An Alternative To A Song Of Ice And Fire

I respect George R.R. Martin as a writer. He’s immensely talented. I’ve met him. He’s a nice guy. I respect the achievement that is regarded as one of the greatest fantasy series of all time. I read the first two books. I enjoyed them for what they are. But I couldn’t finish book 3. A Storm Of Swords just lost me. I have wrestled with that for a couple of weeks now and finally sorted out why.

Why would I want to read a book that deals with heroes like reality does? GRRM takes all the archetypes and knocks them off one by one. Killing any admirable heroes and leaving us with mostly unlikable scum. Oh Jon Snow and Arya and even Tyrion still have likability, despite flaws. But you know, I get this kind of depressing reality on the news daily and the internet, I don’t need it in my fiction.  I read fiction to escape. I read it to hope for a better world. I read it to see possibilities, not realities that are depressing and sad or reminders of that.

Maybe I’m more thoughtful than some people. I’m painfully aware of my frailties, failures and inadequacies. My life’s quest has been to try and conquer them or at least counter them by living a life that makes a difference. From teaching to volunteering to mission  work, I have sought to help and encourage others and myself by seeking to make a better world, at least in the portion that I touch. And when I write, that’s why I write old fashioned heroes where the good guys are good and admirable, despite being flawed, and the bad guys are bad. You know who you want to see win and that’s okay because it’s natural. It doesn’t have to weaken the characters to have them be people who make us want to be better people ourselves; to make us hope people, including ourselves, can rise above our depravity and lead better lives, lives of significance that make a better world.

As my friend and editor Randy Streu states it: “It’s like, somebody decided that ‘nuance’ meant that, to be a real hero meant to be so flawed and depraved that actual heroism was dead. Acts for the greater good are a biproduct of self interest.” I guess some people do probably believe that. But I don’t. I think heroism is alive. I sometimes think the media wish it wasn’t. They go after anyone with character or fame like sharks at a steak cookout, tearing them to shreds, cutting them down to size, poking and probing at every potential weakness or flaw to tear them down. Reality TV thrives on this. It’s a celebration of mediocrity and failure. It’s about taking people we admire and bringing them down a  notch. That’s why it’s so wonderful when someone actually survives the reality TV feeding frenzy and comes out shining. Take Clay Aiken on the current Celebrity Apprentice or even Arsenio Hall. Arsenio lost it once, but then apologized and let it go. And he showed himself to be the class act most of his fans always hoped he was.

But Song Of Ice and Fire as well written as it is, as deep as it can be, just leaves me cold. Are people really this bad? Probably. But why are we celebrating it? Why are we putting that out there as a tale of fantasy when it’s really more a tale of sad reality? Don’t get me wrong, GRRM has a right to write what he wants. I stand up for his freedom of speech. I’m just saying that the alternative to A Song Of Ice and Fire appeals more to a lot of people and that’s not bad or wrong. I wish there were more of it.

I recently interviewed Robert Silverberg about the rerelease of the incredible Majipoor books which changed my life. The hope and excitement they inspired not only in the possibilities of what one man can do but what one writer can do have been formative in my life. Are there bad guys in that? Yes. Is the hero flawed? Yes. But there’s an underlying sense of wonder and optimism which is inspiring and moving. Lots of books used to have that. Less have it today and I wonder why. Is our nihilistic age destroying our ability to hope?  My childhood memories are filled with books which so inspired me: from Winnie The Pooh to Dr. Seuss to Huckleberry Finn and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Some of these books, like Finn and Wilder dabble close to the vest with reality. It’s not that characters don’t face real problems or flaws but that they triumph and grow into better people and the overall theme is hopeful and makes you want to do the same in your life. Is that such a bad thing? Does anyone who has kids really want them reading books with the tone of A Song Of Ice And Fire to set their expectations for the world and their lives?

Again, I am not saying A Song Of Ice and Fire is bad. I am just suggesting that another type of literature has its place and its importance and is still needed and wanted by many readers today and that, perhaps, the focus on moving away from that is misplaced. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are popular for a reason. They celebrate the triumph of flawed heroes over strong forces and great odds. And the protagonistic characters are admirable and likable.

