Thursday, March 28, 2013

Middle-Earth for Middlebrows

So Game of Thrones is enough of a household name now that I can't ignore it. But before powering through my friend's DVD collection - 'cause I ain't about to spend money on this fucking thing - I picked up the source material from the library. Most of it anyway... enough to get a good feel for George R. R. Martin's spanktastic fantasy opus.

I felt like Wander...

And it ain't half bad.

If you've been here before, you know I have a fondness for science fiction but that's pretty much where my interest in genre drek ends. With the notable exceptions of Tolkein and Michael J. Sullivan, I just can't get into fantasy. So much of it is horribly padded and so wedded to the formula that when the author introduces someone with pointed ears you know they're going to be some hippie archer who still looks like a pubescent after three thousand years.

Martin, to his credit, thumbs his nose at the formula. In fact, if A Song of Ice and Fire has a central theme, it's that fantasy tropes can go eat a dick. The conflicts are all political, the heroes aren't the least bit heroic, and magic is largely absent - and when it does show up, it's kept vague enough to hold some mystery. That's enough to recommend the series right off the bat, so much other fantasy reading like it was cribbed from a D&D manual.

But Martin too often falls into the two biggest annoyances of genre fiction - confusing intricacy with intrigue and verbosity with something to say. There are a dozen plots being spun by each of the courtiers in the Westoros capitol, but they're not really that interesting. Especially not with Frost Zombies and a Mongol horde threatening to come sweeping over all the petty politicking at any moment.

Which could still be forgiven, if it didn't go on for fucking ever. Geeks are a frighteningly provincial lot, mistaking page count for good reading, and Martin has catered to them with this work. Shame he won't cater to any of us normal folks, who have things to do in a day other than dick around in World of Warcraft.

The length is understandable though - not excused, just understandable - as there are tons of characters and Martin goes to great lengths to develop some of them, assigning basic archetypes to carry others through the epic goings on. Sean Bean's character, the hideously named Eddard, is defined solely by his honorable honor and plays that one note for seven hundred pages until his honorable head is cut off. Similarly, his daughter Sansa is given the single defining trait of being a fucking idiot.

A few characters get some real depth but they're still products of the High Seriousness that clouds the entire book, so let's talk about the dwarf. Peter Dinklage's character in the show, Tyrion, is a refreshingly 20th-century personality in this dour retelling of the War of the Roses. He's funny, amiable, and gets to be creative in getting himself out of trouble rather than relying on brute strength or getting honorably decapitated. That he's technically on the side of the bad guys doesn't even get in the way.

Speaking of - I know Martin has been praised for having oh so many shades of gray in his characters but it's dead obvious who's who. The golden haired, incestuous Lannisters are the Harkonnens, the honorable Starks of honor are the Atreides, and Dany the Dragon Lady is gonna be the goddamn Final Boss of this whole mess. And then there's Tyrion, who's just fun.

"Forsooth, bitches!"

He's really the only character with a sense of agency, the rest seeming to be just playing their assigned role in the epic. The Greeks and Trojans in The Iliad were a hell of a lot more morally ambiguous than this crowd, and a damned sight darker.

The grim darkness of the setting is undermined by both its high seriousness and how, well, it just ain't that dark. Not if we're talking real feudalism here. That was a terrible point in history, with everyone not lucky enough to be born in a castle living in slavery. A Song of Ice and Fire conveys that reality and I guess if you've been sucking down heroic sword and sorcery swill it can be a little shocking. And you'll never be ready for real darkness, like Michel Houellebecq.

"All in all, these backpacking routards were bellyaching bastards whose goal was to spoil every little pleasure on offer to tourists, whom they despised....The most excruciating thing was probably their stern, dogmatic, peremptory tone, quivering with repressed indignation...they laid into 'potbellied Westerners' who strolled around with little Thai girls; it made them 'literally puke.' Humanitarian Protestant cunts, that's what they were, they and the 'cool bunch of mates who helped to make this book possible,' their nasty little faces smugly plastered all over the back cover."

That's the narrator of Platform laying into people opposed to sex tourism. That's how you do dark, kids. A Song of Ice and Fire is only dark if you are a kid and think wearing black will freak out your parents.

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