A Problem For Plotters (part one)

>> Thursday, August 19, 2010

So what prompted yesterday's digression on George R.R. Martin and his unfinished (unfinishable?) epic fantasy, A Song Of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF)?

Over at Yet There Are Statues, Matt Hilliard has posted a fairly masterful review of ASOIAF-thus-far; normally Hilliard waits for a series to be finished, but HBO's impending miniseries adaptation and the strong possibility the series may not get closed out prompted Hilliard to break his usual rules. His take? Mixed.

Some of the problems Hilliard has with the series are, he concedes, not GRRM's fault. That the rose has lost its bloom over time, for instance, or that things that seemed a bit innovative and clever have been superseded by people inspired by and building on Martin's work, for instance, isn't much Martin's fault. (It's also frankly hard to say it's a valid criticism, a point which Hilliard himself might concede: Kurosawa doesn't lose points just because subsequent directors copied his visual style to lesser and occasionally even greater effect--you judge a work by its own merits and the context of its time as much as anything.)

But most of Hilliard's critique is perceptive and a little devastating. In particular, he notes that A Song Of Ice And Fire doesn't actually have a plot.

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.... [T]housands 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.

Hilliard goes on to note that this results in a major misunderstanding on the part of GRRM's fans and detractors alike: Martin has a reputation for killing off major characters in ASOIAF, but all of these characters, in retrospect, were cannon fodder all along--the bulk of the first book, A Game Of Thrones, might appear to be about Eddard Stark, but it's increasingly clear later on that poor Eddard was never the point of anything at all, that his part of the story was merely to set up the real meat-and-potatoes of the whole thing, wherever that is.

Hilliard doesn't point to Frank Herbert's Dune by way of contrast, but he easily could since Eddard Stark is, in fact, ASOIAF's Duke Leto Atreides. The difference is that Herbert didn't write a whole novel about Leto and even goes so far as having characters discussing just how dead he's about to be well before the character himself is pulled onstage. Martin tries a similar trick--and that's why I'm not bothering to label any spoilers here, because there aren't any: early in A Game Of Thrones, Eddard and a hunting party encounter a dire omen--a dead or dying wolf (the Starks' heraldic insignia, natch) that has just given birth to a litter of pups whose number corresponds (what a coincidence!) to the number of Eddard's children. The overt symbolism continues to crop up again and again as the fates of the wolf pups parallels the fates of the children as House Stark disintegrates; indeed, the only reason there's any suspense, quite frankly, is the sheer length of unfolding events throws the reader off the trail--"After that dead wolf, I thought Eddard was doomed, but he's not dead yet so I must be wrong...."

Martin also suffers a catastrophic loss of momentum. Hilliard writes:

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?

Now, I found this interesting for two reasons, actually. The first was that I think Hilliard nails a lot of things in his review, and this was one of them. But it also goes to a problem I've had with one of my own personal shuffled-around projects.

But we can talk about that tomorrow....


timb111 Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 11:33:00 AM EDT  

Hmmm, a serial blog posting. Yesterday the introduction, today elaboration. Tomorrow and for the days to come???

Why do I get the feeling your blogs about Martin are going to emulate his series and not have a point?

Eric Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 11:43:00 AM EDT  

The last piece will appear tomorrow, and will hopefully have a point. The whole thing was written at one stretch but seemed too long not to break into shorter chunks.

Of course, if I end up pointless, it may be ironically apt. Though there will at least be an ending. :D

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