“The Things” by Peter Watts

August 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments
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Niall Harrison is running another Short Story Club for the next few months at Torque Control. I participated in most of the discussions in the first one, so I was happy to see it return. Unfortunately I am usually the bad cop when it comes to short stories. In most cases I feel like sub-novel lengths are too short for interesting characters, world-building, or plot, which means for me short stories live and die by ideas. Most online stories are ten thousand words or less, which is barely enough even for ideas. At any rate, although science fiction is supposedly the literature of ideas and probably has more prominent short stories than any other genre, the fact is delivering a genuinely interesting idea is hard. Ted Chiang does it reliably, but so far I haven’t seen anyone else do nearly so well. The situation for fantasy stories is even worse given the emphasis on world-building, but Kelly Link has opened my eyes to its possibilities in the short format. In any case, even though last year I didn’t like most of the stories, I enjoyed discussing them.


First up is Peter Watts’ “The Things”, published by Clarkesworld. This is a pretty strong story, considering it is less than seven thousand words long. I haven’t seen The Thing (though I’m familiar enough with it to catch the basic reference unaided) but for people who have, the story is able to build off a bigger foundation than its mere length. It’s very well-written, but in the end it amounts to an exercise in “from the point of view of a creepy alien, humans are the creepy aliens!” This is a pretty well-trodden path in science fiction. Watts gets points for not taking the easy way out and humanizing his alien narrator. He builds a fairly convincing set of genuinely alien values for the narrator to pursue.

Typically for a short story, though, some intriguing questions are raised but are then abandoned. In what ways are humans similar to cancer? If one grants that a hive mind is desirable, what are the ethics of assimilation? Most people instinctively reject the premises of these, so it would be interesting to see them examined more closely by someone as clever as Watts, but that’s not in the cards here. The narrator mentions these things but spends most of its time piecing together shocking truths of human anatomy that are, well, not very shocking to most readers.

What redeems the story, mostly, from my usual complaints is the last line, which I won’t spoil here. It’s at once a little funny, a little offensive, and a little thought provoking (your mileage may vary on the exact proportions here). One of the comments at Clarkesworld calls it inappropriate and unearned, a criticism Watts then responds to directly. I agree with Watts that it is earned, but I’m not really sure it’s appropriate (I would argue what we’re dealing with here is a lot closer to murder). Still, I like stories that end with a bang, not to mention stories that are thought-provoking, so I was left feeling pretty positive about the whole thing.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

August 26, 2010 at 12:47 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments
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Under Heaven coverIt’s rare that I can say I’ve read every novel an author has published, at least when the author in question has published more than a handful of books. The way I count such things (counting a continuous trilogy as one), Guy Gavriel Kay has published eight and I have read all of them. If you’re not familiar with his career, he debuted with a Tolkien-clone high fantasy trilogy, The Finovar Tapestry and recently wrote a contemporary fantasy with a teenage protagonist, Ysabel. However, he is primarily known for the relatively unique approach he takes in the rest of his work, which I suppose can be summed up as “historical fantasy”. His first novel in this form, Tigana, was content to merely evoke Renaissance Italy while remaining an independent setting and story, but the rest of his books stay very close to history in both setting and events, changing names but never leaving any doubt as to their real analogues. In Under Heaven, the Ninth Dynasty emperor Taizu rules Kitai but the reader is expected to know this is really the Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong ruling China. I don’t mean that a knowledge of Chinese history is required to enjoy Under Heaven (if anything the opposite is true), merely that there is no artifice here. Kay is writing about China in the Tang Dynasty but by changing the names he is declaring independence from history.

The reason he does this may not be what you expect. When asked why Cryptonomicon refers to “Finux” instead of “Linux”, Neal Stephenson said that if he used the real name Linux experts would jump all over any inaccuracies in the book, no matter how slight. Kay, in contrast, does this because for all his research into the details of day to day life he is interested in explicitly romanticized history, not history as it happened. I’m sure this is not an entirely unique strategy for approaching history, but it’s refreshingly different from our culture’s obsession with demystification. There’s no doubt that the real El Cid was nothing like his analogue in The Lions of Al-Rassan, but Kay’s version is an attempt at exploring what El Cid ought to have been like. At its best, this technique lets Kay turn his considerable talents towards immersing the modern reader in the past and helping them understand why people with different ideals acted the way they did. It doesn’t always work, however, because in making the main characters sympathetic Kay has often resorted to giving them what are, in my view, implausibly modern attitudes. Since Kay doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to how people in the past treated women, the poor, etc. his enlightened protagonists have often struck me as being very out of place. I’m sure there were people in past eras who were ahead of their time in these attitudes, but I need to be sold on why these extraordinary individuals thought so differently from the vast majority.

