You know George R.R. Martin, right? The writer. The guy who wrote 5/7ths of a very good fantasy fiction series, which was turned into 7/8ths of a pretty good HBO series? Well, it’s being reported that HBO has given him a five-year deal worth “mid-eight figures” to develop other series based on the Game of Thrones universe.
HBO has deep pockets, to be sure–but I’m thinking it’s idiotic to pay him that much coin. I mean, the guy does good work. There are problems with it, of course–the sexism and racism and all that–but the overall dramatic quality of the work is very good. He just doesn’t finish the work. He’s like a master cabinetmaker who designs and creates a beautiful, original kitchen, but doesn’t bother to install the cabinets. They’re just left sitting there on the floor, pretty but incomplete. And as for George R.R. Martin’s GoT universe? At this point, who cares?
Don’t get me wrong. I still remember when a friend told me I should read the original novel, A Game of Thrones. I’d gone through a period where I read some fantasy fiction, but I’d largely gone off of the genre. It all seemed predictable and derivative. This isn’t a verbatim conversation, but it went something like this:
Him: You’ve got to read this book. You’ll love it. It’s unlike anything you’ve read.
Me: Are there elves in it?
Him: No elves.
Him: No. Well, yes, but not like Dwarf Dwarves. There’s a character who is a dwarf.
Me: But not with a long beard and an innate skill for metallurgy.
Me: Okay then. What about dragons? Are there dragons?
Him: No. Well, yes, but not like Dragon dragons. Mostly just eggs.
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You’ll love it, trust me.
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You know how when you read a book you pretty much know who the heroes and bad guys are? You pretty much know who’s going to die and who won’t?
Him: Well, that doesn’t apply here.
And hey, he was right. It was unlike anything I’d read, and I did love it. The characters were wildly diverse, mostly complex, but they still managed to be internally consistent. It was clearly fantasy, but the fantasy elements felt grounded. I mean, sure there was magic; you have to expect that in fantasy fiction. But it wasn’t airy fartsy magic–you know, a wizard in a goofy hat holding up a staff and firing off balls of lightning. The magic was magic in the same way menstrual fluid is blood–it was messy, maybe, but basic and honest.
And yeah, there was no way to guess who was going to live or die. Main characters were killed. Not killed in noble, honorable, heroic ways. Killed ugly for stupid reasons. Killed ugly and pointlessly (well, not pointlessly in terms of the narrative, but pointlessly in terms of the story world). They just got killed or maimed, and there it was. Nobody in the story was safe. It was awful and completely glorious. Okay, as the story progressed and the novels got longer and more popular, the main characters became safer. But the precedent had been set, and you were never quite sure if they were really safe.
I had to wait almost a year for the second book in the series to be published. And it was worth the wait. A Clash of Kings was as good as the first novel. We knew at that point it was going to be a trilogy. The third novel, A Storm of Swords, also took about a year and was equally good. By then Martin had decided there’d be six books. That was a tad concerning; six books is a LOT of story. But if Martin could maintain the quality of the work and the novels were published at a reasonable rate, then yay.
We had to wait five years for the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. Five years. Half a decade. Still, it was quite a good novel. But lawdy what a long wait. The only good thing about that long wait was that, just before the fourth novel was published, I had time to re-read the three earlier books so I could remember what had happened.
Then I waited six years for the fifth book. Six years. It only took two years for Magellan to circumnavigate the globe in a goddamn carrack (with a similar body count, by the way). Six years, and by then Martin had decided there’d be maybe seven books in the series. Seven fucking books. Maybe. I bought the book, whatever it was called, and read it, but by that point I’d rather lost my excitement about the story. There were a few characters I was still interested in (Tyrion and Arya, of course), but the story itself had pretty much lost its meaning for me. I sort of recall enjoying the fifth book, but it felt bloated and sluggish, like it had overeaten and just wanted to take a nap.
That was ten years ago, and we’re still waiting for the sixth book. Wait, that’s not true. I’m not waiting for it at all. I no longer care if the sixth or seventh novels ever get published. I watched the HBO series, and for me the story is done. I’m told the series ending may be different from the ending of the novels, but Jeebus on toast, who cares?
Look, George. R.R. Martin gave us three really solid novels, as well as a couple of pretty good ones. That’s no small thing. But he’s let his readers down. He built up their expectations, then failed to meet them. He effectively promised–and continues to repeat that promise–that he’d finish this story. He should either plant his ass in a chair and finish it or just admit that he’s done–that the story is going to remain unfinished. He needs to be honest with the readers, who are rightfully disappointed in him.
We also have a legit reason to be disappointed in HBO. They produced six good seasons of Martin’s story–and one season that was only okay, as well as the massively awful final season. But that’s also partially down to Martin. The HBO series was flawed but mostly solid so long as they had access to the source material–the novels. When they tried to go beyond the novels, even with Martin’s help, the quality of the story suffered.
Maybe the new HBO-Martin projects will be good television. Maybe it’s clever of HBO to buy access to Martin’s story world, but leave Martin himself out of it. Maybe they can produce good work if they decide not to rely on Martin for anything other than ideas. I don’t know.
What I know is this: I don’t much care what George. R.R. Martin is doing now. Or what he promises he’s going to do. I’m grateful for his early work, but that’s it. I don’t care that HBO is preparing more shows based on his story world. I’m grateful for the few good seasons of GoT, and that’s it.
But the promise of more of Martin’s work? Pardon me while I yawn.