Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Song Is Over, Thank God

     Decades ago, I read a fair amount of traditional (i.e., “high” or “medieval”) fantasy fiction. You know, the sort Tolkien, Eddison, and Peake wrote. I no longer do, for the same reason I’ve lamented about at other times: the lack of originality the genre displays.

     The field started to slip in a noticeable way in the Seventies with Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Thomas Covenant” books and Terry Brooks’s interminable “Shannara” series. It was easy to see that these writers had nothing new to show us. They merely filed the serial numbers off Tolkien’s model, slapped on a fresh coat of paint, and offered it to us as if it were genuinely original. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series sharpened my frustration: the first five volumes seemed moderately daring for trad-fantasy, but from number six onward it descended into tedium. Glen Cook was able to make his “Black Company” tales and his “Tyranny of the Night” fresh and original, but he’s the sole exception I’ve encountered to an endless parade of Tolkien imitators.

     The problem might be inherent in trad-fantasy, which is non- or pre-technological in setting and usually magical in motif. There isn’t much one can do to differentiate such a tale from others in its genre. Attempts to achieve freshness by adding just a little technology, or by giving magic a connection to a sketchy supernatural, quasi-theological scheme, usually fail, whether by violating the precepts of the genre or edging into another subcategory of speculative fiction such as “steampunk.” So for some time it’s seemed to me that trad-fantasy as a working field might just have reached its terminus.

     Then along came George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones. While the usual lineaments of trad-fantasy were easy to discern, nevertheless there was something fresh about the tale. I read it with pleasure and looked forward to the continuation of the series.

     That sense of originality started to fade somewhere around the midpoint of volume three, A Storm of Swords. I slogged through volume four, A Feast For Crows, with considerable difficulty. I purchased volume five, A Dance Of Dragons, but I never opened it.

     HBO’s video productions of the Martin series have had the same effect on me. Unfortunately, the C.S.O. absolutely loves them – she’ll watch anything with a sufficiently high body count – so I’ve been compelled to suffer through them, pretending an equal degree of enthusiasm for the sake of domestic peace. We both look forward to viewing the final season, albeit for sharply contrasting reasons.

     And today we learn this:

     Many people are upset about the Villain Turn a character took last episode. I think that turn could have been decent -- if this had been a ten episode season, and we had seen the character descend into evil a little at a time, so that we would start anticipating it, then accepting it, and then seeing it as both organic and maybe even inevitable.

     But the way they rushed through this -- all major BULLET POINTS!!! with barely any dramatization around them -- makes this all feel like characters are now just doing things because the producers are bored and have been bored for years and want to move on to ruining another franchise (Star Wars, in this case -- which I'm not sure can be further ruined).

     David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have repeatedly stated that the crowning moment of this book series to them was the Red Wedding, and their major goal was just to do the show justice, and garner enough of an audience, to get greenlit into season 3 so they could film that.

     Well, they did.

     And that being their major goal -- they began getting very bored of the show by season 5 and had to start doing their own writing….Benioff and Weiss began improvising in season 5.

     And it showed. Martin's books might not have provided strong material but they didn't actually improve on his crap; they just made it shorter.

     I must concur.

     Mind you, George R. R. Martin has displayed considerable talent for unique, original stories and characters in the past. During the years he wrote mainly short stories, I would read anything he wrote. I particularly liked his early novel Dying of the Light. So this is not a writer I regard as a hack ab initio. But the “Song of Ice and Fire” series is not up to his earlier standard. Moreover, I think he knows it. I submit his failure to publish the culminating volumes in the series as Exhibit Two.

     There’s a moral in this. Some projects, however promising at the outset, have a dubious future. Sometimes those limits are perceptible early on. It strikes me that in trad-fantasy, that’s true more often than not.

     Had Martin limited himself to three books on the order of magnitude of A Game of Thrones, but with escalating development of plot and characters and a properly closed-off ending, he might deserve a better evaluation than “Yeah, yeah, more of the same.” The HBO series would have been more appealing as well, not the least because it would have ended sooner.

     In all probability, the deciding factor in all of this was money. Despite the endless repetitions of theme, plot, and core motifs, trad-fantasy sells well. Then again, so do romance novels that differ from one another mainly in the names of their characters and the details of their sex scenes. There’s an audience for them that seems impossible to sate, and where there’s a demand, a supply will emerge. It’s far more likely than not that money is what’s propelled Martin and HBO, much as it does the legions of writers churning out pink-and-purple-covered pabulum for Harlequin Books.


sykes.1 said...

I am a little surprised that you, of all people, didn't comment on the pervasive depravity and debauchery in the series. There is hardly any main character that is honorable, or even merely decent, than the Dwarf, John and Sansa. Arya is a homicidal psychopath. Honor restricted to the supporting cast.

The end of the series is utterly chaotic. This has got to be the worst series ending of all, including Lost.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I had my reasons, Sykes. If you think about the nature of the series, and of fantasy fiction generally, I'm sure you'll deduce them.

furball said...

"she’ll watch anything with a sufficiently high body count"

High part of the day so far, Fran.

Sam L. said...

I've never watched the series, nor read the books. Didn't sound appealing.