The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons

Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and ArtemisShall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts? and Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage.

The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons

Two questions arise when I come to write of A Dance with Dragons, the latest instalment in the hugely-popular Song of Ice and Fire series.  The first is, is there really something new to add to a discussion that’s going on everywhere from newspapers to blogs? And the second, and to me the more interesting one – why A Dance with Dragons? Sitting on my shelves waiting to be read are such debut novels as E.J. Swift’s Osiris, James Smythe’s The Testimony, and Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique – not to mention the latest China Mieville, Railsea. Why, then, am I reading A Dance with Dragons?

Let me contextualize: I first learned of George R.R. Martin from an Isaac Asimov introduction to an anthology – a Hugo or Nebula Showcase perhaps? – in which he said he didn’t know much about this young writer but always thinks of him, due to the double-R middle initials, as George Rail Road Martin. I suspect the story was Martin’s Hugo Award winning story “A Song for Lya”, though I could be wrong. Certainly, up to Martin’s neverending story of dragons, he was the sort of American genre writer one is used to seeing about – of modest commercial success, of the usual bevy of genre-specific awards of little interest to anyone outside the field, and with a workman-like application. I next came across a volume of his long-running, shared-world anthology series Wild Cards, which usefully exhibited the same workman-like competency and of which the only story I vaguely recall is by William F. Wu.

In 2008 or thereabouts, however, I was living in Laos when I came across the first four volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. The mythical fifth volume was still hotly anticipated at that time, and remained so for a further 3 years. Earlier, I had picked up an early collection of Martin’s – 1976’s A Song for Lya? or 1985’s Nightflyers? I confess I do not remember which. It struck me as a representative example of late 70s American SF – of moderate interest and a certain competence, but without the vibrancy of a Zelazny or a Delany, without their memorableness, if you will.

Yet I picked up A Game of Thrones that same year and, when I had finished it, promptly picked up the other three books, which were luckily floating about in Vientiane’s few second-hand bookshops at the time. I did that, moreover, with the knowledge that the series was not only incomplete but most likely never to be completed.

Which, it occurs to me, is kind of the point of the whole thing.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a fascinating exercise in soap opera. To all intents and purposes it is a soap opera – a rather magnificent one. The series is not interested in resolution, and to hope for one is to be misguided. It follows in minute details the lives – and deaths – of its primary characters, each of whom may, at any point, die or disappear and be replaced with new characters, who come on screen, perform their deeds and die or vanish only to be replaced by yet other actors.

The hope of resolution – of secrets learned, of mysteries revealed – may drive the plot, yet it is inherently banal. Take Bran’s journey. After thousands of pages, after a Lord-of-the-Rings-like quest complete with its own Ranger, Bran arrives – somewhere – to meet – someone (the Greenseer), to learn – something. Who knows? Who really cares? The point of Bran’s journey is his journey, which goes on, and on, and on, prompting us to turn the pages, to follow Bran’s life in the same way we follow the latest contestant on Big Brother.

It occurs to me I sound dismissive, which is not my intention at all. Martin is doing something very clever with the entire series, it seems to me. He has come under heavy criticism for the elements that make up the book – for the Fascist assumptions of the nature of Royal Blood, for the misogyny, the rapes (oh, the rapes!) – but I think to complain of these elements is also to miss the point.

What Martin is doing in this series is combining two things. Melodrama – gruesome murders, incestuous relationships, conspiracies, torture, starcrossed lovers and what have you – with the utter (and utterly fascinating) banality of a reality show. Reading the series exerts the same sort of hypnotic fascination as watching the Kardashians – with all the over-the-top elements of Days of our Lives. One readily expects that, were Cersei Lannister to die, it would only be to be replaced by her long-lost twin sister, or for Tyrion to turn around to Jon Snow only to proclaim, “I am your father, Jon!”

