neil gaiman

Opinion: George R. R. Martin Is Not Your “Bitch,” He’s Your Dealer

Game of Thrones

Andrew Findlay

Disclaimer: There are no direct spoilers in the review. You might be able to infer something, but that’s it. Also, the most recent book came out three years ago, so if you don’t want to be spoiled by anything ever again, go read that.

A Song of Ice and Fire is an amazing series. The gritty realism in a fantasy locale, the compelling characters, the whip-crack plotting and suspense – all of these traits combine to forge the cultural juggernaut that is ASOIAF. I love these books. I came a little bit late to the party. I read them around December 2010, 14 years after the start of the series, when the first four books had already been published. I read those four books in one month. The paperback versions for tally up to 3,844 pages, meaning that for the month of December, I read an average of 128 pages a day. That’s how good this series is. For an entire month, If I was not working or sleeping, I was what-the-fuck-noooo-i-loved-that-character-ing my way across Westeros. In the same time and at that rate, I could have read the Lord of the Rings three times, the entire Harry Potter series, or thirteen normal-sized (300 pages, let’s say) books. That is dedication. That is a clear sign of an enjoyable series. The problem is that George R. R. Martin has fans that read 128 pages a day, but he writes .76 pages a day.

The addictiveness and scarcity of the product creates a rabid fanbase composed of people who make strange decisions about these books. For example, a day after the release of A Dance With Dragons (book five, July 2011), I had to drive 15 hours from D.C. to Memphis with my fiancee for the purpose of marriage. She was behind the wheel the whole way, and I read that book the entire 15 hours. Relevant factoid: Reading in the car makes me violently carsick. I ignored nausea for 15 hours to get through as much of the book as I could. When I got home, in a city surrounded by family and friends I see only rarely, I still read at least four hours a day. Luckily, I finished the book before my marriage.

Also luckily, no one played this at my wedding.

Since then, I have been trying not to think about the series at all, because that creates visceral longing for resolution to all the cliffhangers on par with what I imagine someone in the grip of a Schedule I drug experiences. GRRM has created a legion of addicts. Addicts do not respond well when they are cut off from their substance of choice, and in the past three years, there has not been another fix. This has famously led to fans expressing dismay that GRRM watches football on Sundays in the fall, that he works on other book projects, and that he basically does anything but sit in a box with one bald light swinging over his head and a typewriter in front of him. The most crass concern expressed is that GRRM, who is 65, will die before finishing the series. The first few are strange, because Martin has the right to do whatever he pleases. The last one is heartless, as those fans are placing the completion of a series they love over the life of a human being.

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ASOIAF. Not even once.

The problem is that this series, originally planned to be three books but having since ballooned into seven, has been going since 1996. To compare, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was published from July 1954 to October 1955. All the way from Gandalf freaking out an innocent Frodo in the Shire to the final collapse and defeat of the Dark Lord (spoiler alert!), readers had to wait just over a single year for the conclusion to a story so massive its weight is felt in nearly every entry into the fantasy genre since (to be fair, Tolkien had basically written the whole thing before publishing the first part). I only jumped on this train five years ago, but some poor bastards have been waiting nearly two decades to get to the station. This ballooning and extension of the books is due to a phenomenon which is weakening the series as a whole: success killing editorial power. The first three books of this series are incredibly, world-changingly good. Books four and five aren’t necessarily bad, but really only bask in the reflected glory of what came before. In a series known for page-turning action, plotting, and suspense, there was a whole lot of material in book four that no one cared about, material that did not do much to advance the plot or tie the main threads of the story together more tightly. Why is this happening? Why are the editors allowing GRRM to bloat the series? It is because, at this point, if he published a book that just said “The North Remembers” and nothing else for fifty pages, everyone would still buy it. Why do we get point of view chapters from people we do not care about? Because GRRM is writing for addicts, and if he cuts the product, we will still buy it. The editors know this and thus give him free reign because their company makes money regardless. ASOIAF is a victim of its own success.