It’s funny to me that so much of Christian literature took it to the opposite extreme. There, heroes are so whitewashed and villains so tame that readers living in the real world quickly grow bored and frustrated. The books don’t engage their reality enough, rather than the opposite of perhaps engaging too much. Instead of lacking heroes, they lack realistic people. The characters are cardboard and perfect and don’t resemble anyone we know and the world is too neat with too many rounded edges and not enough jagged ones. If that makes any sense. Whereas the Bible is filled with powerful heroes who are flawed men and woman fighting to rise above their flaws and facing incredible odds. Those character types still have power and meaning for audiences today. I think that’s why so many classics continue to be reprinted again and again, like the Majipoor series.  I’ll continue trying to write it, and I hope others will as well. I really hope the kids of tomorrow can find books to inspire them like I used to.  And I’ll continue to seek an alternative to A Song Of Ice And Fire.  Not that I refuse to read such things but that I’ll visit them sparingly. They offer me less of what I seek and need and thus don’t satisfy my cravings.  The HBO version has just made me feel stronger about it as they ditch the story and important POV characters like Arya for any scene where they can show more flesh and more gritty sex, violence, etc. They emphasize even more the darkness and they’re losing their way with the story in the process.

Yes, I still believe real heroes exist and the world can be a better place if we do our best to rise above our flaws and make a difference. I still believe story telling even on film doesn’t need to be darkly discouraging and total depravity, that there can be hope in its midst. And I hope I always will. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle http://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

29 thoughts on “An Alternative To A Song Of Ice And Fire

  1. All good points, Brian. I agree with almost everything that you wrote, though, I think I like the series a bit more than you do. I also love the Majipoor books and would like to see them get more notice. There are too many people that I mention the series to that don’t know them. Of course they all rush out and buy them once I educate them (grin).

    With regards to the realism vs fantasy balance: I think Roger Zelazney really got this right. Most of his characters were quite flawed but were still heroes. Lord of Light and the entire Amber seris come to mind. Also, I think David Gemmell as well.

    It’d be cool to hear further thoughts from you on this.

    1. Stephen, I need to read Zelazney. I have the complete Amber and Lord of Light on my TBR pile. I will read something of his in my Journey Through the Classics soon though.

  2. This post deals with the whole spectrum of idealism vs. cynicism, right?

    I think of my own story as “Earn Your Happy Ending”, like how I tend to like my stories. Most of the story is drenched in shades of gray but in the end, the protagonist deserves a more happy ending, even if it’s not perfect.

  3. I was able to catch the first season of Game of Thrones and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. But political fantasy isn’t my style so didn’t get into the books. I read to escape and political soap opera is not my idea of escape. And like you, I want to see good triumph over evil.

  4. But Song Of Ice and Fire as well written as it is, as deep as it can be, just leaves me cold. Are people really this bad? Probably. But why are we celebrating it? Why are we putting that out there as a tale of fantasy when it’s really more a tale of sad reality?

    I think that part of it is that what ASOIF’s themes are are diametrically opposed to what you are looking for in a book.

    ASOIF is not about escapism, at the bottom. That’s a feature, not a bug, as I like to say. Its meant to be a fantasy-infused mirror of our own world, to tell stories that would be completely untellable if they were straight up events. Fantasy is the sugar that allows it all to go down.

    There is Epic Fantasy out there that would scratch your itch, Bryan. Have you tried Helen Lowe, for instance?

    1. I don’t disagree, Paul. It is what it is. And yes, I do find other hopeful stories, although one has to look harder these days. I’d like to see more. I’ll look into Helen Lowe. Thanks for the suggestion. There’s a reason I am writing hopeful stories. But you know, Donaldson’s Covenant series was dark. But there was a hopeful spirit in the characters, even Covenant himself who was quite the anti-hero but goes through an amazing redemption story and transforms in many ways. Later characters who take over as leads are also more hopeful than he was. It’s just a happier place than Westeros where people seem to be fighting a losing battle in their will to live.

