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Why George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice Novels Suck

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I’m talking about the George R.R. Martin novels, not the terrible campy TV show that hipsters watch in soccer bars. That’s just Deathstalker the 100 million dollar TV show with a better class of actors, slightly less nudity and more gay references than a season of South Park.

I liked Game of Thrones. I liked Clash of Kings. By Storm of Swords, I was having my doubts. By Feast of Crows, the problems were too obvious to ignore.

 

1. A Song of Fire and Ice depends on soap opera gimmicks, not consistent plotting

Think of 24. The show’s plot was incoherent but it kept you watching by constantly throwing in twists and turns. An entire season made no sense but it didn’t matter because you were watching for the suspense and the shocking turn. The Following does the same thing now.

The Game of Thrones novels are a novelistic version of 24.

George R.R. Martin depends on gimmicks to make up for what he lacks in plotting. His original novels, Dying of the Light, Armageddon Rag, were big on atmosphere, but their plots made no sense. That’s still true in Game of Thrones, but Martin spent enough time working in television to borrow its plot gimmicks.

Characters are killed unexpectedly. Characters seem like they’ve been killed off, but they’re actually alive. (Martin has at least twice shown the body of a character only to reveal that he’s alive. Or is that three times?)

Some characters rise unexpectedly and then fall equally unexpectedly. There’s a name for this. Soap opera.

And just like on a soap opera, the gimmicks worked for a while until they became repetitive.

How many times have you seen this one? A character with no real battlefield experience, Robb, Daenerys, Tyrion, suddenly turns out to be Napoleon until they suffer an unexpected setback and lose everything.

All this furious activity disguises the fact that the novels are going nowhere and readers have figured it out. A lot of the frustration isn’t just because Martin isn’t writing novels, it’s because he isn’t moving the story forward. He knows he can’t move it forward. All he has is a bag of tricks. And he’s repeating them too often.

George R.R. Martin’s final trick is to sell the lack of forward motion and consistent plotting as gritty and realistic. Peel away all the gritty medievalism and it’s as gritty and realistic as Days of Our Lives.

 

 

2. Martin is good at Character, Bad at Endings

Do you know what Martin’s early novels all had in common? Botched endings. If you’re waiting for A Song of Fire and Ice sequel that gives you what you want, don’t wait. Martin isn’t capable of it. He’s a good writer, but a bad novelist.

Think of Lost. The show was great at telling the stories of individual characters. It just couldn’t do anything with them in a story. The character sketches were compelling. The story went nowhere. The ending was a disaster.

After five novels, Daenerys is the only character with a meaningful arc whose story has been advanced. Tyrion has a meaningful arc but his only job is going in circles. The less said of the rest of the crew, the better.

In Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, Martin builds the equivalent of Lost’s early seasons. But once that’s done, like the show, he has nowhere to go. He’s bad at plot and he doesn’t care about it. Like the Lost writers, he just wants to play with character sketches. He doesn’t want to do anything more with them.

Like Lost, Martin randomly kills off characters. He brings in new compelling characters. But the real goal is a status quo in which the setting continues and nothing gets resolved.

Lost wasn’t a mystery about a secret island. Viewers just thought that. It was a way of letting the writers play with a bunch of characters. A Song of Fire and Ice is about letting Martin play with characters. It’s not about big battles or figuring out the mystery of what lies beyond the wall or how the dead can walk again. Readers just think it is.

They’ve been wrong all along.

 

 

3. George R.R. Martin isn’t Tolkien

The Game of Thrones novels are promoted by claiming that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien. There are writers who might deserve that honor, probably Robert E. Howard, but Martin isn’t one of them.

There’s very little original worldbuilding in Game of Thrones. Most readers never realize that because the books are told intensely through first person immersion that create a sense of unearned reality. The world seems like it exists, even though it’s very thinly sketched.

Also most of them have never read Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. The similarities are so heavy that if Williams had the guts he could put “The Series that Inspired Game of Thrones” on the reprints and dare Martin to do anything about it. And while Williams isn’t as good at the characters or the intrigue, his world is more realized than Martin’s poor copy of it.

The pseudo-medieval European religion and history are far more realized in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Martin just tosses them out there inconsistently. He doesn’t create a compelling fantasy universe the way that Williams does. George R.R. Martin creates compelling characters. That’s a lot, but it’s not great fantasy.

Martin’s early novels and stories did do some compelling worldbuilding with the Manrealm. It could have been one of Science Fiction’s great universes. But Martin dropped it and did a lot of television. And television is the only thing he can do.

The HBO series Game of Thrones bastardized Martin’s novels, but before it did that, Martin bastardized other people’s work to create A Song of Fire and Ice.