In this respect, Under Heaven is a refinement and improvement on Kay’s past work. The primary protagonist, Shen Tai, is humane and sympathetic but never struck me as a man from another time. He has unusual attitudes, but there is ample justification for these in his backstory and the book’s other characters frequently note this as well. The other viewpoint characters are not developed to the same degree but seemed convincing as products of their society. Additionally, I actually think Kay does something impressive with Shen Tai beyond simply doing a good job making a sympathetic yet realistic character. There’s a common conceit in martial arts stories (and although Under Heaven is mostly a story about characters and societies it isn’t above indulging in a martial arts scene now and then) that the most important attribute of a character is his or her strength of will, and that extraordinarily good and extraordinarily evil people are therefore especially formidable in combat. Kay’s Shen Tai is a character who becomes a formidable man in his society because he is extraordinarily good, and Kay finds a way to make this happen without resorting to cliches. Of the novel’s characters, Shen Tai is not the smartest, most attractive, or the best fighter. However, he is probably the best person of all of them, and Kay shows how this makes him powerful. Not because his inner virtue results in being able to punch harder, but because other people can’t help but respond to his words and actions. And all this is done without making Shen Tai a patronizing saint. Instead he’s just a thoughtful man, better traveled than most, whose experiences have given him a different perspective than his peers.

It’s possible that Kay was a little too successful with Shen Tai as a character. Whenever the novel was centered on him, his problems, and his difficult choices, I was captivated. But the novel covers two other storylines in detail. In one, Shen Tai’s sister Li-Mei has adventures on the borders of Kitai and beyond. Unfortunately, though no fault of her own, Shen Li-Mei is an almost entirely passive character who is carted around, sometimes literally, by various people throughout the whole book without ever having any control over her own destiny. Her story gives Kay a chance to lead the reader through the lands beyond Kitai and some other events and locations the main story would otherwise miss, but it never feels integrated with the main narrative.

The other story the novel tells is that of the rivalry between the two most powerful officials in the emperor’s court. Unlike Shen Li-Mei’s adventures, this is completely intertwined with Shen Tai’s situation, to the point that it is not immediately obvious this is a different story at all. But in the end, it is this story that dominates that final quarter of the novel. I was not sufficiently versed in Chinese history to know ahead of time, but it turns out than while Shen Tai is invented out of whole cloth, the two feuding ministers and their complicated relationship with the emperor and his favored consort is taken directly from the historical record. Shen Tai is powerful and influential, but he is no match for the emperor and his court, and ultimately he spends the last part of the novel almost as much a spectator as the reader.

This unsatisfying conclusion was a deliberate choice by Kay, who is fascinated, almost obsessed, with the way people’s lives are tossed and turned in the tides of history. This has always been present in his fiction, but where it was just a minor theme in Tigana (and part of one of my all-time favorite closing scenes) over the years Kay has emphasized this more and more in his work. When reading Last Light of the Sun I thought Kay’s willingness to periodically stop telling the story and instead rhapsodize in the first person plural on how a small event can change “our” lives was bizarre and annoying. In Under Heaven even more time is spent on asides about chance, fate, and history, but I actually didn’t find it nearly as jarring. In part I might have simply been expecting it, but I think mainly it is just a better fit here thanks to Shen Tai being such an introspective main character.

Still, the fact remains that Kay is ultimately less interested in just telling an interesting story with a Tang Dynasty setting and more interested in dramatizing a specific historical event and using that to show how the choices of a few powerful people can change the course of millions of lives. I think Under Heaven was completely successful at what Kay set out to do, but it wasn’t quite the novel I was hoping to read. That’s not to say it isn’t a very good novel. I still think that The Lions of Al-Rassan is Kay’s best work, but I liked this more than any of his other post-Lions novels, a welcome return to form after lesser works like The Sarantine Mosaic and Last Light of the Sun.

A Song of Ice and Fire: Further Thoughts

August 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in Essays | 37 Comments
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Recently Charlie Jane Anders on io9 linked to my thoughts about the first four books in A Song of Ice and Fire, pairing them with a Martin fan’s discussion of Martin’s writing issues. There’s been a pretty vigorous discussion there as well some interesting comments here, and since I don’t have time to reply to everything individually I thought I’d make a follow up post here. Before I get into the objections some people have raised, I want to make sure a few things are clear.

Unlike some I’m not criticizing Martin for the series’ delays. Writing fiction is hard enough and writing series fiction may be the hardest kind because no one lives long enough to get a lot of experience at doing it. JRR Tolkien, to take just one example, had enormous difficulties writing Lord of the Rings and spent fifteen years in a failed effort to finish the Silmarillion. I wouldn’t dream of second guessing him, or Martin either. By the same token I also am not criticizing his many fans. Unfortunately it didn’t quite come together for me and my post was an attempt at thinking about why that was. I think that with a tighter plot this series would be even more popular, but who knows? Finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t have any more access to Martin’s mind than anyone else. Maybe less…my guesses about the origins of his work are based almost entirely on the text itself and his Wikipedia article, although over the years I’ve read the odd interview and some (but not nearly all) of his blog.

One more note: I stuck to fairly general observations in my previous article but this time there will be more spoilers, so if you haven’t read these books, you should probably go do that first. While I’m obviously not crazy about the series, there’s an excellent chance you’ll love them and in any case you can do far, far worse when it comes to fantasy.

Now, finally, let’s talk more about some of the responses people had to what I wrote.

An air of realism was the intended effect of the plot structure – I’m definitely willing to say I may have not given him enough credit here. I reasoned that since the standard elements of fantasy were present, just relegated to being second-class citizens to the realistic political story, that he wasn’t intentionally going for realism. But a few people have said he wanted to meld the two together and that could well be right. If so, I don’t think it was very successful. I think the problem is that the fantasy elements are relegated to the geographic sidelines. Almost all of the story (my guess was 85% but I think the io9 piece gave it more credit than a completely wild guess deserved) is set in Westeros, but the fantasy is where Daenerys and Jon Snow are, outside the borders.