I find soaps fascinating. In Twin Peaks, David Lynch has effectively created a surreal sort of soap opera, complete with its own soap-within-a-soap, Invitation to Love, which both informs and comments on the events taking place in the primary show.  Soaps soothe us by allowing us to follow the lives of imaginary, yet compelling, other people, with the sure knowledge that there is no end in sight, that  everything is a cliff-hanger and yet each resolution merely keeps us in statis, never to achieve a sort of nirvanic escape-velocity, some profound resolution. James Joyce’s “The Dead” may offer us mundane boredom followed by a moment of transcendence. Soaps offer us transcendence in the mundane.

I was struck by this half-way through my reading, in 2008, of A Game of Thrones. Why do I keep on reading? I remember wondering. The prose is serviceable, plodding, lacking grace. It exists merely to tell us the story, and the story, like the sea (or, it seems to me at this moment, this blog post), goes ever on. I knew I was reading a soap – and I was happy, I realised, to continue to do so. I found it – in the same way I found the first few seasons of Big Brother – I found it soothing.

And I find it soothing still. Take, for instance, Tyrion’s journey from Westeros to Exotica-I-mean-whatever-that-other-continent-is-called. Tyrion arrives. He finds shelter with a merchant. He looks around the merchant’s house. He drinks wine. He thinks in Italics (have we lived and fought in vain? Christopher Priest asks, in one wondrous flourish on the nature of Italics thoughts). He goes on a journey on a barge. Nothing happens. Nothing at all. And yet I follow each minute detail, each bottle of wine drank and each thought italicised like a sharpened knife. Why not? Did Scott get Kourtney pregnant? Does he drink too much? What does Kourtney’s mum think of all this?

A Song of Ice and Fire must exist within its faux-European world to be effective, where Exotics live in a faux-Asian/faux-Middle Eastern continent, where royal blood is literally different to common blood, where Tyrion can endlessly ask “where do whores go?” as if it were a philosophically weighty question, a world of garish blood and guts and endless pillage and rape. Because it seems to me to argue against these elements is to miss the point of it all. These books provide escape, into a distorted mirror reality of our own, a place where bad things happen to both good and bad people who are not real. Our own world has an American invasion of a sovereign state that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead; it has an economic recession with profound effects on all of us; violent riots in Greece, a despotic dictator killing his own people in Syria, and a Queen celebrating her Jubilee in the UK in opulence while  homeless people sleep rough on the streets just outside her palace. It is a world where sexual abuse and rape are just as common as in Martin’s books, it is a world just as violent, just as unpleasant, and the books reflect our own inherent racism in their own way, too.

Yet it is also an escape from our world, to one where dragons roam and murder and rape happen to other people. When we read the books, we are safe.

And then there’s this: does the world of the books really believe in the right of kings? There are all kinds of small inexplicable things. What exactly is Stannis’s flaming sword? Where does that Roger Zelazny homage, the Red Woman’s Lord of Light, fit in? For that matter, what difference does it really make about the Others? Do they have a purpose at all, these zombies from across the Wall? Winter is coming, sure, but after winter comes spring, and so however bad a zombie invasion of Westeros is going to be surely it will, sooner or later, end? And does anyone on Exotica really care if zombies are going to overrun Westeros? They’re hardly likely to come across the water. And does anyone care who ends up on the Iron Throne? Already several kings have come and gone. Does the book lead anywhere? Who cares if Daenerys and her dragons make it across the British Channel to London-I-mean-King’s-Landing or wherever?

I can happily imagine a world in which A Song of Ice and Fire simply keeps on going, like the little engine that could. I can imagine a world in which Brandon Sanderson endlessly continues the story of these kings, queens, knights and soldiers well into the 22nd century or as long as there’s money to be made, whichever ends first. A world in which the children of Jon or Tyrion or whoever’s still alive continue to conspire and fight and think pointed thoughts in italics, where the new banner of the Lannisters simply asks “Where do whores go?” and it takes five chapters for someone just to go to the toilets. A world that stretches its tiny mysteries – the weirwood, the greenseer, dragons, Others, the Lord of Light – across many more volumes without ever answering for them.

And why not? They are not important and, if they’re answered, surely new mysteries will be introduced, new complications ensue, new families will rise and fall, and so on and so forth, amen.

