hereditary kingships. Oh boy. You know you're in fantasyland (in more ways than one) when the audience is immediately invited into ethical complicity with royalty. Again, this is Tolkien talking: Tolkien was a professor of medieval history and language. He was a philologist of the old school. We are not. I do not automatically respond to hereditary authority with deference and respect, and I am actually resentful of any author (or director or screenwriter) writing in the year 2011 who takes it as a given that my sympathies will automatically lie with the king without giving me a damn good reason. Shakespeare was a man of his time writing historical propaganda, alive in an era when absolute monarchy was all the rage - he gets a pass. But don't forget: not 46 years after the peaceful death of Good Queen Bess, Charles I was executed for treason by a rebellious parliament.

This is especially important to remember now, of all times, when so many eyes are focused on another "spontaneous" outpouring of naive enthusiasm for a royal wedding. We are perpetually attached to our fairy tales of noblesse oblige. We want to believe that the marriage of William and Kate is a grand romance and not the wedding of two social parasites propitiously timed to distract a weary body politic from a series of regressive, crippling cuts into the social welfare state on the part of David Cameron's penurious austerity measures. These medieval fantasies appeal to us in moments of societal upheaval and uncertainty. Who wouldn't rather be a serf under stolid, wise Eddard Stark than a contemporary citizen in our current burnt-out shell of a democratic republic?

There is a profound lack of imagination at the heart of the popular fantasist's persistent refusal to reiterate any vision of society besides the most reactionary kind of feudalism. I like Geoffrey of Monmouth as much as the next guy, but the reason he wrote the stories he wrote was because he was a propagandist for the house of Normandy in the years immediately following the conquest of 1066. Tolkien's masterwork was an incredible synthesis of a thousand years of English (and Welsh, Irish, Germanic and French) heroic tradition. But the fact that we're still writing and reading all these stories that are content to begin with Tolkien's presets intact is deeply distressing. (And yes, I know that there's a lot more kinds of fantasy out there than can be dismissed on these grounds - but those aren't the kind of fantasy stories that Hollywood pays hundreds of millions of dollars to realize.) I like fantasy, and I've even got a big old soft spot for epic fantasy, but I'm not twelve anymore and I would like to believe that there is something in the genre of popular fantasy fiction that will not insult my intelligence.

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