In which I ponder A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin and the fantasy genre in general

51WSPDUy7KLOne of the odd side effects about the extremely high staff turnover at my current employer is that stuff gets left lying around by people who are, ahem, no longer with us. One such stuff was a complete collection of George R R Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. This obscure book has been, I believe, adapted unsuccessfully for television. You may find DVD copies at your next car boot sale, under its simplified title Game of Thrones.

Enough of that irony. So some person left all these books behind and I enquired as to their ownership. Nobody seemed to know anything, so I took them. This has been a great help in my sleeping better by not reading off screens project. So much so that the iPad has been abandoned by the whole family, and I’m now paying for a data contract that has literally seen zero use in about six months. Ha ha!

I’d read the first book, so started in on the second and then read the third, which is in two volumes, and now I’m on the fourth. It’s an epic struggle against indifference, let me tell you. The ruthless paring represented by the television adaptation has made a dirge into a 3-minute pop song.

I don’t hate these books, but I feel about them as I do about most fantasy. I’m reading for the plot, which needs to move faster. You might think you would read for character, but actually there are so many of them, and you spend so little time with each one that there’s very little character development. The actors in the TV show do a brilliant job of bringing these rather flat characters to life.

I’ve got a so-so relationship with fantasy. I’m a big fan of hard science fiction: so much so, that I flat rejected St*r W*rs on the basis of its fantasy elements and disdain much of what passes for SF in the movies. I have read Lord of the Rings multiple times, but every time I did so I skipped huge, boring chunks of it – especially the back story bits. As to the film adaptations, I’ve always said it should have been a TV series, and I think the success of Game of Thrones bears that out. Once the world-building becomes visual, the actual story can take over.

Years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series – but both of these had a basis in science fiction. My favourite straight fantasy has to have been Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series, but I have to admit that it went on too long, with too many books (15 of them), and I grew tired of it long before the end. I went from a lover of the books who read the early ones again and again to someone who bought the final few out of obligation and ploughed through them joylessly. Loved the first five, was okay with the next five, but really didn’t enjoy the final five. It felt a bit like the final two seasons of The X Files.

A Song of Ice and Fire is odd. It seems like the prose has been passed through some kind of processor that has removed all sense of authorial voice from it. There are multiple points of view, but you don’t really sense that there’s a different person for each one. It all strikes me as being a bit robotic. I cannot fault it for technical accuracy or style. It doesn’t feel hateful, like reading something by David Eddings or whoever. It just feels bland.

Which may be a good thing, given the extreme length. Considering their success, they don’t half break the show-me-don’t-tell-me rule. So much of the action seems to be taking place either in the distant past or elsewhere. Sure, there’s a deliberate muddling of stories and garbled hearsay element, so you’re never really sure if this person is really dead, or has really done what they’re reported to have done. But there’s also an element that reminds me of Tolkein’s habit of telling you long, long stories about long dead people in order to explain why some sword or other was broken. The begats, in biblical terms.

I’m interested in the world, in why its seasons are so long, in why they’ve never developed industry – or have forgotten technologies they used to have. What is it with a thousands-year-old civilisation that has forgotten how to make decent swords and so much else? The explanation could be science fictiony, which appeals to me. I mean, it could be that the long winters are so destructive and leave so many dead that they forget how to do things – or can never build their civilisation beyond the pony stage.

But if explanations for all these things are forthcoming, they’re so many thousands of words ahead of me that I begin to despair. I’ve yet to tackle the fifth book (in two volumes), and might give this a rest for a while when I get to the end of the fourth. I’ve got Robert Charles Wilson’s new one on the way, so I think I’ll read that.

To give you an idea of how slow things are. I’ve been thinking the current Season 5 was treading water a bit, but as I started Book Four, I was thinking, oh, well, I’m more or less caught up with events on the TV series, so I’ll soon be ahead. I know the TV series is diverging at this point, but I’m halfway through the fourth book and events have still not progressed beyond the first couple of episodes of Season 5. That’s how slow it is.

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