  5. spoilers…

    I stopped watching the show after they executed Ned Stark played by Sean Bean. He was by far the best character and Sean Bean did a fantastic job in that role. Ned was really the only real hero who was trying his best to do what was right.

    What happened to him was just too sick. First he gets betrayed by a creep who has a psychotic obsession with his wife and then beheaded in front of his daughters by the demon spawn of two evil twins…

    Really the whole show was just too sick. Everyone says it has such great realistic and morally grey characters. But just about everyone I saw was a pure villain who engaged in incest, murder, betrayal and every other act of villainy imaginable. I can’t believe the book series is so popular.

    1. To be fair, Jon Snow and the two Stark daughters haven’t really been villains, at least so far. Tyrion has his moments but he’s at least one with a conscience. Humans in general do tend to be depraved and I am not entirely against showing that in literature but I do believe we can rise above that.

  6. One of my favorite shows, The Great Queen SeonDeok, actually has really good people on both sides of the conflicts. No one’s perfect, but pretty much everyone has some highly admirable qualities. It makes for some very poignant fiction — I’m heartbroken whenever something horrible happens to the good guys or the bad guys. I think the saddest scene may actually be the demise of a fairly minor minion.

    1. I’ll have to check that out, MK. Thanks for the suggestion. I honestly enjoyed the first two SOIAF books, but I think it wore on me because I read broadly in the genres and there’s just a lot of nihilism and anti-heroes dominating the field atm. And my inner child longs for inspiring, hopeful stories a bit more often. Always good to hear others I can check out.

  7. Bryan, I am so totally in agreement with you! I think I’ve enjoyed Game of Thrones tv series mostly for the scope and the shock of seeing things so graphically displayed on screen, but I keep hoping for the next hero to emerge after Ned Stark, and it doesn’t seem to be happening. I’ve not tried reading the books, but it sounds like I will continue to be disappointed.
    Like you, I read and write SF and F to get away from reality, and to keep alive my belief that good can and will win out over evil in the end. There is so much depressing stuff in the news and on tv, I don’t want to find it in reading matter as well. I write what I like to read: it may have anguish and sorrow along the way, but there will always be a happy ending, even if it means reading the sequel to find it!

    1. In proper quantities, I read stuff like this. My fear, Deborah, is that EVERYONE will try and copy cat it now to have the next big thing. I’m sure they have been since it first came out as novels. And I think that’s part of what we’re seeing in the nihilistic nature of some contemporary fantasy books. What’s being lost for me is the traditional fantasy that inspires. ASOIAF makes me say “Please God, don’t let me be like these people” but I think we can reach for inspiring more than that. And I think future generations need and deserve the same type of inspirations which pushed us to where we are today. Glad to see I’m not alone from the responses here.

  8. I absolutely agree — I don’t read fantasy looking for the senseless brutality I could find on the evening news. And I don’t like politics, either, so I couldn’t find anything to like about ASOIAF. Same with a lot of modern dark fantasy.

    I’ve tried asking fans of ASOIAF what they like about it, and most of them excitedly tell me that “anyone can die”. Maybe part of the appeal is that unpredictability? I can see classic-style heroism being predictable in the sense that the heroes never die (except maybe near the end, as a noble sacrifice). But I’d personally rather see characters face death and change from the experience, instead of just being slaughtered for the sake of it.

  9. I saw it less as killing off all the likable characters and more as turning the bad guys into the hero’s. Like Jamie’s transformations thanks in part to Cat Stark and Brienne of Tarth.

      1. To me that’s the real beauty OF GRRM’s Ice and Fire. How he allows you to feel something other than revulsion for certain characters. He goes a bit beyond “A hero with a flaw” or the anti-hero.

        Still its a dark world and I don’t think I can stay there too long.

