Monday, February 27, 2006

Fantasy Fiction

I read Tolkien in high school and i was completely absorbed into Middle Earth for a while. Although i was a bit too much of a jock to qualify for premier nerd status, i did have a "I'd Rather Be a Hobbit" t-shirt, and a modest command of Elvish runes. Although i read the Ring trilogy a few times through (and i loved the movies), i found the books harder to read as i got older. In my opinion, i think that Tolkien could spin a great yarn but that he wasn't a great writer.

Every other fantasy book i've read since Tolkien has disappointed me. They're so predictable and similar that i imagine it would be easy to write a program to automatically generate fantasy fiction. The problem of course is that most fantasy fiction is an imitation of Tolkien, but rarely does it reach the same level. Many of the cliches of fantasy fiction were not only invented by Tolkien, but he really set the standard. Because of his academic credentials in linguistics and philology, Tolkien's invented words and languages had a satisfying verisimilitude. The races and creatures that he created for his Middle Earth had deep ties to mythologies of western culture and just enough mystery around the edges to keep them fascinating. Every other fantasy author i've tried seems like they're either making stuff up thoughtlessly, or making simple substitutions of their creatures for Tolkien's. I can sort of imagine an author at his or her keyboard thinking "i'll name this guy Baradon. No, Barderon. Maybe Bardon. Yeah, Bardon, that'll work".

There are some fantasy writers i've tried who i think write pretty well (Anne McAffrey comes to mind), but i could never get through a series. Recently though i've heard so many recommendations for George R.R. Martin that i finally broke down and bought one of his books (A Game of Thrones). Martin certainly did not dispense with many of the fantasy cliches: he's got kings and castles and dragons and swords and knights, bastard sons, a warrior order, and there's even a map drawn on the front and back cover pages. He's really gone back beyond Tolkien and borrowed from the traditions of classic romantic fiction (knights and squires and tournaments and maidens in distress).

But to my surprise, it really works. On occasion there's some of that fantasy fiction prose that drops with a thud (" 'Ice' that sword was called... It was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel"). But overall the writing is at a very high level, the plotting and pacing is great, and the characters are imbued with complexity and humanity. Most important i think is that Martin isn't just employing all of the fantasy fiction elements as props. Clearly, he loves this stuff and it comes through in the words.

Martin also seems to be a bit more mature than some of his peers. The political intrigues in the book are realistic and speak of someone who's seen a bit of life, as do some of the sexual themes and scenarios (i don't recall whores ever receiving mention in LotR). Also, people die. Characters are badly injured and characters that don't deserve to die are killed. This is not simple good vs. evil stuff, though there is clear good and unremorseful evil. Though this is clearly fantasy fiction, it also shares motifs with classic tragedy.

Which is not to say that this is soporific "serious" literature. Martin has not invented a new art form or stretched the boundaries of the novel, or any of that other stuff that lit critics get all hot over. He's not trying to be ironic or postmodern or to deconstruct anything. The musician Arnold Schonberg, a pioneer of avant garde music, once remarked that "there's still plenty of good music to write in C major". The same is true of literature; there are still a lot of damn fine stories to be told that are only trying to be enjoyable, meaningful, and exciting. Like my favorite genre fiction authors (Patrick O'Brian, Alan Furst), George R.R. Martin has achieved that on a significant scale.

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