Picking up A Dance with Dragons, I can barely remember what went before. Davos? That rings a bell. Stannis, yes… wasn’t there something with Stannis before? The Wall? I remember something happened there. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll just rejoin the story where we last picked off, and follow, happy to let my mind rest in this most magnificent re-enactment of The Kardashians-with-Dragons.

There are better books, and there are better writers, but sometimes a hot dog is better than a steak, and a budget holiday is still a holiday, and there’s a new season of Big Brother coming up. And like the promise of a hot dog served by the swimming pool of a 2 and a half-star hotel in Cyprus full of German tourists, A Song of Ice and Fire is irresistible.

6 thoughts on “The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons

  1. Am I the only person left on Earth who finds things like Big Brother, the Kardashians, soap operas, and multi-volumed fantasy novels that never end to be incredibly boring? I must be.

  2. Wow, arrogant much. I love when people take one of the best examples a genre has to offer and immediately compare it to the televised equivalent of disposable fast food. If a song of fire and ice is comparable to the Kardashians, and or, big brother, then where does that leave the other hundreds of fantasy and genre books of much lesser quality? The reason the books are neo classics is because:

    1. The point of fantasy is to transport the reader to another place, a fantasy universe. One that is both amazing to the reader and very tangible. This is usually accomplished through rendering details, and no one is better then Martin at executing those details. Yes, some are mundane, but that is the point, its how the reader helps feel as if they are really living in Martins world. Touching it, tasting it and living it.

    2. Fantasy series are often long because once the reader has a ticket to a world they are passionate about living in, they dont want to leave, and they want to keep coming back. More is better, and longer is better, and yes mundane details are wanted.

    3. Operatic melodrama is also the point of Fantasy. Its the backbone of a great fantasy plot. Fire and Ice is actually much more grounded then most fantasy and genre work, and it also loosely based on real history, and yet, the grand melodrama is what keeps the world alive and the series sailing. This is not an insult, nor a bad thing, and to think there are no lessons to be learned from Martin, no nuggets about human nature, the often cruel nature of the world, the often pointlessness of societal politics and the other corruptions, the fickle nature of love and other relationships, as well as how men and women manipulate and barter for personal power is completely missingone huge point of why the series is great.

    4. Characters matter. Another point of fantasy is to fall in love with the characters as well as the world. To love them, hate them, but ultimately truly get to know them. That happens by spending time with them. And yes, that included living with them through sometimes mundane details. Martin grounded his series by bravely killing off main characters, as well as engaging in other cruelties. This was revolutionary for a fantasy novel, to have beloved characters of murky moral standings ( no one is simply black and white) undertake their journeys in a darkly realized hyper-real world. This is something that Martin has done excellently in A Song of Fire and Ice, and its why the series quickly made an impact within the genre.

    And by the way, the reason Tyrion keeps wondering where whores go is because the women he loved, loved dearly, a whore, ultimately betrayed him, and he then killed her in a passionate rage with his bare hands. He has never known a women to love him who was not a whore, and his fathers cruel prank on him as a boy set the stage for this philosophy. Killing his latest love after the betrayal has left him scarred and conflicted, and that is why he is obsessed with that question. he’s damaged. I am sure you were also frequently wondering why Ahab was constantly musing about some whale, or lady Macbeth was worried about blood on her hands.

    5. Martin’s prose is more then serviceable, to use your snooty adjective. Its not all Cormac McCarthy, but the writing is often excellent, and the descriptions of the nature world, the environments, food, costumes, etx… are often beautiful, very vivid, even poetic. Those are the things that make for a great fantasy series, the details again; the world matters and no one describes his world as sensitively as Martin.

    Lets not forget, Martin had a career in television before writing this series, so hes no stranger to operatic plotting and creating an engaging series in serial instalments, but his series will stand the test of time, and be remembered as a landmark series not just in fantasy, but in popular fiction.

