Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ‘life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ‘something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
Say you really loved the sitcom, Cheers. You were totally into the zany exploits of Sam, Norm, Cliff, Woody, Fraser, and the rest of the gang. You tuned in every week like clockwork and laughed your butt off. Then, somewhere around the 11th or 12th season, the plot followed Fraser as he moved to Seattle. It spends a lot of time with Fraser, actually. Next thing you know, every episode is set in Seattle, where we meet Fraser’s father, his zany brother Niles, and a bunch of other characters. You keep watching, but you also keep cursing and asking the TV ‘where the hell is Norm, guys? What’s going on at the bar?’ Then it hits you – you aren’t watching Cheers anymore. This is a spin-off called Fraser.
Except nobody ever told you, and the show is still called Cheers.
This, my friends, is exactly how I felt upon finishing A Dance with Dragons this weekend. I have come to the conclusion that I am no longer reading the series of books I started and, accordingly, my interest in the storyline has faded to almost nothing. I am not reading any more of the books, since I don’t see the point. I didn’t sign on to watch Fraser, guys.
Oh, and if you care about these things, there are lots of ‘spoilers’ below. I put the word ‘spoilers’ in quotes because I fail to see how a series of storylines completely irrelevant to the one you’re reading now could be ‘spoiled’ at all (presuming you are in the first three books of Song of Ice and Fire). Anyway, you’ve been warned.
Before I set about tearing into the book, I’d like to give some shout-outs to the things I liked. There aren’t many:
1) To Jon Snow: For cutting off that fucker Janos Slynt’s head. That felt good.
2) To Wyman Manderly: For uttering the following line: “Perhaps it is for the best. Had he lived, he would have grown up to be a Frey.” <zing!>
3) To Theon Greyjoy: For having the decency to mope about all the Starks being dead and the old days being gone for good. I really identified with him in that sense.
4) To Danerys’s Dragons: For fucking shit up and finally, finally introducing some action into the plot, even if it was only for the last 10% of the book.
Now, to Brass Tacks
I will henceforward refer to the vast majority of this book and the last book as ‘The Dithering’. I call it ‘the Dithering’ because that’s what happened – Dithering. Most of the books were various individuals sitting on their asses and wondering what to do next. So much internal monologue it made me want to scream, and this is even though Martin is really good at writing inner monologues. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were seeing the thoughts and hopes and dreams of characters we cared about, but Davos Seaworth? Victarion Greyjoy? Quentyn Martell? Jesus Christ! Booooring! Also, it seems to me that Martin deliberately avoids writing action sequences since, for the vast majority of instances, the action happens off-stage. Did Stannis have his head cut off by Bolton? If so, HOLY CRAP that’s something I would have liked to see. Screw you, Martin. If it isn’t true…meh. More Dithering is to come, I suppose.
Beyond the Dithering, however, is the fact that the story is no longer about the things I care about anymore. It has become a series about other plots, other families, and other conflicts that, frankly, don’t interest me in the least. My interests, at the start of the series, were as follows:
#1: The Fate of the Starks: I wanted to know if the Starks could spring back from the blows of the Red Wedding and Ned Stark’s death. I have my answer now, and it is ‘no, they can’t.’ Ned is Dead, Robb is Dead, Catelyn is Dead, Jon is Probably Dead, Sansa is worthless, Rickon is a toddler somewhere, Arya Stark is being actively convinced by other characters to stop being a Stark, and Bran has decided to sit down and become a tree. Gotcha – I can stick a fork in this one, folks.
#2: Justice for the Lannisters: I wanted to watch the Lannisters pay for what they’d done. Well, Tywin is dead, Joffery is Dead, Jamie is gone rogue, Cersei is mortified and finished, Tommen and Mycella are children, and Tyrion is halfway around the world and no longer directly involved in this plotline anymore. Finished here.
#3: Can Jon Snow Hold off the Others at the Wall: The answer is ‘no’. Even if he isn’t dead, everybody up there sucks so badly at life that I think it’s a foregone conclusion.
#4: Will Danerys be the Targaryens claim the Iron Throne: This, I should point out, is a distant fourth. I really only care insofar as it related to plot’s 1 and 2, and all the Dithering has convinced me that the amount of time it is going to take Danerys to get her ass back to Westeros is such that it doesn’t make sense for me to read the other books. Besides, there’s Young Griff already back there, ruining the surprise for Danerys, and there goes the novelty of that little plotline. Booo.
As for the rest of them, they can all jump, for all I care. I don’t care about Dorne, I could give a crap about Sam and his schooling, the Seastone Chair I have already ranted about at length, all those mercenary companies disinterest me, Stannis and the Bolton’s deserve each other, the Others can undead-ify the world, for all I care, and the whole slave revolt/Red God thing? Who cares? Martin trying to get me to care about the slaves of Slaver’s Bay is like Hermione Granger trying to get everyone to give a crap about House Elves.
Oh yeah, and Danerys had her chance to ride her dragons a long time ago. Now it’s too late – I just don’t care. When all those guys from her past were giving her crap about not moving on from Mereen while she was hallucinating, I was right there with them saying ‘yeah! Tell her!’
So, there you have it. I’m done with Westeros – all that has thus far occurred has convinced me I haven’t anything to look forward to. At the very least it isn’t like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which took a somewhat more kick-ass story (and somewhat less ‘gritty’) and dithered itself away into a bloated monstrosity of nothing happening at all until, at last, the author died. Yeah, at least that hasn’t happened to Martin.