 

 

4. Martin is a good writer, but he never learned to write novels

George R.R. Martin has written some amazing short stories and novellas, but he never learned to write novels. Instead he gave up and went into television. He still doesn’t know how to write a novel.

A Song of Fire and Ice is popular because he used television writing gimmicks to disguise that fact. But the novels stretch on indefinitely because it’s all gimmicks and filler.

Martin can’t end the series because he’s never successfully ended a novel before. Each new novel in the Fire and Ice series just drags on even more. By Dance with Dragons, Martin wasn’t even bothering to pretend that he was ending a novel. And he didn’t. It’s just a chapter in a serial. And the serial can go on forever if the audience doesn’t notice that it’s going nowhere.

Kill a character. Bring him back to life. Up. Down. It’s all an attempt to avoid another failed ending.

If Martin really wants to do right by his audience, he needs to take a break from the universe, which he’s been doing anyway, and write a separate unrelated novel, and not one of the Cards universe collections, plot it out and end it successfully. Then he can take what he learned and apply it to the series.

Not that he will. The HBO cash and all the associated merchandising money keeps flowing in. Martin has become ridiculously famous. He can keep cashing in without delivering. By the time the HBO series ends, he can copy whatever it did with the elements he laid out or he can drag it out for another ten years.

But whatever he does, A Song of Fire and Ice will be mostly forgotten in a generation. The novels are not going to stick around because Martin can’t deliver and soap operas have limited rereadability.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if Martin, like David Gerrold, never releases a final chapter, but just basks in the fame until it goes away.

 

Ron Moore is Down to Doing Romance Novels

Caprica failed, Precinct 17 didn’t get picked up and SyFy decided it wasn’t in the science fiction business anymore, so Blood and Chrome clashed with its new image of ordering crappy imitation reality shows that other networks did first. So what is supergenius Ron Moore doing now? A cable adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander historical romance novels.

How bad is this crap? I’ll give you the last sentence from the descrip. “Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire… and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.”

Viewers with above room temperature IQ’s will be irreconcilably torn between not watching this and moving to a country that doesn’t have television.

Not that we’re in any real danger of seeing this make it to television. Ron Moore doesn’t have a great track record with developing novels into cable shows. He was on Dragonriders of Perth and that never happened. But if it had, I picture a bunch of angry dragonriders wearing suits and driving humvees while screaming non-stop at each other about religion before committing suicide… just like Battlestar Galactica.

Sony decided that it wants to get a chunk of that sweet Game of Thrones action and Outlander probably isn’t the only trashy book series that can be loosely called fantasy being adapted for television. In an environment where Fifty Shades of Grey is being turned into a movie, there’s no real shame in it. But by the time Outlander goes through the process, the heat on Game of Thrones will have cooled and no one will be that interested in an expensive television series about “a gallant and passionate young Scots warrior” or “a passionate love so absolute” except maybe the Hallmark Channel.

But the true passionate love story is the forbidden love of fanboys for Ron Moore’s pseudo-intellectual “makes Lost look like a model of plotting and storytelling” crap.

Longmire Pilot review

Longmire is the kind of TV show that television used to be full of. The eponymous protagonist with a tough past and a ready quip, talking to people, unraveling a mystery and then riding off into the sunset. It’s a type of television that is almost as endangered as the Western and Longmire is both.

Longmire will be compared to Justified, but it doesn’t have much in common with Justified’s hipster frontier. It’s not knowing or self-aware. It isn’t aimed at viewers who want a postmodern soap opera, a True Blood, Game of Thrones, Sopranos or Justified, that is far enough away from Days of Our Lives to make them feel clever for watching it. It’s just a good old-fashioned sheriff  cop show. And it’s a good 40 minutes of television that reminds you that the old stuff works.

The cast isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to it. The West fills out the landscape against which every great detective show takes place, whether it’s New York City or Hawaii or Singapore. And the stories take, what is obviously a series of mystery novels, and condense them into something that plays on TV for 40 minutes or less.

There’s Sheriff Longmire, the beleaguered lawman mourning his wife and fighting off a younger rival. Solving crimes by noticing things, instead of by calling in lab techs. There’s Katee Sackhoff’s tolerable Vic, as a homicide detective not working in a small country, who fills out the usual sidekick role. But mostly there’s a wide frontier full of cowboy chic from Indian pollongmire posterice to mounted elk heads, old wood and antique guns.

