There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a novelist becoming famous. There’s also nothing new about the notion that eager audiences would follow the progress of a novelist whose work has become a sensation; or that the media would chronicle both the novelist’s progress and the exploits of the fans. Hence that story we have all heard about American fans of Charles Dickens storming the port of New York for the delivery of the next chapter of “The Old Curiosity Shop.”
My favorite writer never experienced such acclaim in his time, although he occupies a strange place in The Pantheon as “The Novelist Who Has Had The Most of His Ideas Optioned For Feature Films Without Anyone Actually Ever Making A Feature Film That Actually Expresses His Actual World View In Any Actual Way”.* He is, of course, Philip K. Dick. I probably don’t have to summarize his work, other than to say that he was obsessed with identity—personal, institutional, national, and spiritual—as a porous, shifting construct, and the ways in which technology usurps, replicates, and warps those identities.
Dick was also a master of telling these very high–concept stories that Hollywood has gobbled up like so many morsels of hallucinogenic candy (Precognitive cops! Secret agents who have been implanted with false memories! Reality is a virtual reality program to keep us from realizing that reality virtually sucks! The cops tasked to hunt down fake human beings are being policed by a false police department staffed by fake human beings!) from the point of view of downtrodden schlubs who just, really, want nothing more than to carve out a little bit of happiness only to find themselves utterly screwed over by technology… usually while being berated by a shrewish wife. One of the most fun things about introducing movie fans to Dick’s work is watching the head–spins when they realize that Schwarzenegger in Total Recall is much closer to Woody Allen in the short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,” or that Harrison Ford’s brooding detective in Blade Runner is—in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”—a sad sack whose wife belittles him for his low income, and who can’t to figure out the correct setting on his anti–depressant computer, or that John Anderton in ”The Minority Report” is far closer to Dennis Franz than to Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
All of which brings me to the unique predicament of George R. R. Martin. Though closer physically to Dennis Franz than Tom Cruise, Martin is far from a schlub: he turned from a lucrative career in TV to return to his first love, novel writing, in which he has accomplished great feats, including a return to television. That much said, Martin may be the first writer whose own life and work have come to encompass so vast a Möebius–loop of narratives, meta–narratives, and poly–narratives, that his very existence may be described as Phildickian. Because the situation is ongoing, I am not sure that many appreciate the oddity of the man’s predicament: those of us who care about Martin’s work, and the increasingly labyrinthine story of its creation, are like the frog in a boiling pot of narrative convolution.
Whether or not Martin intended his seven–volume epic A Song of Ice and Fire to be his magnum opus and the song of his soul is moot. Most expect this to be Martin’s last stand; an idea that seems validated by his age and the pace of his writing. As magnum opera go, one would be hard pressed to beat A Song of Ice and Fire, and if it is not, indeed, the song of Martin’s soul, it at least is the grand summation of its creator’s ability and worldview. A few books into Martin’s saga, the books were turned into the HBO show Game of Thrones. The series is insanely successful: the first fantasy show—arguably the first pure genre show—to win a best drama Emmy, and a phenomenon chronicled slavishly by the entertainment–journalism–industrial complex.
As the pace of TV production quickly lapped Martin’s ability to execute his vision in prose, the writer/producers—both in collusion with, and occasionally in spite of, him—have had to make up their own version of Martin’s story using signposts Martin has described but not fleshed out in his novels, and about which he may still change his mind as he goes about the task of crafting his version of the story. As the popularly reported narrative has it, George R. R. Martin is, essentially racing—and losing to—a team of writers, producers, actors, and directors (which include himself), to complete a vast narrative tapestry which he has not completely figured out, but which is essentially the summation of his own artistic life… and perhaps the song of his soul.
This brings up a host of Phildickian questions: “Which of the two, (novels or TV series) is the ‘real’ Song of Ice and Fire?” Is the television version of Martin’s work even an adaptation once it moves past Martin’s own conception of the events of his novels (a mathematical analysis of Martin’s output has him completing the seventh book in 2023, by which time the television series will long have been completed)? Can Martin’s own concept of the novels survive untainted by the narrative that will be developed once the team of writers that includes him beats him to the finish line?
Because of the popularity of Martin’s work, Martin’s own life has also become the subject of an increasingly polarized (and polarizing) meta–narrative that could easily be called A Song of What George R. R. Martin is Doing Other Than Writing His Books. As a modern celebrity, Martin is ubiquitous, but the longer it takes for him to finish his books, the more that the media’s coverage of his life takes on the sheen of evidence–gathering for both sides for a Netflix documentary about an upcoming trial for the crime of disappointing his readers.
Though we are not used to seeing such things as interviews, feature stories, behind–the–scenes electronic press kits, news reports, blogs, and mainstream and academic criticism or even highfalutin’ think pieces as part of the fiction of entertainment, they are every bit as constructed and “storified” for your enjoyment. The cultural footprint of a project as popular as A Song of Ice and Fire spawns a vast ecosystem of intertwined narratives, all designed to be as compelling as the flagship series. The more sophisticated the media at the disposal not just of the press, but of civilian bloggers, critics, twitterers, and so on, the greater, more varied, and less controlled by the commercial interests of the publishers/networks—and therefore more interesting—the cloud of narrative becomes.
