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An Impressive Takedown of Martin's Song of Fire & Ice - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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August 27th, 2011


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02:58 am - An Impressive Takedown of Martin's Song of Fire & Ice
I am both impressed with and entirely agree with this article about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I know quite a number of people who like these books, so 5 or so years ago I tried the first one, I got around 40 pages in, flipped ahead, and stopped. Too grity, way too much rape, and it generally felt like something with the same level of social enlightenment as Howard's Conan novels, except with comics writer Marc Millar's level of brutal grittiness - way too much gritty sword-wielding male power fantasy, combined with even more brutality made to look like realism, and this article says all that far better than I ever could (in part because I never managed to get past page 40 or so of the first book + extensive flipping ahead.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

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From:xuenay
Date:August 27th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC)
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While that essay makes some valid points, I take issue with the way it seems to be out to demonize the author for writing about unpleasant things. In particular, I dislike the way the word "creepy" is used to imply "you should think twice about being in the company of this man without someone else also present" instead of the more honest "reading about this stuff makes me personally feel uncomfortable about the author". Feeling uncomfortable about the way the issues are treated in the books is perfectly fine; writing with moral indignation and implying that anyone who writes in such a way is inherently suspicious is not.

The criticisms would feel more valid if the books actually presented all of that stuff in a positive light, which they don't. My impression, and the impression of everyone that I've ever discussed the books with until now, has always been that it's a depiction of a crapsack world where everyone is more or less screwed up, and that it should be obvious that neither the author nor anyone else endorses the behaviors of the characters in question. People don't say George Orwell was a totalitarian because he wrote 1984, either.

In fact, I feel that the ASoIaF books are really at heart pro-feminist books in the same way that 1984 is a pro-freedom book: for demonstrating the excesses to which particular social systems lead. From a social point of view, I'd be far more skeptical of all the fantasy literature set in pseudo-medieval societies where gender issues or rape seem to simply not exist. This despite the fact that the books in question often depict societies with power structures that would be ripe for abuse and no real checks and balances on those in power.

I think that fiction that shows what actually happens when the people in power have no real incentives not to abuse their power are much better for fostering change than fiction which just handwaves all such problems away as non-issues. Likewise, fiction that depicts extreme versions of institutionalized patriarchy and abuse may make it easier to spot subtler versions of the same in real life.
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From:lyssabard
Date:August 27th, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC)
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I have not read the review because getting ready to start book three, I don't want spoilers. However, I think I pretty much agree with everything you say, with regards to what I have read and the first season of the TV series.

Interestingly enough, my partner commented upon viewing the TV series adaption, "This is about mothers, their relationships, and the consequences of them defending their children (or trying to) in such a world, etc." which totally gave me a new lens for it.
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From:aki_dreaming
Date:August 27th, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
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I have a truly sick love/hate relationship with these books and as I commented at the site, I'm mostly waiting to see if there's a punchline.

That said, +++LOVE on this article. S/he nailed ALL the points I've been raving about since I first embarked on reading Martin, and does it with a huge amount of humor. I seriously can't thank you enough for linking this - it says all the things I've been wanting to say, and trying to say, and it's nice to know there's someone out there who can see it.

I linked it on my facebook... will be nice to see how long before one or more of my fannerd friends decide *I* need a tiger beatdown.

Awesome, I love you.
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From:alobar
Date:August 27th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
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Do you know if Martin was a military war veteran?

I have known so many war vets whose experiences fucked them up royally. Some escaped the violence by becoming homeless alcoholics. Others abused spouse and kids. No dcent psychiatric support from the VA because all the shrinks do is medicate rather than counsel. After all, most of the VA shrinks are part of the war machine.
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From:pendelook
Date:August 28th, 2011 07:20 am (UTC)
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My father works for the VA as a psychologist doing therapy only (does not even have the license to prescribe medication), and has been doing that job for the past 28 years. So that can't be 100% accurate.
From:monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com
Date:August 27th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
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I agree with Xeunay.

