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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.

 

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

game of thrones merchandising crap

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?

George R.R. Martin Sandkings story collection book review

There’s no denying George R.R. Martin’s abilities to create a fictional and mythological world quickly and easily, he does it time and time again throughout these stories. But there is also an undeniable grimness and sense of futility that pervades these worlds. From the first story, The Way of Cross and Dragon in which an Inquisitioner serving an interstellar Catholic Church of the distant future who believes in Truth above all else discovers himself to be a liar , to the last eponymous and most famous of the stories, a Hugo winner badly botched by the revived Outer Limits, Sandkings, which can be seen as A Portrait of Dorian Gray with carnivorous alien lifeforms, human effort is usually destructive and at best a meaningless blink in the vastness of eternity.

In the House of the Worm takes a look at a Time Machine like future in which the sun is a dim cinder, the surface of the Earth is uninhabitable and humanity is divided between the last remnants who hold lavish grotesque balls and have faith in the inevitability of decay, and the Grouns, altered versions of men who have come up from the deeper bunkers. As the story unfolds, the decadent nobleman who stumbles into the dark discovers their nature, the error of his own people’s belief system, a new source of technology, and the lairs of the Changemasters who genetically engineered great White Worms who are working their own way up through the bunkers. However when he returns home, his stories are nothing more than a diversion that no one believes and he barely survives execution.

This is typical enough of George R.R. Martin’s stories in Sandkings. Action and adventure may occur, but they will always give way to futility. Fast-Friend, the weakest of the stories in the collection, involves a main character whose use of a genetically engineered miniature woman “angel” with the mind of a child for sex, places him in a borderline evil category, schemes to capture the woman he once loved before she became a Fast Friend, an interstellar being capable of traveling across star systems, with his ship, before deciding to let her go. And that too is another reminder that women rarely come off too well in these stories.

Story after story offers nothing but a grim look at humans and highlight the futility of human activity. From the start of the collection to the final end when Simon Kress is being dragged into the home of the orange Sandking maw by its spawn who wear his face and reflect his evil nature, the stories in Sandkings have nothing even faintly positive to offer, and their only peace is the peace of death.

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