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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.