The pilot isn’t anything you haven’t seen hundreds of variations on. The mysterious murder victim whose life unrolls the secrets that led to his death. A young girl forced into prostitution. A setup and a gunfight. It’s everything you’ve seen in Hawaii 5-0, Vega$, The Fall Guy, McCloud and a hundred other TV shows. But it’s rendered clean and fresh. It’s not original and it doesn’t quite feel new, but it feels open in a way that most television doesn’t anymore.

Longmire isn’t great television, but it’s good television. I don’t give good odds for its survival, because like Terriers, the authentic detective show doesn’t play on cable television anymore. A detective can be neurotic and weird, because cable is supposed to showcase screwed up people, but the story has to be there just as a soapy arc to showcase more weird allies and villains. It can’t be something as clean and succinct as Longmire.

And yet Longmire is the perfect antidote to the CSI’s, Law and Orders and NCIS’s that took over free television and the hipster soaps that are one shade away from fifty shades of grey. It’s television as it used to be and it still has appeal. That’s why Tom Selleck’s bland take on Jesse Stone has been a surprising success for CBS. USA has managed to make the occasional detective show work. FX blew it with Terriers. Maybe A&E can hit a home run with Longmire.

Merchandising the Hell out of Game of Thrones

You can’t blame a writer for trying to make money from his creation. You can blame him for an extended narrative relying on gimmicks and you can also blame him for looking at Farmville and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we made something like that except with Game of Thrones.”

Yes sadly that’s a thing. And it comes from George R.R. Martin’s blog, alongside pitches for the actual Iron Throne, swords and figurines from the TV series.

I don’t know much about social media. I don’t have a facebook or twitter account. But I’ve been told a few people have them, and that some of those people like to play social media games. I’m told the biggest social media game involves running a farm.

Surely, I thought, there must be something one could do on social media that would be more fun that growing turnips and feeding chickens. Like, say, scheming and plotting, murders and marriages, contesting for power.

HBO shared the feeling, and together we have granted the license for a social media game based on GAME OF THRONES to a great new start-up company called Disruptor Beam ((http://disruptorbeam.com/ )) Game development is already well under way.

I’m not a major expert on Zynga country, but I’m sure they already have a ton of games that cover that territory. Just not one with the Game of Thrones brand.

The news stories on Disruptor’s site keep pushing the “It’s not Farmville” angle so my guess is that Disruptor’s PR people handed

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Tacky merchandising is coming

Martin that angle and told him to go with it. Disruptor Beam lists no previous games so I’m assuming a few veterans of other social gaming companies who came together to make their own company, hire some newbies, get a lucrative license, put out a game that gets some attention entirely because it’s based on a TV series that gets some attention mainly because it’s on HBO which has a smooth PR machine.

But isn’t this overkill?

Martin’s blog is full of a ton of merchandising Game of Thrones crap. There’s already a game out.  There’s also reportedly going to be an MMO. Now there’s a social media game out. There’s a TV series and a graphic novel. All for a series of books that isn’t close to finished.

At this rate most people will be sick of Game of Thrones long before it’s finished. It’s not just oversaturated, it’s supersaturated. It’s everywhere and it’s really not that good. But even if it were that good, nothing survives this much stuff being associated with it. Even Lord of the Rings lost some of its stature because for a while you couldn’t turn left without seeing another figurine or game. And that’s a time tested series.

If you think this isn’t overkill, have a look at the HBO Game of Thrones store for things like a concert tour shirt with the names of Season 2 episodes, an iPhone skin that just says Khal on it, and an actual crown. This is the definition of pump and dump. Saturate a topic, sell as much of it as you can, until everyone is sick of it.

Oversaturating Game of Thrones serves HBO’s interests. They want to pull as much money out of it as possible, out of the gate, and move on to the next thing. Saturating Game of Thrones keeps it a trending topic and pulls in viewers to subscribe to HBO which is the game plan. When people get bored, HBO will have already rolled out the next thing.

But is it in Martin’s interest? George R.R. Martin wasn’t a major personality before this. He was a talented writer, but now he’s gone pop culture. It’s a big opportunity and cashing in on it is natural, but he needs to think of his long term interests which don’t just revolve around selling as many Game of Thrones trinkets as possible. It’s in how people see Game of Thrones after HBO has pumped it and dumped it and his image as a writer who can do more than Game of Thrones, not as the bearded guy on the Game of Thrones shopping network.

Memes, catchphrases, trends wear out quickly. The more you oversaturate it, the faster it wears out. Game of Thrones will wear out before the last book is done. The backlash will come even earlier. And what happens then?

Game of Thrones Wrap Up

I hated the first episode of Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch any of the rest of the season, and then finally tuned in to the finale. And my take.

