Saturday, May 18, 2019

Everyone Dies: Games of Thrones, fan disappointment and delusions in fiction and fantasy

On this rainy Saturday, while I'm looking forward to this evening's plans, I feel, like many others, a sense of dread and worried anticipation for the series finale of Games of Thrones tomorrow night. Fan outrage over the last episode has reached such a tumult that nearly 700,000 people have signed a petition demanding a re-shoot of their favorite TV show. 

It sounds completely absurd to non-fans, but there's a reason for it. I'll explain, and of course tie in concerns about the comparatively tiny yet related themes in my novels.

First off: massive spoiler alert. If you're at all aware of pop culture and entertainment, you know that the last episode featured 'Mother of Dragons' Danerys Targaryen taking a 'mad' turn by ignoring the tower bells that signaled the surrender of the army at King's Landing. In a seemingly abrupt move, Dany foists her fire-spewing dragon over the city, killing soldiers and citizens alike in a violent spectacle of destruction. Several characters die dramatically or disappointingly. Arya witnesses the destruction and mass deaths on ground level, and Dany and her dragon are removed from close focus to become a flyover horror.

The destruction of King's Landing
There are many reasons why fans hated this episode; the writing simplified the characters' motivations. The show runners and producers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, are accused of choosing spectacle and special effects to showcase their skills for their next project, making the next Stars Wars film for Disney. Fans and critics also dislike the shortened character arcs in a sprawling tale we've invested time (more than 80 hours!) watching for eight years.

Benioff and Weiss (nicknamed D & D) were at a disadvantage since Song of Ice and Fire George R.R. Martin hasn't finished the last two books of the original story. He's said to have told the show's producers a vague outline, but they may or may not have followed it.

So the show takes on a toll not unlike Arya's list of intended murder victims. One by one, our favorite characters get picked off as everything wraps up in a sad tragic finale. Well, what were you expecting? To paraphrase actor Liam Cunningham, who plays the stalwart Davos Seaworth, the story's not going to be gifted to us with a little pink bow. Instead, we're getting a bloody heart coated in ash. Besides, observant super-fans may have seen more than a dozen foreshadowed moments (YouTube) in previous episodes that led to the penultimate drama.

The bombing of Baghdad
War, war is stupid
But I think there's another reason for the fan outrage; denial and self-delusion. 

Many fantasy novels, TV shows and movies serve as analogies and allegories for contemporary of real-life historic events. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was inspired by the horrors of World War I and the environmental destruction from British industrialized pollution.

Fans of Danerys (and confused parents who've named their children Khaleesi) forget the history of the Targeryan clan as being despotic rulers with a hint of inbred insanity.

Here's something else most are forgetting. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. A million people killed, a country decimated to cinders, and what is the media reporting about today? The death of Grumpy Cat.

To quote the above linked Esquire article, "The results are in. Iraq never recovered. Syria devolved into civil war. We got closer than ever to the inhumane regime in Saudi Arabia, now engaged in mass slaughter in Yemen with weapons we supplied, because there’s never been a problem with that before. And the most remarkable result of all is that almost nobody paid any real price for their role in this nightmarish escapade."

Perhaps viewers of the fictional King's Landing destruction are outraged because of our own forgotten outrage (or approval?) of the utterly fraudulent reasons for the invasion and ensuing decade and a half of military violence, mass slaughter, and enormous profits made for the Bush clan, Dick Cheney, Halliburton and his Pentagon colluding cohorts. Just a guess.

A deranged despot obliterates a city for completely wrong reasons. Sound familiar?
Not to fans who want to partition a woman riding a fire-breathing dragon as nothing more than their fantasy entertainment.

Martin's books, and D & D's adaptation, clearly reflect our own real human history as destroyers, monsters and inept heroes. Metaphorically, the Night King and his army of the dead are as realistic as a war or a plague. And not to be flippant, but to contextualize this week's headlines, what woman in power –or riding a dragon– wouldn't want to decimate an oppressive regime?

PINS in a Minneapolis library!
Spoiler Alert: Everyone Dies
So, what is the purpose of art and entertainment, to distract or inform? Can it do both?

Switching focus to my own comparatively tiny artistic achievements in fiction, I've written about some small tragedies. In my debut novel, PINS, there is a brutal murder. In Every Time I Think of You, a sports accident permanently harms a teenager boy's body, changing his life forever. In the sequel, Message of Love, a secondary character dies of AIDS.

And in my latest novel, Now I'm Here, nearly everyone except the narrator dies. There, I wrote it. The plot cat's out of the bag. Hey, you've had since September 2018 to read it. 

But while Game of Thrones viewers and readers were repeatedly told, 'This will not end well," by actual characters, they denied this upcoming (probably) tragic finale. It's a bit different with my own work. I leave room for hope, because I'm not writing about massive armies and dragons.

You only have to read the opening prologue previewed on to get the idea that Eric, the narrator in Now I'm Here, is telling the story of two young men and their families, few of whom are around to tell their own story.

One of several research materials for 'Now I'm Here'
While I appreciate every one of my books' readers' write-ups, critical reviews, and articles (really!), what I found interesting was the delicacy of the reviews. 

No one wrote, "Oh, my god, why did they have to die of AIDS?" Few reviewers spoiled Every Time I Think of You with, "Damn, Everett becomes a paraplegic halfway through the book!"

But knowing the ending of Romeo & Juliet, (spoiler alert: they die!) shouldn't stop you from seeing a production of that Shakespeare play, one hopes.

The reason why I struggled with Now I'm Here for decades were many. When I started writing it in 1994, I didn't feel mature enough as a person to tell such a story. I didn't have enough distance from the timeline to bring it to fullness. Years of life later, things happened in my life and at my former Ohio home that built the fictional story.

The main problem was telling the story of a pair of shortened lives with affection and a sense of belief in their love. But why couldn't they have survived, one friend asked? 

Review at
Well, it's not Rent, where unlike its borrowed tale of La Boheme (nor the allegedly plagiarized novel People in Trouble; don't get me started on that), one character with AIDS inexplicably jolts back to life like a just-toasted Pop-tart.

Yes, there are survivors who became HIV-positive in the early 1980s. I know some of these people, mostly gay men. According to the CDC, nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are currently living with HIV.

But most haven't survived. As of 2016 (Wikipedia), about 675,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S., since the beginning of the HIV epidemic.  Worldwide, 940,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2017 (source). Only 58,000 U.S. military personnel died in the Vietnam War (source). 

But statistics dull our senses, and comparisons can be off-putting. That's why artists more often tell smaller stories, to retain a sense of humanity in tragedy. Just as I can't say I enjoy making my characters die, I didn't "enjoy" seeing the destruction of King's Landing through Arya's eyes on the ground. But it was riveting because it showed a personal view of the horrors humans inflict on each other, and the losses we all must bear, eventually.

But not today.
The rain has stopped, for now. 
I'm going outside to enjoy being alive. I hope you do, too.

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