Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thinking: I Love 'A Song of Ice and Fire' But It's All That is Wrong with Fantasy..

So, what is probably the biggest event in the Fantasy Calendar happens this week, when the latest book in the George R R Martins’ epic A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons, is unleashed into the world. After being promised it within a year of the publication of A Feast for Crows, and that being five years ago, anticipation is high, coupled with the success of HBOs adaption of A Game of Thrones, so clearly it’s a good time to be a fan of the series.  In fact, with the general cultural impact of Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings and a host of other pop-culture friendly fantasy flying around, it’s a good time to be a Fantasy Fan, right? Well, certainly better than being a fan of spaceships, at least. 

But if you mean it’s a good time in the sense of being able to show a little “fantasy pride” without people looking at you like you’re a real weirdo, then yes, it’s a great time to be a Fantasy Fan. Because lots of people are dabbling in the shallow end of the genre these days; the booming Young Adult market is full of fantasy-tinged works I think there is a general awareness of the genre that there hasn’t been since the great “Fantasy Boom” of the 1980s. On the other hand, anyone stepping out of that shallow end is likely to be pulled away the current and drowned. And A Song of Ice and Fire is as big a culprit for that as any. 

Now before I get myself into any trouble here when talking about the genre I’m going to say two things. The first is that I adore A Song of Ice and Fire, and being sat here waiting for amazon to actually deliver my copy of A Dance with Dragons is like the sort of slow torture you’d find within its covers. I think that even as it stands - a long way unfinished - it is a remarkable work by any measure you care to throw up. The second thing is that I have never been a Fantasy Fan. The genre’s never grabbed me, notable exceptions aside, and in an effort to stop me sniping at it to my friends I was challenged to read a whole heap of fantasy last year, which I did, and maybe I've never been quite the same since. I've needed heavier duty bookcases, for a start. But my perspective is that of a vaguely interested and informed outsider, for whatever that’s worth. 

The thing that struck me most last year was that my chief prejudice, that of Fantasy being stuck somewhat in amber, unable to evolve past its own clichĂ©s, was pretty much dead wrong. Certainly as I moved toward the 21st century, there is a certain amount of introspection, and deconstruction going in the genre, which is a healthy thing, and more to the point a damn sight more enjoyable than I was expecting. On the other hand, the prejudice I did come away with seemingly confirmed is the strange inability to tell a story in relatively straightforward or brief way. And it’s this, I think that is the big problem for fantasy. 

Now A Game of Thrones is a good book. Not a great book, but a good one – it starts off a bit wobbly and it’s not till about half-way through that it seems to click and drive forward, and whilst there is a degree of thematic resolution at the end of it (as there is with all of them, so far) the story generally just ploughs on through past the last page, as if the individual volumes are somewhat arbitrary rather than natural breaking points. It isn’t an individual story that is part of a greater whole; it is simply an orphaned beginning of a single huge story. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But if you wander through the Fantasy section of Waterstones, or the Fantasy lists of Amazon, this is true for seemingly every writer out there. 

Now I’m sure that there are good examples of this not being the case, but if you were new to the genre and picked up say, Gardens of the Moon, you’d see next to it another 10 volumes of the same continuing story and reach the end of that book to find a huge pile of “to be continued” and “we’ll explain that later”. That’s immense. That’s intimidating. And with all the good will in the world, more than a little annoying. If I pop next door to the crime section and pick up the first Patricia Cornwell novel there may be about a hundred of them to follow but at least each one is a complete story. You’re not going to get the end and be told “keep reading, you may catch the killer by book 5”. And it’s not like most fantasy novels are short texts in their own right to start with. 

The counter-argument to this is of course that these books need the breathing space to tell their stories to the depth and complexity that their authors want. This is certainly true of the vast tapestry of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’ll take it on faith that this is true of a lot of other series as well. But it seems to be an article of faith for fans, writers and publishers alike that if you aren’t writing at least a trilogy you are in some way getting it wrong; that size equates to depth, that if you’ve gone to the effort of creating a whole new world you need to get into every corner of it to make it all worthwhile. Which clearly isn’t the case, and in some books reduces them to sub-Tolkienesque travelogue.  

When I was looking for books to read last year I was recommended some excellent stand-alones, most notably David Gemmell’s Legend and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.  What was interesting about both these was that they managed to take the genre’s secret weapon – that you can build a world almost completely around the story you want to tell – and wield it with both a fair degree of subtlety and sufficient focus to keep it within one fairly concise volume. Both books need no sequel or prequel (sadly, Gemmell couldn’t resist going back to Druss’ well), but both allude to wider stories that don’t need to be told in detail but tell you enough to colour the story at hand and let your imagination fill in the blanks. 

(As an aside, both these two and A Song of Ice and Fire seem to hinge on events a generation earlier that we never see and can only guess at the truth of. All rely on this lack of knowledge and vagueness of memory – Gemmell’s unnecessary prequels notwithstanding – to drive dramatic tension about the character and motivations of their protagonists. Less is More, indeed.)

The point of this though, isn’t that I think the genre’s obsession with epically long series of epically long books is, in itself, a bad thing. Amongst others last year I ate through the pretty chunky The First Law trilogy and of course I've already professed my love for George RR Martin, and sometimes you absolutely need do the length. But it’s so pervasive that even first time authors end up with “Book One of…” stamped on the front cover of their first book.  And I do think that these huge series, and their headline presence in the genre, do act as an effective barrier for entry for newcomers at a time when Fantasy has one of those rare opportunities to reach out to a more mainstream readership. 

Because as much as it pains the me-of-two-years-ago to admit it, there is stuff here that really deserves to be read.