It’s not quite as bad, but most of the badness is still there. The Daenerys storyline has been completely blown. Some of the blame goes to the actress who can’t do emotional depth. Most of it goes to a production that put its priority on making her older and more naked. The same mix can be seen throughout Game of Thrones. Good actors side by side with bad ones. Strong scenes side by side with scenes that exist to show off gratuitous nudity. The objectification factor is off the charts.

Fast forward through everything with Tyrion and Daenerys, and you get passable fantasy. Sometimes. Game of Thrones amps up the camp factor deliberately. Watching it is still like watching two shows. One with Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Michelle Fairley, Iain Glen and Maisie Williams. And one with Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Jason Momoa and Jack Gleeson. But some of these people actually have scenes with each other. It’s as if the Adam West Batman and the Nolan Batman were crossbred into a single production.

But the producers, writers, directors are all to blame for this mess too. Why is the Daenerys reveal at the end handled so clumsily. And why does her accomplishment in gaining their allegiance hardly register. The wallpaper nudity now is ridiculous. We have naked women in scenes where they have almost no dialogue. Their only job is to be naked so the viewer doesn’t get too bored by the dialogue. At least that seems to be the idea.

Game of Thrones isn’t a good show, but it’s an HBO show. And it’s successful. What else is there to really say about it?

The Thin Line Between Critic and Fanboy

It’s reviews like Ginia Bellafante’s screed in the New York Times against Game of Thrones that remind you of just how small a gap there is now between the professional critic and the fanboy. Ginia Bellafante’s only underlying point is that she doesn’t like fantasy and science fiction. Instead of just letting someone else do the review, she dresses up that dislike in gender typing that sounds like it came from a Charlie Brown panel (science fiction and fantasy is for boys only) and social relevance (period dramas in the 1960’s can examine social structures, but not fantasy ones).

The tone is everything you expect from a fanboy screed, irrationally dismissive, even contemptuous and a poorly disguised argument for personal preference mocked up as a review. And it is billed as a review.

But even though it says review on top, Ginia Bellafante doesn’t even pretend to review it. It’s an Armond White review, with Ginia Bellafante citing all the things she likes better than it and using appeals to gender roles and social relevance to buttress her argument, which turns out to have nothing to do with Game of Thrones. The closest she comes to mentioning something specific about the show is its development of a language, but only to peg that as her closing put down.

The single worst moment in it all must be

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.

And if Ginia Bellafante hasn’t met women who read fantasy novels, they must not exist… or they must not matter. Because she never met them.

Game of Thrones is True Blood in Medieval Drag

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If you want to see a glimpse of George R.R. Martin’s complex and epic fantasy series, it’s nowhere to be found in HBO’s Game of Thrones. But if you want to catch True Blood in medieval drag, it’s there and you’re welcome to it. But where True Blood’s campy soap may be a fair tribute to the original, Game of Thrones isn’t. Instead it maximizes the trashiest elements and wallows in them putting something that’s closer to Guccione’s Caligula than a quality production.

Watching the first 15 minutes that HBO put online, it’s easy to feel good about Game of Thrones. But that 15 minutes gives you about as much of the world building and the fantasy background as you’re going to get. It also gives you some of the better acting in the first episode. From there on in, it gets worse. Much worse.

No one involved with Game of Thrones seems to care much about establishing a plausible world, but they care even less about character background. And that quickly boils Martin’s complex intuitive tales about human vulnerability into a stream of bedhopping instead. Take the scene where Daenerys is told by her brother (one of the worst actors on the series) about her fate. What is a story about an abused young girl who is the heir to a lost kingdom on the page, loses all its context on screen for nothing more than a prolonged nude scene. When Daenerys says that she too wants to go home, the viewer assumes that she shares her brother’s motivation, but the reader knows that she only wants the small house where she lived for a while as refugees. The red door that was a symbol of her childhood is gone, and the 13 year old girl is aged enough that HBO can decontextualize what’s going on for a prolonged nude scene.

The rest of the first episode isn’t as bad, but it’s up there. Sean Bean is the name actor and the central redeeming factor. When he’s on screen the story has weight, but it doesn’t keep that weight for long when he’s off screen. The production tries to invest the northern life of the Stark clan with some authenticity, but it eagerly slips out to the bedhopping royals that it’s sure the audience really wants.

For an HBO series, the bad acting is surprisingly commonplace. But it’s not because so many of the actors are bad, but because the material isn’t being taken seriously. It’s True Blood in medieval drag, and too many of the actors treat it that way. There’s little suspense and unsubtle foreshadowing. The networks may be canceling the soaps, but HBO and Showtime are investing in a new kind of soap.

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