The later books are going to tie all this together. – Some will object (have already objected actually) that I’m jumping the gun here. And I totally agree that all this is going to come to a head within the borders of Westeros before the end. But I don’t think it’s correct to say a series that, when complete, will probably be well over two million words can be structured the same way as an eighty thousand word novel, and more than a short story should have the same pacing as a novel. There are limits to the amount of material a reader can internalize. Fans who have reread the extant series ten times can probably speak comfortably about every narrative thread, but for the vast majority the disproportionate detail of the Westeros material is an obstacle to appreciating Martin’s project.

It’s wrong to write off the politics as “window dressing” because all of this will become important in later books. – Well, I disagree. Yes, a unified Westeros seems like it would be able to fend off the evil from the North as well as defeat Daenerys on the beaches when she arrives. But after reading the four books, is it anyone’s impression that but for some small chance this would have happened? The impression I got was that there were absolutely massive fault lines under the surface of King Robert’s nation that would inevitably rip it apart once it was put under the slightest stress. And once apart, all the King’s men are patently unable to put it back together. If Sansa hadn’t told Cersei about Ned Stark’s plans, perhaps Stark would have gotten an advantage for a short time, but would Tywin Lannister have given up his ambitions for his family? I think not. That’s just one example, but for me the takeaway was that Westeros is hopeless without some foreign overlord like the Targaryens to impose order.

But if efforts to staunch the bleeding in Westeros are futile, then why are we subjected to such endless detail of people trying? If a point is being made about power and ambition, why do we need the explicit fantasy sections at all? Why cloud the picture with the evil and the princess when you’re actually talking about mundane human government? And if the point is that in the face of these existential threats the government still cannot function, well, this would be more persuasive if more time was devoted to the existential threats. I think before the fourth book there were, what, ten or twenty people in Westeros who know anything about Daenerys? And if most of the Night’s Watch doesn’t believe they are facing a supernatural evil, or even remember how to fight it, it seems unreasonable to expect the rest of the country to take it more seriously.

Robb and Ned Stark are definitely main characters – Oh, I agree they are absolutely main characters of A Game of Thrones. I just don’t think they are main characters in A Song of Ice and Fire since, as I discussed above, no matter what they did they were going to be ground up in the mill of Westeros before the Ice and Fire parts of the story actually get moving. This is the heart of my concerns. The series is called A Song of Ice and Fire and most would agree that’s a reference to Daenerys and Jon Snow’s stories, but the individual books spend all of their time on Westeros politics. Notice that despite the series title, the titles of the books that have been released (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows) all refer to events in Westeros. The unreleased book titles (A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring) all seem to be referring to the fantasy side of the story.

(Incidentally, apparently Daniel Abraham is a good friend of Martin’s…if so it’s humorous that he swooped in and got to the season-based titles with his Long Price Quartet after Martin had announced the last two book titles but before either were written.)

The story is really about the Stark children – My guess is the story is about Daenerys and Jon Snow (and that Snow is not, in fact, a Stark child) but I could be wrong about that. However if it’s true that Sansa, Arya, and Bran are more central than they appear (without a doubt they’ll ultimately have a significant role, the question is how central they’ll be) then I have a different complaint: why have the main characters been stuck being passive for such an excruciatingly long time? Robb was hugely active but was killed off for his trouble. Sansa, Arya, and Bran have changed due to their experiences, but have spent most of their viewpoint scenes being carted around by other people (and are totally absent from all other viewpoints). It’s nice that Sansa isn’t quite such an idiot any more and Bran has gone about two feet down a two mile spirit journey, but if this is so important why haven’t they been given more to do? Arya does get a lot of screen time in Feast for Crows but unfortunately it was mostly spent on what seems like it’s going to be end up being ninja training, probably the most generic part of the entire series. If the series’ realistic tone is such an asset (and I do agree that, while I’d like more structure, it’s an asset) is it helpful to turn a main character into a ninja? I’m all for strong female characters but I’m anti-ninja (male and female alike) in fiction which aspires to even a passing relationship with reality. Oh well.

This gets back to what, if anything, is “window dressing” in the series. It matters that Robb Stark was killed, in that he won’t be around later, and it matters that Arya has been forced to kill people and become a ninja. But given the number of pieces likely to be left on the board when we start approaching the final act (i.e. way, way less than the number of dead characters) was all the endless detail necessary for the story that was told? I think the answer is no. I know the fans liked that detail, and I certainly liked some of it as well. But surely most people would agree that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. We all draw the line at a different point. Maybe some fans could spend a hundred books of this size on Westeros politics and the characters caught up in it. I felt like my point was somewhere in Feast for Crows. Other people (including the io9 writer I think) didn’t make it that far.

Martin wasn’t “distracted” by the political side of the series, he was focused on it from the beginning – Apparently he’s talked about how he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, he grew up fascinated by knights, and so forth. I’ll cop to being flippant when I said he got distracted by the politics. Whether or not he intended it from the beginning, certainly neither Martin nor his editor could fail to see it was the focus of Game of Thrones once there was an actual draft. But looking at the first four books together (since that’s how I read them) I still say that it is trying to be a fantasy story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that the fantasy structure has been distorted by the narrative emphasis given to the unstructured politics. Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to give up on an orderly plot…I’d point to The Wire as the best recent example of a story that feels real despite keeping tight control over the plot at all times. I think, and I emphasize it’s my opinion, that the series would have worked better with me and probably a lot of other readers if it was written both with a better sense of narrative direction and momentum.

