Now that HBO has released a new teaser, a behind-the-scenes video and a “making of” subsite for A Game of Thrones, and since I had my copy of AGOT autographed by George R R Martin today, this seems an opportune time to ask: is A Song of Ice and Fire really as grim as it’s made out to be?
I know — this seems like a crazy question at first blush. ASOIAF is one of the defining series of modern, gritty low fantasy. Its signature shtick is that characters who would have escaped the consequences of their own stupidity in any other work, by virtue of protagonist plot armour, here pay the price. GRRM has gone on record as saying that he set out to avoid the “roller coaster” feel of novels that create the illusion that their characters are in danger, but where you know the heroes will ultimately be all right.
But stopping there would overlook one vital point. In the novels, trying to do the right thing can get you killed – but when a characters does choose to take a stand, it is held up and celebrated all the same. Characters do change for the better. Life in Westeros is filled with tears – but also moments of joy and triumph. And GRRM has declared his goal of a bittersweet ending, not a horrific one. Compare this with, say, Richard K Morgan’s rage against the world, or Joe Abercrombie’s unrelentingly cynical view of human nature. Who is the bleaker?
I’ve seen the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1, and so far, I quite like it. The pilot episode was as close as we’ll ever come to a TV adaptation of UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense, and although the following filler episodes were a big step down in quality, the series eventually regained its stride. It’s moved past Pre-Industrial Society / Monster / Mysterious Alien Plague Of The Week and now, it seems to be striving for epic space opera. That it does well, and intelligently.
The secret, I think, is how many things – some little, some large – make the world feel believable. The show avoids familiar howlers such as the “Always Chaotic Evil” alien species (admittedly, it is guilty of a few of its own). The characters are generally pretty intelligent when it comes to solving problems – and sometimes, this backfires, when they do something that makes in-character sense but turns out to be wrong, because they don’t know the full story.
And most importantly, the show has a sense of continuity, most obvious in its overarching story arc. But it operates in so many smaller, yet vital, ways as well. Real people remember what happened to them a week ago, or two, or three, or ten. They gripe if it was bad, crow if it was good. So do the characters of SG-1. Real people remember how they previously solved problems, and make preparations if they think they’ll encounter the same issue again later. So do the characters of SG-1. When the show needs minor characters – an ally has come with vital information; the heroes are saved because “the enemy of their enemy” has provided a distraction; a red-shirt to accompany the heroes – it draws on the world it’s already established instead of creating a wholly new disposable character.
And yet, it only takes this so far. Earth itself is locked in stasis; SG-1 never recovers any artifacts that would dramatically shake things up; alien technology never leaks out into the wider world; society remains unchanged. For all I know, this was intentional and the creators weren’t interested in telling a story about how contact with alien societies/advances/species, even in a gradual trickle, might change the modern world. But it disappoints me all the same.
Cyclic history – and specifically, the notion that empires will inevitably rise to galaxy-spanning heights, then decline not to mediocrity or middling-power status but to utter oblivion – is deeply embedded in the DNA of science fiction. Asimov did it in the Foundation series, of course, but you see it everywhere in space opera: the backstory of Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, Poul Anderson’s Flandry series, any number of David Weber novels, the Traveller tabletop RPG, the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy (http://www.rocketpunk-observatory.com/spaceguideF-L.htm)…
Yet, to the best of my knowledge, it has nothing like the same prominence in fantasy. Why’s that?
Bridge of Birds
This is a fabulous novel, a plot-coupon quest fantasy done right. It takes place in ancient pseudo-China, where the protagonist must go for help after the children of his village mysteriously fall ill. Help arrives in the form of the sage Li Kao, brilliant but “with a slight flaw in his character” (read: he’s a born con man who once sold an emperor shares in a mustard mine to win a bet). Together, the two make their way across the land in search of a cure, lying, cheating, and stealing (all in a good cause), escaping from the clutches of evil warlords, and eventually, uncovering a thousand-year-old evil.
Continue reading “Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds”
The year is 1961, and the Cold War is at its peak. Andrew Hale ekes out a modest living as an academic in England, but a call from an old acquaintance triggers his abandonment of middle-aged obscurity, and his reentry into a world he abandoned when he was a young man, fresh from WW2 and the start of the Cold War: a world of dimly remembered spycraft, old lovers, and above all, a mission left incomplete…
Continue reading “A book review from my archives: Declare”