I’m calling this a confession, because there are so many people out there who seem to worship Martin as the new guru of fantasy it feels like I need a justification. And no, I’m not going to say I dislike his books because I’m squeamish about all the violence and sex. On the contrary, I enjoy them very much. When I have one of Martin’s books in my hands, I find myself turning the pages as fast as I can. He’s an extremely decent stylist, he can create great characters, and he has a very nice way with plot. I certainly don’t object to his writing in general.
What I object to is a particular form of praise that Martin (or the series Game of Thrones in general) receives from all quarters: namely, that he writes ‘adult’ fantasy. That his novels are dark and realistic instead of naively heroic wish-fulfilment. That they paint an accurate portrait of the human soul, that’s never all black or white. That they picture conflicting viewpoints without taking sides and thus achieve a form of objectivity and accuracy. While I’m all for realism, complex portrayals in shades of grey instead of blacks and whites, and uncertainty, I don’t think Martin is doing ot right. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Let’s start with the easiest stuff. First, just dumping it some violence and sex does not make a book more adult. There’s nothing easier to understand than violence and sex in their simplest expression. Children’s books, movies and stories feature people that happily kill each other and then get married, and well, picturing two people having steamy sex in a fantasy story is not much more complicated than saying that they get married and have lots of children. Hitting people, killing them? How about those games where children chase each other screaming ‘Bang! You’re dead’? Just because movie ratings would have you believe that somehow, the measure of someone’s maturity is how much violence they can handle without flinching does not mean there’s anything inherently adult or even mature about reading tales of murder and pornography. What makes a story truly thoughtful, mature, ‘adult’ then, if we must use the word, is its understanding of the causes and consequences. Why we have sex (or kill each other), and what it means. What we put in those acts. How they affect us.
That’s the truly complicated part, the part about which an honest writer could write thousands of thoughtful pages about. And that’s the part I think Martin gets wrong. Because in a world where everybody is generally amoral, where people only care about power, money, and perhaps their family honour when they’re in a good mood, there’s no meaning to actions. And I’m so bloody tired of hearing that it makes books more ‘realistic’. Realistic? Measured against what? Stating that human actions are defined by violence and have no moral motive is a subjective interpretation, just like anything else. I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong. What is wrong is to parade it as objectivity.
In fact, I’m generally wary when people boast about their objectivity, and how moderate they are and how they can’t be fooled by extreme positions. As far as I’m concerned, objectivity is a lie. You’re always taking a stance, and desperately holding on to a moderate middle ground merely means that you’re perfectly happy with the statu quo. When Martin stages a uniformly morally ambiguous cast who could all be villains in their own right, he’s not being objective. He can’t, simply because his books are read by people. And those people will end up rooting for one character or another, because that’s how we read books (and that’s implicitly what Martin encourages: choose your pet). So, who will readers root for? One can suspect they’ll simply choose the characters closest to them, the ones that least challenge their assumptions or sympathies. Many of them will choose the likeable underdog over the harsh lady of the castle, the courageous bastard over the spoiled child. In any case, it’s unlikely that the books will force them to step out of their comfort zone and identify with the villain, simply because there are so many characters to choose from and you can just pick your own hero. In the end, there’s no point, no moral challenge, absolutely no risk taken. You can just look for your own pre-formed convictions in the novel and hold on to them.
I’d accept that from a historical novel, or movie. A series like Rome does make an extensive use of sex and violence under all their forms, but in this, it actually does a reasonably good job of portraying the mentalities of another time and place. But A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t have the excuse of having to be true to the minds of a definite era, because it’s fantasy. It never happened. Fantasy can be a great tool to comment on actual history, because it lends itself to all sorts of thought experiments. But Martin is not experimenting here. He merely gives a not-so-complex view of human relationships portrayed in a uniform moral grey. I can’t see any shades in his novels–nor even, let’s get crazy, colours.
But hey, at least the ladies are hot.