Librarian of Alexandria


The Literary Offenses of George Martin

It's fun to reread Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses and mentally replace "Deerslayer" with "Game of Thrones". Somehow, the essay stays exactly as apt.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Game of Thrones," Martin violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

  1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Game of Thrones" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

  2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Game of Thrones" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

  3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Game of Thrones" tale.

  4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Game of Thrones" tale.

  5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Game of Thrones" tale to the end of it.

  6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Game of Thrones" tale, as Daenerys Targaryen's case will amply prove.

  7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Dothraki stereotype in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Game of Thrones" tale.

  8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the Night's Watch, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Game of Thrones" tale.

  9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Game of Thrones" tale.

  10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Game of Thrones" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all drowned together.

  11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Game of Thrones" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

  3. Eschew surplusage.

  4. Not omit necessary details.

  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.

  6. Use good grammar.

  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Game of Thrones" tale.

Frankly, I don't dislike Game of Thrones, but as a television show, at least, it has more in common with theme-park rides or pornography or the movie Avatar than it does with serious works of fiction. Game of Thrones exists for the experience of Westeros, which is why every conversation involves ten sentences of fake formalities and faux-medieval dialogue for every relevant fact, while each of the thousand paper-thin characters has a single goal and pursues that goal while evincing their single defining trait (Littlefinger is duplicitious and protects Catelyn; Tyrion is clever and pursues power; Joffrey is a jackass and pursues more jackassery.)

Game of Thrones not meant to have any kind of depth or complexity—it's meant to appear that there is depth and complexity just behind the curtain, so that as you sit with your arms and legs inside the ride, you feel like the characters are people instead of animatronic dummies. Space Mountain can't take you to space, and pornography can't make you feel sexual intimacy, but they can emulate the feeling of it. Game of Thrones emulates the feeling of experiencing a complicated and nuanced story without ever giving you the story. It is, in that sense, effective without ever being good.


Mendel: The Last Genebender

This is what I'm thinking about as I watch The Legend of Korra, which takes place in the same fictional universe as Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Proposal 1: The Genetic Basis of Bending

There are five alleles: w for waterbending, e for earthbending, a for airbending, f for firebending, and N for no bending. The first four are recessive, i.e. ww is the genotype of a waterbender, aa of an airbender, but a wa displays no bending whatsoever.

The final allele, N, blocks all bending in the person who has it. If two people reproduce, one of whom is ff and the other of whom is NN, then despite one parent being a firebender, none of their children will ever be a bender, because all will exhibit the genotype Nf. N is a dominant allele.

In the original series, Sokka and Katara are both members of the water tribe, but Sokka is not a waterbender while Katara is. Their father Hakoda is not a bender, while their mother Kya is. We can therefore surmise that Hakoda's genotype is Nw, Kya's is ww, and, by Punnett square:

  | N  | w
w | Nw | ww
w | Nw | ww

Sokka's genotype is Nw, i.e. no expressed bending, while Katara's is ww, i.e. she is a waterbender.

This is consistent with Bolin and Mako in Korra. Bolin is an earthbender and Mako is a firebender, but the two are brothers. Consequently, Bolin must have ee and Mako ff, so both of their parents must be ef:

  | e  | f
e | ee | ef
f | fe | ff

This analysis seems to fit most of the show.

Proposal 2: Account for Aang's Descendents

Aang has three children: Kya, Bumi, and Tenzin. Kya is a waterbender, Tenzin is an airbender, and Bumi does not bend. Bumi is well-explained by the previous proposal, as his genotype would be aw, a non-bending type. But how to account for the other two?

Let us posit a sixth allele: C is the most recessive allele, and as such enables any other kind of bending. A person with the Ca genotype would be an airbender, Cw a waterbender, and so forth; CN would still be a non-bender. In effect, C enables the other allele to take effect.

Now, we revise our analysis of Sokka and Katara's lineage. Suppose that Hakoda, instead of Nw, were instead NC:

  | N  | C
w | Nw | Cw
w | Nw | Cw

Now, Sokka's genotype is Nw, while Katara's is Cw. Sokka is still a non-bender, and Katara is still a waterbender. Now Katara reproduces with Aang (Ca):

  | C  | w
C | CC | Cw
a | Ca | aw

Their children can have one of three possible phenotypes: either airbending (genotype Ca), waterbending (Cw), or neither (CC or aw), giving Tenzin's genotype as Ca. His wife Pema either has a recessive airbending trait, so that their children have aa genotypes, or a C allele, so that their children have Ca genotypes. The latter seems more likely.

Accounting for the Avatar

How do we make room for the Avatar, who can bend all four elements? Above I suggested that Aang's genotype was Ca, which enabled us to make the square for Aang and Katara's children work. But what enables the Avatar to bend all four elements?

Magic. Just magic. Fuck you.