Writing novels—especially longitudinal sagas with hundreds of characters in dozens of interconnected plotlines set in an entirely made–up universe—is a deeply personal process… but Martin is now working like Harlan Ellison in those store windows—only that window looks out into an entire industry based around chronicling his every keystroke and extrapolating how it may affect his production of the saga. Even the most unconcerned of consumers seems to know that Martin works on an old DOS machine, that he takes time off to watch the NFL, and that his heavy schedule of convention appearances cuts into his writing time. Martin himself has become a popular talk show guest, has appeared in comedy sketches lampooning both his magnum opus (the Conan O’Brien “Saturday morning cartoon Game of Thrones” in which Martin signs off by cheerfully declaring “Valar Morghulis, kids!”) and the reported pace of his writing (Martin appeared as “Zombie George R. R. Martin” on the apocalyptic zombie drama Z Nation: signing copies of A Dream of Spring, the last novel of A Song of Ice and Fire, long after the end of civilization as we know it).
As the guest appearances, self–portrayals, interviews, news reports, blogs, counter blogs, and tweets pile up, one might ask, “Will the real George R. R. Martin please stand up?” Is he a jolly professional talk show guest? A deadbeat creator so intoxicated by fame that he takes long stretches off the keyboard to command fans to bring him cheeseburgers to his room at conventions? Is he a thoughtful and deeply artistic soul forced to endlessly explain the artistic process to the detriment of said process? Is he a once–great NFL blogger whose novel writing sideline now cuts deeply into his true love of the gridiron?
Is the person known to the world as “George R. R. Martin” (the protagonist of The Song of the Making of A Song of Ice and Fire) even anything like the real man?
In truth, George R. R. Martin is probably all those things, and none, and many more. I’d even guess that as a person, he’s probably pretty comfortable in the spectrum of his own consciousness and doesn’t see himself as a bundle of idealized, stereotypical dramatis personae—or the victim of a Phildickian identity crisis. Audiences, however—even ones that watch Game of Thrones—are used to protagonists having singular goals in a tightly defined moral space. As a character in an ongoing global, community–generated dramatic narrative of creation, most people need “George R. R. Martin” to be one thing: hero, villain, deadbeat, Falstaffian victim of fame, etc. Being a “real person” however, makes Martin unpredictable and, as a result, there’s multiple “George R. R. Martins” to serve all narrative needs. As an audience we are stuck with “George R. R. Martin” as the lead of The Song of the Making of A Song of Ice and Fire, regardless of how “confusing” his behavior might be—and his identities are many depending on the chronicler, medium, and agenda.
One of the more interesting words to emerge from the confluence of narrative and technology is “transmedia”: coined by then–MIT Professor Henry Jenkins to describe stories told across multiple platforms in which the totality cannot be understood unless the reader has fluency in a variety of storytelling modalities. To me, The Song of the Making of A Song of Ice and Fire is the first true transmedia story in that, rather than a narrative scavenger hunt that is still directed through something somewhat resembling authorial intent, it is being generated in real time, by many people, over many years, and no one—not even the author of the core work—knows the real end.
The most interesting question here isn’t even “Will Martin finish his work?” or “Which of the two simultaneously–generated versions is the best—or most authentic—depiction of a fictional land that once was the unique domain of its creator’s mind?” or even “Will the real Westeros/George R. R. Martin/Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire please stand up?” Rather, I ask myself “how does a creator stay pure to a vision of himself and his work when his life and creation are themselves the subject of a meta–narrative of such unprecedented density over so many genres and media?”
All of which brings me back to Philip K. Dick. My favorite interpretation of a Phildickian thought experiment lies in a commonly articulated answer to the eponymous question of his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” To many the answer is that it doesn’t matter; what matters is that they dream. Which leads me to wonder if it matters whether George R. R. Martin and his creative process have been in any way changed or informed by all of this attention. Perhaps what matters is that, in telling his story, Martin has become the center of a much larger story that will hover over him and his creation long after the novels are complete and consigned to the page. Anyone who reads the full text of A Song of Ice and Fire once Martin has completed it—and for as long as the Internet exists—will be able to dive into a true rabbit hole of controversy and meta–narrative with the click of a few buttons. That rabbit hole is, and will be, by itself a narrative experience that will be unique to any person because no two readers will experience it in the same order… and perhaps that is the truth of all narrative in the postmodern era: the blockbuster novel, the tentpole film, the best–selling novel—are they objects with their own integrity, or are they inseparable from the inevitable pageant of commercial, journalistic, and critic—and fandriven response for their narrative resonance?
Hopefully by the time these questions are answered, both George R. R. Martin and “George R. R. Martin,” whoever they may be, will be sitting somewhere comfortable, enjoying a well–deserved rest, and watching the game.
*Though the series adaptation of The Man in the High Castle currently streaming on Amazon may just blow that title out of the water.
© 2016 by Javier Grillo-Marxuach