When I was in high school English class we got in groups of about eight and each group performed a Shakespeare play for the rest of the class. For time reasons, we had to abridge the plays, and if I recall part of the grade was based on how well we boiled the play down to its essentials. It felt like sacrilege (and I had the misfortune to be given the role of Macbeth…it turns out that when you boil down Macbeth the best way is to cut out everyone else’s lines and Macbeth just talks to himself and mostly silent people around him for the whole play). I don’t think anyone would ever come away thinking our butchered versions were even close to as good as the original texts. I think it’s a rule of thumb in writing circles that less is more. Less fluff, that is. The most effective stories are lean stories. I couldn’t tell you how true that is but if you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire you can now decide for yourself. Are there scenes that can be removed without damaging the story? No doubt you’ll consider some of these scenes too good to cut. But remember other people are going to want to cut the scenes you liked and keep the ones you didn’t. I think this is why writers are told to “kill their darlings” and cut everything that isn’t needed regardless of how neat it might be. If that was done to A Song of Ice and Fire what would it look like?

We’ll find out one answer when the HBO series airs. I certainly don’t know the right answer. This question is hard, and having to answer it is yet another reason why writing is hard. Fortunately for us, backseat driving on the Internet is a lot easier.

A Song of Ice and Fire 1 – 4 by George R R Martin

August 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 60 Comments
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Game of ThronesTo say I’ve arrived late to the George R R Martin party would be an understatement. At their height, I think it’s fair to say these books were as popular as it’s possible to be without crossing out of the genre audience like Harry Potter or (eventually) Ender’s Game did. Fourteen years after the first book, A Game of Thrones, and almost five years since the most recent volume A Feast for Crows was published these are still very popular books. This is really a two-for-one epic, in that by reading it you experience not only the epic storyline, but also participate (albeit as a bit player) in Martin’s epic struggle to actually complete the series. The series is well over a million words in length already, but even more words have been written about it online, so I will dispense with both the plot summary and the recap of Martin’s authorial adventure and instead relate my experience coming to these books in 2010.

I’ll begin by answering the most obvious question: given that I obviously read a fair amount of fantasy, why haven’t I read these before? Some people who had read a lot of my reviews will know that I almost always wait until series are finished before starting them. Although this was prompted in part by lapsed series that never paid off (Chtorr for example), the main concern was time. Whenever a series tells a continuous story, I don’t feel like I’m getting the full effect of the later books unless the preceding stories are fresh on my mind. This led to me reading the first book in a series, then the first book again before the second, then the first two before the third, and so forth. For trilogies this was barely acceptable but as I only have a limited time for reading it becomes quite inefficient for longer series. So I swore off incomplete series right about the time that A Game of Thrones was soaring in popularity.

Clash of KingsBut I’m sure this only raises a further question: why read them now? There are again a couple reasons. The first came when HBO greenlit a TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones. I’m one of those people who goes out of their way to read a novel before its screen adaptation, and I was definitely interested in the HBO series, which struck me as at last the appropriate way to adapt a complicated novel: spending a whole season on it instead of cramming into a movie or even miniseries. Then there was the increasing chance that the series would never in any case be finished. It has grown in projected books faster than Martin has written them, and cruelly Martin himself ages at the same rate as the rest of us regardless of how quickly the series moves forward. Who knows whether he will live to finish it? Even if he does, while I’m considerably younger than Martin, nothing is certain in life and I might not make it that long either. Tolkien founded the modern fantasy genre with a trilogy he said was about death, so I guess it’s only fitting that series like this one and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time have themselves unwittingly become grim memento mori for authors and fans alike.

But the final straw was the feeling that I had already read A Song of Ice and Fire by reading other books. Just as Tolkien spawned countless imitators, Martin is widely credited with sparking a flood of hard-edged, cynical fantasy, and I’ve read my fair share of it. For instance, Wikipedia cites no less than four prominent authors as being heavily influenced and although I wouldn’t call myself extremely well-read I’ve already read all four (Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, and R Scott Bakker). I’ve also read Glen Cook, whose Black Company books are thought to have influenced Martin, and indeed this influence was probably the reason Cook has remained prominent enough for me to seek out his work. I even make comparisons to Martin’s work when reviewing fantasy on this site. Well, not his work itself, but to perceptions of it at least. This is starting to get ridiculous, I told myself. My first real contact with epic fantasy was reading Lord of the Rings, after all. Wasn’t I grateful that I hadn’t first waded through imitators like David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Tad Williams that, whatever their actual quality, fall short of Tolkien’s masterpiece?

A Storm of SwordsSo I started reading A Game of Thrones for the first time in the position of someone who had never read the series before but thought he had a pretty good idea what it was like. I knew nothing about the plot or characters for I had avoided all such details knowing I would eventually read the books, but from countless asides in conversations with friends and reviews of other books, I primarily associated two attributes with Martin’s work: First, an unromantic approach to fantasy that emphasized intrigue and realism over magic and elevated prose. Second, the implacable and ruthless slaughter of major characters. Beyond that, while I’d heard some criticisms of Martin’s prose and the decision to split the fourth book into A Feast for Crows and an as-yet unpublished fifth book, the overall extremely positive reception of the series made me expect an exciting, even addicting, set of books.