Actually, the further the series goes on the more it begins to seem like a (rather simplistic, actually) feminist treatise on how male rule fucks up the world and we'd all be better off if women were in charge.

At no point does GRRM condone rape - it's never, ever conducted by any character we're asked to sympathise with, and is never, ever conducted by any of the "narrator" characters.

I like the grittiness. I think the vision of a world just emerging from a horrific war and just about to collapse back into it is compelling. It portrays how easily society can fall into chaos. Tiger Beatdown's analysis is akin to saying that William Golding is pro-murder, or creepy, because of what goes on in Lord of the Flies. I find it, frankly, childish, and mistaken about what literature actually is. (Not that I think ASoIaF is great literature or anything.)
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From:nancylebov
Date:August 28th, 2011 02:11 am (UTC)
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Actually, the further the series goes on the more it begins to seem like a (rather simplistic, actually) feminist treatise on how male rule fucks up the world and we'd all be better off if women were in charge.

I think that's too generous-- there are too many women who misuse power, notably Cersei and also (name forgotten) with the castle in the mountains.
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From:aki_dreaming
Date:August 28th, 2011 12:41 pm (UTC)
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and is never, ever conducted by any of the "narrator" characters.

What about when Jaime rapes his sister?
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From:china_shop
Date:August 27th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
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I haven't read the books. I watched episode one of the TV series, went "Ewwwwww!" and haven't been back. Because, seriously, ewwwwww!

Thanks for the link.
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From:pendelook
Date:August 28th, 2011 12:35 am (UTC)
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I only read about a hundred pages of the first book. I mostly stopped because stereotypical medieval fare is just not my cup of tea. I did get the sense that he was trying to say that it was sad and unfortunate that these 14-year-old girls were getting married off, just as it was sad and unfortunate that the bastard son was cut off from acknowledgement, and sad and unfortunate that people were plotting assassination against each other and stuff like that. He just didn't... emphasise the sexism of the culture very much. Like you said, it was more part of the "gritty, realistic culture". But I didn't get the sense that he actually went so far as to approve of the socially unenlightened attitudes, only that they were realistically part of the type of world he was writing. That he felt that the truth was that when power dynamics like that exist, there will generally be nasty people who will take advantage of them in that way.

I guess to me, that sort of thing doesn't bother me if the author is not actually luxuriating in sexism, Piers-Anthony-style. To me, it reads sort of like a hands-off description of things, and no worse than, say, Lolita (which is also kind of a hands-off description of a scenario that just gives unpleasant details without having to go the extra mile to preach about how bad they are.) Because... I guess it feels like the author is trusting me to be able to see for myself how it's bad. And I kind of prefer it that way, to be honest.
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From:heron61
Date:August 28th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC)
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As someone in the comments to the article mentioned, 23 rapes occur and are mentioned in the 5th book (the person counted). For a book that's 1,000 pages long, that one every 44 pages, which seems to (to me at least) to be rather overdoing the gritty.
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From:pendelook
Date:August 28th, 2011 01:11 am (UTC)
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After re-reading your latest post... It seems to me like you just... so, you like sf for realistic, uplifting visions of the future. It's your optimism: you want to hear about what could be, and you already see plenty of bad stuff, so you don't want the bad to be pointed out to you. Some people, though, try to better things by criticising the bad things that already exist for people who don't already see what's wrong with them. And both are useful in different ways. Neither is wrong, and neither means a person is condoning the bad stuff.

I think it's rather unfair for people to call the author "creepy" just because they have different ideas about how to portray negative stuff, different limits about what's "too much", or even because you think they're clumsy/hamhanded storytellers about it. Personally attacking an author because of their subject matter is just not cool. I'm still kind of... that Tiger Beatdown article strikes me as just nasty. I don't even especially care for the series, and I don't know anything about what Martin is like, but it kind of stings to me that people would be so prejudiced against an author just because they choose to write about the possible negatives instead of the positives. And-- you know, it actually cuts both ways. I see a lot of people getting seriously offended by overly positive SF that whitewashes issues, and saying those writers are ignorant, privileged people.

