We would do well at this moment to remember three things: Life is fleeting, the future is unpredictable and George R.R. Martin does not work for us.
Well, he works for HBO, in a manner of speaking; his “Song of Ice and Fire” book series, adapted as “Game of Thrones” for that network, has become a worldwide, Emmy-winning juggernaut, and presumably he happily cashes HBO’s checks. He is also under contract with a worldwide array of publishers, all of whom had hoped to release the sixth book in his series before the HBO show resumes in April.
That won’t happen, Martin announced Saturday, in a post that was touching in its honesty. You can’t come away from reading that post without thinking that Martin cares about his fans deeply. Despite his apologetic tone, however, the wailing and rending of garments commenced immediately in some quarters of the “GoT” fandom.
Lurking behind the outcry is a (mostly) unspoken fear: What if something happens to Martin before he finishes the book series? What if he dies?
Well, first of all, I hope Martin has a long, healthy and happy life, whether or not he ever writes another word. Having created so many vivid, thoughtful worlds and done so much to further genre fiction in popular culture, he deserves to do a victory lap for the rest of his days. But he keeps on writing, praise the old gods and the new, even though, if I were him, I would have retired long ago in order to roll around in piles of money.
But OK, let’s speculate: What if, for whatever reason, Martin never publishes another novel in his “Game of Thrones” series? That would be a drag, but it would not be the end of the world. It wouldn’t even be the end of that world.
As he has noted in various interviews, he has told David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the executive producers of HBO drama, where the story goes and how it ends. Of course, the show and the books have diverged, so they were always going to be different animals (and should be viewed as such). But whatever Martin’s output, that show is such a winner for HBO that presumably the Westeros saga will keep trundling along until Benioff and Weiss want it to stop.
Whatever Martin does or doesn’t do, the show will be what it’s going to be, and it isn’t going anywhere. So let’s go back to the worst-case scenario: What happens if Martin never publishes another book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series? To be clear, I don’t think that will happen — Martin said substantial progress has been made on the sixth book of a projected seven tomes — but if those books dried up, what would that teach us?
It would serve as a reminder that life is tenuous and fragile and it’s not up to us how things end. That’s just how it is sometimes.
Would it be frustrating? Sure. Sad? Of course. But it’s far sadder to contemplate the artists whose careers did actually end too soon. Not a week goes by that I don’t wonder about the masterpieces Kurt Cobain would have created in middle age. Thinking about the early death of writer Harris Wittels still brings me to tears, even though I never met him; that’s how much his work meant to me. I’m sure we can all name friends and relatives who’ve died too soon, with children to raise and brilliant prospects in their futures. That is where tragedy lies, not in a guy blowing a deadline.
As it stands, we’ll just have one more book to check out in 2017, or whenever. (I stopped reading the “Song of Ice and Fire” series after Book 3. I knew the HBO series was in the works and I didn’t want to be too far ahead of it, story-wise. When it’s over, I’ll read the entire book series, and I’ll no doubt enjoy revisiting that world and engaging in friendly arguments with Martin in my head.)
The bottom line is, we are not entitled to Martin’s story: We are lucky to get it, whenever he wants to share it with us. Sure, waiting can be a bummer, but “The Sopranos” took long breaks between seasons. “Doctor Who” was off the air for decades before the BBC revived it. Sometimes we have to wait for what we want, and sometimes we don’t get it — and we have to find our own ways of living with those frustrations. And those frustrations are not George R.R. Martin’s problem.
It’s interesting — and a little discouraging — that so many fans want Martin to march in lockstep when it comes to deadlines; that mentality goes against so many of the themes Martin explores in his work. “Game of Thrones” — the books and the TV show — is all about the desire to be free of onerous restrictions and systematic oppression. The story often explores the tension between of the rights and responsibilities people have to their communities and clans, and those individuals’ desire to have some autonomy. In Martin’s work, duty and responsibility are important, but freedom and individuality are even more celebrated. You can have some issues with the novels and the TV show (I do too), but the reason they’re powerful is because they’re about unlikely people asserting their humanity and showing compassion in the most unlikely circumstances.
Nobody’s perfect in Martin’s universe, but we root for Arya, Daenerys and Tyrion because they’re not always looking out for themselves. They try to see the bigger picture, and despite their flaws and despite their emotional baggage, they try to do the right thing — if they can figure out what that is. They care, and they are capable of kindness, despite having been grievously hurt, physically and emotionally.
So, all things considered, it would be nice if people backed off from Stannis-style rigidity and didn’t follow Martin around chanting “Shame!” As Neil Gaiman put it when a reader complained about Martin’s publishing pace in 2009, “People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.”
Martin is not a machine, he’s a human being, and as he said in his blog post, no one could be more disappointed than he is at this moment. But I’m inclined to think we’re not even entitled to our own disappointment. As Gaiman noted, “George R.R. Martin is not working for you.” Nope.
But fans who bought Martin’s books “deserve closure,” one person said on Twitter after I posted a link to Gaiman’s essay. Here’s my reply to that correspondent (well, a more eloquent version of it):
No one deserves anything. We get what we get, and we should be grateful that sometimes we receive things we enjoy — including tales we can debate over a couple of drinks.