Having now finished the extant series, I can say that despite this apparently detailed foreknowledge, the series Martin wrote was quite a bit different than the one I had expected to read.

Let’s start with the gritty realism. It’s not Martin’s fault, but here my exposure to later writers has probably completely changed my reaction from what it would have been had I read the series as it came out. Plenty of authors have tried to imitate Tolkien’s archaic yet evocative style, yet no one has come close to equaling it. It was reasonable for me to suppose that Martin’s realistic style would work the same way. Reasonable, but wrong, and obviously so in hindsight. Tolkien’s work hasn’t been matched because he was uniquely suited both in temperament and profession to write the way he did. Throwing out the excesses of epic fantasy in favor of gritty realism is not nearly so challenging. In fact, it’s easier than trying to stay the course. It’s no surprise then that Martin’s work was not the apogee of this trend but just another stop along the way. Compared to Joe Abercrombie, just to pick one name out of probably a dozen, Martin seems like a hopeless romantic. It’s interesting that these days the people impressed with Martin’s grit and realism are the people writing about the HBO series (“It’s like the Sopranos in Middle-earth”), since when it comes to epic fantasy in television and movies Lord of the Rings is still very recent and the natural benchmark.

Feast for CrowsThen there’s the character slaughter. For me, the textbook case of this is in the film Serenity. Before that film I have to admit I thought of killing characters as cool and subversive, but afterward I started thinking about how a work of fiction has an unwritten contract with the audience. In some modes, I decided, killing a character might be an effective move while in others it is a betrayal of audience expectations. The fact is, A Song of Ice and Fire does indeed kill off characters, a great deal of them. But contrary to my expectations, I argue that it does not, in fact, kill off major characters. Rather, the reader is understandably mistaken about who is a major character and who is not, for reasons I will get into at length in a moment. So while it’s true there’s a lot more death in Martin’s series than in most fantasy (including many, like Tolkien’s, where theoretically lots of blood is shed yet almost no named characters die), it didn’t nearly live up to its reputation in this respect either, although that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

This leaves the most important issue. Is this the masterpiece of modern fantasy literature that it’s made out to be? No, not even close. I’m genuinely disappointed about this. Like anyone, I sometimes start reading a book or watching a film with some bias one direction or another (for instance, all the hype made me go into The Matrix looking for a fight, so while I didn’t think it was very good, a lot of that reaction is probably my fault), but in this case I was definitely hoping to love these books. For years I’ve checked up on Martin’s progress hoping he’d hurry up and finish so I could find out what the fuss was about. I thought there was a great chance I’d love it, along with certainly some fairly small chance that I’d hate it, or at least strongly dislike it.

I never expected to end up saying: Well, I guess it’s not bad. It’s okay.

The highlight is probably the worldbuilding. Tolkien and his imitators have emphasized the landscapes of their fantasy worlds. Even the Thomas Convenant series, which seemed at first glance like a rejection of everything Tolkien brought to the genre, spent a lot of its time (and won a lot of its fans, I suspect) on landscapes. Although there are some maps to be found of Westeros and its surrounding countries, Martin’s efforts in geographical construction and detail are merely adequate. Instead, more than any author I can recall, he has constructed a social landscape. Looking now at a map of Westeros, the names of cities, rivers, and castles bring to mind the characters who live in or near them. I can’t really tell you anything about what Casterly Rock looks like, for example, but just mentioning it evokes the wealth of detail that Martin has invested in the Lannister family and the twists and turns of their fortunes. The Lannisters are perhaps the series’ most prominent family, but by the end of the fourth book well over a dozen noble families have been sketched out in impressive detail. The variety in personality, character, and history is impressive and gives Martin’s Westeros a different and possibly greater sense of solidity than the traditional naturalistic approach.

The other aspects of the world are considerably weaker. The society seems reasonable enough, but various references to the ancient past ask us to believe that technology levels have been roughly unchanged for thousands of years, and further that not just one but almost every society is historically self-aware of their progression throughout this time. Each of the four seasons lasts for years, but after the first book it is hardly mentioned and I frankly almost forgot about it. Agriculture and economic planning don’t seem to be any different from generic feudal despite this massive climatological difference.

Although initially confined to a few children, the series rapidly expands to encompass a large set of viewpoint characters, and this works better than in most pluralistic narratives, probably because Martin is more willing to kill off minor characters and thus prevent his cast from becoming too unwieldy at least until the fourth book. After a seemingly good guy/bad guy approach, Martin shades in a surprising degree of nuance as the series progresses. That Tyrion would be a fan favorite character was obvious from the start, but I was particularly impressed by the handling of Jaime Lannister. Not every character is a success, to be sure (if I never read anything more from Cersei’s viewpoint I won’t complain) but I don’t have many complaints with the characterization. Except for the youngest, the Stark children all act about five years older than they actually are, but that’s par for the course (I’m looking at you, Ender’s Game).

Then there’s the plot. Ah, the plot. Goodness. Where to begin?

I think most of the series’ fans would point at the plot as being its strength. I can see why they might like it, but I’m going to call it a disaster. Oh, it’s not an unmitigated failure, but a tragic one, for there’s a good story somewhere in all this quicksand trying to claw its way out. It pulls the reader in, keeps them going through the four massive books that have been published so far, and amounts to nothing. To understand this, think about just what it is this series is about.

