Monday, September 19, 2011

The Science Fiction Convention And The Raid

I spent the weekend finally wrapping up the latest in George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series.  I'd been saving the new book for my vacation in August, and I didn't quite get through it due to the 950 page length.  Anyway, finishing the book got me thinking about something from many years ago. 

Imagine that I told you that there was an all-new chapter that says what happens next, after the book that everyone paid some portion of the $35 MSRP to read, but that this new material was only available to people who showed up at a specific time and place to hear the text read aloud.  Everyone else will maybe be allowed to read this new chapter in five years. 

You might think that I'm telling a parable about raiders' currently-exclusive access to story content in MMORPG's, but it's also a true story.  Back in 2006, I attended two science fiction conventions where George Martin showed up to read chapters from the forthcoming book - chapters which ended up being exclusive to hardcore fans for far longer than anyone expected or intended.

George Martin has been criticised for the amount of time it has taken him to work on the novels, suggesting that he is falling shy of a responsibility to readers to finish the story, a common accusation thrown at devs for various reasons with various merit on MMO forums.  I would suggest that these folks are doing it wrong. 

Any given reader either is or is not enjoying the books; if you are, then does it really matter if/when the story ends, and if you're not, might you perhaps be purchasing and reading the wrong books?  Any given raider either does or does not enjoy the actual experience of raiding (through some combination of the gameplay and the company they keep).  For any given fan, the experience of attending the convention either is or is not worth the time and expense of attending. 

More to the point, there are ways for that experience to be unique - hearing the words in the author's own voice, as he holds a pencil to make notes on words he wants to tweak after hearing them aloud - that do not hinge on the exclusivity of the experience.  Millions will read the same chapters that we heard at those conventions five years ago, without diminishing the experience for the fans who showed up for a preview.  Perhaps MMO players - and the incentives that developers produce for us - could use a bit more of that outlook.


Anonymous said...

Your mention of George R. R. Martin reminds me of a classic blog post from Neil Gaiman. A fan writes "what responsibility does [Martin] have to finish the story?", and Gaiman's reply can be summarized as: "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch."

It's worth reading, if you are interested in an author's view of the relationship between writers and readers.

Carson 63000 said...

Haha, after reading this on the RSS feed, I thought, "you know, Green Armadillo's mention of George R. R. Martin reminds me of a classic blog post from Neil Gaiman..", and I came to post a comment saying as much. At which point I discover that someone else has already said it.

Azuriel said...

I dunno.

It's true that the author is not your bitch, so to speak, but I do believe in the whole Reader-Writer Covenant thing. I would rather not read a book series at all than read an unfinished one, or one that wherein the sequels are so far apart that the narrative tension is lost. I did this with Harry Potter, with the Dark Tower, with Dune, and now with The Wheel of Time.

Unless the author intended every reader to wait for years between books and let things simmer, then you are pretty much forced to admit that the waiting makes the overall experience worse.

Stabs said...

If GRRM had set out to never disappoint a fan he'd still be a science fiction writer and would never have let down his earlier fans by writing all this fantasy gunf.

@ Azu you may be right but what's a writer to do? Not publish until he's finished? That would change the genre from a genre that is characterised by deep treatments of stories over several books to novels and short stories because no professional wants to wait ten years to see his first paycheck.

The only viable solution is restraint on the part of the reader. If it bothers you wait until Song of Fire and Ice or Wheel of Time are finished then read all the books. But if you know it's halfway through it's your fault if you read it and then feel disappointed that it's not finished.

Klepsacovic said...

In regard to the Harry Potter series, if you'd asked me at the time "do you want all the books out right now?" I'd have certainly said yes. But looking back, I'm not sure how much I'd have really enjoyed that. The waiting adds anticipation. It also helps to prevent burnout. Given my habit of reading the latest book in one go, I suspect I'd have died of lack of sleep if they had all come out at once.

I think it is good for the writer and story as well. It gives them time to get feedback and consider it. Of course if they're not making a comic they are unlikely to retcon the deaths of our favorite characters (just please please not the Imp! (not done with series so far)), but they can consider the flow and timing, whether we like a character or not, that sort of thing.

In regard to finishing a series, I think we need to admit that the end of a series is an arbitrary point. Unless it's an "and they lived happily ever after" ending, we are fooling ourselves if we think the story is over just because the writer wrote "the end" on the last page. Just think of Star Wars, where sure, the trilogy was trilogized, but was the story actually over? The ten billion Star Wars novels say no. So from that I will say this: if a writer believes they cannot finish a series or do not wish to, say so and pay for retirement by selling the rights to write more to other people, hopefully good ones.

Anonymous said...

Azuriel does have a point. I think it depends a bit on how the story is told.
If the author is set to end a book (or even each book) with a horrible cliffhanger, maybe even gives the impression that it will take a year to write the next volume, then I totally understand people that complain if it takes 5 years.

Now, not knowing much about George Martin (not my preferred genre), I don't know what's it like in that specific case. Maybe his books are neatly self-contained, and it just takes him a long time to write things, to get stuff _just_ right. I would still reserve the right as a reader to be annoyed in that case, but I wouldn't be too harsh on the author. ;)

Green Armadillo said...

I had debated whether to mention the part about how long the books were taking, because I figured that part would be more controversial than the gaming portion of the post, but I decided that this was useful context, and so it goes. :)

@Anon2: That is actually kind of what happened. The first three books were published in 1996, 1998, and 2000. The fourth book was partially written, scrapped, re-written, and finally chopped in half and published in 2005. An author's note at the end of the fourth book explained that the other half of the characters' storylines had been removed and would be presented in the fifth book, which would be set simultaneously with the fourth. The good news was that he expected the fifth book to be done within a year because he was starting with so much material that had been pulled from the fourth book. The fifth book, the subject of this post, was finally published in July 2011.

There's a bit more information about why things unfolded the way they did in the following forum thread - note that spoilers are intentionally light but not non-existent.