So what if Martin's tolerance is not the same as yours? He doesn't, from what I have read, write in a tone of condoning it, and gauging from the comments of others on this entry, that holds true later on as well. It's like people can't escape being called a bad person, unless they are such an amazing master writer that they can please both camps (and can anyone really please everybody?) But... even being a clumsy writer who, in some people's opinion, overdoes something, does not make someone a bad person. It just... it just doesn't. I guess Tiger Beatdown kind of offended me. :(
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From:heron61
Date:August 28th, 2011 02:17 am (UTC)
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I think it's rather unfair for people to call the author "creepy" just because they have different ideas about how to portray negative stuff, different limits about what's "too much", or even because you think they're clumsy/hamhanded storytellers about it.

Fair enough, I'm quite comfortable calling the series offensive, but less so with Martin. I read a fair amount of his SF from the mid 70s-late 80s, and he struck me as someone very much of his era, who was neither particularly enlightened in his views nor particular horrid, just not particularly thoughtful wrt issues of prejudice, sexism, racism, and suchlike. I've encountered a fair number of SF&F authors whose views have gotten increasingly regressive (and increasingly outspoken) as they've got older, but I have absolutely no idea if Martin is one of them.

I also definitely think there is a point where making villians villainous goes from being interesting characterization to being clumsy and hamhanded. The best example I know of for the second is the 2nd Crow movie City of Angels (a truly terrible film btw), where the villain dines on human eyeballs as snacks, and tortures people for entertainment - pretty much any time you see the villain, he's doing something ghastly - the result was ludicrous overkill. I've seen this same problem in quite a number of books. I honestly didn't read enough of A Game of Thrones to be certain it was like this, but flipping though it made me think that it certainly might be.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:August 28th, 2011 01:49 am (UTC)
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I have not read any of the series, but I did read the article.

Unless I'm mistaken, the books could be much worse. The series could dwell graphically on the rape victims contracting syphilis and dying horrible deaths from insanity, for instance. It can always be worse.

[User Picture]
From:aki_dreaming
Date:August 28th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)
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I have an epic story. Someday I might write it. There are numerous murders, quite a few wars, two (maybe three) rapes, some genocide and child abuse.

These things occur to characters. Mostly it happens from their POV. I do go into the bad guys' POV from time to time, mainly because not all of them are wholly bad, and a lot of my story is about forgiveness and redemption. It's fairly well documented that most abusers (not all) were themselves abused. I explore that a lot.

When one is telling a story, one includes what is relevant. In the 3000 years of my epic, I'm sure more than three people are raped, and I know a whole hell of a lot of people are murdered. But the story telling focuses on the characters who drive it.

Is it trivializing rape to leave all those other rapes out of the story? I don't think so. I can address that, when it happens, as exposition, or background information. I don't have to put it in people's faces. We'll deal with the rapes that are central to the story intensely, both in terms of experience and aftermath.

Am I presenting an unrealistic version of a "medieval fantasy world" by leaving it out? No, I don't think so. When we tell the story of Chaucer and his life, we generally don't say "Chaucer was born, he wrote, he died, and by the way there was a LOT OF RAPE in the Middle Ages." On the other hand, if we're talking about... say, the Crusades! I'd be very sceptical of any version that didn't include frank discussions of what the Crusaders were up to while they were in the Holy Land, including rape, murder, theft and a variety of other abuses. What is appropriate to the story being told?

While I like ASoIaF, I have always and probably will always look askance at the way rape is treated in the books. It's too much for "background flavor" and too impersonal for "rebuttal." As a writer, I must assume that Martin includes this because he feels it is appropriate to the story being told. As reader, and a woman, I have to ask myself why. He really isn't showing his hand there.

I'd like to think there's a point to this, and I believe it's possible, considering Dani's trajectory and her attitudes regarding slavery and rape. But it does and probably will always trouble me, and I've taken to having friends read them first and give me a "rape report" so I am at least prepared for the worst.

Edited at 2011-08-28 05:14 pm (UTC)

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