You see, in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, some throwaway characters venture past a great wall to patrol the wilderness of the far north. For millennia, we learn, the Night’s Watch has manned this wall against evil, but for long centuries this threat has been dormant, the people shielded by the wall have become decadent, and the Watch is now too weak to reliably stand against bandits, much less a terrifying supernatural evil. But now there are signs that evil might be stirring! Kill the throwaways and bam, cut to chapter one. I think it’s safe to call this an extremely conventional way to begin a fantasy novel. The ur-epic fantasy, Lord of the Rings begins with the shadow of the past stirring once more, and its Mordor was once carefully guarded before its watchers became lax. Since then thousands of fantasy books have begun this way, and I have read dozens of them, as have most of Martin’s audience. But I don’t think any of those books took Martin’s approach to developing this story in the rest of the first book: never mention it again in any way.

All right, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much. He spends more time on Daenerys, a young princess in exile who must overcome all manner of obstacles both internal and external before she can start walking down the road toward reclaiming her throne, but this well-worn storyline is also strictly a sideline item. The second book, A Clash of Kings, even spends a little time on a King who is increasingly led down dark paths by a foreign sorceress, but this too gets only a little space in the ongoing story. Any one of these stories, properly developed, would be enough for a fantasy novel and probably an entire trilogy. Incorporating them all would definitely make for a lively fantasy series. Mind you, anyone who has read a reasonable amount of fantasy can sketch out roughly how these stories will evolve. For example, although a few people sound the alarm most deny the existence of the ancient evil despite increasingly clear evidence, then it sweeps down and everyone is very sorry they didn’t listen earlier, and it seems like it is too late and all civilization will perish, but just at the bleakest moment some enterprising individuals manage to win an unlikely victory. Despite his reputation as an innovator, Martin doesn’t appear to be deviating from the standard storyline here. Yet by the end of the fourth book, after 1.3 million words and nine years, the ancient evil has only just begun to sweep anywhere, and the other plotlines are even further behind. And no wonder: I don’t know how much of all those words went into developing them but I think fifteen percent would be a very generous guess.

Instead, most of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros. Unlike the plotlines I just described, this main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It’s not that they don’t make sense…everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It’s the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren’t consciously aware of the dissonance.

What was immediately noticeable to readers of the first book in 1996 was the way they had no idea what was coming next. Why should they? Long experience has taught us how plots work in almost all fiction, but here was a book that was resolute in ignoring these conventions. To be sure, the immediate result is a fairly refreshing feeling of suspense. But these narrative conventions exist for a reason. Although A Feast for Crows has other shortcomings, I think one of the biggest reasons it wasn’t as well received as the first three books was that without a sense of where the narrative is going, the reader doesn’t feel any momentum. Since there’s no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there’s no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can’t go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning. In particular, one realizes that the characters can’t win any victory that won’t just be undone by further events two hundred pages later, so why bother rooting for them at all? When all is said and done, whoever is left standing in the ruins of Westeros will be swept aside by Daenerys and Jon Snow as they confront the evil out of the north, so isn’t this something of a waste of time?

Incidentally, I believe this was also how Martin got the reputation as a killer of main characters. Floating in a vacuum of story, readers latched on to what they assumed were main characters only to have them unexpectedly swept aside. Initially, Eddard Stark and his son Robb seemed like central characters, yet with the benefit of hindsight even from a position only halfway through the series, it’s obvious they are bit players. In a typically sized fantasy novel, they’d have a page or two of screen time. In fact, the actual main characters of the story, like Daenerys, are just as bulletproof as any normal story’s protagonists.

The unpredictable and unstructured nature of the central plotline has a literal realism to it and I’m tempted to see it as a bold artistic statement on Martin’s part, but alas all the evidence points to this being an unintended effect. This was originally supposed to be a trilogy, after all, but has defied every prediction its own author made regarding its eventual length and publication schedule. Martin surely was writing a conventional fantasy novel about an ancient evil and an exiled princess but somehow got distracted by what probably was summed up in some original one page outline in about one sentence (“Westeros monarchy weakened by infighting and succession problems”). Having fallen in love with what was supposed to be a bit of window dressing, he has continually expanded its role within the series even though it threatens to completely drown out what the series was supposed to be about in the first place. Is it any wonder that he has suffered from the contemporary genre’s most famous case of writer’s block? I’m sure that long ago he planned what would happen to Daenerys and the Night’s Watch, but now he feels obligated to give equal time to characters like Brienne who are likable yet serve little purpose to the central narrative and are instead dragged through increasingly arbitrary make-work scenes to keep them available for some later bit of relevance.

Although I’ve been critical, I will defend Martin of one charge frequently lobbed at fantasy authors. I don’t think he’s stretching things out to make more money. The typical pattern for fantasy series is to start out with an exciting and action packed first book and then to become ever more bogged down in extra viewpoint characters and minutiae. Although it’s true A Feast for Crows is somewhat bogged down like this, really Martin deeply invests himself in the minutiae right from the start, and even the fourth book moves at a faster clip than typical doorstop fantasy. Likewise, where typical slow fantasy seems to get stuck always approaching but never reaching some critical point, Martin blasts through critical points all the time. The central plotline is a meat grinder that constantly chews up minor characters, spits them out, then pulls in more. If there’s a record for the fictional work that kills the most named characters then this series is right up there with the Iliad.

