The author of the 'Game of Thrones' series talks about his newest novel, and the joys and challenges of writing genre fiction
Many will be relieved to know that A Dance With Dragons, the long-awaited fifth entry in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, is infinitely more satisfying than its predecessor, 2005's bleak and plodding A Feast for Crows. The aspects of Martin's work that have endeared him to fans are abundant here—rich world building, narrative twists and turns, and gritty depictions of the human struggle for power. Characters who were sorely missed in Feast—Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and Jon Snow—make up more than a third of the novel, and Martin is wise enough to give us at least a chapter from (almost) everyone else.
Weaknesses that have plagued Martin's previous books are also present: too much repetition, unexceptional prose, and characters who use the same idioms (and have sex in exactly the same manner) no matter their ethnicity, social class, or continent. But while A Dance with Dragons cries out for better editing, it remains entirely engrossing. Martin has hidden so many clues and red herrings throughout his previous volumes that it is a thrill to see certain pieces fall into place.
Much of the action in Dance takes place away from Westeros, across the Narrow Sea and along Slaver's Bay, where the exiled Tyrion has fled and Daenerys is preparing for both war and an onslaught of suitors. In fact, we see little of King's Landing, and the political intrigue that occupied previous books. Winter has very nearly come, and with it increased desperation and treachery, especially at the Wall, where Jon Snow is attempting to negotiate a fragile peace between the Night's Watch, the surviving wilding clans, and Stannis Baratheon, one of the claimants to the Iron Throne. The magic that re-entered the world with Dany's dragons is also gaining strength, along with the religious fervor that it inspires.
Martin strives to keep his reader engaged, and often succeeds, although his penchant for unpredictability means that the reader is increasingly skeptical of cliff-hangers, especially deaths, which rarely seem to stick. Let me put it this way: If one central character who appears to be almost certainly dead at the end of Dance actually is, I'll be both devastated, and very impressed.
We spoke to Martin last week about the challenges of building a fictional universe, the sexual politics of his writing, and why science fiction and fantasy are conquering the world.
Do you consider your writing as falling within the fantasy genre? What are the advantages to working within a specific genre? How does it help you tell your story?
I don't want to deny that I write in fantasy, I think I obviously do. There's magic and there's dragons and swords, and all the traditional trappings of fantasy here. But I've also written in other genres in the past, a lot of science fiction, horror, and books that are strange hybrids of all of these things.
I've always agreed with William Faulkner—he said that the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about. I've always taken that as my guiding principle, and the rest is just set dressing. I mean, you can have a dragon, you can have a science fiction story set on a distant planet with aliens and starships, you can have a western about a gunslinger, or a mystery novel about a private eye, or even literary fiction—and ultimately you're still writing about the human heart in conflict with itself. So that's the way I try to approach this thing. And while I may work within a genre, I've never liked to be bound by them. I have a lot of fun in frustrating genre expectations, using a bit of this or a bit of that, and doing something that hasn't been done before.
Do you think that being associated with fantasy limits the expectations or responses that people have to your work?
It does to an extent, certainly. But I think that's changing. I'm 62 years old, I sold my first story in 1971 and I started reading this stuff in the '50's and '60's, when I was still a kid. The prejudice against all genre literature, but particularly science fiction and fantasy, was very strong then. I had books taken away from me in school by teachers saying, "Oh you shouldn't read this stuff, it will rot your mind." A lot of markets didn't want to consider it either—you just had specialized magazines.
But science fiction and fantasy have really conquered the world, especially in popular culture. There are also wonderful writers out there like Michael Chabon, who are trying to break down these genre barriers, who are writing things that are demonstrably science fiction or fantasy, and yet are getting a lot of literary respect. You're seeing mainstream writers who are taking the tropes and themes of genre and writing so-called "literary fiction" out of it. So I think all the barriers are eroding and will continue to erode.
That's not to say there aren't still some places where the older attitudes prevail, but I don't think they will prevail for much longer. A hundred years from now they will be gone, and it will all be what it was to begin with—just stories, without marketing labels placed on them.