    There is room in ones life for all kinds of writing, and a true artistic soul will seek out different genres and writers for all different reasons. There is also room on the shelf for great genre fiction like Martin’s, as well as the latest MFA program star of the moment to be featured by Oprah’s book club. The crime is an arrogant attitude, and the inability to correctly recognize why something is good. Otherwise, take pride in your ability to read big words, but I fear they are simply going in one of your ears and out the other.

    • … I fear they are simply going in one of your ears and out the other.

      Much like the point of this blog post appears to have shot through one of your eyes and out the other without passing through any part of your conscious mind (assuming that you read the whole post, which I doubt).

      Apart from the fact that each item of your numbered list is a lazy platitude, clones of the clichés that at this point blanket every Internet discussion of Got like old wallpaper, nothing you say appears to contradict (or even attempts to engage) the substance of Mr. Tidhar’s essay. In fact, when you write that “Operatic melodrama is also the point of Fantasy” you are in a way reinforcing Tidhar’s contention, not contradicting it as I presume is your intent.

      I, too, enjoy GoT, but I am at least curious enough about the reasons behind my enjoyment, and open minded enough to consider explanations of my readerly proclivities that might not sync with my own thoughts on the matter, to enjoy and appreciate blog posts like this one. They are certainly far preferable to the seemingly endless number of rants such as yours that purport to prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence that GoT is some sort of platonic ideal of epic fantasy.

      Also, if you do believe that it is the best that fantasy has to offer, do yourself a favor and pick up David Anthony Durham’s Acacia.

      John

  3. John,

    Thanks for your reply. I will dial down the level of snark, as I suppose I deserve some of that negative energy delivered back to me. I was mostly reacting to an arrogance I sensed in the tone of the original post, a snooty viewing Martin’s books, and I can not stand the class warfare that happens in literature. And I can not stand when some people, in other aspects of life they might be considered hipsters, hate something simply because its popular. So yes, I posted a snarky reply, even when I did not disagree with all of the content in the original post, I felt I had to react to it. I stand by some of what I wrote though, as I think comparing Fire and Ice to Big Brother is just silly, and the blogger knows it. It was mostly the snobby and tone deaf comments like that i was reacting to. He clearly had only a passing knowledge of the books and was writing this post as a reaction to the popularity of the series.

    I have heard of the Acacia series, but never read them. I will check them out, as I keep an open mind and I always love a new great find.

    • Chris, thanks for the reasonable reply. I will likewise dial down from some of the excesses of my original response.

      I am with you on the disdain for the trend to unthinkingly hate something because of its popularity, but I don’t see this being as widespread a phenomenon as you might think—I live in a place (Brooklyn) and mix with people (hipsters) of whom this kind of thing is expected, but what I largely see is people reading GoT precisely because of its popularity when they may not have picked it up in the first place, and then either loving it, or not, depending on their tastes. It could be that I don’t get out enough, but fashionable contrarianism and highbrow eyerolls are not something I’ve yet encountered with GoT (Twilight, however, is a different matter entirely.)

      My take on the big brother comparison was that it was an extreme example to prove a point, but I have to take it on faith, having never watched BB.

      It was mostly the snobby and tone deaf comments like that i was reacting to. He clearly had only a passing knowledge of the books and was writing this post as a reaction to the popularity of the series.

      I didn’t get this at all from the essay, which I read as an intellectually honest attempt to understand what makes GoT interesting. But then again, I am not a hyper partisan of the series. I can easily imagine reading a similar essay about a book that I do love unconditionally and having the same reaction as you had. But thankfully not many people are posting negative reviews of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon these days, so I’m safe for now.

  4. From the original post: “And why not? They are not important and, if they’re answered, surely new mysteries will be introduced, new complications ensue, new families will rise and fall, and so on and so forth, amen.”

    Another “genre” that works this way apart from soap opera is history — if you look at history like fiction, the apparent protagonists are often killed without warning. That’s where I think Martin’s brilliance lies, in his blending of soap opera, fantasy, and history. Maybe his mysteries are small compared to other fantasy because a One Ring or Soul-Sucking Sword would take the focus away from what makes history so compelling (to me, anyway), which is the way that the stories of greater and smaller *people* all get tangled together.

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