I’m glad I read A Song of Ice and Fire but less because of the story itself and more because I find it interesting how unbalanced the story is. On one hand, it’s probably a testament to how a work that does one or two things really well can become extremely popular even if it does other things very poorly. Writing about Wheel of Time, Adam Roberts attributed some of its popularity to “fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world” and I think something similar is at work here. On the other hand, I think that the series’ weaknesses get magnified as the story goes on even if the quality of the books remains constant, leading me to suspect the series will never be again be as popular as it was when A Storm of Swords came out. Unfortunately for Martin, I think the series will only get harder and harder for him to write as he tries to provide some sort of climax and closure that justifies the endless profusion of aimless detail he’s provided so far. I’m even a lot more skeptical that HBO can successfully translate it into an effective television show, although being forced to provide an abridged version might end up being beneficial.

Hopefully I’m wrong and Martin eventually manages to both finish the series and somehow produce a satisfying second half in the process, but I won’t be holding my breath. Fortunately, looking back at the writers bearing Martin’s influence who I mentioned before, it seems like they have each taken something good about the series, amplified it, and then coupled that with a more conventional narrative structure (“conventional narrative” sure sounds like an insult, but that’s why reading Martin has been so helpful…breaking convention is a risky thing). Even if I never read any more of this series (the most likely possibility I’m afraid) I will at least be able to read other books that continue down the trail Martin blazed.

Update: This review has prompted a fair amount of discussion. I’ve written a follow-up post to answer some of the objections people have raised.

July 2011: I’ve written some thoughts on the HBO Game of Thrones first season, including some brief notes on how it’s made me re-examine the series’ first novel. A more comprehensive revisiting of this discussion will have to wait until I’ve read A Dance With Dragons (probably a week or two).

August 2011: I did finish Dance in a week or two, but actually writing a review of it took two more.

“Magic For Beginners” by Kelly Link

August 7, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments
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It’s been a while since I posted an article in my series about Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners (or anything, for that matter) but hopefully this will be worth the wait. We’ve finally gotten to the title story. I’ll readily confess once again to not having read enough short fiction, but of those I’ve read, this is my absolute favorite story. If you haven’t read it, you should definitely read it before reading my discussion of it. Theoretically it’s not available online any more but Kelly Link’s site has a link to it.


It was this story, “Magic For Beginners”, that made me want to read more Kelly Link. I’m happy to report that, rereading it once again after reading the rest of the collection that shares its name, reading more Kelly Link has actually helped me appreciate this story even more. Reading it in isolation, a lot of my reaction centered around characteristics of the story that are common to almost all of Link’s stories, most especially the sudden and initially frustrating ending and the way the story feels like a puzzle story with no solution. Becoming acclimated to this kind of writing has allowed me to focus on what makes this story unique.

Abigail Nussbaum has written about how the story captures the experience of fandom and done a better job than I would, so just read that if you haven’t and then come back. However, while the fandom aspect is a major theme and probably the root of the story’s appeal, I think that the story has a far broader scope. It’s really about fiction: stories, the people who create them, and the people who enjoy them. It’s easy to imagine a great Kelly Link story about the ups and downs of being an intense fan of a television show, not least because that story is embedded in this one, but “Magic For Beginners” is after bigger game right from the first sentence of its second paragraph. You probably remember the way the story opens: “Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had.”

This opening salvo of second person is the authorial equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing towards where he’s about to hit the home run, and sure enough, few readers make it to the end of “Magic For Beginners” without really wanting to see some episodes of the strange underground television show where a magician named Fox fights pirates and Forbidden Books in an enormous library. That’s what I remembered months after first reading the story. But when I came back to it and and reread this story for the first time, the first sentence of the second paragraph was almost a shock: “In one episode of The Library, a boy named Jeremy Mars, fifteen years old, sits on the roof of his house in Plantagenet, Vermont.”

Throughout the story, the levels of metafiction are deliberately confused. On my first read-through, I simply forgot about the conceit (as I thought it) that Jeremy is a television show character whenever possible. The wild fantasy of the inner The Library is, I think, an act of misdirection, making the outer television show seem mundane and realistic when it is in fact a fantasy as well…the sort of fantasy Kelly Link often writes, in fact, the sort where strange magic impinges on an otherwise ordinary world. The truth is Fox is a character in a short story called “Magic For Beginners” as well as two different television shows both called The Library. For that matter, I believe she is also in Jeremy’s father’s unpublished novel. This would be hard enough to keep track of, but later in the story the various levels are actually traversed in different ways. To keep things straight, I’ll refer to the show with Jeremy and his friends as TL-Outer and the show with Fox and Prince Wing as TL-Inner.

The most obvious connection between the two television shows is that Fox starts talking to Jeremy on the phone. There must be many fans of TL-Inner, so why would Fox pick him to help her? Before she talks to him directly, she sends a message to him through Talis’ dream, and Talis’ report provides an answer: “She gave me a phone number. She was in trouble. She said you were in trouble.” Fox is definitely in trouble, having been killed by Prince Wing. Is Jeremy in trouble? His parents are fighting and he’s about to be separated from his friends, but is that really comparable to Fox’s problems? I believe he’s got a far worse problem, but more on this in a moment, because the connection between TL-Inner and TL-Outer is a lot deeper than just Fox’s ability to somehow cross the fictional divide.