        1. Well, people are complex, yes, and GRRM does do that well, showing layered characters and a layered moral world. But I still find it a hard place to stay giving the nihilism of both it and the world around us. I still do believe in heroism and people rising above their flaws and wish he offered at least one strong hero to root for. I have had people troll this post arguing “how dare you call Jamie Lannister immoral,” for example. Uh, the guy sleeps with his sister, breaks his vow and kills the king he swore to protect and does a whole lot of brutal killing for power and pride. Yeah, he’s immoral in my world, period. He’s just not sympathetic. It amazes me sometimes that people actually admire characters/people like that.

  10. I was gonna let this go, but then I took all that excedrin Migraine and am caffeinated like a hummingbird on rock candy.

    I understand that ASOIAF is not to everyone’s liking. I happen to love it.

    But that’s because I am not a fan of Heroic Lore. I don’t like stories where there’s a great hero who solves problems. Unless it’s the New Testament I find such stories unrealistic and kind of irritating.

    Granted, it’s more of a “what’s your cup of tea” sort of thing. Because I gather you are more into the Heroic Lore type of thing, given that’s what you write. (Note: I haven’t read your book yet, so I’m not saying I don’t like your book. I’m just saying that my taste tends to lean toward more flawed dynamics.)

    I will say this, though, that what I really dislike are the Deconstructed Hero stories. While it’s possible for a Heroic Lore story to be done well enough for me to enjoy reading it when I’m in a certain frame of mind I just get tired of the people who take the heroes of yesteryear (think Batman, Spiderman) and turn them into examinations of flawed creatures. That’s my big peeve with the LOTR film series. They turn Aragorn from a step-up-and-be-a-man guy into a whiney fellow who spends 2.5 movies pouting “I don’t waaaant to be Kiiiiing!” Ugh.

    At this point in time I’m on my 4th goround with ASOIAF, and I’m loving it as much as I did the first time. It isn’t happy but it’s real. Real plus cool. I like a world where the struggles happen amidst dragons and wolves and walls of ice instead of in office buildings and city parks.

    1. Well, I don’t mind flawed heroes. I do like those. I really did enjoy the Thomas Covenant character’s journey despite being offended at his rape and his bitter personality. His redemption story really was incredibly well written even though he’s an anti-hero. For example. But writing flawed heroes just makes them human heroes, thus, relatable. To me Ned Stark was a hero, despite the beheading and his adultery, because he was trying to do the right thing and the beheading was his obedience to morality and oath and law of the land, not his personal evil vindictiveness or something. Jon Snow does seem to have some of those qualities as well. Arya is still coming into her own. Tyrion is very flawed but at least has a conscience and seems to be pulled toward doing the right thing. Those are examples from ASOIAF whom I really do like. But the overall tone is just not what I’m wanting right now and I find that depressing and not engaging. As I said, I am not criticizing its craft or really the story overall, but more talking about an approach to heroes and preferences. And I am actually glad to see I am not alone in that preference from the comments here. I do like stories where the heroes are admirable and inspiring, no doubt. I also like relatable flaws. Aragon is an example of perhaps how the LOTR moviemakers made a few adjustments to modernize their presentation of said heroes in ways I thought unnecessary.

      1. Just about all of the Starks are good. Jon is as honorable as Eddard except with more cunning. Tyrion, while you may disagree with his moral choices which generally only affect him, he treats just about every other character extremely well in the books.

        In fact you could argue in spite of his smart mouth, he’s done more good than Robb or Catelyn have ever done. The only time he’s done something bad is when provoked or done wrong by other characters in the book.

        There are plenty of good characters to root for and cheer on.

        Everybody is constantly scheming, but you admire those that act honorably and consider the general welfare of others as well.

        I think that thing that really turns a few people off is that they know after the first book that nobody is safe. And its for this reason that I enjoy the books so much. I actually fear for the character’s safety. I cringe when they get cut. I find myself nervously increasing my reading speed when they are in a precarious situation.