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Pictured: GRRM, escaped from his writing box

Speaking of success, another issue affecting the books is its serialization on HBO. I have yet to watch the show. I’m sure it’s amazing, but something in me is forcing me to finish the books, all of them, before starting in on the show. This may no longer be possible. The show is now halfway through the third of five books, and there is so much fluff in books four and five that the showrunners could conceivably fit it all into one season. Assuming HBO sticks to a yearly production schedule, that gives GRRM one year to write book six and one year to finish it up with book seven. His total output for the past 15years is two books, so unless something drastically changes, there is every possibility I will be watching instead of reading the conclusion to this story.

I do not want to be forced to another medium to find out what happens in the books I love. There is nothing wrong with the show, but it is not the same thing as the books. Not having watched much of it, I can’t speak to specific differences, but it’s clear that there cannot be nearly as much detail to the world – in order to make something watchable, you have to cut it down significantly. The size, the texture, and the depth of the books is part of what makes it for me. The backstories, the tiny defeats and victories for every single character, the flashbacks, the red herrings and true clues packed into the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire are flying through my head right now, and there is no way they fly as thick and fast in the HBO version.

Another strangeness created by the success of the show, because TV popularity is orders of magnitude above book popularity, is that there are new legions of addicts who do not want to be spoiled. A huge event happens at the end of season three of the show (which I did watch on YouTube, because holy shit), and everyone was understandably concerned about spoilers, but that same event happened in a book published while Bill Clinton was still president. If you really care about spoilers and desperately want to know what happens next, read the damned books.

Neil Gaiman famously responded to a fan question about GRRM’s writing pace with “GRRM is not your bitch.” Good response, absolutely true, but a little bit simplistic. When you write something so great that you have a significant percentage of the human population wishing that you would just sit in a box typing for 18 hours a day, there are consequences. One consequence is that you become famous and fabulously wealthy, afforded the freedom to engage in whatever projects you like. Another is that the fervor of fans that catapulted you to the top can quickly turn to anger if they feel you are not fulfilling your obligations to them. It is ridiculous that people wanted Martin to stop watching football so he could write. It is terrible that fans are more concerned about their series concluding than his life ending (although at this point, I’m mildly concerned that my death will come before book seven is published). Even still, George has an obligation to his fans. Edit more judiciously, tie plots together more tightly, and return to the transcendence of A Storm of Swords. I desperately want to see the North remember, and I want to see it in print.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

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Andrew Findlay

Neil Gaiman has been a darling of fantasy fiction for years. His profile is huge and unassailable – multiple awards, multiple movie adaptations – this is a writer who goes on late night talk shows and people watch those shows specifically to see him. Any two or three of his works are enough to qualify him as a game-changing writer. If you have not read Sandman, go do that right now. It is the best thing he’s ever written, and one of the best 15 things written in the last 50 years. I can’t get into it right now because the story is massively complex and free-roaming, but do yourself a favor and check it out. Today’s book, American Gods, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. To give an idea of how big a deal that is, only 10 books have ever done that, and two of them were written by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, respectively.

American Gods is fantasy, which is a really important genre as it’s the first there ever was. Think about it: In Gilgamesh the main character is the son of a goddess, befriends a wild man, slays an ogre, rejects the advances of the goddess of sex, and slays the skybull she sends to destroy him in revenge. In The Odyssey, the main character blinds an ogre, pisses off a sea god, and is assisted by and given gear by a war goddess. Any number of old stories contain fantastic elements: humans made of clay, humans made of thrown rocks, world-wrapping floods, and so on. These early stories are special, as they all attempt to explain humanity, its place in the world, and how they both came about. There is no whiny asshole running around with daddy issues (I’m looking at you, The Corrections). At the dawn of human cultural life, all of the stories were concerned with how we got here and what we should do about it. Of course, people back then had no fucking clue and just made shit up. The results were amazing. Modern fantasy stems from either that initial efflorescence or from all the stuff J.R.R. Tolkien single-handedly standardized. American Gods is the former. It goes old and deep for its mythology.

I am the oldest character in all of literature, and my beard rings are amazing.

Some people hate American Gods, and those people are wrong. There is plenty to hate, but a lot more to love. The first big hit is that the main character’s name is Shadow, which is usually not a good sign quality-wise. In general, the characters are there to advance the plot and to do cool things. There’s depth there, but not a lot. Shadow is a pretty simple guy who is set up a little maladroitly as a big strong silent type, but with hidden feelings. At the start of the novel, he finishes a three-year bid in prison. Later in the novel, he remembers being a kid and crying while reading Gravity’s Rainbow in a hospital while his mother died of cancer. Jarring mismatches like that rub you wrong and don’t deserve to be forgiven, but there is just so much good to go with the bad. Most of the good comes from the premise in the title itself.

