George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire might be the most daunting mountain in the history of fantasy fiction. The cycle includes five fat books so far, totaling over 4,500 pages, and Martin suggests that at least two more volumes will be needed to conclude the story. Compared with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Asimov’s Foundation books, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t just Everest—it’s the entire Himalayan range.
Even so, I wasn’t intimidated by it. I’ve spent 30 years reading fantasy and science fiction of every type, from the good (Orson Scott Card’s Ender books) to the bad (Terri Brooks’s Tolkien-knockoff Sword of Shannara series) to the terrible (Douglas Hill’s Galactic Warlord saga, which is more or less The Bourne Identity, in space).
Martin’s series offers multiple pathways for the ascent. There are the books themselves. There’s a TV adaptation, called Game of Thrones, that runs on HBO. There’s even a comic-book version. But none of these was particularly appealing. I average perhaps 900 pages of pleasure reading a year, meaning that I wouldn’t finish the five current books until midway through President Hillary’s first term. The TV version was unworkable for similar reasons: I don’t watch as much television as I’d like to, and I watch almost none without my wife, whose tastes are somewhat more elevated than my own. When I first proposed watching Game of Thrones, she raised one eyebrow and asked, “Does it have either dungeons or dragons?”
Not having seen it, I couldn’t be sure. But I admitted the answer was probably yes on both counts. So Game of Thrones would have to come out of my own TV time. I watch roughly 20 hours of solo television annually, with 3 hours allocated to the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff defeat, another 3 hours for the Super Bowl, and 6 hours for movies featuring Batman. Which meant that watching Game of Thrones on TV would have me finishing the series around the same time as reading the books would have. I briefly considered the comic books, but decided that the short, graphic adaptation would sacrifice too much of the series’s richness.
Which left the audiobook version. I eat audiobooks like candy. From Austen and Trollope to Patrick O’Brian and Lee Child, they are, for me, just about the ideal way to consume fiction. But the first entry in the series, A Game of Thrones, runs 34 hours, and it’s the shortest of the bunch. The second is 37 hours and change. They get longer from there. Listening to A Song of Ice and Fire was going to mean an investment of over 200 hours. I have a fair commute to work, but listening to it in both directions, the entire way, five days a week, was still going to take more than half a year of my life. It was at this point I began wondering, Where do people find the time?
Still, I started it. For three weeks, I dutifully listened every day as I schlepped back and forth between the exurbs and the city. And I now understand why people have fallen in love with it. Martin is an incredibly gifted world-builder, and the level of detail he has lavished on the fictional land of Westeros is so complete that he has created hundreds of years of history simply leading up to the point where his own story begins. To read—or listen to—A Game of Thrones is immersive in the best sense of the word. And yet, after the third week, I returned the audiobook to the library. I was bored.
Good genre fiction is always about something more than the story—it’s about a Big Idea. It has something to say. Irving Kristol saw this. “Science fiction,” he wrote, “as every student of the genre knows, is a peculiar vision of power: What it is really about is politics.” That strikes me as more or less true. And fantasy, which is the twin of sci-fi, is really about metaphysics. But A Song of Ice and Fire seemed to me much less a work of ideas than a soap opera. The most lushly imagined, sprawling soap opera ever written, perhaps. But a soap just the same. It’s an endless succession of character scenes where the big questions are who is betraying or scheming with or sleeping with whom. Which, by the by, may account for its enormous mainstream popularity.
Of course, I may be wrong. In an essay on Martin for the Claremont Review of Books, my friend Matt Continetti argued that A Song of Ice and Fire was more Machiavelli than swords and sorcery. Martin, Continetti wrote, “is exploring, through his characters and situations, whether enlightened despotism is possible in a broken world.”
“Who rules, on what grounds, and for what purposes are the central questions of the series,” Continetti explained. I would certainly love to read that book. But I never made it to any questions, let alone the central ones.
Maybe some day, when I have a spare 200 hours, I’ll try again.