Friday, July 27, 2012
Fantasy Fiction is Broken
A friend of mine recently "read" The Sad Tale of the Brother's Grossbart. I use scare quotes, because he put the book down in to the third chapter, it was just so abhorrently tasteless. I respect his opinion a lot; he's the one who got me started on fantasy with recommends like the Game of Thrones. He and I regularly trade opinions on books we've read, and he has yet to steer me wrong.
This book, he gave the much coveted award of Worst Book Ever.
Something about people who whore themselves out to eat dead baby meat? And God raping the Virgin Mary? My friend isn't even a Christian - he's somewhere between Jeffersonian Deist and Agnostic - but he was so deeply offended by the content that he put the book down. The first book he has ever put down, probably.
So I hear this glowing review, and I go online to see someone else scour the book completely... and I don't. The people who review it like it. They praise the author for his new twists and turns, how he's surely worthy of being read. He deserves all the hype he apparently generated when the book came out in 2009.
Based on the positive reviews I've read on blogs, this is what I have
1) the protagonists are deplorable. It is impossible to like them.
2) the plot is simple. They protagonists go to Egypt and rob graves.
3) the narrative structure is confusing and jumps around unnecessarily.
4) the content is offensive and vulgar. Like I said, prostitutes eating dead baby meat.
5) the book was very popular and got good reviews in speculative fiction communities.
How does this work?
What redeeming qualities are there in the book?
Near as I can tell, based on the positive reviewers (and not my friend's complaint, not my own reading, but the things said in the positive reviews), the redeeming qualities of the book has something to do with the author being "brave" by portrayal absolutely detestable scum as protagonists who engage in middle-school level deplorable behavior and language. That's why they liked it. It was such an abjectly terrible, worthless piece-of-crap book, and so much "darker" than other books, that they gave it positive reviews.
One reviewer even went ahead and insinuated that people who don't like it just have weak stomachs, unlike the more open-minded sort who can read garbage and enjoy it.
My real question, not about the book directly, is what the heck is wrong with the fantasy fiction fandom?
How much "subversion" of the genre can you really take before it ceases to be hilariously ironic and just because another nauseating trope?
For instance, since I brought it up, let's talk about ASOIAF. The first book was incredible. Amazing. One of the best books I've ever read. From the very first chapter, you are gripped - not just by the story - but by the entire feel of the world. It's palpable. It's like Westeros has a pulse, it has blood and meat, and you can feel it in the narrative and in the characters. It's a real world, and as such the author - and by extension the characters - take it seriously. And it doesn't read like "fantasy", it reads like a historical fiction set in some Narnia somewhere. It's the real-life biography of King Arthur, done by some scholar out of Cambridge, to erase all the myth and show the true hero.
That is what made Game of Thrones a good book.
Main characters died... because they actually did. It wasn't that main characters died that made it good, it was that Martin had the integrity to kill a main character in conformity with a reality, generating the feel of real blooded history that made it good. Like, four hundred years from now, students in Westeros classrooms will be reading this story in a textbook. So main characters died, and other really terrible stuff happened, because history isn't always very pretty.
I don't know where, but somewhere between the second and the fourth book, that feel of the world was dispelled. The series isn't any longer about the Stark children and the omen of the direwolf, or about the Others and the perilous threat to the North, or about Bran and his dream or Jon and his unknown parentage. It's about a bunch of cruel and oppressive nobles who torture and rape and massacre all they want, and people have sex and urinate off of boats, and hey did we mention there's rape and torture and massacres, and sex, and urinating off of boats, and torture. And rape. Lots and lots of rape. Main character dies... wait, no, they never died/are a zombie. And Tyrion urinates off a boat again.
The series has really become about "being dark and edgy". That's what Martin is now trying to do. He got good reviews for being dark and edgy by killing off main characters, so it's like he's trying to outdo himself. He is going out of his way to shock you, not for any kind of integrity, but just to flippin' shock you and impress the critics.
In the first book, we start with a story of a family of six children and their discovery of a litter of dire wolf pups whose mother has been slain by a stag, and the separation of this family across the country and in the midst of war and political strife as they struggle to reclaim the power of their house.
In the fifth book, the audience is "treated" to a direct point-of-view narration of a woman who gets raped by a soldier... except it turns out she really likes being raped by this particular soldier.
Thanks Martin. Thanks. I really needed to know that particular aspect of that tertiary character, and she's just so much more depth to her now that she isn't just a woman soldier, but a woman soldier who likes rape-sex.
And the Others? Whatever. Let's get more first-person rape. That's so dark and edgy.
Am I the only person who think this is a problem? That an author came with an incredible story, with an incredible feel and depth and reality to it, and seemingly drove it in to the ground competing with himself to make it more and more repulsive... and the fans are cheering him on?
What is wrong with fantasy? What's wrong with: hero on a quest, fights evil dragon, saves the day, rescues princess. Why can't I be merely entertained? Why must I be also offended and repulsed by a book? Why wasn't it good enough to give me a fantastical world with history and reality to escape to, without also having half that world get raped and the other half tortured and slaughtered?
Why is that kind of book better, and given higher reviews? How is it any more complicated to have all the characters be sexually assaulted and starved than to have them all happy and adventurous?
Why can't the complication of a good story come from the plot, or from the character development, or from the imagination given to the world? How does moral atrocity give complication to anything -- and if it does give complication, it is the simplest and laziest way to "complicate" a story that I could think of.
There exist writers of fantasy fiction who use their good ideas to generate fascinating stories and worlds whose intrigue is purely from the brilliant minds of the author. Tad Williams, for instance, wrote such a world, whose politics and history and culture are astounding in their depth (and which is the world Martin used for his own series). But the ones who get good reviews just insert meaningless sex and violence in place of character development.
It's juvenile. When a book about magical talking unicorns fighting not-Muslims offers more grown-up insight in to life and the world than books about adults going to college, then there is something seriously wrong with the state of fantasy literature.
And that's my rant.