What exactly are American gods? The premise that makes the book is that gods are generated by human thought and belief. For example, Odin (who is a main character), first popped up in America when Vikings visited the Americas, got into conflict, and slew a native in a ritualistic way. The power of their belief created him. Then they left, and Odin spent the next few centuries kicking around the continental US as “Mr. Wednesday” (Wednesday = Wōdnesdæg or Odin’s Day). This method of god creation is upliftingly anthropocentric – our belief is not just their payment or due, but the key to their existence. Unfortunately for the gods, lack of faith leads to lack of food. Without constant, strong belief, they weaken and, if they can find no substitute, they die. The substitutes available normally consist of some type of human interaction tangentially related to their godhead. For example, the half-djinn Queen of Sheba, Bilquis, achieved fame and drew belief as a great seducer. In American Gods, she is working as a prostitute and drawing her power and sustenance from that. An American incarnation of Anubis, the Egyptian death god, runs a funeral home and draws his power and sustenance from that. The hardscrabble landscape of American belief has transmogrified Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god of war, wisdom, and poetry, into a confidence man. There is definitely a precedent for Odin as a type of trickster god, and his godhood being shaped and reflected by American culture emphasizes and feeds this aspect of him. He gains strength and survives through bamboozlement. For example, he needs money, so he finds an ATM, dresses up like a security guard, handcuffs a briefcase to his hand, and marks the ATM as out of order. When anyone comes up to make a deposit, he apologizes, takes their money, and painstakingly writes them a receipt. He then walks away with a ton of money. He not only gets cash this way, but also acquires the “worship” necessary for his continued existence. The problems associated with lack of spiritual nourishment create the central conflict of the book.

I’m going to need a little bit more than that to survive, Ron.

Old gods are scattered across all of America. All of the immigrants who ever came here, and all of their beliefs, created sub-pantheons filled with strangely reduced gods. Old cultures come over with their old beliefs, then slowly buy in to the new ones. Up to the time of the book, these gods have only had to deal with their transformation and weakening due to the acculturation of their worshipers, but problems arise when they enter into direct competition with the new gods, avatars of tech, finance, and the like. As Americans worship these things with more fervor, so do their respective avatars gain power, to the direct detriment and weakening of the old gods. Once created, gods have staying power, but if they are completely cut off, they will simply fade into nothing. This is an undesirable outcome, so the main plot of the book deals with the old gods’ actions to preserve themselves in the face of the onslaught of the modern world.

Yes, the plot is linear and simple. Yes, the characters could have a little more depth. Yes, the protagonist’s name is Shadow Moon. Do any of those things make this a bad book? I mean, yes, they would, if there wasn’t more to it. American Gods is an exploration of American belief, American places, and the American psyche. Neil Gaiman is an Englishman who settled in Minnesota, and this is his love letter to his adopted country. The whole presents a mythic America, one where the salt of the Earth is the center of the nation and where roadside attractions are the most sacred and powerful locations in the country. The climax of the novel takes place in the holiest spot in the United States – Rock City, just outside Chattanooga, TN. The swindler habits of a major character – Mr. Wednesday – dovetail with the venerable American tradition of getting one over on people not as clever as yourself, from Tom Sawyer getting people to paint a fence all the way down to a more modern Sawyer.

Son of a bitch.

Ultimately, this novel’s passion for Americana and its in-depth commentary on the nature and power of human belief far outweigh any niggling concerns with naming or plot pacing. Much like taking a road trip (which occupies most of the plot), you might go to some less-than-ideal places, but you will still have an amazing time there because of the idea of the road trip. The idea of this novel transcends any flaws that mar its execution. I believe it is a great novel, and as Neil Gaiman himself writes in the novel:

People believe…[i]t’s what people do. They believe.

And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things,

and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts,

with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and

it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.

It is not a perfect novel, but any book containing the above quote has my vote. It is not flawless, but much like the nation it enshrines, the monumental good overwhelms the (admittedly) searing bad.

Image sources: IMDB, Wiki