Posts Tagged ‘George R R Martin’

Some people – both fans and critics – still seem to want to stick fantasy in a special cultural corner. But lets face it, when one of the most popular works in the genre is getting regicide jokes onto Sesame Street, that genre isn’t the wimpy kid in the corner any more.

And as if to prove that Game of Thrones can be combined with just about anything, here are two very different parodies I stumbled across within minutes of each other. Enjoy!

A great character name is evocative. It tells you something about the person you’re encountering in the book. It implies things about their character before another word has even hit the page.

I’m reading Gail Carriger’s charming Etiquette & Espionage, and it made me think of this. It’s littered with names like Sophronia, Petunia and Dimity, names that evoke it’s upper crust Victorian social setting as well as specific characters. There’s a Mrs Barnaclegoose in the first scene, a name both amusing and evocative.

But my favourite is Bumbersnoot, the name of Sophronia’s mechanimal pet. It’s a name that evokes a gentle, friendly character, that helps me picture the mechanimal’s behaviour even when it’s not described, and that’s just fun to say.

Go on, say it out loud. Don’t worry about the looks you get, it’ll be worth it.

Bumbersnoot.

Wasn’t that good?

The king of this sort of naming is Charles Dickens. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but it’s littered with evocative and curious names. Just think of his most famous character, Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a hard, angular name for a hard, angular man. It sounds nasty. It’s so brilliant that his surname has become a by-word for meanness and spite.

George R R Martin’s good at this too. It’s difficult when you’ve got a cast is huge as his, and a world that’s darker and more grounded than Carriger’s Finishing School. But just think of Ned Stark.

Ned’s a good, reliable name. It’s a no nonsense name. It’s a name that’s straightforward, that gets stuff done without allowing complications to unfold. That name evoke’s all that’s noble about the character, and all that becomes his downfall.

And Stark, a name that literally describes the lands he comes from and the way that shapes his character. A cold, hard landscape that breeds hard men and women.

So, the usual question – what are your favourite? What great names from fiction have I missed? Who does this best?

George R R Martin isn’t afraid of using multiple viewpoints. If anything, it’s becoming a little bit of a problem in the later Game of Thrones books, as every single character in Westeros screams to have their voice heard. So it’s interesting, both as a reader and a writer, to get some insight into why he does it.

Original photo by Shane Lin via Flickr creative commons

Original photo by Shane Lin via Flickr creative commons

Broadening narrative scope

Martin recently gave some advice for budding fantasy writers. As part of it he talked about choosing PoV characters to broaden the narrative’s scope. He’s telling an epic tale of war, and he can’t show different aspects of what happens without showing a range of experiences – people in the various theatres of war, living through different events on different sides. It’s a much more modern approach than using an omniscient God-like viewpoint, and I agree with Martin that it’s a better one.

Losing focus

The problem with this sort of thing is that a story with so many different viewpoints, such a scattered focus, can lose some of its emotional impact. Momentum and intense atmosphere are sacrificed for the sake of showing it all. Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories suffer from this. They achieve a huge scale through multiple viewpoints, and you get to see every facet of the war, but they often lack a sense of atmosphere and emotional engagement.

Keeping a balance

The more I think about this, the more I realise just how brilliant George R R Martin is as an author. Despite that broad spread of viewpoints he manages to fill every chapter with emotion and tension, to make me care about nearly all his characters. It’s a tricky thing to do.

Of course, if he turned that skill to a more focused and compact story, something like his previous Fevre Dream, then he could build something truly intense. But I’m loving what he’s doing right now, so I shan’t complain.

In fact, knowing why Martin writes the way he does is reassuring for me. Understanding that that approach is a particular tool for a particular job lets me relax into a different approach to viewpoint in my writing, while appreciating both the glory and the limits of what Martin is doing.

Keep it up George, you continue to be awesome. And thanks for the advice.

Thinking about the nature of steampunk got me considering an issue that it tends to ignore, but which is inextricably tied into the industrial nineteenth century society on which steampunk is based. That issue is imperialism, and the nature of empires, and it’s interesting to think about how it fits into fantastic literature.

Empires are a fairly common feature of genre fiction, especially fantasy. Whether it’s the imaginatively named The Empire of Star Wars, or the expansionist evil of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, we love a good empire. But this is usually just empire used as a shorthand way of indicating an evil and/or expansionist nation, a big bad for the heroes to oppose. It doesn’t get into the nature of empire.

There are some notable recent examples bucking this trend. George R R Martin’s Westeros is clearly an empire, made up of disparate nations brought together by war and compromise, some more reluctantly than others. Martin uses features of empire, such as a government geographically and culturally distant from many of its people, and the resentments and rebellions that exist on the fringes of a vast state.

Joe Abercrombie hs created another example in his Union. Again, this is a nation that doesn’t self identify as an empire, but clearly is one. And again, features of empire are explored. An elite turning the efforts of the masses to their own ends, especially in the case of the mage Bayazid. The role of the military in such a society, with actions on the field of battle shaping and shaped by political competition and hierarchy. The dehumanising experience of people ground down, often to their deaths, by the needs of a state for whom they are anonymous resources, as shown throughout The Heroes. And the conflicts on the fringe of empire in Red Country, as so-called civilisation bears down upon the wilds beyond, restricting the choices of free living people, leaving them to flee, submit or die.

In some ways, it’s hardly surprising that empire is seldom dealt with in this way, especially in the sort of celebratory fiction that is much steampunk and Victorian fantasy. It’s hard to portray an empire as something sympathetic, and so it is usually a villainous institution seen from the outside, or an absence, an empire in name only, like the Britannia that plays background to much gaslight fantasy. I’m not judging this, just noticing the pattern, and perhaps the opportunity. As Martin and Abercrombie have shown, there’s a lot of interest to be found in this theme, and for writers of steampunk in particular, there are new ideas to be had.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve missed loads of other examples of empires. If so, let me know – it’s as good for me to learn something knew as to keep writing what I already think.