        1. Treats everyone well? Tyrion is acting by his own sense of honor, mostly selfish and continuing to debase himself in his methods and his personal life. And yes, they may affect him more than others but I think the whores and some of the others he uses or has killed are hardly unaffected. Robb can be excused perhaps because he’s young and not really ready for the role into which he’s been cast. I don’t much care for Catelyn. But there are NOT plenty of good characters to root for and cheer on. There is a dirge. That’s the point of this post. Your standards for “good” are clearly different than mine. I don’t find many admirable specimens amongst them and stand by my post. They may be moral for their setting or time, perhaps, an argument could be made, but that doesn’t make them speak to me as moral beings I would want to emulate and model myself after. They don’t inspire me to be a better man. They don’t inspire my hope in the goodness of heroes amongst men/women. They just make me sad. Which, as I said plainly, is not what I’m seeking in fiction at the present time. I get enough nihilism on the news daily.

  11. (Caveat: I’ve only seen the TV series so far; the books I’ll get to later, when I don’t have mounds of papers books already on hand waiting to be read.)

    I’ve always kind of thought that the TV show was trying to do for the middle ages what Mad Men was trying to do for the late 1950s when it started: to shock the audience into a sense that, yeah, this was a much more brutal time and things that are obviously horrible to us were not always obviously horrible to people.

    The funny thing is, living in South Korea, I’ve actually showed an episode or two of Mad Men to my students and had to explain which parts of the episode were designed to shock… because some of those shocking behaviours are still normal over here. (Not all of them, but some. Like, for example, the husbands–in I think it was episode 1–making jokes about a husband wanting his wife dead, in front of their wives.)

    Having grown up in Canada in the late 1970s and the 1980s, I can say that your news was routinely much scarier than our news. (But then, we got the major American networks via Detroit for some reason.) It was all murders, party-store holdups, crack epidemics. The Canadian news that sticks out in my memory was more about debating whether Sikh mounties should be able to wear a turban instead of the traditional mountie hat, or whether Quebec should separate, or who won whjat hockey game. I’m not saying Canada *was* idyllic–there were violent or frightening events, like when some local RCMP were discovered to have been dumping intoxicated natives out in the snow outside town instead of bringing them to the drunk tank, or that my hometown was, embarrassingly, the national capital for child prostitution–but the news didn’t really paint a horrifying, terrifying picture of the nation on a consistent basis.

    Which makes me wonder about all your references to the news. Certainly, if I hold up the TV series A Game of Thrones next to American TV, I would see little serious disconnected. But contrasted with the lives of most Americans I know personally? Big disconnect.

    Which isn’t to say you “ought” to enjoy that particular kind of disconnect, but rather that the disconnect seems to me much greater than you seem to suggest. If that makes sense… because your objection seems to be binary: it’s too dark, and it’s too dark in ways like how real life is dark. Except that, just as we like to tell ourselves we’ve come a long way since the days of Don Draper, we also like to tell ourselves we’ve come a long way since the Middle Ages. I would argue we have, in both cases, and there’s more disconnect than similarity… which makes the former objection probably more relevant than the latter, right?

    As for the weirdness of people admiring horrible people, well… people enjoying a horrible character is different than admiring one… and I’d guess most people who enjoy horrible characters don’t actually admire them.

    And the funny thing I’ve noticed is that often the people who get horrified by flawed-character fiction and chuck it aside on moral grounds, also tend to support the more morally reprobate figures (social, political, religious) in real life… whereas those who can relax and anjoy characters being horrible tend to be quite opposed to that sort of thing in real life.

    (A generalization, to be sure, and not an attempt to characterize you.)

    Personally, I don’t believe in heroism as an innate trait. Actually, a student of mine handed in an interesting essay on the changing conception of heroism since the ancient Greeks, and cited a study that pointed out that heroism is (a) necessarily a social construct (a label imposed on people by others because of his or her actions) but also that (b) people almost immediately begin seeking ways of tearing down heroes as soon as they are anointed by the public. A weird dynamic… maybe this relates to the two sides of the coin, one of which seems to be preferred by many people commenting here.

    Hmmm.

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