I say somehow, but in fact the story hides how this happens in plain sight. After Fox has died, the statue of George Washington takes her outside the Library. That is to say, the physical Library that is the setting of TL-Inner, but by being outside that library she is apparently able to appear outside TL-Inner itself, i.e. in TL-Outer. Link is uncharacteristically clear about just where TL-Inner is: “Outside The Library, everything is dusty and red and alien, as if George Washington has carried Fox out of The Library and onto the surface of Mars.” Note that TL-Inner’s setting is referred to with the same capitalization as the show itself. And Mars is, of course, Jeremy’s last name.

It’s worth pausing to recall who is responsible for creating TL-Inner. The story tells us that “No one has ever claimed responsibility for inventing The Library.” and that “No one has ever interviewed one of the actors, or stumbled across a set, film crew, or script…” So where does the show come from? While it’s not spelled out, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the show is constructed by, or at least directly tied into, Jeremy’s subconscious (that something like this might seem “reasonable to conclude” is probably the effect of spending so much time carefully reading Link’s fiction). Fox is in trouble, then, because Jeremy is in trouble.

This being Kelly Link, there’s no secret decoder ring that makes everything fall into perfect order. But I think it’s also worth mentioning that again and again Fox is linked with Elizabeth and Talis. One of the seemingly throwaway details of about TL-Inner, that its characters are recognized by their costumes since the actors change each episode, seems significant in light of the show’s connection with Jeremy’s mind. For one thing, this sounds a lot like how different people might, at different times, play the part of “The Love Interest” in Jeremy’s head. Fox’s death is possibly linked to Jeremy’s separation from Elizabeth and Talis, a separation that could kill any chance of an actual romance. Another oddity of the costume element is that when ordinary people dress up as Fox they are much closer to actually being Fox than one would expect. No one would think that a fan dressed in a Han Solo costume has any connection to the “real” Han Solo. Even if that person was standing on a Star Wars set in the costume, in our minds Han Solo is mostly about Harrison Ford, not a particular costume. But when Elizabeth dresses up as Fox, in a sense she has just as much connection to the Fox character as a “real” Fox actor. Talis is even dressed up as dead Fox when she delivers Fox’s message to Jeremy. The connection becomes complete later, when both Elizabeth and Talis are explicitly Fox actors in Jeremy’s dream.

Let’s get back to Jeremy’s predicament. Fox tells him, via Talis, that he’s in trouble. He might agree. Being yanked away from his friends by his parents’ marital problems might seem like the end of the world to a young teenager. If this was just a story about fandom, that would be enough. But this is a story about fiction, and it is fiction that has threatened his parents’ relationship. Despite their complaints, it is clear that Jeremy’s parents still love each other, but his father’s novel about Jeremy has sparked a crisis. Jeremy’s mother seems to feel that because Jeremy dies in his father’s novel, this puts Jeremy himself in danger, perhaps through some sort of sympathetic magic. In fairness, Jeremy’s father doesn’t seem happy about this either, not to mention somewhat perplexed: “I figured I could save you — I’m the author, after all — but you got sicker and sicker.”

What’s important here is the authorship question. From the seemingly author-less nature of TL-Inner to Karl trying to speak with the author of TL-Outer on the phone, the story makes sure we are thinking about the nature of authorship. “He put you in one of his books,” Jeremy’s mother says, making it clear where she feels the responsibility lies. Yet his father claims to have had no control. But isn’t Jeremy’s mother the one who’s clearly correct? The author controls the story. One answer is that the author is here is Kelly Link, not Gordon Mars. The characters in TL-Outer don’t know who is responsible for TL-Inner, but we do: Kelly Link, again. But I think Link points to another answer when Jeremy’s dad easily guesses that Fox is dead: “That’s the problem with being a writer, Jeremy knows. Even the biggest and most startling twists are rarely twists for you. You know how every story goes.”

Insomuch as that’s true, writers can only predict the future of stories, not real life. Real life doesn’t follow the patterns of fiction. Yet Jeremy is not person in real life…he’s a character on a television show. I think what Link is implying is that his father, being a writer, can guess how the story of TL-Outer goes even though he’s a TL-Outer character himself. This is why he can’t save Jeremy: he might be the author of his novel, but he’s not the author of TL-Outer. If this interpretation is correct, then Jeremy really is in trouble: he’s going to die of a brain tumor.

If that seems depressing, then don’t worry, there’s some good news. Dying of a brain tumor is final in the real world, but on a television show (particularly fantasy shows) death can be somewhat more temporary. The way Jeremy’s father describes his novel, it sounds like a mundane story, the sort of story in which death is just as permanent as real life, but this is more misdirection. It might seem realistic compared to the bizarre world of TL-Inner or the giant spider novels that Jeremy’s father usually writes, but TL-Outer is still a fantasy story with telegenic geeks who receive messages in dreams and watch a television show that is apparently beamed out of the main character’s subconscious. Jeremy and Fox have two things in common, the story tells us: “They’re both made-up people. They’re both dead.” But everyone takes it almost for granted (it’s that “almost” that preserves the dramatic tension) that Fox will be resurrected somehow. We can likewise take it almost for granted that death isn’t the end of the road for Jeremy. At long last the reason for the story’s title seems apparent: From the outset Fox is described as a magician, and while Jeremy is just a beginner, if they can save Fox, then together they can save Jeremy.

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